Notes on the Book of Nehemiah
THE FAILED TESTIMONY
IT pleased the God of heaven, in bringing about an answer
to His servant's petition, to attract the attention of the Persian ruler to the
grief-stricken face of Nehemiah. Kindly the monarch inquires after the cause of
this change of countenance, for the son of Hachaliah had been wont to exhibit a
cheerful mien, as became one whose confidence was in the Lord. "Why is thy
countenance sad," asks the king, "seeing thou art not sick? This is nothing
else but sorrow of heart." Fearful of his sovereign's displeasure, his
cup-bearer replies, "Let the king live forever: why should not my countenance
be sad, when the city, the place of my father's sepulchres, lieth waste, and
the gates thereof are consumed with fire?" (ver. 23). Nehemiah could not be
indifferent to a matter of this kind. He was no misanthropical pessimist -
rather indeed the very opposite - but he could not be unmoved by the terrible
break-down on the part of his loved people and the desolate condition of that
city that should have been the glory of the whole earth.
But, observe, he did not stand aside and write pamphlets on the failure of his brethren or simply denounce them for their backslidings while doing nothing to help them reach a better state; nor did he wash his hands of the whole matter and conclude that because the failure had indeed come in, he was justified in giving up all concern about the testimony committed to Judah. Not at all. His was a grief deep and genuine; but it was one that led to exercise before God, and an earnest desire to be an instrument in the hand of the Lord for the establishment of the truth, and the recovery and encouragement of the feeble few who had broken down so sadly in the very place where Jehovah had set His name.
And so when the king inquired, "For what dost thou make request ?" he did not answer till he had "prayed to the God of heaven." What an atmosphere of prayer surrounds this man! It is his constant resource throughout all his varied experiences. He walked with God because he talked with God. Now, assured of the Lord's mind, he made request for permission to visit the land of Judah and the city of Jerusalem, that he might "build it." This was morally very lovely. He desired to build, to edify. Any one with a small measure of discernment can stand off and either bewail or criticize the failures of others, but one must needs be in touch with God to be a true builder. Such an one was Paul, "a wise master-builder," and he, by the Spirit, directs that "all things be done unto edifying." "Knowledge," he tells us, "puffeth up, but love edifieth" (or, buildeth up). This is an all-important truth.
Many there are who entered on the path of separation with high hopes and fond expectations; eagerly they drank in the precious truths the Holy Spirit of God was making known in the place where He had liberty to work as He would. But today, alas, alas! many of these have turned away disheartened, and that because of breakdown on the part of brethren whom these others deem less clear of sight, less devoted and less intelligent than themselves. So they stand off and bewail the divided condition, the worldliness, the cold-heartedness that has come in among those who sought to walk together in separation from the prevailing apostasy. But to what end? Such a course profits neither those who so judge, nor those judged. Better, a thousand times better, to rise up in the spirit of Nehemiah, and throw oneself in the breach as a builder. The heart may be grieved and the countenance sad, but there will be a deep-toned joy in seeking thus to enlighten, instruct, and edify weaker brethren: endeavouring in the fear of God to keep the Spirit's unity in the bond of peace, and occupy saints with the blessed Gatherer Himself instead of the failure of those gathered.
Yes, as the days darken and the dispensation fast hastens to its close, it is men of the Nehemiah stamp who will be of real value to the people of God, and who shall thus save themselves and those who hear them. In the presence of his consort, Artaxerxes gave the desired permission, stipulating a defined leave of absence, in which Nehemiah would be free to carry out the desire of his heart, and go to his brethren as a true prophet to speak words of exhortation, edification and encouragement (ver. 6). All that may be needed for the work of the building is granted by the king, even as the King of kings, who is also head of His body, the Church, delights to supply His willing workers with all things that pertain to the ministry committed to them. And here we note that Ezra and Nehemiah were men of like mind in tracing every blessing to the good hand of God (ver. 8).
The intervening journey soon completed (for a burning love urged him on), Nehemiah crosses the river and presents the king's letters to the governors of the mixed Samaritan people, who had been settled in the land of the ten tribes since the days of Esarhaddon. At once we read of two men who are grieved and displeased; they were Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite, called contemptuously, Tobiah the servant. When they heard of his arrival, "it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel" (ver. 10). As these men caused Nehemiah much trouble and concern later on, it will be well to inquire here as to who or what they might represent, and to ask if any such adversaries are likely to be encountered today in connection with the defence of the "present truth."
Sanballat is called a Horonite, generally supposed to mean a native of Horonaim, a city of Moab. Of Tobiah's ancestry we are left in no doubt. We have therefore in these two foes representatives of those hostile races of whom it was written, "The Moabite and the Ammonite should not come into the congregation of God forever," as we are reminded later in chapter 13: 1. The prohibition in Deut. 23: 3-6 gives the reason for this: "An Ammonite or Moabite shall not enter into the congregation of the Lord; even to their tenth generation shall they not enter into the congregation of the Lord forever: because they met you not with bread and water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor of Pethor of Mesopotaniia, to curse thee. Nevertheless. . . the Lord thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the Lord thy God loved thee. Thou shalt not seek their peace nor their prosperity all thy days forever."
Pleading such a command, we naturally ask why such a doom upon Moab and Ammon for refusing aid to Israel when about to enter the land of promise? Why should it have been expected of them and not of others? The answer is very simple. There were ties of blood that gave Israel right to expect their assistance, but these ties were utterly repudiated. Moab and Ammon were the natural sons of Lot, but by his own daughters! They were really then "bastards, and not sons"
(Heb. 12: 8). They surely speak to us of. those professing to be children of God, but not born of the Spirit. And so they ever, as born only of the flesh, persecuted the spiritual seed. They are the representatives of fleshly religion, of carnal profession, and as such they detest reality, and hate the truth that, "Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God." They feel they have as much right to the ordinances of God, and as much liberty to participate in His service and worship as any; but they are only natural men with a veneer of religiousness, and such have ever been the bitterest opponents of what really honours Christ and glorifies God. They abound to-day as they have abounded all down the centuries, and their object is still, as ever, to corrupt if they can, and to destroy if they cannot corrupt.
Leaving Sanballat and Tobiah for the present, gnashing their teeth in their rage and vexation, we follow Nehemiah to the city of God. Reaching Jerusalem, he rested three days. Then, conferring not with flesh and blood, but taldng a few men with him, though telling none what God had put in his heart, he arose in the night and went out to view in silence the ruin that had come in. This night journey around the walls of the city is deeply pathetic. Who that has any real care for the people of God has not known something of it? The nobles and rulers and all the people are wrapt in slumber, but this lonely man, whose heart God has touched, keeps his midnight vigil, and goes from gate to gate and tower to tower, noting with deepest sorrow and concern the breaches sin has made. "I went out by night," he says, "by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well, and to the dung port, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem, which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire. Then I went on to the gate of the fountain, and to the king's pool: but there was no place for the beast that was under me to pass. 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" (vers. 13-15). It was no carping critic viewing with indifferent feelings the defencelessness of his brethren; but a man of purpose and prayer, beholding what stirred his soul to its depths, with the desire to build up what carnal ease and self-seeking had permitted to fall into ruin.
It was not till after this night view that be called the people, with their rulers and the priests of the Lord together, to give them cognizance of his mission. He does so most delicately. There are no reproaches, no Pharisaic and odious comparisons or contrasts, but he identifies himself fully with them and says: "Ye see the distress that we are in; how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach" (ver. 17). Such an one is a God-sent and Spirit-qualified leader. He does not say, "You are in distress ;" but "We are." He does not command, "Go, and build," but he entreats, "Let us build." He does not say, "Yon are a reproach," but he pleads, "Let us be no more a reproach." And then he tells of the good hand of his God upon him, and of the king's commission.
The people are aroused and encouraged, and cry at once, "Let us rise up and build ;" and so they join hands with God's dear servant for the work he has planned. No doubt there was not the exercise of soul in all that conditions called for; but the work must be done nevertheless, and there will be more exercise as they go on. And now we hear of Sanballat and Tobiah again; and with them a third adversary, Geshem the Arabian. This man is either an Edomite or an Ishmaelite, more probably the latter; but in either case he speaks of the flesh warring against the Spirit. Both Ishmael and Esau were types of the natural man - hence of the flesh - and were opposed to Isaac and Jacob, the seed of promise. Geshem is elsewhere in this book called Gashmu. When this unworthy trio hear of the work contemplated at the place of the Name, they indulge in sarcastic merriment. Nehemiah noted that, "They laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?" (ver. 19).
Heretofore the line of demarcation between the outwardly separated Israelites and these mixed nations had been almost obliterated; hence there was peace and quietness. But now a man has come who contemplates rearing afresh the wall of exclusion, and this is bitterly resented, though at first they attempt but to laugh down the determination of the remnant. To all their sneers Nehemiah calmly replies: "The God of heaven, He will prosper us; and therefore we His servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem !" (ver. 20). He has thrown down the gauntlet and declares his uncompromising attitude in a manner not to be misunderstood. Henceforth he will be hated as only those can hate who resent having their false religious claims made nothing of!
The out-and-out worldling does not hate what is truly of God so bitterly as the Christless pro-fessor who has a name that he lives but is dead. Such an one cannot bear spiritual realities; for when confronted with them the hollowness of his profession is exposed, like Dagon when the ark of Jehovah was set down before it. This explains the bitterness with which these adversaries opposed the work of God going on at Jerusalem.
End of Chapter One
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