By J.R. Miller
Nehemiah was a captive. There is a tradition that he belonged to the royal family. Probably he had been educated in the land of captivity. At least he occupied a position of great importance in the king's court. He speaks of himself as the king's cup-bearer--but this title does not mean that he was merely a servant. The position was one of importance and of much influence.
Evidently Nehemiah was a man of strong character, who could not be swayed by the enervating influences about him. Robert Ogden tells of once discovering a wonderful little flower on the Rocky Mountains. In a deep fissure, one day in midsummer, he found the snow lying yet unmelted, and on the surface of it he saw this flower. Looking to learn where its roots grew, he perceived that a long, delicate stem came up through the snow. The root was in the crevice of the rock underneath. Like that flower in the cold snow--are the lives that are found growing up in the midst of the world's temptations, and yet are beautiful and true in spite of all that would naturally tend to destroy them. The secret is that they are rooted in the cleft of the Rock of Ages.
Nehemiah was in Shushan the palace; that is to say, at the very center of a great heathen capital. Yet it was while occupying a position there, that there came into his heart the desire to honor God and help in restoring His land. Let no young man say, after reading the story of Nehemiah, that it is not possible to be a true and earnest Christian wherever God may place him. If he is compelled to live among the ungodly, exposed to all manner of evil influences, he can still be true to God. All he needs is to be sure that his heart is fixed upon Christ, and that the roots of his faith are kept alive through prayer, communion with God, and the study of God's Word. It is possible for a young man to rise in the world as Nehemiah did, to prosper in business, to win honor and influence among his fellow-men, and yet keep his heart pure, his life clean, himself unspotted from the world.
One day, while Nehemiah was engaged in his accustomed occupations, he was visited by his brother Hanani. Hanani had been visiting the Jews who had returned to their own land, and Nehemiah asked him concerning the condition of things at Jerusalem. Many people who are happily fixed themselves, do not give much thought to their friends who are less fortunate. Nehemiah, however, though himself living in luxury, did not forget his brethren, who were enduring hardship and suffering, nor did he cease to remember his country in its time of distress. This quality in Nehemiah should not be overlooked in our study of his character. In our days of prosperity, we should not forget those who are in circumstances of suffering and need. That man cannot call himself a Christian--who never thinks beyond the circle of his own little life. When one Christian suffers, all his fellow-Christians should feel the pain. The strong should help the weak. The fortunate should not forget the unfortunate. The well should sympathize with the sick. In the homes of gladness, with the circle unbroken, there should be deep sympathy with the household next door where there is grief. Nehemiah showed a brotherly spirit.
Nehemiah was greatly affected by what he had heard concerning the condition of things at Jerusalem--but his feelings led him to action. "It came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept . . . and prayed before the God of heaven." Some men weep easily--their tears lie near the surface; but these are not usually men of deep and strong nature. They are emotional, and often their emotions never become acts. Nehemiah was not a man of that kind--he was stalwart and strong. His tears, therefore, did not show weakness. It is not unmanly to weep when there is such cause for weeping as there was that day. Nehemiah wept over the sorrows of his people, over the calamities which had befallen them. Jesus Himself wept when He stood on the brow of the Mount of Olives and looked down upon that same Jerusalem, over the report of whose desolation Nehemiah now wept. Country, home, and religion are dearer to a true man--than place, power, honor, and riches. We should be moved with compassion, when we think of the lost souls about us.
But tears are not enough. Nehemiah at once carried the burden to God in prayer. That is what we should do with all our anxiety for others. The greatest achievements in this world--have been made through prayer. The first way to help others--is to pray for them. Until we have begun to pray--we shall not do much for them. Yet praying is not always the whole of our duty. Nehemiah wept; then prayed; then set to work in behalf of his people. He left his luxurious place in the king's court, journeyed to Jerusalem, and took earnest hold with his own hands, giving of his influence and energies to the cause. More than tears or prayers--are needed in our serving of others. Too many people weep over distress and pray earnestly for the relief that is needed--yet do nothing themselves. Nehemiah's way is better--first sympathy, then prayer, then work.
There is something very noble in Nehemiah's prayer. "Let Your ear now be attentive, and Your eyes open, that You may hearken unto the prayer of Your servant." Not only is God represented as listening to the prayers of His children--but also as looking in sympathy upon them in their need. His eyes are ever turned toward the earth, as if to see who is bending the knee or looking up with penitence and desire. There is no fear that God will ever fail to see anyone who prays. No matter how dark the night may be--His eye beholds. No matter how lonely the place--He will not fail to catch sight of the suppliant bowing in penitence.
One who was wrecked at sea and floated for many hours on a piece of spar before being picked up, said afterwards that the most terrible feeling he had ever experienced, was the thought that in all that vast waste of waters about him--there was no ear to hear his cry and no eye to see his condition. But he was wrong. There really was an eye that could see and did see, and an ear that could hear and did hear, even there on the wide sea, his cries for help.
Nehemiah prayed that God would direct him in his plea before the king. "Prosper, I pray You, Your servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man." Nehemiah did wisely. Before going to the king with his request he went to God, asking Him to open His way with the king. Since so much depended upon the king's answer, he asked God to prepare his heart to listen sympathetically. In everything we undertake, we should ask God to prosper us. We cannot do this if we are engaged in any wrong or dishonest business or plan. But when our heart is right and the thing we would do is part of God's will, we may freely ask Him to direct us. When our errand is for other people and its success depends upon their willingness to help us, we should ask God, before we go to them--to give us favor with them and to prepare them to be interested in our plea.
The prayer of Nehemiah was answered. One day as he was engaged in his duty, the king noticed sadness in his face and, touched with sympathy, asked him what was troubling him. Nehemiah told him of the condition of his people, of the desolation of their holy city, and asked permission to go to Jerusalem to rebuild it. The king granted his request. Nehemiah's arrival encouraged the people. The new governor showed great energy and capacity. There were enemies outside who plotted against the rebuilding. Some of the people themselves were faint-hearted and became discouragers, finding fault. Hinderers also came in from the Jewish settlements outside.
Amid all this discouragement Nehemiah remained brave and confident. He also sought to encourage the people. "Fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses." The motive which Nehemiah suggested: fighting for one's home and loved ones --is among the strongest motives that can appeal to the human heart. Every man with a spark of manhood in him--will fight to the death for his own. We are all so tied up together, that this motive is always present when we are defending the right. We must seek the purity and the safety of the town in which we live, because our own family is in it--and peril to the population is peril to ours. We must seek a wholesome water supply and good drainage and clean streets for the city, because our children and friends live in it. So with the moral and religious influences in a community--the welfare of our sons and daughters, our brothers and sisters is involved. In all movements for education and reform, there is the same motive.
A distinguished man was speaking at the opening of a reformatory for boys, and remarked that if only one boy was saved from ruin by the institution it would pay for all the cost and labor. After the exercises were over, a gentleman asked the speaker if he had not put it a little too strongly when he said that all the cost of founding such an institution would be repaid if only one boy should be saved. "Not if it were my boy," was the quiet answer.