By J.G. Bellet
It is after an interval of twelve years from the time of Ezra's action, that Nehemiah appears. He was a captive still in Babylon (or Persia, the same thing, in principle), while Ezra was doing good service to the Lord at Jerusalem. But, connected as he was with the palace of the Persian king, he may not have been free to take part with the movement or revival in Ezra's day--or, it may be, he was not then quickened by the Spirit, so as to do so.
He represents a fresh revival; and all is in increased weakness. He is not a prince of the house of David, like Zerubbabel, nor a priest of the family of Aaron, like Ezra. He is, as we speak, a layman; cup-bearer to the king.
There is something, however, in all this, that magnifies the grace that was in him. The burdens of his brethren have power to detach him from the Persian palace, as they had once separated Moses from the Egyptian. No miracle distinguishes these days of returned captives, but there are many witnesses of fine moral energy among them.
Ezra had been a scribe, as well as a priest. He was a meditative, worshipping student of God's Word; for he found the springs and the guide of his energy in that word. Nehemiah was not that. He was a practical man, a man in the business of everyday life, amid the circumstances and relations which make up human history. But he was of an earnest spirit, like Ezra, and he took what he heard, as Ezra had taken what he read, and dealt with it in the presence of God.
He had heard of the desolations of Jerusalem, and he weeps over them before God; as Ezra had seen the sins of Jerusalem, and wept over them before God. But here, we may ask, how was it that these desolations had not moved Ezra? He was all this time at Jerusalem, while Nehemiah was in the Persian palace, and could only hear of them by occasional reports. Was it that the energy had declined in Ezra? and that he himself now needed to be revived, though some years since he had been the instrument for reviving others? Such things are, and have been. Peter led his brethren on, in Acts 1: 15; but he had need himself to be pulled up, corrected, and led on, in Gal. 2. A younger Paul reanimates his elder brother Peter who had been serving the Lord for years, while he was blaspheming Him. And here, it would seem, a younger Nehemiah, a layman too, has to revive the venerable scribe who had crossed over to Jerusalem to serve God there, years and years before him.
If it were not this, it may show us, that the Lord has one business for one servant, another for another; one purpose by this revival, another by that. Zerubbabel had looked to the Temple, Ezra to the reformation of the religion; and Nehemiah is now raised up to look to the city-walls, and the civil condition of Jerusalem. It may have been thus, for such things, again I say, are and have been. Of old, there was the Gershonite, the Merarite, and the Kohathite service. And it has been surely thus, in a series of revivals, century after century, in the course of Christendom, since the Reformation, which was a kind of return from Babylon.
I say not in which of these ways we are to account for Ezra apparently remaining unmoved, though the ruined walls of the city were before his eyes day after day for years. However, he is honourable, highly so, in the recollections of the people of God, as Nehemiah is.
Nehemiah was a simple man of very earnest affections. His book gives us, I may say, the only piece of autobiography which we get in Scripture. It is this dear man of God writing his own history in the simple style that suits truth-telling. He lets us learn, how he turned to God again and again, in the spirit of a trustful, confiding child, as he went on with his work. His style reminds me of a word which I met, I believe, in some old writer, "let Christ be second to every thought." That is, let the soul quickly turn to the Lord in the midst of occupations, be habitually before Him, not however by effort or watching, but by an easy, happy, natural, exercise of soul.
And, together with this exercise of his spirit towards God, Nehemiah's heart was alive to his brethren. In deep affection, and in that eloquence that comes fresh from the heart and its suggestions, he calls Jerusalem, "the city of his fathers' sepulchres." And all this presents to us a very attractive person. We love him, and do not grudge him his virtues, or envy him because of his excellences. We trace him with affectionate admiration.
The exercise of his spirit, ere he got his royal master's leave to visit Jerusalem, is very beautiful. From the month Chisleu to the month Nisan, that is, from the third to the seventh month, he was mourning before God on account of the city. At length he comes before the king, and leave is given him, and a given time is set him, to take his journey and pay his visit--a captain and horsemen are also appointed to guide and guard him on the road. He had been much alone in all this: revivals commonly begin with some individual; and when he reaches Jerusalem, he is still, at first, alone. By night he inspects the city walls, acquainting himself with the nature of the work that now lay before him. He proves what he is about to publish. Very right--it is the way of Spirit-led servants. "We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen." Nor is he a patron but yoke-fellow, a fellow-labourer, like Paul, or like Paul's divine Master, Who, while He was Lord of the harvest, served in the harvest-field also.
And, indeed, these are always the forms after which the Spirit prepares the servants of Christ. They prove what they teach, and they labour in the principle of service and not of patronage. They are not lords of the heritage, but ensamples of the flock; they affect no dominion over the faith, but they are helpers of the joy.
Then, as we go on to Nehemiah 3, and look at his companions in the work, we see much to instruct us, and much that tells us of our own day and our own circumstances.
All are a working people together--the nobles and the common folk. The service of God's city had put them all on a level. The rich are made low, the poor are exalted: a beautiful sight in its time and place. Then, some are distinguished: Baruch, the son of Zabbai, works "earnestly" (ver. 20); the "daughters" of Shallum work with their father (ver. 12); some of the priests "sanctified" their work in their part of the city-walls, while others of them worked after a common manner. (vv. 22, 28) And, painful to have to add to all this, the nobles of the Tekoites worked not at all. (ver. 5)
There have always been such distinctions as these, and there are the same abundantly in this our day. In raising the Tabernacle in the wilderness, in fighting the battles of Canaan, in accompanying David in the days of his exile, as here in the building of the wall of Jerusalem, and afterwards among the yoke-fellows of St. Paul, we see these distinctions. And surely, like the daughters of Shallum, or like the wife of Aquila, females in this our day are doing good work in the gospel, and in the service of Jerusalem. But we may remember, and it has its profit to do so, every man shall receive his own reward according to his own work (1 Cor. 3); though we have also to remember, that the Lord weighs the quality as well as the quantity of what is rendered to Him. (Matt. 20: 1-16)
Thus we may surely be instructed in the details of this sweet story. As we pass through Nehemiah 4 we find the builders have become fighters as well as builders. Their work is continued in the face of enemies, and in spite of "cruel mockings," as Hebrews 11 speaks. And in this combination of the sword and the trowel, we see the symbols of our own calling. There is that which we have to withstand, and there is that which we have to cultivate. We are to cherish and advance, like builders, what is of the Spirit in us; we are to resist and mortify what is of the flesh. We are builders and fighters.
As to the enemies, they are the same Samaritans as at the first. The Zerubbabel generation of them was represented in Rehum and Shimshai, or in Tatnai, and Shethar-boznai; and now, the generation of them in this day of Nehemiah is represented in Sanballat and Tobiah. They were not heathen men, but a seed of corruption, who might appear to be "the circumcision" in the eyes of flesh and blood. And by this time they seem to have become more corrupt; for Edomites, Arabians, Philistines, and Ammonites appear to be joined with them, or to have become one with them.
And still more serious, and more for our personal, immediate warning, we see a company of Jews dwelling near these Samaritans. And they were in the secrets of the Samaritans (ver. 12)--a bad symptom. They were borderers. They may remind us of Lot in Sodom, and of Obadiah in the house of Ahab. Surely they were not Samaritans; they were Jews, and had some love and care for their serving, toiling brethren in Jerusalem. But they dwelt near the Samaritans, and were in their secrets; again, I say, a bad moral symptom. They were, I presume, some of the old stock, left behind in the land, in the day when Judah was taken captive. They had never shared in the revival virtues of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Their scent was in them--they had not been emptied from vessel to vessel, as Jeremiah speaks of Moab (Jer. 48).
Different from such, widely different, was the trumpeter, whom Nehemiah here sets close to his own person; for if these Jews were in the secret of the Samaritans, this trumpeter was in the secret of God. This is what the holders and blowers of trumpets always represent--whether we see them as priests, doing their occasional and varied work in Num. 10; or their annual work on the first day of the seventh month, as in Lev. 23; or as gifted ministers in God's assembly, teaching and exhorting, according to 1 Cor. 12: 8, 9.
Humbling to some of us to trace these beauties in the servants of Christ, in the Nehemiahs, and in the trumpeters on the walls of the city!
There are combinations in Nehemiah which distinguish themselves very strikingly. In Nehemiah 5 we see him in his private virtues; as in preceding chapters we have seen him in public energies. He surrenders his personal rights as governor, that he may be simply and fully the servant of God and His people. This may remind us of Paul in 1 Cor. 9, for there the apostle will not act upon his rights and privileges as an apostle, as here Nehemiah is doing the same as the Tirshatha, or Governor of Judea, under the Persian throne.
This is beautiful. How it shows the kindred operations of the Spirit of God in the elect, though separated so far from each other as Nehemiah and Paul!
We have, however, a warning as well as an example in this chapter.
The Jews, who had now been long in Jerusalem, were oppressing one another. Nehemiah tells them, that their brethren, still away among the Gentiles, were doing far better than this. They were redeeming one another, while here, in the very heart of the land, their own land, they were selling one another.
This is solemn; and we may listen to this, and be warned. It tells us, that those who had taken a right position were behaving worse than those who were still in a wrong one. The Jews at Jerusalem were in a better ecclesiastical condition, while their brethren, still in Babylon, were in a purer moral condition.
Is not this a warning? It is another illustration of what we often see ourselves; but it is a solemn and humbling warning.
Not that we are to go back to Babylon, leaving Jerusalem; but we are surely to learn, that the mere occupation of a right position will not be a security. We may be beguiled into moral relaxation through satisfaction in our ecclesiastical accuracies. This is a very natural deceit. "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these," may be the language of a people on the very eve of God's judgment. There may be the tithing of mint, and rue, and anise, and withal the forgetting of the weightier matters of righteousness, goodness, and truth.
But this chapter also gives us another of those combinations which shine in the character of Nehemiah. It enables us to say, that while there was beautiful simplicity in him, there was likewise decided independency. His simplicity was such, that like a child he turns back and home to God, while treading one path of service after another; and yet there was that independency and absoluteness about him, that led him to begin always as from himself in the fear and presence of God. As here, he tells us that upon hearing of those oppressions of brethren by brethren, he took counsel with himself ere he acted (ver. 7). And, indeed, all his previous actions bespeak the like independency. He was Christ's freeman, and not the servant of man; simple in God's presence; independent before his fellow-creatures.
These are fine combinations, greatly setting off the character of this dear, honoured, man of God.
In Nehemiah 6, we see him again in conflict, but it is in personal, single-handed fight; not, as in Nehemiah 4, marshalling others, putting the sword in one of their hands, and the trowel in the other, but fighting himself, single-handed and alone, face to face with the wiles of his enemies. In the progress of this chapter he is put though different temptations. Generally we see him a single-hearted man, whose body, therefore, is "full of light." He detects the enemy, and is safe. But besides this, there are certain special securities which it is very profitable to consider for a moment.
1. He pleads the importance of the work he was about (ver. 3).
2. He pleads the dignity of his own person (ver. 11).
These are fine arguments for any saint of God to use in the face of the tempter. I think I see the Lord Himself using them, and teaching us to use them also.
In Mark 3 His mother and His brethren came to Him, and they seem to have a design to withdraw Him from what He is doing to themselves; just as Nehemiah's enemies are seeking to do with him in this chapter. But the Lord pleads the importance of what He was then about, in the face of this attempt, or in answer to the claims which flesh and blood had upon Him. He was teaching His disciples and the multitude, getting the light and word and truth of God into them. And the fruit of such a work as this He solemnly lets us know was far beyond the value of all connections with Him in the flesh; and the claims of God's word, which He was then ministering, far more weighty than those of nature.
And in like manner He teaches His servants to know the dignity of their work. He tells them, while at it, "not to salute any man by the way," nor to stop to bid farewell to them that are at home; nor to tarry even for the burial of a father (Luke 9, 10).
But again in Luke 13, the Pharisees try to bring Him into the fear of man, as Shemaiah seeks to do with Nehemiah in this same chapter (ver. 10). But the Lord at once rises into the sense of His dignity, the dignity of His person, and lets the Pharisees know that He was at His own disposal, could walk as long as He pleased, and end His journey when He pleased; that the purposes of Herod were vain, save as He allowed them to take their way. And so, in John 11, when His disciples would have kept Him from going into Judea, where so lately His life had been in danger, He again rises, in like manner, in the sense of the One that He was, in the consciousness of personal dignity, and answers them as from this elevation (see verses 9-11).
And the Holy Ghost, by the apostle in 1 Cor. 6, would impart courage and strength to the saints, from a like sense of the elevation and honours that belonged to them. "Know ye not," says Paul to the Corinthians, "that we shall judge angels;" and again, "Ye are not your own, ye are bought with a price." "Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost?"
There is something very fine in all this. These are weapons of war indeed, weapons of divine, heavenly metal. To gain victories with such, is Christian conquest indeed; when temptations can be met and withstood by the soul carrying the sense of the importance of the work to which God has set us, and the dignity of the person which God has made us. Would that we could take down and use those weapons, as well as admire them as they thus hang up before us in the armoury of God. It is easy, however, to inspect and justify the fitness of an instrument to do its appointed work, and all the time be feeble and unskilful in using it, and in doing such appointed work by it.*
*Let me add, in further commendation of this servant of God, what another once suggested to me; that though the Book that bears his name was written by himself and is a piece of autobiography, yet he does not acquaint us with himself beyond what necessarily comes out from his connection with the people of God and his service of them. We see nothing of him as at home, or what the circumstances of that home were. We learn not his age, or place of birth. We may say, he did not know himself after the flesh. He presents a simple-hearted, single-eyed sample of that indeed.