By J.G. Bellet
Here we read, "Now the city was large and great, but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded" (ver. 4). Having therefore built the walls, Nehemiah takes in hand to people the city. For the walls would be nothing, save as the defence of a peopled place within them.
This purpose, therefore, we find in his heart, at the opening of Nehemiah 7--and accordingly he acquaints himself with the returned captives, and reads the catalogue and the account of them, as they had been in the days of Zerubbabel, which would be a guide to his present object.
Nehemiah 8 - 10.
However, ere he pursue this purpose, and take on him to people the city, he turns aside for a while to consider the people themselves. And this gives us his action in Nehemiah 8 - 10, which may be called a parenthetic action--for in Nehemiah 11 he resumes the purpose which he had conceived in Nehemiah 7: that is, the purpose of peopling the city.
This gives a peculiar character and a special interest to these three chapters, where we find the people put through a moral process of a very striking kind indeed. Nehemiah looks at them personally, looks at their souls, at their moral condition, and would fain quicken or sanctify them, ere he settles them in their places.
This action begins on the first day of the seventh month--a distinguished day in the calendar of Israel, the feast of trumpets, a day of revival after a long season of interruption when all was barren or dead in the land. And this action, thus begun, is continued in successive stages, down to the close of Nehemiah 10; thus, as I observed already, giving Nehemiah 8-- 10 a distinct place in the book of Nehemiah, and the character of a parenthesis.
We must, therefore, look at these chapters a little particularly.
This distinguished day, the first day of the seventh month, demanded, according to the ordinance touching it, a holy convocation and a blowing of trumpets--for it was the symbol, as I have said, of a time of revival after a long season of death and barrenness (see Lev. 23: 23-25). This ordinance was observed here in Nehemiah 8. There was a convocation of the people. But there was something additional. The Book of the Law was read in the audience of the people, and explained to them. And at this the people wept--properly so, for this is the business of the application of the law to a sinner, to convict him, and make him cry out, "O wretched man that I am!" But their teachers, on this occasion, at once restrain their tears, because that day was "holy to the Lord." It was a time of joy, such as the blowing of trumpets, and the new moon then beginning again to walk in the light of the sun, would signify. The people were, therefore, told to let the joy of the Lord be their strength, to be merry themselves and to send portions to others.
All this was beautifully in concert with the day, in the ordinances touching it. The thing that was additional, or unprescribed by Lev. 23, that is, the reading of the law, was by all this made to give a richer, fuller tone to the day itself in its proper, prescribed character. The added thing was in no collision whatever with the ordained thing--that which was voluntary was no violation of that which was prescribed.
And here I would say, this is just what we might expect in a day of revival. At such a time, the word of God must be thoroughly honoured. It must be the standard. But there will be, necessarily I would say, such new or added things as the character of the time, under the Spirit of God, would suggest. But these new things, whatever they be, will not offend against the word of God. And such is the scene here.
But the word of God, being opened, is kept open. It was a day, as we speak, of "an open Bible." Precious mercy! And this open Book, having yielded one piece of instruction, telling them of the rights of the first day of the seventh month, now yields them further instruction, telling them about eight other days of that same month, or about the "feast of tabernacles." And the people, already in the spirit of obedient listeners to the word of God, are still kept in it. They learn about that eight-day feast, and they keep it; in such sort, too, as had not been witnessed for centuries.
This was, in like manner, beautiful. But again, we notice something additional.
In Nehemiah 9 we see the congregation of the children of Israel in humiliation, going through a solemn service of confession; and then, in Nehemiah 10, entering into a covenant of obedience to God, and of the observance of His ordinances. But nothing of all this had been prescribed. We find no mention of such a thing in the law of Moses. Lev. 23 had not required this to wait upon or follow the feast of tabernacles.
Here, however, again we have to notice something. This solemnity did not take place till the twenty-fourth day of this month; and then the time of the feast of tabernacles had ended; for that ended on the twenty-third. And this, again I say, was very beautiful. The congregation would not, by their act of humiliation and confession, soil the feast, or prevent its purpose. That feast was the most joyous time in the Jewish year. It celebrated the ingathering, or "harvest-home," as we speak. It was the foreshadowing of the days of glory or of the kingdom. It shall have all its demands answered in full tale and measure. The twenty-third day, the last day, that great day of the feast, shall pass, ere the language of humiliation and the voice of penitential sorrow be heard. But then, the ordinance of God admitting it, the people may hold, as we again speak, a "prayer-meeting."
This was likewise voluntary or additional, as I have said--not appointed by scripture, but suggested under the Spirit of God, by the time and the circumstances which marked this present revival under Nehemiah. Confession was the due language of a people who stood, at that moment, the representative of a long-revolted, disobedient, and guilty nation.
"Ceasing to do evil," however, is to be followed by "learning to do well." It is very right, if we have been doing wrong, to begin with confession of the wrong, ere we set ourselves to do the right. But to do the right thing is a due attendant on the confession of the wrong thing. And all this moral comeliness we see here, as we pass from the ninth to the tenth chapter.
The nobles, and all the people together, meet as "brethren," in separation from the people of the land (see Neh. 10: 28), and seal a covenant to keep the laws of God. It is pleasant to see here, as also when they were building the wall in Nehemiah 3, how rank and station lost itself in common brotherhood. "Let the rich rejoice in that he is made low, and the poor in that he is exalted, for the fashion of this world passeth away." And what they now covenant and seek to do, has still something additional or unprescribed in it. They pledge themselves to observe all the commandments of the Lord, His statutes and His judgments; not to make marriages with other people; not to profane the sabbath; to bring in their first-fruits, their first-born, and their firstlings, and the tithes of their ground; and all this is according to the word of the Lord. But they also make ordinances for themselves, to be chargeable yearly in the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of God; and they cast lots to bring wood for the altar of God at appointed seasons.
All this is still in sweet and wondrous harmony with the whole of their actions in this day of happy revival. The word of God is, again and again, and throughout, honoured in all its demands; but added things are seen in their services and activities; such as the fresh energy and grace of the revival-season would suggest, and the Spirit would warrant.
Here this parenthetic action, as I have called it, ends. It is beautiful from first to last. The people are conducted through a gracious process. They are exercised according to truth by the Spirit. They are convicted and then relieved. Then they have a lesson about coming joys in days of glory. And thus instructed as to their rich interest in the grace of God, they can look at themselves, not as in fear and in a spirit of bondage, but for due brokenness of heart and with a purpose to serve God for the future. And all this may call to mind that utterance or experience provided by the Holy Ghost for repentant Israel in the last days: "Surely after that I was turned, I repented, and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth" (Jer. 31).