By J.G. Bellet
These chapters witness the people still earnest and obedient. The day of revival continues. The freshness of its morning has, in no measure, faded, though we here reach a later hour of the day.
The eleventh chapter opens with a grievous mark of Jerusalem's degradation. She is a witness against herself, that she is not as the Lord will have her in the days of coming glory. She is not "desired," rather indeed "forsaken." People are not flocking to her. She cannot look round her, as she will in the days of the kingdom, and wonder at the multitude of her children. It is not, as yet, the boast of others, that they have been born in her; nor are they owning that all their fresh springs are in her. She has not as yet to say, that the place is too strait for her, for the multitude of those who fill her. These surely are not her condition here in this chapter. She is debtor to any one who will consent or condescend to dwell in her.
What a witness of degradation! what a sign indeed, that restoration was not glory! Jerusalem is still trodden down; the times of the Gentiles are still unfulfilled. Surely the daughter of Zion has not arisen, and shaken herself from the dust, and put on her strength and her beautiful garments.*
*And what a witness does Christendom yield, that reformation is not glory!
Still, she must be inhabited; she must have her citizens within her. The land must have its people, for Messiah is soon to walk among them; the city must have its inhabitants, for her King is soon to be offered to her. Therefore is the return from Babylon, and therefore is the peopling of Jerusalem.
And again, as we see in Nehemiah 12, she has her wall. Right, that, having a wall, the wall should be dedicated. Public festivity had been often celebrated on such like occasions: at the carriage of the ark in the days of David; at the dedication of the temple in the days of Solomon; at the foundation of the second house in the time of Zerubbabel; and again, when that second house was finished, this was so. And now, in this day, this day of Nehemiah, the people again rejoice at the dedication of the wall which was now finished, and was encompassing the city.
But while this is so, and all is right so far and after this manner, yet what, I ask, is this wall? What, I further ask, but another witness of Jerusalem's degradation? In her coming days of strength and beauty, when she is the city of the Kingdom, the metropolis of the world, the sanctuary and the palace of the great divine King of Israel and of the earth, "salvation" shall be her wall. God will then appoint salvation for walls and bulwarks. The Lord Himself, like her mountains, shall stand round about her. Her walls shall be called Salvation, and her gates Praise. The voice of the Spirit in Zechariah, the echo of which could scarcely at this time have died away, had uttered this fine oracle: "Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein. For I, saith the Lord, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her" (Zech. 2: 4, 5).
How infinite the difference! Jerusalem under the eye of Nehemiah bearing the marks of her shame; Jerusalem, as we read of her in the prophets, the witness of the highest destiny in honour and excellency in the earth! How must such a man have felt, because of all this! And yet he serves earnestly, undauntedly, patiently. Great moral dignity shines in this--a fine spirit of self-devotion expresses itself. He works, and works nobly, though beset with foreign enmities, and encompassed with domestic degradation. Such a servant of Christ, Paul appears to be in 2 Timothy; and such Nehemiah in this book of his.
And this we ought to be ourselves. The Christendom that we see around us is as far from the church that we read of in the Epistles, as the Jerusalem which Nehemiah looked on was unlike the Jerusalem which we read of in the prophets. But he served in the midst of her; and so should we in the face and in the heart of Christendom. For the spirit of service measures not the scene of the service, but the will of the Master.
All this, however, tells the character of the moment. Israel is restored, her land peopled, her city inhabited again; but this is not the kingdom. The children of Israel are to be put to the proving and the clearing of themselves still; and the day of grace, of salvation, and of glory, the promised day of the kingdom, is still distant. But faith has to be exercised, and obedience has to learn and practise its lesson.
Accordingly, on entering Nehemiah 13, we find the Book of God still open among the people. For surely a day of revival is the day of "an open Bible," as we speak. But it is a new lesson they have now to learn. They are growing in knowledge, in acquaintance with divine principles. It is quite another page of the book which they have now turned over. Scripture, as yet, had its "comfort" for them; now it is to have its "patience." As yet it had "piped" to them, now it is about to "mourn" to them. The joy of the feast of trumpets, and the still richer joy of the feast of tabernacles, had been made known to them, and they had obediently responded. They had "danced" to that piping. But now they were to be exercised painfully by the book. They read "that the Moabite and the Ammonite were not to come into the congregation of the Lord for ever."
This was terrible. All, as yet, had been eminently social. Not only in their joy as on the feast-days but in their act of confession, they had been together. "Strangers" had been removed, but "the mixed multitude" do not seem to have been looked after and detected. But now, at the bidding of the word found in Deut. 23, this severe cutting off must be performed; as at the bidding of Lev. 23, the joy of the tabernacles had been already celebrated.
But this was the more fitted to test the spirit of obedience in this good day of revival. And the congregation do stand it, and answer the demand of the word of God very blessedly. For we read, "it came to pass, when they heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude." This was obedience indeed, doing what Scripture prescribed--doing the lessons of the word, teach they what service or duty they may, or call to what sacrifices they may. Iniquity, however, is now found to be in high places, higher, it would seem, than the people could reach. But it must be reached even there; for a day of awakening, and of fresh power from God, must be a day of obedience. All this time an Ammonite had been in the house of the Lord. This exceeded. Not merely was he, like the mixed multitude, in the congregation, but in the house: and that, too, by the practices of the high priest himself.
Nehemiah was not at Jerusalem just at this time. But on his return, he acts on this abomination thus found in the high places, as the people themselves had already acted, in their measure, upon the mixed multitude. For Deut. 23 shall be heard, though the highest functionary in the church will have to be rebuked. Eliashib is nobody to Nehemiah, when Moses speaks; for the one has God's authority with him, the other is to have it over him. A word of admonition to Christendom, if Christendom had ears to hear--that Christendom which has set its own Eliashib above Moses, its own officers above the Scripture. But such an one was not this faithful man. With him "Moses' seat" was supreme. Scripture judges every man, while it itself is to be judged of no man. Neither high priest in Israel, nor assumption of antiquity and succession, nor of any other kind in Christendom, however attractive, is to set aside one jot or tittle of it. The Book, speaking from God, as it does, at all times, and addressing itself to all conditions, must be supreme. "The Scripture cannot be broken"--therefore it is not to be gainsayed. God will fulfil it; we are to observe it.
All this which we thus find in Nehemiah and the congregation, in this closing day of the Old Testament, may well arrest the thoughts of the saints in this day of ours.
In Nehemiah 11 and 12 we have seen marks of degradation in Jerusalem--we see them still in Nehemiah 13. The sabbath was profaned there, and alliances with the daughters of the uncircumcised were still found there. This is more than degradation in circumstances; it is moral degradation, if not abomination. The restoration from captivity, and the re-peopling of the city, have not entitled it to be saluted, as it is to be in coming kingdom days, with that voice which the Spirit has prepared from the lips of an admiring gazing world, "The Lord bless thee, O habitation of justice, and mountain of holiness" (Jer. 31: 23).
But in spite of all this, again I say, we see Nehemiah serving. And this is a very fine sight. I need not say how, to perfection, the divine Master of all servants was a pattern of this in His day of service. But there is a great moral dignity in this, let us find samples of it in whom we may.
The congregation, too, keeping the Book still open, is an edifying sight, a sight for us very specially to look at. They were not "partial in the law." They exhibit a people who would fain have no "neglected texts," nor "unturned pages," in the Book of God. Not a sound of it was to be lost upon the ear, as though it was heard in the distance. But who of us, I ask, is up to them in this? How prone we are to choose our lessons, rather than "to live by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God!" Is it not so? I may love the page which reads me a word on the feast of tabernacles in its joy, and delight myself in the sound of the trumpets in the day of the new moon of the seventh month. But the word that would wash me for purification, and separate me from unwarranted alliances, has another relationship to me, and addresses me in other accents. I do not choose that lesson. It is a page of the Book I am not disposed to open. I am tempted to say with the Roman governor, "Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee." The house may be too social, the heart may be too much at ease, to discipline itself by such ordinances as Deut. 23: 3.
Indeed, indeed, we may say, all this Scripture, these books of the returned captives, this Ezra and this Nehemiah, are worthy of the deep attention and full admiration of our souls. How did the Spirit of God work in the elect in those days, how does He, by what He has recorded of them, instruct us in these days!
And beside, as we have also seen, those times of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, were times of revival. Such times had been known before in Israel, as with Samuel, David, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Isaiah. And such have been known, again and again, in the progress of Christendom. And a re-quickening season may take a shape but little expected by us, and perhaps without a perfect precedent. It is the property of life to put on, at times, some exuberant features, to work outside and beyond its ordinary rules and measures. It is more like itself when it acts thus. For life is a thing of freedom, and has inbred force in it. But, at the same time, we are to judge every expression of it by the word of God. "To the law and to the testimony:" if a thing stand not that test, it is not the overflowing of life, however ecstatic or exuberant it may be; it is to be disclaimed with all its fascinations.
"To him that hath shall more be given." Obedience to one lesson is the sure and safe road to the discovery of another. "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine." There is a temptation to hold back, lest the lessons we have yet to learn shall prove distasteful. "He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." There is, therefore, in some of us, a great disposedness or temptation to stop short. But this is disobedience, as well as the breaking of a word read and understood. To shut the book, through fear of what it might teach us, is plainly and surely disobedience.
The Dispersed among the Gentiles.
The Book of Esther.
In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, on which I have already meditated, we saw the captives brought back to Jerusalem, there to await the coming of the Messiah, that it might be known, whether Israel would accept the Messenger and Saviour whom God would send to them. In this book of Esther we are in a very different scene. The Jews are among the Gentiles still.
We will look at it in its succession of ten chapters; and in the action recorded we shall find--
The Lord God working wondrously, but secretly.
The Jews themselves.
The Gentile, or the power.
The great Adversary.