Handfuls on Purpose
by James Smith, 1943
SOUL-STIRRING SYMPATHY. Nehemiah 1:1-4.
"How was He the blessed One made perfect? Why, by grief— The fellowship of voluntary grief— He read the tear-stained book of poor men's souls. As I must learn to read it."—Kingsley.
Nehemiah, like Moses, was singularly fitted beforehand for the work God had appointed him to do. Belonging, as he did, to the "children of captivity," he was in perfect sympathy with them, and being the "king's cupbearer," he accepted a position of wealth and influence that gave him pre-eminence among his brethren. He was fitted, not only socially, but morally, as a true leader of men—being a man of great courage, with profound convictions and intense devotion to the cause of God. In our study of his life and character we trust there will be, in his example, much to inspire us in our service for Christ, and to follow those who "have obtained a good report through faith."
I. His Position. "I was in Shushan the palace" (v. 1). He had the privilege of being in this great palace because he was "the king's cupbearer" (v. 11). Although he occupied this high position in the Persian court, we have no reason to believe that it was at the sacrifice of any religious principle, but rather because of his attractive and trustworthy character. The "man of God" should be the most dependable of men, although, like Joseph, their virtue may become their only fault.
II. His Sympathetic Inquiry. "I asked them (men who had come from Judah) concerning the Jews... and concerning Jerusalem" (v. 2). Nehemiah was not so far carried away by his own promotion and success as to be indifferent to the interests of his brethren and the city of his God. They are in a sad state who, through prosperity, have had their sympathies withered up for the poor of God's people and the honor of God's Name. Those who desire to help in the cause of God will not fail to inquire into the real nature of the case. If the heart is alive unto God, we will gladly avail ourselves of every opportunity to fit our selves, even for self-sacrificing service unto Him. "Where the love of the world is, the love of the Father cannot be "The love of Christ constrains us" (2 Corinthians 5:14).
III. The Revelation Made. "The remnant are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and the gates burned with fire" (v. 3). This was sorrowful news, but it is better to know the facts than live under a delusion. The people were suffering from poverty and reproach, and the wall of their defense was broken down. They were still reaping the fruits of their rebellion and idolatry (2 Kings 25). Weakness and reproach must always characterize the people of God when the walls of separation are broken down, and the gates of praise burned up by the enemies' fire. A powerless, praiseless Christian is a reproach to the name he bears.
IV. The Effect Produced. He says, "When I heard these things, I sat down and wept" (v. 4). All those generous forces of his soul were arrested on hearing about this God-dishonoring state of matters. In the warmth of his sympathy he abandoned himself for the good of his fellows and the glory of his God. Oh! with what indifference we can see and hear those things that are making the Church of God today a reproach and a bye-word among His enemies. Paul knew about this holy soul agony when he said, "I tell you, even weeping, that they are the enemies of the cross of Christ" (Philippians 3:18). Is it possible for us to be baptized into His death, and yet to have hearts so callous toward His cause among men, that we are never constrained through personal interest to sit down and weep? It is very easy and natural for us to sit down and sorrow over our own personal losses and bereavements; we cannot help feeling it, because our own souls are so closely and vitally associated with them. Then is it because we, in our hearts, are not in such close and vital fellowship with Christ and His cause and people that we are so difficult to move to tears over the ravages of sin and the desolation of the sinner? Christ wept over Jerusalem. If we had His eyes and heart of compassion we would weep over it too. If Nehemiah's heart had not been moved and melted first, he never could have done the work which he afterwards did. Can we possibly be in a fit condition for serving Christ if we are not able to weep over those things that dishonor His Name and grieve His Spirit? A further evidence that his heart was right with God is seen in the fact that his sympathy constrained him to self-denial and prayer. "He fasted and prayed before the God of Heaven." Those who have the interests of God and His kingdom so close to their hearts as Nehemiah had will be ready to deny themselves of everything that would hinder His will from being done in them and by them (Hebrews 11:24-26). He laid aside the luxuries of the palace that he might give himself to prayer. Where else can a trustful, affectionate child go but to his father in the day of perplexity and anguish? Their "great affliction" was not too great for the "God of Heaven." With a heart melted in the love of God, and eyes bedimmed with the tears of brotherly kindness, surely the prayer that comes from such a source, and in such a manner, will be abundantly answered. If we have not compassion enough to lead us to pray for others it is high time to sit down and weep, and fast, and pray for ourselves.
INTERCESSORY PRAYER. Nehemiah 1:4-11.
"My prayers," says Trench, "are the one grace which my foe cannot refuse." "I can get at him through the God of Heaven," said a fond mother, in speaking of her wayward, wandering boy. Yes, prayer is one of the greatest privileges and one of the mightiest forces with which the soul of man can have to do. Through prayer Elijah shut up the rain of Heaven for three and a half years (Jas. 5:17); and Peter was delivered from the prison in answer to prayer (Acts 12:5). Having been made unto our God a kingdom of priests (Rev. 5:10, R.V.), it is part of our heavenly calling to make intercession for others. In these words of Nehemiah we think we see all the characteristics of prevailing prayer. There was—
I. Earnestness. "He wept, mourned, fasted" (v. 4). This was no formal prayer. It was the outcome of a soul stirred to its utmost depths. Those who draw near with the lip while the heart is afar off may themselves be satisfied with a prayer which is nothing but a solemn mockery in the sight of God. As God loves the cheerful giver, so does He regard the whole-hearted petitioner. The fervent prayer of a righteous man avails much.
II. Knowledge. It was because Nehemiah knew God that he could pray thus: "I beseech You, O Lord God of Heaven, the great and terrible God, that keeps covenant and mercy for them that love Him" (v. 5). He believed in God's greatness, His terribleness, His faithfulness, and His mercifulness. He who comes to God must believe that He is, and that He is a Rewarder of them that diligently seek Him (Hebrews 11:6). To know such a God and in such a fashion is to ask much and expect much. They that do know their God shall be strong and do exploits through the prayer of faith (Daniel 11:32; see 1 Samuel 12:18).
III. Importunity. "Hear the prayer of Your servant, which I pray before You now, day and night" (v. 6). Importunity is a vital element in prevailing prayer. It was because of the widow's "continual coming" that she gained her request. This is the lesson our Lord Himself teaches us from that parable of the man begging loaves from his friend at midnight: "I say unto you... because of his importunity, he will give him as many as he needs" (Luke 11:8). It was while Moses held up his hand that Israel prevailed. Pray without ceasing. Be not weary in such well-doing, for in due season you shall reap if you faint not.
IV. Confession. "Both I and my father's house have sinned, we have dealt very corruptly against You" (vv. 6, 7). The sin of dealing falsely with God is a very common one, and very grievous. We pretend to believe His Word, and yet live in fear and doubt; we ask Him for things that we don't expect, and make a profession of loyalty to His cause, while, in heart, we are more concerned about our own personal interests than His. How can we expect to prevail with God in prayer if there is no confession made of that deceitfulness which has made our lives so barren in the past. Spiritual bondage and failure in the Christian life imply that there is sin in the camp, and need for self-scrutiny and confession.
V. Faith. "Remember, I beseech You, the word that You command, saying,...If you turn unto Me, and keep My commandments... I will bring them into the place that I have chosen to set My Name there" (vv. 8, 9). Faith lays hold upon the spoken Word of God. The prayer that is built up by faith on the promise of God cannot be overthrown. In turning to the Lord himself, Nehemiah fulfilled the condition of blessing, then he takes the place of the Lord's remembrancer, saying, "Remember... the Word." This is that beautiful childlike confidence which honors God, and is infinitely well pleasing in His sight. God cannot deny Himself when He finds so much of Himself involved in such pleading. But he goes a step farther, and reminds God of His great work in redeeming His people by His "great power and strong hand" (v. 10). The audacity of faith is astounding. It looks up into the face of God, saying: There is Your word of promise, and there, in redemption, is the evidence of Your mighty love and the strong hand of Your saving grace. Now, therefore, do this thing for me. He who comes to God must believe, and, in so believing, he must be rewarded.
VI. Consecration. "O Lord, be attentive to the prayer of Your servant, who desires to fear Your Name" (v. 11). In our prayers we shall often ask amiss, if we are not prepared to yield ourselves unto God, and to live for the glory of His Name (Jas. 4:3). There are three classes of servants: the slave, who serves through fear; the hireling, who serves for wages; and the son, who serves for love. It is the obedient and devoted son who expects and gets the favor and the fullness of the father. It is those who present themselves a living sacrifice unto God that are able to prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God (Romans 12:1, 2). Those who would prevail with God to give them the servant's portion must, first of all, take the servant's place.
ANSWERED PRAYER. Nehemiah 2:1-8.
A period of three months comes in between the month Chisleu—when Nehemiah heard of the "great affliction" of his brethren in Jerusalem—and the month Nisan, when his prayers began to be answered. All this time he had been earnestly pleading with God in secret, yet, in his public service he had hitherto been able to conceal the sorrow of his heart by wearing a cheerful countenance. Well he knew that it was a crime against the king to appear before him with a sad face. But in thus seeking to please men we may be putting away from us the very blessing we so much desire. God does not require us to play the hypocrite in order that His will might be done. It is always best to be perfectly honest. This is clearly proven by what follows.
I. A Startling Question. "Why is your countenance sad,... this is nothing else but sorrow of heart?" (v. 2). His agony of soul had become too great to be covered any longer with a smile. The king's question smote him with terror. "Then I was very sore afraid." At that time Nehemiah had become so intensely interested in the well-being of others as to forget himself in the presence of the king. Such deep self-forgetfulness cannot fail to become a channel of rich blessing to many. He had prayed that he might find mercy in the sight of the king (chapter 1:11), but he could never have anticipated that, through his sadness in the king's presence was to come the dawn of deliverance. "My ways are not as your ways, says the Lord" (Isaiah 55:8).
II. A Critical Moment. After Nehemiah had confessed that his countenance was sad because "the city of his father's sepulchers lies waste," the king said unto him, "For what do you make request?" (v. 4). If the first question filled him with fear, this one was fitted to bewilder him with astonishment. Was this the daybreak of hope falling at last upon that long night of sadness which had overcast his soul? Was this God's door of salvation now suddenly opened before his eyes? Had the time come when all the desires of his heart were to be granted him? "For what do you make request?" What an opportunity this is when given by one who is able to satisfy the soul with good. A greater than Artaxerxes has said, "What will you that I should do unto you?" But observe how this man of prayer faced this new situation. "So I prayed to the God of Heaven." Had he not been living in the spirit of prayer he would not have thought of it at that particular moment. In this little spontaneous act there is a revelation of his true character. Even when taken unawares the holy habit of his soul is to look up to God for guidance. When God becomes the greatest reality in our lives there is nothing more natural than prayer. Those who say they have no time to pray know not the nature of prayer. Nehemiah found time to pray while a king waited on his answer. It is with prayer as it is with salvation— "Look and live." "Look unto Me, and be you saved" (Isaiah 45:22).
III. A Great Request. He had now gained the favor of a great king, and so he brought large petitions. He asked definitely for two things—
1. That he may be sent. "If it please the king... send me... that I may build" (v. 5). This devoted servant of God had not only prayed for his brethren and his father's city, but he had consecrated himself unto God, and was ready to be used of Him as soon as the door of opportunity opened. Like Isaiah, he could say, "Here am I, send me." How can we expect God to do great things for us and by us if we are not prepared to make a sacrifice of ourselves for Him. The religion that costs nothing is just worth what it costs. Our prayers would have a new meaning if we offered them as from the altar of burnt-offering. Then he asked—
2. That he may be supplied. "If it please the king, let letters be given me," etc. (vv. 7, 8). These letters to the governors beyond the river, and to the keeper of the king's forest (royal preserves) were to Nehemiah words of authority and promise. He had What every God-sent servant ought to have, a clearly-defined commission, an assurance of safety (convoy), and the promise of supply. Our Lord and Master never sends any a warfare on their own charges. He makes all grace abound that we may have all-sufficiency. "Ask and you shall receive" (Matthew 7:7).
IV. An Abundant Answer. "The king granted me according to the good hand of my God upon me" (v. 8). The secret of success in the work of the Lord lies here. When a man's life is in the grip of the "good hand of God" then signs and wonders will be done. The measure of blessing will be according to the power of that hand that is upon us. This mighty, conquering hand laid hold of Nehemiah that day when he was constrained to "sit down, and weep and pray" (chapter 1:4). He did not, like Jacob, wrestle against that heavenly and divine hand which was bowing him in sorrow and humiliation at the feet of God. He yielded himself entirely to the pressure of His heavy, yet "good hand." Like Ezra (chaps. 7:6; 9:28), he was quite conscious that the hand of God was upon him, as an instrument by which to accomplish the good pleasure of His will. All things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to His purpose.
PREPARING FOR THE WORK. Nehemiah 2:11-20.
Nehemiah is one of those "great men" whose footprints have been left deep and distinct on the sands of the past, footprints that have inspired with fresh courage many a drooping heart in the service of the Lord. His journey from Babylon to Jerusalem occupied three months. His prayers have been so far answered; he is now on the long coveted field of labor. It will be interesting and profitable for us to study his method of operation. For he—
I. Takes Time to Reflect. "So I came to Jerusalem, and was there three days" (v. 11). Ezra also waited three days (chapter 8:32) before the work began. He that believes shall not make haste. It is a great lesson to learn to wait on God. We imagine these three days were spent largely in meditation and prayer. Three days are significant of death and resurrection. The servants of Christ have often seen their plans and purposes pass from death into life, while they calmly waited before God. When a great crisis came in David's life he went and "sat before the Lord" (1 Chronicles 17:16). In the secret chamber, Luther, Knox, and many others learned how to conquer.
II. Surveys the Difficulties. "I arose in the night... neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do... and viewed the walls which were broken down" (vv. 12, 13). Like a wise physician, he begins by making a thorough diagnosis of the case. No devoted city "shimmer" ever went out of a night to view the desolations of sin with more eager eyes than did Nehemiah to investigate those ruined walls and heaps of rubbish. There are many Christian workers living in a fool's paradise because they refuse to believe that things are as bad as they really are. Those who only view the city on a Sunday can know little about those terrible heaps of broken-down humanity that are seen on a Saturday night. In many cases faith in the Word of God, and the habit of going to hear it, have been broken down, and the gates of praise have been burned with the fire of unholy criticism. Viewing the difficulties will be a wretched business and a heart-breaking task, unless, like Nehemiah, we know that God has put the remedy within our own hearts (v. 12). The unbelieving spies will be sure to bring back a God-slandering report. The ruin must be measured by God's remedy. Man's need can only be met by the infinite grace and power of the almighty Savior.
III. Makes an Appeal for Helpers. "You see the evil case that we are in,... come and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach" (v. 17, R.V.). One of the best ways of beginning a work for God is to set others to work. But observe, he did not say, "Go and build," but "Come, let us build." The great work of restoring Jerusalem (Church) to its pristine glory and power will never be accomplished so long as the leaders (preachers) attempt to do all the building themselves, and seem satisfied if the others will but come, and sit, and listen, and look on. "All at it, and always at it," ought to be the normal condition of the Christian Church. It would take a very expert workman to do as much work in a week as twenty ordinary hands. Besides, as the life of God's people is one, so is their work. Unity of faith should lead to unity of effort. As a ruined Jerusalem was a dishonor to every Jew, so a weak and powerless Church is a dishonor to each individual member. The way to roll away the reproach is to arise and build. Put those displaced stones into their proper place.
IV. Gives an Encouraging Testimony. "Then I told them of the hand of my God upon me, as also the king's words, and they said, Let us rise up and build" (v. 18). Personal testimony is a most powerful factor in the service of the living God, but this implies, of course, a real, deep, personal experience of the goodness and faithfulness of God. This, in some measure, every leader in the work of God must have. The Holy Spirit works through us that which He has wrought in us. The fact that God had answered Nehemiah's prayers, and called him to do this work was an inspiration to the others to "rise up and build." Such is the influence of a consecrated life. Those take too much upon them who try to put all God's servants on the same level, so do those who would monopolize the holy service because they are paid for it. While it is true that some are called of God, as evangelists, pastors, and teachers, it is also true that "to every man his work" (Mark 13:34).
V. Meets with Opposition. "When Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem heard, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us" (v. 19). It was a great grief to them that "a man had come to seek the welfare of Israel" (v. 10). The more Christ-like the life becomes, the more bitter will the enemies of God and His people be. They hated Him without a cause, and the disciple is not greater than his Lord. Sanballat means "strength and courage," and fitly stands for the wisdom of this world. Tobiah—"the Lord is good"—is a true representative of the formal professor, one who has a good name but a bad heart. They laughed to scorn the weak hands that were attempting to rebuild the walls, but they saw not the "good hand of God" that was with them. They mocked and despised, because, as the work proceeded, they found that they themselves were being built outside the city. Everything that makes the ungodly feel their weakness and their isolation from the city and people of God, if it does not lead to repentance, will doubtless provoke to opposition (Luke 23:2).
VI. Declares the Whole Truth. He meets the scoffers' objections with a simple, brief, fearless statement of the whole case. He declares the truth about God: "The God of Heaven, He will prosper us" (v. 20). This work is associated with the living, faithful, almighty God of Heaven; He is for it, He is with it, He is in it. He declares the truth about himself and his co-workers: "Therefore we, His servants, will arise and build." We are His servants, we are doing His business, and we will go on, say what you will, do what you may. He declares the truth about his enemies: "You have no portion, nor right, nor memorial in Jerusalem." As for you, you are strangers to God; you are not His people. There is nothing belonging to you in the Holy City; you have no right to any of its privileges, for the things of Jerusalem awaken no sacred memories in you. You have neither part nor lot in this matter (Acts 8:21). When the walls of the New Jerusalem (the Church of God) are finished, will you be built out or built in? The word of the Cross is, to them that are perishing, foolishness; but to us, who are being saved, it is the power of God (1 Corinthians 1:18, R.V.).
AT THE WORK. Nehemiah 3.
"Knowing ourselves, our world, our task so great,
Our time so brief—'tis clear, if we refuse
The means so limited, the tools so crude,
To execute our purpose, life will fleet,
And we shall fade, and leave our task undone—
We will be wise in time!"—Browning.
There is a deep truth in the saying of Emerson, that "every man's task is his life preserver." This truth is specially applicable to the Christian worker. If any man will lose his life (in service) he shall save it, is the teaching of a greater than Emerson. This chapter is crowded with the names of those who took part in the work of repairing the wall. Their names are held in everlasting remembrance because, like Mary, they had wrought a good work for the honor of His Name. Holy deeds stand like footprints on the sands of time. Some brief, but important lessons might be learned here.
I. There is Need for Work. "The wall is broken down" (chapter 1:3). By faith, the walls of Jericho fell down, after they were compassed about; but the walls of Jerusalem are not going to be built up by faith alone. According to the practical theology of James, there is a sphere in which "faith without works is dead. " Son, go work today in my vineyard. Are there not many stones (souls) lying about our own doors that are out of their proper setting, and so failing to fulfill the real purpose for which they exist?
II. There is Work for All. "To every man his work" (Mark 13:34). "He who will not work should not eat" (2 Thessalonians 3:10). Surely this holds good with regard to spiritual things as well as temporal things. What right has anyone to feast continually on spiritual things if there is no outcome in active service for the Lord, the Giver of all? All may not be able to do the same work, but all can work. The daughters of Shallum (v. 12) could not perhaps do as heavy work as the son of a goldsmith, or the son of an apothecary (v. 8). The priests (v. 1) and the merchants (v. 32) may not be equally expert in the are of building, but in the Name of God they helped in the work. Let every one do something. If you can't handle the trowel, surely you can say, "God bless the builders." Labor in prayer.
III. This Work was Voluntary. "They said, Let us rise up and build" (chapter 2:18). The need was set before them; they took it to heart, and made up their minds to make a start at once. Those professed servants of Christ who loiter about the ecclesiastical market-place in idleness because "no man has hired them," are to be sincerely pitied. Those who go and work for love to Him will receive from Him "that which is right." "The wise man's heart is at his right hand," ready to manifest itself in action (Ecclesiastes 10:2). Where the heart has been given to God and His cause, the hand of service will certainly follow. The Lord Jesus Christ does not press His yoke upon us, but He does say, "Take My yoke upon you" (Matthew 11:29).
IV. This Work was United. You will notice that almost every verse in this chapter begins with words such as these: "And next unto him," "Next unto them," "After him," "After them." Every worker joined his work with his neighbor's. Because they were united in heart they willingly united in effort. They were inspired, not by any selfish consideration of personal reward or pre-eminence, but by one general God-honoring motive—the glory of His Name and the salvation of the people. The only rivalry that was among them was a provoking of one another unto love and good works. We cannot be truly united in the great work of God unless all merely sectarian and personal interests sink out of sight in the one intense desire for the building up of that cause which alone can bring honor and glory to God our Savior. The struggle of the churches is often more like the confusion of Babel than the conviction of Pentecost. "We are workers together with Him" (2 Corinthians 6:1).
V. This Work was Successful. The word "repaired" occurs thirty-four times. Each builder repaired—made anew and finished—that piece of work given him to do. They were all successful in their work, although all did not do, perhaps, the same amount of work. In the temperament and manner of these workers there would, doubtless, be great diversity; but in their object and purpose there was great unanimity. Baruch seems to have been quite an enthusiast for the work, he is distinguished as "earnestly repairing the other piece" (v. 20). Then those who had houses "repaired every one over against his own house" (v. 28); and Meshullam "repaired over against his chamber" (v. 30). Earnestness is good, but it is only as wild fire in the service of the Lord, if we are not prepared to begin at home. Building for God should begin at the Jerusalem of our own door. Joshua said: "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord." To say, "the prophet has no honor in his own country," is no excuse for a Christian worker's failure at home. Our influence for Jesus Christ abroad will be pretty much like what it is at home. The Holy Spirit will never put a premium on hypocrisy. These workers succeeded because they would not be discouraged, although "their nobles put not their necks to the work of the Lord" (v. 5). There are "independent gentry" in the spiritual, as well as in the social sense—those who have such a large stock of self-respect that they cannot bend their necks to the work of the Lord. They may give a collection or a suggestion, but they will not stoop to personal service Like many church professors, they are frozen with respectability. But those whose hearts God has touched have also got God-touched hands, so they press on with the work, and the God of Heaven, He prospers. "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be you steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, for as much as you know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord."
It may be interesting to note that the names of the first and last workers mentioned are suggestive of Jesus Christ as the Alpha and Omega of this great spiritual work. Eliashib (God the Restorer) (v. 1), and Malchiah (God is King) (v. 31). Between the rising of the High Priest and the coming of the King the work was done.
PERSEVERANCE IN THE MIDST OF OPPOSITION. Nehemiah 4:1-11.
The more powerfully the young oak is bent before the blast, the more deeply does it strike its roots into the stiff, stubborn soil beneath. Although persecution is not something to be coveted, yet it is not to be shunned or lightly esteemed. "Blessed are you when men shall revile you... falsely for My sake; rejoice and be exceeding glad, for great is your reward in Heaven" (Matthew 5:11, 12). Everything that sends the roots of our spiritual life deeper down into the will of God will make us more steadfast and fruitful for Him. We shall note—
I. The Nature of the Opposition. There was the—
1. Tantalizing Arrows of Scorn. Their quiver seemed to be full of them. They sneered at their character. "What do these feeble Jews?" (v. 2). They were feeble in number, and, in the eyes of their wealthy opponents, they were feeble in resources; but they saw not the helping hand of God which was with them. They sneered at their motives. "Will they fortify themselves?" "Will they sacrifice?" As much as to say, "How can they succeed in saving themselves? How will they ever set up a worship that will secure the presence and help of God?" The Lord knows them that are His. They sneered at their enthusiasm. "Will they make an end in a day?" They are going at the work as if they were going to finish it in a day. The lukewarm Christian is not likely to be mocked at by the easy-going worldling. They sneered at the task attempted. "Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish?" Their aims are too lofty; they attempt too much. They sneered at the work done. "Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall break down their stone wall" (v. 3). Such are the criticisms with which all faithful workers for God are assailed; but the building goes on, for such labor is not in vain in the Lord; for He scorns the scorners, but gives grace unto the lowly (Proverbs 3:34). Then came—
2. Wicked Conspiracy of the Enemy. "When the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth, and conspired all of them together to fight and to hinder it" (vv. 7, 8). But in vain do these fowlers spread their net before the eyes of the God of Heaven. They said, "They shall not know, neither see, until we come among them and slay them" (v. 11). But God knew, and God saw, and it was with Him, and not with these "feeble Jews," that they had to do. It was like the conspiracy of thorns against the devouring fire. Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not triumph nor escape punishment. All the united forces of Hell cannot impede the progress of those who trust in God, and courageously do His will.
3. Discouragement of Doubting Friends. "Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish: so that we are not able to build the wall" (v. 10). Opposition is bad enough when it comes from without, but it is a worse heartburn when it comes from those who have hitherto been our friends and helpers. Judah got discouraged because he lost sight of God, and kept looking at the adversaries, the weakness of the burden-bearers, and the much rubbish that lay in the way, and, having lost faith himself, he sought to discourage others in the work, saying, "We are not able to build the wall." A discouraged man is a useless man in the work of the Lord; he is worse than useless—he is a positive hindrance. "Be strong and of a good courage: be not afraid, neither be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you" (Joshua 1:9).
II. The Steadfast Character of the Workers. They had—
1. A Mind to Work (v. 6). They had no mind to sit moping over their difficulties, or to spend their time in mere talk or fault-finding. The love of God constrained them.
They not only had a mind to work, but they had a mind also to have their work "joined together." Instead of joining the work together, some have a mind to work alone, while others seem to think that all the work should be done by themselves.
2. A Heart to Pray. "Nevertheless, we made our prayers unto God" (v. 9). A working mind should always be accompanied with a praying heart. Those who believe that "God is a Refuge" will most certainly flee to Him in a time of storm. Those who have no heart to pray will soon have no mind to work. We are called, not only to "put on the whole armor of God," but also to "pray always with all prayer" (Ephesians 6:11-18). Work for God must be done in the Spirit of God. It is through prayer that strength is imparted for service.
3. An Eye to Watch. "We set a watch against them day and night" (v. 9). Watching and praying are frequently linked together in the Scriptures of truth (see Matthew 26:41; Mark 13:33; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Peter 4:7). It was not necessary that these watchmen should occupy their time in following all the movements of their adversaries, it was enough that they watched the interests of their God-given work. It is sad to see many of the Lord's servants so busy studying the pull-down tactics of the enemy that they neglect to build up. Watch and pray, that you enter not into this temptation.
WORK AND WEAPONS. Nehemiah 4:12-23.
"Faith's meanest deed more favor bears
Where hearts and wills are weighed,
Than brightest transports, choicest prayers,
Which bloom their hour and fade."—Newman.
Man was not made to mourn, but to work (Genesis 2:15) and, as Houghton says, "Man must toil for good, or he shall toil for ill." Man is a toiler, either for God or against Him. He who is not for Me, said our Lord, is against Me. In attempting to do some definite work for God, it is good to "count the cost," but in counting the cost, let us take heed, that we count on Him who is able to bear the cost. We must measure our difficulties, and our needs, with the strength and resources of Him whose we are, and whom we serve. There are some suggestive thoughts for workers here.
I. The Workers' Position. "Therefore in the lower places, and on the higher places, I even set the people after their families with their swords" (v. 13). We may not like the lower places, because there we are more exposed to the wrath of the enemy and the workers themselves may need to go out of sight. We would much prefer the "higher places" in Christian work, where we could see and be seen. Slum work is never so pleasant to some as preaching in a pulpit or on a platform. These workers had grace enough to go where they were sent, and to do their part gladly, knowing that each piece of work was a needful part of the great whole. The order was "after their families." How beautiful to see whole families united in furthering the work of the Lord.
II. The Workers' Privilege. "Be not afraid... remember the Lord, and fight (pray) for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses" (v. 14). Those devil-driven adversaries will never be able to make this man afraid, whose mind is stayed on that God who is "great and terrible." These warrior-toilers were not asked to fight for themselves, but for their brethren, etc. But well they knew that in seeking the good of their households they were securing their own salvation. This fighting for our sons and daughters, wives and houses must be done in faith. Fight the good fight of faith. The promise is to you and to your children. "Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved, and your house" (Acts 16:31). Remember the Lord; remember His power and His promise, and pray for your brethren, etc. The more we think of Him the more will we think of others.
III. The Workers' Encouragement. "God brought their counsel to nothing" (v. 15). The enemy had entered into a secret conspiracy to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder the work (v. 8). They had planned to fall upon them unawares, but God "disappointed the devices of the crafty, so that their hands could not perform their enterprise" (Job. 5:12). How was this victory won? It was won through prayer (v. 4). They cried unto God, and He "turned their reproach upon their own head." Those who live in communion with God are not easily taken by surprise. The weapons that are formed against such shall not prosper. Take no thought for your life: your Father knows.. From the closet of prayer you can bombard and bring to confusion all the forces of Hell. When Samuel cried unto the Lord, the Lord thundered upon the Philistines (1 Samuel 7:10). Who shall stand when He appears.
IV. The Workers' Weapons. "For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side" (v. 18). Yet while every worker had his recognized weapon, there were different ways in which they were held. Some had their weapons held by others, while they did the work (v. 16). Some wrought with the one hand, and held the weapon with the other (v. 17). Others wrought with their swords girded at their sides. Work and warfare are the characteristics of the Christian life. They are in danger of working in vain who neglect the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. The other danger is to be so taken up with the weapons that we neglect the work. The servants of Christ must be aggressive as well as defensive. Blessed be the opposition that makes us cling more firmly to the sword of the Spirit, for our weapons are not carnal, but spiritual and mighty. If God be for us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31). Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand. Sword-girded workers are everywhere needed in these present times. Are you one?
V. The Workers' Warning. "In what place you hear the sound of the trumpet, resort you thither" (v. 20). While working and watching they were to hold themselves in readiness for a gathering together at any moment at the call of the trumpet. As the work of building went on, and parts of the wall got built up, the workers became in some places separated from one another, and so felt the need of listening for the trumpet call. Be you also ready, for in such an hour as you think not, "the Lord shall descend from Heaven... with the trumpet of God... and we shall be caught up together" (1 Thessalonians 4:16, 17). Blessed are they who work, and watch, and wait for the heavenly call.
VI. The Workers' Devotion. These men were so thoroughly devoted to the work that they willingly practiced self-denial for its good. We dare not pretend to be consecrated to the work of the Lord unless we are prepared to sacrifice personal ease and comfort for His sake. Their whole-heartedness is seen in their working long hours. "From the rising of the morning until the stars appeared" (v. 21). They were no mere hirelings, yawning for the hour when they might drop their tools and make for home and their own private pursuits. Those who long to get out of the work of Christ are unfit for it. It is one thing to be weary in the work, it is another to be weary of it. Their zeal was also seen in their "lodging within Jerusalem" for the good of the cause. This implied separation from all those who were without. They willingly sacrificed this liberty for the bondage of service. Those who dwell with the King for His work are the most likely to be successful in pleasing Him. Then, again, they kept themselves in constant readiness for the work. "None of us put off our clothes" (v. 23). The building of the wall was not a matter of convenience, but of life. "This one thing I do" (Philippians 3:3), was the all-absorbing motive. Be followers of them. Be fervent in spirit, serving the Lord.
A FIGHT WITH SELFISHNESS. Nehemiah 5:1-13.
Carlyle has said, "Always there is a black spot in our sunshine, it is... the shadow of ourselves." A shadow of selfishness—as black as midnight—appears before us here, in the first five verses of this chapter. Great distress had come into the city. The enemy had succeeded in intercepting the food supplies, and, alas, the wealthier portion of the people began to take advantage of their poorer brethren, by enriching themselves to their terrible cost. Lands, vineyards, houses, and even sons and daughters, were mortgaged, or exchanged for bread (vv. 1-5). Things got so unbearable that a "great cry" was raised by the people. The behavior of Nehemiah during this painful crisis gives us a further revelation of the greatness and stability of his character—features which ought to characterize every one called of God into His service. These features are—
I. Uprightness. "I was very angry when I heard their cry" (v. 6). It is only the truly righteous soul that can be truly angry at unrighteousness. This is not that "anger without a cause" which is in danger of judgment (Matthew 5:22), but the holy anger which is akin to the "wrath of the Lamb." Alas, that there should be so many of God's servants whose convictions don't seem to be pure enough or deep enough to move them with indignation at the merciless greed of some religious professors. These men were "brethren" (v. 1), but they showed no brotherly love.
II. Courage. "Then I... rebuked the nobles and the rulers" (v. 7). Courage in the Name of God is absolutely necessary in those called to take the lead in His work (Joshua 1:6, 7). Nobles and rulers, moneyed and influential men, are often allowed to escape deserved reproof just because they have happened to be born and brought up in more favorable circumstances than others. The tyranny of the moneyed class is only equaled by the envy of the poorer class. The servant of Christ must not strive either for personal advantage or the praise of men, but in the name of his Master he must fearlessly speak out the truth as manifested in His Life, and Word, and Work. "I am the Truth."
III. Unselfishness. "We, after our ability, have redeemed our brethren the Jews which were sold unto the heathen; and will you even sell your brethren?" (v. 8). Nehemiah had sought, as far as his means would allow, to redeem to liberty those who had been sold unto the heathen, but these selfish nobles and rulers had sought to get gain by selling their brethren. Love to others under heathenish influences, and a willingness to give according to ability— both of time and means—for their salvation, are the unfailing characteristics of all those who sincerely serve the Lord Jesus Christ. The Cross of Christ has not yet been clearly seen, if selfishness has not yet received its death-blow (Galatians 2:20). Think of the ability of faith and love.
IV. Holy Jealousy. "It is not good that you do: ought you not to walk in the fear of God because of the reproach of the heathen?" (v. 9). When God's people do not walk in His fear they bring reproach upon His holy Name (Romans 2:24). It is a melancholy fact that many of Christ's servants are more jealous about the honor of their own name than His. When men defame us, does it cut us more deeply to the heart than when we hear them casting reproach upon the Name of our Lord Jesus Christ? Are all our vital interests so interwoven with the Name and work of our Lord and Savior that when He is touched we are touched, and that those who honor Him, are honored by us?
V. Thoroughness. Nehemiah was neither luke-warm nor half-hearted. Whatever he did, he did it heartily and completely, as unto the Lord. Like Boaz, he is not content until he has "finished the thing." Thoroughness, to be perfectly sound, must be governed by the purest motives, and acting in the clear light of the Divine will, otherwise it may be but the wild fire of fleshly enthusiasm. The thoroughness of Nehemiah's character comes out here in his demand for restoration. "Restore, I pray you, to them, this day, their lands," etc. (v. 11). And after he had received their promise to do so, see how he significantly "shook his lap," warning them against unfaithfulness to their vows (v. 13). Such whole-hearted effort was crowned with success, for "all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the Lord, and did according to the promise." How will men believe what we say, as Christ's ambassadors, if we do not fearlessly declare the whole counsel of God, keeping back nothing. All the demands of God must be reiterated by His servants, or the message delivered will be destitute of that fine, keen edge which makes it effectual in the hearts of those who hear it. The gospel of restoration has two aspects: (1) The restoring of the soul unto God; (2) the restoring of ill-gotten gain to others (Leviticus 6:4; Luke 19:8).
NEW TRIALS. Nehemiah 6:1-9.
When Carlyle was shown a "Comic History of England," he naively asked when they would have a comic Bible? To him history was a sacred thing. To the Christian the Providence of God should be as sacred as the Word of God. But the enemy, in one shape or other, will even seek to devour those who are enthusiastic for the work of God. Two new temptations present themselves to Nehemiah. There was what might be called—
I. The Compromise Temptation. "Come, let us meet together in the plain of Ono" (v. 2). This wily temptation came when they heard that the wall was built, and that "there was no breach left" (v. 1). While the building went on they ridiculed and threatened, but now that success had come they attempt to lure them down to their level, that some compromise might be made. Satan knows how to play the fox, when it does not suit him to roar as a lion. We are not ignorant of his devices. When the enemy speaks fair you may be sure that there are seven abominations in his heart (Proverbs 26:25). Notice how Nehemiah met this temptation.
1. He Knew his own Mind. "I cannot come down" (v. 3). He could not even say "I will think of it." As one who was entirely devoted to the work of the Lord, his whole soul revolted at such a proposal. His feelings were akin to those of Peter and John when they said, "We cannot but speak the things which we have seen and heard" (Acts 4:20).
2. He Knew his Work. "I am doing a great work." All work for God is great when judged by its eternal results Everything must be great that has God in it. He was doing a great work, he was not dreaming about it. They are not easily tempted who are found so doing.
3. He Knew the Danger of Coming Down. "Why should the work cease, while I leave it, and come down to you" (at that time the doors had not yet been set up upon the gates, v. 1). It is more honorable to work than to talk about it. It is at the sacrifice of our usefulness in the service of God that we "come down" to the plain of mere worldly wisdom. This same temptation came to our Lord while hanging on the Cross. Was He not doing a great work there, when they cried to Him, "Come down from the Cross and we will believe?" Although Nehemiah was assailed in this subtle fashion "four times," yet just as often did the shield of faith save him. Be steadfast and immovable in the work of the Lord.
II. The Evil-rumor Temptation. The fifth attempt to ensnare this man of God and ruin his work was made in the form of a false and slandering report. They declared that his purpose was to rebel against the king, and to make himself king in Judah, and to appoint prophets to preach of him in Jerusalem (vv. 5-7). In short they charged him with pride and self-seeking. This is no new thing. Men, who are themselves selfish, can never understand the motives of those who seek only the glory of God. When the ungodly find that they cannot baffle the Christian worker they will not scruple to misrepresent his motives. Note how Nehemiah met this scurrilous attack. He met it with—
1. A Faithful Rebuke. "There are no such things done as you say, but you pretend them out of your own heart" (v. 8). He not only denies the charge, but points out also the source of all the mischief, "your own heart." The heart is deceitful above all things. It was a strong sharp thrust, but he knew that the seat of disease was deep down. The man who would be faithful to God cannot always speak smooth things. Mealy-mouthed ministers will never accomplish much for the Kingdom of God. The faithful servant of Christ must reprove and rebuke, as well as exhort.
2. An Urgent Prayer. "Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands" (v. 9). We never have more need to pray than when we have been shooting the arrows of conviction at the hearts of our King's enemies. Our appeals to men should be instantly followed with an appeal to God.
(1) The Need. "Strengthen my hands." He wanted strong hands to carry out the purposes of God in his life. Hands that "hang down" in weakness are useless hands. The spider takes hold with her hands, so does the man of faith.
(2) The Urgency. "Now therefore." Now, because of my present need; therefore, because of the strength and wrath of the enemy. My God shall supply all your need. He can perfect His strength in your weakness; therefore "wait on the Lord" (Isaiah 40:31).
SUCCESS. Nehemiah 6:10-16.
"Easy indeed it were to reach
A mansion in the courts above,
If swelling words and fluent speech
Might serve instead of faith and love."—Cowper.
One of the profound sayings of Mazzini was, "Action is the Word of God; thought is but His shadow." Deeds will always speak louder than words. The runner is not crowned unless he strive lawfully. The trials and temptations of Nehemiah were to him what the refiner's fire is to the silver, or the lapidary's wheel to the diamond. The luster of his character was purified and brightened through the ordeal of suffering. The trial of your faith is more precious than gold. But Nehemiah's warfare is not yet over. Here we have—
I. Another Temptation to Evil. This last attempt to ensnare this man of God seems to have been the most subtle of all. Shemaiah, who had the name of a prophet", tempted Nehemiah to come with him into some secret chamber within the temple, and to shut themselves up, saying that his enemies were coming in the night to slay him (v. 10). When the snare is laid by the Ahithophels it is all the more dangerous, it is the wolf in sheep's clothing. The poison of error is more difficult to detect when administered by a professed religious teacher, who is secretly in league with the enemies of God. The Devil's last dodge is to appear as an angel of light.
II. Another Steadfast Resistance. Nehemiah said, "Should such a man as I flee?...I will not go" (v. 11). As far as he presently knew, it may have been all true what Shemaiah said, but he felt in his heart that it would be for him a God-dishonoring act to seek his own personal safety at the sacrifice of his God-given work. "Should such a man as I flee?" I, who am in the hand of God, doing His will, and who am as safe on the wall of service as within the closed doors of ease and idleness? "I will not go." God Himself is my refuge and strength, not His earthly house. If He fails me, His temple can afford me no security. It is good for us to remember who we are, and whom we serve, in the hour of temptation and danger. Why should the sons and servants of God be driven about with every wind of doctrine? Personal influence for the cause of Jesus Christ is often sacrificed on the altar of cowardly fear. "Dare to be a Daniel." There is no armor provided for the back.
III. Another Defeat for the Enemy. "And lo, I perceived that God had not sent him: therefore was he hired that I should be afraid... that they might reproach me" (vv. 12, 13). The dastardly motives of Shemaiah have been discovered. The sheep skin has fallen from the wolf, the hireling has been found out. It is not easy to deceive a man filled with the Spirit of God. The object was to fill Nehemiah with the fear of man, and so paralyze him for the work of God. The behavior of this sneaking and deceitful prophet is not more reprehensible than that of some modern critics, who, in the garb of friendship, seek to paralyze the efforts of Christ's servants by inspiring them with fear and distrust. But the Church is wakening up, and will soon be saying, like Nehemiah, "Lo, I perceive that God has not sent them." Be sure your sin will find you out. No weapon formed against the work of God can prosper. "What time I am afraid I will trust in You" (Psalm 56:3).
IV. Another Appeal unto God. "My God, think You upon Tobiah... and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear" (v. 14). There is no recrimination, no attempt at revenge; he knows that his judgment was with his God, so he hands over his enemies to Him to have their case considered. "Think You upon them." Our Lord Himself had those who sought to cast him down from His excellency, and the disciple is not greater than his Lord. When Paul referred to Alexander the coppersmith, who did him much evil, he said, "The Lord reward him according to his works" (2 Timothy 4:14). In circumstances like these Christ has left us His example, "Who when He was reviled, reviled not again;... but committed Himself to Him that judges righteously" (1 Peter 2:23). Them that are without, God will judge (1 Corinthians 5:13).
V. Another Triumph for Faith. "So the wall was finished,... and they were much cast down in their own eyes, for they perceived that this work was wrought of God" (vv. 15, 16). Like the Lord Jesus Christ, Nehemiah could say, "I have finished the work You gave Me to do" (John 17:4). When there is steadfast faith in God, strength and victory will be given for every God-given task, although the way may be "through much affliction and reproach." That which fills the mouth of God's children with laughter and their tongue with singing (Psalm 126:2, 3), makes the eyes of their enemies to be "cast down." It is a humbling discovery for them when they perceive "that the work was wrought of God," and that in their jealousy and blindness they have been fighting against Him. Such a startling discovery every Christ-rejecter will surely make sooner or later. Yes, the eyes of the haughty will yet be "cast down," and their faces deeply dyed in crimson shame when they perceive what God has done for His faithful followers. This is the victory that overcomes the world, even our faith.
WORD AND WORK. Nehemiah 8.
"O Word of God incarnate!
O Wisdom from on high!
O Truth unchanged, unchanging!
O Light of our dark sky!
We praise You for the radiance
That from the hallowed page,
A lantern to our footsteps,
Shines on from age to age."
In this chapter we have a very refreshing change in the program, in the form of an urgent appeal to the Word of the Lord as revealed in "the book of the law of Moses." There is something like the breath of a revival in it, in that it is the people themselves who cry out for it (v. 1). There is a beautiful fitness of things in this, inasmuch as the Word of God should always be associated with the work of God. The sword and the trowel were both needed. The word of edification must follow the work of salvation. The whole scene is most impressive and suggestive. We shall look at—
I. The Preacher. "They spoke unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book" (v. 1). Ezra was known as a ready scribe in the law of Moses (Ezra 7:6). Being also a priest, he was well qualified as an exponent of the Scriptures. As a priest, he was the recipient of grace; as a scribe, he was familiar with the truth. Grace and truth came by Jesus Christ, and in a measure must come by every preacher of the Gospel who has the Divine call.
II. The Place of Meeting. "Before the street" (v. 3). He read the Book in the open square, in front of the street that was before the Watergate. He stood upon "a pulpit of wood" (v. 4). Thus the first pulpit mentioned was built in a public square for open-air work. In the secret closet, or the market square, where Jesus is, 'tis Heaven there. The Christ-possessed boat of Peter on the lake was a holier place than the God-forsaken temple at Jerusalem.
III. The Hearers.
1. They were numerous. "Both men and women: all that could hear with understanding" (v. 2). The congregation literally hungered for the Word of God. What a delightful privilege to minister to such a people.
2. They were attentive. "From morning until midday... all the people were attentive to the book" (v. 3). They were more interested in the book than the preacher. They sought not the man, but the message.
3. They were reverent. "When he opened the book... all the people stood up" (v. 5). For Israel to "stand up" was virtually to declare their willingness to hear and obey. To stand up before God is no new method of testifying to our readiness to believe Him.
4. They were responsive. "All the people answered, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshiped the Lord" (v. 6). They responded to the demands of God's word by bowing their heads and offering Him the adoration of their hearts. It is a solemn thing to hear the Word of the Lord and refuse to yield to its claims. Be you doers of the Word.
IV. The Preacher's Manner.
1. He Began by Blessing the Lord (v. 6). He was deeply conscious of the greatness of the occasion, the greatness of God, the greatness of the message, the great need of the people, and his own great responsibility.
2. He Stuck to the Book. "He read in the book, in the law of God" (v. 8). He well knew that what the people needed, was not his thoughts, but the thoughts of God as written in that book. My thoughts are not your thoughts says the Lord.
3. He Spoke Distinctly (v. 8). There was no silly attempt at intoning for the sake of musical effect. He spoke straight out, clear and incisive. As R. L. Stevenson said, "The Bible should be read freshly as a book, not dreamingly as the Bible."
4. He Explained the Text. "They read distinctly and gave the sense." This was no formal heartless reading of the word. The soul of the man was greatly exercised, so that the real meaning of the words might be seen. There would not be so many senseless hearers, if all preachers were as faithful as Ezra to the Word of God.
5. He Enforced the Truth. "He caused them to understand." His business was to make them to understand what the mind of the Lord was. It is not enough that they heard it, they must, as responsible beings, be able, by the exercise of their own minds, to grasp intelligently the thoughts of God concerning themselves. He who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully. What is the chaff to the wheat? says the Lord (Jeremiah 23:28).
V. The Effect Produced.
1. They Wept. "All the people wept when they heard the words of the law" (v. 9). Only reading the word! Yes, but such reading as brought conviction to the heart, and the tears of penitence to the eyes. When the Word of God, which is the sword of the Spirit, is believed, it proves itself "quick and powerful, sharper than any two-edged sword."
2. They Rejoiced. "And all the people went their way... to make great mirth, because they had understood the words" (v. 12). The Word at first may pierce the heart and melt down the will, but it is to the end that we might rejoice in Him (v. 10, last clause). Mourning because of sin must precede the joy of salvation.
3. They Ministered. They were to "eat the fat and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared" (v. 10). And they gladly did so (v. 12). By the grace of God, we may now eat the fat and drink the sweet, but surely the love of Christ should constrain us to remember those who are as yet outside the Kingdom of God, and for whom "nothing is prepared." "Freely you have received, freely give" (Matthew 10:8). Give to them that love of God which has been so freely given to you.
A CALL TO PRAISE. Nehemiah 9:1-25.
"Some murmur when their sky is clear
And wholly bright to view,
If one small speck of dark appear
In their great Heaven of blue.
And some with thankful love are filled,
If but one streak of light—
One ray of God's good mercy—gild
The darkness of their night."—Trench.
This chapter opens with the great day of fasting and humiliation. The seed of Israel had broken their unholy alliance with the strangers, and now made public confession of their sins. For three hours the Book of the Law was read, and for other three hours they confessed and worshiped. Now the call comes to "Stand up and bless the Lord their God forever and ever" (v. 5). They had been reading and hearing of the great things God had done for their fathers, until their souls were stirred up from their silent depths to bless Him who was almighty to save and to keep. In this review of the past there are some powerful reasons given why they should "stand up and bless the Lord." Because He is the—
I. God of Creation. "You have made Heaven, the Heaven of Heavens, with all their host," etc. (v. 6). The Heavens declare the glory of God, the glory of His greatness, His wisdom, and power. The earth shows forth His handiwork, in the variety and perfection exhibited in nature. The Heavens and the earth are the visible expressions and proofs of the Eternal Mind, and should call forth praise and adoration. They would also praise Him because He is the—
II. God of Grace. "You are the Lord who did choose Abram, and brought Him forth... and gave him the name Abraham... and made a covenant with him" (vv. 7, 8). By faith Abraham went out, but by grace was he chosen. By grace are you saved. The grace that came to Abraham through the call of God, comes to us all in the Gospel of Jesus Christ. All who accept this call will, like Abraham, be led forth into a new sphere, will receive a new name, and will enter into a new life by covenant promise—the life of faith. They desire to praise Him because He is the—
III. God who Answers Prayer. "You did see the afflictions of our fathers... and heard their cry" (v. 9). He sees the afflictions of His people in the Egypt of this world, and hears their cry when they come to the Red Sea of agonizing trial. His ear never becomes heavy through weariness; He is the Rewarder of them that diligently seek Him. Stand up and bless the Lord for this. He is also the—
IV. God of Deliverances. He "showed signs and wonders upon Pharaoh... and did divide the sea, so that they went through on dry land... and led them in the day by a cloudy pillar, and in the night by a pillar of fire" (vv. 10-12). He saved them from their strong enemy, and led them forth by a new way. Every movement of the pillar was a fresh deliverance on their behalf. The Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ was the instrument by which all our enemies have been overthrown, and the Holy Spirit is our Guiding Pillar and daily Deliverer from the bondage of darkness and the wearisomeness of the wilderness pilgrimage. Stand up and bless the Lord your God for this. Moreover, He is the—
V. God of Revelation. "You earnest down... and spoke with them from Heaven, and gave them right judgments and true laws, good statutes and commandments" (v. 13). Every good and perfect gift comes down from the Father of Lights. We ought to be thankful to God that He has given to us statutes that are right, in which the heart can rejoice, and a commandment that is pure, enlightening the eyes (Psalm 19:8, 9). No man, by the process of searching, can find out God as He has been pleased to reveal Himself in His Word, and through His Son. It needs God to make known God. Let us bless Him that He has so made Himself known, that we, by faith, can rejoice in Him with enlightened eyes. Further, He is the—
VI. God who Supplies all our Need. He "gave them bread from Heaven, and water out of the rock... and promised them that they should possess the land" (v. 15). A provision that covered their present and future needs. The hunger of those who pilgrimage with God can only be satisfied with "bread from Heaven;" the thirst of such can only be quenched with water from the "Smitten Rock," and their future prospect can be brightened only by His "sure Word of promise." My God shall supply all your need according to His riches in glory by Christ Jesus. Stand up and bless Him for this, and, lastly, for this other great fact, that He is the—
VII. God of Long-suffering Mercy. "Yet You in Your manifold mercies forsook them not in the wilderness" (v. 19). See how they tempted God. They were disobedient, "refused to obey." They were forgetful, "neither were mindful of Your wonders." They were rebellious, "appointed a captain to return to their bondage." They were idolatrous, "they made a molten calf" (vv.16-18). Yet, in His manifold mercies, He was "a God ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness" (v. 17). Instead of answering their ingratitude and unbelief with judgment, He added mercy to mercy, by "giving them also of His Spirit to instruct them" (v. 20), so that they could testify, after forty years, that as far as the grace and goodness of God were concerned, "they lacked nothing" (v. 21). As they "read in the book of the law," on that twenty-fourth day of the month, of the marvelous goodness of their God in the past, their hearts began to burn within them, and no wonder. Why are our hearts so unresponsive to all the manifestations of His wonder-working grace toward us in Jesus Christ? Shall we not stand up this day, at the remembrance of His love, and bless His gracious Name forever and ever?
A CALL TO PURITY OF LIFE. Nehemiah 13.
"To see the face of God, this makes the joy of Heaven!
The purer then the eye, the more joy will be given."—Trench.
Nehemiah had left Jerusalem, and gone back to the royal court at Babylon (v. 6). Perhaps in fulfillment of the promise made to the king before he was sent to build the wall (see chapter 2:6). How long he had been away is difficult to say, but on returning he found things in a very grievous condition. Backsliding had set in, and a powerful tendency to compromise with evil. Many had become lovers of money more than lovers of God. At once this single-eyed man of God raised his voice against them and their unseemly doings, and sought to bring them back to a life of conformity to the Word and will of God. What their hindrances were to a life of purity and power are very much the hindrances with which we have to do. What was the nature of them? Notice their—
I. Relationship to the Mixed Multitude. "When they heard the law, they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude" (v. 3). The law forbade the mixing of the people of God with the nations that knew not God, so as to lose their identity. When the mixed multitude went up out of Egypt with the host of Israel this did in no way mar their character as a people separated unto God, but it was different when they went with the mixed multitude. Our relationship, as Christians to the world, is that of Christ's—in it, but not of it. The men of the world are indeed a "mixed multitude," and one of the chief dangers of the followers of Jesus Christ is to get so closely associated with them and their ways as to lose their testimony for Him (2 Corinthians 6:17).
II. Relationship to False Professors. "Eliashib the priest... was allied unto Tobiah... and he prepared him a chamber in the courts of the house of God" (vv. 4-9). Tobiah had the name of a saint (goodness of Jehovah), although he had the nature of a godless sinner. It was a startling discovery Nehemiah made in coming back to Jerusalem to find that his old enemy who had mocked them while building (chapter 4:3) was now comfortably quartered in one of the large chambers which should have been used as a store-room for the house of God (v. 5). He had no portion nor right in Jerusalem (chapter 2:20). But there are men like Tobiah who are mean enough to take all the personal comfort they can get out of the house of God, while they in heart deny God, and sneer at His servants. It was surely an unholy alliance between Eliashib the priest and Tobiah the Ammonite; such an alliance as often leads the overseers of the house of God into God-dishonoring compromises with the worldly-minded. Nehemiah would tolerate nothing that disgraced the holy Name, and hindered that testimony for which the house existed. So he "cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah," and occupied the chamber with the things of God (v. 8, 9). Tobiah's household effects may have been very good and beautiful stuff, but they were as filthiness in the holy place (2 Chronicles 29:5), because they were still Tobiah's and not God's.
III. Relationship to the House of God. Another source of danger to the purity and power of the Christian life is to allow self-interest to overrule the claims of God's house. "Why is the house of God forsaken?" he asks. It is a reproach to God that His house should be forsaken (vv. 10, 11). The Levites and singers appointed for the work of God's house had fled, "every one to his field," because their portions had not been given them. To withhold the tithes and offerings needed to maintain an honorable testimony to His Name is equivalent to robbing God (Malachi 3:8). The house of God was not meant for an ornament, but as a witness. Alas! that it should be so, of many places claiming to be houses of God; they are more ornamental than useful in the way of bringing men to God. But the laborer, not the ornamental loiterer, is worthy of his hire. Although there is a close connection in Malachi 3:10 between tithes and spiritual blessing, yet the Church in Laodicea had seemingly plenty of "meat in the house," while still in a state of spiritual destitution. There must not only be the gifts, but purity of motives in giving. Whatever you do, do it heartily, as unto the Lord.
IV. Relationship to the Day of Rest. Nehemiah contended with the nobles for permitting this buying, and selling, and transferring goods on the Sabbath day (vv. 15-22). It was an infringement of the law of God (Leviticus 23:32). The Sabbaths were God's. He gave them "to be a sign between Me and them, that they might know that I am the Lord that sanctify them" (Ezekiel 20:12) Indifference to the sanctity of God's day of rest could only be interpreted as an expression of their disregard for the God who gave it. The Lord's day now (first day of the week), given us as a sign of His resurrection, is regarded by many in very different ways. It is still the day of rest, and is manifestly the gift of God, sanctified by Him in the raising of His Son from the dead. Neglecting this day of rest, and not honoring it as of God, has been the fruitful source of much backsliding on the part of God's people. He who regards the day as unto the Lord will certainly be blessed in so doing.
V. Marriage Relationship. "In those days Jews had married wives of Ashdod... and their children spoke half the speech of Ashdod and could not speak in the Jews' language" (vv. 23-25). The fruit of this unholy alliance was a marred and mongrel testimony. The children were not to blame for this defect. The tree is known by its fruit. Getting unequally yoked with unbelievers has marred the lives of many of God's children. Even Solomon was led into sin through this course (v. 26). Those who would "marry in the Lord" must do their courting in the Lord. The Christian man who sets his affections on an "outlandish woman," or the Christian woman who allows her affections to be captivated by an outlandish man are proving the outlandishness of their own hearts to the Lord Jesus Christ. If any man would live godly, he must suffer even the persecution of a grieved and godless sweetheart. Neither are Christian fathers or mothers to give their daughters to men who are unbelievers, no matter what their social standing might be (v. 25). Paul's arguments against such unions are unanswerable. "What communion has light with darkness?...What agreement has the temple of God with idols? You are the temple of the living God....Wherefore be you separate" (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
"How sweet the mutual yoke of man and wife,
When holy fires maintain love's heavenly life."