the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters
FOR a long time I was not much drawn to Nehemiah. I did not aright understand Nehemiah, and I did not love him. He was not my kind, as we say: the kind, that is, that I like best to read about, and to think about, and to imitate and to preach. I thought him, if a patriotic, at the same time, an outside, a surface, a hard, and an austere man. And, worst of all, a man who was always well pleased with himself; the first of Pharisees, in short, as Ezra was the first of Scribes. I should have remembered what Canon Gore puts so well in Lux Mundi: 'At starting, each of us, according to our disposition, is conscious of liking some books of Scripture better than others. This, however, should lead us to recognise that, in some way, we specially need the teaching that is less attractive to us. We should set ourselves to study what we less like, till that, too, has had its proper effect in moulding our conscience and shaping our character.' If I met a man from New England,' said Dr. Duncan, 'I would say to him, "Read the Marrow Men." If I met a Marrow Man, I would say, "Read the New-Englanders." '
Like Daniel and his three companions, and like Ezra his own colleague, Nehemiah was a child of the Captivity. They had all been born and brought up in the furnace of affliction. And they were all children in whom was no blemish, but well favoured, and skilful in all wisdom, and cunning in knowledge, and understanding science, and such as had ability in them to stand in the king's palace. Like Ezra also, Nehemiah has written his own biography, and like Ezra also, he both begins and ends his autobiography with great abruptness. We have neither Nehemiah's youth nor his old age in his autobiography. His whole memoir of himself is taken up with his leave of absence from Shushan the palace, and with what he was able to do for Jerusalem during his furlough from Shushan. By the time that Nehemiah's fragment of autobiography opens, the first return from the captivity has for some time taken place. Jerusalem, in a way, has been largely rebuilt. The temple also, after a fashion, has been restored, and the daily services of the temple are in full operation. But the walls and the gates and the towers and the battlements of the new Jerusalem still lie in ruins all round the city; and while that is the case, the whole city stands open to the inroads and the ravages of their enemies round about. Nor is all that the worst. It is a weariness and a despair to read it,-but the returned captives themselves were living in far greater poverty and bondage in Jerusalem than in all their seventy years in Babylon itself. Those of you who have ever read and at all understood the two sad little books of Ezra and Nehemiah, and the still more sad little book of Malachi,-that saddened and despairing reader will have seen in those three books what a hopeless people God had to do with. And, with still more self-disgust and self-despair, he will have seen what an Old Testament type and example the Jews always are of ourselves.
The schoolboys who have read the Cyropœdia can best picture Nehemiah to themselves when he says that he was the King of Persia's cupbearer. The amusing episode of Cyrus and his grandfather's cupbearer is the best commentary we possess on the position of Nehemiah in Shushan the palace. The Persian cupbearer was far more than a cupbearer. He was a kind of prime minister, and master of the ceremonies, both in one. He was the royal favourite above all the rest of the palace, till his privileges and his powers and his wealth were all a proverb. He was able to keep a table and set up an equipage at his own expense like a prince, Daniel's youthful beauty, his graces of character and manner, his shining talents, and his high state-services may all be borrowed and set down as the opening pages of Nehemiah's memoirs of himself. Where Josephus got it he does not tell us, but he gives us a most picturesque and pathetic account of the way in which the terrible state of Jerusalem came to the cupbearer's ears. Nehemiah was taking the air one evening outside the walls of Persepolis when some travel-stained men passed him on their way into the gate of the city. As they passed him he overheard them conversing together in the Hebrew tongue. You know how your mother-tongue would go to your heart if you were an exile in a far country, however prosperous outwardly you were. And Nehemiah forgot all about Artaxerxes' supper as he talked with the travellers, till he said to them as he bade them farewell, 'If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning; if I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy!' Young John Milton, you will remember, could not enjoy the skies, or the art, or the letters of Italy, while England at home was as she was. And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him; and I took the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence heretofore. Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? This is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid, and said unto the king, Let the king live for ever! 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? Then the king said to me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven, says the cupbearer. How he was heard, and how the king's heart was moved, and how Nehemiah got leave of absence to go and build the walls of Jerusalem, and the letters that he carried to the king's foresters, and to those that kept the royal quarries, and how he set out to the city of his fathers to finish it-all that is to be read in Nehemiah's own memoirs written out for us to this day by his own graphic hand.
If the style is the man in the Scriptures also, then we see Nehemiah to the very life in the whole of his book; but, especially, in his second and third chapters. We see him as well as if we had carried the candle before him all those three nights in which he went round the ruins of Jerusalem. So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days. And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me: neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon. And I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dungport, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. Then went I up in the night by the brook, and viewed the wall, and turned back, and entered by the gate of the valley, and so returned. And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did: neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the nobles, nor to the rulers, nor to the rest that did the work. A self-contained man. A man of his own counsel. A man with the counsel of God alone in his mind and in his heart. A reserved and a resolute man. A man to take the command of other men. A man who will see things with his own eyes, and that without all eyes seeing him. A man in no haste or hurry. He will not begin till he has counted the cost. And then he will not stop till he has finished his work. The way that Nehemiah took to build and complete the whole wall round about Jerusalem was this: Every trade, and profession, and corporation, and outstanding city family took a portion, and undertook either to build that portion with their own hands or to see it built. And, to begin with, as was but natural and seemly, Eliashib the high priest began first to build; and, as was to be expected, he held a special sacrifice and spiritual service both at the beginning and at the end of his portion of the wall. A volunteer party from the neighbouring city of Jericho took up the portion of the wall adjoining Eliashib; and next to them a man whose name we do not know. 'I will take the fish gate,' said Hassenaah. 'I and my sons will lay the beams thereof, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof.' Then came three men,-but we have never heard their strange names before nor since: their names are only written in heaven, and in the third chapter of Nehemiah. And next unto them the Tekoites repaired; 'but their nobles,' Nehemiah takes this note on his tablets, 'put not their necks to the work of the Lord.' 'Let me have the old gate to repair,' said Jehoiada, the son of Paseah. 'My heart warms to the old gate.' And he and Meshullam divided the old gate between them. Then the guild of the goldsmiths did a large piece, and next to them the apothecaries. These last fortified a strong and a broad portion of the wall, as I have known apothecaries do among ourselves. And, then, after some unknown but noble men: look here at the ruler of the half of Jerusalem and his daughters. I opened Matthew Henry in a hurry here, so sure was I that he would have something specially shrewd on the daughters of Shallum. But even Homer sometimes nods. To my great disappointment I found nothing in the unfailing annotator worth repeating to you. But he wakens up when he comes to the thirtieth verse. Meshullam Matthew Henry holds to have been a lodger who undertook a piece of the wall the size of his own rented room. So that you see our adherents here, and our seat-holders, and those not yet full members, may take their part in all our work till the time comes when they shall have sons and daughters to help them. Thus, at any rate, did Berechiah's lodger, if he was not also his son. That is not the half of Nehemiah's roll of noble names; but you can go round the whole wall for yourselves, and see the rest of the builders at their work for yourselves, till you come to the goldsmith's son at the going up of the corner.
And let it not be overlooked, to their praise, that all the builders builded every man with his sword by his side because of the deadly envy and ill-will of their enemies round about. The enemies of Jerusalem 'took it heinously,' says Josephus, that the wall of Jerusalem was in the way to be rebuilt. They so laboured, Nehemiah proudly writes it about them, from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared. And all the time Artaxerxes' cupbearer had his eye on everything. He was everywhere, and he was the power and the success of everything. The young cupbearer has now become a great statesman and an experienced administrator, till he has left his mark on Jerusalem as long as one stone shall stand upon another. But you must really take time and read the whole of this inimitable little book for yourselves at a downsitting. And that, if only to see how Ezra and Nehemiah worked together, the old scribe and the young cupbearer. How the priests' pulpit of wood was set up, how the support of the altar and the pulpit was seen to, how the public sanctification of the Sabbath was secured, and other reforms instituted with a firmness of hand that there was no resisting. Altogether, this little book is full of Nehemiah's absolute mastery in Jerusalem, and his determination that Jerusalem shall be both a safe, a happy, and a holy city to dwell in. Speaking of the preachers of Jerusalem and their support, just as we get our Presbytery, and our Kirk-Session, and our Expository Pulpit, and our Puritan Sabbath from the new Jerusalem of that day, so we get our Deacons' Court and our Sustentation Fund from Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra was an old preacher, full of years, full of learning, and full of an experienced piety, giving himself continually to prayer and to the ministry of the Word, while young Nehemiah, like Stephen in the Acts, served tables in the new Jerusalem. That is to say, he looked after the walls of Jerusalem, and the whole temple furniture, and the support of the temple ministry. If our pulpit of wood and its method of work on the Word of God is ancient and honourable, so also is our Deacons' Court. And neither in the new Jerusalem of Nehemiah's day, nor in the same Jerusalem in Peter's day, was the prophetic and apostolic and diaconate compact better observed, on the deacons' side at any rate, than it is in our own congregations at the present moment. And because of all this, says Nehemiah, we make a sure covenant and write it out, and our princes, Levites, and priests all seal unto it, that we will not forsake nor forget the house of our God.
Nehemiah was such a worker in and around the house of God that he would have satisfied James the Just himself. James, the brother of the Lord, was always insisting on work in all the twelve tribes scattered abroad. 'Even faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone. Wilt thou know, O vain man, that faith without works is dead? For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.' But for his love of work, Nehemiah again and again would have been a dead man. Again and again Sanballat would have had Nehemiah in his clutches, but that Nehemiah would not come down. 'Come out to a conference in the plains of Ono, at any rate,' said Sanballat. 'No,' answered Nehemiah, 'I have no time for conferences. I am doing such a great work on the wall up here that I cannot for one moment leave it.' Yes, it was the cupbearer's quenchless love of work that both saved his life on several occasions, as well as built and finished the wall of Jerusalem. Cupid, in the old fable, complained bitterly to Jupiter that he could never debauch the Muses, because he never could come on them sitting idle. If work is not worship, then it is surely the next thing to it, so much so that, just bring up your son in idleness, and your grey hairs are as good as in their grave already. Whereas, give your son something to do, from making tables to serving them, and you have as good as saved his soul. He has no time so much as to speak to Sanballat. Let every young man then begin early to do something. Let him be a student and a lover of good books. Let him teach a class. Let him be honoured, and trusted, and elected like Stephen to be a deacon. Let him do his noble duties with the understanding and the heart. Let him know what he is doing every time he does it, and he will thus purchase for himself a good degree; that is to say, good work, and a real love for the good work, and step after step, he will escape all the Sanballats of the city, and will go on from work to work, through a youth and a manhood of interest and usefulness, occupation and protection, to an old age of the best love among us and the highest honours.
And if any young minister should be ordained, like Nehemiah, over such a congregation as Jerusalem was in that day; if he finds the gates thereof burned with fire, and the walls laid waste, and the whole house of God in reproach round about; let him read the Book of Nehemiah till he has it by heart. Let him view the wreck and ruin on his arrival as the young cupbearer did. Let him say nothing to any man. Only let him rise up in the King's name and build. Let him come to the King's quarries for stone, and to the King's forests for timber. The good hand of his God being upon him. Let him preach his very best to his long-starved people every Sabbath morning; and better and better every year he lives. Let him visit his long-neglected people night and day. Let him be like Samuel Rutherford in as small a church as was in Scotland in that day, and now and for ever as famous. Let him be his people's boast. Let him be always in his study, always at their sickbeds, always preaching, always praying. So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard that followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for the washing. And at the dedication of the wall there was great gladness, both with thanksgivings and with singing, with cymbals, with psalteries, and with harps. For God had made them to rejoice with great joy; the wives also and the children rejoiced. So that the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off. And it was Nehemiah's faith in God, his love of Jerusalem, and his hard work for Jerusalem that did it.
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Whyte, Alexander. Entry for 'Nehemiah'. Alexander Whyte's Dictionary of Bible Characters. https://www.studylight.org/​dictionaries/​eng/​wbc/​n/nehemiah.html. 1901.