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In the month Nisan. The fourth month after Chisleu, corresponding nearly to our April. How it came about that Nehemiah did not put the king's favour to the proof until more than three months had gone by we can only conjecture. Perhaps the court had been absent from Susa, passing the winter at Babylon, as it sometimes did, and he had not accompanied it. Perhaps, though present at the court, he had not been called on to discharge his office, his turn not having arrived. Possibly, though performing his duties from time to time, he had found no opportunity of unbosoming himself, the king not having noticed his grief. He. may even have done his best to conceal it, for Persian subjects were expected to be perfectly happy in the presence of their king. He had probably formed no plan, but waited in the confident hope that God's providence would so order events, that some occasion would arise whereof he might take advantage. In the twentieth year of Artaxerxes. Like Daniel, Zechariah, Haggai, and Ezra, Nehemiah dates events by the regnal year of the existing Persian king. His Artaxerxes is, by common consent, the same as Ezra's, and can scarcely be supposed to be any monarch but Longimanus, who reigned from b.c. 465 to b.c. 425. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. Other renderings have been proposed, but this is probably the true meaning. Hitherto I had always worn a cheerful countenance before him—now it was otherwise—my sorrow showed itself in spite of me.
The king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad? This "kindly question" put by the great king to his humble retainer is his best claim to the favourable judgment of later ages. History puts him before us as a weak monarch, one who could compromise the royal dignity by making terms with a revolted subject, while he disgraced it by breaking faith with a conquered enemy. But if weak as a king, as a man he was kind-hearted and gentle. Few Persian monarchs would have been sufficiently interested in their attendants to notice whether they were sad or no; fewer still would have shown sympathy on such an occasion. A Xerxes might have ordered the culprit to instant execution. Longimanus feels compassion, and wishes to assuage the grief of his servant. Then I was very sore afraid. Notwithstanding the king's kind and compassionate words, Nehemiah feels his danger. He has looked sad in the king's presence. He is about to ask permission to quit the court. These are both sins against the fundamental doctrine of Persian court life, that to bask in the light of the royal countenance is the height of felicity. Will the king be displeased, refuse his request, dismiss him from his post, cast him into prison, or will he pardon his rudeness and allow his request?
May the king live for ever. A common form of Oriental compliment (1 Kings 1:31; Daniel 2:4; Daniel 3:9, etc. ), but said now with special intention to conciliate, and meant to express a deep interest in the royal life and person. The city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres. We see by this that Nehemiah's family must have belonged to the capital. The Persians, like the Jews, had a great respect for the tomb, and regarded its violation with horror. Artaxerxes would naturally sympathise with the wish of his follower to give security to the city where his ancestors were interred. It would seem that the Persians generally at this time (Herod; 1.140), the kings certainly, buried their dead. Lieth waste. Nehemiah's warmth of feeling exaggerates the fact; but he may have been unconscious of the exaggeration. He repeats the phrase to the chief men of Jerusalem after making his survey of the wall (verse 17).
Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? Artaxerxes understood that a complaint was contained in Nehemiah's speech, and that he must have a request to make. With gracious kindliness he facilitates its utterance. So I prayed to the God of heaven. Nehemiah was emphatically a man of prayer. In every danger, in every difficulty, still more at any crisis, prayer rose to his lips (see Nehemiah 4:4, Nehemiah 4:9; Nehemiah 5:19; Nehemiah 6:9, Nehemiah 6:14; Nehemiah 13:14, etc.). Sometimes, as now, the prayer was offered silently and swiftly.
The queen. It appears from Ctesias ('Exc. Pers.,' § 44) that Artaxerxes Longimanus had but one legitimate wife—a certain Damaspia. Nothing more is known of her besides this mention, and the fact that she died on the same day as her husband. Sitting by him. Not an unusual circumstance. Though, when the monarch entertained guests, the queen remained in her private apartments (Esther 1:9-12), yet on other occasions she frequently took her meals with him. I set him a time. Nehemiah probably mentioned some such time as a year, or two years—such a space as would suffice for the double journey, and the restoration of the fortifications. He stayed away, however, as he tells us (Nehemiah 5:14), twelve years, obtaining no doubt from time to time an extension of his leave (Bertheau).
Let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river. It is not quite clear why no letters were needed to the governors between Susa and the Euphrates. Perhaps, while travelling was safe, at any rate with an escort, in the more central provinces, beyond the river it became unsafe (see Ezra 8:31).
The king's forest. Patrick supposes the forest on Mount Lebanon to be intended; but Nehemiah would scarcely have desired to transport timber for ordinary building purposes from such a distance. Moreover, the word used is one not applicable to a natural forest, but only to a park, or pleasure-ground planted with trees, and surrounded by a fence or wall. The word is pardes, the Hebrew representative of that Persian term which the Greeks rendered by παράδεισος, whence our "paradise." We must understand a royal park in the vicinity of Jerusalem, of which a Jew, Asaph, was the keeper. The palace which appertained to the house. The "house" here spoken of is undoubtedly the temple; and the birah, appertaining to it is, almost certainly, the fortress at the north-west angle of the temple area, which at once commanded and protected it. Josephus says ('Ant. Jud.,' 15.11, § 4) that this fortress was called Βάρις originally. In Roman times it was known as the "Turris Antonia." The house that I shall enter into. The governor's residence. Nehemiah assumes that the powers for which he asks involve his being appointed governor of Judaea. The king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me. Through God's special favour towards me, the king was induced to grant my request.
Three or four months bad passed since Nehemiah first heard of the distressed condition of his brethren at Jerusalem, and began to pray for them, and that he might be permitted to visit and relieve them. So long the answer to his prayer was delayed. But he doubtless continued to pray, and at length the answer came. Meanwhile, he would be able to ripen his plans, and prepare himself for his enterprise. Notice—
I. THE OPPORTUNITY AT LENGTH AFFORDED HIM. Arising from—
1. His access to the king.
2. The king's notice of his sadness and kind inquiry respecting it (verse 2). An example to superiors in relation to inferiors; to masters and mistresses in respect to their servants. The highest are liable to suffer, and may be glad of the sympathy and services of those beneath them, who will render them all the more cheerfully if kindness has been shown to them. God intends the relationships of life for mutual comfort and benefit. Sympathy benefits alike the giver and receiver. Sympathy is as oil to the machinery of life. It unites classes in bonds more sacred, happy, and lasting than laws or self-interest. Every one has it in his power, by cherishing and displaying it, to render invaluable service to society. Sympathy between employers and employed is one of the greatest wants of England.
3. His reply. Describing the sad condition of Jerusalem, and intimating its preciousness to him as "the place of his fathers' sepulchres" (verse 3).
4. The king's encouragement to him to present his request (verse 4). A kind word will do much to alleviate sorrow; a readiness to give practical relief more. The king encouraged Nehemiah to hope for this; nor was the hope disappointed.
II. THE USE HE MADE OF HIS OPPORTUNITY.
1. It filled him with fear (verse 2). The moment he had so long desired had come; but at first its arrival only made him "very sore afraid." So much depended on it; so uncertain was he of his power to produce the right impression on the king, whose will would determine whether his plan should be executed.
2. It led him to prayer (verse 4). As he stood before the monarch, embarrassed and trembling, he lifted up his heart to God, imploring assistance and success. The best thing he could do. Prayer calms the anxious (Philippians 4:6, Philippians 4:7), gives the soul possession of itself, brings God to the help of man. In the strength of God Nehemiah could address the king.
3. He presented his petition to Artaxerxes (verse 5). Humbly and courteously, as became him, and was best adapted to secure his object.
4. He made further and larger requests when the first was granted (verses 7, 8). The general lesson is, Seize your opportunities, whether for getting or doing good. "There is a tide in the affairs of men," etc. The impression made by a young man in a short interview may determine the complexion of the whole of his after life. Failure is often only lost opportunities avenging themselves. It is so not only in secular matters, but spiritual. "The golden moments in the stream of life rush past us, and we see nothing but sand; the angels come to visit us, and we only know them when they are gone" (G. Eliot).
III. HIS SUCCESS. The king not only granted him his requests, but gave him apparently more than he asked for (verse 9).
IV. HIS PIOUS ACKNOWLEDGMENT OF ITS SUPREME SOURCE. "According to the good hand of my God upon me" (verse 8). Many fail in this. Even those who have prayed for what they have received do not always make due acknowledgment. Thanksgivings are not so plentiful as prayers.
In conclusion, observe—
1. Christians always have access to the throne of the King of.kings. He feels deep interest in them, sympathy with them; encourages them to tell him their sorrows and present their petitions. They may come to him not only at stated periods, but at any moment, through the mediation of the Lord Jesus.
2. They should avail themselves of this privilege not only for their own advantage, but for the good of others. They should pray constantly "for the peace of Jerusalem," for the "good estate of the Catholic Church." God purposes and promises good to his Church, but enjoins prayer for what he has promised (see Ezekiel 36:37). Our Lord teaches us, in the model prayer he has given us, to pray first for the hallowing of God's name and the coming of his kingdom. Yet many Christians are selfish in their prayers, and thus nourish their selfishness.
3. They may ask for great things. He to whom they come is "able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think," and has done great things in answer to prayer.
4. Past answers to prayer should embolden to further and larger requests.
Sorrow and its Consoler.
"This is nothing else but sorrow of heart."
I. SORROW OF HEART MAY CO-EXIST WITH EXTERNAL WELL-BEING. Nehemiah was healthy, honoured, rich, yet sad. So are many in similar circumstances. The sorrows of sympathy, patriotism, and piety, as Nehemiah's were; those of penitence or remorse; of wounded affection or disappointed confidence; those occasioned by family troubles, etc; may invade the hearts of the most prosperous. And it is well that they should. Prosperity without sorrow tends to moral ruin.
II. SORROW OF HEART IS GRACIOUSLY NOTICED AND ASSUAGED BY THE KING OF KINGS.
1. He observes the sorrowful heart. It will commonly reveal itself in the countenance; but if not, God sees it (Psalms 31:7; Psalms 38:9).
2. He delights to comfort the sorrowful heart. "He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds." He sent his Son "to heal the broken-hearted." The Spirit whom he sends is "the Comforter." By his providence, by the revelation he gives of his fatherly pity and the benevolent ends of affliction, by his assurances of favour and love, by his promises, by human sympathy and solace, he comforts now his children; and ultimately he will wipe all their tears away.
III. SORROW OF HEART SHOULD RECEIVE TENDER HUMAN SYMPATHY AND SUCCOUR. We should be sensitive to its signs, and prompt to feel with and for it, and to proffer consolation and relief. This course is—
1. Prompted by nature. To decline this duty is to do violence to ourselves. It is to "shut up our bowels of compassion" (1 John 3:17), unless, indeed, we are so far below the level of humanity as to have none.
2. Enjoined by religion. The law and the gospel coincide here.
3. Required by our relation to sufferers. The brotherhood of man to man, of Christian to Christian.
4. Enabled by our possession of the gospel. Which is a collection of cordials for all varieties of human sorrow. He who has this, though he has little besides, may be a comforter of many.
5. Illustrated by Divine example (see II.).
6. Enforced by the revelation of the last judgment (see Matthew 25:35-45; 1 John 4:17). Finally, there is sorrow coming on the impenitent which will receive no comfort from God, angel, or man (see Luke 16:24-26).
Sadness, when and how far justifiable.
"Why should not my countenance be sad?"
I. SADNESS IS OFTEN JUSTIFIABLE, OR EVEN COMMENDABLE.
1. Under great troubles. Stoicism is neither natural nor Christian. Troubles are meant to trouble us. If they do not, they afford no trial to faith and patience, and cannot effect their purpose for discipline and improvement.
2. Under the consciousness of sin. In view of its essential evil as committed against God, his rights, laws, and goodness; its injuriousness to ourselves and to others; its final consequences unless forgiven.
3. In sympathy with the troubles of others. Which makes them our own. Christian fellow, ship includes community of suffering. "If one member suffer, all the members suffer with it."
4. On account of the sins of others (Psalms 119:136, Psalms 119:158; Ezekiel 9:4; Philippians 3:18).
5. On account of the troubles of the Church. Nehemiah's sadness was honourable to him.
II. YET SADNESS SHOULD NOT BE INCONSOLABLE.
1. It need not. For a sure remedy is furnished in the truths and promises of the gospel, and the ever-available aid of the Holy Spirit.
2. It ought not. For faith and prayer, opening the heart to the Divine consolations, and securing the Divine aid, would turn sadness into peace, if not joy. Those cases are, however, to be excepted where melancholy springs from physical causes, and needs bodily rather than spiritual treatment.
III. SADNESS SHOULD NEVER BE PREDOMINANT IN THE CHRISTIAN. For his habitual sadness of spirit, countenance, or speech—
1. Dishonours God.
2. Robs himself. Counteracting the design of our religion, everywhere prominent in the New Testament. "That they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves." "In the world ye shall have tribulation, but be of good cheer." "The kingdom of God is … joy in the Holy Ghost." "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy," etc. "These things write we unto you, that your joy may be full."
3. Hinders Christian service. "The joy of the Lord is your strength."
4. Retards the progress of religion. Discouraging inquirer, and giving occasion to adversaries to speak ill of the religious life.
"So I prayed to the God of heaven." Nehemiah, saddened by the report he had received of the condition of the Jews who had returned to their land, had formed a purpose to visit them, that he might encourage them, and take the lead in fortifying the city, and putting affairs into a more hopeful condition. His doing so depended on the consent of the monarch whose cupbearer he was, and his obtaining a commission from him. Already he had prayed for success in his intended application, and now that the desired opportunity presented itself he felt the importance of the moment, and in the king's presence sent up mentally another prayer. We have here—
I. PRAYER BY A GREAT AND WEALTHY MAN. Such have many temptations to neglect prayer; temptations to pride and self-dependence, to worldliness and self- indulgence, tending to the loss of all sense of their need of God and spiritual good; to entire absorption in the cares of their position; to false shame before their equals, etc.; yet they need prayer as much as the poorest, and in some respects more. They equally need Divine mercy as sinners, and Divine help and guidance; and they have special responsibilities, temptations, and power for good or evil, and so need special grace. In undertaking such a work as Nehemiah proposed to himself, the greatest may well feel their need of Divine aid. It is pleasing to contemplate such men when they are men given to prayer. Many instances in the Bible: Abraham, Jacob, Moses, David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Daniel, Cornelius.
II. PRAYER AT AN UNUSUAL PLACE AND TIME. Not in temple or synagogue or secret chamber; but in the presence of a king and queen, and while engaged in ministering to them. Learn that no place is unsuitable, no time unseasonable, for prayer; for God is everywhere, and his ear always open.
III. SILENT PRAYER. Was perhaps an exercise of mind and heart, unknown to the king. Prayer is not confined to audible utterance. This is desirable where practicable, even in private worship; for utterance aids thought and feeling; and it is indispensable to common prayer. One must speak that all may unite. A silent meeting, as amongst the Friends, may be a true prayer-meeting to individuals, but hardly a meeting for united prayer. But in Nehemiah's circumstances audible words would have been unsuitable: and always the worth and efficacy of prayer spring not from the words, but the principles and feelings they represent. It is ever what passes in the mind and heart which makes prayer to be prayer. As much as there is of desire, directed to God in faith, so much is there of prayer.
"Prayer is the soul's sincere desire,
Uttered or unexpressed,
The motion of a hidden fire,
That trembles in the breast."
Much of the truest prayer cannot be spoken. "Groanings which cannot be uttered."
IV. A SHORT PRAYER. Length is in some measure, and under some circumstances, an element of true prayer. He who satisfies himself, in his regular seasons of worship, with a sentence or two, is guilty of irreverence, and shows that he has no delight in communion with God. But on such an occasion as that in the text, only brief prayer is possible or needful. And how much may be expressed or implied in a few words; how much love, or trust, or longing! In like manner much meaning may be in a short prayer. Instances: the Lord's prayer; the publican's; that of the thief on the cross.
V. AN EJACULATORY PRAYER. A short, fervent prayer "darted" upwards on a sudden occasion, when special need of God's help was unexpectedly felt. The habit of thus praying is much to be desired.
1. Occasions for such prayers are as numerous as the varying exigencies of life, especially the sudden and unanticipated, and when longer prayer is impossible.
(1) On receiving some great, unexpected blessing, or becoming suddenly conscious of preservation from imminent peril. To cry, "Bless the Lord!" in the hearing of others may often be inexpedient; but in the heart is always suitable.
(2) When involved in unexpected perplexity. "Lord, guide me." The "cry" of Moses at the Red Sea, referred to in Exodus 14:15, may have been a mental ejaculation.
(3) When suddenly exposed to obvious danger. Bodily, as the disciples in a storm: "Lord, save us; we perish." Peter sinking: "Lord, save me." Or moral and spiritual: sudden assaults of fierce temptation. "Lord, help me."
(4) When suddenly betrayed into sin. Wait not for the hour of prayer before seeking pardon, but lift up your heart at once in a "Lord. have mercy upon me."
(5) When any special demands on Christian principle are unexpectedly made, and the consequent special need for Divine assistance is felt.
(6) In connection with any important and difficult duty. In business, family life, Christian activity, (visiting the poor, distributing alms, seizing an opportunity for giving religious counsel). On entering church; before sermon (short prayer for the preacher and yourself); on leaving church, etc.
(7) Under all varieties of feeling. When the heart is touched and tender towards God (gratitude, admiration, penitence, love, desire) or towards men (affection, solicitude, etc.—Genesis 43:29). When pleasure is felt at the sight of happiness or goodness, or pain at sight of misery or sin. (In walking through the streets; prayer for those you feel you cannot help or save.)
2. The value of such prayers.
(1) As evidencing and cultivating the devout spirit. Those who have the spirit of prayer can hardly be content with stated times, or fail to look to God in unexpected necessities, or praise him at once for unexpected blessings. And thus the spirit of prayer is cherished and maintained. Is one way of fulfilling the command, "Pray without ceasing."
(2) As maintaining habitual converse with God. We should esteem it a calamity if he were to restrict our approaches to him to certain hours; let us not limit ourselves in a similar manner.
(3) As aiding to sanctify the whole life. By blending worship and devout sentiment with every part of it.
(4) As securing constant Divine assistance. Nehemiah's prayer was heard; so will ours be.
Success ascribed to God.
"And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me." Nehemiah, like Ezra before him (Ezra 7:6), ascribes the success of his application to the king to the "good hand of God;" which had, indeed, been conspicuous. The circumstances which had paved the way for the presentation of his petition, the readiness of the king's consent to his requests, the largeness of the facilities granted him, all indicated that his God, whose aid he had sought, had ordered events and influenced the monarch's heart.
I. THE GOOD HAND OF GOD IS IN ALL THE SUCCESSES OF HIS SERVANTS. The hand of God is, indeed, in the successes of all; and in their failures and reverses too; and it is always a good hand. For it is the hand of him who is good, who seeks the good of his creatures, and will surely "do good unto those that be good" (Psalms 125:4). Nor is it easy to say whether the goodness of God's hand is most shown in successes or reverses. It is of success, however, that the text speaks; and this comes from God, as he—
1. Arranges the events which conduce to success.
2. Supplies the qualities which contribute to it. Wisdom, power, goodness, in ourselves or others.
3. Overrules adverse circumstances or endeavours.
4. Works in ways inconceivable and indescribable to render all efficient.
II. THE GOOD HAND OF GOD IS ESPECIALLY CONSPICUOUS IN SOME SUCCESSES. We pass over those effected by the display of Divine power in miracles. Nehemiah records no miracle. The hand of God is especially apparent in successes obtained where
(1) great difficulties are surmounted, or
(2) strenuous opposition is overcome, or
(3) feeble instruments have been employed, or
(4) unexpected valuable help arises, or
(5) many unlikely conditions concur, and
(6) signal good is accomplished.
All these were combined in the successes of the gospel in early times, and in many a revival, reformation, or deliverance in later days.
III. THE GOOD HAND OF GOD SHOULD EVER BE DEVOUTLY RECOGNISED AND ACKNOWLEDGED. With admiration, gratitude, and praise. This is meet and right and profitable. To be unable to see God's hand is to be in the condition of a brute. To shut our eyes and refuse to see it is the part of a determined infidel. To see, and not in suitable ways to acknowledge, is at least to be guilty of impiety, ingratitude, and cowardice.
IV. THE GOOD HAND OF GOD WILL BE RECOGNISED AND ACKNOWLEDGED BY GODLY MEN. They have the faith which discerns it, the love which delights to trace its operation, the gratitude which impels to the acknowledgment of it. Especially will this be the case when the success achieved is a manifest answer to their prayers.
HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL
I. THAT IT WAS THE OUTCOME OF A TRUE PATRIOTISM (Nehemiah 2:2). This sadness was not occasioned by temporal loss, by domestic bereavement, or by unfaithful friendship, but by the desolated condition of Jerusalem. The city was "waste." Many cities of our own country are laid waste by sin; the good man cannot be indifferent, he must sympathise with and help the work of moral restoration. If men are anxious about the walls, they ought to be much more so about the morals of a city; if for the tombs of the dead, much more for the welfare of the living. Sin consumes a city as by fire. The desolation wrought by sin, in commerce, in society, in the home, and especially amongst the young, cannot but awaken deep sorrow of heart.
II. THAT IT WAS EXPERIENCED IN THE COURSE OF HIS DAILY AVOCATIONS. "And I took up the wine, and gave it to the king "(Nehemiah 2:1). How many men go to their daily toil with a heart sorrow which occupation and industry cannot make them forget. Nehemiah was wont to be cheerful before the king; business should be done in joyous mood; but there are times when sorrow will prevail.
III. THAT IT WAS MANIFESTED IN THE APPEARANCE OF THE PHYSICAL FRAME. "Why is thy countenance sad?" (verse 2). How much of the world's sorrow is concealed. In a very true sense it is sorrow of heart; it is never vocal in explanation or complaint. But such sacred grief is not hidden from God. The face reflects the emotions of the soul; it revealed the sorrow of Nehemiah, the joy of Stephen. How many sorrowful faces do we meet in a day. A sad countenance should awaken tender inquiry, wise consideration, and willing aid. Let us not be heedless of the world's sorrow. Christ is only true consolation.
IV. THAT IT WAS AIDED BY SECRET COMMUNION WITH THE DIVINE. "So I prayed to the God of heaven" (verse 4).
1. Sorrow often has great opportunities opened up to it. "For what dost thou make request?" Nehemiah's sorrow opened up the king's resources to him. Our sorrows often make heaven rich to us.
2. Sorrow needs guidance, so as to make good use of the opportunities presented to it.
3. Sorrow finds in prayer the guidance and culture it needs to use aright its opportunity.
(1) Memory is aided;
(2) difficulty is anticipated;
(3) preparation is accomplished (verse 7);
(4) agencies are perfected (verse 8).
V. THAT IT WAS EMPLOYED IN THE WONDROUS PROVIDENCE OF HEAVEN. "And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me" (verse 8).
1. The sorrow of Nehemiah was allied to the welfare of his people. It led to the rebuilding of the broken wall of Jerusalem. Our trials are often the means of promoting the welfare of others. Christ's sufferings are allied to our best delights, and to our noblest achievements. It is indeed true that others build because we have suffered.
2. The sorrow of Nehemiah was allied to the beneficence of the king. It awakened the monarch's sympathy and help. The sorrows of men awaken loving ministries.
3. The sorrow of Nehemiah was allied to the providence of God. By its means Heaven opened the heart of the heathen king in sympathy and his hand in help. The pain of the world is made to achieve high moral ends; a wise providence employs it in the building of broken walls.—E.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Gaining the cause.
It was a time of great suspense, hardest of all things for human hearts to bear. The future of Jerusalem now hung on the building of the wall, and this depended on Nehemiah's personal interposition and upon Artaxerxes' pleasure. When great events depend on a single circumstance, issues deep and grave on the charge of a regiment, on the skill of a statesman, on the caprice of a king, we may well wait in anxiety. Nothing could be done now for Jerusalem, speaking humanly, without this Persian sovereign's consent. There was—
I. ABSENCE OF OPPORTUNITY. More than three months intervened between Nehemiah's receiving the tidings and his appeal to Artaxerxes. Whence this delay? Undoubtedly the actual or virtual inaccessibility of the king. Either he was not called to the royal presence, or the sovereign was obviously not in the mood. How unlike this to the ever-open throne of grace to which at any time, and in any place, we may go, sure of an attentive hearing from "him who giveth liberally and upbraideth not."
II. DIPLOMACY. Nehemiah showed great skill—
1. In the introduction of his cause. How should he ask to be sent elsewhere when he was already "standing before the king"? This was regarded as the height of a man's ambition, as our Scriptures plentifully intimate. To "stand before kings," to stand in the "king's presence, before his face, was the acme of hope and satisfaction. To ask to be dismissed was discourteous and dangerous. It was, indeed, going in this direction, to seem otherwise than joyful (verses 1, 2). But Nehemiah ventured thus far; he did not disguise or restrain his sorrow; it was evident in his countenance. This would be a forceful appeal to the king, and still more so to the queen, who was present (verse 6).
2. In his lament. It was the "one touch of nature that makes the whole world kin," to allude to "the city of his fathers' sepulchres lying waste" (verse 3): this would strike a chord in any human heart; it did within the king.
3. In his request. He was mentally prepared for utterance; he had even calculated the necessary time (verse 6), and the materials, etc. he required for the work (verses 7, 8). We must not expect to succeed in any delicate enterprise unless we enter upon it with calculation and care. There are things to be done for God which may be wrought by sheer an& simple earnestness; but there are times when, if we cannot furnish it ourselves, we must give place to the man who can bring to the task refinement, delicacy, tact. We must give way to the Nehemiah of our Church or society; he will succeed admirably where we should fail ingloriously.
III. PRAYER. "So I prayed to the God of heaven" (verse 4). This is a beautiful and suggestive parenthesis. Between the king's question and the courtier's reply there was a momentary appeal to heaven. "The king's heart is in the hand of the Lord; as rivers of water, he turneth it whithersoever he will" (Proverbs 21:1). An excellent thing is it for a man so to walk with God, to live so near to him, that at any moment, and at any time of special need, he can ejaculate a prayer; so that it will be natural for him to withdraw for a brief interval from this world and from man, and lift up the heart to heaven. This is one way in which we may be "praying always" (Ephesians 6:18), "without ceasing" (1 Thessalonians 5:17).
IV. GRATITUDE FOR SUCCESS. "The king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me" (verse 8). Nehemiah, like all praying men, was grateful. He ascribed success not to his own ingenuity, but to the "good hand of God." Men that are undevout are necessarily unthankful and self-complacent; they congratulate themselves instead of blessing God. Far more beautiful and appropriate is it to realise that the hand of the Supreme is controlling all issues, and thus conferring all good. With some prosperity leads to pride and spiritual injury, while in others it inspires gratitude and devotion.—C.
HOMILIES BY R.A. REDFORD
These verses describe the circumstances in which Nehemiah obtained his commission as restorer of Jerusalem. They show that he was prospered, and that his prosperity was due to the blessing of God. We may notice—
I. The REWARD OF FAITH IN THE ANSWER TO PRAYER.
1. The faith was tried by waiting. Opportunity must not be made by hasty, presumptuous attempts to command events, but by watching Providence. Nehemiah still prayed, and then on a certain day he could say, It came to pass.
2. The Divine interposition was manifested in the control of the monarch's thoughts and disposition. It might easily have been otherwise. A suspicious Eastern despot might have been jealous and angry. When it is the purpose of God to help, even the secrets of the inner man are swayed by it. We must leave it to him to answer the prayer when and as he pleases.
3. There was a special bestowal of grace upon Nehemiah himself. He needed self-command, prudence, boldness, adroitness. And when challenged to disclose what was in his heart, making his countenance sad, he must depend upon inspiration to be able to say exactly the right thing, and to say it so as to obtain his desire. His patriotism, his purity of motive, his confidence in his own vocation to fulfil so great a commission, all required at that moment to be sustained. He "prayed to the God of heaven." The answer was immediately sent, in the courage, the wisdom, the self-devotion, the simplicity of the cupbearer in the presence of an Eastern despot, asking to be intrusted with power that he might use it for God and his people.
4. There was a Providential conjunction of circumstances, both in the past and present. Nehemiah was already in the palace to aid the important work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. How little we can follow the working of the Divine hand! The answer to our prayer may be already provided, even before we present the petition. What seems hard to obtain is not hard for God to give.
II. The DEVELOPMENT OF CAPACITY ON THE BASIS OF RELIGION.
1. The beginning of all, devoutness, intercourse with God, spirituality of aim and motive, largo desires for the welfare of God's people, and so of the world.
2. On this is built the purity, and strength, and unselfishness which so wins confidence in others. Nehemiah found favour with Artaxerxes because there was that in his very countenance which the monarch delighted to look upon. We should recommend religion by transparent honesty, cheerfulness, and unselfishness.
3. Intellectual power rests upon moral, and both upon spiritual. The cupbearer could not have undertaken to be a ruler and leader of men m most difficult circumstances unless there had been the making of a ruler in him. Some of our greatest statesmen have owed much of their superiority to their religion. "The entrance of thy word giveth light, it giveth understanding to the simple."
4. One who places himself in a position of great responsibility requires a far-seeing eye and a strong will. These are wonderfully helped by the cultivation of a deeper nature. Nehemiah knew what to ask for, materials and men; foresaw the demands of the work and its dangers; with steadfast confidence in himself, and fearless trust in his influence over the king, he made great requests, and they were "granted, according to the good hand of his God upon him." The root of all his strength was his entire dependence upon God.
5. In the character of Nehemiah there is an illustration of the effect of religion in cherishing the higher elements of the nature, and keeping them in beautiful and powerful harmony. He loved "the place of his fathers' sepulchres," he loved his nation; but above all, he loved the Church of God. Personal feeling, patriotic enthusiasm, and religious faith, when they all unite together as active principles in one man, produce a loftiness and heroism which prepare him for the greatest efforts and successes.—R.
NEHEMIAH'S JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM (Nehemiah 3:9-11). On his way to Jerusalem, Nehemiah would pass through the provinces of various Persian satraps and governors. To those beyond the Euphrates he carried letters, which he took care to deliver, though by doing so he aroused the hostility of San-ballat. Being accompanied by an escort of Persian soldiers, he experienced neither difficulty nor danger by the way, but effected his journey in about three months.
I came to the governors beyond the river. Josephus gives the name of the satrap, of Syria at this time as Adieus ('Ant. Jud; Nehemiah 11:5, § 6, ad fin), but it is uncertain on what authority. The other "governors" he calls Hipparchs.
Sanballat. According to Josephus, Sanballat was "satrap of Samaria" under the Persians, and by descent a Cuthaean ('Ant. Jud.,' Nehemiah 11:7, § 2). He was probably included among the governors to whom Nehemiah had brought letters, and learnt the fact that "a man was come to seek the welfare of the children of Israel" by the delivery of the letters to him. The Horonite, Born, i.e; at one of the two Beth-horons, the upper or the lower, mentioned in Joshua (Joshua 16:3, Joshua 16:5) as belonging to Ephraim, and now under Samaria. Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite. It has been usual to regard Tobiah as a native chief of the Ammonites, who, after having been a page or other servant at the Persian court, had been made head of the nation. But it seems to be quite as likely that he was a servant of Sanballat's, who stood high in his favour, gave him counsel, and was perhaps his secretary (Nehemiah 6:17, Nehemiah 6:19). It grieved them exceedingly. From the time that Zerub-babel rejected the co-operation of the Samaritans in the rebuilding of the temple (Ezra 4:3), an enmity set in between the two peoples which continued till the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. The two capitals were too near not to be rivals; and the greater (general) prosperity of Jerusalem made Samaria the bitterer adversary.
I… was there three days. Compare Ezra 8:32. After the long journey, three days of rest were necessary.
STEPS TAKEN BY NEHEMIAH PRELIMINARY TO HIS BUILDING OF THE WALL, AND FIRST APPEARANCE OF OPPOSITION (Nehemiah 2:12-20). Hitherto Nehemiah had communicated his purpose to no one but the king and queen of Persia. He expected opposition, and resolved to baffle his opponents, as long as possible, by concealing his exact designs. Even when further concealment was on the point of becoming impossible, he made his survey of the wall by night, that it might escape observation. At last, the time for action being come, he was obliged to lay the matter before the head men of the city (verse 17), whom he easily persuaded when he assured them of Artaxerxes' consent and goodwill Preparations then began to be made; and immediately murmurs of opposition arose. Three opponents are now spoken of—Sanballat, Tobiah, and an Arabian, Geshem or Gashmu, not previously mentioned. These persons appear to have sent a formal message to the authorities of Jerualem (verse 19), taxing them with an intention to rebel Nehemiah made no direct reply to this charge, but boldly stated his resolve to "arise and build," and denied Sanballat's right to interfere with him (verse 20).
Some few men with me. All the arrangements are made to avoid notice. Nehemiah goes out by night, with few attendants, and with only one beast. He is anxious to see with his own eyes what is the extent of the repair needed, but wishes as few as possible to know of his proceedings.
The valley gate. A gate on the western or south-western side of Jerusalem, opening towards the valley of Hinnom. There are no means of fixing its exact position. It was one of those which Uzziah fortified (2 Chronicles 26:9). The dragon well. Dean Stanley suggests that "the dragon well" is the spring known generally as "the pool of Siloam," and that the legend, which describes the intermittent flow of the Siloam water as produced by the opening and closing of a dragon s mouth, had already sprung up; but the Siloam spring seems to lie too far to the eastward to suit the present passage, and is most likely represented by the "king's pool" of Nehemiah 2:14. The dung port. "The gate outside of which lay the piles of the sweepings and offscourings of the streets" ('Stanley,' 1. s.c.); situated towards the middle of the southern wall
The gate of the fountain. A gate near the pool of Siloam (which, though bearing that name in Nehemiah 3:15, seems to be here called "the king's pool" ); perhaps the "gate between two walls of 2 Kings 25:4. There was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. The accumulated rubbish blocked the way. The animal could not proceed. Nehemiah therefore dismounted, and "in the night, dark as it was, pursued his way on foot.
By the brook. "The brook Kidron," which skirted the city on the east. From this he would be able to "look up at the eastern wall" along its whole length, and see its condition. Following the brook, he was brought to the north-eastern angle of the city; on reaching which he seems to have "turned back" towards the point from which he had started, and skirting the northern wall, to have re-entered by the gate of the valley.
The rulers. On Nehemiah's arrival at Jerusalem he found no single individual exercising authority, but a number of persons, a sort of town-council, whom he calls khorim and saganim. It is not clear that he made his commission known to them at first, or indeed that he divulged it before the interview mentioned in verses 17 and 18. The rest that did the work This seems to be said by anticipation, and to mean those who subsequently built the wall.
Then said I unto them. Ewald boldly assumes that this happened the next day; but there is nothing to show that it was so soon. The original contains, no note of time—not even the word "then." Nehemiah simply says, "And I said to them." The distress. Or "affliction," as the word is translated in Nehemiah 1:3. No special suffering seems to be intended, beyond that of lying open to attack, and being a "reproach" in the sight of the heathen. Lieth waste. On this hyperbole see the comment upon Nehemiah 1:3.
Then I told them of the hand of my God. Nehemiah sketched the history of his past life, and showed how God's providence had always shielded him and supported him. This, however, would scarcely have had any great effect had he not been able to appeal further to the king's words that he had spoken. These words clearly contained permission to rebuild the wall, and took away the danger of their so doing being regarded as an act of rebellion by the Persians. What others might think was not of very much account. And they said, Let us rise up and build. Nehemiah's address had all the effect he hoped for from it. He was anxious to carry the nation with him, and induce them, one and. all, to engage heartily in the work, which must be accomplished, if it was to be accomplished at all, by something like a burst of enthusiasm. Such a burst he evokes, and its result is seen in the next chapter. Almost the whole people came forward, and set to work with zeal So they strengthened their hands for this good work. The original is briefer, and more emphatic—"And they strengthened their hands for good." They embraced the good cause, took the good part, set themselves to work heartily on the right side.
Geshem the Arabian, elsewhere called Gashmu (Nehemiah 6:6), may have been an independent sheikh possessing authority in Idumea, or in the desert country adjoining upon Ammon; but it seems quite as likely that he was merely the head of a body of Arab troops maintained by Sanballat at Samaria (Nehemiah 4:7). Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem are united so closely, and act so much together (Nehemiah 4:1-7; Nehemiah 6:1, Nehemiah 6:2, Nehemiah 6:6, Nehemiah 6:12, Nehemiah 6:14), that it is difficult to suppose them to be three chieftains residing on three sides of Judaea, the north, the east, and the south, merely holding diplomatic intercourse with each other, which is the ordinary idea. Note that Tobiah is present with Sanballat in Samaria on one occasion (Nehemiah 4:3), and that Geshem and Sanballat propose a joint interview with Nehemiah on another (Nehemiah 6:2). They laughed us to scorn, and said. Either by messengers, like Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:17-35), or by a formal written communication, as Ewald supposes. Will ye rebel? Compare Nehemiah 6:6; and see also Ezra 4:12-16. Had Artaxerxes not granted permission, Nehemiah's proceedings might naturally have borne this interpretation.
Then answered I. It is remarkable that Nehemiah takes no notice of the serious charge brought against him, does not say that he had the king's permission, but rather leaves the "adversaries" to suppose that he had not. Perhaps he thought that to reveal the truth would drive them to some desperate attempt, and therefore suppressed it. The God of heaven, he will prosper us. Instead of a human, Nehemiah claims a Divine sanction for his proceedings. He and his brethren will build as servants of the God of heaven. Compare the answer made to Tatnai in Zerubbabel's time—"We are the servants of the God of heaven and earth, and build the house that was builded these many years ago" (Ezra 5:11). Ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem. As the claim of the Samaritans to interfere in the affairs of the Jews had been disallowed when they came with an offer of aid (Ezra 4:2, Ezra 4:3), so now, when their interference is hostile in character, it is still more fiercely and indignantly rejected. They are told that they have no part in Jerusalem, no right, not even so much as a place in the recollections of the inhabitants. Their interference is officious, impertinent—what have they to do with Nehemiah, or the Israelites, or Jerusalem? Let them be content to manage the affairs of their own idolatrous community, and not trouble the worshippers of the true God. Nehemiah avoids opposition by concealment as long as he can; but when opposition nevertheless appears, he meets it with defiance.
Preparation for a great work.
A record of the first steps taken by Nehemiah in the execution of his commission.
I. HIS JOURNEY TO JERUSALEM (verses 9, 11). He no doubt lost no time in setting out; and he made the journey with suitable dignity, and in safety, owing to the escort granted by the king, and the obedience of the "governors beyond the river" to "the king's letters."
II. HIS PRELIMINARY INVESTIGATION (verses 12-15). This was—
1. Personal. He would see with his own eyes the condition of the wall, so as to judge of the practicability of his plan for restoring it.
2. Secret. Perhaps that foes without might not be able to hinder him, nor their partisans within inform them of his movements.
3. Thorough. Notwithstanding the difficulty of completing it. In all enterprises careful inquiry must precede action if they are to prosper. Our Lord enjoins those who are thinking of becoming his disciples to "count the cost;" and a similar previous consideration is necessary in endeavours to advance his kingdom. Whoever would revive, reform, or restore, must first ascertain the existing state of things, and reckon up his resources for effecting his object. "The knowledge of a disease is half its cure." Rash zeal is likely to end in failure. Only we must take heed of putting consideration in the place of action; of "thinking about" decision in religion instead of deciding; of "considering" how we can do good until the opportunity of doing it is gone.
III. HIS SUCCESSFUL APPEAL TO THE PEOPLE. Notwithstanding the ruinous condition of the wall, and the feebleness of the Jews—
1. He was confident and resolute himself. Assured that the work could be done, and prepared to do his part, and more.
2. He infused his spirit into the people.
(1) He appealed to all classes: rulers, priests, nobles, working-men. The co-operation of all was essential.
(2) His appeal was to all assembled together. Thus insuring the enthusiasm generated by numbers.
(3) His appeal was forcible.
(a) Reminding them of the present condition of the city. Ruinous, defenceless, exciting contempt.
(b) Informing them of the favourable turn which affairs had taken. God's kind interposition. The king's commission to him, and gracious words.
(c) Summoning them to join him in building the wall.
(4) His appeal was successful. It roused them to ―
(a) Prompt and determined resolve.
(b) Mutual incitement.
(c) Confidence and courage.
"So they strengthened their hands for the good work." Observe—
1. The worth of competent leaders. The multitude helpless without them. One man, able and resolute, may turn weakness into strength, and depression into prosperity. In the work of Christ good leaders are of incalculable value. The advent of such often changes the whole aspect of things.
2. The duty of those who are fitted to be leaders. A great responsibility rests on them. Let them not decline the posts for which they are fitted on account of the expense or self-denial involved in filling them. Let them study to lead well, not for the sake of their own honour, but for the glory of Christ and the good of their brethren. Let them lead by their example as well as their speeches; so that they can say with Nehemiah, "Come, and let us build," etc.
3. The duty of the people towards them. To recognise them, welcome them thankfully, co-operate with them heartily. If the people are weak without good leaders, these are equally weak without the people. But both uniting heartily, they may work wonders.
IV. HIS TREATMENT OF ILL-DISPOSED NEIGHBOURS.
1. How they regarded his proceedings.
(1) With great displeasure and mortification (verse 10).
(2) With undisguised contempt (verse 19). "Will ye rebel against the king?" is perhaps to be viewed as ironical rather than as insinuating a serious charge. "Ye puny Jews, do you imagine you can defy the power of Persia to which you are subject?" Otherwise we may add—
(3) With misrepresentation.
2. How he dealt with them.
(1) He addressed them seriously, expressing his confidence in God; his determination, in common with his brethren, to proceed with the enterprise; his rejection of their unjustifiable interference.
(2) He just went on with the work. Observe—
1. Every good work will meet with opposition, if not with contempt.
2. Such opposition is best met by trust in God, earnest resolution, and increased activity.
Seeking the welfare of the Church.
"There was a man come to seek the welfare of the children of Israel." Thus, with some contempt, Sanballat and Tobiah thought and spoke of the coming of Nehemiah to Palestine. But if meant as a scoff, it may be accepted as a eulogium: like" a friend of publicans and sinners." Nehemiah is correctly described in the words. They set before us conduct to be imitated by citizens and statesmen in respect to the general community, by Christians in respect to the Church, and to the world at large.
I. TO SEEK THE WELFARE OF THE CHURCH OF CHRIST IS INCUMBENT ON ALL CHRISTIANS. The maintenance of religions ordinances, the spread of Christianity, the increase and prosperity of the Church, the benefit of its individual members, are the concern of every Christian, and ought not to be left to a few. The efforts of all are needed; each can do something, and should do it heartily and cheerfully. The great motives to zeal apply to all, as really as to the few who feel their power. When the many can be described as those who with all their might "seek the welfare" of the Church and kingdom of God, a new era in the history of Christianity will begin.
1. How we should seek the welfare of the Church. By our exertions, gifts, prayers.
2. Why we are bound to do so. The nature of our religion, which is love; the purpose of our calling as Christians—to be "lights in the world;" the express commands of our Lord; the Divine examples and many human; the blessings we have received from the gospel and the Church; the blessings we may impart; the nobleness of the unselfish spirit and pursuits, and the increase they secure to the true wealth and blessedness of our own being—all are powerful reasons why we should interest ourselves in the good of the Church, and so of the world, and do all we can to promote it.
II. IT IS ESPECIALLY INCUMBENT ON THOSE WHO HAVE SPECIAL TALENTS. All talents can find employment in this service; all should be consecrated to it. The more we have of faculty and aptitude, the more we are bound to employ them. Bodily energy, mental power and culture, spiritual attainments, wealth, social position and influence, should all be cheerfully devoted to Christ and the good of men. "Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required."
III. THE PUBLIC SPIRIT SHOWN BY ANY WHO ARE SPECIALLY QUALIFIED TO DO GOOD SHOULD AWAKEN THANKFULNESS, AND THEIR SERVICES BE GLADLY ACCEPTED. Because such men are greatly needed, and if well supported can do much more good than ordinary men; and because the number of such is comparatively small, so strong are the temptations to a lower style of life. Yet even in a time of depression, the appearance on the scene of a man of unusual ability and resources, willing to devote himself to the general good, is not always welcomed by all. Not only, outside, the Sanballats and Tobiahs are grieved and angry, but within are found some who feel their own importance in the community threatened, and allow jealousy, envy, and uncharitableness, culminating perhaps in open hostility, to prevail over such faint love for Christ, his cause and people, as they may possess.
IV. THE MISSION AND WORK OF NEHEMIAH MAY WELL REMIND US OF HIS WHO IN LOVING SERVICE IS "HIGHER THAN THE HIGHEST." He came "to seek the welfare" not of "the children of Israel" only, but of the world. He came with the commission not of an earthly monarch, but of the Father in heaven. His personal qualifications were not simply those of an excellent and able man, but of perfect humanity united to perfect Deity. His compassion for men was that of incarnate love. His toils and sufferings, ending in a death of agony and shame, surpass incalculably all that the best men have ever endured in serving their fellows. His resources are those of the universe—"all power in heaven and earth." The benefits he confers are of corresponding magnitude and duration. Yet men viewed him with hate and envy, and still turn away from him; and his people render him a love and co-operation miserably small, far inferior to what Nehemiah received from his fellow Jews. Let us be careful to receive him with hearty faith and submission for our own salvation; and then consecrate our all to his service, counting nothing too great to do for him, no sacrifice too painful to make in promoting his designs for the present and eternal welfare of men.
God-given thoughts and impulse.
"Neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem."
I. WHEN WE MAY SAFELY ASCRIBE TO GOD WHAT HAS ARISEN IN OUR HEARTS. There is a danger, to which fervent religiousness exposes men, of delusion, fanaticism, and impiety in ascribing their thoughts, feelings, or purposes to God. When may we safely say, "God put it into my heart"?
1. When the thought, feeling, or purpose is manifestly good. God is the author of all good, and only of good. He cannot put evil into the heart. To ascribe it to him is blasphemy. Hatred, malice, uncharitableness, misrepresentation, injustice, cruelty, even though they assume the garb of piety, cannot be from him. They bear upon them the stamp of their father, the devil. Let furious bigots, calumniators of their Christian brethren, and persecutors, lay this to heart. Before ascribing to God what is in our heart, we must compare it with what we know to be from him—the teaching of our Lord, his character, the enumerations of the fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22, Galatians 5:23; Ephesians 5:9). Whatever corresponds with these we may safely conclude to be from God. And the closer the correspondence, the more certain the conclusion.
2. When it issues in great good. Nehemiah, writing after he had executed his purpose and seen its beneficial results, could speak confidently as to its source. This rule for determining the Divine origin of our mental operations must, however, be applied with caution. It is only subordinate, not sufficient of itself. For
(1) God brings good out of evil. Sin and Satan, and bad men, evil in themselves, are God's slaves to work good (comp. Genesis 50:20; Acts 2:23, seq.).
(2) Good desires are not always accomplished. David purposed to build the temple; his purpose is pronounced good, and therefore from God, although it was not the will of God that he should execute it. Still, when our thoughts, etc. are carried into action and produce great and lasting good, our confidence is rightly increased that they were from him.
II. WHY WE SHOULD ASCRIBE TO GOD THE GOOD WHICH ARISES IN OUR HEARTS.
1. It is manifestly according to truth.
2. It is required by gratitude A great benefit and honour is thus conferred upon us.
3. Humility demands and is promoted by it. Yet the human heart is so deceitful, that under a show of humility pride and self-complacency may hide, and be fostered by the thought of the distinction thus enjoyed.
4. Due regard for the glory of God will induce us to do this.
5. It is acceptable to God, who will reward by "more grace."
III. THE PROPRIETY AND WISDOM OF SOMETIMES CONCEALING FROM MEN WHAT GOD HAS PUT INTO OUR HEARTS. There is "a time to be silent;" yet there is also "a time to speak."
1. Reticence as to our pious thoughts, emotions, and purposes may be right. As for instance when indulged—
(1) From a sense of their sacredness.
(2) To test their goodness. In the case of the emotions of personal religion, to ascertain their genuineness. In the case of plans of usefulness, to determine their practicability. So Nehemiah.
(3) To promote their maturity.
2. Reticence may be, or become, wrong. It is so—
(1) When cowardice produces it, and the confession of Christ is thereby evaded. "A secret disciple" may be borne with at first, but Christ requires confession on pain of rejection.
(2) When others are thereby deprived of help and encouragement.
(3) When the course of action to which what is put in our hearts points is unreasonably delayed. Nehemiah soon revealed his plans to others, that he might through their co-operation accomplish them.
"And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for the good work." Narrates the effect produced on all classes at Jerusalem by Nehemiah's address.
I. WHAT MOVED THEM.
1. There was a plain need for energetic and united action.
2. They had a good leader. Competent, resolute, courageous, generous, devoted, self-denying; and withal having authority.
3. There were many encouragements and helps.
4. In all, the will and favourable providence of God seemed manifest.
II. TO WHAT IT LED THEM.
1. Ardent enthusiasm.
2. Resolute determination.
3. Mutual exhortation. "Let us rise up and build."
4. Confidence and courage.
5. All combining to impart vigour for the work.
"They strengthened their hands," braced themselves "for the good work." Note throughout that Christians have similar incentives to their work, and should be similarly affected by them. There is sadder and more wide-spread ruin to move our hearts; we have a Divine leader; the word, the grace, and the providence of God combine to urge and encourage us. Let us "provoke" one another "to love and good works," and give ourselves to them with unanimous zeal, resolution, and confidence; thus "strengthening our hands for the good work."
Assurance of Divine co-operation.
"The God of heaven, he will prosper us," etc. Nehemiah's reply to opponents who wished to deter him from the work he was undertaking.
I. WHEN WE MAY CHERISH THE ASSURANCE OF DIVINE AID AND BLESSING IN OUR ENDEAVOURS. In general when our endeavours are in accordance with the will of God—in the line of his plans and purposes. And this is the case when—
1. The work is good.
2. The Divine call to it is clear. This is ascertainable from
(1) the word of God, its revelations, commands, promises.
(2) The grace of God, producing desire and willingness in our hearts; or in some cases placing us in such relation to his Church as gives us the right to act.
(3) The providence of God, giving ability, opportunity, and facilities.
3. Our motives are pure and Christian.
4. Our methods right. Being according to the directions and in harmony with the spirit of Christ.
5. The blessing of God is relied upon and earnestly sought.
II. THE EFFECTS WHICH SUCH ASSURANCE WILL PRODUCE.
1. Confidence of success. Notwithstanding difficulties, misrepresentation, contempt, opposition (see verse 19), and occasional desponding thoughts.
2. Strenuous exertion. "Therefore," etc; not, "Therefore we need not work, or may be lax in our endeavours." Confidence which thus operates is presumption. God will do most when men do their best.
3. Rejection of alien interference. This took the form of opposition in the case of Sanballat, etc. Yet Nehemiah's language seems to imply that these objectors would have co-operated, if allowed to do so, on terms acceptable to them. "We his servants will arise and build; but ye have no portion," etc. So it was at least as to the erection of the temple (Ezra 4:1-3). And in our day many who are "of the world" arc willing to unite with the Church in her works. The peril is that in welcoming their aid the Church should imbibe their spirit, and so lose her own proper strength. We cannot, it is true, draw as sharp a line between the Church and the world as Nehemiah between Jews, and non-Jews. But we have great need to be on our guard against the insidious influence of the worldly spirit, and the adoption of worldly means of doing what professes to be, but then ceases to be, Christ's work. We may not be justified in rejecting the material aid of worldly men when proffered without conditions (Nehemiah had accepted that of Artaxerxes), but we must never accept their counsels. The world is more dangerous within the Church than in open opposition. Faith in Divine aid will preserve from such a policy. Cherishing this, we shall feel that whether the world smile or frown we shall succeed in the end; but that if God were to withdraw his help we must fail; and that he is likely to abandon us if we so rely on others as to be unfaithful and disobedient to him, by surrendering our distinctiveness as the disciples of Christ.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Ungodly (unchristian) jealousy.
Nehemiah, attended by a Persian escort, came safely to Jerusalem. The king had dealt liberally with him; he provided him with a military guard to protect him from the dangers of the road, and with letters of instruction to use at his journey's end (verse 9). But the prophet soon found—what we all find soon enough—that the work we attempt for God can only be accomplished by triumphing over difficulty. The path of holy service lies over many a scorching plain, up many a steep mountain, along many a "slippery place." . Nehemiah's great obstacle was to be found in the virulent enmity of Sanballat and Tobiah. When these men heard of his arrival, "it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel" (verse 10). Looking at this statement concerning these men, we notice—
I. THEIR COMPARATIVE INNOCENCY WHEN JUDGED BY HUMAN STANDARDS. At first thought it seems almost incredible that they should have been "grieved exceedingly" because a man had come to seek the welfare of their neighbours. But when we ask if Sanballat and Tobiah were so very much worse than mankind in general, we are compelled to own that theirs was but an instance of ordinary human selfishness. In every land and through every age men have been jealous of their rivals' prosperity. These men concluded that the elevation of Jerusalem virtually meant the depression of Samaria; that, indirectly, Nehemiah had come to lower the dignity if not to lessen the prosperity of their state, and they counted him an enemy. So have men argued everywhere even until now. Wars that were avowedly waged on some small pretext were really fought because one strong nation was jealous of the growing vigour of some neighbouring power. Not only nations, but tribes, families, societies, and (it must be sorrowfully admitted) Christian Churches have allowed themselves to be jealous of the growth of other nations, other tribes, other Churches, and have been grieved when men "sought" and promoted "their welfare." So general and widespread is this selfishness, taking the form of jealousy of the prosperity of others, that it is not for us to "cast the first stone" of bitter reproach. But we must see—
II. THEIR ACTUAL GUILT IN THE SIGHT OF GOD. A selfish jealousy like this of Sanballat and Tobiah, a grief at the prosperity of neighbours and competitors, whether in the civil or religious world, is in the sight of God
(a) unrighteous. Our neighbours have every whit as much right to make the most of their powers and opportunities as we have of ours; to rise above us by lawful means as we to remain above them. We, as well as they, have received our heritage from men and from God, and we have no moral right to limit their success, or to object to their power, or be offended at their superiority.
(b) Short-sighted. We ought to understand that we are enriched by one another's prosperity. "We are members one of another, and should rejoice in one another's welfare. This is so with
(1) neighbouring nations;
(2) sister Churches;
(3) capital and labour;
(4) various contemporary industries.
The more one prospers, the more another will prosper too. If a man comes to "seek the welfare" of any "Israel," we should not be "exceedingly grieved," but heartily glad.
(c) Sinful. Though we may not denounce one another, we are all, together, under the condemnation of God. How can he be otherwise than grieved with us when we envy the welfare of our own brethren? That those who are children of the same Divine Father and members of the same family should wish ill to one another must vex his loving spirit.
(d) Something of which we shall live to be utterly ashamed. How many have to remember with shame that when men "came seeking the welfare of God's people," they were antagonistic when they should have been friendly.—C.
HOMILIES BY R.A. REDFORD
True work Divinely succeeded.
Here is the enterprise briefly sketched out: the ruin to be built up; the surrounding sea of scorn, hatred, and opposition to be kept back; the co-operation of rulers and people to be maintained. One man evidently to be the life and soul of the whole work. "I told not a man what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem."
I. All truly religious work should be accomplished in the spirit of UNCOMPROMISING FAITHFULNESS.
1. Complete independence of those who have no heart to "seek the welfare of the children of Israel."
2. Fearlessness of opposition whether open or treacherous.
3. Wise discretion in the use of methods. The less confident must be held up by the men of stronger faith. It is well sometimes to commit the energies of good men to a worthy enterprise before they calculate too much, lest their hearts should misgive them.
4. The true leader must not wait for others. Promptitude is the soul of activity and the seal of success. Nehemiah begins with his night expedition of survey: "I and some few men with me."
II. REALITY AND TRUTH is the basis of all faith and zeal for God. Look at the facts. "Ye see the distress." Jerusalem lying waste; its gates burned with fire; actual reproach on the people of God. Whatever we attempt to build up, whether the edifice of our own religious life, or the prosperity of the Church, or the structure of Christian evidence, let us be sure that we understand the real state of the case; what is in ruins, what remains unshaken, what will be expected of us, what is the reproach which has to be wiped away; we must neither extenuate nor exaggerate.
III. FELLOWSHIP and CO-OPERATION the hope of a revived Church. "Come and let us build." However needful that good men should, in some respects and for a time, work alone (Nehemiah told nothing at first to the Jews—"priests, nobles rulers and the rest"), when the great effort has to be made, it should be made in the spirit of union and brotherly love. "I told them." "And they said, Let us rise up and build." The true co-operation will not be a mere association of individuals, but a spiritual brotherhood, a covenant with God and with one another, recognising the "hand of God," and the "good work," and the Divinely-appointed ministry, and the special guidance and grace, both already bestowed and promised.
IV. ALL SUCCESS, as against the world and its enmity, in face of scorn, contumely, falsehood, and evil devices, MUST COME OUT OF THE HARMONY BETWEEN GOD'S PURPOSES AND OUR WILL. He will prosper. We will arise and build. We must look to it that our portion, our right, our memorial are in Jerusalem. There are the three great supports to every earnest worker's confidence and hope. He has cast in his lot with God's people; he has entered into covenant relation with God, and has therefore a right in Jerusalem; it is the seat and fountain of his most blessed memories. "There his best friends, his kindred dwell; there God his Saviour reigns." All happy, successful work in the Church of Christ will be work done by spiritual men, actuated by spiritual motives, and depending on spiritual strength. The greatest hindrance to the progress of true religion has been the meddling with its operations by those who "have no portion, nor right, nor memorial in Jerusalem."—R.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Wise procedure in presence of a great work.
Nehemiah before Jerusalem, the earnest patriot prophet before the city of God, lying waste and exposed, suggests to us—
I. THE PRESENCE OF A GREAT WORK AWAITING US. "So I came to Jerusalem" (verse 11). There are to-day many Churches, societies, interests, more or less dear to God, which are "in distress" (verse 17), urgently needing restoration and defence, that they be not open to attack, and that they may" be no more a reproach" (verse 17) to the people of God. Our work, like that of Nehemiah before Jerusalem, may be great, inasmuch as
(1) it will be costly, demanding time and treasure;
(2) it will be delicate and difficult, requiring the co-operation of men of many minds and various interests;
(3) it will have large issues, the end being either a sad and humiliating collapse or a noble and useful triumph. The steps which Nehemiah took to carry out his great project suggest points in a—
II. WISE PROCEDURE IN OUR WORK. The first and very essential point is—
1. Full consideration, in private before making proposals in public. Nehemiah "was there three days (verse 11) before taking action. Instead of illustrating the maxim, "More haste, worse speed," he acted on another and better one, "Quickly enough if well enough;" indeed, on another and better still, "He that believeth shall not make haste" (Isaiah 28:16). After waiting three days at Jerusalem, he made a very careful inspection of the city, going all round and examining it thoroughly (verses 12-15). He "went out by night" (verse 13), in order that he might be the more unobserved, and he took care that "the rulers knew not whither he went, or what he did" (verse 16); nor did he tell any one, priest, ruler, noble, or workman (verse 16), what he was about. First he took, as we should, "counsel with himself;" he examined searchingly, considered fully, went into and went round the matter in his own mind. A little time spent in earnest, devout meditation beforehand will often save an "age of care," and a "world of trouble" afterwards. Then Nehemiah spake.
2. Free consultation before other action. "Then said I unto them," etc. (verse 17). Evidently he made a full statement to them "in public meeting assembled." He called them together, no doubt using the king's commission. He took counsel with the leaders (those specified in verse 16). Consultation is wise, just, with a view to co-operation. It
(a) conciliates those whose goodwill we need. Men do not like to be treated as if their judgment were worthless and their consent unnecessary.
(b) Brings out valuable suggestions. The wisest man overlooks some things, and they who devote all their powers to particular industries, obtain a knowledge and can furnish help in council in matters relating to their own department which others cannot contribute.
3. Forcible presentation of motives. Nehemiah laid the whole case before them, and appealed to ―
(a) The urgency of their need: the distress they were in; Jerusalem waste; the gates burnt (verse 17).
(b) The sign of God's favour resting upon them. "The hand of my God which was good upon me" (verse 18).
(c) The encouragement they had from man as well as God. "The king's words" (verse 18).
(d) The need there was to regain the honour they had lost among the nations. "That we be no more a reproach."
(2) God's manifest presence,
(3) available human help,
(4) our reputation (and therein the repute of God's work), will often be leading motives with us.
We should omit none that can be brought, for all are helpful, and one will avail with one man, and another with another.
4. Energetic resolution. "They said, Let us arise and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work" (verse 18). Zest at the commencement is not everything, but it is much. It is vastly better than contention or cold-heartedness. Let us gird ourselves to the fight with energy of soul, and the battle is half won already.
5. Disregard of ridicule (verses 19, 20). Zeal is deaf to sarcasm; it brushes aside the spears of scorn; it turns the idlers out of the field.—C.
HOMILIES BY J.S. EXELL
The way to view and repair ruined fortunes.
I. The way to VIEW ruined fortunes. "And viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down" (Nehemiah 2:13). There are broken fortunes in the Church, in business, and in the home; let us see how we are to regard them.
1. Thoughtfully. Nehemiah made a careful inspection of the ruined city.
2. Religiously. "What God hath put in my heart to do at Jerusalem" (verse 12).
3. Conscientiously. "Which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire" (verse 13). Nehemiah did not try to persuade himself that the city was in a better state than it really was; he saw things in their right aspect.
4. Independently. "And the rulers knew not whither I went" (verse 16). Nehemiah was animated by a strong purpose.
5. Cautiously. "And I arose in the night" (verse 12).
6. Reproachfully. We must look on our broken fortunes as a reproach to us.
II. The way to REPAIR ruined fortunes.
1. Energy must be awakened. "Come and let us build up the wall."
2. Providence must be recognised. "The hand of my God which was good upon me."
3. Circumstances must be utilised. "As also the king's words that he had spoken unto me."
4. Mutual co-operation must be effected. "So they strengthened their hands for this good work."
5. Scorn must be withstood (verses 9-20).—E.
Nehemiah 2:19, Nehemiah 2:20
Religion and ridicule.
I. That religion is often made the subject of RIDICULE. "They laughed us to scorn."
1. Its doctrines are ridiculed. Men laugh at the supernatural.
2. Its enterprise is ridiculed. Men scorn the idea of a world-wide moral conquest.
3. Its agencies are ridiculed. "Is not this the carpenter's son?"
4. Its experiences are ridiculed. "Much learning doth make thee mad." This ridicule is
"Will ye rebel against the king?" Christ was despised and rejected of men.
II. The REPLY which religion should make to ridicule.
1. That it is often wise to reply to ridicule. "Then answered I them."
2. That religion must meet ridicule by expressing confidence in God. "The God of heaven, he will prosper us."
3. That religion must meet ridicule by determination which cannot be moved by it. "Therefore we his servants will arise and build."
4. That religion must meet ridicule by denying its right or ability to interfere. "But ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem."
5. That religion must meet ridicule by declaring it alien to the high privileges of the truth. It has no portion in Jerusalem. This is the ideal reply to derision.—E.
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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Nehemiah 2". The Pulpit Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 7 / Ordinary 12