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Howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.
The curse turned into a blessing
This was just like God, whose name and nature are love.
1. The devil turns the blessing into a curse. When God created man He endowed him with the power of choice, made his will free, so that he might choose good and evil. The creature was thus endowed with an inestimable blessing. The devil, by the subtlety and force of temptation, turned man’s dignity against himself and effected his ruin, and through successive generations he has sought to turn the blessing into a curse.
2. Man often turns the blessing into a curse. Physical strength, intellectual endowments, social position, wealth, opportunities for usefulness--things good in themselves--are often transformed by man’s depraved nature into instruments and occasions of evil. Of all the plots and assaults of the devil, all the mischievous purposes of wicked men, all the disasters of life, all the forms of evil we may have to encounter we may say, “Howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing.”
I. God has turned the curse of sin into a blessing. The existence of sin is an awful and mysterious fact, permitted by God for wise and gracious issues. We can conceive of no greater curse. It separated man from God. It destroyed his original righteousness. It cut him off from happiness. It brought upon him condemnation and death. God comes to man in this state with the blessings of His grace.
1. The fall of man furnished an occasion for the exercise of the restoring grace of God. Sin prepared the way for salvation. “Paradise Regained” is more than “Paradise Lost.”
2. The curse of sin has supplied an opportunity for such an exhibition of the character and glory of God as we nowhere else behold. God’s brightest glory shines in the method of man’s salvation. God in Christ is more glorious far than God in creation. In the Saviour of the world we have the most perfect manifestation of God.
3. Throughout the earth, following in the track of the destroyer, God bestows the blessings of His great salvation. God is still “in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself.”
II. God turns sorrow into a blessing.
1. Sorrow is a teacher. Sorrow seems sent for our instruction as we darken the cages of birds when we would teach them to sing. As the night brings out the stars, so trouble reveals to us many truths that would otherwise remain unseen. It clears our visions, so that we get new views of God and ourselves, of truths and duty, of this world and the next.
2. It awakens thoughtfulness.
3. Under this gracious ministry and discipline the noblest characters have been perfected. Poets, it is said, “learn in suffering what they teach in song.” Sorrow is one of the best nurses of godliness. Some plants thrive better in a poor than in a rich soil; so some virtues come to speedier and fuller perfection in grief than in gladness. When spices are crushed, then they emit their odours. After the diamond is ground and polished On the wheel, its facets flash with lustre. It is said that when growers of roses want to develop the bloom of a favourite tree in special richness and beauty they sometimes deprive it for a season of light and moisture. In this condition its leaves fall off. But while this process is going on, and the tree is almost leafless, a new life is springing, from which come in due season a tenderer foliage and a choicer and more abundant bloom. This suggests some of the sweet uses of sorrow,
4. In the gracious arrangements of God sorrow is often succeeded by joy,
5. God is preparing the way for the extinction of sorrow on the earth.
III. God turns the curse of death into a blessing. To the Christian man death ceases to be the king of terrors, and becomes a friend to call him home, He delivers him from the infirmities of the flesh, the corruptions of sin, the temptations of Satan, and the sufferings and troubles of life. Death is the gate of life. In conclusion--
1. The subject teaches us the benevolence of God.
2. Learn the loving confidence you may cherish in God. Let us learn to imitate God. Let us endeavour through life to turn the curse into a blessing. (William Walters.)
Sorrows turned to blessings
We might tell of the blessed effects of the captivity of Joseph--the means of preserving his father’s household and the lives of the thousands of Egypt. We might speak of the happy results of Israel’s national calamities; how they were led to seek the Lord in their sorrow, and the Lord hearkened and heard them. We might tell of Paul’s imprisonment issuing in the conversion of his jailor and his household; or we might speak of John’s banishment to the lonely Isle of Patmos, where his spirit was refreshed with those wondrous discoveries of God’s doings and purposes that form the last book in the Canon of Sacred Writ. In these instances sorrow is not to be denominated a cures, but a blessing--not a punishment, but a medicine. True it is that sorrow has been Styled the winter of the soul, because it freezes up the streams of comfort, and ices the soul over with the frosts of sadness; but, like as that season, rough and stormy and bleak as it is, is conducive to the ultimate fertility of the earth, so the moral Winter at once prepares for the fuller enjoyment of the coming spring of peace, and is productive of a richer harvest of righteousness to the praise and glory of our God. Affliction has been styled the storm of life; but, like as those tempests that agitate the bosom of the ocean serve alike to overpower the shattered bark, and to urge forward others more speedily to their desired haven, so these moral tempests, while they may overwhelm the wicked and impenitent, are ever conducive in speeding forward the journey of the children of the kingdom to heaven and to God. (J. Macnaughton, A. M.)
Curses and blessings
Nehemiah sees God at work in this transformation, and openly, gladly, gratefully acknowledge that the transformation of the curse was not the work of human good-will or of human genius, but a direct operation of the Divine almightiness itself. We lose so much by not seeing God immediately. Why do we allow God to go so far sway from our consciousness and appreciation and love? Why do we not cry for Him, and bid Him come to us, and give Him no rest until He draws near? This is the true religion; this is the noble piety.
I. To be cursed of man is really no proof of God’s disapprobation.
II. He ought to be a very great man, and a very pure, lofty, and godly soul, who under takes to curse anybody else.
III. To be blessed of man is no proof of God’s favour iv. The vanity of trusting in anything which can be turned into a curse. Application of these truths to your personal experience:
1. The frowns of society.
2. Wronged in business.
3. The seeming opposition of nature, God is willing and able to turn all curses into blessings.
But the blessing will not be given without action on our part. Art thou suffering? Go to thy knees; tell God thy sin; then the film shall be taken from thine eyes--thou shall see the great, mighty, redeeming Cross of Christ, and He shall say, “Thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee” The curse will be turned into a blessing, and thou shalt be the better for the abasement. (Joseph Parker, D. D.)
Sorrows keeping front worldliness
An evangelist tells of a young lad who left his father’s home to be a sailor. He was absent for three years, and on the return voyage, just as he was thinking of how soon he should see all the dear ones at home, his ship was wrecked off the coast of Norway. Many were lost, but he and some others managed to get into a boat. They tried to row for the shore, but the men being wet, and the cold so intense, many of them were frozen to death. The first mate had command of the boat, and the lad being a favourite of his, he was afraid that he should fall a victim to the cold, and whenever he saw him dozing, or showing any signs of sleeping, he thrashed him with a rope’s-end. In vain the lad expostulated, the thrashing continued until all drowsiness was gone. At length they reached land, and were hospitably entertained by the natives, and in time were forwarded home. That young man often says he owes his life to the mate who administered to him that timely discipline. The sufferings and sorrows which God puts upon His people are like that thrashing. Only to keep them from falling into the sleep of worldliness that leads to death, to keep them alive in grace, looking unto Him, does He afflict them.
God’s Providences not to be feared
We ought never to be afraid of God’s providences when they seem to break up our lives and crush our hopes, and even to turn us away from our chosen paths usefulness and service. God knows what He wants to do with us, how He san boot use us, and where and in what lines of ministry He would have us serve. When He shuts one door it is because He has another standing open for our feet. Whoa He breaks our lives to pieces it is because they will do more for His glory and the world’s good broken and shattered than whole.
And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Elashib did.
The religious reformer
I. The state of Jerusalem during Nehemiah’s absence.
II. The reforms he achieved.
1. His purification of the temple.
2. His renewal of the observance of Divine ordinances.
3. His promoting the sanctification of the Sabbath.
4. His setting apart Judah from mingling with the heathen. (W. Ritchie.)
Personal purification of the believer
We must never forget that the Christian is now what the temple was of old, the dwelling-place of the Most High (1 Corinthians 6:19). Luther observes: “A Christian may be compared with the tripartite temple of Solomon. His spirit is the holy of holies, God’s dwelling amid the darkness of faith (he believes what he neither sees, nor feels, nor grasps); his soul is the holy place, where are the seven lights of the golden candlesticks; his body is the fore-court exposed to general view, where every one can observe how he lives and what he does; in the fore-court stands the altar of burnt-offerings, whereon we are to lay our bodies as living sacrifices unto God. How sad when the temple in any part of it is desecrated! When the heart in which Christ should dwell is occupied by the world, many things must be cast forth, in order that it may become the abode of the King. (W. P. Lockhart.)
The devoted patriot
The story commences with the return of Nehemiah to Babylon. Either through the reports that his enemies had sent to the court, or the leave of absence having expired (Nehemiah 2:6), Nehemiah returns to the king to report himself, and to seek permission for a further sojourn in Jerusalem. The fact that Ezra is absent at the same time strengthens the opinion that the misrepresentations of those about them moved the jealousy of the king and led to their recall. It is scarcely possible to think of the swift and complete destruction of the religious life of the city apart from a deeply-laid plot on the part of the foes who saw in the recall of Nehemiah their own Opportunity, and whose plans were carefully laid and boldly carried out as soon as he had left. The building of the walls and gateways of the city had been followed by a yet bolder effort for the security of Jerusalem. Taking advantage of the fervour of the new religious life which had sprung up amongst them, Nehemiah had gathered the people together and got them to enter into a very solemn covenant, which they had signed and sealed. The list of those who signed this covenant is given--in itself a suggestion that it was not signed by all. The first name is that of Nehemiah: and next to his we should naturally look for that of Eliashib, the high priest, and of Jehoiada his son. But these two are conspicuously absent. So then it is plain that before the departure of Nehemiah there were two parties whose antagonism could only be fierce and bitter; a party which had surrendered itself to the strictest observance and enforcement of the law, and another party which had entangled itself by heathen relationships; and of this latter party the first and foremost was Eliashib, the high priest. As soon as Nehemiah has gone this Eliashib at once becomes the head and ruler of the city. Now comes the collision of the two parties; on the one side a people like the Puritans of old--stern, resolute, exclusive, hateful of everything that swerved a hair’s breadth from the letter of the law. On the other side was the party of the court--hand in glove with the wealthy “people of the land”; eager for their own advancement and position. Eliashib, the leader of the courtiers, had nothing to expect from the covenanters but a stem and bitter opposition. To strengthen his position, and perhaps for his own personal security, he gathers about him these from the outside, intending doubtless to draw the line sharply as soon as they had served his purpose, but finding, as such men always do, that he has to yield step by step, until everything that the law held sacred was broken down before the influx of “the people of the land.” A swift and terrible reaction followed the high-pitched fervour of the great revival. First to be swept away were the reforms that Nehemiah had introduced in the matter of mixed marriages. That which the high priest himself had sanctioned by the example of his own family was speedily imitated, until it seems to have become a rage amongst the people, many of the Jews putting away their own wives for these women of Ammon and Moab and Ashdod. The Book of Malachi throws a lurid light upon the condition of things in this as in other respects (Malachi 2:11; Malachi 2:14; Malachi 2:16). Eliashib seeks further to strengthen his position and to weaken his opponent’s by a concession to the greed of the people, as he had previously indulged their lust. The tithes and offerings which were claimed by the priests and Levites were withheld from them, or the people brought only that which was diseased or torn by the wild beasts; the people robbed God, as Malachi says. Thus the female came to be neglected, as the priests had to go “every one to his own field.” With this must have fallen every barrier for the protection of Jerusalem. When thin us had reached such a pass it was evident that the heathen had everything their own way. The occupations of the people went on as if there were no Sabbath day. The wine presses were trodden; the corn was carried; the asses were laden; through the city gates same the men of Tyre with their fruit and fish for sale; foreigners filled the streets with their cries, and the place rang with the noisy chaffering of those who stood to sell and those who came to buy. With them these strangers brought their evil ways, and their foul idolatries--the sorceries of which Malachi speaks (Malachi 3:5). Such is the state of things which Nehemiah finds on his return to Jerusalem. Perhaps his coming was unlooked for, the enemy hoping to keep him still at the court of the king. We have thought perhaps of Nehemiah as the graceful courtier, the stately cupbearer, whose appearance would have much to do with his high position. But here is a very different man. He seems to stand before us with knitted brows and flashing eyes--a man who does not hesitate to lay hands upon the offenders, and whose words terrify the city. Nehemiah’s indignation is kindled first by the tidings of the desecration of the House of God; and hastening thither he faces Eliashib on his own ground, and with his own hands he flings out the “household stuff” of the intruding Tobiah, and has the chambers cleansed from the defilement, and the holy vessels set again in them. That Eliashib and his party should have submitted to such a high-handed proceeding may seem surprising; but the conscience of the people was with Nehemiah, and they felt that it was useless to resist one of such resoluteness, backed by such authority as he possessed. Then he priests and Levites were again set in their places, and the provisions were duly delivered, treasurers being appointed to receive and distribute the offerings of corn and oil and wine. Meanwhile the rulers had gathered themselves together, as they did when Christ came to the temple. The interference with the hope of their gains stirred their resentment; for to those nobles a working day was not to be lightly parted with, since others did the Work of which they reaped the advantage. Nehemiah orders the gates to be shut at sunset on the Sabbath eve, and that none shall enter bearing burdens until the day is done. Yet more difficult and involved was the matter of the mixed marriages. But in this as in everything else Nehemiah would tolerate no half measures. When the people gathered to protest, he tells us that “I contended with them, and cursed them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves.” Jehoiada, the son of the high priest, and the son-in-law of Sanballat, thought doubtless to screen himself behind these high relationships. But instead of defence it added to the wrong, and the indignant governor chased him out of the city, and forbade him to return. Taking refuge-in Samaria with others who resented the action of Nehemiah, he set up there a rival temple and service, and thus cleared the way for the reforms which were established in Jerusalem. Looking back over the chapter, we see a lesson for all time and for us: that we can never loosen the law of God in one particular without loosening it in all. The law of God is one, and to break it in any point is to endanger it in all. The thickening of the ills about Eliashib one by one until everything is lost, is the story of the destruction of the individual and the nation. (M. G. Pearse.)
Then contended I with the rulers.
Work and worship
Then the topic is not new. It is a question which propounds itself in every age. The particular aspect of the question we have to deal with at present is this, Why does the working man forsake the house of God? Many of the reasons given arise out of the industrial conditions of the working classes.
1. One of the reasons given by working men is that the conditions of their industrial existence afford them no leisure time. Is this a reason or an excuse? It is true that there is a considerable number of working men who are doomed to drag on a weary, dreary, grinding, rayless life. They have no leisure. The only rest they have is the unconscious rest of sleep. The system that perpetuates this state of things is unrighteous, inhuman, and hostile to the teachings of the Bible. But this is not true of the majority of working men; their absence arises not from want of leisure, but from want of inclination.
2. Another reason assigned is that the Christian ministry is in league with the employers. I am not here to hold a brief for the ministry, but I am here to defend the interests of truth, and I wish to ask where this weak and effeminate ministry is to be found? I venture to believe that there never was a time when the pulpits were ringing with a clearer and more unambiguous note, when there was more straight and wholesome teaching on the obligations of power and the responsibilities of wealth. I believe that to-day there is far more preaching to the rich than there is to the poor, and this charge of sinful silence and sinful flattery cannot be sustained.
3. Another reason advanced is that ministers do not take their rightful position as leaders of secular progress, and that they are not to be found in the van of social and political reform. This is a more reasonable objection. I wish to confess candidly and frankly that in my opinion the pulpit has been too speculative, too abstract, too unpractical, too other-worldly. But this reproach is now being rapidly rolled away, and the ministry are giving both hands to the neglected work of social reform.
4. Working men further complain that when they do come to church they meet with a cold and unfriendly reception. In the church there is “respect unto persons.” It is charged against us that our profession of brotherhood is a mere pretence. It is said that men will sit by their fellows in the house of God for years, will pray and sing of their brotherliness and love, and then outside the church will ignore and pass them by without so much as recognition. Against such conduct no word can be too outspoken or too severe.
5. Another reason is that the church is not democratic, and that the workman has no voice or influence in its affairs. This reason has been confirmed and emphasised by the editors of our daffy press. But it is a statement altogether too sweeping. If the working man wants democratic churches he need not seek far to find them.
6. One speaker at a meeting convened to consider this question, declaimed against the pulpit because it treats of such topics as the restoration of man and the forgiveness of sins. He declared that there is no practical value in such teaching, and that the working man does not hold to it or believe in it. Here there is no room for compromise. Oh! fellow-men, the Nazarene wears many crowns, and among His crowns is that of Social Reformer. But there is another crown brighter by far than that of Reformer, the crown of Redeemer. The gospel we have to preach is not a mere uprooter of social wrongs, an equaliser of men’s estates; it is a regenerator of the human heart. The supreme aim of the gospel is not to beautify man’s circumstances, but to beautify man’s life. The Master Himself told us how useless it is to reform a man’s house unless you redeem the man. The gospel is preached, then, that man may be rectified, and that rectified man may transform the world. The work of the Redeemer includes the work of the Reformer, but redemption is the first and dominant note in the Church’s song. On the other hand, if we are truly Christ’s we are genuine reformers, The Church of Christ should be the centre of all the reforming agencies of our time. All true reformers get their weapons from Christ. (J. A. Jowett, M. A.)
Remember me, O my God, concerning this
The mercy of God Chin origin of the reward of good works
That to make provision for maintenance of God’s worship and the ministers thereof is a worthy work, and of high esteem and favour with God (1 Chronicles 29:17-18; Deuteronomy 12:19; 2 Kings 4:1-44.; Luke 7:3-5; Matthew 10:41; Philippians 4:18; 2 Timothy 1:16-18).
II. That God rewardeth these and all our other good deeds and works not for any merit or worthiness that is in them, but of His free mercy and goodness.
1. The Scriptures encourage us to work in hope of reward (Psalms 19:11; Proverbs 11:18; Matthew 5:11-12; Matthew 10:41-42; Luke 6:35; 2 John 1:8).
2. Whence this reward cometh. “According to Thy great mercy” (Hosea 10:12; Romans 6:23; Psalms 62:12).
III. That it is lawful to do good works with respect to the recompense of reward. It is plain Nehemiah here did so. So did Moses Hebrews 11:25-26). (Joseph Mede, B. D.)
The law of reward
Nehemiah’s prayer occurs thrice in this chapter, at the close of each section recounting his reforming acts. In the first instance (verse 14) it is most full, and puts very plainly the merit of good deeds as a plea with God. The same thing is implied in its form in verse 22. But while, no doubt, the tone of the prayer is startling to us, and is not such as should be offered now by Christians, it but echoes the principle of retribution which underlies the law. “This do, and thou shalt live,” was the very foundation of Nehemiah’s form of God’s revelation. We do not plead our own merits, because we are not under the law, but under grace, and the principle underlying the gospel is life by impartation of unmerited mercy and Divine life. But the law of retribution still remains valid for Christians in so far as that God will never forget any of their works, and will give them full recompense for their work of faith and labour of love. Eternal life here and hereafter is wholly the gift of God; but that fact does not exclude the notion of “the recompense of reward” from the Christian conception of the future. It becomes not us to present our good deeds before the Judge, since they are stained and imperfect, and the goodness in them is His gift. But it becomes Him to crown them with His gracious approbation and to proportion the cities ruled in that future world to the talents faithfully used here. We need not be afraid of obscuring the truth that we are saved “not of works, lest any man should boast,” though we insist that a Christian man is rewarded according to his works. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Paul assures the believing Hebrews that God will not forget “their work of faith and labour of love,” and this prayer of Nehemiah’s is nothing more than a petition that God will be pleased to fulfil Hie own promise regarding him. It was not the dictate of a self-righteous spirit. There is no self-righteousness in the humble prayer that God would look upon him in love; that He would deign to accept of his feeble services as proof and evidences of a religious spirit; that He would be pleased to verify His promise, that “it shall be well with them that fear the Lord,” and that “godliness is profitable unto all things, having the promise of the life that now is, as well as of that which is to come.” Consider--
I. A sketch of Nehemiah’s history.
II. Nehemiah’s character.
1. His steady religious principle. Dwelling amid scenes very uncongenial to the progress of piety in the heart, he displayed a firmness of principle and an ardour of religious feeling truly admirable. Amidst the enticements of a splendid and licentious court he sought the glory of God and not the gratification of vanity, ambition, or worldly desire. Surrounded by the ensigns of a gross and impious superstition, he reared a standard for the true God, and stood forth as a witness for Him, in the midst of His enemies. Confidence in God kept him steady in the scene of danger; and the lofty aims of a devoted spirit raised him above the grovelling pursuits Of sense.
2. His self-denial. This is one of the best evidences of sound religious principle. When the will is subjugated to the will of God; when the mind feels itself completely satisfied with the wisdom and goodness of the Divine economy; when self is thrown into the background, and a noble disinterestedness gives its tone to the character, then we have some good proof that our religion is sincere. Nehemiah improved his advantages at the Persian court not for his individual good, but for the good of his countrymen. He lost sight of selfish considerations, and feeling for the humblest of the people, he gave them the full value of his labours, without the slightest remuneration. That which he asked not from man he knew God would bestow; hence the prayer of the text.
3. His zeal for the worship and ordinances of God. This is specially displayed in his anxiety to vindicate God’s ordinances from abuse, and to enforce their punctual observance. The public reading and expounding the law, for the edification of the people, testified his regard for God’s Holy Word. The exactness with which the appointed rites in the feasts of trumpets end tabernacles were gone about, under his superintendence, testified his reverence for the law, in all the minuteness of its requisitions. His zeal for the sanctification of the Sabbath proved the high sense he entertained of its value.
4. His enlightened and consistent perseverance in the discharge of personal and official duty. (Robert Burns, D. D.)
In those days I saw in Judah some treading wine presses on the Sabbath.
Keeping the Sabbath
In reforming the evil of Sabbath desecration Nehemiah--
I. Contended with the nobles, or Jewish aristocracy. It was their trade that kept the marts open. Were they to hold aloof, the Sabbath-breakers would fail for want of patronage.
II. He enforced the law.
III. He dealt particularly with those who sought to evade the law.
IV. He took measures to perpetuate the reform. Conclusion: Reflect on the considerations which underlie the duty of Sabbath rest.
1. The institution of the Sabbath is coeval with the race. Adam in paradise kept the holy day. This is evidenced by the primitive division of time into weeks. The word “remember “ in the fourth commandment shows that this injunction was but the revival and re-emphasising of one which had all along been binding upon them.
2. It is based upon a ground which in the nature of the case makes it perpetual. The Lord “rested on the seventh day; wherefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day, and hallowed it.”
3. The Sabbath law was interwoven with the nerves and sinews of the human constitution before it was inscribed on the tables of stone.
4. The injunction, “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy,” when placed in the Decalogue, received the formal sanction of Jehovah as an essential part of the moral law.
5. Christ came to fulfil the ceremonial law; at His coming it vanished as shadows do before the sun. But as to the moral law, He came to fasten it more and more permanently on the hearts and consciences of men.
6. The change from the seventh to the first day was in no wise a violation of the original injunction, but rather in pursuance of it. It commemorates the resurrection of Christ, and thus a new and living branch of joy was engrafted upon it. (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
Keeping the Sabbath
The several points suggested by this narrative are specially suited to times like our own.
I. It reminds us of the blinding and, hardening power of worldliness. It blunts conscience, deadens spirituality, and estranges from God.
II. It reminds us of the risks of association with careless and irreligious neighbours.
III. It reminds us of the responsibility of men in high position for prevailing evils.
IV. It reminds us that neglect to keep the sabbath is an evil with which God can never be otherwise than sorely displeased.
V. It reminds us of the resolute fidelity required to save this day from general profanation. (Monday Club Sermons.)
Keeping the Sabbath--
I. Sabbath observance has to contend with the greed of men with wealth.
II. Sabbath observance secures the community and nation from peril. Divine requirements have always a wise and loving purpose in them. A God-fearing nation is strong because it has learned, in its several elements, to exalt those things which have abiding power in them. Charity and integrity, reverence, purity, intelligence, and self-control are mighty forces. Against these immorality, intemperance, extortion, ignorance, surge like a desolating flood. The Sabbath is a protecting dyke raised across their path, so clear and effective that they each hate and would abolish it. A million soldiers under arms cannot defend us as sixty million citizens without other weapon than recognition of God’s claims and their fellows’ rights will do. The former may be defeated as Rome’s numerous legions were. The latter are invincible.
III. Sabbath observance may be decreed by public statute and enforced by the civil magistrate. The State may, and must maintain itself. It may, and should, forbid those practices which threaten its life. It must respect the religious nature and requirements of its citizens. Its province is, not to say how any shall observe the hours of rest, but simply to guarantee that they shall have them. (De Witt S. Clarke.)
The benefit of the Sabbath
I. As an acceptable rest from the toils and labours of life.
II. As highly useful and civil institution.
III. As a necessary religious ordinance.
IV. As a sign between God and man. (J. Venn, M. A.)
The last page of many a reformer’s history has been, like Nehemiah’s, a sad account of efforts to stem the ebbing tide of enthusiasm and the flowing tide of worldliness. The heavy stone is rolled a little way up hill, and, as soon as one strong hand is withdrawn, down it tumbles again to its old place. The evanescence of great men’s work makes much of the tragedy of history. Our lesson is particularly concerned with Nehemiah’s efforts to enforce Sabbath observance.
I. The abuse consisted in sabbath work and trading. It is easy to ridicule the Jewish Sabbath and “the Puritan Sunday.” No doubt there have been and are well-meant but mistaken efforts to insist on too rigid observance. No doubt it has been often forgotten by good people that the Christian Lord’s Day is not the Jewish Sabbath. Of course, the religious observance of the day is not a fit subject for legislation. But the need for a seventh day of rest is impressed on our physical and intellectual nature; and devout hearts will joyfully find their best rest in Christian worship and service. The vigour of religious life demands special seasons set apart for worship. Unless there be such reservoirs along the road, there will be but a thin trickle of a brook by the way. It is all very well to talk about religion diffused through the life, but it will not be so diffused unless it is concentrated at certain times. They are no benefactors to the community who seek to break down and relax the stringency of the prohibition of labour. If once the idea that Sunday is a day of amusement takes root, the amusement of some will require the hard work of others, and the custom of work will tend to extend, till rest becomes the exception and work the rule. There never was a time when men lived so furiously fast as now. The pace of modern life demands Sunday rest more than ever. If a railway-car is run continually, it will wear out sooner than if it were laid aside for a day or two occasionally; and if it is run at express speed, it will need the rest more. We are all going at top speed; and there would be more breakdowns if it were not for that blessed institution which some people think they are promoting the public good by destroying--a seventh day of rest.
II. The vigorous remedies applied by Nehemiah were administered first to the rulers. He sent for the nobles, and laid the blame at their doors. “Ye profane the day,” said he. Men in authority are responsible for crimes which they could check but prefer to wink at. Nehemiah was governor for the Persian king, and so had a right to rate these nobles. In this day the people have the same right, and there are many social sins for which they should arraign civic and other authorities. Christian principles unflinchingly insisted on by Christian people, and brought to bear, by ballot-boxes and other persuasive ways, on what stands for conscience in some high places, would make a wonderful difference on many of the abominations of our cities. Go to the “nobles” first, and lay the burden on the backs that ought to carry it.
III. Then Nehemiah took practical measures by shutting the city gates on the eve of the sabbath, and putting some of his own servants as a watch. The methods adopted may yield suggestions for all who would aim at reforming abuses or public immoralities.
1. One most necessary step is to cut off, as far as possible, opportunities for the sin. There will be no trade if you shut the gates the night before. There will be little drunkenness if there are no liquor-shops. It is quite true that people cannot be made virtuous by legislation, but it is also true that they may be saved temptations to become vicious by it.
2. Once more, the guard of Levites may suggest that the execution of measures for the reformation of manners or morals is best entrusted to those who are in sympathy with them. Levites made faithful watchmen, Many a promising measure for reformation has come to nothing because committed to the hands of functionaries who did not care for its success. The instruments are almost as important as the means which they carry out. (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
An argument for Sabbath-keeping
“I tell our directors that if they compel conductors to break the fourth commandment they have no right to expect them to keep the eighth.” That was the Hon. William E. Dodge’s business way of putting to railroad companies the argument for Sabbath-keeping.
Loyalty to the Sabbath
A ferry company, with a fine prospect of a lucrative business, desired the late Governor Gamble to make an investment in their stock, which he declined, because they ran their boats on the Sabbath. “We are obliged by law to do so,” was the excuse offered. “Yes,” he replied; “I know that the law requires your company to run its boats on the Sabbath, but the law does not require me to invest my money in your stock.”
Profanation of the Sabbath
I. We also have a sabbath which ought to be observed.
II. Some of the prevalent abuses of the sabbath.
III. Practical remedies. Nehemiah is here our pattern.
1. He took no part in the sin himself.
2. He made a public protest.
3. He promoted active measures for the suppression of Sabbath profanation. (J. Hambleton.)
This passage contains a detailed statement of the transgressions of the Israelites in this particular, as well as of the testimony of God through Nehemiah against them; and as it distinctly indicates certain transactions on the Sabbath as grossly sinful, the guilt of which is by some considered as at least questionable, it will be profitable to closely examine the sacred writer’s words, in order to evince the iniquity of such practices.
I. Is what consisted the abuses themselves.
1. Agricultural work on the Sabbath. “In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine-presses, and bringing in sheaves,” etc. The feeding of cattle and similar labours on the Sabbath are clearly permitted, because the life or health of the beast depends on its nourishment; but all other sorts of work are plainly evil, and as much just subject of rebuke from the Christian minister as the labours of the Jews were from the Jewish.
2. Sabbath traffic (verse 16). The pleas of opposition, convenience, and such-like, cannot be allowed even in palliation; for the law of God must not be bent or modified to suit the will and caprices of man. Here no subterfuge, or sophistry, or excuse, is permitted.
II. The prophet’s proceedings consequent upon these practices.
1. He testified against them. It is the duty of ministers on any symptoms of irreligion in their respective districts to rebuke and raise their voices against it. For that purpose they are appointed as sentinels and guardians. Now this word “testify” is a comprehensive term, and will signify, first, that he indicated the evil--that he expressed his dislike of the practice--that he showed them its sinfulness, and the punishment surely consequent upon it. He then charged them with it. “Ye do it.” “What evil thing is this that ye do?” The better sort were not sellers, but buyers; they connived at the practice, and encouraged it. The prophet accordingly accuses them with being accessories, over on the ground of bad example. The people naturally took their tone from them, and when they saw the Sabbath traffic of the nobles, they, also, profaned the Sabbath day. He rebukes them, too, for contempt of God and want of patriotism. “What evil thing is this that ye do,” etc. Now this instance of the destiny of Israel proves the fact, that God does not reserve His wrath against the Sabbath-breaking nation for the next world, but here inflicts at least a part of the retribution.
2. He exerted his authority to prevent the entrance of the traders into me city. “I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the Sabbath,” etc. The authority he exercised was exclusively secular. Therefore, though the state should be cautious of interfering in matters purely ecclesiastical, yet with this case before us it is evident that the magistrate may interpose to carry out the Divine ordinances. The authority, then, vested in magistrates or others by the state for this purpose is a legal authority, according to Divine law; and the conduct of Nehemiah in this case sets a proud example to officials of every time and place, with equal zeal and prudence to execute their functions. (John Budgen, M.A.)
Spare me according to the greatness of Thy mercy.
Nehemiah’s appeal to God’s mercy
The bird which soars the highest builds the lowest nest. The more a man is lifted up in communion with Heaven the deeper is his abasement in his own eyes. The holiest are the humblest. Those who bear most fruit have least “confidence in the flesh.” How interesting to observe that, though the conceptions of believers under the old dispensation respecting the exact mode of salvation were dim, yet they themselves clung as earnestly to the mercy of the Lord as more privileged believers do now! (Hugh Stowell, M. A.)
Increasing holiness means increasing sensitiveness to the need of mercy
The more holy a man’s spirit becomes, the more sensitive will it become; and the more sensitive his spirit, the deeper and livelier will be his sense of sinfulness. Shut up an individual in a dark room, hung round with cobwebs and defiled with dust, and he will be insensible to its condition; then admit a little light, and he will begin to suspect its state, and the more clearly the fight shines, the more clearly will he discern the impurities which were hidden before. (Hugh Stowell, M. A.)
I. An appeal to God’s approbation. Nehemiah often makes appeals of this kind. This was an appeal to God--
1. From man’s judgment. He had engaged in an undertaking which was likely enough to appear contemptible in the eyes of his Persian acquaintance. But what then? It was for God’s honour, and therefore he despises this shame, casting himself upon the approbation of God. This principle it was that influenced Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, Paul. It is the principle of faith rendering an unseen God visible. Such men look for a future “ recompense of reward” promised by Him who cannot lie.
2. From man’s enmity. While one party satisfied themselves with despising, there was another party in Jerusalem itself who hated and opposed his proceedings. It is in reference to their enmity that the appeal of the text is made. Modern enmity.
3. From man’s ingratitude. It was here that he found his greatest trial. How painful, when the very persons whom in God’s name he sought to benefit were cold, reluctant, unfeeling! Nehemiah’s was no solitary ease. You find in connection with this appeal--
II. A contrite prayer for god’s forgiveness.
1. After all he has done for God’s service, Nehemiah cannot forget that there is a load of original and actual sin, recorded against him for which no subsequent obedience can make satisfaction.
2. He finds even his religious actions so stained with sin that though he may appeal from man, he cannot make them a plea for merit before God.
3. He casts himself, with a steadfast faith, on the free grace and covenanted mercies of the Lord. Application: If the despised believer may thus appeal from man to God, what hope can there be for those who compel him so to do? (Joseph Jowett, M. A.)
Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things?
1. It may appear remarkable that one who fell so grievously should contribute at all to the Book of God, nor is there any other instance of the kind; but his sad history adds a peculiar weight of warning to his words; nor are there any books more strongly marked by the finger of God.
2. Solomon was chosen of God, and afterwards rejected as Saul had been; he was full of wisdom and understanding, and what is far more, of holiness and goodness. There is perhaps no one of whom the early promise of good seemed so decisive.
3. It has been said, as by St. Augustine, that Solomon was more injured by prosperity than profited by wisdom. Yet we may observe that his falling away is not attributed in Scripture to his wealth, his power and honour.
4. We cannot conclude that Solomon himself did not at last repent, but this has always been considered by the Church as very doubtful, to say the least. All we know is that Scripture has fully made known to us his falling away from God, but has said nothing of his repentance. The very silence is awful and impressive.
5. What more melancholy than the fall of one so great--so wise! What words could have been spoken to him more powerful than his own! What eloquence could describe his fall with more feeling and beauty than his own words! What could more powerfully paint the loveliness of that holiness from which he fell? what the overpowering sweetness of that Divine love which he has consented to give up to feed on ashes! Who can describe the temptations to those very sins by which he was ensnared in a more searching manner than he has done? It is very awful to think how God may use men as instruments of good that His Spirit may teach them, and through them teach others, and guide them to the fountain of living waters, yet they themselves at last fail of the prize of their high calling. What a warning for fear! (Isaac Williams.)
I. The wanderings of an erring spirit. “Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things?”
1. That which lay at the bottom of all Solomon’s transgressions was his intimate partnership with foreigners. “Did not Solomon sin by these things?”--that is, if we look to the context, marriage with foreign wives. The history of the text is this--Nehemiah discovered that the nobles of Judah, during the captivity, when law and religious customs had been relaxed, had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab; and then, in his passionate expostulation with them, he reminds them that it was this very transgression which led to the fall of the monarch who had been most distinguished for God’s favour. Exclusiveness was the principle on which Judaism was built. Everything was to be distinct--as distinct as God’s service and the world’s. And it was this principle which Solomon transgressed. The Jewish law, shadowed out an everlasting truth. God’s people are an exclusive nation; God’s Church is for ever separated from the world. This is her charter, “Come out from among them, and be ye separate,” etc. We are to be separate from the world. Mistake not the meaning of that word. The world changes its complexion in every age. Solomon’s world was the nations of idolatry lying round Israel. Our world is not that. The world is that collection of men in every age who live only according to the maxims of their time. The world may be a profligate world, or it may be a moral world. All that is a matter of accident. Our world is a moral world. The sons of our world are not idolaters, they are not profligate; they are, it may be, among the most fascinating of mankind. No marvel if a young and ardent heart feels the spell of the fascination. No wonder if it feels a relief in turning away from the dulness and the monotony of home life to the sparkling brilliancy of the world’s society. The brilliant, dazzling, accomplished world--what Christian with a mind polished like Solomon’s does not own its charms? And yet now, pause. Is it in wise Egypt that our highest blessedness lies? Is it in busy, restless Sidon? Is it in luxurious Moab? No. The Christian must leave the world alone. His blessedness lies in quiet work with the Israel of God.
2. The second step of Solomon’s wandering was the unrestrained pursuit of pleasure. And a men like Solomon cannot do anything by helves. No man ever more heartily and systematically gave himself up to the pursuit. There are some men who are prudent in their epicuresnism. They put gaiety aside when they begin to get palled with it, and then return to it moderately again. Mere like Solomon cannot do that. No earnest man can. No! if blessedness lies in pleasure, he will drink the cup to the dregs. But let us mark the wanderings of an immortal soul infinite in its vastness. There is a moral to be learnt from the wildest worldliness. When we look on the madness of life, and are marvelling at the terrible career of dissipation, let there be no contempt felt. It is an immortal spirit marring itself. It is an infinite soul, which nothing short of the Infinite can satisfy, plunging down to ruin and disappointment. That unquenched impetuosity within you might have led you up to God. You have chosen instead that your heart shall try to satisfy itself upon husks. There was another form of Solomon’s worldliness.
3. It was not worldliness in pleasure, but worldliness in occupation. He had entered deeply into commercial speculations. He had alternate fears and hopes about the return of his merchant ships on their perilous three-years’ voyage to India end to Spain. He had his mind occupied with plans for building. The architecture of the temple, his own palace, the forts and towns of his now magnificent empire, all this filled for a time his soul. He had begun a system of national debt end ruinous taxation. Much of this was not wrong; but all of it was dangerous. It is a strange thing how business dulls the sharpness of the spiritual affections. It is strange how the harass of perpetual occupation shuts God out. There are writers who have said that in this matter Solomon was in advance of his age enlightened beyond the narrowness of Judaism, and that this permission of idolatry was the earliest exhibition of that spirit which in modern times we call religious toleration. But Solomon went far beyond toleration. The truth seems to be, Solomon was getting indifferent about religion. He had got into light and worldly society, and the libertinism of his associations was beginning to make its impression upon him. He was beginning to ask, “Is not one religion as good as another, so long as each man believes his own in earnest?” There are few signs in a soul’s state more alarming than that of religious indifference; that is, the spirit of thinking ell religions equally true, the real meaning of which is, that all religions are equally false.
II. God’s loving guidance of Solomon in the midst of all his apostasy. In the darkest, wildest wanderings a man to whom God has shown His love in Christ is conscious still of the better way. In the very gloom of his remorse, there is an instinctive turning back to God. It is enumerated among the gifts that God bestowed upon Solomon that He granted to him “largeness of heart.” Now that largeness of heart which we call thoughtfulness and sensibility, generosity, high feeling, marks out for the man who has it a peculiar life. You look to the life of Solomon, and there are no outward reverses there to speak of. His reign was a type of a reign of the power of peace. No war, no national disaster, interrupted the even flow of the current of his days. No loss of a child, like David’s, pouring cold desolation into his soul--no pestilences nor famines. Prosperity and riches, and the internal development of the nation’s life--that was the reign of Solomon. And yet, with all this, was Solomon happy? Is there no way that God has of making the heart grey and old before its time without sending bereavement, or loss, or sickness? Has the Eternal Justice no mode of withering and drying up the inner springs of happiness while all is green, and wild, and fresh outwardly? We look to the history of Solomon for the answer. The first way in which his aberration from God treasured up for him chastisement was by that weariness of existence which breathes through the whole Book of Ecclesiastes. Another part of Solomon’s chastisement was doubt. Once more turn to the Book of Ecclesiastes. “All things come alike to all: there is one event to the righteous, and to the wicked; to the good and to the clean, and to the unclean; to him that sacrificeth, and to him that sacrificeth not.” In this you will observe the querulous complaint of a man who has ceased to feel that God is the ruler of this world. A blind chance, or a dark destiny, seems to rule all earthly things. And that is the penalty of leaving God’s narrow path for sin’s wider and more flowery one. But the love of God brought Solomon through all this to spiritual manhood. “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.” In this we have the evidence of his victory. Doubt, and imprisonment, and worldliness have passed away, and clear activity, belief, freedom, have taken their place. It was terrible discipline, but God had made that discipline successful. I speak to those who know something about what the world is worth, who have tasted its fruits, and found them like the Dead Sea apples--hollowness and ashes. By those foretastes of coming misery which God has already given you, those lonely feelings of utter wretchedness and disappointment when you have returned home palled and satiated from the gaudy entertainment, and the truth has pressed itself icy cold upon your heart, “Vanity of vanities--is this worth living for? By all that, be warned. Be true to your convictions. Be honest with yourselves. Learn from the very greatness of your souls, which have a capacity for infinite agony, that you m in this world for a grander destiny than that of frittering away life in usefulness. Lastly, let us learn from this subject the covenant love of God. There is such a thing as love which rebellion cannot weary, which ingratitude cannot cool (W. F. Robertson, M. A.)
Remember me, O my God, for good.
Simplicity and power
Consciousness of religion cannot be of necessity wrong, and it is only a false estimate of human nature with regard to God which enables men to take another view with regard to such sets. With boldness and without hesitation Paul says he has run good course and fought a good fight; and he based upon this declaration that there was laid up for him a crown of righteousness. In the same way we find constant recognition by David of his own good conduct throughout the Psalms; And Samuel protests his innocence in the sight of the congregation. Hezekiah upon his sick-bed narrates the better sets of his life as a reason for God to prolong his term of years; while more than one of the apostles reminds our Lord of their self-denying adherence to His cause. While Nehemiah’s consciousness of certain acts that he knew he had done to please God shines with a soft and mellowed lustre on his figure whenever he comes into notice, the evident simplicity of his purpose and sincerity of his mind, and the utter absence of anything like censoriousness or boastfulness, prevent him from being in the least degree shadowed by vanity or presumption. A view like Nehemiah’s of those sets which are performed with a pure intention of pleasing God is justified, because--
1. The doing so involves truthfulness in our estimate of moral action.
2. Of the very direct encouragement that we receive from the consciousness that we have done what is pleasing to God. In our intercourse with our fellow-creatures nothing so encourages in the effort to please as the fact of having pleased; nothing so discourages as the consciousness of not having given satisfaction, or what is worse, the impression that we have dissatisfied. (E. Monro.)
Prayer for God’s blessing
The Rev. Dr. Brock, of Bloomsbury, when about twenty-one years old (1828), and just out of his apprenticeship, left Devonshire for London. “He had not gone far from his home before he stopped, and sat down under a hedge, in a lane, and opening his Bible at the 13th chapter of Nehemiah, his eye fell upon the 31st verse: ‘Remember me, O my God, for good.’ Kneeling down upon his knees under that hedge, with his hand upon the passage, ha put up a fervent prayer that God would befriend him by remembering him for good in his metropolitan life. How strikingly was that prayer answered! Dr. Brock himself used to say, ‘Who can tell how much of the success of my after-life may be traced back to that prayer?’”
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Nehemiah 13". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter