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‘Why is the house of God forsaken?’
Nehemiah appears to have held office as governor for twelve years, and then to have returned for an indefinite period to the court of Artaxerxes, and to have afterwards resumed his functions in Jerusalem. The events of this chapter belong to that second term of office. When some leader’s restraining hand and inspiring presence are taken away, the mass is apt to drop down again into old evil ruts. So Nehemiah had much of his work to do over again when he came back. It is sadly seldom that a great religious guide can say as Paul could, ‘Not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence.’ Two of the abuses he had to correct were:—
I. The profanation of the Temple.—One of the priests, named Eliashib, had charge of the rooms in the Temple court where were kept supplies of meat offerings, corn, frankincense, wine, and oil, to be used in worship with the sacred vessels of the Temple. Tobiah, a heathen, was connected with Eliashib by some marriage of relatives, and to provide a home for the heathen the priest moved out the Temple supplies and holy vessels, and fitted the place for Tobiah and his family. Nehemiah was not only grieved, but vexed. He promptly cast out the ‘household stuff of Tobiah,’ ‘they cleansed the chamber,’ and he had the Temple vessels and supplies brought into their proper place.
II. The withholding of tithes.—The Jews had always been taught, and had promised, to bring offerings for the altar of the Lord. They were to give the first-fruits of the ground and of the trees, the best of the flocks and herds, to the priest and Levites. Nehemiah found that this had been withheld. The officers of the Temple and the singers were not paid, and they had gone to their homes and their fields. Priests and people had not observed religious worship. Nehemiah contended with the nobles, asking, ‘Why is the house of God forsaken?’ If the people brought offerings, they were not the choicest of the flock, without blemish, but the lame and the sick, those of least value to use or to sell. They asked the same question that many do now about a wholehearted religious life, ‘Does it pay?’ The prophet Malachi reproved and rebuked. Read in the book of Malachi how he begged Israel to return and entreat the favour of God, and to any who would hear he gave the promise of blessing that those who fear the Lord shall be to Him ‘a peculiar treasure.’
‘We may adopt this chapter for the searching of our hearts before God; because, from time to time, abuses may creep into our own souls, and the temple of our spiritual life. May not the walls of our Jerusalem—the Jerusalem of our heart—become desecrated with impurity and uncleanliness? and may they not need something of that minute inspection which Nehemiah gave to Jerusalem on his return?’
THE REST DAY PROFANED
‘Ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath.’
What can we learn for ourselves from this Old Testament lesson? We notice three prominent points.
I. The observance of a day of rest is not affected by national or political changes.—The Hebrew went into exile, and remained there for the best part of a century. He lived a new life, conformed to foreign customs, forfeited his national existence. When he came back, in the person of his descendants, it was to start everything afresh: city, temple, worship, life. He was called by another name, and probably in dress and customs bore little likeness to his fathers. But at once the Sabbath is re-affirmed. It is superior to all change. It is rooted not in the accidents of birth or state, but in the essential facts of a human life.
II. The Sabbath is necessary to man.—It was given to us that we might rest in it, as God Himself did. No work of any worldly nature, pursued for profit, ought to be encouraged. Not because I am a Jew or a Gentile, but because I am constituted as I am, is it necessary for me to ‘change off’ once in seven days. Where this is not observed the people suffer. The French Republic a hundred years ago tried one day in ten, and found that insufficient. Humboldt says, ‘The selection of the seventh day is certainly the wisest that could have been made.’ The health of the people and the average of life are highest where the day of rest is kept. Doctors argue for it simply on the ground of health. Business men and merchants know how necessary it is. It was Dr. Johnson’s last request of Sir Joshua Reynolds, sent to him from his death-bed, that he would not paint on Sunday. The Jewish laws in reference to the Sabbath were based, not on God’s arbitrary will, but on God’s benevolence and mercy. He knoweth our frame, He remembereth that we are dust.
III. The observance of the day of rest is closely connected with the maintenance of religion.—Calcott says, ‘The streams of religion run deeper or shallower, as the banks of the Sabbath are kept up or neglected,’ and Montalembert packs a great deal of truth in very small compass when he writes, ‘Without a Sabbath no worship; without worship no religion; and without religion no permanent freedom.’ John Bunyan, lying on his death-bed in London, caught the sound of the bells of St. Sepulchre’s Church, and urged those about him to have a special care to sanctify the Lord’s Day. ‘As thou keepest it so shall it be with thee all the day long. Shall God allow thee six days, and wilt thou not afford Him one?’
‘A successful merchant once said, “If it had not been for the Sabbath, I have no doubt I should have been a maniac long ago.” Mr. Gladstone, though one of the busiest men in the world, having often the weight of an empire resting on his shoulders, was accustomed to reserve the Sabbath for rest. There is not much doubt that his long life was, in part at least, due to his obedience to this law of God. If, then, we had only bodies and minds, we should need the rest of one day in seven. But we have souls as well as bodies and minds, and our souls need time for spiritual refreshment and nurture. This cannot be had adequately on week-days, for the pressure of our daily tasks is too great to allow this. We need to take time for the study of the Word of God, and for worship, and for meditation on the things that pertain to the other world, towards which time is fast nearing us. So far as our experience goes, it is not possible to maintain a high spiritual life unless we obey this command of God and keep the Sabbath holy.’
‘Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things? yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin.’
‘YET’—but, for all that, notwithstanding, nevertheless—there was none like him. It required the whole Godhead to deliver that verdict on poor, frail, tottering human character. Solomon began well and ended ill. Outlandish women caused him to sin; he had broken the sacred law; he had, so to say, performed the miracle of trampling himself under foot. ‘YET’—oh, that light of hope, that sound of music, that syllable of joy! Who then will despise the least? who then will give up the worst? who will write his own child’s history and conclude it in woe? Will any one write the history of the prodigal son without ending it in mirth and glee and song and dance and unpolluted revel?
I. There are two ‘yets.’—God’s ‘yet’ is one of hope; He pronounces from heaven that the majority is in favour of goodness. Then there is another ‘yet,’ in which man does twice over the sin which has been pardoned. Shall we not rather reverse the chronology and say, there is a ‘yet’ which indicates that man sins against God; then there is a second ‘yet’ which proves that where sin abounded grace did much more abound? That is the right chronology, if so be our hearts are not wholly given over to the power of evil and the reign of darkness. Solomon was a bad man. He would not have denied the charge himself. Witness after witness could have been called who would have proved the treachery of his heart, even if Solomon himself had resisted the impeachment. ‘Yet.’ You should take that word into your family. It will shed a rosy flight through the darkest chambers of the house, and through the darkest chambers of the soul.
II. What is the effect of God’s ‘yet’ in the course of human discipline?—It never prevents punishment. God will not spare the rod. Laceration is part of divine education. We must suffer, and there is no help for it; and if God could sin, God would suffer. There is nothing arbitrary in penalty, so far as it is administered by Providence. Human penalties may be arbitrary, irregular, and eccentric; but the punishment, the consequence that follows sin, is divine, inevitable. What is punishment? Here every man must be his own dictionary. What is punishment to one man is no punishment to another. Personality defines penalty. The point you started from will tell you what hell is. A man who has been accustomed to the highest enjoyments of civilisation will have one definition of a prison, and a man who has lived in meanness and misery and every kind of villainy will have another. As we grow in sensitiveness we grow in the power of appreciating penalty. To one child a look will be punishment enough; another could receive the rod and afterwards smile at the smiter.
(1) ‘It is better to fall into the hands of God than into the hands of men. Your brethren like to speak against you, to have discovered a peccadillo, one little sin, and to have fingers dainty enough to pick out that little hair, and to be able to say, “I’ve got it!” The Lord saith, You have wounded Me, and disappointed Me, and gone away from Me, yet—how can I give thee up? Return! That is the difference between your human theories and the great divine idea of redemption—God always seeing the best, fixing His eyes upon the salvable points, looking to those elements that are still left out of which He can rear manhood. He will not quench the smoking flax, He will not break the bruised reed.’
(2) Never take any man at his worst; God always takes us at our best. If ever we touch the reality of prayer, He answers us then; He knows we must offer a million words before we come to the one word, the right word, and no sooner do we utter it than He gathers the clouds in His heavens and sends rich rain upon the thirsty land. You may talk six times to Him and hear nothing, see nothing, by way of response; but in the seventh time you will come upon the right chord, the right word, the right appeal; He will then open the windows of heaven and pour you out a blessing so great that there shall not be room to receive it. As God therefore takes us at our best, so let us take each other at our best.’
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Nisbet, James. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13". The Church Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Second Week of Advent