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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Nehemiah 8

 

 

Verses 1-8

THE LAW

Nehemiah 8:1-8

THE fragmentary nature of the chronicler’s work is nowhere more apparent than in that portion of it which treats of the events immediately following on the completion of the fortifications of Jerusalem. In Nehemiah 7:1-73 we have a continuation of the governor’s personal narrative of his work, describing how the watch was organised after the walls had been built and the gates set up. [Nehemiah 7:1-3] This is followed by a remark on the sparseness of the city population, [Nehemiah 7:4] which leads Nehemiah to insert the list of Zerubbabel’s pilgrims that the chronicler subsequently copies out in his account of Zerubbabel’s expedition. [Nehemiah 7:5-73, Ezra 2:1-70] Here the subject is dropped, to be resumed at Nehemiah 11:1-36, where the arrangements for increasing the population of Jerusalem are described. Thus we might read right on with a continuous narrative-allowing for the insertion of the genealogical record, the reason for which is obvious-and omit the three intermediate chapters without any perceptible hiatus, but, on the contrary, with a gain in consecutiveness.

These three chapters stand by themselves, and they are devoted to another matter, and that a matter marked by a certain unity and distinctive character of its own. They are written in the third person, by the chronicler himself. In them Ezra suddenly reappears without any introduction, taking the leading place, while Nehemiah recedes into the background, only to be mentioned once or twice, and then as the loyal supporter of the famous scribe. The style has a striking resemblance to that of Ezra, from whom therefore, it has been conjectured, the chronicler may here have derived his materials.

These facts, and minor points that seem to support them, have raised the question whether the section Nehemiah 8:1-18; Nehemiah 9:1-38; Nehemiah 10:1-39., is found in its right place; whether it should not have been joined on to the Book of Ezra as a description of what followed immediately after the events there recorded and before the advent of Nehemiah to Jerusalem. Ezra brought the book of The Law with him from Babylon. It would be most reasonable to suppose that he would seize the first opportunity for making it known. Accordingly we find that the corresponding section in 1 Esdras is in this position. {RAPC 1 Esdras 9:37-55} Nevertheless it is now generally agreed that the three chapters as they stand in the Book of Nehemiah are in their true chronological position. Twice Nehemiah himself appears in the course of the narrative they contain. He is associated with Ezra and the Levites in teaching The Law, [Nehemiah 8:9] and his name stands first in the list of the covenanters. [Nehemiah 10:1] The admission of these facts is only avoided in 1 Esdras by an alteration of the text. If we were to suppose that the existence of the name in our narrative is the result of an interpolation by a later hand, it would be difficult to account for this, and it would be still more difficult to discover why the chronicler should introduce confusion into his narrative by an aimless misplacement of it. His methods of procedure are sometimes curious, it must be admitted, and that we met with a misplaced section in an earlier chapter cannot be reasonably questioned. [Ezra 4:7-23] But the motive which probably prompted that peculiar arrangement does not apply here. In the present case it would result in nothing but confusion.

The question is of far more than literary interest. The time when The Law was first made known to the people in its entirety is a landmark of the first importance for the History of Israel. There is a profound significance in the fact that though Ezra had long been a diligent student and a careful, loving scribe, though he had carried up the precious roll to Jerusalem, and though he had been in great power and influence in the city, he had not found a fitting opportunity for revealing his secret to his people before all his reforming efforts were arrested, and the city and its inhabitants trampled under foot by their envious neighbours. Then came Nehemiah’s reconstruction. Still the consideration of The Law remained in abeyance. While Jerusalem was an armed camp, and while the citizens were toiling at the walls or mounting guard by turn, there was no opportunity for a careful attention to the sacred document. All this time Ezra was out of sight, and his name not once mentioned. Yet he was far too brilliant a star to have been eclipsed even by the rising of Nehemiah. We can only account for the sudden and absolute vanishing of the greatest figure of the age by supposing that he had retired from the scene, perhaps gone back to Babylon alone with his grief and disappointment. Those were not days for the scholar’s mission. But now, with the return of some amount of security and its accompanying leisure, Ezra emerges again, and immediately he is accorded the front place and Nehemiah-the "Saviour of Society"-modestly assumes the attitude of his disciple. A higher tribute to the exalted position tacitly allowed to the scribe, or a finer proof of the unselfish humility of the young statesman, cannot be imagined. Though at the height of his power, having frustrated the many evil designs of his enemies and completed his stupendous task of fortifying the city of his fathers in spite of the most vexatious difficulties, the successful patriot is not in the least degree flushed with victory. In the quietest manner possible he steps aside and yields the first place to the recluse, the student, the writer, the teacher. This is a sign of the importance that ideas will assume in the new age. The man of action gives place to the man of thought. Still more is it a hint of the coming ecclesiasticism of the new Jewish order. As the civil ruler thus takes a lower ground in the presence of the religious leader, we seem to be anticipating those days of the triumph of the Church when a king would stand like a groom to hold the horse of a pope. And yet this is not officially arranged. It is not formally conceded on the one side, nor is it formally demanded on the other side. The situation may be rather compared with that of Savonarola in Florence when by sheer moral force he overtopped the power of the Medici, or that of Calvin at Geneva when the municipal council willingly yielded to the commanding spirit of the minister of religion because it recognised the supremacy of religion.

In such a condition of affairs the city was ripe for the public exposition of The Law. But even then Ezra only published it after having been requested to do so by the people. We cannot assign this delay of his to any reluctance to let his fellow countrymen know the law which he had long loved and studied in private. We may rather conclude that he perceived the utter inutility of any attempt to thrust it upon inattentive hearers-nay, the positive mischievousness of such a proceeding. This would approach the folly described by our Lord when He warned His disciples against casting pearls before swine. Very much of the popular indifference to the Bible among large sections of the population today must be laid at the doors of those unwise zealots who have dinned the mere letter of it into the ears of unwilling auditors. The conduct of Ezra shows that, with all his reverence for The Law, the Great Scribe did not consider that it was to be imposed, like a civil code, by magisterial authority. The decree of Artaxerxes had authorised him to enforce it in this way on every Jew west of the Euphrates. [Ezra 7:25-26] But either the unsettled state of the country or the wisdom of Ezra had not permitted the application of the power thus conferred. The Law was to be voluntarily adopted. It was to be received, as all true religion must be received, in living faith, with the acquiescence of the conscience, judgment, and will of those who acknowledged its obligations.

The occasion for such a reception of it was found when the Jews were freed from the toil and anxiety that accompanied the building of their city walls. The chronicler says that this was in the seventh month, but he does not give the year. Considering the abrupt way in which he has introduced the section about the reading of The Law, we cannot be certain in what year this took place. If we may venture to take the narrative continuously, in connection with Nehemiah’s story in the previous chapters, we shall get this occurrence within a week after the completion of the fortifications. That was on "the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul" [Nehemiah 6:15] - i.e., the sixth month. The reading began on "the first day of the seventh month." [Nehemiah 8:2] That is to say, on this supposition, it followed immediately on the first opportunity of leisure. Then the time was specially appropriate, for it was the day of the Feast of Trumpets, which was observed as a public holiday and an occasion for an assembly-"a holy convocation." [Leviticus 23:24] On this day the citizens met in a favourite spot, the open space just inside the Water Gate, at the east end of the city, close to the temple, and now part of the Haram, or sacred enclosure. They were unanimous in their desire to have no more delay before hearing the law which Ezra had brought up to Jerusalem as much as thirteen years before. Why were they all on a sudden thus eager, after so long a period of indifference? Was it that the success of Nehemiah’s work had given them a new hope and confidence, a new idea, indeed? They now saw the compact unity of Jerusalem established. Here was the seal and centre of their separateness. Accepting this as an accomplished fact, the Jews were ready and even anxious to know that sacred law in which their distinction from other people and their consecration to Jehovah were set forth.

Not less striking is the manner in which Ezra met this welcome request of the Jews. The scene which follows is unique in history-the Great Scribe with the precious roll in his hand standing on a temporary wooden platform so that he may be seen by everybody in the vast crowd-seven Levites supporting him on either side-other select Levites going about among the people after each section of The Law has been read in order to explain it to separate groups of the assembly-the motley gathering comprising the bulk of the citizens, not men only but women also, for the brutal Mohammedan exclusiveness that confines religious knowledge to one sex was not anticipated by the ancient Jews, not adults only, but children also, "those that could understand," for The Law is for the simplest minds, the religion of Israel is to be popular and domestic-the whole of this multitude assembling in the cool, fresh morning when the first level rays of the sun smite the city walls from over the Mount of Olives, and standing reverently hour after hour, till the hot autumn noon puts an end to the lengthy meeting.

In all this the fact which comes out most prominently, accentuated by every detail of the arrangements, is the popularisation of The Law. Its multiplex precepts were not only recited in the hearing of men, women, and children, they were carefully expounded to the people. Hitherto it had been a matter of private study among learned men, its early development had been confined to a small group of faithful believers in Jehovah, its customary practices had been privately elaborated through the ages almost like the mysteries of a secret cult, and therefore its origin had been buried in hopeless obscurity. So it was like the priestly ritual of heathenism. The priest of Eleusis guarded his secrets from all but those who were favoured by being solemnly initiated into them. Now this unwholesome condition was to cease. The most sacred rites were to be expounded to all the people. Ezra knew that the only worship God would accept must be offered with the mind and the heart. Moreover, The Law concerned the actions of the people themselves, their own minute observance of purifications and careful avoidance of defilements, their own offerings and festivals. No priestly performances could avail as a substitute for these popular religious observances.

Yet much of The Law was occupied with directions concerning the functions of the priests and the sacrificial ritual. By acquainting the laity with these directions, Ezra and his helpers were doing their best to fortify the nation against the tyranny of sacerdotalism. The Levites, who at this time were probably still sore at the thought of their degradation and jealous of the favoured line of Zadok, would naturally fall in with such a policy. It was the more remarkable because the new theocracy was just now coming into power. Here would be a powerful protection against the abuse of its privileges by the hierarchy. Priests, all the world over, have made capital out of their exclusive knowledge of the ritual of religion. They have jealously guarded their secrets from the uninitiated multitude, so as to make themselves necessary to anxious worshippers who dreaded to give offence to their gods or to fail in their sacrifices through ignorance of the prescribed methods. By committing the knowledge of The Law to the people, Ezra protected the Jews against this abuse. Everything was to be above board, in broad daylight, and the degradation of ignorant worship was not to be encouraged, much as a corrupt priesthood in later times might desire it. An indirect consequence of this publication of The Law with the careful instruction of the people in its contents was that the element of knowledge took a more exalted position in religion. It is not the magical priest, it is the logical scribe who really leads the people now. Ideas will mean more than in the old days of obscure ritual. There is an end to the "dim religious light." Henceforth Torah instruction is to be the most fundamental ground of faith.

It is important that we should see clearly what was contained in this roll of The Law out of which Ezra read to the citizens of Jerusalem. The distress with which its contents were received would lead us to suppose that the grave minatory passages of Deuteronomy were especially prominent in the reading. We cannot gather from the present scene any further indications of the subjects brought before the Jews. But from other parts of the Book of Nehemiah we can learn for certain that the whole of the Pentateuch was now introduced to the people. If it was not all read out of the ecclesia, it was all in the hands of Ezra, and its several parts were made known from time to time as occasion required. First, we may infer that in addition to Deuteronomy Ezra’s law contained the ancient Jehovistic narrative, because the treatment of mixed marriages [Nehemiah 10:30] refers to the contents of this portion of the Pentateuch. [Exodus 34:16] Secondly, we may see that it included "The Law of Holiness," because the regulations concerning the sabbatic year [Nehemiah 10:31] are copied from that collection of rules about defilement and consecration. [Leviticus 25:2-7] Thirdly, we may be equally sure that it did not lack "The Priestly Code"-the elaborate system of ritual which occupies the greater part of Numbers and Leviticus-because the law of the first-fruits [Nehemiah 10:35-39] is taken from that source. (Leviticus 27:30;, Numbers 15:20 ff; Numbers 18:11-32) Here, then, we find allusions to the principal constituent elements of the Pentateuch scattered over the brief Book of Nehemiah. It is clear, therefore, that the great accretion of customs and teachings, which only reached completion after the close of the captivity, was the treasure Ezra now introduced to his people. Henceforth nothing less can be understood when the title "The Law" is used. From this time obedience to the Torah will involve subjection to the whole system of priestly and sacrificial regulations, to all the rules of cleanness and consecration and sacrifice contained in the Pentateuch.

A more difficult point to be determined is, how far this Pentateuch was really a new thing when it was introduced by Ezra. Here we must separate two very different questions. If they had always been kept apart, much confusion would have been avoided. The first is the question of the novelty of The Law to the Jews. There is little difficulty in answering this question. The very process of reading The Law and explaining it goes on the assumption that it is not known. The people receive it as something strange and startling. Moreover, this scene of the revelation of The Law to Israel is entirely in harmony with the previous history of the nation. Whenever The Law was shaped as we now know it, it is clear that it was not practised in its present form by the Jews before Ezra’s day. We have no contemporary evidence of the use of it in the earlier period. We have clear evidence that conduct contrary to many of its precepts was carried on with impunity, and even encouraged by prophets and religious leaders without any protest from priests or scribes. The complete law is new to Israel. But there is a second question-viz., how far was this law new in itself? Nobody can suppose that it was an absolutely novel creation of the exile, with no roots in the past. Their repeated references to Moses show that its supporters relegated its origin to a dim antiquity, and we should belie all we know of their character if we did not allow that they were acting in good faith. But we have no evidence that The Law had been completed, codified, and written out in full before the time of Ezra. In antiquity, when writing was economised and memory cultivated to a degree of accuracy that seems to us almost miraculous, it would be possible to hand down a considerable system of ritual or of jurisprudence by tradition. Even this stupendous act of memory would not exceed that of the rhapsodists who preserved and transmitted the unwritten Iliad. But we are not driven to such an extreme view. We do not know how much of The Law may have been committed to writing in earlier ages. Some of it was, certainly. It bears evidence of its history in the several strata of which it is composed, and which must have been deposited successively. Deuteronomy, in its essence and original form, was certainly known before the captivity. So were the Jehovistic narrative and the Law of the Covenant. The only question as regards Ezra’s day turns on the novelty of the Priestly Code, with the Law of Holiness, and the final editing and redaction of the whole. This is adumbrated in Ezekiel and the degradation of the Levites, who are identified with the priests in Deuteronomy, but set in a lower rank in Leviticus, assigned to its historical occasion. Here, then, we see the latest part of Ezra’s law in the making. It was not created by the scribe. It was formed out of traditional usages of the priests, modified by recent directions from a prophet. The origin of these usages was lost in antiquity, and therefore it was natural to attribute them to Moses, the great founder of the nation. We cannot even affirm that Ezra carried out the last redaction of The Law with his own hand, that he codified the traditional usages, the "Common Law" of Israel. What we know is that he published this law. That he also edited it is an inference drawn from his intimate connection with the work as student and scribe, add supported by the current of later traditions. But while this is possible, what is indubitable is that to Ezra is due the glory of promulgating the law and making it pass into the life of the nation. Henceforth Judaism is legalism. We know this in its imperfection and its difference from the spiritual faith of Christ. To the contemporaries of Ezra it indicated a stage of progress-knowledge in place of superstitious bondage to the priesthood, conscientious obedience to ordinances instituted for the public welfare instead of careless indifference or obstinate self-will. Therefore its appearance marked a forward step in the course of Divine revelation.


Verses 9-18

THE JOY OF THE LORD

Nehemiah 8:9-18

"ALL the people wept when they heard the words of the law." Was it for this mournful end that Ezra had studied the sacred law and guarded it through the long years of political unrest, until at length he was able to make it known with all the pomp and circumstance of a national festival? Evidently the leaders of the people had expected no such result. But disappointing as it was, it might have been worse. The reading might have been listened to with indifference; or the great, stern law might have been rejected with execration, or scoffed at with incredulity. Nothing of the kind happened. There was no doubt as to the rightness of The Law, no reluctance to submit to its yoke, no disposition to ignore its requirements. This law had come with all the authority of the Persian government to sanction it, and yet it is evidently no fear of the magistrate, but their own convictions, their confirming consciences, that here influence the people and determine their attitude to it. Thus Ezra’s labours were really honoured by the Jews, though their fruits were received so sorrowfully.

We must not suppose that the Jews of Ezra’s day anticipated the ideas of St. Paul. It was not a Christian objection to law that troubled them, they did not complain of its externalism, its bondage, its formal requirements and minute details. To imagine that these features of The Law were regarded with disapproval by the first hearers of it is to credit them with an immense advance in thought beyond their leaders-Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites. It is clear that their grief arose simply from their perception of their own miserable imperfections in contrast to the lofty requirements of The Law, and in view of its sombre threats of punishment for disobedience. The discovery of a new ideal of conduct above that with which we have hitherto been satisfied naturally provokes painful stings of conscience, which the old salve, compounded of the comfortable little notions we once cherished, will not neutralise. In the new light of the higher truth we suddenly discover that the "robe of righteousness" in which we have been parading is but as "filthy rags." Then our once vaunted attainments become despicable in our own eyes. The eminence on which we have been standing so proudly is seen to be a wretched mole-hill compared with the awful snow-peak from which the clouds have just dispersed. Can we ever climb that? Goodness now seems to be hopelessly unattainable, yet never before was it so desirable, because never before did it shine with so rare and fascinating a lustre.

But, it may be objected, was not the religious and moral character of the teaching of the great prophets-of Hosea, Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah-larger and higher and more spiritual than the legalism of the Pentateuch? That may, be granted, but it is not to the point here. The lofty prophetic teaching had never been accepted by the nation. The prophets had been voices crying in the wilderness. Their great spiritual thoughts had never been seriously followed except by a small group of devout souls. It was the Christian Church that first built on the foundation of the prophets. But in Ezra’s day the Jews as a body frankly accepted The Law. Whether this were higher or lower than the ideal of prophetism does not affect the case. The significant fact is that it was higher than any ideal the people had hitherto adopted in practice. The perception of this fact was most distressing to them.

Nevertheless the Israelite leaders did not share the feeling of grief. In their eyes the sorrow of the Jews was a great mistake. It was even a wrong thing for them thus to distress themselves. Ezra loved The Law, and therefore it was to him a dreadful surprise to discover that the subject of his devoted studies was regarded so differently by his brethren. Nehemiah and the Levites shared his more cheerful view of the situation. Lyrics of this and subsequent ages bear testimony to the passionate devotion with which the sacred Torah was cherished by loyal disciples. The author of the hundred and nineteenth Psalm ransacks his vocabulary for varying phrases on which to ring the changes in praise of the law, the judgments, the statutes, the commandments of God. He cries:-

I will delight in Thy statutes,

I will not forget Thy word.

Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold

Wondrous things out of Thy law.

Unless Thy law had been my delight,

I should have perished in mine affliction.

"Great peace have they that love Thy law,

And they have none occasion of stumbling."

Moreover, the student of The Law today can perceive that its intention was beneficent. It maintained righteousness, and righteousness is the chief good. It regulated the mutual relations of men with regard to justice; it ordained purity; it contained many humane rules for the protection of men and even of animals; it condescended to most wholesome sanitary directions. Then it declared that he who kept its ordinances should live, not merely by reason of an arbitrary arrangement, but because it pointed out the natural and necessary way of life and health. The Divine Spirit that had guided the development of it had presided over something more inviting than the forging of fetters for a host of miserable slaves, something more useful than the creation of a tantalising exemplar that should be the despair of every copyist. Ezra and his fellow-leaders knew the intention of The Law. This was the ground of their joyous confidence in contemplation of it. They were among those who had been led by their personal religion into possession of "the secret of the Lord." They had acquainted themselves with Him, and therefore they were at peace. Their example teaches us that we must penetrate beyond the letter to the spirit of revelation if we would discover its hidden thoughts of love. When we do so even The Law will be found to enshrine an evangel. Not that these men of the olden times perceived the fanciful symbolism which many Christians have delighted to extract from the most mechanical details of the tabernacle ritual. Their eyes were fixed on the gracious Divine purpose of creating a holy nation-separate and pure-and The Law seemed to be the best instrument for accomplishing that purpose. Meanwhile its impracticability did not strike them, because they thought of the thing in itself rather than of the relation of men to it. Religious melancholy springs from habits of subjectivity. The joyous spirit is that which forgets self in the contemplation of the thoughts of God. It is our meditation of Him-not of self-that is sweet.

Of course this would have been unreasonable if it had totally ignored human conditions and their relation to the Divine. In that case Ezra and his companions would have been vain dreamers, and the sorrowing multitude people of common-sense perceptions. But we must remember that the new religious movement was inspired by faith. It is faith that bridges the vast chasm between the real and the ideal. God had given The Law in loving kindness and tender mercy. Then God would make the attainment of His will revealed in it possible. The part of brave and humble men was to look away from themselves to the revelation of God’s thought concerning them with grateful admiration of its glorious perfection.

While considerations of this sort would make it possible for the leaders to regard The Law in a very different spirit from that manifested by the rest of the Jews, other reflections led them to go further and check the outburst of grief as both unseemly and hurtful.

It was unseemly, because it was marring the beauty of a great festival. The Jews were to stay their grief seeing that the day was holy unto the Lord. [Nehemiah 8:9] This was as much as to say that sorrow was defiling. The world had to wait for the religion of the cross to reveal to it the sanctity of sorrow. Undoubtedly the Jewish festivals were joyous celebrations. It is the greatest mistake to represent the religion of the Old Testament as a gloomy cult overshadowed by the thunder-clouds of Sinai. On the contrary, its greatest offices were celebrated with music, dancing, and feasting. The high day was a holiday, sunny and mirthful. It would be a pity to spoil, such an occasion with unseasonable lamentations. But Nehemiah and Ezra must have had a deeper thought than this in their deprecation of grief at the festival. To allow such behaviour is to entertain unworthy feelings towards God. A day sacred to the Lord is a day in which His presence is especially felt. To draw near to God with no other feelings than emotions of fear and grief is to misapprehend His nature and His disposition towards His people. Worship should be inspired with the gladness of grateful hearts praising God, because otherwise it would discredit His goodness.

This leads to a thought of wider range and still more profound significance, a thought that flashes out of the sacred page like a brilliant gem, a thought so rich and glad and bountiful that it speaks for its own inspiration as one of the great Divine ideas of Scripture-"The joy of the Lord is your strength." Though the unseemliness of mourning on a feast day was the first and most obvious consideration urged by the Jewish leaders in their expostulation with the distressed multitude, the real justification for their rebukes and exhortations is to be found in the magnificent spiritual idea that they here give expression to. In view of such a conviction as they now gladly declare they would regard the lamentation of the Jews as more than unseemly, as positively hurtful and even wrong.

By the expression "the joy of the Lord" it seems clear that Nehemiah and his associates meant a joy which may be experienced by men through their fellowship with God. The phrase could be used for the gladness of God Himself; as we speak of the righteousness of God or the love of God, so we might speak of His joy in reference to His own infinite life and consciousness. But in the case before us the drift of the passage directs our thoughts to the moods and feelings of men. The Jews are giving way to grief, and they are rebuked for so doing and encouraged to rejoice. In this situation some thoughts favourable to joy on their part are naturally suitable. Accordingly they are called to enter into a pure and lofty gladness in which they are assured they will find their strength.

This "joy of the Lord," then, is the joy that springs up in our hearts by means of our relation to God. It is a God-given gladness, and it is found in communion with God. Nevertheless the other "joy of the Lord" is not to be left out of account when we think of the gladness which comes to us from God, for the highest joy is possible to us just because it is first experienced by God. There could be no joy in communion with a morose divinity. The service of Moloch must have been a terror, a perfect agony to his most loyal devotees. The feelings of a worshipper will always be reflections from what he thinks he perceives in the countenance of his god. They will be gloomy if the god is a sombre personage, and cheerful if he is a glad being. Now the revelation of God in the Bible is the unveiling with growing clearness of a countenance of unspeakable love and beauty and gladness. He is made known to us as "the blessed God"-the happy God. Then the joy of His children is the overflow of His own deep gladness streaming down to them. This is the "joy in the presence of the angels" which, springing from the great heart of God, makes the happiness of returning penitents, so that they share in their Father’s delight, as the prodigal shares in the home festivities when the fatted calf is killed. This same communication of gladness is seen in the life of our Lord, not only during those early sunny days in Galilee when His ministry opened under a cloudless sky, but even amid the darkness of the last hours at Jerusalem, for in His final discourse Jesus prayed that His joy might be in His disciples in order that their joy might be full. A more generous perception of this truth would make religion like sunshine and music, like the blooming of spring flowers and the outburst of woodland melody about the path of the Christian pilgrim. It is clear that Jesus Christ expected this to be the case since He commenced His teaching with the word "Blessed." St. Paul, too, saw the same possibility, as his repeated encouragements to "Rejoice" bear witness. Religion may be compared to one of those Italian city churches which are left outwardly bare and gloomy, while within they are replete with treasures of art. We must cross the threshold, push aside the heavy curtain, and tread the sacred pavement, if we would see the beauty of sculptured column and mural fresco and jewelled altarpiece. Just in proportion as we draw near to God shall we behold the joy and love that ever dwell in Him, till the vision of these wonders kindles our love and gladness.

Now the great idea that is here suggested to us connects this Divine joy with strength-the joy is an inspiration of energy. By the nature of things joy is exhilarating, while pain is depressing. Physiologists recognise it as a law of animal organisms that happiness is a nerve tonic. It would seem that the same law obtains in spiritual experience. On the other hand, nothing is more certain than that there are enervating pleasures, and that the free indulgence in pleasure generally weakens the character; with this goes the equally certain truth that men may be braced by suffering, that the east wind of adversity may be a real stimulant. How shall we reconcile these contradictory positions? Clearly there are different kinds and grades of delight, and different ways of taking and using every form of gladness. Pure hedonism cannot but be a weak system of life. It is the Spartan, not the Sybarite, who is capable of heroic deeds. Even Epicurus, whose name has been abused to shelter low pleasure-seeking, perceived, as clearly as "The Preacher," the melancholy truth that the life that is given over to the satisfaction of personal desires is but "vanity of vanities." The joy that exhilarates is not sought as a final goal. It comes in by the way when we are pursuing some objective end. Then this purest joy is as far above the pleasure of the self-indulgent as heaven is above hell. It may even be found side by side with bodily pain, as when martyrs exult in their flames, or when stricken souls in more prosaic circumstances awake to the wonderful perception of a rare Divine gladness. It is this joy that gives strength. There is enthusiasm in it. Such a joy, not being an end in itself, is a means to a great practical end. God’s glad children are strong to do and bear His will, strong in their very gladness.

This was good news to the Jews, outwardly but a feeble flock and a prey to the ravening wolves from neighbouring lands. They had recovered hope after building their walls, but these hastily constructed fortifications did not afford them their most secure stronghold. Their refuge was God. They carried bows and spears and swords, but the strength with which they wielded these weapons consisted in the enthusiasm of a Divine gladness-not the orgiastic fury of the heathen, but the deep, strong joy of men who knew the secret of their Lord, who possessed what Wordsworth calls "inward glee." This joy was essentially a moral strength. It bestowed the power wherewith to keep the law. Here was the answer to the discouragement of the people in their dawning perception of the lofty requirements of God’s holy will. The Christian can best find energy for service, as well as the calm strength of patience, in that still richer Divine gladness which is poured into his heart by the grace of Christ. It is not only unfortunate for anybody to be a mournful Christian, it is dangerous, hurtful, even wrong. Therefore the gloomy servant of God is to be rebuked for missing the Divine gladness. Seeing that the source of it is in God, and not in the Christian himself, it is attainable and possible to the most sorrowful. He who has found this "pearl of great price" can afford to miss much else in life and yet go on his way rejoicing.

It was natural that the Jews should have been encouraged to give expression to the Divine joy at a great festival. The final harvest-home of the year, the merry celebration of the vintage, was then due. No Jewish feast was more cheerful than this, which expressed gratitude for "wine that maketh glad the heart of man." The superiority of Judaism over heathenism is seen in the tremendous contrast between the simple gaiety of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles and the gross debauchery of the Bacchanalian orgies which disgraced a similar occasion in the pagan world. It is to our shame in modern Christendom that we dare not imitate the Jews here, knowing too well that if we tried to do so we should only sink to the heathen level. Our Feast of Tabernacles would certainly become a Feast of Bacchus, bestial and wicked. Happily the Jews did not feel the Teutonic danger of intemperance. Their festival recognised the Divine bounty in nature, in its richest, ripest autumn fruitfulness, which was like the smile of God breaking out through His works to cheer His children. Bivouacking in greenwood bowers, the Jews did their best to return to the life of nature and share its autumn gladness. The chronicler informs us that since the days of Joshua the Jews had never observed the feast as they did now-never with such great gladness and never so truly after the directions of their law. Although the actual words he gives as from The Law [Nehemiah 8:14-15] are not to be found in the Pentateuch, they sum up the regulations of that work. This then is the first application of The Law which the people have received with so much distress. It ordains a glad festival. So much brighter is religion when it is understood and practised than when it is only contemplated from afar! Now the reading of The Law can go on day by day, and be received with joy.

Finally, like the Christians who collected food and money at the Agape for their poorer brethren and for the martyrs in prison, the Jews were to "send portions" to the needy. [Nehemiah 8:12] The rejoicing was not to be selfish, it was to stimulate practical kindness. Here was its safeguard. We shrink from accepting joy too freely lest it should be followed by some terrible Nemesis; but if, instead of gloating over it in secret, selfishly and greedily, we use it as a talent, and endeavour to lessen the sorrows of others by inviting them to share it, the heathenish dread is groundless. He who is doing his utmost to help his brother may dare to be very happy.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 8:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/nehemiah-8.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, December 7th, 2019
the First Week of Advent
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