corner graphic   Hi,    
ver. 2.0.19.06.16
Finding the new version too difficult to understand? Go to classic.studylight.org/

Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Nehemiah 2

 

 

Verses 1-8

THE PRAYER ANSWERED

Nehemiah 2:1-8

NEHEMIAH’S prayer had commenced on celestial heights of meditation among thoughts of Divine grace and glory, and when it had stooped to earth it had swept over the wide course of his nation’s history and poured out a confession of the whole people’s sin, but the final point of it was a definite request for the prospering of his contemplated interview with the king. Artaxerxes was an absolute despot, surrounded with the semi-divine honours that Orientals associate with the regal state, and yet in speaking of him before "the God of heaven," "the great and terrible God," Nehemiah loses all awe for his majestic pomp, and describes him boldly as "this man." [Nehemiah 1:10-11] In the supreme splendour of God’s presence all earthly glory fades out of the worshipper’s sight, like a glow-worm’s spark lost in the sunlight. Therefore no one can be dazzled by human magnificence so long as he walks in the light of God. Here, however, Nehemiah is speaking of an absent king. Now it is one thing to be fearless of man when alone with God in the seclusion of one’s own chamber, and quite another to be equally imperturbable in the world and away from the calming influence of undisturbed communion with Heaven. We must remember this if we would do justice to Nehemiah, because otherwise we might be surprised that his subsequent action did not show all the courage we should have expected.

Four months passed away before Nehemiah attempted anything on behalf of the city of his fathers. The Jewish travellers probably thought that their visit to the court servant had been barren of all results. We cannot tell how this interval was occupied, but it is clear that Nehemiah was brooding over his plans all the time, and inwardly fortifying himself for his great undertaking. His ready reply when he was suddenly and quite unexpectedly questioned by the king shows that he had made the troubles of Jerusalem a subject of anxious thought, and that he had come to a clear decision as to the course which he should pursue. Time spent in such fruitful thinking is by no means wasted. There is a hasty sympathy that flashes up at the first sign of some great public calamity, eager "to do something," but too blind in its impetuosity to consider carefully what ought to be done, and this is often the source of greater evils, because it is inconsiderate. In social questions especially people are tempted to be misled by a blind, impatient philanthropy. The worst consequence of yielding to such an influence-and one is strongly urged to yield for fear of seeming cold and indifferent-is that the certain disappointment that follows is likely to provoke despair of all remedies, and to end in cynical callousness. Then, in the rebound, every enthusiastic effort for the public good is despised as but the froth of sentimentality.

Very possibly Nehemiah had no opportunity of speaking to the king during these four months. A Persian sovereign was waited on by several cupbearers, and it is likely enough that Nehemiah’s terms of service were intermittent. On his return to the court in due course he may have had the first occasion for presenting his petition. Still it is not to be denied that he found great difficulty in bringing himself to utter it, and then only when it was dragged out of him by the king. It was a petition of no common kind. To request permission to leave the court might be misconstrued unfavourably. Herodotus says that people had been put to death both by Darius and by Xerxes for showing reluctance to accompany their king. Then had not this very Artaxerxes sanctioned the raid upon Jerusalem which had resulted in the devastation which Nehemiah deplored and which he desired to see reversed? If the king remembered his rescript to the Syrian governors, might he not regard a proposal for the reversal of its policy as a piece of unwarrantable impertinence on the part of his household slave-nay, as an indication of treasonable designs? All this would be apparent enough to Nehemiah as he handed the wine-cup on bended knee to the Great King. Is it wonderful then that he hesitated to speak, or that he was "very sore afraid" when the king questioned him about his sadness of countenance?

There is an apparent contradiction in Nehemiah’s statement concerning this sad appearance of his countenance which is obscured in our English translation by the unwarrantable insertion of the word "beforetime" in Nehemiah 2:1, so that the sentence reads, "Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence." This word is a gloss of the translators. What Nehemiah really says is simply, "Now I had not been sad in his presence"-a statement that evidently refers to the occasion then being described, and not to previous times nor to the cup-bearer’s habitual bearing. Yet in the very next sentence we read how the king asked Nehemiah the reason for the sadness of his countenance. The contradiction would be as apparent to the writer as it is to us, and if he left it Nehemiah meant it to stand, no doubt intending to suggest by a dramatic description of the scene that he attempted to disguise his sorrow, but that his attempt was ineffectual-so strong, so marked was his grief. It was a rule of the court etiquette, apparently, that nobody should be sad in the king’s presence. A gloomy face would be unpleasant to the monarch. Shakespeare’s Caesar knew the security of cheerful associates when he said:-

"Let me have men about me that are fat,

Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o’ nights;

Yond’ Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much; such men are dangerous."

Besides, was not the sunshine of the royal countenance enough to drive away all clouds of trouble from the minds of his attendants? Nehemiah had drilled himself into the courtier’s habitual pleasantness of demeanour. Nevertheless, though passing, superficial signs of emotion may be quite reined in by a person who is trained to control his features, indications of the permanent conditions of the inner life are so deeply cut in the lines and curves of the countenance that the most consummate art of an actor cannot disguise them. Nehemiah’s grief was profound and enduring. Therefore he could not hide it. Moreover, it is a king’s business to understand men, and long practice makes him an expert in it. So Artaxerxes was not deceived by the well-arranged smile of his servant; it was evident to him that something very serious was troubling the man. The sickness of a favourite attendant would not be unknown to a kind and observant king. Nehemiah was not ill, then. The source of his trouble must have been mental. Sympathy and curiosity combined to urge the king to probe the matter to the bottom. Though alarmed at his master’s inquiry, the trembling cup-bearer could not but give a true answer. Here was his great opportunity-thrust on him since he had not had the courage to find it for himself. Artaxerxes was not to be surprised that a man should grieve when the city of his ancestors was lying desolate. But this information did not satisfy the king. His keen eye saw that there was more behind. Nehemiah had some request which as yet he had not been daring enough to utter. With real kindness Artaxerxes invited him to declare it.

The critical moment had arrived. How much hangs upon the next sentence - not the continuance of the royal favour only, but perhaps the very life of the speaker, and, what is of far more value to a patriot, the future destiny of his people! Nehemiah’s perception of its intense importance is apparent in the brief statement which he here inserts in his narrative: "So I prayed to the God of heaven." [Nehemiah 2:4] He is accustomed to drop in suggestive notes on his own private feelings and behaviour along the course of his narrative. Only a few lines earlier we came upon one of these characteristic autobiographical touches in the words, "Now I had not been sad in his presence," [Nehemiah 2:1] soon followed by another, "Then I was very sore afraid." [Nehemiah 2:2] Such remarks vivify the narrative, and keep up an interest in the writer. In the present case the interjection is peculiarly suggestive. It was natural that Nehemiah should be startled at the king’s abrupt question, but it is an indication of his devout nature that as the crisis intensified his fear passed over into prayer. This was not a set season of prayer; the pious Jew was not in his temple, nor at any proseuche; there was no time for a full, elaborate, and orderly utterance, such as that previously recorded. Just at the moment of need, in the very presence of the king, with no time to spare, by a flash of thought, Nehemiah retires to that most lonely of all lonely places, "the inner city of the mind," there to seek the help of the Unseen God. And it is enough; the answer is as swift as the prayer; in a moment the weak man is made strong for his great effort.

Such a sudden uplifting of the soul to God is the most real of all prayers. This at least is genuine and heartfelt, whatever may be the case with the semiliturgical composition the thought and beauty of which engaged our attention in the previous chapter. But then the man who can thus find God in a moment must be in the habit of frequently resorting to the Divine Presence; like the patriarchs, he must be walking with God. The brief and sudden prayer reaches heaven as an arrow suddenly shot from the bow, but it goes right home, because he who lets it off in his surprise is a good marksman, well practised. This ready prayer only springs to the lips of a man who lives in a daily habit of praying. We must associate the two kinds of prayer in order to account for that which is now before us. The deliberate exercises of adoration, confession, and petition prepare for the one sudden ejaculation. There we see the deep river which supplies the sea of devotion from which the momentary prayer is cast up as the spray of a wave. Therefore it was in a great measure on account of his deliberate and unwearying daily prayers that Nehemiah was prepared with his quick cry to God in the crisis of need. We may compare his two kinds of prayer with our Lord’s full and calm intercession in John 17:1-26 and the short agonised cry from the cross. In each case we feel that the sudden appeal to God in the moment of dire necessity is the most intense and penetrating prayer. Still we must recognise that this comes from a man who is much in prayer. The truth is that beneath both of these prayers-the calm, meditative utterance, and the simple cry for help-there lies the deep, true essence of prayer, which is no thing of words at all, but which lives on, even when it is voiceless, in the heart of one of whom it can be said, as Tennyson says of Mary, -

"Her eyes are homes of silent prayer."

Fortified by his moment’s communion with God, Nehemiah now makes known his request. He asks to be sent to Jerusalem to repair its ruins and fortify the city. This petition contains more than lies on the surface of the words. Nehemiah does not say that he wishes to be appointed Governor of Jerusalem in the high office which had been held by Zerubbabel, but the subsequent narrative shows that he was assigned to this position, and his report of the king’s orders about the house he was to dwell in at Jerusalem almost implies as much. [Nehemiah 2:8] For one of the royal household servants to be appointed to such a position was doubtless not so strange an anomaly in the East, in Nehemiah’s day, as it would be with us now. The king’s will was the fountain of all honour, and the seclusion in which the Persian monarchs lived gave unusual opportunities for the few personal attendants who were admitted into their presence to obtain great favours from them. Still Nehemiah’s attitude seems to show some self-confidence in a young man not as yet holding any political office. Two or three considerations, however, will give a very different complexion to his request. In the first place, his city was in a desperate plight, deliverance was urgently needed, no help appeared to be forthcoming unless he stepped into the breach. If he failed, things could hardly become worse than they were already. Was this an occasion when a man should hold back from a sense of modesty? There is a false modesty which is really a product of the self-consciousness that is next door to vanity. The man who is entirely oblivious of self will sometimes forget to be modest. Moreover, Nehemiah’s request was at the peril of his life. When it was granted he would be launched on a most hazardous undertaking. The ambition-if we must use the word-which would covet such a career is at the very antipodes of that of the vulgar adventurer who simply seeks power in order to gratify his own sense of importance. "Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not." [Jeremiah 45:5] That humbling rebuke may be needed by many men, but it was not needed by Nehemiah, for he was not seeking the great things for himself.

It was a daring request, yet the king received it most favourably. Again, then, we have the pleasing spectacle of a Persian monarch showing kindness to the Jews. This is not the first time that Artaxerxes has proved himself their friend, for there can be no doubt that he is the same sovereign as the Artaxerxes who despatched Ezra with substantial presents to the aid of the citizens of Jerusalem some twelve or thirteen years before.

Here, however, a little difficulty emerges. In the interval between the mission of Ezra and that of Nehemiah an adverse decree had been extracted from the compliant sovereign-the decree referred to in Ezra 4:1-24. Now the semi-divinity that was ascribed to a Persian monarch involved the fiction of infallibility, and this was maintained by a rule making it unconstitutional for him to withdraw any command that he had once issued. How then could Artaxerxes now sanction the building of the walls of Jerusalem, which but a few years before he had expressly forbidden? The difficulty vanishes on a very little consideration. The king’s present action was not the withdrawal of his earlier decree, for the royal order to the Samaritans had been just to the effect that the building of the walls of Jerusalem should be stopped. [Ezra 4:21] This order had been fully executed; moreover it contained the significant words, "until another decree shall be made by me." [Ezra 4:21] Therefore a subsequent permission to resume the work, issued under totally different circumstances, would not be a contradiction to the earlier order, and now that a trusty servant of the king was to superintend the operations, no danger of insurrection need be apprehended. Then the pointed notice of the fact that the chief wife-described as "The Queen"-was sitting by Artaxerxes, is evidently intended to imply that her presence helped the request of Nehemiah. Orientalists have discovered her name, Damaspia, but nothing about her to throw light on her attitude towards the Jews. She may have been even a proselyte, or she may have simply shown herself friendly towards the young cup-bearer. No political or religious motives are assigned for the conduct of Artaxerxes here. Evidently Nehemiah regarded the granting of his request as a direct result of the royal favour shown towards himself. "Put not your trust in princes" [Psalms 146:3] is a wholesome warning, born of the melancholy disappointment of the pilgrims who had placed too much hope in the Messianic glamour with which the career of poor Zerubbabel opened, but it does not mean that a man is to fling away the advantages which accrue to him from the esteem he has won in high places. Ever since the Israelites showed no scruple in spoiling the Egyptians-and who could blame them for seizing at the eleventh hour the overdue wages of which they had been defrauded for generations?-"the people of God" have not been slow to reap harvests of advantage whenever persecution or cold indifference has given place to the brief, fickle favour of the world. Too often this has been purchased at the price of the loss of liberty-a ruinous exchange. Here is the critical point. The difficulty is to accept aid without any compromise of principle. Sycophancy is the besetting snare of the courtier, and when the Church turns courtier she is in imminent danger of that, in her, most fatal fault. But Nehemiah affords a splendid example to the contrary. In his grand independence of character we have a fine instance of a wise, strong use of worldly advantages, entirely free from the abuses that too commonly accompany them. Thus he anticipates the idea of the Apocalypse where it is said, "The earth helped the woman." [Revelation 12:16]

The interest of the king in his cup-bearer is shown by his repeated questions, and by the determined manner in which he drags out of Nehemiah all his plans and wishes. Every request is granted. The favourite servant is too much valued to get his leave of absence without some limit of time, but even that is fixed in accordance with Nehemiah’s desire. He asks and obtains letters of introduction to the governors west of the Euphrates. The letters were most necessary, because these very men had bestirred themselves to obtain the adverse decree but a very few years before. It is not likely that they had all veered round to favour the hated people against whom they had just been exhibiting the most severe antagonism. Nehemiah therefore showed a wise caution in obtaining a sort of "safe conduct." The friendliness of Artaxerxes went still further. The king ordered timber to be provided for the building and fortifying operations contemplated by his cup-bearer; this was to be furnished from a royal hunting park-a "Paradise," to use the Persian word-probably one which formerly belonged to the royal demesne of Judah, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, as the head-forester bore a Hebrew name, "Asaph." [Nehemiah 2:8] Costly cedars for the temple had to be fetched all the way from the distant mountains of Lebanon, in Phoenician territory, but the city gates and the castle and house carpentry could be well supplied from the oaks and other indigenous timber of Palestine.

All these details evince the practical nature of Nehemiah’s patriotism. His last word on the happy conclusion of the interview with Artaxerxes, which he had anticipated with so much apprehension, shows that higher thoughts were not crushed out by the anxious consideration of external affairs. He concludes with a striking phrase, which we have met with earlier on the lips of Ezra. [Ezra 7:28] "And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me." [Nehemiah 2:8] Here is the same recognition of Divine Providence, and the same graphic image of the "hand" of God laid on the writer. It looks as though the younger man had been already a disciple of the Great Scribe. But his utterance is not the less genuine and heartfelt on that account. He perceives that his prayer has been heard and answered. The strength and beauty of his life throughout may be seen in his constant reference of all things to God in trust and prayer before the event, and in grateful acknowledgment afterwards.


Verses 9-20

THE MIDNIGHT RIDE

Nehemiah 2:9-20

NEHEMIAH’S journey up to Jerusalem differed in many respects from Ezra’s great expedition, with a host of emigrants, rich stores, and all the accompaniments of a large caravan. Burdened with none of these encumbrances, the newly appointed governor would be able to travel in comparative ease. Yet while Ezra was "ashamed" to ask for a military escort to protect his defenceless multitude and the treasures which were only too likely to attract the vulture eyes of roving hordes of Bedouin, because, as he tells us, he feared such a request might be taken as a sign of distrust in his God, Nehemiah accepted a troop of cavalry without any hesitation. This difference, however, does not reflect any discredit on the faith of the younger man.

In the first place, his claims on the king were greater than those of Ezra, who would have had to petition for the help of soldiers if he had wanted it, whereas Nehemiah received his bodyguard as a matter of course. Ezra had been a private subject previous to his appointment, and though he had subsequently been endowed with large authority of an indefinite character, that authority was confined to the execution of the Jewish law; it had nothing to do with the general concerns of the Persian government in Syria or Palestine. But Nehemiah came straight from the court, where he had been a favourite servant of the king, and he was now made the official governor of Jerusalem. It was only in accordance with custom that he should have an escort assigned him when he went to take possession of his district. Then, probably to save time, Nehemiah would travel by the perilous desert route through Tadmor, and thus cover the whole journey in about two months-a route which Ezra’s heavy caravan may have avoided. When he reached Syria the fierce animosity which had been excited by Ezra’s domestic reformation-and which therefore had been broken out after Ezra’s expedition-would make it highly dangerous for a Jew who was going to aid the hated citizens of Jerusalem to travel through the mixed population.

Nevertheless, after allowing their full weight to these considerations, may we not still detect an interesting trait of the younger man’s character in Nehemiah’s ready acceptance of the guard with which Ezra had deliberately dispensed? In the eyes of the world the idealist Ezra must have figured as a most unpractical person. But Nehemiah, a courtier by trade, was evidently well accustomed to "affairs." Naturally a cautious man, he was always anxious in his preparations, though no one could blame him for lack of decision or promptness at the moment of action. Now the striking thing about his character in this relation-that which lifts it entirely above the level of purely secular prudence-is the fact that he closely associated his careful habits with. his faith in Providence. He would have regarded the rashness which excuses itself on the plea of faith as culpable presumption. His religion was all the more real and thorough because it did not confine itself to unearthly experiences, or refuse to acknowledge the Divine in any event that was not visibly miraculous. No man was ever more impressed with the great truth that God was with him. It was this truth, deeply rooted in his heart, that gave him the joy which became the strength, the very inspiration of his life. He was sure that his commonest secular concerns were moulded by the hand of his God. Therefore to his mind the detachment of Persian cavalry was as truly assigned to him by God as if it had been a troop of angels sent straight from the hosts of heaven.

The highly dangerous nature of his undertaking and the necessity for exercising the utmost caution were apparent to Nehemiah as soon as he approached Jerusalem. Watchful enemies at once showed themselves annoyed "that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel." [Nehemiah 2:10] It was not any direct injury to themselves, it was the prospect of some favour to the hated Jews that grieved these people, though doubtless their jealousy was in part provoked by dread lest Jerusalem should regain the position of pre-eminence in Palestine which had been enjoyed during her depression by the rival city of Samaria. Under these circumstances Nehemiah followed the tactics which he had doubtless learnt during his life among the treacherous intrigues of an Oriental court. He did not at first reveal his plans. He spent three days quietly in Jerusalem. Then he took his famous ride round the ruins of the city walls. This was as secret as King Alfred’s exploration of the camp of the Danes. Without breathing a word of his intention to the Jews, and taking only a horse or an ass to ride on himself and a small body of trusty attendants on foot, Nehemiah set out on his tour in the dead of night. No doubt the primary purpose of this secrecy was that no suspicion of his design should reach the enemies of the Jews. Had these men suspected it they would have been beforehand with their plans for frustrating it; spies and traitors would have been in the field before Nehemiah was prepared to receive them; emissaries of the enemy would have perverted the minds even of loyal citizens. It would be difficult enough under any circumstances to rouse the dispirited people to undertake a work of great toil and danger. If they were divided in counsel from the first it would be hopeless. Moreover, in order to persuade the Jews to fortify their city, Nehemiah must be prepared with a clear and definite proposal. He must be able to show them that he understands exactly in what condition their ruined fortifications are lying. For his personal satisfaction, too, he must see the ruins with his own eyes. Ever since the travellers from Jerusalem who met him at Susa had shocked him with their evil tidings, a vision of the broken walls and charred gates had been before his imagination. Now he would really see the very ruins themselves, and ascertain whether all was as bad as it had been represented.

The uncertainty which still surrounds much of the topography of Jerusalem, owing to its very foundations having been turned over by the ploughshare of the invader, while some of its sacred sites have been buried under huge mounds of rubbish, renders it impossible to trace Nehemiah’s night ride in all its details. If we are to accept the latest theory, according to which the gorge hitherto regarded as the Tyropaeon is really the ancient Valley of Hinnom, some other sites will need considerable readjustment. The "Gate of the Valley" seems to be one near the head of the Valley of Hinnom; we know nothing of the "Dragon Well": the "Dung Port" would be a gateway through which the city offal was flung out to the fires in the Valley of Hinnom; the "King’s Pool" is very likely that afterwards known as the "Pool of Siloam." The main direction of Nehemiah’s tour of inspection is fairly definite to us. He started at the western exit from the city and passed down to the left, to where the Valley of Hinnom joins the Valley of the Kidron; ascending this valley, he found the masses of stones and heaps of rubbish in such confusion that he was compelled to leave the animal he had been riding hitherto and to clamber over the ruins on foot. Reaching the northeastern corner of the valley of the Kidron, he would turn round by the northern side of the city, where most of the gates had been situated, because there the city, which was difficult of access to the south and the east on account of the encircling ravines, could be easily approached.

And what did he gain by his journey? He gained knowledge. The reformation that is planned by the student at his desk, without any reference to the actual state of affairs, will be, at best, a Utopian dream. But if the dreamer is also a man of resources and opportunities, his impracticable schemes may issue in incalculable mischief. "Nothing is more terrible," says Goethe, "than active ignorance." We can smile at a knight-errant Don Quixote; but a Don Quixote in power would be as dangerous as a Nero. Most schemes of socialism, though they spring from the brains of amiable enthusiasts, break up like empty bubbles on the first contact with the real world. It is especially necessary, too, to know the worst. Optimism is very cheering in idea, but when it is indulged in to the neglect of truth, with an impatient disregard for the shady side of life, it simply leads its devotees into a fools’ paradise. The highest idealist must have something of the realist in him if he would ever have his ideas transformed into facts.

Further, it is to be noted that Nehemiah would gather his information for himself; he could not be content with hearsay evidence. Here again he reveals the practical man. It is not that he distrusts the honesty of any agents he might employ, nor merely that he is aware of the deplorable inaccuracy of observers generally and the inability of nearly all people to give an un-coloured account of what they have seen, but he knows that there is an impression to be obtained by personal observation which the most correct description cannot approach. No map or book will give a man a right idea of a place that he has never visited. If this is true of the external world, much more is it the case with those spiritual realities which the eye hath not seen, and which therefore it has not entered into the heart of man to conceive.. Wordsworth frequently refers to his sensations of surprise and disappointment passing over into a new delight when he first beheld scenes long ago described to him in verse or legend. He finds "Yarrow visited" very unlike "Yarrow unvisited." One commonplace distinction we must all have noticed under similar circumstances-viz., that the imagination is never rich and varied enough to supply us with the complications of the realty. Before we have looked at it our idea of the landscape is too simple, and an invariable impression produced by the actual sight of it is to make us feel how much more elaborate it is. Indeed a personal investigation of most phenomena reveals an amount of complication previously unexpected. Where the investigation is, like Nehemiah’s, concerned with an evil we propose to attack, the result is that we begin to see that the remedy cannot be so simple as we imagined before we knew all the facts.

But the chief effect of Nehemiah’s night ride would be to impress him with an overwhelming sense of the desolation of Jerusalem. We may know much by report, but we feel most keenly that of which we have had personal experience. Thus the news of a gigantic cataclysm in China does not affect us with a hundredth part of the emotion that is excited in us by a simple street accident seen from our own windows. The man whose heart will be moved enough for him to sacrifice himself seriously in relieving misery is he who will first "visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction." [James 1:27] Then the proof that the impression is deep and real, and not a mere idle sentiment, will be seen in the fact that it prompts action. Nehemiah was moved to tears by the report of the ruinous condition of Jerusalem, which reached him in the far-off palace beyond the Euphrates. What the scene meant to him as he slowly picked his way among the huge masses of masonry is seen by his conduct immediately afterwards. It must have stirred him profoundly. The silence of the sleeping city, broken now and again by the dismal howls of packs of dogs scouring the streets, or perhaps by the half-human shrieks of jackals on the deserted hills in the outlying country; the dreary solitude of the interminable heaps of ruins, the mystery of strange objects half-descried in the distance by starlight, or, at best, by moonlight, the mournful discovery, on nearer view, of huge building stones tumbled over and strewn about on mountainous heaps of dust and rubbish, the gloom, the desolation, the terror, -all this was enough to make the heart of a patriot faint with despair. Was it possible to remedy such huge calamities?

Nehemiah does not despair. He has no time to grieve. We hear no more of his weeping and lamentation and fasting. Now he is spurred on to decisive action.

Fortified by the knowledge he has acquired in his adventurous night ride, and urged by the melancholy sights he has witnessed, Nehemiah loses no time in bringing his plans before the oligarchy of nobles who held the rule in Jerusalem previous to his coming, as well as the rest of the Jews. Though he is now the officially appointed governor, he cannot arrange matters with a high hand. He must enlist the sympathy and encourage the faith, both of the leaders and of the people generally.

The following points in his speech to the Jews may be noticed. First, he calls attention to the desolate condition of Jerusalem. [Nehemiah 2:17-18] This is a fact well known. "Ye see the evil case that we are in," he says, "how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire." The danger was that apathy would succeed to despair, for it is possible for people to become accustomed to the most miserable condition. The reformer must infuse a "Divine discontent ," and the preliminary step is to get the evil plight well recognised and heartily disliked. In the second place, Nehemiah exhorts the nobles and people to join him in building the walls.

So now he clearly reveals his plan. The charm in his utterance here is in the use of the first person plural, not the first person singular- he cannot do the work alone, nor does he wish to, not the second person-though he is the authoritative governor, he does not enjoin on others a task the toil and responsibility of which he will not share himself. In the genuine use of this pronoun "we" there lies the secret of all effective exhortation. Next Nehemiah proceeds to adduce reasons for his appeal. He calls out the sense of patriotic pride in the remark, "that we be no more a reproach ," and he goes further, for the Jews are the people of God, and for them to fail is for reproach to be cast on the name of God Himself. Here is the great religious motive for not permitting the city of God to lie in ruins, as it is today the supreme motive for keeping all taint of dishonour from the Church of Christ.

But direct encouragements are needed. A sense of shame may rouse us from our lethargy, and yet in the end it will be depressing if it does not give place to the inspiration of a new hope. Now Nehemiah has two fresh grounds of encouragement. He first names that which he esteems highest - the presence and help of God in his work. "I told them," he says, "of the hand of my God which was good upon me." How could he despair, even at the spectacle of the ruined walls and gateways, with the consciousness of this great and wonderful truth glowing in his heart? Not that he was a mystic weaving fantastic dreams out of the filmy substance of his own vague feelings. It is true he felt impelled by the strong urging of his patriotism, and he knew that God was in that holy passion. Yet his was an objective mind and he recognised the hand of God chiefly in external events-in the Providence that opens doors and indicates paths, that levels mountains of difficulty and fills up impassable chasms, that even bends the wills of great kings to do its bidding. This action of Providence he had himself witnessed; his very presence at Jerusalem was a token of it. He, once a household slave in the jealous seclusion of an Oriental palace, was now the governor of Jerusalem, appointed to his post for the express purpose of restoring the miserable city to strength and safety. In all this Nehemiah felt the hand of God upon him. Then it was a gracious and merciful Providence that had led him. Therefore he could not but own further that the hand of God was "good." He perceived God’s work, and that work was to him most wonderfully full of loving kindness. Here indeed was the greatest of all encouragements to proceed. It was well that Nehemiah had the devout insight to perceive it; a less spiritually minded man might have received the marvellous favour without ever discovering the hand from which it came. Following the example of the miserable, worldly Jacob, some of us wake up in our Bethel to exclaim with surprise, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not." [Genesis 28:16] But even that is better than to slumber on in dull indifference, too dead to recognise the Presence that guides and blesses every footstep, provoking the melancholy lamentation: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib, but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider." [Isaiah 1:3]

Lastly, Nehemiah not only perceived the hand of God and took courage from his assurance of the fact, he made this glorious fact known to the nobles of Jerusalem in order to rouse their enthusiasm. He had the simplicity of earnestness, the openness of one who forgets self in advocating a great cause. Is not reticence in religion too often a consequence of the habit of turning one’s thoughts inward? Such a habit will vanish at the touch of a serious purpose. The man who is in dead earnest has no time to be self-conscious, he does not indulge in sickly reflections on the effect of what he says on other people’s opinions about himself, he will not care what they think about him so long as he moves them to do the thing it is laid on his soul to urge upon them. But it is difficult to escape from the selfish subjectivity of modern religion, and recover the grand naturalness of the saints alike of Old and of New Testament times.

After this revelation of the Divine Presence, Nehemiah’s second ground of encouragement is of minor interest, it can be but one link in the chain of providential leading. Yet for a man who had not reached his lofty point of view, it would have filled the whole horizon. The king had given permission to the Jews to rebuild the walls, and he had allowed Nehemiah to visit Jerusalem for the very purpose of carrying out the work. This king, Artaxerxes, whose firman had stopped the earlier attempt and even sanctioned the devastating raid of the enemies of the Jews, was now proving himself the friend and champion of Jerusalem! Here was cheering news!

It is not surprising that such a powerful appeal as this of Nehemiah’s was successful. It was like the magic horn that awoke the inmates of the enchanted castle. The spell was broken. The long, listless torpor of the Jews gave place to hope and energy, and the people braced themselves to commence the work. These Jews who had been so lethargic hitherto were now the very men to undertake it. Nehemiah brought no new laborers, but he brought what was better, the one essential requisite for every great enterprise-an inspiration. He brought what the world most needs in every age. We wait for better men to arise and undertake the tasks that seem to be too great for our strength; we cry for a new race of God-sent heroes to accomplish the Herculean labours before which we faint and fail. But we might ourselves become the better men; nay, assuredly we should become God’s heroes, if we would, but open our hearts to receive the Spirit by the breath of which the weakest are made strong and the most indolent are fired with a Divine energy. Today, as in the time of Nehemiah, the one supreme need is inspiration.


Verse 10

ON GUARD

Nehemiah 2:10;, Nehemiah 2:19;, Nehemiah 4:1-23

ALL his arrangements for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem show that Nehemiah was awake to the dangers with which he was surrounded. The secrecy of his night ride was evidently intended to prevent a premature revelation of his plans. The thorough organisation, the mapping out of the whole line of the wall, and the dividing of the building operations among forty-two bands of workpeople secured equal and rapid progress on all sides. Evidently the idea was to "rush" the work, and to have it fairly well advanced, so as to afford a real protection for the citizens, before any successful attempts to frustrate it could be carried out. Even with all these precautions, Nehemiah was harassed and hindered for a time by the malignant devices of his enemies. It was only to be expected that he would meet with opposition. But a few years before all the Syrian colonists had united in extracting an order from Artaxerxes for the arrest of the earlier work of building the walls, because the Jews had made themselves intensely obnoxious to their neighbours by sending back the wives they had married from among the Gentile peoples. The jealousy of Samaria, which had taken the lead in Palestine so long as Jerusalem was in evidence, envenomed this animosity still more. Was it likely then that her watchful foes would hear with equanimity of the revival of the hated city-a city which must have seemed to them the very embodiment of the anti-social spirit?

Now, however, since a favourite servant of the Great King had been appointed governor of Jerusalem, the Satrap of the Syrian provinces could scarcely be expected to interfere. Therefore the initiative fell into the hands of smaller men, who found it necessary to abandon the method of direct hostility, and to proceed by means of intrigues and ambuscades. There were three who made themselves notorious in this undignified course of procedure. Two of them are mentioned in connection with the journey of Nehemiah up to Jerusalem. [Nehemiah 2:10] The first, the head of the whole opposition, is Sanballat, who is called the Horonite, seemingly because he is a native of one of the Beth-horons, and who appears to be the governor of the city of Samaria, although this is not stated. Throughout the history he comes before us repeatedly as the foe of the rival governor of Jerusalem. Next to him comes Tobiah, a chief of the little trans-Jordanic tribe of the Ammonites, some of whom had got into Samaria in the strange mixing up of peoples after the Babylonian conquest. He is called the servant, possibly because he once held some post at court, and if so he may have been personally jealous of Nehemiah’s promotion.

Sanbaltat and his supporter Tobiah were subsequently joined by an Arabian Emir named Geshem. His presence in the group of conspirators would be surprising if we had not been unexpectedly supplied with the means of accounting for it in the recently deciphered inscription which tells how Sargon imported an Arabian colony into Samaria. The Arab would scent prey in the project of a warlike expedition

The opposition proceeded warily. At first we are only told that when Sanballat and his friend Tobiah heard of the coming of Nehemiah, "grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel." [Nehemiah 2:10] In writing these caustic words Nehemiah implies that the jealous men had no occasion to fear that he meant any harm to them, and that they knew this. It seems very hard to him, then, that they should begrudge any alleviation of the misery of the poor citizens of Jerusalem. What was that to them? Jealousy might foresee the possibility of future loss from the recovery of the rival city, and in this they might find the excuse for their action, an excuse for not anticipating which so fervent a patriot as Nehemiah may be forgiven; nevertheless the most greedy sense of self-interest on the part of these men is lost sight of in the virulence of their hatred to the Jews. This is always the case with that cruel infatuation-the Anti-Semitic rage. Here it is that hatred passes beyond mere anger. Hatred is actually pained at the welfare of its object. It suffers from a Satanic misery. The venom which it fails to plant in its victim rankles in its own breast.

At first we only hear of this odious distress of the jealous neighbours. But the prosecutions of Nehemiah’s designs immediately lead to a manifestation of open hostility-verbal in the beginning. No sooner had the Jews made it evident that they were responsive to their leader’s appeal and intended to rise and build, than they were assailed with mockery. The Samaritan and Ammonite leaders were now joined by the Arabian, and together they sent a message of scorn and contempt, asking the handful of poor Jews whether they were fortifying the city in order to rebel against the king. The charge of a similar intention had been the cause of stopping the work on the previous occasion. [Ezra 4:13] Now that Artaxerxes’ favourite cup-bearer was at the head of affairs, any suspicion of treason was absurd, but since hatred is singularly blind-far more blind than love-it is barely possible that the malignant mockers hoped to raise a suspicion. On the other hand, there is no evidence to show that they followed the example of the previous opposition and reported to headquarters. For the present they seem to have contented themselves with bitter raillery. This is a weapon before which weak men too often give way. But Nehemiah was not so foolish as to succumb beneath a shower of poor, ill-natured jokes.

His answer is firm and dignified. [Nehemiah 2:20] It contains three assertions. The first is the most important. Nehemiah is not ashamed to confess the faith which is the source of all his confidence. In the eyes of men the Jews may appear but a feeble folk, quite unequal to the task of holding their ground in the midst of a swarm of angry foes. If Nehemiah had only taken account of the political and military aspects of affairs, he might have shrunk from proceeding. But it is just the mark of his true greatness that he always has his eye fixed on a Higher Power. He knows that God is in the project, and therefore he is sure that it must prosper. When a man can reach this conviction, mockery and insult do not move him. He has climbed to a serene altitude, from which he can look down with equanimity on the boiling clouds that are now far beneath his feet. Having this sublime ground of confidence, Nehemiah is able to proceed to his second point-his assertion of the determination of the Jews to arise and build. This is quite positive and absolute. The brave man states it, too, in the clearest possible language. Now the work is about to begin there is to be no subterfuge or disguise. Nehemiah’s unflinching determination is based on the religious confession that precedes it. The Jews are God’s servants, they are engaged in His work, they know He will prosper them, therefore they most certainly will not stay their hand for all the gibes and taunts of their neighbours. Lastly, Nehemiah contemptuously repudiates the claim of these impertinent intruders to interfere in the work of the Jews, he tells them that they have no excuse for their meddling, for they own no property in Jerusalem, they have no right of citizenship or of control from without, and there are no tombs of their ancestors in the sacred city.

In this message of Nehemiah’s we seem to hear an echo of the old words with which the temple-builders rejected the offer of assistance from the Samaritans, and which were the beginning of the whole course of jealous antagonism on the part of the irritated neighbours. But the circumstances are entirely altered. It is not a friendly offer of co-operation, but its very opposite, a hostile and insulting message designed to hinder the Jews, that is here so proudly resented. In the reply of Nehemiah we hear the church refusing to bend to the will of the world, because the world has no right to trespass on her territory. God’s work is not to be tampered with by insolent meddlers. Jewish exclusiveness is painfully narrow, at least in our estimation of it, when it refuses to welcome strangers or to recognise the good that lies outside the sacred enclosure, but this same characteristic becomes a noble quality, with high ethical and religious aims, when it firmly refuses to surrender its duty to God at the bidding of the outside world. The Christian can scarcely imitate Nehemiah’s tone and temper in this matter, and yet if he is loyal to his God he will feel that he must be equally decided and uncompromising in declining to give up any part of what he believes to be his service of Christ to please men who unhappily as yet have "no part, or right, or memorial" in the New Jerusalem, although, unlike the Jew of old, he will be only too glad that all men should come in and share his privileges.

After receiving an annoying answer it was only natural that the antagonistic neighbours of the Jews should be still more embittered in their animosity. At the first news of his coming to befriend the children of Israel, as Nehemiah says, Sanballat and Tobiah were grieved, but when the building operations were actually in process the Samaritan leader passed from vexation to rage-"he was wroth and took great indignation." [Nehemiah 4:1] This man now assumed the lead in opposition to the Jews. His mockery became more bitter and insulting. In this he was joined by his friend the Ammonite, who declared that if only one of the foxes that prowl on the neighbouring hills were to jump upon the wall the creature would break it down. [Nehemiah 4:3] Perhaps he had received a hint from some of his spies that the new work that had been so hastily pressed forward was not any too solid. The "Palestine Exploration Fund" has brought to light the foundations of what is believed to be a part of Nehemiah’s wall at Ophel, and the base of it is seen to be of rubble, not founded on the rock, but built on the clay above, so that it has been possible to drive a mine under it from one side to the other-a rough piece of work, very different from the beautifully finished temple walls.

Nehemiah met the renewed shower of insults in a startling manner. He cursed his enemies. [Nehemiah 4:4] Deploring before God the contempt that was heaped on the Jews, he prayed that the reproach of the enemies might be turned on their own head, devoted them to the horrors of a new captivity, and even went so far as to beg that no atonement might be found for their iniquity, that their sin might not be blotted out. In a word, instead of himself forgiving his enemies, he besought that they might not be forgiven by God. We shudder as we read his terrible words. This is not the Christ spirit. It is even contrary to the less merciful spirit of the Old Testament. Yet, to be just to Nehemiah, we must consider the whole case. It is most unfair to tear his curse out of the history and gibbet it as a specimen of Jewish piety. Even strong men who will not give way before ridicule may feel its stabs-for strength is not inconsistent with sensitiveness. Evidently Nehemiah was irritated, but then he was much provoked. For the moment he lost his self-possession. We must remember that the strain of his great undertaking was most exhausting, and we must be patient with the utterances of one so sorely tried. If lethargic people criticise adversely the hasty utterances of a more intense nature, they forget that, though they may never lose their self-control, neither do they ever rouse themselves to the daring energy of the man whose failings they blame. Then it was not any personal insults hurled against himself that Nehemiah resented so fiercely. It was his work that the Samaritans were trying to hinder. This he believed to be really God’s work, so that the insults offered to the Jews were also directed against God, who must have been angry also. We cannot justify the curse by the standard of the Christian law, but it is not reasonable to apply that standard to it. We must set it by the side of the Maledictory Psalms. From the standpoint of its author it can be fully accounted for. To say that even in this way it can be defended, however, is to go too far. We have no occasion to persuade ourselves that any of the Old Testament saints were immaculate, even in the light of Judaism. Nehemiah was a great and good man, yet he was not an Old Testament Christ.

But now more serious opposition was to be encountered. Such enemies as those angry men of Samaria were not likely to be content with venting their spleen in idle mockery. When they saw that the keenest shafts of their wit failed to stop the work of the citizens of Jerusalem, Sanballat and his friends found it necessary to proceed to more active measures, and accordingly they entered into a conspiracy for the double purpose of carrying on actual warfare and of intriguing with disaffected citizens of Jerusalem-"to cause confusion therein." [Nehemiah 4:8; Nehemiah 4:11] Nehemiah was too observant and penetrating a statesman not to become aware of what was going on, the knowledge that the plots existed revealed the extent of his danger, and compelled him to make active preparations for thwarting them. We may notice several important points in the process of the defence.

1. Prayer.- This was the first, and in Nehemiah’s mind the most essential defensive measure. We find him resorting to it in every important juncture of his life. It is his sheet-anchor. But now "he uses the plural number. Hitherto we have met only with his private prayers." In the present case he says, "We made our prayer unto our God." [Nehemiah 4:9] Had the infection of his prayerful spirit reached his fellow-citizens, so that they now shared it? Was it that the imminence of fearful danger drove to prayer men who under ordinary circumstances forgot their need of God? Or were both influences at work? However it was brought about, this association in prayer of some of the Jews with their governor must have been the greatest comfort to him, as it was the best ground for the hope that God would not now let them fall into the hands of the enemy. Hitherto there had been a melancholy solitariness about the earnest devotion of Nehemiah. The success of his mission began to show itself when the citizens began to participate in the same spirit of devotion.

2. Watchfulness.- Nehemiah was not the fanatic to blunder into the delusion that prayer was a substitute for duty, instead of being its inspiration. All that followed the prayer was really based upon it. The calmness, hope, and courage won in the high act of communion with God made it possible to take the necessary steps in the outer world. Since the greatest danger was not expected as an open assault, it was most necessary that an unbroken watch should be maintained, day and night. Nehemiah had spies out in the surrounding country, who reported to him every planned attack. So thorough was this system of espionage, that though no less than ten plots were concocted by the enemy, they were all discovered to Nehemiah, and all frustrated by him.

3. Encouragement.- The Jews were losing heart. The men of Judah came to Nehemiah with the complaint that the labourers who were at work on the great heaps of rubbish were suffering from exhaustion. The reduction in the numbers of workmen, owing to the appointment of the guard, would have still further increased the strain of those who were left to toil among the mounds. But it would have been fatal to draw back at this juncture. That would have been to invite the enemy to rush in and complete the discomfiture of the Jews. On Nehemiah came the obligation of cheering the dispirited citizens. Even the leading men who should have rallied the people, like officers at the head of their troops, shared the general depression. Nehemiah was again alone-or at best supported by the silent sympathy of his companions in prayer, There was very nearly a panic, and for one man to stand out under such circumstances as these in solitary courage, not only resisting the strong contagion of fear, but stemming the tide ant counteracting its movement, this would be indeed the sublimity of heroism. It was a severe test for Nehemiah, and he came out of it triumphant. His faith was the inspiration of his own courage, and it became the ground for the encouragement of others. He addressed the people and their nobles in a spirited appeal. First, he exhorted them to banish fear. The very tone of his voice must have been reassuring; the presence of one brave man in a crowd of cowards often shames them out of their weakness. But Nehemiah proceeded to give reasons for his encouragement. Let the men remember their God Jehovah, how great and terrible He is! The cause is His, and His might and terror will defend it. Let them think of their people and their families, and fight for brethren and children, for wives and homes! Cowardice is unbelief and selfishness combined. Trust in God and a sense of duty to others will master the weakness.

4. Arms.- Nehemiah gave the first place to the spiritual and moral defences of Jerusalem. Yet his material defences were none the less thorough on account of his prayers to God or his eloquent exhortation of the people and their leaders. They were most complete.

His arrangements for the military protection of Jerusalem converted the whole city into an armed camp. Half the citizens in turn were to leave their work, and stand at arms with swords and spears and bows. Even in the midst of the building operations the clatter of weapons was heard among the stones, because the masons at work on the walls and the labourers while they poised on their heads baskets full of rubbish from the excavations had swords attached to their sashes. Residents of the suburbs were required to stay in the city instead of returning home for the night, and no man could put off a single article of clothing when he lay down to sleep. Nor was this martial array deemed sufficient without some special provision against a surprise. Nehemiah therefore went about with a trumpeter, ready to summon all hands to any point of danger on the first alarm.

Still, though the Jews were hampered with these preparations for battle, tired with toil and watching, and troubled by dreadful apprehensions, the work went on. This is a great proof of the excellency of Nehemiah’s generalship. He did not sacrifice the building to the fighting. The former was itself designed to produce a permanent defence, while the arms were only for temporary use. When the walls were up the citizens could give the laugh back to their foes. But in itself the very act of working was reassuring. Idleness is a prey to fears which industry has no time to entertain. Every man who tries to do his duty as a servant of God is unconsciously building a wall about himself that will be his shelter in the hour of peril.


Verse 19

ON GUARD

Nehemiah 2:10;, Nehemiah 2:19;, Nehemiah 4:1-23

ALL his arrangements for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem show that Nehemiah was awake to the dangers with which he was surrounded. The secrecy of his night ride was evidently intended to prevent a premature revelation of his plans. The thorough organisation, the mapping out of the whole line of the wall, and the dividing of the building operations among forty-two bands of workpeople secured equal and rapid progress on all sides. Evidently the idea was to "rush" the work, and to have it fairly well advanced, so as to afford a real protection for the citizens, before any successful attempts to frustrate it could be carried out. Even with all these precautions, Nehemiah was harassed and hindered for a time by the malignant devices of his enemies. It was only to be expected that he would meet with opposition. But a few years before all the Syrian colonists had united in extracting an order from Artaxerxes for the arrest of the earlier work of building the walls, because the Jews had made themselves intensely obnoxious to their neighbours by sending back the wives they had married from among the Gentile peoples. The jealousy of Samaria, which had taken the lead in Palestine so long as Jerusalem was in evidence, envenomed this animosity still more. Was it likely then that her watchful foes would hear with equanimity of the revival of the hated city-a city which must have seemed to them the very embodiment of the anti-social spirit?

Now, however, since a favourite servant of the Great King had been appointed governor of Jerusalem, the Satrap of the Syrian provinces could scarcely be expected to interfere. Therefore the initiative fell into the hands of smaller men, who found it necessary to abandon the method of direct hostility, and to proceed by means of intrigues and ambuscades. There were three who made themselves notorious in this undignified course of procedure. Two of them are mentioned in connection with the journey of Nehemiah up to Jerusalem. [Nehemiah 2:10] The first, the head of the whole opposition, is Sanballat, who is called the Horonite, seemingly because he is a native of one of the Beth-horons, and who appears to be the governor of the city of Samaria, although this is not stated. Throughout the history he comes before us repeatedly as the foe of the rival governor of Jerusalem. Next to him comes Tobiah, a chief of the little trans-Jordanic tribe of the Ammonites, some of whom had got into Samaria in the strange mixing up of peoples after the Babylonian conquest. He is called the servant, possibly because he once held some post at court, and if so he may have been personally jealous of Nehemiah’s promotion.

Sanbaltat and his supporter Tobiah were subsequently joined by an Arabian Emir named Geshem. His presence in the group of conspirators would be surprising if we had not been unexpectedly supplied with the means of accounting for it in the recently deciphered inscription which tells how Sargon imported an Arabian colony into Samaria. The Arab would scent prey in the project of a warlike expedition

The opposition proceeded warily. At first we are only told that when Sanballat and his friend Tobiah heard of the coming of Nehemiah, "grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel." [Nehemiah 2:10] In writing these caustic words Nehemiah implies that the jealous men had no occasion to fear that he meant any harm to them, and that they knew this. It seems very hard to him, then, that they should begrudge any alleviation of the misery of the poor citizens of Jerusalem. What was that to them? Jealousy might foresee the possibility of future loss from the recovery of the rival city, and in this they might find the excuse for their action, an excuse for not anticipating which so fervent a patriot as Nehemiah may be forgiven; nevertheless the most greedy sense of self-interest on the part of these men is lost sight of in the virulence of their hatred to the Jews. This is always the case with that cruel infatuation-the Anti-Semitic rage. Here it is that hatred passes beyond mere anger. Hatred is actually pained at the welfare of its object. It suffers from a Satanic misery. The venom which it fails to plant in its victim rankles in its own breast.

At first we only hear of this odious distress of the jealous neighbours. But the prosecutions of Nehemiah’s designs immediately lead to a manifestation of open hostility-verbal in the beginning. No sooner had the Jews made it evident that they were responsive to their leader’s appeal and intended to rise and build, than they were assailed with mockery. The Samaritan and Ammonite leaders were now joined by the Arabian, and together they sent a message of scorn and contempt, asking the handful of poor Jews whether they were fortifying the city in order to rebel against the king. The charge of a similar intention had been the cause of stopping the work on the previous occasion. [Ezra 4:13] Now that Artaxerxes’ favourite cup-bearer was at the head of affairs, any suspicion of treason was absurd, but since hatred is singularly blind-far more blind than love-it is barely possible that the malignant mockers hoped to raise a suspicion. On the other hand, there is no evidence to show that they followed the example of the previous opposition and reported to headquarters. For the present they seem to have contented themselves with bitter raillery. This is a weapon before which weak men too often give way. But Nehemiah was not so foolish as to succumb beneath a shower of poor, ill-natured jokes.

His answer is firm and dignified. [Nehemiah 2:20] It contains three assertions. The first is the most important. Nehemiah is not ashamed to confess the faith which is the source of all his confidence. In the eyes of men the Jews may appear but a feeble folk, quite unequal to the task of holding their ground in the midst of a swarm of angry foes. If Nehemiah had only taken account of the political and military aspects of affairs, he might have shrunk from proceeding. But it is just the mark of his true greatness that he always has his eye fixed on a Higher Power. He knows that God is in the project, and therefore he is sure that it must prosper. When a man can reach this conviction, mockery and insult do not move him. He has climbed to a serene altitude, from which he can look down with equanimity on the boiling clouds that are now far beneath his feet. Having this sublime ground of confidence, Nehemiah is able to proceed to his second point-his assertion of the determination of the Jews to arise and build. This is quite positive and absolute. The brave man states it, too, in the clearest possible language. Now the work is about to begin there is to be no subterfuge or disguise. Nehemiah’s unflinching determination is based on the religious confession that precedes it. The Jews are God’s servants, they are engaged in His work, they know He will prosper them, therefore they most certainly will not stay their hand for all the gibes and taunts of their neighbours. Lastly, Nehemiah contemptuously repudiates the claim of these impertinent intruders to interfere in the work of the Jews, he tells them that they have no excuse for their meddling, for they own no property in Jerusalem, they have no right of citizenship or of control from without, and there are no tombs of their ancestors in the sacred city.

In this message of Nehemiah’s we seem to hear an echo of the old words with which the temple-builders rejected the offer of assistance from the Samaritans, and which were the beginning of the whole course of jealous antagonism on the part of the irritated neighbours. But the circumstances are entirely altered. It is not a friendly offer of co-operation, but its very opposite, a hostile and insulting message designed to hinder the Jews, that is here so proudly resented. In the reply of Nehemiah we hear the church refusing to bend to the will of the world, because the world has no right to trespass on her territory. God’s work is not to be tampered with by insolent meddlers. Jewish exclusiveness is painfully narrow, at least in our estimation of it, when it refuses to welcome strangers or to recognise the good that lies outside the sacred enclosure, but this same characteristic becomes a noble quality, with high ethical and religious aims, when it firmly refuses to surrender its duty to God at the bidding of the outside world. The Christian can scarcely imitate Nehemiah’s tone and temper in this matter, and yet if he is loyal to his God he will feel that he must be equally decided and uncompromising in declining to give up any part of what he believes to be his service of Christ to please men who unhappily as yet have "no part, or right, or memorial" in the New Jerusalem, although, unlike the Jew of old, he will be only too glad that all men should come in and share his privileges.

After receiving an annoying answer it was only natural that the antagonistic neighbours of the Jews should be still more embittered in their animosity. At the first news of his coming to befriend the children of Israel, as Nehemiah says, Sanballat and Tobiah were grieved, but when the building operations were actually in process the Samaritan leader passed from vexation to rage-"he was wroth and took great indignation." [Nehemiah 4:1] This man now assumed the lead in opposition to the Jews. His mockery became more bitter and insulting. In this he was joined by his friend the Ammonite, who declared that if only one of the foxes that prowl on the neighbouring hills were to jump upon the wall the creature would break it down. [Nehemiah 4:3] Perhaps he had received a hint from some of his spies that the new work that had been so hastily pressed forward was not any too solid. The "Palestine Exploration Fund" has brought to light the foundations of what is believed to be a part of Nehemiah’s wall at Ophel, and the base of it is seen to be of rubble, not founded on the rock, but built on the clay above, so that it has been possible to drive a mine under it from one side to the other-a rough piece of work, very different from the beautifully finished temple walls.

Nehemiah met the renewed shower of insults in a startling manner. He cursed his enemies. [Nehemiah 4:4] Deploring before God the contempt that was heaped on the Jews, he prayed that the reproach of the enemies might be turned on their own head, devoted them to the horrors of a new captivity, and even went so far as to beg that no atonement might be found for their iniquity, that their sin might not be blotted out. In a word, instead of himself forgiving his enemies, he besought that they might not be forgiven by God. We shudder as we read his terrible words. This is not the Christ spirit. It is even contrary to the less merciful spirit of the Old Testament. Yet, to be just to Nehemiah, we must consider the whole case. It is most unfair to tear his curse out of the history and gibbet it as a specimen of Jewish piety. Even strong men who will not give way before ridicule may feel its stabs-for strength is not inconsistent with sensitiveness. Evidently Nehemiah was irritated, but then he was much provoked. For the moment he lost his self-possession. We must remember that the strain of his great undertaking was most exhausting, and we must be patient with the utterances of one so sorely tried. If lethargic people criticise adversely the hasty utterances of a more intense nature, they forget that, though they may never lose their self-control, neither do they ever rouse themselves to the daring energy of the man whose failings they blame. Then it was not any personal insults hurled against himself that Nehemiah resented so fiercely. It was his work that the Samaritans were trying to hinder. This he believed to be really God’s work, so that the insults offered to the Jews were also directed against God, who must have been angry also. We cannot justify the curse by the standard of the Christian law, but it is not reasonable to apply that standard to it. We must set it by the side of the Maledictory Psalms. From the standpoint of its author it can be fully accounted for. To say that even in this way it can be defended, however, is to go too far. We have no occasion to persuade ourselves that any of the Old Testament saints were immaculate, even in the light of Judaism. Nehemiah was a great and good man, yet he was not an Old Testament Christ.

But now more serious opposition was to be encountered. Such enemies as those angry men of Samaria were not likely to be content with venting their spleen in idle mockery. When they saw that the keenest shafts of their wit failed to stop the work of the citizens of Jerusalem, Sanballat and his friends found it necessary to proceed to more active measures, and accordingly they entered into a conspiracy for the double purpose of carrying on actual warfare and of intriguing with disaffected citizens of Jerusalem-"to cause confusion therein." [Nehemiah 4:8; Nehemiah 4:11] Nehemiah was too observant and penetrating a statesman not to become aware of what was going on, the knowledge that the plots existed revealed the extent of his danger, and compelled him to make active preparations for thwarting them. We may notice several important points in the process of the defence.

1. Prayer.- This was the first, and in Nehemiah’s mind the most essential defensive measure. We find him resorting to it in every important juncture of his life. It is his sheet-anchor. But now "he uses the plural number. Hitherto we have met only with his private prayers." In the present case he says, "We made our prayer unto our God." [Nehemiah 4:9] Had the infection of his prayerful spirit reached his fellow-citizens, so that they now shared it? Was it that the imminence of fearful danger drove to prayer men who under ordinary circumstances forgot their need of God? Or were both influences at work? However it was brought about, this association in prayer of some of the Jews with their governor must have been the greatest comfort to him, as it was the best ground for the hope that God would not now let them fall into the hands of the enemy. Hitherto there had been a melancholy solitariness about the earnest devotion of Nehemiah. The success of his mission began to show itself when the citizens began to participate in the same spirit of devotion.

2. Watchfulness.- Nehemiah was not the fanatic to blunder into the delusion that prayer was a substitute for duty, instead of being its inspiration. All that followed the prayer was really based upon it. The calmness, hope, and courage won in the high act of communion with God made it possible to take the necessary steps in the outer world. Since the greatest danger was not expected as an open assault, it was most necessary that an unbroken watch should be maintained, day and night. Nehemiah had spies out in the surrounding country, who reported to him every planned attack. So thorough was this system of espionage, that though no less than ten plots were concocted by the enemy, they were all discovered to Nehemiah, and all frustrated by him.

3. Encouragement.- The Jews were losing heart. The men of Judah came to Nehemiah with the complaint that the labourers who were at work on the great heaps of rubbish were suffering from exhaustion. The reduction in the numbers of workmen, owing to the appointment of the guard, would have still further increased the strain of those who were left to toil among the mounds. But it would have been fatal to draw back at this juncture. That would have been to invite the enemy to rush in and complete the discomfiture of the Jews. On Nehemiah came the obligation of cheering the dispirited citizens. Even the leading men who should have rallied the people, like officers at the head of their troops, shared the general depression. Nehemiah was again alone-or at best supported by the silent sympathy of his companions in prayer, There was very nearly a panic, and for one man to stand out under such circumstances as these in solitary courage, not only resisting the strong contagion of fear, but stemming the tide ant counteracting its movement, this would be indeed the sublimity of heroism. It was a severe test for Nehemiah, and he came out of it triumphant. His faith was the inspiration of his own courage, and it became the ground for the encouragement of others. He addressed the people and their nobles in a spirited appeal. First, he exhorted them to banish fear. The very tone of his voice must have been reassuring; the presence of one brave man in a crowd of cowards often shames them out of their weakness. But Nehemiah proceeded to give reasons for his encouragement. Let the men remember their God Jehovah, how great and terrible He is! The cause is His, and His might and terror will defend it. Let them think of their people and their families, and fight for brethren and children, for wives and homes! Cowardice is unbelief and selfishness combined. Trust in God and a sense of duty to others will master the weakness.

4. Arms.- Nehemiah gave the first place to the spiritual and moral defences of Jerusalem. Yet his material defences were none the less thorough on account of his prayers to God or his eloquent exhortation of the people and their leaders. They were most complete.

His arrangements for the military protection of Jerusalem converted the whole city into an armed camp. Half the citizens in turn were to leave their work, and stand at arms with swords and spears and bows. Even in the midst of the building operations the clatter of weapons was heard among the stones, because the masons at work on the walls and the labourers while they poised on their heads baskets full of rubbish from the excavations had swords attached to their sashes. Residents of the suburbs were required to stay in the city instead of returning home for the night, and no man could put off a single article of clothing when he lay down to sleep. Nor was this martial array deemed sufficient without some special provision against a surprise. Nehemiah therefore went about with a trumpeter, ready to summon all hands to any point of danger on the first alarm.

Still, though the Jews were hampered with these preparations for battle, tired with toil and watching, and troubled by dreadful apprehensions, the work went on. This is a great proof of the excellency of Nehemiah’s generalship. He did not sacrifice the building to the fighting. The former was itself designed to produce a permanent defence, while the arms were only for temporary use. When the walls were up the citizens could give the laugh back to their foes. But in itself the very act of working was reassuring. Idleness is a prey to fears which industry has no time to entertain. Every man who tries to do his duty as a servant of God is unconsciously building a wall about himself that will be his shelter in the hour of peril.

 


Copyright Statement
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/nehemiah-2.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, June 16th, 2019
Trinity Sunday
ADVERTISEMENT
Commentary Navigator
Search This Commentary
Enter query in the box below
ADVERTISEMENT
To report dead links, typos, or html errors or suggestions about making these resources more useful use our convenient contact form
Powered by Lightspeed Technology