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Bible Commentaries

The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Nehemiah 4

 

 

Verses 1-23

Nehemiah 4

"But it came to pass, that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews" ( Nehemiah 4:1).

How Nehemiah Built the Wall

WE have heard of Sanballat before. We heard of him in the second chapter, where we read the following words: "When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel." The word in that verse is "grieved"; the men were sore of heart, they were annoyed. There is nothing particular in the way of activity in the feeling—it is rather a passive emotion; but in the verse under consideration we find that the same Sanballat was not grieved in the passive sense of the term, but he was wroth and took great indignation. Was Nehemiah turned aside by his grief? No. But Nehemiah cowered and trembled before the wrath and great indignation of the Horonite, did he not? Never. What was it that sustained him in the midst of this passive opposition, and this active hostility? Why, it was keeping his eye upon the Eternal—there was a great purpose, a supreme and dominating conviction in the man"s soul, and it was that which gave him steadiness and constancy and determination, so that he could run through a troop and leap over a wall. If you are taking your line of life from some low centre, then you will be disturbed and fretted by every little accident that may occur on the road; you will have to apologise for your existence and consult everybody as to whether you are to live tomorrow. But if you live in God, if you drink water from the rock-spring—if you feed upon the bread of heaven, then you will turn neither to the right hand nor to the left—you will write the old Latin motto on your right hand and on your left—"Per diem, per noctem"—"Night and day—on!" Who wrote the programme of your life? In what ink is it written? From what source do you derive your inspiration? Here is a man who was not turned aside by the grief, the wrath, the indignation of his enemies; he went straight on as if the whole universe were applauding his march. Let us endeavour to find out the secret of his inspiration: to draw the inspiration of our life from the same source, and to live as far above all incidental disturbance and superficial frets as Nehemiah did—right away up yonder, near the sun, where God is—where his blessing rests perpetually upon those who serve him.

Let us see how the Horonite expresses his wrath and indignation. Will he have anything original in his speech? Did the devil ever teach his scholars a single new speech? He has only one speech, only one great black lie—it may be pronounced in this key or in that, but it is the same old villainous story, false from end to end, every syllable of it saturated with falsehood! still it will be instructive to hear what a mocking man has to say. When a man is in mocking mood he usually speaks with some pungency of accent.

"And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?" ( Nehemiah 4:2.)

That was an irreligious view of a religious work—it is very well put indeed from his own point of view. First of all the Jews are feeble. As a matter of fact they certainly are without any peculiar strength. Will they fortify themselves? What will they do? Will they pluck dock-leaves and use them as breast-plates? Will they search the fields round about Jerusalem for nettles, and use those stinging herbs as implements and instruments of war? What will they do? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned? There is no stone to be had—no open quarries—no rocks inviting them; how will they get the stones? Why, they will revive the rubbish—put the mud together with their wet hands, and thus they will make stones. Ha, ha! That was his speech to the army. Is that a speech sufficient to stir the blood of an army? The army heard it and turned over on the other side, to have a little more sleep and a little more slumber, and a little folding of the hands together.

We do not wonder at men looking at Christian agencies and laughing at them. You have laughed when you saw a young man walking along with his Bible under his arm. Well, it did look exceedingly humble, very modest, and wholly unlikely that a man with a gilt-edged book "under his arm was going to do anything at all in the world. But in that book he had the whole panoply of God—he had the book that moves the world, say what men will. They burn it: they come to rake over the hot ashes; there it Isaiah , the smell of fire has not passed upon it. It is God"s delight to choose foolish things in order to pull down things that are strong. Search the divine history through and through, and you will find that this is God"s principle—base things of the world hath he chosen and foolish things and things that are not, to bring to nought things that are. There is a giant to be struck down—a pebble will do it: there is an army to be surprised—a lamp and pitcher will be enough. God"s law is the law of simplicity; man"s law is the law of round-aboutness. Man does not like the straight and simple course—he likes a very great deal of elaboration and intricacy and puzzle, so that no other man shall be able to find out the secret and the key of his patent. He likes to keep a small key in his pocket, and to take it out now and then to pay adoration to it as to an idol. God says the simplest plan is the best—go straight at it—a pebble for armour, a pitcher and lamp for use in war, yea, and things that are not—an army of nothing—to bring to nought things that are.

Are you building character? You will be laughed at. Are you attempting to start on a new course of life? Sanballat will make a mocking speech about you. You once said, "Now, God helping me, I am going to begin: give me a pen and ink," and you took it and wrote your name to a vow. And the next day Sanballat began to say to you, "Why, you don"t mean to say you are going through that sort of thing? I wouldn"t if I were you—it will never do for you. Come along and go with your old folks, stand by your old comrades, and we will see you through." It was a crisis in your history. If you said, "No, God helping me, I stand by the book and by the name, and I will look at those poor, crooked, rude letters, and out of their ink shall come inspiration to my poor heart again and again," then you did well. Hold on: do not be mocked out of your godliness—do not be laughed into hell What will these mocking people do for you in the swellings of Jordan?

There was another man with Sanballat—we have heard of him—it was Tobiah. And Tobiah has a little speech to make about the wall that is being built. Tobiah put his case figuratively—he looked round at those who sat by him and he said, "Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall." Tobiah therefore said, "Gentlemen, sit down, there is no occasion for you to distress yourselves: the very first cat that goes out in stepping on the stone wall will throw it down."

These are not the men who will make any great impression in the world. There is not the right tone there—there is not the right sound. We can tell an earnest man by the mere tone of his voice. The whimperer does nothing, the mocker does nothing, the man of mere irony and jeering power does nothing. If any great positive lasting work is to be done in the world, it must be done by men of conviction, solidity of judgment, reality of character, divinity of spirit. And one such man is an army in himself—a multitude, a conqueror. That is what we want now—we want amongst us earnest men, men who believe something, men who will sacrifice something for their convictions, men who know right from wrong, the right hand from the left, and who will go straight on, whoever may jeer, satirise, mock, condemn, despise. God send us such men!

It will be interesting to know how Nehemiah deports himself under these mocking speeches. Are we going too far in saying that such speeches would have blown a great deal of the bloom off our piety? Are we going too far in saying that mocking speeches like these would have frightened you off your knees, frightened you into cowardice, saying, "I don"t make much profession of religion; I like to go to church now and then, just as a way of putting off the time"? Are we going too far in saying that you could not have stood the assault made by such men as Sanballat and Tobiah? Let us see how Nehemiah bore it. These speeches were reported to him, and what did he say? "We can jeer as well as they—we can return sharp messages to their foolish speeches—we can argue with them, and control as well as they by sheer force of argumentative power?" No. When he heard their mockery and their reviling, he lifted up that grand face,—lined, ridged, wrinkled face, with age in it, and yet with immortal youth in it, too, and said, "Hear, O our God!" He made his appeal to heaven—he handed the speech upward—he put it into the hands of God to answer—he said in effect, "O thou God of Israel, answer these mocking men thyself." Yes, it is better that God should answer our enemies than that we should answer them. We have something better to do, and though we might outshine them in wit, outvie them in mockery, slay them with their own weapons, it is better not to do so; let us leave our enemies in the hands of God.

What did Nehemiah then proceed to do? He says with great simplicity, "So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof." Why? "For the people had a mind to work." That is the secret of success. It will be a secret worth your learning, young Prayer of Manasseh , just having begun business—have a mind to work.

How is it in the building of the great Christian wall? There is the Independent, or Congregationalist, building his little bit, and yonder is the Episcopalian, and yonder is the Baptist, and yonder is somebody else, and they will not lend one another a spoonful of lime. Do let us remember that it is one wall, it is one Zion, it is one Jerusalem—why not work together magnanimously in the spirit of brothers, realising the true ideal of patriotic and Christian fellowship and brotherhood, and let the wall rise from all points simultaneously, all compact, solid, indestructible masonry. Wherever there is a good Prayer of Manasseh , whatever his particular denomination or badge may be, we should work heart and soul with him; or otherwise, God forgive us! for we sin against the spirit of the cross of his Son.

"But it came to pass, that when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth, and conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it" [rather, to do it hurt] ( Nehemiah 4:7-8).

If the enemy thinks it worth while to be in earnest, let us take a hint from his policy. The enemy is up earlier in the morning than we are. The dram shop is open before the drapery house. Does the house of ill-fame ever put its candle out? Is the bad place ever locked up so that we cannot get into it? Our churches are fastened up, instead of being open early in the morning so that some men passing might call in for a few minutes. Is that earnestness—is that meaning it? Let any Prayer of Manasseh , who ever was able in business to put one penny on the top of another by sheer industry, answer the flippant question. The enemies conspired. To conspire is to blow, to breathe together. But there is a better word than conspiracy, and that is union. Union is conspiracy, and something more: it is conspiracy sanctified—conspiracy assured—conspiracy made permanent. The conspiracy of bad men is but a momentary arrangement—the conspiracy or union of good men ought to be a perpetual glory and satisfaction.

If there was conspiracy on one side there was union on the other. What does Nehemiah say, now that Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arabian, have all been joined by the Arabians and Ammonites and Ashdodites—what does he say now? With marvellous constancy of purpose he turns up his face heavenward, and says, "Nevertheless, we made our prayer unto our God." These were times in which a man could pray. It is difficult to pray now—we are not in any crisis that tears the soul, we are not in any peril amounting to personal agony, things are going pretty smoothly and comfortably, and it is difficult to pray in stagnant water. Great litanies, mighty shouts have gone up through the howling wind and screaming tempest, through the billows of the troubled sea, through the thunders of the agitated air. In great sorrows men pray; in great trials men intercede; when the enemy draws a cordon round and round—then they pray. Under other circumstances they hold small controversies about prayer, and put perplexing riddles to one another on the theological conception of the divine relation to law; but when they are pursued by wolves, and their hearts turn into great flaming agonies, then the long metaphysical words go right out of them, and they come to simple language—to direct, face to face, hand to hand contact with God. Have we ever prayed so? Then there is no possibility of shaking our faith by any wordy controversy or syllable-mongering and hammering of insane metaphysicians.

Nehemiah set the people to watch. Having prayed he appointed them their places—set the people with their families, with their swords, their spears, their bows. "I looked and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people------" We have heard Sanballat"s mocking speech, Tobiah"s jeering remarks about the fox"s putting his fore-paw upon the wall and pulling it down; let us hear Nehemiah. Up to this time he had been talking upward—praying to God; now he is going to make a speech to the people, and to the nobles, and the rulers, and it runs thus: "Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible; and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses." What will they do? They will fight. This speech is one that must touch them; read it again. "Remember the Lord, which is great and terrible;"—that is the religious aspect—"and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses,"—your hearthstones; fight for all that is near and dear to you. A speech like that is as a word of the Lord. It cannot return to the speaker void. Earnestness always accomplishes great results. After this, "the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons." Understand the picture—half building, half watching. Affirmative work, and service lying in wait, kept in reserve. Builders—soldiers—sword, spear, trowel, hammer—a beautiful and useful division.

We are mistaken in our view of life if we suppose that there is nothing of that kind going on to-day, even in civilised countries. This is an exact, even literal, picture of the things that are round about us. Do you say, Nehemiah"s men had a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other—I have only a trowel and not a sword, so how can it be a literal picture of what is taking place in my own time and in my own land? In this way. Other people are holding the sword for us whilst we are building. An enemy always occasions tremendous loss of power, waste of talent. The policemen are watching, the soldiers are fighting; that is the picture of civilisation as known to ourselves. Men can only return to their business every morning because the policemen parade the streets all night. That is the picture of civilisation. We are at peace with all the world; but we dare not disband the army, dissolve the navy, and send the volunteers and reserve forces home, to merchandise, to mechanism, to art and science.

We think that all is going on well because we are at church twice a day; we say, "Well, thank God, everything is very nice in England, sitting under our own vine and fig-tree, none daring to make us afraid." It is because we have in London alone some thousands of men with helmets, with batons, with defences about their persons—we have set them to watch the elements that would set fire to our social fabric in a moment: that would overpass the lines of social division and family defence and household security, and make a havoc amidst the social beauty of our privileged land. We have only edged these people out of sight—they are all there; we have crowded them into the back slums—but they are all there. And we walk down the thoroughfare and say—"Peaceful evening—very calm—very comfortable; our own vine, our own fig-tree, and great improvements in social life, great progress in the arts and sciences, great advancement in civilisation since I was a boy." In one point of view that is right enough—within its own proper limits it is a true picture, and one to be admired and to occasion mutual felicitation amongst Englishmen; but there are forces in London that want to rob, and ravish, and destroy London, and they are only kept back by men who represent the spirit of social order and law. Break down that boundary, and where is our English civilisation? So we repeat—the picture we have of Nehemiah"s building the wall, with the sword and trowel, is a picture of English life at the present day.

Nehemiah had a man beside him—who was it? "He that sounded the trumpet was by me." What was the use of a trumpeter now? What was the use of having a man to take up a brass instrument, and make a noise in the air? A decorative piece of humanity—nothing more. You are wrong. "We are far apart one from another: we must have a signal: when you hear a blast from the trumpet, come together—mass yourselves, the enemy is there." And so we must in society have men in high political places, in high military places, in high ecclesiastical places—trumpeting men, men who can sound a blast, make a cry, set up a signal, float a banner, give the watchword, congregate and mass the people into one patriotic solidity. And these are men that are truly of the working classes. Some say, "What does a preacher do for his living—what does a newspaper writer do for his living—what does a bootmaker do for his living—what do we want of Song of Solomon , lyrics, ballads, odes? We are the working men, hammering iron, building stones and bricks up." That is a narrow and mistaken view. We are all necessary—builder, architect, painter, writer, preacher, schoolmaster, and doctor—we are all necessary to one another, and we ought to recognise the men who are ahead of us all, who can see farther than we can, and who sound the blast when there is any occasion for our coming together to a common rendezvous, to make a common front to face the common foe.

"So we laboured in the work: ... so neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for washing" [or, every one went with his weapon for water. Bishop Barry (of Sydney) says: This rendering is very improbable, as the words are simply: "Every man his weapon water." Some interpret that "each man"s weapon was his water": evidently too subtle a turn of thought. It is best, on the whole, to supply the ellipsis: "every man went with his weapon to the water"] ( Nehemiah 4:21, Nehemiah 4:23).

That was work. How do we work? "So we laboured at the wall"—at the wall, at one thing, at a definite object, at a prescribed and well-understood work—at it, all at it, always at it, loving it and wanting to urge it forward. "So we laboured—laboured—laboured." What is the Church doing—what is the Church in the city doing—empty, desolate, sitting in its own loneliness, moaning over its own solitariness—what is the Church doing? If a man in the Church were to get up and speak above what somebody else considers to be a proper tone, he would be condemned and despised and avoided. If a man were to organise extraordinary work, there are not wanting narrow-minded Pharisees, small-spirited zealots, little—almost immeasurable—self-idolising popes, who would say that such kind of work was not the kind of service on which they could put the seal of their endorsement. And so the Church is always washing itself and putting on some new garment, and going to law to know whether it ought to have that garment on or not. Whilst we are doing that, the foxes are saying to one another—"This is the wall, is it? You pull that stone down, and I will pull this: they are all at law, they want to know whether they shall eat wafers or loaves—whether they shall stand to the east or look to the west—pull down the wall!"

We want to build—to build; to get a positive, distinct, affirmative work done. When we hear an earnest Prayer of Manasseh , we need not care whether his face is to the east or west or the north or the south. Let us ask, "What is his word; is there music in his voice; is there redemption in his gospel; is there earnestness in his appeal; are there tears in the sound issuing from his throat; does he mean it?" And then, whether he be labouring at our corner of the wall or not, let us say, "God bless him—help him to build much—help him to build solidly, and God reward him for his work." Men, brethren, and fathers—Independents, Presbyterians, Baptists, Episcopalians, whatever we be, let us forget all that is little and unworthy and trifling and superficial, and non-essential—and then, coats off, every one, all day at the work, and God bless every servant that toils in his name and strives to promote his glory.

Prayer

Almighty God, we are lost—therefore do we hail the blessed gospel that the Son of man is come to seek and to save us. Thou mightest have come to seek and to destroy us, for we have broken thy law, we have grieved thy Spirit, we have done the things we ought not to have done, and we have left undone the things that we ought to have done: but thou didst in thy great mercy send thy Son Jesus Christ to be the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but for the sins of the whole world. We bless thee for a salvation impartial as the sunlight—shining upon the king"s palace and upon the mean man"s hut: we bless thee for a gospel adapted to every state and condition of life, a great and wonderful work of love, that touches our sin, that throws the light of hope upon our despair, that comforts us when no other consolation can touch our woe, and that throws upon the grave itself a glorious and a heavenly immortality. We bless thee for the glorious gospel: we have found it to be glorious: it found us in our low and lost estate, it spoke to us of thy heart, of thy love, of thy righteousness, of our own guilt and helplessness, and it shone upon us like a light in a dark place, and it brought to our hearts the comfort and assurance of an infinite redemption. Enable us to feel that Christ has done for us all that is needful to be done, and that we have alone to accept his work by a loving, simple, childlike, unquestioning trust, and inasmuch as this trust is essential to our salvation, hear us when we say "Lord, increase our faith." Do thou destroy the power of the enemy, and let the wiles of the tempter be broken. Throw the enemy himself into confusion when he pursues our life, and enable us to hide ourselves in the infinite sanctuary of the defence of God, that, covered by the omnipotence of thy hand no malign power may be able to touch us. Guide us all our days—help us up the steep hill: when the wind is bleak and the road is drear come nearer to us, and give us to feel the tenderness and the omnipotence of thy presence. Then shall there be no tears in our eyes, no aching shall disturb our hearts, no throb of mortal disease shall be baffling our rest, and the whole head shall be strong, and the whole heart shall be sound, and we shall walk on, forward, higher, upward, in that strength and peace and in the solace of thine infinite consolation, till we become perfected according to thy purpose, sanctified in every thought, cleansed and ennobled in every motive, and made beautiful with the loveliness of the glory of Christ. Lord, hear this prayer offered at the cross; whilst we yet feel the sacrificial blood from the holy Victim let thine answer be a reply of peace. Amen.

 


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Bibliography Information
Parker, Joseph. "Commentary on Nehemiah 4:4". The People's Bible by Joseph Parker. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/jpb/nehemiah-4.html. 1885-95.

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Wednesday, December 11th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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