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NEHEMIAH'S EFFORTS FOR THE REFORM OF RELIGION (Nehemiah 13:1-31). After having exercised the office of governor for twelve years, from b.c. 444 to b.c. 432, Nehemiah had had occasion to visit the Persian court, either to consult Artaxerxes personally on certain matters connected with his province, or for some other reason unknown to us. During his absence various evil practices, to which some reference has been already made in connection with the renewal of the covenant (Nehemiah 10:30-39), acquired so much strength, and came to such a head, that, on Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem at the expiration of a year (verse 6), he felt it necessary to take active steps to put an end to them. In the first place, intermarriages between the Jews and the neighbouring heathen, like those which Ezra had dissolved twenty-five years previously (Ezra 10:16-44), had again occurred, and a new generation was growing up which could not speak its own language correctly (verse 24). The family of the high priest, Eliashib, shared in this trespass. He himself was allied by marriage to the Ammonite chief, Tobiah (verse 4), and one of his grandsons had taken to wife a daughter of Sanballat, the Samaritan (verse 28). Secondly, through the growing influence of the heathen, and their intermixture with the Jews in Judaea and Jerusalem, the strict observance of the sabbath had fallen into disrepute. Trade was carried on upon the sabbath in Jerusalem itself; in the country wine-presses were at work, and farming operations continued, without the observance of any day of rest (verses 15, 16). Further, the payment of the tithes was very irregular; and the Levites, who ought to have found their daily food provided for them in the temple, not receiving their "portions" there, were forced to absent themselves from the daily service, and to support themselves by cultivating their own plots of ground (verses 10, 11). Finally, the temple had ceased to be regarded as sacred to the Almighty; a portion of it had been converted into a dwelling-house by the order of the high priest himself (verse 5), an i the Ammonite, Tobiah, had been allowed to take possession of it. Nehemiah tells us in this chapter the mode wherein he dealt with these various evils, treating of the mixed marriages in verses 1-3 and 23-28; of the profanation of the sabbath in verses 15-22; of the non-payment of the tithes in verses 10-13; and of the desecration of the temple in verses 4-9. The chapter is remarkable for the number of "interjectional prayers" which it contains (verses 14, 22, 29, 31), and for the plainness and roughness of the language (see especially verses 9, 17, 21, 25, 28). The authorship of Nehemiah is universally admitted.
On that day. See Nehemiah 12:44. The phrase seems to mean, in Nehemiah, "About that time." They read in the book of Moses. It is uncertain whether this was a casual reading, like that of Ezra's, recorded in Nehemiah 8:1-8, or whether it was the prescribed reading (Deuteronomy 31:11) at the time of the feast of tabernacles. Therein was found written. See Deuteronomy 23:3-5. It seems to be implied that the nation at large had no knowledge of the law, except that which they derived from the occasional public reading of the Pentateuch, or portions of it. Copies of the law were extremely scarce; and even if an ordinary Jew possessed one, he would not have been able to understand it (comp. above, Nehemiah 8:8).
follows closely Deuteronomy 23:4, Deuteronomy 23:5, merely substituting the third for the second person, and abbreviating a little. On the turning of Balaam's proposed curse into a blessing see Numbers 24:10.
They separated from Israel all the mixed multitude. Some lengthy process, like that pursued by Ezra (Ezra 10:10-19), is probably glanced at in these words, and again in the opening words of verse 30—"Thus cleansed I them from all strangers." The rebukes of Nehemiah (verses 25-27) did not suffice to produce a voluntary putting away of the foreign wives. Judicial proceedings had to be taken, and the "mixed multitude" separated off by authority.
Eliashib the priest. It is questioned whether the high priest of Nehemiah 3:1 is meant, and noted that the expression used—"the priest"—does not always designate "the high priest" (see Nehemiah 3:13); but the important charge said to have been assigned to him, the alliance with so great a man as Tobiah, and the important step taken, the assignment to a heathen of a residence within the temple precincts, imply a man of high authority, and suit better with the high priest than with any one of lower rank. Moreover, the fact that Eliashib's leanings were towards the enemies of Nehemiah accounts for his disappearance from the history from Nehemiah 3:1 to Nehemiah 13:4. Having the oversight. Literally, "being set over"—perhaps by Nehemiah, who seems to have claimed the appointment to all offices about the temple which were not purely spiritual. (see Nehemiah 12:44; Nehemiah 13:13). Of the chamber. The word "chamber" (lishkah) is here used in a collective sense of the entire building containing the many "chambers" or "treasuries" of Nehemiah 12:44; Nehemiah 13:9, Nehemiah 13:12, Nehemiah 13:13. Was allied unto Tobiah. Karob, the word translated "allied," means "a relation," either by blood or marriage. In the present case the relationship must have been by means of a marriage.
He had prepared for him a great chamber. He (Eliashib) had prepared (or made) for him (Tobiah) a great chamber—probably by throwing into one several of the old store-chambers. The meat offerings. The minchah consisted of fine flour seasoned with salt, and mixed with oil and frankincense. It was made into a sort of cake, but without leaven, and formed part of the daily morning and evening sacrifice, the Sabbath offerings, and most others. The frankincense. Frankincense was a necessary ingredient in the incense which was offered twice a day on the "altar of incense" in the holy place (Exodus 30:34). As a rare foreign product, it had necessarily to be kept in store. The vessels. Sacred vessels, basins, and the like, not needed except on occasion of great gatherings. The offerings of the priests. The portion of the offerings which belonged to the priests—"the tithe of the tithes."
In all this time. Literally, "during all this"—while all this was being done. The reference seems to be solely to the affair of Eliashib and Tobiah. Artaxerxes, king of Babylon. The title "king of Babylon," which was certainly borne by Cyrus, Cambyses, and Darius Hystaspis, may have continued in use down to the time of Nehemiah, or even later. If he visited Artaxerxes at Babylon, the court happening to be there at the time, he would naturally think and speak of him as "king of Babylon.'' After certain days. Literally, "at the end of days," which is thought to mean "at the expiration of a year." I obtained leave of the king. Gesenius and Professor Lee render, "I asked leave of the king; Houbigant, Rambach, and others, "I was asked for from the king," i.e. "the Jews asked to have me sent back to govern them."
A chamber in the courts of the house of God. It would seem by this expression that the chamber made over to Tobiah was not part of the main building of the temple, but a portion of some detached building belonging to the "courts." This, no doubt, made the desecration less flagrant, but was far from justifying it.
Therefore cast I forth all the household stuff. Tobiah had furnished his "chamber" as a dwelling-house, filling it with "household stuff" of various kinds. Nehemiah, of his own authority, had the whole of it turned out of doors.
I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers. Regarding the sacred place as polluted by its conversion to secular uses, Nehemiah had it purified, and so reconsecrated. He then ordered the restoration to their former place of the various stores which had been removed to make room for Tobiah's furniture.
I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites … were fled. What Nehemiah saw was that the Levites were absent, and "the house of God forsaken" (verse 11). On inquiry, he found that the reason of their absence was the non-payment of the tithes. That did the work. i.e. whose business it was to do the work of the house, or, in other words, conduct Divine service. Every one to his field. Every Levite had a plot of ground, which he cultivated when not engaged in the work of the temple (see Numbers 35:2; Joshua 21:3).
Then contended I with the rulers. While the guilt of profaning the temple lay especially with the priestly class, that of withholding the tithes was mainly chargeable on the "rulers," or "nobles." These persons, as wealthy landowners, had of course a pecuniary interest in keeping back the tithe. When they felt the control of a strong hand they made the payments regularly enough (Nehemiah 12:47; Nehemiah 13:12); but no sooner was this control removed by Nehemiah's departure than they relapsed into the covetous habits in which they had indulged before he was made governor (Nehemiah 10:37). The Church in all ages has suffered wrong from the cupidity of wealthy men among its members. Why is the house of God forsaken? Why, contrarily to the distinct pledge given at the time of the renewal of the covenant (Nehemiah 10:39), have you suffered the house of God to become a solitude, driving the Levites away from it by depriving them of their legal sustenance? I gathered them together. Nehemiah brought the Levites back to the temple from their country residences, and re-established them in their proper offices.
And I made treasurers. It was perhaps now for the first time that special treasurers were provided to have the charge of the temple store-chambers, these having hitherto been under the superintendence of the high priest (Nehemiah 13:4). The appointment mentioned in Nehemiah 12:44 is probably the same with this; and the entire duty of the treasurers is to be learnt by combining that passage with the present. They were to be both the collectors and the dispensers of the tithes. Of the four treasurers, one was a priest, one a Levite, one a layman of rank (see Nehemiah 10:22), and one a professional scribe. This last, Zadok, is perhaps to be identified with the "Zidkijah" of Nehemiah 10:1, who appears to have been Nehemiah's private secretary (see the comment ad loc.). Unto their brethren i.e. to the priests and Levites, brethren of Shelemiah and Pedaiah.
Remember me, O my God, Or, "Think upon me, my God," as the same words are translated in Nehemiah 5:19. Wipe not out my good deeds. i.e. "Blot not my good deeds out of thy remembrance"—forget them not, let them be remembered in my favour. For the offices thereof. Rather, as in the margin, "for the observances thereof"—i.e. for the maintenance of the rites, ceremonies, usages, etc. of the temple, which I have done my best to continue on the ancient footing.
In those days. A note of time even vaguer than that of Nehemiah 12:44 and Nehemiah 13:1, but pointing certainly to a date later than Nehemiah's return from the Persian court. Saw I some treading wine-presses on the sabbath. On the treading of grapes in the wine-press, as the first step towards the production of wine, see Job 24:11; Isaiah 63:2, Isaiah 63:3, etc. The performance of this work on the sabbath was a flagrant breach of the fourth commandment. Bringing in sheaves and lading asses. Scarcely "sheaves in our sense of the word, since corn was not stored in sheaves. Rather, "bringing .grain and loading it upon asses." As also. Rather, "and even." It might be pleaded that the transport of grain was a necessity; but there could be no absolute need of a supply of wine, grapes, or figs. I testified against them in the day in which they sold victuals. Rather, "I testified against them in respect of the day on which they sold provisions."
There dwelt men of Tyre also therein. It was not against the law that foreigners should dwell in Jerusalem. Araunah the Jebusite lived there in the time of David, and Ebed-melech the Ethiopian in the time of Zedekiah (Jeremiah 38:7). Nehemiah does not object to the Tyrians for being dwellers in Jerusalem, but for offering their wares for sale there on the sabbath, and inducing the Jews to buy of them. Which brought fish. Fish was always a favourite article of food with the Israelites (Le Nehemiah 11:9; Numbers 11:5; Deuteronomy 14:9; Isaiah 19:10; Matthew 14:7; Matthew 15:34; Luke 24:42, etc.). They derived it chiefly from the Sea of Galilee and the Mediterranean.
Then I contended with the nobles. In the desecration of the sabbath, as in the non-payment of tithes, the nobles were the chief offenders, being at once luxurious and latitudinarian. They desired the freshest food for their feasts, and encouraged both foreigners and natives to break the law for the gratification of their carnal appetites.
Did not your fathers thus? The desecration of the sabbath is among the sins most strongly denounced by Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:21-27)and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 20:13; Ezekiel 22:8, Ezekiel 22:26, etc.). And did not our God bring all this evil upon us and upon this city? God had said by Jeremiah, "If ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched" (Jeremiah 17:27). The burning of the city by Nebuzaradan was the performance of this threat.
When the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath. The Jews have always reckoned their days from sunset to sunset, grounding their practice on the account of the Creation given in the first chapter of Genesis, where "the evening and the morning" arc said to constitute each of the six days. There was also a special command that the "sabbath" of the great day of atonement should be kept "from even to even" (Leviticus 23:32). I commanded that the gates should be shut. The gates would as a matter of course have been shut at sunset. Nehemiah required that the closing should take place some half-hour earlier, when the shadows were lengthening, and the day was drawing towards a close. He regarded it as a sort of desecration of the sabbath to carry on secular work to the last allowable moment. Some of my servants. Compare Nehemiah 4:16; Nehemiah 5:16. That there should be no burthen brought in. Foot passengers were no doubt allowed to enter and leave the city on the sabbath, Nehemiah's servants being set to see that under no pretence should merchandise be allowed to enter.
The merchants lodged without. The merchants could not leave their wares unguarded; and the wares not being admitted into the town, they were obliged to camp out. Thus a crowd was collected about the gates, and a disturbance and excitement caused, which was unsuitable for the sabbath. To prevent this, Nehemiah threatened to arrest the merchants, whereupon the practice was given up (verse 21).
And I commanded the Levites … that they should come and keep the gates. Assigning the duty to his servants was probably a temporary arrangement. The permanent charge was committed to the Levites, who had been intrusted with the duty when the gates were first set up (Nehemiah 7:1). They were to "cleanse," or purify, themselves, because the charge was considered a sacred one. Remember me, O my God, concerning this also. Compare Nehemiah 13:14. And spare me. It is worthy of notice that Nehemiah does not regard his good deeds as sufficient for his justification, but throws himself unreservedly on God's mercy.
In those days. i.e. "About this same time." Compare Nehemiah 13:15. Saw I Jews. Rather, "looked I after the Jews." There is a reference to the first three verses of the present chapter, which had introduced the subject of the mixed marriages. Nehemiah wishes to put on record the part which he had taken in the matter, and begins by observing that it had not escaped him—he had had his eye on the transgressors, and had noted their misconduct, and the evils whereto it led. Wives of Ashdod. Philistine wives, of a race always hostile to Israel, and natives of a city which had recently taken part with Nehemiah's bitter enemies (Nehemiah 4:7). Of Ammon and of Moab. Compare Ezra 9:1, and Nehemiah 13:1.
Their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod. Some understand the writer to mean that half of the children in a family spoke the tongue of the father, and half that of the mother. But many of the best Hebraists prefer the sense expressed by our translators, viz; that all the children spoke a jargon half Ashdodite and half Aramaic. The Philistine language is said to have resembled the Egyptian (Hieronym; 'Comment. in Esaiam,' 19:18).
I contended with them, and cursed them. Or, "reviled them," as Gesenius and Professor Lee explain. And smote certain of them. i.e. "had some of them beaten." Some understand by this that the offenders underwent the bastinado by sentence of a court (Deuteronomy 25:2); others think Nehemiah had them struck informally by his attendants. This latter explanation 'is supported by the following clause, since "plucking out the hair" was never a legal punishment. Made them swear by God. Literally, "swore them by God," i.e. dictated the words, and made them repeat the formula and accept the oath. Saying, Ye shall not give. Literally, "If ye shall give,' etc. Nehemiah made them swear that they should intermarry with the heathen the curse of God should fall upon them.
Did not Solomon … sin by these things? The example adduced was more apt than any other to move Jews. Israelites might have felt more deeply the case of Ahab (1 Kings 21:25). Solomon's sin in "going after strange wives," and its punishment, are set forth very fully in 1 Kings 11:1-40. Among many nations there was no king like him. The reference is not so much to particular texts (e.g. 1 Kings 3:13; 2 Chronicles 1:12) as to the general description of Solomon, his glory, and his greatness (1 Kings 4:1-34.-10.; 1 Kings 2:0 Chronicles 1-9.), which set him above all other earthly monarchs. Who was beloved of his God. See 2 Samuel 12:24. And God made him king over all Israel. See 1 Kings 4:1.
Shall we then hearken unto you? Shall we give way to you, and adopt the practice which you recommend, thus transgressing against God, and provoking him to destroy us? Surely not. Solomon's example is enough to deter us.
One of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib. See Nehemiah 12:10. Eliashib seems to have been still living, though one of his grandsons was of age to contract a marriage. Was son-in-law to Sanballat, the Horonite. Had therefore married one of his daughters, while Eliashib himself was connected by marriage with Tobiah. The defection of the high priestly family from those principles which Ezra and Nehemiah regarded as vital is only too apparent. I chased him from me. i.e. I forced him to quit the country and become an exile. We may suppose that he refused to repudiate his foreign wife, and preferred to take refuge with Sanballat in Samaria.
They have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites. We look in vain for any distinct "covenant" which the priestly order broke by allying itself with the heathen, or indeed for any special law forbidding the priests to take heathen wives, which was not equally binding upon laymen. But Nehemiah feels that every sin is worse in a priest than in one who is not a priest; that a priest who contracts a pollution "pollutes the priesthood;" and that there is a tacit covenant by which priests and Levites bind themselves to holiness of life more absolutely and definitely than others.
Thus cleansed I them. Rather, "And I cleansed them." The process of cleansing touched on in this verse, and also in Nehemiah 13:3, is not described. It probably resembled the process adopted by Ezra (Ezra 10:5-17). And appointed the wards. i.e. "assigned their offices to the various priests and Levites" (see Nehemiah 11:11-24; Nehemiah 12:44; Nehemiah 13:13).
And for the wood offering. i.e. "I appointed persons to look after the collection of the wood offering (Nehemiah 10:34) and of the first-fruits" (ibid. verses 35-37). At appointed times. Compare the expression in Nehemiah 10:34 : "At times appointed year by year." Remember me, O my God, for good. A characteristic termination of a book whereof one of the main features has been a constant carrying to God of all the author's cares, troubles, and difficulties (see Nehemiah 1:4-11; Nehemiah 2:4, Nehemiah 2:20; Nehemiah 4:4, Nehemiah 4:9, Nehemiah 4:20; Nehemiah 5:15,Nehemiah 5:19; Nehemiah 6:9, Nehemiah 6:14; Nehemiah 13:14, Nehemiah 13:22, Nehemiah 13:29).
Separation from Israel of foreigners.
In the public reading of the law, the command was met with to keep the Ammonite and the Moabite out of the congregation of God for ever. Upon this, interpreting the precept apparently as applicable to all strangers, the people separated from them "the mixed multitude" (for the phrase see Exodus 12:38). To what extent these had been united with Israel before, and how far the separation was carried, does not appear. The law (Deuteronomy 23:3) seems clearly to mean that even if an Ammonite or Moabite became converted from heathenism to the faith of the Israelites, neither he nor his descendants, to the tenth generation, should be allowed to unite in their worship, or be capable of naturalisation. Was this law rigidly carried out in the case of proselytes from the heathen? But if "the mixed multitude" had not been fellow-worshippers, from what were they now excluded? Were they expelled from the city? Without attempting an answer to such questions, we may take the passage as suggesting the duty of the Christian Church to keep itself pure from alien elements. This duty is clearly set forth in not a few passages in the New Testament, which, when they are read in public in some Churches, must surely be at times felt as protesting against the existing state of things.
I. WHOM CHRISTIANS ARE TO EXCLUDE FROM THEIR FELLOWSHIP. None are to be separated, as under the law, on account of nationality. "There is neither Jew nor Greek," etc. (Galatians 3:28). None because 'of the faults of their parents, still less of their remote ancestors. But—
1. Total unbelievers in Christianity. This is implied in Matthew 18:17, and clearly included in the prohibition in 2 Corinthians 6:14-17. But it needs no express precept; it is evident from the nature of the case that a Christian Church must be composed of professed Christians.
2. Rejecters of essential truths. Especially the teachers of serious error (see 1 Timothy 1:20; 2 John 1:10; Revelation 2:14, Revelation 2:15).
3. The immoral (see 1 Corinthians 5:1-13.).
4. Impenitent offenders against a fellow-member of the Church (see Matthew 18:15-17).
5. Disturbers of the peace and unity of the Church (Romans 16:17).
II. To WHAT EXTENT THE SEPARATION IS TO BE MADE.
1. From Church communion.
2. From the intimacies of private life.
The main ends of the separation cannot be secured if those who are excluded from Church ordinances are freely admitted to friendship and family life. "With such an one no not to eat," is the language of St. Paul as to certain classes of offenders (1 Corinthians 5:11). Avoidance of private friendship is even enjoined towards some who are yet to be regarded as brethren (2Th 3:6, 2 Thessalonians 3:14, 2 Thessalonians 3:15).
III. WHY IT IS TO BE MADE. It is required by—
1. The laws of Christ.
2. The idea and design of the Church. As a community consecrated to God; baptized into the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost; instituted to witness for truth and holiness, to maintain the worship of God, to promote his kingdom, which is righteousness; constituted the visible body of Christ, to speak his words, do his work, for conversion of sinners and spiritual improvement and comfort of saints. Christian communion is impaired, the power of Christian ministry and ordinances lessened, when the Church is itself palpably "a mixed multitude" of believers and unbelievers, righteous and unrighteous.
3. The safety of individual and family Christian life.
4. The benefit of the .separated themselves. That unbelievers may be impressed with the reality and importance of Christian faith and holiness, and their own lack of them. If treated as Christians, they will come to regard themselves as Christians, much to their own injury. So in the case of such as are guilty of immorality; their expulsion from fellowship is to be with a view to their repentance and restoration (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-8).
1. The exercise of such discipline doubtless requires much wisdom and charity. It is vain to hope for, it is wrong to attempt, a perfect separation between the true and the false, the wheat and the tares. It is possible to be too rigid; it is more easy to err on the side of laxity. There is danger on one side of Pharisaism and narrow bigotry; on the other, of growing indifference to truth and righteousness, the welfare of souls and the glory of Christ. Christian intelligence, piety, and love—rather, the Spirit of Christ—in the Church can alone preserve from these opposite evils, and guide in a course harmonising at once with the purity and the charity which are united in the gospel, and ought never to be dissevered in the practice of Christians. But, in the face of the teaching and injunctions of the New Testament, it can never be right to seek to escape difficulty by abandoning Church discipline altogether.
2. The narrative shows the value of the written word, and the importance of the reading of it. It preserves the truth during periods of neglect and disobedience; and when studied afresh brings it to light again, for conviction and reformation.
3. The Divine law, though neglected and disobeyed, is not thereby abolished. It endures as a witness against those who disobey, and the standard by which they will be judged.
Foes turned into friends.
"Our God turned the curse into a blessing." Balaam, who was hired to curse Israel, and desired to do so, was compelled to bless them. A unique instance; but suggesting the general truth that God makes the efforts of men to injure his people a means of doing them good: and of doing good to others through them, which is also a mode of blessing them. How does he effect this?
I. BY HIS OVERRULING PROVIDENCE. The case of Joseph is a notable instance see Genesis 45:5-8; Genesis 50:20). The enmity and cruelty of his brothers, the anger of Potiphar's wife, issuing in his own exaltation, the preservation of his family, and their settlement in Egypt.
II. BY THE POWER OF HIS SPIRIT.
1. On those desiring to injure good men. Sometimes turning their hearts to friendship. Paul going to Damascus to persecute the Christians, but arriving to co-operate with them.
2. On those whose injury is sought. Turning the enmity of men, and even of Satan, into means of grace to his people; promoting in them—
(1) Compassion and good-will towards their enemies. So that they bless those who curse, pray for them, forgive them.
(2) Trust in God, and experience of his supporting grace.
(3) Patience and resignation.
(4) Power to overcome temptation.
(5) Christian character in general. And, as the result of all-
(6) Power to do good.
3. On the hearts of others. The example and the utterances of Christians thus exercised and thus blessed being made more influential
(1) to encourage and strengthen their fellow-Christians and
(2) to promote the salvation of sinners.
Illustrations abound in Scripture, biographies of Christians, and ordinary Christian life. David was fitted for the throne by the discipline which the enmity of Saul afforded; and by the experience of varied trials was so enriched in spiritual life as to be able to write psalms meeting the wants of godly men throughout the ages. We owe the sublime death of Stephen to the rage of his malignant foes. If St. Paul had not been persecuted he would not have been so great in goodness, or effected so much good in life, or written epistles so full of inspiring thoughts and powerful consolations for the benefit of the Church for ever. St. John, banished to Patmos, sees heavenly visions, hears heavenly voices, and writes the Book of Revelation. And "the noble army of martyrs," how much they owed, how much we owe through them, to their persecutions. But the grand instance is that of the Lord himself, made "perfect through sufferings," and becoming thereby the Saviour of the world, the sympathising Friend and Consoler of his suffering people, the perfect example of meekness, resignation, and forgiveness of enemies. Note, however, in conclusion, that in the case of impenitent sinners blessings from God and man are turned into curses. What are meant for good—the gifts of Providence, enjoyments, sufferings, the gospel and the grace of God—all become evil.
An intruder ejected.
In these verses we have an account of a gross abuse, of authority by the high priest, and how it was corrected by Nehemiah.
I. THE OFFENCE. Turning rooms in the courts of the temple, intended and used as store-rooms for tithes and offerings, etc; into a residence for Tobiah on his visits to Jerusalem. In verse 5 we read of "a great chamber;" in verse 9 of "chambers." Perhaps several rooms were thrown into one; or the word in verse 5 may be, as in verse 4, collective.
1. The perversion was itself disgraceful. It may have occasioned the neglect recorded in verse 10,
2. The person for whom it was committed was not only an alien, but an enemy.
3. The person who committed it was the appointed guardian of the rooms. As high priest, he should have been too jealous of the sanctity of the temple; as "having the oversight of the chamber of the house of God," he should have been too faithful to his duty; as head of the priests and Levites, too concerned for their rights and welfare, to be willing to permit, much less to perpetrate, such an abuse.
II. HOW THE OFFENCE CAME TO BE PERMITTED.
1. Nehemiah was absent. In his absence affairs fell rapidly into disorder again. A painful illustration of the superficiality of reforms wrought hastily under the influence of powerful leaders.
2. Tobiah was a great man.
3. He was a relative of Eliashib.
4. Eliashib was unworthy of his office. He was more concerned to stand well with Tobiah than to do his duty to God and his brethren. Probably he was disaffected towards Nehemiah and his reforms, and thought that now he was gone he could do as he pleased.
III. HOW THE OFFENCE WAS CORRECTED. Nehemiah, returning to Jerusalem, and being informed of what had been done, was very indignant, and at once took measures to put an end to the scandal. Under his direction—
1. Tobiah's furniture was summarily ejected.
2. The rooms were purified from the ceremonial uncleanness they had contracted.
3. They were restored to their proper use. The narrative suggests—
(1) The evil influence sometimes exercised in the Church by rank and wealth, or relationship to those in office. These sometimes go further than character and ability (which should be mainly regarded) to secure for their possessors positions of authority and power in the Church. And those who should protest silently acquiesce in the abuse, or basely connive at it, that they may live in friendship with the unholy intruders into God's temple, and promote their own worldly ends.
(2) The feelings which such abuses will awaken in good men.
(3) The duty of those who have the power to correct them.
Suspended ministrations restored.
Nehemiah, on his return, soon discovers another serious evil which his absence had occasioned; and, with his usual promptness, ability, and energy, corrects it.
I. THE SERIOUS IRREGULARITY WHICH HAD ARISEN. The services of the temple, if not discontinued, had been deprived of much of their dignity and impressiveness by the withdrawal of the Levites, including the singers, from their duties. Their appointed daily allowances (Nehemiah 12:47) had been withheld, and they had retired to their fields to obtain a livelihood by other employments.
II. ITS CAUSES.
1. Nehemiah's absence. His presence and authority were as yet necessary to keep all classes to their duty. The reformation he had effected was not sustained by any vital change in the hearts of rulers or people. Their resolutions, so solemnly made under excitement (Nehemiah 10:1-39.), were superficial and short-lived.
2. The indifference and negligence of the rulers (verse 11), who should have taken care that the regulations were observed.
3. The unfitness for his office of the high priest. He ought to have deemed as his own the interests of the inferior ministers of the sanctuary. But his misconduct, as related in verses 4, 5—whether the lack of offerings gave opportunity for it, or was occasioned by it—shows how little likely he was to concern himself about them, so long as his own position and gains were not affected.
4. The covetousness of the people. They are reproved by Malachi about this time for robbing God by withholding the tithes and offerings (Malachi 3:8). Had they furnished the means, the treasurers would hardly have failed to supply the Levites; or if these had proved unfaithful (as seems hinted in verse 13), the people could surely have secured the substitution of others.
5. Probably the worldliness of the Levites themselves. If their hearts had been in their work it is likely they would have found means of continuing in it. A general declension had evidently taken place, and the various classes would act and react on each other to increase the degeneracy of all.
III. ITS CORRECTION. Nehemiah—
1. Remonstrated with the rulers.
2. Gathered and reinstated the Levites.
3. Restored the general payment of tithes and offerings.
4. Appointed as treasurers men of good repute, to receive the contributions of the people, and thence "distribute unto their brethren."
IV. NEHEMIAH'S PRAYER THEREUPON. Is expressive of—
1. Satisfaction with his work. Could think of it before God as an evidence of his love for God's house.
2. Confident expectation of Divine recognition, acceptance, and recompense of his work. He could expect little of these from the men whose disorders he had corrected. Enough if God approved.
3. Humility. "Wipe not out," etc; as he felt might justly be done. Comp. verse 22: "Spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy." To interpret these appeals to God as "prayer for posthumous fame" is surely to miss their meaning.
In conclusion, notice—
1. The duty of zealously maintaining the public worship of God. All combining according to their ability. Some ministering, others contributing money or money's worth; some faithfully using their talent for management, others exercising their authority to correct abuses and reprove negligence. Those who love God's house will deem such services a privilege and honour. Those who withhold support deserve reproof, and have no right to complain of defective ministrations. "A scandalous maintenance makes a scandalous ministry."
2. The Divine recognition and reward of practical love to the house of God.
3. The worth to a Church of able, devoted, and noble-minded leaders.
Forsaking the house of God.
"Why is the house of God forsaken?" The question addressed by Nehemiah to the rulers may well have had respect at once to their own neglect, the withholding of contributions by the people, and the consequent abandonment of the temple by the Levites. We may apply it to the neglect to attend and support public worship by a large proportion of the population of our country. It is—
I. A QUESTION FOR MINISTERS. They have the greatest power to attract to, or repel from, the house of God. Let them ask whether the house of God may not be forsaken on account of defects in—
1. Their preaching. Let them consider whether it is what it ought to be in—
(1) Substance. Consisting of the presentation of the great truths of the gospel in their varied application to the spiritual needs of men.
(2) Intelligence. Addressing itself to the understanding as well as to the feelings. Not mere dogmatic utterance, unaccompanied by reasons.
(3) Intelligibility. Not obscure through the effort to seem intellectual or original.
(4) Adaptation. Suited to the mental condition of the hearers and those who might become hearers.
(5) Fervour. Arising from sincere love to Christ and men, and desire to do good.
2. Their conduct. Inconsistancies of character, indolence, self-indulgence, unapproachableness, priestly pretensions, airs of infallible authority, mercenariness, all tend to alienate the people from the sanctuary. Neglect of pastoral visitation, whether through indifference, or indolence, or preference for other pursuits, or being too much occupied with the business of religion, may have a like effect. Or people may feel no interest in ministers and their teaching because ministers show no interest in their general well-being.
II. A QUESTION FOR CONGREGATIONS. Defects in those who do attend Divine service may have much to do with the absence of others. Let them consider whether they are wanting in—
1. Due support and encouragement of their ministers. Pecuniary support; sympathy and co-operation in efforts for the good of those without; encouragement of a style of preaching adapted to interest them; avoidance of unnecessary demands on the time and strength of their pastors. A minister's power of usefulness depends largely on the temper and conduct towards him of his congregation.
2. Care to make the services attractive. By due attention to the building, the singing, etc.
3. Provision of sufficient and suitable accommodation.
4. Efforts to induce the neglecters of public worship to attend.
5. Hearty welcome of those who are induced to attend.
6. A life fitted to recommend religion. In their general conduct. In their families. In their relations to those around, as merchants, tradesmen, employers of labour, etc. In the Church: unity, peace, earnestness.
III. A QUESTION FOR THOSE WHO NEGLECT PUBLIC WORSHIP.
1. Partially. Why not regular and constant in attendance? If attendance be a duty at all, it must be a duty to be regular. If occasional attendance be good, constant would be better. Irregularity reveals want of religious principle in the matter, and that no spiritual profit has yet been received by attendance. It discourages ministers and congregations, hinders the salvation of those who are guilty of it, injures their families, and sets an evil example.
2. Wholly. Why do you forsake the house of God? Is it that you feel no interest in what is said and done there? This reveals a state of heart deplorable and perilous; alienation from God, indifference to your highest welfare, unfitness for heaven. Is it that you prefer the society and habits of the ungodly, or fear their ridicule? But will you sacrifice your souls to them? Can you think with pleasure of sharing their future lot? Is it that, wearied with the toils of the week, you think yourself entitled to spend the Lord's day in idle repose? Its hours are sufficient for both rest and public worship, and the engagements of God's house are themselves restful. Is it that you dislike some who attend Divine worship, or think them to be hypocrites? But, supposing you to be right in your judgment, you ought not to condemn and separate from all on account of the faults of a few; and their wrong conduct in one direction is no excuse for your going wrong in another; and if sincere in worship, you will be blessed, whatever becomes of them. Do you say that you can read your Bible and worship God at home? It is to be hoped that you do; but if it were to good purpose, you would surely value the exercises of public worship, and the opportunities and helps which it affords. Do consider anew the reasons for not forsaking God's house.
(1) The claims and commands of God.
(2) The needs and worth of your souls.
(3) The good of your families.
(4) The good of society, so largely promoted by public worship and instruction.
(5) The account you must give hereafter to God, and the awful issues in eternity of a godless life.
A promise to observe the sabbath was one of the articles of the solemn covenant recorded in Nehemiah 10:1-39. We read here how it was violated by some of the people, and how Nehemiah put a stop to their practices.
I. THE PROFANATION OF THE SABBATH WHICH PREVAILED.
1. Among country Jews (verse 15). Nehemiah, visiting the country, saw the people labouring as on other days, and brining their produce to Jerusalem for sale. That they actually sold it on the sabbath does not appear. The concluding sentence of verse 15 seems to imply that they did not (see Bertheau in loc.). But they disobeyed the law by working themselves, and compelling their beasts of burden to work.
2. Among residents at Jerusalem. Tyrians dwelt there' who traded in fish and other articles, and they carried on their business on the sabbath as on other days, the Jews encouraging the forbidden traffic by their purchases. Both violated the law; for the foreigner living amongst the Israelites was expressly named in it (Exodus 20:10):
II. THE MEASURES BY WHICH NEHEMIAH PUT AN END TO IT.
1. He rebuked offenders. He visited the market when the country people were selling their produce, and rebuked them (verse 15). He remonstrated with the nobles, who ought to have prevented the profanation (verses 17, 18), charging them with doing what was done through their connivance, reminding them of the evil which such sins had brought heretofore on the nation, and warning them that renewed transgression was likely to bring down fresh punishment. He probably had Jeremiah 17:21-27 in his mind.
2. He had the gates kept closed during the whole of the sabbath, placing some of his own servants as guards. Not to prevent all ingress and egress, but "that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day" (Jeremiah 17:19).
3. He threatened with punishment the dealers who persisted in lodging near the wall during the sabbath: and thus brought the practice to an end. While it lasted the Jews would be tempted to make purchases on the sabbath; and if not, yet the thing was unseemly.
4. He appointed Levites as permanent guards of the gates on the sabbath, bidding them purify themselves as for a holy service before taking their posts.
III. His SATISFACTION WITH HIS WORK. Addressing himself to God as on former occasions (see on Jeremiah 17:14, and Nehemiah 5:19), praying as before that he would remember him and his work; but more humbly than before appealing' to the Divine mercy. In conclusion—
1. To promote the due observance of the sabbath is a work both of piety, benevolence, and patriotism.
2. Those who have the right and the power to suppress evil practices, yet permit them, are partakers of their guilt (Jeremiah 17:17).
3. The punishment of others for sins should deter us from committing them (Jeremiah 17:18). If, instead of this, we follow the example of sinners, we must share their doom.
This chapter might have been written to bring into pointed contrast the promises of the people (Nehemiah 10:1-39.) and their subsequent practice. In nearly every particular the covenant so solemnly made was broken. We have recorded in this paragraph—
I. A GREAT EVIL.
1. Marriages with foreign women. It is probable that the Jews referred to here lived near the territories occupied by the peoples from whom they took wives. Marriage with such was expressly forbidden by the law (Exodus 34:16; Deuteronomy 7:3, Deuteronomy 7:4), and tended to destroy the distinctive character of the people as "holy to the Lord," and to frustrate the purposes of their national calling. Some of the marriages in this case were specially criminal, since Jewish wives had been divorced that heathens might take their place (Malachi 2:11-16).
2. The effect of these upon the children. They learned the language of their respective mothers, and were ignorant of the Jewish tongue. Or the meaning' may be that they spoke a corrupt dialect compounded of the languages of father and mother.
II. THE COURSE TAKEN BY NEHEMIAH TO SUPPRESS IT.
1. He rebuked the offenders, pronouncing a curse upon them.
2. He administered to them an oath not to continue the forbidden practice.
3. He reasoned with them.
(1) As to the sinfulness of the practice (Nehemiah 13:27).
(2) As to the peril of it (Nehemiah 13:26).
This he showed by the example of Solomon, who, although so great and so beloved of God, was led into idolatry by his foreign wives. Enlightenment and conviction on these points would be more effectual in putting a stop to the practice than chastisement, or even the oath forced on them.
III. NEHEMIAH'S SPECIAL TREATMENT OF AN OFFENDING PRIEST (Nehemiah 13:28, Nehemiah 13:29). Although he was grandson to the high priest, yet because he had married a daughter of Sanballat, who was not only a foreigner, but a bitter enemy of Israel—
1. He banished him from his presence, perhaps from Jerusalem, or even the Jewish community.
2. He appealed to God to punish him and his supporters or companions in sin. The tone of this appeal seems to favour the view that, owing to his high connections, or perhaps because the civil governor did not think it expedient to interfere with the internal discipline of the priesthood, Nehemiah felt he could only forbid the offender's presence near himself, leaving his due punishment, and that of his favourers, to God. That they merited severer punishment than others who had similarly broken the law, Nehemiah intimates when he says, "They have defiled the priesthood," etc.
1. The evil of marriages between such as are and such as are not God's people.
(1) They are contrary to the Christian law (1 Corinthians 7:39; 2 Corinthians 6:14).
(2) They are incompatible with the closest union and communion. Difference in some respects may promote union; but serious difference on a matter so vital and all-pervading as religion must constantly hinder fellowship of heart and unity of purpose.
(3) They are dangerous to the soul (verse 26). The influence of wedded life in making the two like each other will more probably operate to injure piety in the one than to implant it in the other. The words of Tennyson are likely in this sense to be fulfilled in whichever of the parties is the better at first:—
"Thou shalt lower to his level day by day,
What is fine within thee growing coarse to sympathise with clay
As the husband is, the wife is: thou art mated with a clown,
And the grossness of his nature will have weight to drag thee down."
(4) They prevent consistent family government.
(5) They operate to the serious injury of the children (verse 24), and thus frustrate one Divinely-ordained end of matrimony (see Malachi 2:15).
(6) On these and other accounts they prevent the highest and purest happiness of married life.
2. The use to be made of the falls of others (verse 26). Some quote the sins of such men as David, Solomon, Peter, etc. as excusing or palliating their own. The very opposite is the fact. With such beacons our guilt is increased, if we fall in like manner.
3. The greater guilt of some men's sins (verse 29). Professed special consecration to God increases guilt. Sins in ministers of religion are not only more injurious to others, but more wicked in themselves.
4. The certainty of the Divine punishment of sinners, though they escape the human (verse 29).
5. The worth of those who are zealous in opposing and suppressing sin. They are among the best of patriots and philanthropists. For the perils of states, and the miseries of men in general, arise mainly from sin. How surpassingly worthy then of all praise and love is the Son of God, who "was manifested to take away our sins" and "destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:5, 1 John 3:8).
Nehemiah 13:30, Nehemiah 13:31
Nehemiah: his character and works.
In these words Nehemiah briefly recalls the services he had recently rendered to the community, concluding with one more prayer that God would remember him. We may suitably conclude with a more general survey of his character and works.
I. HIS CHARACTER. His natural abilities were of a superior order: his sagacity, forethought, power of organisation and management, warmth of feeling, power to inspire and rule others, calm consideration in laying his plans, vigour and determination in executing them, etc. But in a homily we think rather of the moral and spiritual. The narrative presents him to us as eminent for—
1. Piety. This was at the basis of his character, and guided and animated his whole life. It appears in his—
(1) Habitual prayerfulness. From first to last this is conspicuous (Nehemiah 1:4; Nehemiah 2:4; Nehemiah 4:4, Nehemiah 4:9; Nehemiah 5:19; Nehemiah 6:9, Nehemiah 6:14; Nehemiah 13:14, Nehemiah 13:22, Nehemiah 13:29, Nehemiah 13:31). "In everything by prayer and supplication" he made his requests "known unto God" (Philippians 4:6).
(2) Practical fear of God (Nehemiah 5:15).
(3) Love for God's house and its services (Nehemiah 13:14, and elsewhere).
(4) Reverence for his law, and desire to bring all into harmony with it.
(5) Confidence in God (Nehemiah 2:20; Nehemiah 4:14, Nehemiah 4:20)—a confidence, however, which did not produce negligence in counsel or action, but stimulated to both.
(6) Recognition of God's hand in all his successes (Nehemiah 2:8, Nehemiah 2:12, Nehemiah 2:18; Nehemiah 4:15; Nehemiah 6:16). Appointed the praise of God as the principal part of the dedication of the wall (Nehemiah 12:27, seq.).
2. Patriotism. An ardent longing for the welfare of Israel, and willingness to do and endure anything for its promotion (Nehemiah 2:10). In the case of an Israelite, piety and patriotism could unite in a degree difficult to maintain in the case of others; the nation being, as no other, God's people, owing to him its existence, laws, etc; and set apart by him as his special organ and for his special praise.
3. Disinterestedness. Seeking no personal end, receiving no salary as governor, but gladly devoting his own fortune to the service of the people (Nehemiah 5:10, Nehemiah 5:14-18).
4. Impartiality. Rebuking wealthy men, rulers and priests, as freely as the common people; enforcing the rights of the latter as zealously as those of the former (Nehemiah 5:7-13; Nehemiah 13:11).
5. Courage. In facing difficulties and opposition, and correcting offenders in high places (Nehemiah 4:9, sol.; Nehemiah 6:11; Nehemiah 13:8, Nehemiah 13:28).
6. Perseverance. In prosecuting his work, and beginning again when it was partially undone through his absence.
II. THE SERVICES HE RENDERED TO HIS PEOPLE.
1. The strengthening of Jerusalem. He saw this to be the great necessity which must be supplied, if anything else were to be done effectually and permanently for the good of the nation. To this end he—
(1) Had the encircling wall thoroughly repaired and its gates restored. Thus turning Jerusalem into a strong fortress, and making it possible for the people to develop into a nation again.
(2) Organised its forces for defence.
(3) Increased its population.
2. Reformation of religion and morals. He sought to reconstitute the nation on the basis of the Divine law. He believed that "righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people" (Proverbs 14:34). He therefore—
(1) Suppressed extortion and oppression (Nehemiah 5:1-19.).
(2) Separated the people from heathen alliances and friendships (verse 30, and elsewhere).
(3) Promoted the instruction of the people in God's word (Nehemiah 8:1-18; etc.).
(4) Resuscitated the great religious festivals.
(5) Led the people to confession of sin and renewal of their covenant with God (Nehemiah 9:1-38; Nehemiah 10:1-39.).
(6) Reorganised the services of the temple.
(7) Revived the payment of tithes and other offerings for the support of its ministers.
(8) Maintained its sanctity (Nehemiah 13:8, Nehemiah 13:9).
(9) Enforced the law for the observance of the sabbath (verses 13-22).
Altogether a remarkable man, raised up by God at a critical period to do a great work for Israel, and, through that nation, for mankind. Let us—
(1) Glorify God in him.
(2) Imitate him so far as our abilities and opportunities allow, and so far as is consistent with the more spiritual system under which God has placed us.
(3) Pray God to raise up many such men for his service at home and abroad.
HOMILIES BY R.A. REDFORD
The blessing of God on an active life founded upon his word.
I. THE TRUE RELIGIOUS REFORMATION, both negative and positive.
1. Abuses must be vigorously attacked and cleansed away. The house of God has to be purified of strangers. The neglect of discipline a terrible evil. Unfaithful ministers the curse of the Church. The "mixed multitude" is no strength to Jerusalem, but weakness. The observance of the sabbath. To the Jew a typical commandment, which represented obedience altogether. While days cannot possess the same place under the new dispensation, there is guardianship of the day of rest which is absolutely necessary for the life of religion. In all active efforts of reformation personal caprice and mere self-assertion must be renounced. The open Bible must be the strong basis of operations, the unfailing armoury from which the weapons are taken. On that simply dependent, the true reformer can be bold, energetic, uncompromising, intolerant of evil, driving out the violators of God's law and defilers of his temple. We have a great example of consuming zeal in the Lord himself.
2. All really religious reformation will be constructive as well as destructive. The evil driven away will come back finding "the house empty and garnished" unless it be possessed by the spirit of active obedience. The only principle upon which we can keep out abuse is that of the right use of the things before abused. This applies to the service of God's house, to the observance of the sabbath, and to the purity of communion among God's people. Nehemiah re-established the true order of religious life. The safety of the Church lies in its activity and development according to the word of God. All living growth is defence against attack and decay.
II. THE TRUE MEMORIAL BEFORE GOD AND MAN. "Remember me, Lord, for good."
1. We should cast ourselves on the faithfulness of God. Men forget one another. God rewards his servants.
2. To hold a place among the honoured names of God's word, to be in the line of the great succession, is more than all that this world can offer us.
3. God's blessing descends to future generations. We build a monument in the characters and lives of those we leave behind us.—R.
HOMILIES BY W. CLARKSON
Reading, obeying, suffering
etc. These verses record two cleansings—the one of the congregation, and the other of the sanctuary of the Lord; the one by the people, and the other by a single servant of Jehovah. Taking them together, we learn—
I. THAT THE BIBLE SHOULD BE READ WITH A SPECIAL VIEW TO ITS BEARING ON OUR OWN LIVES (Nehemiah 13:1). "On that day they read in the book of Moses, … . and therein was found written that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever;"… and "when they had heard the law they separated," etc. (Nehemiah 13:1, Nehemiah 13:3). The Israelites listened not only to understand and admire and be moved with joy and gladness, but to learn what they should do, that they might conform more perfectly to the will of God. We may read our Bible from
(1) the antiquarian point of view, or
(2) the poetical, or
(3) the professional, or
(4) perfunctorily, as a part of the day's routine;
but we shall not have treated it as it deserves to be treated, as its Divine Author would have us use it, as our own spiritual necessities demand that it should be approached, unless we come to it in the spirit of those old words, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" We must study it devoutly, to learn what there is in us to be uprooted, about us to be avoided, absent from us to be implanted and cultivated.
II. THAT PLAIN DUTY, HOWEVER PAINFUL, MUST BE DONE FORTHWITH (Nehemiah 13:3, Nehemiah 13:7, Nehemiah 13:8, Nehemiah 13:9). It is very soon told that "it came to pass when they had heard the law that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude." But the act of separation, of expulsion, must have been an exceedingly painful one. The "mixed multitude" must have been closely allied to and inwoven with "the congregation," and there must have been great rents and gaps made in families and connections and friendships for this excommunication to be thoroughly carried out. When, too, Nehemiah returned from Babylon, and found the house of the Lord used for an enemy's storehouse, it must have "grieved him sore" (verse 8), not only to find this fact in existence, but also to have to put himself into direct antagonism with the high priest, and to reflect so sternly on his conduct as he did (verses 8, 9). So Paul must have been troubled to withstand Peter to the face (Galatians 2:11), and we know how "out of much affliction and anguish of heart" he wrote "with many tears" a letter of reproach to the Church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 2:4). We are told that we are to deal tenderly and graciously with offenders; those who are spiritual restoring such "in the spirit of meekness" (Galatians 6:1); but when the integrity, the purity, the reputation of the family, the Church, the society absolutely demand severe measures, we must take them. We should in such cases act,
(1) where possible, after remonstrance and giving opportunity for repentance;
(2) with all possible regard to wounded feelings;
(3) with manifest attention to the directions of Scripture;
(4) thoroughly and speedily, lest slackness or delay should do as much harm as entire unfaithfulness.
III. THAT SIN HAS FAR-REACHING CONSEQUENCES IN ITS TRAIN. There was written in the law "that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever," etc. (verses 1, 2). There is nothing so cruel in the end as undue leniency in the presence of sin; there is nothing so kind and wise, all things considered, as the manifestation of "righteous indignation" against iniquity. God's revealed anger at the transgressions of his people was one side of his mercy—the less pleasant to our view, but not the less necessary for our redemption. Hence, among other things, his severity and apparent harshness. Hence such an act of judgment as this against the Ammonite. An act of inhospitality, and then of seductive treachery, done a thousand years before, leading to exclusion from privilege now! What a long train of consequences has sin! How far in its injurious results may one guilty action reach!
"Oh, mortal man, beware
Lest one wrong act should bring an age of care!"
IV. THAT INDIVIDUAL MEN HAVE A GREAT AND GRAVE POWER FOR GOOD AND EVIL (verses 4, 5, 8, 9). One man, the high priest, had very gravely compromised the people by admitting Tobiah, the enemy, to a chamber of the house of the Lord. It is impossible to say how much evil might not have arisen from this foolish step had not Nehemiah come in time to take effective action against it. But it is not every Eliashib who has a Nehemiah to correct his follies and save his country from their consequences. One man in high office, or with great faculties, or with peculiar charms, may commit a large body of people to folly and sin, and may bring down on their head saddest visitations. On the other hand, one wise and strong man, acting energetically, may do as Nehemiah did—"cast forth" the evil (verse 8), and "cleanse the chambers," and restore sacred places to a sacred use (verse 9). Exalted station is much coveted by men, but it has grave responsibilities attached to it by God. We may be well content to be without its burden of obligation; or if, in God's providence, that should rest on us, it becomes our duty prayerfully and earnestly to rise to the height of our opportunity, and dedicate it to the service of our God and our race.—C.
Practical Christian wisdom.
Nehemiah must have been shocked indeed to find on his return to Jerusalem (verse 7) what a sad relapse had taken place during his absence from the city. Most painful of all must it have been to him to find that the service of Jehovah in his own house had been so scandalously neglected. He found not only that chambers of the temple were in the occupation of the enemy of the people of God (verse 7), but that, the Levites being scattered abroad, because their portion had been withheld (verse 10), the house of God was forsaken (verse 11). We gather from the whole incident recorded in verses 10-14—
I. THAT MATERIAL SUPPLIES AND SPIRITUAL PROSPERITY ARE IMPORTANTLY CONNECTED (verse 10). "The portions of the Levites had not been given them," and, consequently, they had "fled every one to his field" (verse 10). It may be open to question whether these Levites—singers and other officials—had shown as much disinterestedness and devotion as could have been wished. It might be argued that as servants of God they might have stood at their posts and starved rather than desert the field of sacred duty. Perhaps if they had been some degrees more heroic than they were they would have risked and suffered all privations rather than forsake their work. But however this may have been, it is certain that the people had no right whatever to reckon on such heroism; they ought to have acted on the supposition that these were men of average piety, and that men of ordinary goodness will not continue to serve if they are not sustained in their service. The human nature which there is in every good man—and which will certainly be shown in every class and order of good men—is a factor which must not be disregarded. It is a feature that must be taken into account; a want that must be provided for. If it be left out of account, then, whatever the system or society may be, there will be found, as here, negligence, desertion, duty undone, God's house forsaken, a fleeing from the temple to the field. Material resources have their place in the prosperity of the best of causes.
II. THAT GOOD MEN AS WELL AS GOOD METHODS ARE NECESSARY FOR LASTING SUCCESS. Judging from the four concluding verses of the preceding chapter (Nehemiah 12:44-47), we gather that a very satisfactory system for receiving and storing the offerings, and also for distributing them, had been devised and brought into action. Yet, in Nehemiah's absence, it failed to effect its purpose. When he returned and witnessed the failure, he immediately
(1) set to work to reorganise: he "set in their place" (verse 11) the Levites, who, at his instance, returned to Jerusalem, and he "made treasurers over the treasuries "(verse 12); but besides this, he
(2) appointed "faithful men" (verse. 12), on whom reliance could be placed, to do the work they undertook, infusing his own spirit into all the officers. He impressed on them all his own fervent and faithful genius. How long things went well we know not, but Nehemiah did the best he could do to provide for permanent prosperity: he associated good men with a good method. We should trust neither to one nor to the other. Again and again organisations have broken clown in the Church (whether tithe-taking, money-getting institutions, or others) because, though the machinery was excellent, there was no steam to work the wheels; again and again there has been an excellent spirit, but all has failed for want of a wise method. We must
(a) use our best judgment to perfect our system, and
(b) pray for, and look out for, the wise and earnest-minded men to work it.
III. THAT INDIVIDUAL FIDELITY WILL SURELY MEET WITH ITS APPROPRIATE RECOMPENSE (verses 13, 14).
1. Usually from man. "I made treasurers … Shelemiah," etc. ... "for they were counted faithful." Integrity, diligence, conscientiousness will generally be seen of man and receive its reward. It may indeed pass unnoticed, but as a rule it is recognised and rewarded. Be faithful, and you will be "counted faithful."
2. Certainly from God. "Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds," etc. (verse 14). There are many motives, all good, but some higher than others, which should prompt us to diligent and faithful labour for our Lord and our race. We may work in the vineyard of the Great Husbandman because
(1) be calls us, and it is our bounden duty to respond; or because
(2) our zeal is called forth by the apparent and urgent necessity for our help; or because
(3) we delight in holy activity, and are never so happy as when the weapon of usefulness is in our hand; or we may do so because
(4) we have "respect unto the recompense of the our God for good;" we would that he should "not wipe out our good deeds" (verse 14), but record them in his "book of remembrance;" and, not being "unrighteous to forget our work and labor of love" (Hebrews 6:10), reward every one according to his work. The truest humility (Luke 17:10) may characterise the same disciple that has the most earnest aspiration to receive his Master's commendation, and to have rule given him over many things." We may turn this prayer into a prediction. God will remember us, and will suffer nothing to blot out our pure endeavours from his book. We shall surely meet them again. Our "works follow us," and will find us in his presence.—C.
The sabbath day.
Among other deplorable departures from the Law of the word, Nehemiah found on his return to Jerusalem that his countrymen had fallen into flagrant disregard of the sabbath. It was a most serious defection, demanding a most vigorous reform. We look at what he found-and what he wrought.
I. A SERIOUS DELINQUENCY. The law of the sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 31:13-17; Numbers 15:32-36) was openly defied. Husbandmen were treading their wine-presses and were bringing corn into the city, and were lading asses on that day of sacred rest (verse 15); all kinds of fruit were also carried in and sold (verse 15). Tyrian traders were allowed to bring in and sell their fish and "all manner of ware" (verse 16). The sacred character of the day was set at naught, and was fast disappearing. Persian rulers, Samaritan neighbours, Phoenician traders, had prevailed over Jewish principles, and the sabbath was most seriously threatened. There needed—
II. A VIGOROUS REFORM. Nehemiah set himself to change the whole aspect of affairs. He
(1) remonstrated energetically—he "contended with the nobles of Judah" (verse 17), charging them with bringing this about—"What evil thing is this that ye do?"—by their guilty connivance, and prophetically threatening them with the wrath of God for their sin (verse 18);
(2) caused the gates to be shut some time before, and to remain shut till some time after, the commencement and conclusion of the sacred day (verse 19): he set his own servants (some of his own retinue), on whom he could most reckon, to see that this order was impartially carried out;
(3) not only obliged those who came to sell to remain outside all the day, but threatened to apprehend them if they did this again (verses 20, 21); and
(4) enlisted the sympathy and aid of the Levites, that, when he was recalled and his own servants were withdrawn, they might maintain what he now instituted. These energetic measures succeeded; they had an immediate effect (verse 21), and they appear to have had a permanent influence, as, from this time, we have reason to think that the Jews became scrupulous, even to a fault, on this question of sabbath observance. Nehemiah's reform was admirable and effective because—
(a) It was bold and impartial. He confronted and reproached the nobles as well as the traders and salesmen.
(b) It was energetic and full of action. He used magisterial rights; not exceeding his authority, but using it, and acting in harmony with the powers of his commission and the law of God.
(c) It was anticipative of future wants. He prepared for a time when he would not be there, and when other men like-minded would be prepared to continue his work (verse 22).
Concerning the observance of the sabbath or the Lord's day by ourselves, we may remark that it is—
I. OBVIOUSLY THE WILL OF GOD THAT WE SHOULD KEEP IT. We know that—
1. It was sanctified from the very beginning of our race (Genesis 2:2, Genesis 2:3).
2. It was included in the religious and moral statutes given by God to Moses, as if it belonged to that which is permanent and perpetual (Exodus 20:1-26.).
3. It was insisted upon by the prophetic voice, and declared to be decisive of national prosperity or decline (Jeremiah 17:19-27; Isaiah 58:13, Isaiah 58:14)—the prophets being the upholders of the moral in preference to the formal and ceremonial.
4. It was declared by the Lord Jesus Christ to be "made for man" (Mark 2:27).
5. It was continued in the shape of the Lord's day after the resurrection (Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2; Revelation 1:10); these incidental notices pointing to a general apostolical observance.
II. MANIFESTLY REQUISITE FOR BODILY AND SPIRITUAL WELFARE.
1. Bodily; for man and beast live longer and work better with than without it.
2. Spiritual; for without the spiritual refreshment and revival of sabbath services, more especially in these days of absorbing work and care, the light of life would burn even more dim and faint, until it went out into darkness. All those who hate (spiritual) death may well love and guard and use it well. Our duty in regard to it is—
(1) To avail ourselves of the bodily rest it brings, and to see that others have the same advantage—our children resting from their lessons, servants (domestic and public) resting from their toil.
(2) To make it a day of special spiritual privilege, including
(a) worship-drawing nigh to God;
(b) instruction—enlightenment, edification, the "beholding the beauty of the Lord and inquiring in his temple;" and
(c) inspiration—fresh determination, invigorated resolution that as for us and our household we will serve the Lord Christ.—C.
(a lesson for the young). Beside the forsaking of the house of the Lord consequent on the neglect to pay tithes, and the disregard of the sabbath, Nehemiah had to lament another grave evil which had grown up during his absence in Persia. In these verses we have—
I. A CASE OF ALARMING DEFECTION. "In those days" of his return some of the Jews had married "wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab" (verse 23). Ezra had encountered the same evil, and vehemently and vigorously resisted it (Ezra 9:1-15; Ezra 10:1-44.). But it had broken out again, to the sorrow and dismay of the faithful leader and "governor." It was an alarming defection because
(1) it was an act of downright disobedience. God had said by Moses, "Thou shalt not make marriages with them (foreigners); thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son" (Deuteronomy 7:3 and Deuteronomy 7:25). The Divine law was therefore deliberately and openly defied. What but the Divine anger could they expect to reap? More especially when so prominent a man as a grandson of the high priest had wrought this sin in the eyes of the whole people, thereby "defiling the priesthood" (verse 29). And because
(2) it was surely conducting to fatal consequences. The great, the main mission of the Jewish nation was to be a sanctified or separate people unto the Lord, to preserve his name and truth intact; but the result of these marriages was a mongrel race, speaking a corrupt language: "their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod (Philistia), and could not speak in the Jews' language" (verse 24). Not only would their national language be corrupted, but their national morals and religion too: they were on that downward course which led Solomon himself, "beloved of God" as he was (verse 26), to sin and sorrow. The purity of their faith and the integrity of their national morality were seriously at stake.
II. AN INSTANCE OF VIGOROUS CORRECTION. Nehemiah
(1) contended with the delinquents (verse 25). He expostulated and reasoned with them (verses 26, 27); he also
(2) solemnly invoked condemnation and suffering on them in the event of impenitence: he "cursed them" (verse 25); he even
(3) caused some of them to be punished with bodily chastisement: he "smote certain of them" (verse 2,5); he
(4) summarily dismissed the high priest's grandson: "I chased him from me (verse 28); he
(5) caused them to put away the strange wives and to take an oath not to continue the offence (verses 25, 30). Nehemiah felt that the danger was so deadly that not only energy and vigour, but even vehemence and passion, were justified in putting it away. It wrought in him "indignation,… vehement desire,… zeal,… revenge," that his countrymen might "be clear in this matter" (2 Corinthians 7:11).
Here is a very serious lesson for the young. They who are members of the Church of Christ find themselves, like these Jews at Jerusalem, under a temptation to an unholy alliance. The Church and the world are very closely intermingled, locally. They meet in the same street, in the same shop, under the same roof. They who would not choose to associate intimately with those that are servants of sin and sources of evil, come involuntarily into contact with companions who are devoid of Christian principle, but who are by no means wanting in other attractions. It may be personal beauty, or charm of disposition, or fascination of manner, or wealth, or some other worldly advantages which appeal to tastes and ambitions that are net of the highest order Here is temptation to intimate friendship or even to lifelong alliance. But let the young remember what is
(1) the will of Christ concerning them. Is there not an application we should make to ourselves in the injunction of the apostle, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers"? (2 Corinthians 6:14). And is there not an inference to be drawn from the same writer to our conduct when he speaks of marrying "in the Lord"? (1 Corinthians 7:39). It is surely not his will that one who has taken his vows upon him should enter into closest and even lifelong intimacy with another who has no interest in his truth, no love for himself. Let them also remember what are
(2) the inevitable consequences. The result to themselves must be spiritual decline, So was it with Solomon, leading him to the verge of utter ruin, if not over the edge, and into the gulf of it; so has it been with many thousands of the children of men. The result to others is moral and spiritual deterioration. The children "speak half in the speech of Ashdod" (verse 24): they inevitably catch something of the tone and strain of both parents. Their spirit and their language, themselves and their life, will not attain to perfect purity; they will bear about with them the mark of worldliness. The consequences of such union are evil, and they are irreparable. The choice of our intimate friends and of our one lifelong companion is much too lightly regarded. On our wisdom or folly here hangs our weal or our woe for life, and the future of others too, even of those in whom we shall be most deeply interested. If there be one step which, more than any other, should be taken with profound and protracted care, with devout and religious thoughtfulness, it is this step of choosing our friends, most particularly the friend of the heart and for the life. If we let humour speak on this subject, as we commonly do, it should only be on sufferance. We should make it speedily retire, that sound sense, and solemn consideration, and religious duty may utter their voice, and be obeyed.—C.
Nehemiah 13:31 (see also Nehemiah 5:19; Nehemiah 13:14, Nehemiah 13:22)
The appeal to God.
During the latter part of this book these words recur like the refrain of a psalm. They are an appeal to God—an appeal to God from man. There is something plaintive as well as supplicatory in their tone. We look at—
I. THE HUMAN NEGLIGENCE OF WHICH THEY ARE SUGGESTIVE. What! exclaims an earnest but inexperienced voice; is it meant that Nehemiah, the patriot prophet, who ventured so much in Persia for the people of God at Jerusalem; who, in the teeth of such dangers and difficulties, threw a wall of protection round Jerusalem, and made her safe and strong for centuries; who virtually repeopled and largely rebuilt her; who reinstituted her sacred feasts, and re-established her temple worship in its regularity; who redeemed her children from bondage; who purified her domestic life; who put down her sabbath desecration; who refused to receive fee or payment for his services, all the while showing a princely hospitality,—is it meant that he had to appeal to God from the indifference, the negligence of man? Only too possible, is the reply. Do we not remember that the ancestors of these Jews wearied of the faithful Samuel, and preferred the weak and vacillating Saul; that Greece had her Socrates and Aristides, and Rome her Coriolanus, and Spain her Columbus, and England her William Tyndale? Nay! can we forget that once a greater than Nehemiah was "despised and rejected of men"? He was despised, and men esteemed him not. Nehemiah, to be the builder and restorer he was, had to be an ardent and energetic reformer, i.e. he had to come into sharp collision with the views and (what was more) the interests of his contemporaries, and to challenge and even denounce their doings. These words, "Remember me, my God," follow his record of the vigorous part he took in the matters of
(1) usury (Nehemiah 5:1-19.);
(2) the non-payment of tithes (verses 10-14);
(3) sabbath desecration (verses 15-22);
(4) the work of cleansing (verse 30).
They speak of coldness, of suspicion, of disregard, of backbiting, on the part of some, if not many, of those he sought to serve. The strain is this: This people are overlooking my work for them, forgetting the sacrifices I have made, not sparing me their reproaches. Remember THOU me, O God, for good; wipe not thou out my good deeds, spare thou me in the greatness of thy mercy. We must not enter the field of Christian work only, or chiefly, for what man will give us as the reward of our labour. If we do, we may be miserably disappointed; we may reap more tares than wheat in the harvest-time; we may find more thistles on the ground than fruits on the tree; we may be like the Master, who had the crown of thorns pressed on his bleeding brow instead of the crown of honour laid lovingly on his head. It is not for us to "covet earnestly" the smile or praise or recompense of man. Doubtless it ought to be given in response to faithful work; it is better both for him that gives, as well as for him that receives, that it should be given; but as those that serve the Lord Jesus Christ, as those that follow the Son of man, we must be prepared to do without these things. And we can afford to do so, if needful, for there remains—
II. THE DIVINE FAITHFULNESS ON WHICH THESE WORDS ARE BASED. "Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done" (verse 19). But dare we ask God to think on us according to what we have done? For him to deal with us after our actions and to reward us according to our doings, is not this for him to deal with us after our sins and reward us according to our iniquities? Dare we, sinners, make our appeal to the God of righteousness? Must we not address ourselves to him as the God of mercy, who does pass by, blot out, "remember no more" the things we had thought and said and done? Truly; yet this doctrine of grace and the doctrine that God will reward those who try to please and honour him stand well together. So Nehemiah felt; for while asking God to remember him for "this also" (this good deed), he asks him to "spare him according to the greatness of his mercy" (verse 22). So Paul felt; for while speaking of those who "by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, honour, and immortality," etc. (Romans 2:7), he speaks of "counting all things but clung to win Christ and be found in him, not having his own righteousness" (Philippians 3:8, Philippians 3:9). The full truth on this subject is that
(1) God's general acceptance or condemnation of us at the last will turn on our acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ in this life, but that
(2) the character of his approval and the measure of his award will depend on the kind of Christian life we shall have lived. There will be an acceptance which will simply be a not being condemned, a "being saved as by fire," and there will be a cordial, hearty, emphatic "Well done." There will be, for some, fewer cities and narrower spheres; for others, more cities and broader spheres over which to rule. Many Christians live in practical forgetfulness of this, and make no effort to win a cordial approval and a large reward. Hence their Christian life is
(c) idle and unfruitful.
Others, happily, are wiser than they. To such we say, Be faithful in every good word and work, like Nehemiah, and you may make a confident appeal to God for recognition, remembrance, recompense. Do not look anxiously about you for man's smile, but do look earnestly above you for Christ's approval, and beyond you for his reward. Do not think it wrong to gain incentive and inspiration from the hope of recompense because that may not be the very highest motive. It is not wrong to do so; it is wrong not to do so; for Christ calls you so to do. He calls you to put out all your talents, not only because you ought to put them out, but because, thus doing, you will be blessed hereafter; to run your race with patience (perseverance), not only because you ought to do this, but also that you may win the prize. So bear your witness bravely, live your life holily and blamelessly, do your work diligently and in the spirit of full. consecration; be not dismayed, deterred, or even checked by the absence of man's appreciation; walk with elastic step, with psalms of hope upon your lip, the path of holy usefulness, because the Lord your Saviour will "remember you for good;" because he will not "wipe out" your efforts, but write them in a book of remembrance which no hand may touch to blot or to erase; because he will give you a large reward, "abundance "of eternal joy, in the day of his appearing.—C.
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Exell, Joseph S; Spence-Jones, Henry Donald Maurice. "Commentary on Nehemiah 13". The Pulpit Commentary. https://studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany