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These files are public domain.
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Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Nehemiah 1". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
commentaries/ eng/ tbi/ nehemiah-1.html. 1905-1909. New York.
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Nehemiah 1". The Biblical Illustrator. https://studylight.org/
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The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah.
The royal cup-bearer
I. Let us notice the words alluded to by Nehemiah. They were as follows: “And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year,” etc.
1. You observe that the time and the place of this conversation are given. It was at Shushan or Susa, the winter residence of the King of Persia.
2. There are places and periods that stand out more prominently than others in the history of most of us. “It came to pass in the month Chisleu,” etc.
3. The particular matter referred to was a conversation he had with a kinsman of his, and with other co-religionists lately come from Palestine, respecting the state of the Jews there, “and concerning Jerusalem.” Nehemiah was not indifferent to his country’s condition. It was a twofold question that he put.
(1) He wanted to know how it had fared with the Hebrews--“the delivered ones,” “the escaped ones.”
(2) The other aspect of the question here put by Nehemiah has reference to Jerusalem. An exiled Londoner or Parisian’s love for London or Paris would not, we may be sure, be deeper, stronger than that which Nehemiah must have had for the promised land, and for “the city, the place of his fathers’ sepulchres.” As was to be expected, he asked for information” concerning Jerusalem.” It has been well said, “No place is so strong, no building so grand, no wall so firm, that sin cannot undermine and overthrow it.” Let no man trust in ceremonies, or sacred-houses, or sacred traditions, so long as his heart is far from God, and his life is not in accord with His righteous creed.
II. Let us notice the emotion of Nehemiah on hearing the tidings alluded to. “I sat down and wept,” he says, “and mourned certain days, and fasted.” He also adds, “and prayed before the God of heaven.” He wept. Nor was it weak or unmanly for him to do so. “His was the tear most sacred shed for others’ pain.” To weep at trifles, or at fictitious sorrows, may be effeminate; but ‘twas no trifle, no imaginary sorrow, that now drew tears from Nehemiah.
1. His grief was further manifested by lamentation and fasting.
2. It was a profound grief which seized him.
3. It was a somewhat prolonged as well as profound grief. It lasted, at any rate, certain days.
4. It was a patriot’s grief.
5. Again, it was a penitent grief.
6. Nehemiah’s grief reminds us of another and yet more touching spectacle, the tears which Jesus shed over Jerusalem.
“And when He was come near, He beheld the city, and wept over it,” etc.
III. In the third place, let us look at the prayer which Nehemiah was thus prompted to offer, Let us learn that the province of prayer is not restricted to things spiritual. It embraces the affairs of everyday life, and all lawful undertakings great and small. (T. Rowson.)
The typical patriot
Nehemiah the civilian, as contrasted with Ezra the ecclesiastic, is brought before us in this book as the patriot deliverer of his people.
I. The typical patriot Is purely disinterested in principle. Personal ambition is sunk in desire for public good. Selfish motives are abandoned for generous impulses.
1. This does not prevent his rising to a position of honour even in an alien country. A good man is valued anywhere. Fidelity to convictions ever commands respect apart from the merit of the convictions themselves. Honour from an alien chief can only be allowed to the true patriot conditionally--
(1) That no vital principle is sacrificed. Nehemiah evidently remained true to his nation and loyal to his God.
(2) That it is made subservient to the interests of his people. At Shushan Nehemiah was really serving them better than he could do at Jerusalem until summoned there by Divine Providence. He was learning the principles of government at the centre of the most powerful government in the world. He had immediate access to the monarch himself.
2. He is always ready to surrender personal honour for his people’s good--
(1) If by so doing he can be of more service to his brethren. Self-sacrifice is the grand test of all pretension.
(2) If personal honour be associated with his people’s oppression. Learn--
1. By obedience we make the most stubborn laws of nature our servants.
2. By patience foes may be transformed into friends.
3. By the discipline of adversity the foundations of prosperity are laid.
II. The typal patriot is large-hearted in his sympathies.
1. He manifests a real interest in the condition of his country (verse 2). The words imply--
(1) That Nehemiah was not a passive listener to the rehearsal of his people’s affliction.
(2) That he entered into particulars and was most minute in his inquiries. They who have no intention of practical sympathy are careful to elicit no tales of sorrow.
2. He takes upon himself the burden of his country’s woes (verse 4).
III. The typal patriot recognises divine sovereignty in human affairs.
1. By accepting the existence and authority of the King of kings. Not only as--
(1) A dogma, but also as--
(2) A regulative principle. “O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God.”
2. By regarding Divine aid as superior to all other.
(1) As the most powerful that can be obtained.
(2) As controlling all other aid.
Nehemiah seeks Divine assistance in urging his suit in his approaching interview with the king--
(a) That he may reach the monarch’s will by the most accessible channel.
(b) That he may approach him at the most accessible moment.
(c) That he may urge his request in the most prevalent form.
3. By regarding Divine aid as available through prayer. Nehemiah’s prayer is one of the model prayers of the Bible, as--
(1) Reverent in its attitude towards God (verse 5).
(2) Persistent in pressing its suit (verse 6).
(3) Penitent in its tone and temper (verses 6, 7).
(4) Scriptural in its argument (verses 8, 9).
(5) Childlike in its spirit (vats. 10, 11).
(6) Definite in its aim (verse 11).
1. Nehemiah is a type of Him who “though He was rich, yet for our sakes became poor,” etc.
2. Intercessory prayer is the inspiration and the evidence of true patriotism.
3. Divine interposition is the safest to invoke in national crises. (W. H. Booth.)
The pious patriot
He was willing, moreover, to make no little sacrifice in the cause of patriotism. Even in asking the king for leave of absence on such a mission, he was probably risking the royal displeasure. No one could well predict how an Oriental despot would be likely to regard such a request. All might depend on the whim or caprice of the moment. That Nehemiah should wish to exchange Susa for Jerusalem--that he should desire to quit, even for a time, the sunlight of the royal presence which was condescending to shine upon him--might possibly be viewed as an insult. The very fact that he was a favourite might only increase the royal irritation. A tyrant likes his pets to appreciate their privileges; and Nehemiah, by asking for leave of absence, might only lose the royal favour and be deposed from his office. Then, again, even if his request should be granted, he would have to sacrifice for a time all the luxury and ease of his present position; he would have to subject himself to toil and danger; he would have to face the arduous journey between Susa and Jerusalem; and then, after arriving in the city of his fathers, he would have to confront the hostility of the surrounding tribes, and might even have to exchange the courtier’s robes for the soldier’s armour. But all these sacrifices Nehemiah was prepared to make in the cause of patriotism. His court life had not enervated his spirit. An intelligent and manly piety does not destroy or despise any of the natural affections. There is, indeed, a “pietism” which makes light of the ties of home and kindred, which disparages patriotism, as if it were inconsistent with the universal love inspired by the gospel, or which even ventures to taboo politics as a worldly region which a spiritual man ought rather to avoid. Let us beware of this false spirituality. The world of natural human relationships is God’s world, and not the devil’s; and if the devil has intruded into it, there is all the more need that it should be occupied by the earnest soldiers of God. Pietism may say, “Never mind the condition of the walls of Jerusalem: souls are the grand concern.” But, in point of fact, the condition of walls may sometimes affect the condition of souls. Things external often stand in subtle relation to things spiritual. The body influences the mind; and the outward conditions of national existence may stand in the closest connection with the religious life of a people. Besides, it Ii natural that we should love our own country with a special affection; and a true religion does not destroy but consecrates all natural attachments. On the other hand, there are many politicians who are no patriots, and there is also a patriotism in which there is no godliness, There are men who take the keenest interest in politics merely because it furnishes an arena for the exercise of their faculties, the display of their talents, and the furtherance of their ambitions. And there are also true patriots--real lovers of their country--who yet never recognise the hand of God in national history, who never think of praying to God in connection with their plans, or of submitting their political projects and methods to the test of His will. Now, if a man’s patriotism is his only religion, this is doubtless better than that his “god” should be his “belly,” and that he should “glory in his shame.” But still, this patriotism in which there is no regard for God is fraught with danger. For the grand and prime demand on every one of us is that we be the servants of the Most High, the soldiers of Christ, the loyal subjects of the Divine kingdom. And then it is our bounden duty to serve God in and through all our natural pursuits, affections, and relationships, and, amongst other things, to bring all our political theories, aims, and methods into the light of Christ and of His Spirit. We want, both in the Church and in the commonwealth, men and women in whom, as in Nehemiah of old, piety and patriotism are blended and intertwined. (T. C. Finlayson.)
Divine purposes working through providence
I. Here is eminent piety in a most unlikely place (Nehemiah 1:1).
1. Palaces are not generally favourable to piety--
(1) Because unrestrained liberty usually degenerates into license and lavish luxury into licentiousness. Court morals are proverbially corrupt.
(2) Because religion does not flourish amidst human pomp and the outward symbols of pride. A palace is, above all others, a theatre of human exaltation and proud display.
(3) Because the commands of a sovereign are liable to clash with the mandates of Jehovah.
2. Piety is not impossible even in a palace--
(1) Inasmuch as God will protect them who honour Him. If God has placed His servant in the palace to do His work, He will keep him there until the work is done.
(2) Inasmuch as many eminent examples are recorded in Scripture. Not only Nehemiah, but Moses, Joseph, Obadiah, and Daniel. Learn--
1. Eminent piety does not depend upon the accidentals of a man’s social position.
2. Exalted positions are less desirable than they appear.
3. The most desirable station in life is that in which we can serve God to the best advantage.
II. Here is an event apparently trifling leading to results of the greatest magnitude (verse 2).
1. The most trivial event may lead to the most momentous issues. The oak is contained in the acorn; the prairie is fired by a spark; a nation is plunged into war as the result of a jest. Many a quiet conversation has led to world-wide revolutions.
2. Nothing is therefore trivial to a wise man.
1. Every detail in a good man’s life is part of a Divine plan.
2. To avoid crossing the Divine purpose and thwarting the Divine plan we must do all to the glory of God.
III. Here is a startling summons of a most unexpected character. Although no direct appeal was made, Nehemiah as truly heard the Divine call as Samuel the voice in the darkness, or Paul the voice of the vision, “Come over to Macedonia.”
1. Here is an appeal for sympathy and help--not the less powerful because indirect. Mute appeals are often the most eloquent. AEschylus appealing for the life of his brother by holding up the stump of the arm he had lost in the service of his country. The high-priest in the holy place sprinkled the blood seven times without speaking. This appeal was--
(1) The cry of humanity appealing to human sympathies.
(2) The cry of brotherhood appealing to his kinship.
(3) The cry of fatherland appealing to his patriotism.
(4) The call of God.
2. Here is a summons which involved great sacrifice. Love never counts the cost. Sacrifice is its glory. Sincerity always distinguished from hypocrisy by this test.
3. Here is an unexpected summons promptly obeyed.
1. Life is full of surprises, and the tenure of ease uncertain.
2. The good man is prepared to follow the leadings of providence without hesitation and at any cost.
IV. Here is a saviour raised up in a most unlooked-for quarter.
1. God is ever training His agents for the work which He means them to accomplish. Nehemiah, Joseph, Moses, David, Cyrus, Paul, Luther, Wesley, and many others.
2. At the proper time God will bring His agents into contact with their life-work.
3. The qualifications of God’s agents are not always recognised at first.
1. God uses the most unlikely agents.
2. God leads in the most unlooked-for ways.
3. God’s redemptive scheme is the most incomprehensible of all mysteries.
V. Here is a picture of the demoralising and dismantling tendency of sin, alike in cities and in souls.
1. The inhabitants of Jerusalem were demoralised: “In great affliction and reproach.” Long captivity and dependence had enervated them. Powers not used lapse into impotence. Sin cherished withers moral force.
2. The battlements of Jerusalem were dismantled. Thus does sin ever destroy defences and throw down battlements, leaving souls at the mercy of destructive forces which lead to eternal shame.
1. Sin reveals its deadly nature in its direful consequences even in this life.
2. These consequences are designed to act as warnings to unwary souls.
3. They suggest still more awful penalties in that world where judgment is untempered by mercy. (W. H. Booth.)
Nothing is here said of the parentage or early training of Nehemiah. We may suppose he grew up in a pious home, where daily prayers, and instructions, and acts of godliness were imbued with deep religious feeling. The early days of the future reformer were perhaps spent in listening to the recital of many an endeared memory of the land of Judah, and his young heart was probably taught to beat high with hope of the restoration of his people to their covenant inheritance.
I. The situation he occupied. The palace at Shushan was one of the most magnificent in the ancient world. The site of its ruins has been identified by modern travellers, and here large blocks of marble, with other fragments of splendid edifices, are often dug up--the relics of a grandeur that has long since passed away. The place of his abode offered many attractions to captivate a youthful mind. There were in the streets of that vast city the splendour and bustle of Oriental life. There might seem in all this “lust of the eye and pride of life” ominous danger to youthful piety. But it is a wonderful power, the grace of God in the human heart. It is marvellous in the souls it selects for saving change, in the places where it operates, and in the triumphs it achieves. Often it appears wanting in those who seem most favourably situated for its possession, while it reigns in hearts where it might seem impossible for it to live and grow. And in him God made the palace of a heathen prince the nursery and sanctuary of an eminent servant of His cause. In view of this, let none among us allege that their situation or circumstances render it impracticable for them to cultivate religion or abound in well-doing. Men may rush into temptation in their earthly business, and thereby raise up invincible barriers to the exercise of piety; but God, by His providence, never places any man in a situation where it is impossible for him to love and obey Him. If you are where God has placed you, be sure you may be, and do, what God requires you. In every situation of life there is enough to test the sincerity of faith in things unseen.
II. The spirit he displayed. It was a spirit of tender interest for the good of Jerusalem. The subjects of inquiry show the spirit of the man. He was living in ease and affluence himself, but he could not forget he was “of the stock of Israel,” and he felt, therefore, the prosperity of religion bound up with that feeble remnant. He might have seen couriers arrive at the royal palace from distant regions, bearing tidings of fresh victories gained by Persian armies, and of new countries subjected to the Persian crown, and yet not be greatly moved by the intelligence; but the arrival of these fellow-saints stirred up his spirit within him to inquire concerning the state of the Church in the land of his fathers. Do we not see here that it is the history and condition of the cause of truth on earth which interests the wise and good? They may not, indeed, be unaffected by events which concern the welfare of mankind and illustrate the wisdom of God in His providence; but it is especially the progress of the kingdom of grace that engages the attention of its true subjects. It was a spirit of deep sorrow for the distress of his people in Judah.
III. The exercises in which he engaged. Nehemiah “fasted and prayed.” (W. Ritchie.)
The use of a great purpose
To a thoughtful mind there is much interest in the contemplation of the circumstances under which the great purpose of a life first rise into distinctness before the mind of one whose energies, henceforth, are to be used for his country and his God, and whose example stands before us as a noble incentive to steadfastness of purpose and courage in the performance of duty. (Scenes from the Life of Nehemiah.)
Piety in unexpected places
Fine gold has often been found under e, barren and unpromising surface. Rare jewels have been found in the crevices of rocks and in the pebbly beds of rivers. Exquisite flower’s have peeped forth from the ledge of a stupendous Alpine rock, and have breathed their sweetness amid a wilderness of ice and snow. Palm-trees have lifted up their tall and elegant stems, adorned at the summit with long pendant leaves and enriched with nourishing fruit, in the midst of the sandy desert, and their life has been sustained by a hidden well of springing water at their root. This has often been the case with God’s children--Joseph, Obadiah, saints in Caesar’s household. Here Nehemiah in the court of one of the most luxurious eastern princes. (J. M. Randall.)
Nehemiah and his contempories
Nehemiah flourished four centuries before Christ. When consuls and dictators were beginning to play an important part in Roman politics; when Xenophon and Herodotus were historians and Phidias was sculptor; when Euripides, Sophocles, and Aristophanes wrote tragedy and comedy; when Socrates taught philosophy and Pericles was prime minister at Athens; and when the western nations of Europe were sunk in savage barbarism, Nehemiah was the devout cup-bearer at Shushan. We are not told from what tribe he sprang. His grandfather had been taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar; his father was born and educated at Babylon. Probably the beauty of his person and the sweetness of his manners, the extensive range of his intellect, and the integrity of his character, recommended Nehemiah to royal favour. (J. M. Randall.)
I asked them concerning the Jews . . . and concerning Jerusalem.
Careful inquiry helpful to philanthropic effort
Few portions of Scripture set forth more clearly than the Book of Nehemiah the power of one man to do great things for God when God is with him. With an earnest desire to work for God, Nehemiah first sought to gain accurate information, from a reliable source, both as to the need that existed and the nature of the work that had to be done. Careful inquiry respecting the field of any projected effort will often reveal much of which we had previously but little conception. This should not dishearten us, however, for we ought rather to remember that the deeper the darkness and degradation of those whom we seek to reach, the more needful is it to bring them under the enlightening and elevating power of the gospel of Christ. (W. P. Lockhart.)
Man’s love for the land of his birth
Mr. Christie Murray, writing of the old Australian settlers, relates an incident to show how, after a long life of exile, they still pine for home and England. When his ship left Plymouth Sound a good deal of mud adhered to the anchor. After it was dried he broke off a bit, declaring, half in jest and half in earnest, that this piece of English earth should go with him around the world. In Australia he showed it to a white-haired ranchman among the hills. The old man eyed it wistfully. “Give it to me,” he said at last. “You will see old England again; I never shall. I would value that bit of earth more than diamonds.” Mr. Murray gave it to him, and continued his journey. When he came back, months later, he found that the old man had ridden more than a hundred miles to a settlement to buy a gay little plush stand and a glass case in which to preserve his treasure. De Maistre, describing the hut of the Moravian missionary in the most northern human settlement within the Arctic circle, says that he observed, suspended over the fireplace like a holy relic, a piece of rough, unbarked wood. He looked at it curiously. The Dane touched it with reverence. “It is a bit of the old oak-tree at home,” he said, his eyes full of tears. Nothing can be more real than that clinging in the heart of a man to the land of his birth. It may be of all countries in the world the poorest, the least beautiful, the most insignificant. But it is his own, and if he is a genuine man the trifle which tells him of it, though he stands in a king’s palace, will speak to him as with the power of his mother’s voice. (Christian Age.)
The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.--
Walls and gates
What, then, are the “walls and gates” of the New Testament? The Church is now catholic, and no longer national. It is not now a civil polity and the necessities of a civil community that determine the nature of these “walls and gates.” Yet there are some things of prime importance, like the walls and gates of Jerusalem.
I. The sacred observance of the Lord’s day. All history shows that whenever and wherever the Sabbath is overthrown the Church is perilously exposed, not only to decay, but even to extinction.
II. A numerous congregation of attendants upon the ordinances and worship of the church.
III. Sabbath schools are “the gates” of our jerusalem.
IV. The liberality and self-sacrifice of God’s people. (J. A. Lefevre, D. D.)
Interest in Jerusalem
I. The story of jerusalem throws light upon god’s moral government. Great privileges involve great responsibilities. National sin brings national ruin. Nations are rewarded and punished in this world.
II. It is a mark of real piety to be zealous for the cause and kingdom of God. How bitterly do Christians mourn over the wickedness around them, and the severe conflict they have to maintain in their own breasts.
III. Every Christian has, more or less, to tread a solitary path, and his deepest sorrows are frequently those which he cannot communicate to the nearest and dearest on earth. Who would have thought that when his attendance upon the king was over for the day, Nehemiah would hasten to his chamber, weep bitter tears of grief, and mourn and pray? (J. M. Randall.)
Jerusalem, the holy
city:--Thoroughly to realise the sad tidings brought to Nehemiah, we must briefly recall the former history of Jerusalem. No city possesses so deep and thrilling an interest. Other cities may boast of a higher antiquity. Thebes and Nineveh may go back even to the repeopling of the world after the deluge. Other cities may claim a broader area, a more numerous population, a more extended commerce. Other cities may claim to be the centres of a far greater earthly dominion than was ever accorded to David. But whether in the past, the present, or the future, them is no interest like that which attaches to the holy city. (J. M. Randall.)
Sin ruins a kingdom
I. If there be a moral governor of the universe sin must provoke him.
II. If sin provoke God He is able to punish it.
III. Bodies of men punishable in this world only.
IV. There is a tendency in the very nature of sin to injure and ruin a country.
V. God’s dealings with guilty nations are confirmed both by His word and all human history.
VI. God always gives previous intimation of his coming to judge a nation.
VII. If God favoured a nation with an intimation of His will, Their sins are aggravated by means of this light.
VIII. When God has distinguished a people by singular instances of his favour, that people will be proportionally criminal unless they distinguish themselves by their devotedness to Him.
IX. When a nation is under corrections of the almighty, they are eminently sinful if they disregard the tokens of His wrath.
X. Shameless sinning is a sure proof of general corruption. (W. Jay.)
The walls of Jerusalem
What do we know of these walls previous to the time of Nehemiah? The city of Jerusalem passed into the hands of the Jews under David. He wrested the rocky stronghold of Zion, which commands Jerusalem, from the Canaanitish tribe of the Jebusites. He made it the capital of his kingdom. To secure his position David threw a wall round the entire city, including the fortress of Zion. In the reign of Solomon (b.c. 1016-976) this wall was greatly strengthened. Very large towers were erected at intervals upon it, and its height was increased. Probably also some outlying parts of the city were now comprised within its circuit. For nearly two centuries this wall remained intact. Jerusalem sustained several sieges; but it was only in the reign of Amaziah, in b.c. 826, that a breach was made in the fortifications. Jehoash, the king of Israel, “ brake down the wall of Jerusalem, from the gate of Ephraim to the corner gate, four hundred cubits” (2 Kings 14:13). Through this gap in the wall, Josephus tells us, the victorious Jehoash drove his chariot into Jerusalem, leading Amaziah captive with him. Uzziah (b.c. 808) the succeeding king of Judah, was a prosperous and enterprising prince. He occupied himself for a large portion of his life in the improvement of his capital. He repaired the breach made by Jehoash, and built additional towers. Other portions of the walls that had been suffered to fall into decay were renewed. He was an artillerist; he equipped the walls and their towers with powerful engines for hurling stones and other missiles against besiegers. Jothan, his son (b.c. 756), also strengthened the walls by building new massive towers. The care which had been expended upon the fortifications of the city by successive kings, for so long a period, bore memorable fruit in the reign of Hezekiah. The tide of Assyrian invasion which then swept over Palestine, and which overwhelmed for ever the ten tribes of Israel, met with a check before the fortress of Jerusalem. In prospect of this invasion Hezekiah had repaired the walls wherever they had become dilapidated, and had erected an additional wall. While the city was invested the mysterious plague came upon the camp of the Assyrians, which swept off myriads of them in a single night. They were content to retire (b.c. 710) with a tribute paid by Hezekiah; the city itself, however, remained uncaptured. Manasseh, after his repentance (b.c. 677-642), paid attention to the fortifications of the city. “He did not only,” says Josephus, “repair the old walls with great diligence, but added another wall to the former. He built, also, very lofty towers, and the garrisoned places before the city he strengthened not only in other respects, but with provisions of all sorts that they wanted.” It was nearly forty years later that the series of calamities commenced which lasted for twenty years, and which culminated in the complete overthrow of this illustrious city. In b.c. 606 Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, entered Jerusalem, and after threatening Jehoiakim, the king, with captivity, left him in possession of his throne. He appeared before the city again nine years later; and Jehoiachin, who had succeeded his father Jehoiakim, surrendered Jerusalem to him with scarcely a struggle. Nebuchadnezzar carried him off with him to Babylon, and placed his uncle Zedekiah upon the throne in Jerusalem. Six years after this Zedekiah rebelled against Babylon, and after a siege of a year and a half, the severest it had undergone since it had been a Jewish city, a breach was made in the wall of Jerusalem, through which the Babylonian army poured into the city. Zedekiah and most of the people were transferred to Babylon. The royal palace, the temple, and all the principal buildings were burned, and the stately and massive walls were levelled to the ground, their circuit being only traceable by the vast heaps of rubbish left by the devastators. To restore these famous walls, to perform once more the work of David and Solomon and their successors, to reproduce in a few weeks the labour of centuries, this was the task which lay before Nehemiah. But what was their size? What were the -particulars of the work undertaken by Nehemiah? The city of Jerusalem is not at the present time a great city. The circumference of the modern wails is two and a half miles; and while the ancient walls would not in many portions coincide with the present, nevertheless the total circuit of the old walls would not greatly differ in length from those of the present time. It has been stated by the eminent architect, Mr. Ferguson, in Dr. Smith’s “Dictionary of the Bible,” that the area within the old walls was never more than one hundred and eighty acres; and he remarks, by way of comparison, that the building known as the Great Exhibition of 1851 covered eighteen acres, or a tenth part of the area of ancient Jerusalem. From this estimate it will be seen that the city was one of moderate dimensions. We must remember also that here and there portions of the wall were left standing. The foundations, too, would remain, throughout the entire circuit, as they originally were. The object of the invaders would be to render the fortifications incapable of serving any longer as a defence to the inhabitants; and this object would be gained without disturbing the foundations of the walls. The stones and rabble of which they had been built were not carried to a distance, but lay in heaps ready to the hands of the builders. This material would not, however, be available in every case. The limestone around Jerusalem, which was used in the construction of the important buildings, when exposed to fire (as many parts of the wall had been) rapidly disintegrated. It resembled the granite of which Chicago was built, and which crumbled to dust in the great fire which destroyed that city a few years since. This is the point of the taunt uttered by Sanballat (Nehemiah 4:2): “Will these Jews revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?” (A. J. Griffith.)
City walls important
In the solicitude of Nehemiah over the ruined condition of the walls of Jerusalem we have brought into prominence an element in ancient national life which it is useful to understand, and which is the foundation and keystone of Nehemiah’s subsequent action. It was the walls that made the nation in those days. The law which then prevailed ripen the face of the earth was the law of might. A town of any size was at the mercy of every roving, plundering horde, if it were unfortified. When once it was surrounded with strong walls, it became possible for the citizens to accumulate property, enact laws for the order and well-being of the citizens, and to elect magistrates to carry these laws into effect. With their erection dated the commencement of civic life. Where the city was large, the citizens became a nation. The Babylonian nation, and, earlier, the Ninevite people, meant really the citizens living within the walls of the immense cities--Babylon and Nineveh. The history of Italy in the ninth century of our era illustrates this law of states. The country was overrun by the armies of rival princes, who disputed for the throne of the Lombard kingdom. The Saracens from the opposite shores of Africa were constantly landing upon the coast, and penetrating inland for the purpose of pillage and massacre. In this condition of the country the large cities were compelled again to erect their walls, which had been levelled to the ground by jealous and tyrannical kings. The great Republics of Italy, the cities which afterwards became nations in themselves, Milan, Florence, Pisa, and others, laid in this way the foundation of their subsequent greatness. “From the time,” says Sismondi in his “History of the Italian Republics,” “when towns were secured by walls, their power rapidly increased; the oppressed from all parts sought refuge in them from the oppressors; they carried with them their industry and arms to protect the walls that defended them. Everywhere they were sure of a good reception, for every city felt it had strength only in proportion to the number of its citizens; each vied with its neighbour in efforts to augment the means of defence and in the reception given to strangers.” Of such supreme importance were the fortifications of a city to national life and progress in those ages of disorder. (A. J. Griffith.)
Have you ever seen a hermit crab? Some day, when you are at the seaside, you will see one. It is a crab which has no hard shell of its own, and consequently is an easy prey for sea-birds. It therefore gets possession of an empty whelk-shell, and lives in the abandoned house of the whelk, barring the door upon itself with the one great claw, which has grown twice the size of the other, apparently for the purpose. But when his crabship grows too big for his shell, it becomes as uncomfortable as a shoe that pinches, and he has to turn out to look for another. Look at him now! He in a great hurry, because he is in danger, and knows it. He wants just what Jerusalem wanted--a wall of stone and lime about him. That is what a shell is--a wall of stone and lime. Sometimes the hermit crab gets eaten up by a gull or skua before he can find another shell to suit him; sometimes he has to turn out the rightful owner from his home in order to get in himself; but he always knows that he needs a defence. It is a simple comparison; but it gives a true idea of the state of the case ha say that Jerusalem, without a stone and lime wall, was a hermit crab without a shell, surrounded by Galilean gulls and Samaritan skuas. (Sunday School.)
And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept.
Sad tidings and fruitful grief
I. The occasion of His grief.
1. Not personal loss.
(1) Men grieve on account of personal loss--failure of business, scarcity of work, pecuniary loss involving personal privation, etc.
(2) Men grieve on account of spiritual failure. Neither of these explains the occasion of Nehemiah’s grief.
2. But public calamity.
(1) He had inquired carefully into the state of God’s work. Every good man should thus interest himself in God’s work. Men shun this conscientious inquiry for various reasons.
(a) Some on account of the peace which ignorance brings.
(b) Some dread the painful discoveries which careful inquiry may reveal.
(c) Others the sacrifices which such discoveries may demand.
(2) He had received sorrowful tidings. To a good man tidings of the Church’s desolation are ever sad tidings.
(a) It betrays unfaithfulness. A holy and loyal Church cannot be a dishonoured one. The shorn strength, as with Samson, betrays unwatchfulness and worldliness.
(b) It furnishes occasion of reproach to the enemies of the Church.
II. The characteristics of His grief.
1. It was profound.
2. It was enduring.
3. It was self-denying. Real heart-pain is always ascetic in its bodily aspect. “And fasted.” Observe--
(1) Fasting is often associated with profound grief in Scripture (2Sa 1:12; 2 Samuel 12:16-21; Psalms 35:13; Psalms 69:10; Daniel 6:8; John 3:5). It may be the natural attendant of such grief, or the outward symbol of its presence.
(2) Fasting is recognised and commended in Scripture as a religious exercise (1 Samuel 7:6; Jeremiah 36:9; Matthew 6:17; Acts 10:30; 1 Corinthians 7:5).
III. The issue of His grief. “And prayed before the God of heaven.” Herein consists the difference between godly and selfish sorrow. The one invariably finds relief in prayer, the other ends in blank despair.
1. Grief is sanctified by prayer. It then becomes sacred, and softens the heart like showers on the thirsty soil. Rebellious grief is hardening in its effect.
2. Grief is relieved by prayer.
1. Profound grief on behalf of others is perfectly consistent with personal enjoyment of the Divine favour.
2. Godly grief usually precedes gracious visitations
3. Burdened hearts find best relief in prayer. (W. H. Booth.)
The Church and social
evils:--The accurate dates given in this book show that the period of Nehemiah’s brooding sorrow lasted four months. The emotions excited in Nehemiah by his countrymen’s sorrows suggest some plain lessons for Christian people.
I. The duty of sympathetic contemplation of surrounding sorrows. The first condition of sympathy is knowledge; the second is attending to what we know. How demoralising is the thought that many people seem to entertain, that the universe, and hideous vices and sodden immorality, and utter heathenism which are found down among the foundations of every civic community are as indispensable to progress as the noise of the wheels of a train is to its advancement, or as the bilge-water in a wooden ship is to keep its seams tight. Every consideration of communion with and conformity to Jesus Christ, of loyalty to His words, of a true sense of brotherhood, and of lower things--such as sell-interest--demands that Christian people shall take to their hearts, in a fashion that Churches have never done yet, “the condition of England question,” and shall ask, “Lord, what wouldst Thou have me to do?”
II. Such a realisation of the dark facts is indispensable to all true work for alleviating them. There is no way of helping men, but by bearing what they bear. No man will ever lighten a sorrow of which he has not himself felt the pressure. The Cross of Christ is the pattern for our lives. The “saviours of society” have still in lower fashion to be crucified. No work of any real use will be done except by those whose hearts have bled with the feeling of the miseries which they set themselves to cure.
III. Such realisation of surrounding sorrows will drive to communion with God. All true service for the world must begin with close communion with God. The “service of man” is best done when it is the service of God. You will never get the army of workers that is needed to grapple with the facts of our present condition unless you touch the very deepest springs of conduct, and these axe to be found in communion with God. All other efforts at alleviate work by those who ignore Christian motive is but surface drainage. Get down to the love of God, and the love of men therefrom, and you have got an artesian well which will bubble up unfailingly. We hear a great deal about a “social gospel.” Let us remember that the gospel is social second and individual first. If you get the love of God and obedience to Jesus Christ into a man’s heart it will be like putting gas into a balloon--it will go up and the man will get out of the slums fast enough; and he will not be a slave to the vices of the world much longer. It is the work of the Church to carry to the world the only thing that will make men deeply and abidingly happy, because it will make them good.
IV. Such sympathy should be the parent of a noble self-sacrificing life, Nehemiah, like Moses, “chose rather to suffer affliction with the people of God” and to turn his back on the dazzlements of a court, than to “enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season,” while his brethren were suffering. The spirit of this example must still be observed. It is no part of my business to prescribe to you details of duty. It is my business to insist on the principles which must regulate these, and of these principles in application to Christian service there is none more stringent than “I will not offer unto my God burnt offerings of that which doth cost me nothing.” (A. Maclaren, D. D.)
Personal interest leading to importunate prayer
The story begins with an account of the condition of Jerusalem. At this time the city was in a bad plight--walls broken down, gateways burned with fire, streets deserted and grass grown. The heathen passed by in scornful derision and said, “Is this the city which wag called beautiful, the joy of the whole earth?” Only six months go by, and what a wonderful change! The walls are built and the gateways are secure. Instead of a few people with bent heads and sad hearts, there is a great army of workmen. What had happened? Had God sent some prophet into their midst like Elijah, stirring the hearts of the people? or some mother in Israel like Deborah of old? or another warrior like Gideon or David? Less than that, a great deal less than that, as we count things, but more than that, much more than that, as we ought to count things. One man had taken the sorrows of Jerusalem in upon his heart--that was all. One man had taken the sad state of things in upon his heart, and began to sorrow about it, and weep over it, and thought so much about it that it quite spoiled his appetite. He could not rest by day or night, and at last he had to take the burden right in before God and cast it upon Him. That was all. Ah, but that is all that is wanted! The world’s salvation rests not upon organisations, upon means, upon preachers, or upon arrangements, but upon deep personal interest--personal interest leading to importunate prayer, and importunate prayer leading to earnest effort. That is the only way in which the Church can ever be victorious, and can ever be saved. The saddest thing to-day is that men are Christians without being Christlike, that men do not take the sins and sorrows of the world in upon their hearts. Now what are the most of us doing?
1. Here is one who has heard these evil tidings of to-day, and of a thousand other ills that afflict and disgrace our land. “It is sad,” he says, “very sad indeed; I do wish I could help you. But you see I can do so very little. I will double my subscription for a year; but of course I am not in a position to do anything more. You see I am not a prophet, or then I might go forth and preach to the people. I am not a priest, and must not take upon myself a task which belongs to others. I am not a warrior, and cannot head a host of soldiers, or no doubt I should fight. I don’t see that I can do anything.” And the man is going away quite satisfied that he at any rate has done his duty. This is the average Christian of the nineteenth century. Now there comes some simple man who lays his hand upon this man’s shoulder, and says, “There is one thing we can do; we can pray about it.” Then there comes the amiable smile which we keep for weak, well-meaning people--“Of course, my friend; of course. We all do that, you know.” And the adversity continues as it always does when we pray without personal interest.
2. Then I think of another who has heard of the sad condition of things, and he says, “Well, I really am very lorry, indeed; yes, quite distressed. You know, I think that there must be a great deal of mismanagement up in Jerusalem somewhere; Ezra cannot be looking after it as he ought to be; I feel he is wrong altogether; I think it is a disgrace to him. I wonder whether he thinks David would ever have allowed a condition of things like this to come about?” Personal interest leading people to abuse the workers--that is not a very uncommon thing. “It is dreadful, this condition of things in London. But do you think that ministers are doing their duty?” It is so easy, is it not, when we are disappointed and sad, to fling stones at other people? It is such a relief to be able to find fault with somebody else. Then I think this simple man comes up and says,” Do not you think we ought to pray for them? They have got hard work, and it is difficult to get at.” “Oh, pray! yes, of course; pray all day, of course.” That is a horrible spirit, the spirit that prays as a matter of course, and finds fault with everybody else as a matter of course, too. If you cannot do good, do not go shooting arrows into the hearts of others. I marvel that the great God of heaven has such patience with those people who criticise every method, who find fault with everybody’s failure, and who never in their lives lifted a finger to help souls to Christ--personal interest that can only find fault and blame other people, and that kneels down and prays as a matter of course, but neither has heart, nor earnestness, nor expectation in its prayer.
3. I see another type of character, the man who says, “Well, really, it is very sad indeed.” He is a man not given much to weeping; he has a tender heart; he is sharp, definite, exact, likes to have things down in black and white--your typical Englishman. “Come here” he says; “now let us just have it down. You tell me that the walls have been broken down: how many yards of wall will you want? It is a very serious matter; we shall want so many loads of stone; and our gateways? yes, burned with fire; yes, and so many loads of timber. We are practical men. It is very sad. How many men have you got up there? You have got twenty men. We shall want a thousand men to build up that city. It cannot be done; it is no good, it cannot be done.” Do not you know that man? It is personal interest stopping short of importunate prayer.
4. I think I see another, who has heard of the condition of the poor, and thinks this is a dreadful city, perhaps can think of nothing else; perhaps, like Nehemiah, he feels that relish for appetite is gone; his tears are falling, and he is haunted by the thought of the homeless and outcast ones and hungry little children--Nehemiah weeping and fasting. God loves hearts that fret because of the sins and sorrows around us. God set such store by men who sighed and cried because of the abominations that He sent an angel down from heaven to put a mark upon their foreheads. Do you know what the angel was doing? I think he was taking their measure for their crowns, it is a great thing in the midst of this London to keep alive a tender heart, and if Christ does not give a man a tender heart I question whether that man knows much about the Lord Jesus Christ. But look! fretting will not mend the evil. Earnest personal interest, passing into importunate prayer, will. Nehemiah got as far as fretting, and then he went to God. That is a grand saying of John Wesley’s: “I dare no more fret than I would curse or swear.” It would make the fortune of life insurance offices if we could hit upon that happy receipt. He that only frets will do much, but he who cannot fret will not do anything. I think a Christian ought to be a man who frets--frets, mark you, until he gets to God, and gets hold of God sufficiently, and feels: “Great Father in heaven, Thou canst remedy these ills, and Thou writ!” (Mark Guy Pearse.)
God provides instruments for His work
When God has work to be done He provides suitable instruments and places them in favourable situations to promote His plans. Martin Luther, called to withstand the power of the Papacy, found the God-fearing Elector of Saxony ready to afford him the needed protection, and when the persecuted Waldenses cried for help, Oliver Cromwell so threatened the oppressor that deliverance was wrought. (W. P. Lockhart.)
Compassion as a motive power
Some men work because they are urged to it by others, some because it is the fashion with professors or with those among whom their lot is cast; but the true workers because, “moved with compassion,” they cannot help working. (W. P. Lockhart.)
I. Occasions of fasting.
1. Afflictions of the Church (Nehemiah.)
2. National judgments (Joel).
3. Domestic bereavement (David).
4. Imminent danger (Esther).
5. Solemn ordinances (Paul and Barnabas set apart).
II. The design of fasting.
III. The duty of fasting.
1. Forms part of general principle of self-denial, essential to true discipleship (Luke 9:28).
2. Implied, and therefore enjoined, by words of Christ (Matthew 17:21).
IV. The manner and degree of fasting.
1. Sometimes total abstinence from food for a time (Esther 4:16).
2. More often abstinence from superfluous food (Daniel 10:8).
V. The spirit in which to fast. (Homiletic Commentary.)
I. To give no place to despair, however deep or prolonged our grief. No calamity can be so overwhelming as to block our way to the God before whom Abraham and Daniel, and every devout soul, has bowed in fervent petition for help in dire extremity. God does not forsake or forget the lowliest or weakest or most unworthy. The more we need God--for any reason, our misfortune or our fault--the more reason for our seeking Him, and, in some true sense, the more ready is He to be sought and found.
II. We should not overlook the severities of God’s character or dealings when approaching him with petitions. Modern ideas of God’s fatherhood tend much to put His sterner attributes out of sight. His unquestionable love seems to preclude severities of character or dealings. But our prophet could unite ideas of God as “great and terrible,” and also keeping “covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe His commandments.” By true reasoning we should be wary of views of God which leave out His severity, for there is the side of His character which is the necessary counterpart of love for righteousness and obedience.
III. The importance of importunity. The prayer of our lesson had lasted for days, attended by fasting. Fasting prepares the way for clear thought and tender feeling. Nehemiah did not say, “God fully understands the situation. I need only refer to it.” With familiar urgency he pleads for the “attentive ear” and “open eyes,” that God may know his case and care for it. Similar travail of soul has been an element of prevailing prayer in all ages. Why it is necessary we do not fully know. It may be that importunity is the only safe mood to which answers to prayer can be wisely accorded. Without it the desired boon or the answer would not be appreciated.
IV. The fitness and duty of thorough confession.
V. Moses was an historic character, and our record of him is trustworthy. Nehemiah would not talk with God about a mythical person.
VI. No depth of fall or distance of wandering can invalidate God’s covenant mercies. Though “cast out into the uttermost part of the heaven,” their return would be certain if they would but return unto God and keep His commandments.
VII. Past mercies and mighty rescues are a logical basis of confidence, of faith, and boldness of petition. What is the probable logic of the appeal, “Now these are Thy servants and Thy people, whom. Thou hast redeemed by. Thy great power, and by Thy strong hand”? This, m part: God had made an investment of grace in these children of His adoption; from true economy He would not wish it wasted. Again, the love that sought them in the beginning proceeded from its own internal impulses; such love cannot be easily exhausted. Being a motive unto itself, that motive abides unchanging in character and sufficiency. Again, these subjects of His grace were more needy than ever; any help based upon that need could not be lacking on occasion. All this can be said of individual cases as truly as of Israel. The individual backslider has been “redeemed by great power, and by a strong hand.” The heavenly Father began the work with a full knowledge of the weakness of the material and the possibilities of failure. Let the tender conscience, the sensitive honour writhing in the memory of past mercies that have been abused, grow calm and hopeful in the assurance that redeeming grace does not depend upon dates or any conditions, but genuine brokenness of heart and absolute return to obedience.
VIII. We can go to God in prayer, with only a desire to fear Him.
IX. Prayer should be practical in its outlook. Communion with God may well have our time and attention for its reflex influence; for the nobler soul-life gained thereby; but Nehemiah counted prayer a practical reliance in achieving business results. He needed and coveted the king’s help. His example, in this respect, may well be copied in all our undertakings. God is not an uninterested spectator of our toils or plans. We may come to Him for help where our own strength ceases. (S. L. B. Speare.)
I. One quality which makes Nehemiah’s prayer effectual was its importunity. Two considerations inspired this--
1. He was burdened with a single great desire. Our praying often lacks at this point. We ask amiss because we ask for nothing--in particular. It is the time for devotion, or the place; so we approach the mercy-seat, because we ought to, rather than because we have any pressing need--coming, sometimes, in so vague a way that it might not be easy afterwards to tell just what request had been presented. Nehemiah’s prayer did not have such lack. He was in sore trouble.
2. Another element which gave importunity to his prayer was a conviction that this relief could come only from God. “Give us help from trouble, for vain is the help of man.” During the civil war a gentleman from New England, travelling in South America, noticed one day a Spaniard reading a paper, and asked him the news. “The news is,” replied the other, “that your government is getting beaten. They have taken to praying, and when people have to call on God for help it shows, evidently, they are in a bad way.” That is always the reason why men call on God, because they cannot help themselves. This was what made Nehemiah so much in earnest. Dr. Bushnell remarked once in the Hartford ministers’ meeting, “Brethren, the thing which I have to struggle against most in my praying is a spirit of submission. I give up too easily. I want to learn how to plead more as Jacob did, with a determination not to let God go without the blessing.” He qualified afterwards his words, explaining true submission, but pressed, in his strong way, the importance of persistency. So Nehemiah prayed, not once, but “without ceasing.” He wept and mourned, and fasted “certain days,” “day and night.”
II. A second quality that made Nehemiah’s prayer effectual was its spirit of confession. He seems to have apprehended, very distinctly, the truth which the Bible urges in many ways, that men must come into right relations with God before they can ask any favour of Him.
1. It was particular. He specified some of the points of his guilt. “We have dealt very corruptly against Thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which Thou commandest Thy servant Moses.”
2. Then his confession was individual. He began with an acknowledgment in behalf of the “children of Israel”; but it occurred to him to bring that nearer home, so he added, “Both I and my father’s house have sinned.” He was conscious of his own shortcomings. With all his zeal, his loyalty so constant and so brave, he saw that at many points he had failed, and for these shortcomings he asked forgiveness. When David has made his confession that is so particular, “Against Thee, Thee only have I sinned and done this evil in Thy sight”; and so individual, “I acknowledge my transgression”; “Have mercy upon me, O God.”
III. A third quality that made Nehemiah’s prayer effectual was its faith. Trusting God first in his own behalf for pardon, guidance, strength, he could trust Him in behalf of the nation. He prayed, “Remember, I beseech Thee, the word that Thou commandest.” He seemed to know the Divine will by some clear intimation. That appears, at first, to diminish the worth of his example. We say, “Yes, certainly; no wonder he had faith; any one could ask for wonderful blessing if the Lord told him to.” But how did God put that purpose into the heart of Nehemiah? by a vision, a voice, some supernatural revelation? There is no intimation of either. It may have been simply by the influence of the Holy Spirit, as we all are moved, through conscience, enlightened by the Word of God.
IV. A fourth quality in Nehemiah’s prayer which made it effectual was its spirit of good works. When he sat down to pray he did not mean to stay in that attitude. He had in his mind a plan to secure permission to go and build the wall. (Monday Club Sermons.)
And prayed before the God of heaven.--
“This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his trouble!” But if this be true of sorrow on one’s own account, how much more surely will God hear the petitioner who pleads for others. For selfish ness in prayer is no more comely than anywhere else. This man was a layman. He might easily have shifted the responsibility for the present condition of things upon the priests and Levites, on whom God had particularly devolved the religious interests of Jewry. But laymen then were no more absolved from such responsibility than laymen are in these days. Indeed, some of the affairs of Zion belong distinctively to them. Never yet was Zion safely left to her priests alone. There is always something for Nehemiah to do. The prayer of Nehemiah in this instance is given doubtless for our guidance. It is a model of supplication in many ways. Observe--
I. Its reverent spirit. It begins with adoration: “O Jehovah, God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love Him!” In our eagerness to present our requests at the throne of the heavenly grace there is always danger of precipitation. It must not be forgotten that we are approaching the Infinite. Therefore a reverent humility becomes us.
II. Nehemiah makes confession of his sins: “We have sinned against Thee; both I and my father’s house have sinned.” This cup-bearer knew that sin lay at the bottom of all Israel’s troubles. “Both I and my father’s house have sinned.” Spurgeon says, “He spelled ‘we’ with an ‘I’ in it.” His own transgressions and shortcomings loomed up before him.
III. His confidence in the divine word. This was the prayer of faith. He caste himself upon the promises of God, which are evermore Yea and Amen. He ventures to particularise: he puts God in remembrance of a certain covenant which He had been pleased to make long before with Moses His servant in behalf of His people. The terms of this covenant are gathered from various passages of ancient Scripture (Lev 36:27-45; Deuteronomy 28:45; Deuteronomy 28:67; Deuteronomy 30:1; Deuteronomy 30:10). A glorious word of promise that for a nation of stiff-necked exiles! And the fact that on the part of the people themselves this covenant had been broken does not prevent Nehemiah from putting God in remembrance of it; for he knows that God is of long suffering and tender mercy. Faith at the mercy-seat conquers all.
IV. The prayer of Nehemiah was specific. It is the part of wisdom to enter upon all enterprises with prayer. A Roman general would not march to battle until he had first offered a sacrifice. A right apprehension of this principle would keep us always in the spirit of prayer, because no man can estimate the importance of any act. The least thing we do may have momentous and eternal issues.
V. His prayer was followed by the use of appropriate means. (D. J. Burrell, D. D.)
Nehemiah was evidently a man of high integrity, as appears from the situation which he held, that of the king’s cup-bearer. Only a person who was thoroughly trustworthy would be permitted to occupy such a position, inasmuch as the lives of eastern monarchs were in constant danger from the aspiring courtiers; and as one of the most common methods of causing death, in ancient times, was by mixing some poisonous ingredient with the wine that was drunk, it is quite obvious that no one would be intrusted with the above circe in the king’s household who was likely to be influenced by the bribes of the king’s enemies, But, in addition to his strict integrity, he was a man of sincere and fervent piety. Very frequently did he give himself unto prayer, and it is thus we find him engaged in the present chapter.
I. The occasion of this prayer. It is stated in the first three verses. “The words of Nehemiah, the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass,” etc. It is said of the Redeemer--“In all their affliction He was afflicted; and HIs people are like-minded with Him in this respect. They feel for others.
II. The being to whom his prayer is addressed. Those among whom he dwelt were accustomed in their distress to invoke the aid of their heathen deities; but, knowing full well how vain it was to seek relief from such lying vanities, he called upon the God of heaven. In applying to Him he felt assured that he was not praying to a god that could not save. There were two aspects of His glorious character in which he more especially regarded Him.
1. As great and terrible.
2. As faithful and gracious.
III. The penitential spirit which it breathes.
IV. The powerful plea which is employed. “Remember, I beseech Thee, the word that Thou commandeer Thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations; but if ye return unto Me,” etc. “Remember,” says the Psalmist, “Thy word unto Thy servant, upon which Thou hast caused me to hope.” And this was the argument of Nehemiah; he pleads that God would accomplish what He had formerly declared (Deuteronomy 4:25-29; Deuteronomy 30:1-6.)
V. The earnest importunity with which it is presented. “O Lord, I beseech Thee, let now Thine ear be attentive,” etc. (The Author of “The Footsteps of Jesus.”)
Religiousness of spirit
A large part of the greatness of this man lies in the intense religiousness of his spirit. It is this which constitutes his history so very valuable a study to Christian people. There is no reason beyond this why I should select Nehemiah as a subject for the study of this Church, and not Pericles, or Julius Caesar, or Charlemagne, or Cavour, or any other great statesman or hero who has raised the position of his country to a front rank amongst the nations of the earth. But this advantage does lie in the careful examination of the lives of the great heroes of the Bible and of the Church. Through their history we obtain an insight, not only into the greatness of the human soul, its capacity for conceiving great plans, its energy and resources in carrying them out to a successful and glorious completion, but also into the measure in which the human soul can depend upon Divine help, into the worth of communion with God as a solace in anguish, and as s stimulus to enterprise, and further into the certainty with which God responds to such communion, and administers fortitude, patience, self-control, and other virtues which make the soul of man strong, brave, and triumphant over obstacles. (A. J. Griffiths.)
Intelligent faith in prayer
Nehemiah’s prayer reveals the great thoughts of which God was the subject, and by which he nourished his courage and determination in preparing himself for his great task. For we must ever remember that the result of our praying--the comfort, or support, or stimulus we receive from the act of prayer--depend not only upon the fact that we do pray, but also and especially upon the clearness and vividness of our conceptions of God. We must be sure that we are not praying to ourselves, or into the air, but into the ear of a God who will hear us, and whom we can move by our entreaty. Intelligent faith--not faith without intelligence, mere blind, superstitious faith--nor intelligence without faith, a hard, dead knowledge--but both together, intelligence and faith, constitute the very soul and life of true prayer. (A. J. Griffiths.)
Prayer and quiet waiting
Some when they have prayed think that they must at once begin to act, and if doors are not open, force them open for themselves. Running before they are sent, such persons usually find that failure ensues. Nehemiah, on the contrary, stayed where he was, pursuing his ordinary course in life, and still waiting on the Lord. (W. P. Lockhart.)
Constancy in prayer
A woman who resided on the seashore in the Isle of Wight thought that she heard, during a terrible storm, a cry for help. She listened and the cry was repeated. She could not be mistaken; between the pauses of the storm there it was, the piercing cry of endangered mariners. She dressed hastily, she roused up the beachmen; the lifeboat was launched, and with the blessing of God the storm-beaten crew were rescued. Again and again must we plead in Christ’s name, at the mercy-seat, if we would come off more than conquerors. One brief cry is not sufficient. (J. M. Randall.)
Patience required in waiting upon God
An eminent minister of Christ was laid aside from his work by severe and prolonged sickness. Sometimes he was almost ready to repine and to faint under his chastisement. One morning after unusual suffering he fell into a sweet sleep, and as he slept, he thought he saw a luminous pillar of graceful proportions rise before him. It was so beautiful that it attracted his eye and fixed his attention. Then he thought he saw letters of gold coming out upon the pillar; at first they were very indistinct, and not a little study was required to decipher them. At last the letters shone out in perfect form and order, and he read “Patience” inscribed upon the column. The effort at attention and the joy of discovery awoke him, and he said, “Patience; yes, Lord, I will be patient, and through grace I will yield myself to Thy disposal.” God sometimes exercises the faith of His people by long delay, but patient waiting will be rewarded. (J. M. Randall.)
Nehemiah or the characteristics of prayer
Nehemiah’s spirit of prayer particularly appears--
I. In his sympathy and grief for his country.
II. Is his desire to promote his country’s good.
III. In carrying out his object though beset with great difficulties.
IV. In reviewing his works. (John Patteson, M. A.)
A model prayer
For matter, this prayer is replete with instruction. Let us observe--
I. How nehemiah addresses himself to God. He calls upon “Jehovah, the God of heaven,” infinite, supreme, and everlasting. “Great” in power and dominion, and “terrible” in justice and holiness. And withal as a God who keepeth covenant and mercy. As Bishop Reynolds remarks, “God in creation is God around us; God in providence is God above us; God in the law is God against us; but God in Christ is God for us, God with us, God in us, our all-sufficient portion for ever.”
II. How humbly Nehemiah confesses his own sins and the sins of his country.
III. How he pleads with God, what weighty arguments he employs! He lays hold upon God’s word. This is a firm rock in a troubled sea (Deuteronomy 30:1-5). Let us come to God with a promise, and reverently remind Him of His own engagement: “Lord, do as Thou hast said; remember the word unto Thy servant, upon which Thou hast caused me to hope.” We shall then realise the consolation, happily expressed by a pious negro who said, when he was asked concerning the abiding peace which he enjoyed, “Massa, me fall flat upon the promise, and me pray straight up.”
IV. Observe the particular request which he makes. “Prosper, I pray Thee, Thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” Its matter is very full: its manner very suggestive.
1. How reverent was Nehemiah before God! How just were his views of the Divine majesty! Shall angels thus humbly prostrate themselves before God? Oh, with what “reverence and godly fear” should sinners come to His footstool
2. How earnest was his prayer: “I beseech Thee,” “hear the prayer of Thy servant which I pray before Thee.” Many say their prayers, but do they pray in prayer? Prayer is the expression of want: it is not eloquence, but earnestness; not fine words, but deep feeling. To be effectual it must be fervent. Prayer is incense: but if the fragrance is to ascend before the mercy-seat, it must be kindled by holy fire from the altar. Prayer is an arrow, but if it is to travel far and pierce deep, the bow must be bent, and the string must be tense, else our prayer shall fall at our feet. “I will not let Thee go except Thou bless me.”
3. How constant too was Nehemiah! “Day and night” did he plead. “We ought always to pray, and not to faint.”
4. How believing was his supplication! Faith is an important element in prayer; it honours God, it pleads the Saviour’s merits, it rests upon the sure promise. Faith laughs at impossibilities, and says it shall be done.
5. How fervent was the charity which dictated this prayer! Nehemiah was a patriot in the best sense of the word. He earnestly desired the welfare of Jerusalem. There was not a particle of selfishness in his prayer. May we not learn to be charitable and large-hearted in our prayers--to intercede for others, our country, and the Church of God, and in this respect to copy the example of Nehemiah? (J. M. Randall.)
The great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love Him.--
The majesty and mercy of God
From this sublime invocation we gather--
I. That there is perfect harmony in the attributes of the Divine nature.
II. That the Divine attributes are equally enlisted in the work of human salvation.
III. That the harmony of the Divine nature is the only true basis of moral goodness.
1. The contemplation of Divine compassion alone tends to antinomianism.
2. The contemplation of the Divine holiness alone tends to legalism. Hence spring meritorious works, penances, and self-inflicted flagellations and other useless tortures.
IV. That the harmony of the divine nature furnishes the only true ideal of moral goodness.
V. That notwithstanding the harmony of the Divine nature, men come into contact with different aspects of that nature according to their moral condition. (Homiletic Commentary.)
False views of sin and prevailing immorality
It is to be feared that in our day sin is often made light of, and false views of sin lie at the root of much of the evil that we see around us, both in the Church and in the world. Such views are largely caused by an imperfect apprehension of the righteousness of God, and this in its turn usually proceeds from a refusal to bow to the authority of His Word. Thus truths about His judgments are set aside, statements concerning His wrath are explained away, and His mercy is magnified at the expense of His justice. (W. P. Lockhart.)
And confess the sins of the children of Israel.--
Sins of a community confessed
Confession of sin is essential to success in prayer. “If I regard iniquity in my heart the Lord will not hear me.” Nehemiah feels that God has reason to be displeased with His people. They have been guilty of sins of omission (have not kept) and of commission (transgression). Their privileges have aggravated their guilt: they have sinned against light; the commandments, statutes, and judgments given by Moses bear witness against them. And Nehemiah is conscious that he shares their guilt. He has sinned himself; and he has sinned in their sins. For all of us have a part in the sins of the community. Our influence helps to mould and shape its life. It is a principle in Chinese law to hold the relatives of a criminal in some degree responsible for his crime, so that the whole family is concerned in the conduct of its individual members. That principle is founded on a true conception which applies in both directions. The community has a responsibility for its members, each of whom shares a like responsibility for the life of the community itself. So we need to say “our trespasses,” “our debts,” in our daily prayer. (S. S. Times.)
Forgotten sins remembered
I. We are all chargeable with faults.
II. We are liable to forget our faults. Through--
1. Ignorance of the true nature of sin.
3. Hurry of business.
4. Elevation in worldly circumstances.
III. Various circumstances are adapted to remind us of our faults.
IV. When we are reminded of our faults we should be ready to confess them.
V. Confession of faults should always be attended with real amendment. (J. Kidd.)
But if ye turn to Me, and keep My commandments.
The spiritual favourite at the throne of grace
“If you turn unto Me, and keep My commandments.” There is no promise of mercy but to those that turn. The Scripture is peremptory in denial of mercy to such as go on in their sins. Yet how many are there that bless themselves that it shall go well with them, though they cast off all God’s yokes. “If ye turn.” The holy man Nehemiah puts God in mind of His promise, and his argument is from the like, and indeed from the less to the greater. Because God would rather of both perform His promises than His threatenings, because mercy is His own proper work. “These are Thy servants.” Though sinful servants, yet they are Thy servants. “These are Thy people.” Thou hast no other people in the world but these, and “Thou art their God.” He pleads from former favours. “Thou hast redeemed them by Thy great power and strong hand.” It is a good argument to plead with God for former favours: because “there is no shadow of change in Him” (James 1:17); He is always like Himself; He is never drawn dry. And it is a great honour to go to Him for new favours upon former, because He hath an infinite supply. We may draw so much from men as they have not afterwards to make good, but we cannot honour God more than to go to Him with a large faith, to fetch largo favours from Him. The more He gives, the more He can give, and the more He is willing to give. We may much more take this argument in our mouths, and press the majesty of God. “Thou hast redeemed us,” not out of Egypt or Babylon, the land of the north, but “with the blood of Thy Son,” from hell and damnation; and therefore Thou canst redeem us from this petty misery, from these enemies. We may allege that grand favour to all other petty redemptions, whatsoever they are. “Let Thine ear be attentive to the prayer of Thy servants.” It is a prayer; and Thou art “a God hearing prayer.” “They be Thy servants, and Thou regardest Thy servants.” Here are but a few petitions in this large request: “remember,” “be attentive,” and “give me favour.” It is an excellent skill and art in prayer to have strong arguments. Then the suit comes off easily, as in Psalms 90:1-17. Therefore, it is an excellent thing to study the Scriptures, and to study all the arguments whereby holy men have prevailed with God in Scripture, and to see in what case those arguments were used. It is a pitiful thing now for Christians under the glorious light of the gospel to come to God only with bare, naked petitions and have not reasons to press God out of His own Word. They cannot bind God with His own promise, nor with arguments that He hath been bound with before. “They desire to fear Thy name.” Empty relations have no comforts in them: to profess one’s self a servant, and not to make it good that he is a servant. We must make good the relation we stand in to God, before we can claim interest in the favour of God by our relation. He goes to make it good that he was the servant of God, not from any outward thing, but from his inward disposition, “the fear of God,” which I will not now stand to speak largely of. God requires the heart; and religion is most in managing and turning the affections, for they are the wind that carries the soul to every duty. The devil hath brain enough, he knows enough, more than any of us all. But then he hates God. He hath no love to God, nor no fear of God, but only a slavish fear. He hath not this reverential fear, childlike fear. Therefore let us make it good that we are the servants of God, especially by our affections, and chiefly by this of fear, which is put for all the worship of God. How doth he make it good that he feared the name of God? He makes it good from this, that he had had good desires. “We desire to fear Thy name.” First of all, out of this, that this desire to fear the name of God is brought as an argument to prevail in prayer, we may observe that--
1. Those that will prevail with God in prayer must look to the bent of their souls for the time to come, and for the present. “Regard Thy servants that desire to fear Thy name.” For to come to God without such a frame of soul as this, to desire to please God in all things for the present, and for the time to come, it is to come as God’s enemy; and will God regard His enemies?
2. Religion especially is in holy desires. The greatest part of Christianity is to desire to be a sound Christian with all the heart. Why are desires such trials of the truth of grace? Because they are the immediate issues of the soul. Desires and thoughts, and such like, they are produced immediately from the soul, without any help of the body, or without any outward manifestation. They show the temper and frame of the soul, Thereupon God judgeth a man by his desires. But how is the truth of these desires known?
I will name a few signs.
1. If they be constant desires and not flashes; for then they come from a new nature. Nature is strong and firm. Art is for a turn to serve a turn. When men personate a thing they do it not long. Creatures that are forced to do so and so they return to their own nature quickly; but when a man doth a thing naturally, he doth it constantly. So, constant desires argue a sanctified frame of soul and a new creature. They argue that the image of God is stamped upon the soul.
2. And likewise, if these desires be hearty, strong desires, and not only strong, but growing desires--desire upon desire, desire fed with desire still, never satisfied till they be satisfied. Strong and growing desires argue the truth of desires; as indeed a child of God hath never grace enough, never faith enough, never love enough, or comfort enough, till he come to heaven. They are growing desires more and more.
3. Again, true desires they are not only of the favour of God, but of graces for the altering of our nature; as Nehemiah here, he desires not the favour of God so much as he desires to fear God’s name. Now when desire is of graces, it is a holy desire. You have not the worst men but would desire, with Balaam, “to die the death of the righteous,” etc. (Numbers 23:10), that they might enjoy the portion of God’s people. But to desire grace, that is opposite to corrupt nature as fire and water, this is an argument of a holy principle of grace in us, whence this desire springs, when we desire that that is a counter poison to corrupt nature that hath an antipathy to corruption.
4. True desire is carried to grace as well as glory, and the desire of heaven itself. A true spirit that is touched with grace, with the Spirit of God, it desireth not heaven itself so much for the glory, and peace, and abundance of all contentments, as it desires it that it is a place where it shall be freed from sin, and where the heart shall be enlarged to love God, to serve God, and to cleave to God for ever, and as it is a condition wherein he shall have the image and resemblance of Jesus Christ perfectly upon his soul.
5. True desires are likewise to the means of salvation, and to the means of salvation as they convey grace, as sincere milk; as you have it, 1 Peter 2:2, “As new-born babes, desire the sincere milk of the word.” Where a man hath holy desires of any grace, and hath them in truth, he will desire those means whereby those graces may most effectually be wrought in his heart. Use: The comfortable observation hence is this, that weak Christians that find a debility, and faintness, and feebleness in their performances, hence they may comfort themselves by their desire to fear God, and to worship God, and to serve Him, if their desires be true. The reason why God accepts them is partly because they spring from His own Spirit. These desires they are the breathings of the Spirit. And because they are pointed to heavenward, to show that a man is turned; for it is put here instead of turning, “Turn ye to Me, saith the Lord (verse 9); and he answereth here instead of turning, My desire is to fear Thy name. And prosper, I pray Thee, Thy servant this day.” Now he comes to his petition, “Prosper I pray Thee, Thy servant this day.” He doth not capitulate with God for particular matters much--for he knew he had to deal with an all-wise God--but he commends his petition in general. He comes again with his relation of “servant,” to teach us alway when we come to God to look in what relation we stand to Him, whether we be true servants or no. What work we do for Him, in what reference we do what we do; whether we do it to please Him as servants or no. In all our services we should look to God; for our aim in our works shows what they are, whether they come from servants or no. As the stamp upon a token makes it, if there be a good stamp on it; it is not the matter that makes it current. A stamp on silver makes it current as well as gold, though the metal of gold be better, So when things are done, because God commands them, to please God, as a service to Him, this makes it good that we are servants indeed, that the relation is good. When we go about the service of the Church or country, or place we live in, to think I do God service here, and do it as a service to God, who will be honoured and served in our service to others, herein I am a good servant. “Prosper Thy servant this day.” What is included in this word “prosper”? It includes not only success, which is the main upshot of all, but all that tends to good success. In that he saith “Prosper Thy servant,” it includes these things. First of all, that in ourselves there is neither direction, nor wisdom, nor ability enough for success. We have not power in ourselves to bring things to a comfortable issue.
2. And then again, to attribute to God all, both wisdom and strength, and goodness, and all. Here is a giving to God the glory of all, when he saith, “Prosper Thy servant this day.”
3. Then in the third place, here is a dependence upon God, not only acknowledging these things to be in God, but it implies a dependence upon God for these: “Prosper me, Lord.” I cannot prosper myself.
4. Again, in the fourth place, here is a recommendation of all by prayer; a recommendation of his inward dependence upon God for all. Now, Lord, “prosper Thy servant.” So that when we come to God for any prosperity and good success, let us remember that we bring self-denial, and an acknowledgment of all excellency to be in God, to guide, and direct, and assist, and bless us. Who can see all circumstances that stand about a business? Who can see all circumstances of time, and place, and persons, that are hindrances or furtherances? It must be an infinite wisdom that must foresee them; man cannot see them. So that unless God in a particular business give success, who is infinitely wise and powerful to remove all hindrances, there will be no success. As it is in the frame of the body, it stands upon many joints; and if any be out of tune, the whole body is sick. And as it is in a clock, all the wheels must be kept clean and in order, so it is in the frame of a business. There must all the wheels be set a-going; if one be hindered, there is a stop in all. It is so with us in the affairs of this world. When we deal with kings and states, if all the wheels be not kept as they should, there will be no success or prosperity. Nehemiah knew this well enough, “Prosper Thou, therefore.” He meant not to be idle when he said this, “Prosper Thou,” for he after joined his own diligence and waited. Use: Its should teach us to make this use of it, when we deal in any matter, to go to God to prosper it, and give success and direction and assistance and a blessed issue. Let us learn by this a direction to piety and holy walking with God; in all things to pray to God for a blessing. And to that purpose we must be in such a condition of spirit as we may desire God to prosper us; that is, we must not be under the guilt of sin when we come to God to prosper us. And we must be humble. God will not prosper a business till we be humble. Do we think that God will give strength to an ill business? This is to make Him a factor for mischief, for the devil’s work. Then come with a purpose to refer all to His service. Lord, if Thou wilt bless me in this business, the strength and encouragement I have by it, I will refer it to Thy further service. “Prosper now Thy servant.” What is the reason that God blasts and brings to nothing many excellent endeavours and projects? Men set upon the business of God, and of their callings, in confidence of their wit and pride of their own parts. Men come as gods to a business as if they had no dependence upon Him for wisdom, or direction, or strength. They carry things in a carnal manner, in a human manner, with human spirits. Therefore they never find either success, or not good success. Now when we deal with things in a holy manner, we may, without tempting God, trust Him. “And grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” He comes more particularly to this request, “Grant me mercy in the sight of this man.” We see that, a king is a great organ or instrument to convey good things from God, the King of kings to men. Therefore he prays that God would give him favour in the sight of the king. For a king is the first wheel that moves all other wheels, and as it were the sun of the commonwealth, or the first mover that moves all inferior orbs. Therefore in heavenly wisdom he desires God to give him favour with him; for if he had that, the king could turn all the inferior orbs to his pleasure. And when God means to do good to a Church or state, He raiseth up “nursing fathers and nursing mothers” (Isaiah 49:23). A wise and holy prayer! He begins at the head; He goes to the spring of all good. Therefore the observation hence is this, that when we have anything to do with great men, with kings, etc., however, begin with the King of kings, and do all in heaven before we do it in earth; for heaven makes the laws that earth is governed by. Let earth conclude what it will, there will be conclusions in heaven that will overthrow all their conclusions. Therefore in our prayers we should begin with God. And when we have gotten what we would in heaven, it is easy to get in earth. You see what great good a good man may do in a state. “The innocent man delivers the land,” as it is in Job 22:30. (R. Sibbes.)
The prayer of Nehemiah
I. God has his servants in all conditions and occupations of life. We behold Zenas the lawyer, Erastus the Chamberlain, Paul the tentmaker, Luke the physician, Zaccheus the publican, Peter the fisherman, Joseph the carpenter, Amos the herdsman, Daniel the minister of state, Nehemiah the cup-bearer--all standing in the same relation, swayed by the same influence. Let it teach us two things.
1. Not to condemn bodies and professions of men indiscriminately.
2. Let us not make our business an excuse for ungodliness.
II. If we have access to superiors, we should use it for good. Let us remember that we are answerable for all our talents, and one of them is--the influence which in various degrees we have over others. How are we using it?
III. The best way to succeed in any enterprise with men is to commend the matter to god. Our intercourse with God will best prepare us for our dealings with men. It will repress every unhallowed purpose; it will give decision and vigour to good resolutions: it will inspire rectitude and dignity in action; it will enable us to bear disappointment or success. When we have thus commended a concern to God, the mind is set at liberty, and feels satisfaction and composure. When we have thus addressed ourselves to God, difficulties vanish. We know that if the affair be injurious, He can easily hinder it; and if it be good for us, He can as easily promote it. “His kingdom ruleth over all.” Every event is under His direction, and every character under His control. Solomon has told us, and not without reason, that “the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: He turneth it whithersoever He will.” Eastern monarchs were absolute: they consulted nothing but their own pleasure: yet God had them more under His command than the husbandman has a direction of the water in a meadow. There is a twofold dominion which God exercises over the mind of man. The one is by the agency of His grace. Thus He can enlighten the most ignorant understanding, and subdue the most rebellious will. We see this exemplified in the conversion of Saul of Tarsus, on his way to Damascus. But there is another empire which He exercises over mankind--it is by the agency of His providence. History is full of this. He can give another heart, when He does not give a new one. Where He does not convert He can check. Jacob was convinced of the dominion and influence of God over the affairs, and even the dispositions, of men.
IV. How nehemiah speaks of the governor of one hundred and twenty-seven provinces. “This man.” Let us not however suppose that Nehemiah “despised dominion,” or “spoke evil of dignities.” But Nehemiah was now before the God of heaven and earth; and what is the greatest monarch in the world compared with Him? Less than nothing and vanity. This is the way to reduce worldly impressions; the world strikes and conquers you when it meets you absent from God. Bring it into His presence--view it there--and what is it? What are the smiles of men to the favour of God?
V. Observe how this good man characterises himself and his brethren. “Thy servants who desire to fear Thy name.” Modest, diffident language best becomes us, especially before God. There are many who must derive their satisfaction from their desires, rather than anything else. They cannot say they do fear Him, or love Him, or depend upon Him--but they “desire” to do it. These desires are proofs of something good and pledges of something better. They are evidences of grace and forerunners of glory. Desires are the pulse of the soul, by which we may judge of our spiritual life and health. In some respects they are more decisive than actions. Actions may be counterfeited, desires cannot; we may be forced to act, but not to will. All the desires of the Christian, in proportion to their degree, will necessarily excite him to strive, to wrestle, to fight, and to use all the means which lead to the end he has in view. Desires are nothing without endeavours, Balaam, etc. (William Jay.)
Now these are Thy servants, and Thy people, whom Thou hast redeemed by Thy great power.
God’s doings in grace are as the links of a chain
The whole of God’s doings in grace are as the links of a chain, not lying apart, but united together, and the first through an unbroken series leading to the last. Hence Nehemiah finds a plea in what the Lord has done for His people, that He will still show them mercy. (W. Ritchie.)
Pleading former favours
Plutarch tells us that the Rhodiaus appealed to the Romans for help, and one suggested that they should plead the good turns they had done for Rome. This was a plea difficult to make strong enough, very liable to be disputed, and not at all likely to influence so great a people as the Romans, who would not readily consider themselves to be debtors to so puny a state as that of Rhodes. The Rhodians were, however, wiser than their counsellor, and took up another line of argument, which was abundantly successful. They pleaded the favours which, in former times the Romans had bestowed upon them, and urged these as a reason why a great nation should not cast off a needy people for whom they had already done so much. Nehemiah here pleads God’s former favours to His people. (Signal.)
For I was the king’s cup-bearer.--
The king’s cup-bearers
This is a suggestive text. There is another King, and He, too, speaks of a cup which is His, and a cup which we may bear, not for Him, but from Him to others. “Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of water only,” etc. We are cup-bearers of our King, Jesus.
I. Cup-bearers of the great King should remember what the cup contains. The cup of blessing is communion with Christ. By His Cross He has reconciled the world to God, and now He invites the race to taste and see that the Lord is good. In the East there are various costly drinks. Some were supposed to have a healing, and others a life-preserving, element in them. The world’s salvation is in that cup which Christ has filled for the life of the world.
II. Cup-bearers of the King should remember the loyal mandate they have to obey. “Come” is the first word of Christianity. Come to Christ for life, for ourselves. Its next word is “Go.” “Go ye into all the world,” etc. If we do not believe in the healing water we shall not give it. Have you ever noticed how heartily people recommend their doctors? During the memorable illness of the Prince of Wales hundreds of people from all parts of the empire forwarded their nostrums for the disease; they felt quite sure that if these special remedies were tried the Prince would recover. Selfishness probably lay at the bottom of some of those recommendations, but in the main these people believed in their prescriptions; they had tried them or seen them tried, and had rejoiced in their success. We must believe, then, before we can give. And then we shall each do it in our own way.
1. Quietly, perhaps, as falls the dew, our influence will rest on others’ hearts.
2. Suggestively, perhaps, by a spirit of reverence and a devout habit of daily walk, which tells of a life hid with Christ in God.
3. Communicatively, perhaps, as when we gather our classes in Sunday school, etc.
4. Distributively, perhaps, by means of the printed page. Every cup that God has placed in our hands--whether filled with wealth or knowledge--we ought to raise to the lips of others.
III. Cup-bearers of the king should re member the work of the enemies of God. We are not the only cup-bearers in the world. Other visitants are here with other cups, which seem as if they ought to hold sweet and satisfying waters: pleasure, beauty, ambition, etc. Some of these cups are filled with deadliest poison. The cup of knowledge--degrading literature, the cup of companionship, the cup of pleasure, are often so many cups of poison presented to the young..
IV. Cup-bearers of the King should remember that it is a post of honour. Christians are the representatives of Christ. They are doing what Christ would do ii He were here.
V. Cup-bearers of the King anticipate the day of Divine reward. Let us notice--
1. That Christ’s rewards are ours now.
2. That the cup-bearer will be rewarded in the redeemed history of those to whom he has borne the living water, and who will welcome him to glory.
3. That the cup-bearer will be welcomed and rewarded also by the King of kings Himself. (W. M. Statham.)
The king’s cup-bearer
I. Now, observe, this must be by divine appointment. I presume that this absolute monarch would not have allowed any one to have been cup-bearer to him but the man he approved of; nay, he would give the appointment him self, and insist that it should be so. No man has a right to assume the Christian ministry but by royal appointment. There are thousands of impostors in these days that the King of kings and Lord of lords never appointed to the work. Now this office is one in which both Prince and people are deeply interested. I presume that Nehemiah--and I may turn to him for illustrations as I go on--was concerned, in his official capacity, to present the cup, not only to the prince, but to the people who were guests with the prince. I pass on, just to notice the official responsibility involved in this. A cup-bearer A very responsible position this. And a cup-bearer must at his peril look well to all that is contained in the cup, as well as to his promptitude in presenting it. So solemn is the responsibility that according to the view we have just taken of the Lord’s servants, if there be any foul and poisonous ingredient found in the cup, the blood of the injured person will be required at his hand. Then, if we observe whence this cup-bearer alluded to in the text was taken, I think we shall find a striking correspondence. He was taken from among the captives, by an act of sovereign grace. What say you to this humbling view of the subject? Are you really aware that you were captives, slaves and bondsmen, in the lowest degradation to sin and Satan, when God took possession of you? Now do not talk about your pedigree any more.
II. Now let us look at the understanding the cup-bearer ought to have of what the cup contains. This is a matter of vast importance. I shall guess after this manner--that the cup-bearer, in the presence of a Persian monarch, would be required to know that the cup contained approved old wine, of the purest and best character. “But how was he to know that?” Why, by tasting it for himself. “Well, but what would be the effect?” Why, there would be a very cheering effect. All must come from the King’s own stores. We must get it from above--from the fulness treasured up in the covenant. Bring me the cup that is full of the atoning blood, pressed from the merits of Christ, acceptable before God, and that the eternal cup-bearer Himself has entered into the King’s presence to present before God.
III. Now let us look at this cup-bearer, As taught how to enter the presence of the monarch; because this is a very essential part of the business. He must be a living man. It will not do to bring an automaton, much less a putrid corpse; he must be a living man, with the life of God in the soul, whether he be intended for a public pastor or a more private labourer. Then as regards the cleanliness. Oh, how sad that there should be persons pretending to be ministers of Jesus Christ whose lives are impure! And oh, the importance of a steady hand! If the cup be full, and the cup-bearer have a trembling, tottering hand, he is likely to create alarm, at least, as he goes round, and to spill over some of the precious liquor he has to dispense. “What do you mean by this steady hand?” I mean the steadfast confidence of faith. A word more respecting the cup-bearer’s qualifications. He must not go to the king vauntingly, “Please, your majesty, see what choice wine I have brought for you”--that would not do at all. Now you know that this must be repeated as often as called for. I presume that Nehemiah was called for, when he was to bring his majesty the cup. Be sure you are always ready, that whenever you are called for, you may go in, whenever Jehovah-Jesus, the King of kings, summons you. Now this will make the cup-bearer very familiar with his majesty, as well as with his guests. If a man were only admitted once to a large feast, like a hired waiter, and never had anything to say to the company before or after, he could not be supposed to be very familiar with them; but if he is appointed day by day to hand round the same old wine to the same guests, under the same orders, and in the same position, as a graceful cup-bearer, will not he become very familiar? A word more. When the soul has become so familiar with the monarch, has been admitted so frequently into the banqueting-house, and has partaken so freely of this good old wine, his must be an exalted station. (J. Irons.)
The king’s cup-bearer
It is remarkable that Nehemiah performed the great work of his life without receiving any supernatural communication from heaven. Other eminent servants of God, in their labour for the Church of Israel, enjoyed special direction and encouragement from above. Moses heard the voice of God at the bush, and saw His wonders at the Red Sea. Elijah met the Lord in Horeb, and received words of comfort at the brook Cherith. Daniel beheld visions of God in Babylon, and enjoyed the visit of an angel in the hour of his earnest prayer. We have not now inspired prophets among us, to direct us in the trying situations of life. We are appointed to learn duty from studying the Word of God, and considering the operation of His hands. In this dependence on the ordinary means of grace for counsel and help in our way of life, we have Nehemiah for an example of fidelity, of patience, and of wisdom.
I. His service. He was “the king’s cup-bearer.” The monarch whom Nehemiah served in this capacity is generally supposed to have been Artaxerxes Longimanus. Artaxerxes reigned on the throne of Persia forty-one years, from 466-425 b.c. This king had conceded important favours to the Jewish people; and now in the twentieth year of his reign, Nehemiah filled the high office of the king’s cup-bearer. It was a situation this of distinguished honour and emolument in the Persian court. It belonged to the person holding it, not only to bear the royal cup to the sovereign on high festivals, but also to intro duce all persons who had business to transact into the king’s presence. It is a remarkable circumstance that one of the captive people of Judah should be invested with this high dignity in the kingdom of their conquerors. We may regard it as an illustration of God’s faithfulness to His promise, and as a testimony to the power of religion in commending its possessors to confidence. Then, while the faithful providence of God is here illustrated, the religion of these Israelites is also signally attested. Their piety must have been instrumental in elevating them to situations of such responsibility and trust. And what is this but an exemplification of the Scripture, “Godliness is profitable for all things, having a promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.” True religion fits its possessors for better performing all the duties of social life; and men find it valuable in the integrity it inspires. Thus was Nehemiah elevated to high office in the Persian court; yet to a man of his lofty principle it was a place of peculiar trial. He was called to serve his royal master in that which is perilous to the character of princes, and to the comfort of all about them. His office was to bring wine before him, and to give it to the king. And who can tell what power for good the pious Israelite thus exerted over the prince whom he served, as well as in the court where he moved as a witness for God.
II. His sadness. It is a mistake to suppose there is any religion in morose or sombre looks. It is true, religion interdicts the frivolous mirth which the world calls pleasure, and it inspires its possessors with a prevailing seriousness of mind. But so far from forbidding any true enjoyment, piety towards God opens the wellspring of all satisfying felicity. Is not this manifest from the blessings it imparts to the soul? While Nehemiah, therefore, here makes mention of his sorrow of spirit, he is careful to note that he had not “been beforetime sad in the king’s presence.” He owed it in courtesy to his sovereign, and he owed it also in justice to his religion, to stand in his place with a cheerful countenance. But sorrows at time press on the spirit which cannot be concealed; and seasons, too, occur when they should be known to others. Still there was peril in that look of anguish, for no token of grief was allowed in the royal presence. Several reasons may be assigned for this exclusion of all signs of mourning from the royal presence. It is flattering to the vanity of kings to have all looking and acting before them as if the light of their countenance chased away sorrow; and it may therefore be accounted an affront to contravene this fiction of their power. Hence the proverb, “In the light of the king’s countenance is life, and his favour is as a cloud of the latter rain.” Then, again, princes and nobles of earth are loath to look on any memento of the evanescence of their grandeur. They are fain to shut out of view sights of sorrow that might send an arrow to their conscience, or constrain them to think of their dying hour. And surely this is the bitterest drop in the cup of the exile and the bondman, to demand from him looks of cheerfulness while his very heart is wrung with anguish. How different it is with our Saviour King! His heart is the seat of compassion for the afflicted, the wellspring of sympathy for the sorrowful in their distress.
III. His reasons for sorrow. Men are sometimes sad when they cannot give an adequate reason for their sorrow. They perhaps brood over imaginary woes, and sink into melancholy which has no assignable cause; or they fall into distress, the reason of which they dare not allow even to their own hearts. It may be disappointed pride, or vexation at the success of others, that occasions their griefs, and such reasons will not bear to be expressed as the cause of a sorrowful countenance. But the sadness of Nehemiah was a look of sublime sorrow, whose expression was an honour to his heart. Yet we mark his self-possession and wisdom in that trying moment. There is with him no con-fusion--no undue excitement; he quails not, nor speaks with stammering tongue. He addresses the king with earnest deference, and yet with manly dignity. Having thus conciliated the king’s regard, Nehemiah frames his plea for sorrow with consummate skill and delicacy. “Why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?” This is powerful and effective pleading. He speaks not of Jerusalem as the city of the worship of his God, though this view of it rendered it dearest to his heart, and awakened his deepest sorrow over its desolation. The mention of it, however, in this relation, would eider not have affected a heathen prince at all, or it might have aroused his anger to find the temple of God so praised above the altars of his own idols. Neither does Nehemiah speak of Jerusalem as the ancient metropolis of a great nation, the capital of a long line of illustrious kings, though the memory of its past greatness made his bosom swell with grief at its overthrow, and inspired his soul with unquenchable desire for its restoration. Any reference, however, to the history of the fame and power of the city of God might have inflamed the jealousy of the Persian king, and fixed his resolution to leave it in its present ruin. But the human heart naturally softens into tenderness at the graves of the dead, and here the appeal is made to the place of the sepulchres of the departed ancestors of the exile. In these touching and powerful words of Nehemiah we remark the almighty aid God gives His servants in pleading for, and bearing witness to, His cause. The man of God here stood up before the Persian monarch a solitary witness for Divine truth; and the welfare of Judah for ages to come seemed to depend on the manner he would testify for the Lord. But the great Counsellor gives him a mouth and wisdom in this trying hour, that honour his fidelity, and crown his petition with success. It has been so with all faithful witnesses for God in every age. When Luther, at the Diet of Worms, was arraigned before the Papal power, and called to retract the truth of the gospel, it appeared as if the whole cause of the Reformation was suspended on his utterance of “Yes” or “No.” But there, too, the Lord stood by him, and enabled him to hold fast the profession of the faith without wavering. So, when our own Knox was required to preach before the lords of the Congregation, amid the wavering zeal of some, and the warping policy of others, the very existence of pure religion in Scotland appeared to depend on the courageous faithfulness with which he should preach the Word.
IV. His request to the king.
V. His preparation for departure. (W. Ritchie.)