Over-population, famine, tribute, it was no wonder that the people were so poor.
But the great cry in the streets of Jerusalem was not merely a cry of suffering and distress; it was an angry complaining cry; it was the cry of those who felt that others were to blame for their sorrows.
As Nehemiah walks amongst the weeping crowds, and as he talks to the people one by one, he finds that there are no less than three sets of complainants.
(1) There are the utterly poor people, those who have no private means whatever, but who are entirely dependent on the work of their hands and on the wages they get for that work. These come to Nehemiah and pour out their sorrowful tale. 'We,' they say, 'have large families, for
'We, our sons, and our daughters, are many.'
But 'Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them,' so runs the Psalm, and are not children a heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord? Yet when the quiver is more than full (for a quiver only held four arrows), and when bread is scarce and work bad, it needs faith to trust the children which the Lord has given to His care, and to feel sure that He who sent them will send the bread to feed them.
'Now,' say these overburdened parents to Nehemiah, 'we cannot let our children starve. We have been building this wall and earning nothing, but we have had to eat all these weeks; we have been obliged to take up corn for our families lest they should die, and the consequence is we have run very heavily into debt' (ver. 2). That was the first class of complainants.
(2) But amongst the weepers Nehemiah found a second class, those who had once been somewhat better off, and had, in happier days, owned a little property, and had some means of their own, but who, at the time of the late famine, had got into difficulties. 'I,' said one, 'had a little farm in a village near Jerusalem.' 'I,' said another, 'was the owner of a nice little vineyard or oliveyard on the hill side,' 'I,' said a third, 'built a house in the city on my return from captivity, and hoped to leave it to my children.' 'But so terrible was our distress in the famine,' say these men, 'that we were obliged to borrow money of our neighbours the rich Jews in Jerusalem. They were willing to lend the money, but they required security for it, and we were compelled to pledge or mortgage our little property to these men, and now times are still bad, and we see no hope whatever that we shall be able to buy our little possessions back again' (ver. 3).
(3) But the shrillest cries of all came from the third class of complainants. These were men who, up to a certain point, resembled the second class. They had once possessed a little property, but in the time of famine they had parted with their lands, their houses, and their vineyards like the rest. But the story of the third class did not end here, these had since then got into still worse difficulties. The tax-collector had come round to collect the tribute for Artaxerxes, and he had demanded immediate payment. They had, however, nothing to give him. What could they do? They were obliged once more to borrow money of their rich neighbours, who lent it to them at the rate of 12 per cent, (one eighth part of the money to be paid monthly). And what pledge, what security did these nobles require for their money? The poor people had already lost their houses and their vineyards, there was nothing left to them but their children, and actually the son or the daughter was pledged or mortgaged to the rich money-lender. If the heavy interest is not paid, at any moment the child may be seized, and carried off to the noble's house to be brought up as a slave. 'Nay,' cry some of the mothers in the crowd, 'our case is worst of all; some of our daughters have been taken as slaves already, and we have no power to redeem them. Yet we love our children just as much as these rich people love theirs, they are just as dear to us as theirs are to them' (ver. 5).
'And then,' says Nehemiah,'when I had heard their cry and listened to their tale, I was very angry.' But surely it was wrong of Nehemiah to be angry. Is not anger a bad thing? Is it not one of the works of the devil, which we are bidden to lay aside?
Yet what says St. Paul? 'Be ye angry, and sin not.' So it is possible to be angry, and yet to be sinless. And we read, Mark iii. 5, that, in the synagogue at Capernaum, the Lord Jesus looked round on the hard-hearted Pharisees with anger; and in Him was no sin.
Nehemiah was very angry, yet Nehemiah sinned not in being so, for it was anger at sin, anger at the wrongdoing which was bringing disgrace on his nation, anger at the conduct which was offending God and doing harm to God's cause. It was righteous anger against the cruelty and selfishness of those who, in those hard times, had profited from the poverty and distress of their poor fellow countrymen.
For some time Nehemiah did nothing, but he carefully turned the matter over in his mind. He says, 'I consulted with myself,' or as it is in the margin, 'My heart consulted in me.' We can picture him pacing up and down, saying again and again, What shall I do? What is the wisest course to take? How can this great evil be stopped? Doubtless, too, he took this trouble, as he had taken all his other anxieties and cares, and laid it before the God of heaven.
Then he sends for the nobles and all those who had oppressed the people, and he gives them very plainly his mind on the matter:
'I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother.'
And thereby they had broken the law, for no Jew was allowed to take interest, or increase, of another Jew, much less to exact usury: see Exod. xxii. 25; Ezek. xviii. 8, 17.
The Hebrew was to look upon every other Hebrew as his brother, and to treat him as such. There was to be brotherly love in time of misfortune, such love as would prevent the receiving of increase from the one who was in trouble. With regard to the mortgaging of land, it does not seem that these rich men had actually broken the law, such pledges were allowed, provided that the property mortgaged was returned in the year of jubilee. But, whilst they had not broken the letter of the law, these Jews had certainly acted in a hard, self-seeking way, showing no sympathy whatever for the sorrows of those around them.
How different was this from the generous conduct of Nehemiah himself! All the time of his government he drew no taxes or contributions from the people over whom he ruled, as other governors did, and as his predecessors in Jerusalem had done. Eastern governors in those days, like Turkish governors now, were accustomed to farm their provinces. That is to say, the king allowed them no salary, but he put the taxation of the people in their hands. A certain fixed sum was to be sent to him every year from the province; and whatever the governor could grind or squeeze out of the people, over and above this stated amount, went into his own pocket and formed his salary. Jerusalem now-a-days rings with many a cry of distress caused by the unjust means used by the pacha to increase his stipend by putting fresh burdens on the people. The former Jewish governors had made as much as forty shekels a day, or L1,800 a year out of the people in their province. But when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, he found the people so poverty-stricken and oppressed that he would not take a single penny for himself. It is probable that his salary as cup-bearer had been continued, and on this he lived and kept his household going all the time of his government. Not only so; not only did Nehemiah pay all his private expenses, but he kept open house for the people of Jerusalem; every day 150 of the rulers and chief men dined with him, besides all the visitors to Jerusalem, Jews from other countries, strangers from foreign nations who were staying but a short time in the city, all of whom were invited to the governor's house, and sat down at the governor's table.
Nehemiah himself gives us his daily bill of fare, ver. 18.
1 ox. 6 fat sheep. Fowls without number. A fresh supply of wine of all kinds stored in every tenth day.
It was no small expense to have above 150 men to dinner daily, yet for all this Nehemiah took not a penny from his province, so touched was he to the heart by the poverty of the people. Not only so, but all the time the walls were being built he toiled away, and allowed all his household servants to work both night and day, and yet looked for no payment or compensation, ver. 16. Then besides all this, Nehemiah had been most generous in the time of the famine; he had supplied the poor people with money and with corn, and yet he had firmly refused to allow them to pledge or mortgage their lands, much less their children, ver. 10.
And Nehemiah tells us the secret of his consistent conduct; he tells us why he differed so much from the governors who went before him. A strong power held him back from sin.
'So did not I, because of the fear of God.'
Thus Nehemiah had a right to speak, for he practised what he preached. But in spite of this, his private appeal to the nobles appears to have been in vain. They seem to have given no answer, to have taken no notice of his appeal, and to have given him no reason to think that they intended to change their conduct.
So he set a great assembly against them. He called a monster meeting of all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, rich and poor, for he felt that if their conduct was publicly exposed and condemned, they might possibly be ashamed to continue it.
Nehemiah's speech at the meeting was very much to the point. He first tried to shame the nobles by reminding them that whilst he, ever since his return, had been spending his money in buying back those Jews who had been sold into slavery to the heathen round, they on the other hand had actually been doing the very opposite, bringing their fellow citizens into slavery to themselves. Was this right, or fair, or just? The argument told, no one could answer it, there was dead silence, ver. 8.
Now, says Nehemiah, consider: 'Ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God?' Ought ye not to be careful in your conduct, kind, and just, and generous in your dealing? And why?
'Because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies.'
Because you Jews are God's people, and all these heathen round will judge your God by what you are. You make a profession of religion, you claim to have high motives; but if they see you grasping, greedy, hard, like themselves, what will they think of your religion? Surely they will say, 'These Jews are no better than ourselves, their religion cannot be worth much.'
Now, says Nehemiah, remembering all this, bearing in mind the disgrace you are bringing upon the name of Jew, I call upon you at once to give up this practice of mortgaging and pledge-taking. Not only so, but I bid you restore at once the vineyards and the oliveyards, the fields and the houses, you have taken from these poor people. I bid you also return the interest they have paid you (the eighth part of the money), and I call upon you, in every way you can, to undo the evil you have done already, and for the future to do unto others as you would they should do to you, vers. 10, 11.
Nehemiah's earnest words prevailed,
'Then said they, We will restore them.'
This promise was followed by a very curious act on the part of Nehemiah.
'I shook my lap.'
The lap is what the Latins called the sinus, a fold in the bosom of the tunic, which was used as a pocket. Eastern-like, Nehemiah used a sign to show what will happen to any man who shall break the promise he had just made. God will cast him forth as a homeless wanderer, emptied of all his possessions, all his ill-gotten wealth. He shall be void or empty, just as Nehemiah's pocket was void or empty, ver. 13.
'And all the congregation said, Amen.'
Then, instead of the great cry of distress, was heard the great shout of joy, for
They 'praised the Lord.'
And the promise was not one of those promises made to be broken, for
'The people did according to this promise.'
It has been well said that Christians are the only Bible that men of the world read. In other words, those who will not read the Bible themselves, judge the religion of Christ simply by the Christians they happen to come across. This is not a fair way of judging; it surely cannot be right to condemn Christianity itself, because some of those who profess it are not what they ought to be.
Let us picture to ourselves an island in the Pacific Ocean, where no European has ever been seen. A large ship is wrecked not far from this island, and three men are able to make their escape in a boat, and to land upon its shore. The men belong to three different nations—one is a Frenchman, another is a German, and the third is an Englishman. The people of the island receive them most kindly, warm them, and feed them, and shelter them, and do all they can for them till a ship shall come to take them away.
What return do the three men make for their kindness? The Frenchman is grateful, and willing to make himself useful in any way he can: he amuses the children and helps in the work of the house, and does all he can to make return for the hospitality he is receiving. The German is very clever with his fingers, and spends his time in teaching the natives to make many things which they had not been able to do before; he becomes indeed so helpful to them that they dread the day coming when he will have to leave them. But the Englishman is a man of low tastes and bad morals. He spends his time in drinking the spirit he finds on the island, in quarrelling with the inhabitants, and in ill-treating their children; there is not a soul on the island who does not rejoice when the ship bears him away, never to return.
Soon after this, news is brought that a small colony from Europe is anxious to settle on that island, and to trade with the inhabitants. The commercial advantages of this step are laid before the natives, and leave is asked for the party of traders to land. One question, and one question only, is asked by the inhabitants. Of what nation are these colonists? The answer is brought back, They are English. At once the whole island is up in arms. They shall not land, they cry, we will not hear of it; we know what English people are, we have had plenty of the English. Had they been French or Germans we would have given them a hearty welcome, but we never wish to see an Englishman again.
But surely that was not fair, it was not right to judge a whole nation by one bad specimen. Nor is it right to judge the followers of Christ in that way. I know a man, says one, who is hard and grasping and self-seeking, and that man makes a religious profession, therefore I will have nothing to do with religion. I know a Christian who is bad-tempered; I know a Christian who is not particular about truth; I know a Christian out of whose mouth come bitter, unkind words; I know a Christian who is unpleasant in his manner; I know a Christian with whom I should be sorry to do business; I know a Christian who is always mournful and miserable. These are your Christians, are they? Then do not ask me to be one; I have no opinion of any of them.
Yet, after all, the man who speaks thus draws an unfair conclusion. Because I find in my bag of gold one bad half-sovereign, or even two or three bad ones, am I therefore to throw all the rest away? And because one Christian, or several Christians, disgrace their Master, and act inconsistently, am I therefore to condemn Christianity itself? Am I therefore to cut off my own soul from all hope of safety?
But, remembering this, bearing in mind that many eyes are on us, that our conduct is being read, our ways watched, our actions weighed, our motives sifted, Christian friends, let us walk carefully. Do not let us bring disgrace on our Master, do not let us hinder others and be a stumbling-block in their way; do not let us give the world a wrong idea of Christ.
We are not half awake, we are not half careful enough; let us walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise. Let us, whenever we have been tempted to any inconsistency, be able to take up Nehemiah's brave noble words,
'So did not I, because of the fear of God.'
I could not get into a temper, I could not be hard or grasping, I could not do that piece of sharp practice, I could not stoop to that deceit, I could not disgrace my Master, because in my heart was a principle holding me back from sin, the fear of the Lord. I feared to grieve the One who loved me, and that fear kept me safe. 'So did not I, because of the fear of God.'
[Transcribers note 1: stumbling-black corrected to stumbling-block.]
True to his Post.
Lot's wife was changed into a pillar of salt; and if that pillar still remained, we should see her to-day standing in exactly the same attitude in which she was standing when death suddenly came upon her.
About a hundred years ago, a baker in the south of Italy sunk a well in his garden; and whilst doing so he suddenly came upon a buried city, a city which had been lost to the world for 1800 years. The underground city was no empty place; it was peopled with the dead, and these were found in the very attitude and position in which death had overtaken them, standing, sitting, lying, just as they had been on that awful day when Mount Vesuvius sent out terrible showers of ashes, destroying them all.
Very various were the positions of the dead in that buried city. Many were in the streets, in the attitude of running, trying to make their escape from the city gate; others were in deep vaults whither they had gone for safety, crouching, in their fear of what might fall upon them; others were on staircases and flights of stone steps leading to the roof, in the attitude of climbing to a place where they hoped the lava might not bury them. Two men were found by the garden gate of a large and beautiful mansion. One was standing with the key in his hand, a handsome ring on his finger, and a hundred gold and silver coins scattered round him. The other, who was probably his slave, was stretched on the ground, with his hands clutching some silver cups and vases. These men had evidently been suffocated whilst trying to carry off the money and treasure.
But one man in that buried city deserves to be remembered to the end of time. Who was he? One Roman soldier, the brave sentinel at the gate. There he had been posted in the morning, and there he had been bidden to remain.
And how was he found? Standing at his post, with his hand still grasping his sword, faithful unto death. There, by the city gate; whilst the earth shook and rocked, whilst the sky was black with ashes, whilst showers of stones were falling around him, and whilst hundreds of men, women and children brushed past him as they fled in terror from the city, there he stood, firm and unmoved. Should such a man as I flee? thought the sentinel. And in that same spot, in that post of duty, he was found 1800 years after, faithful to his trust, faithful unto death.
Oh, that the Lord's soldiers were more like that brave man in Pompeii! It is so easy to begin a thing, so hard to stick to it; so easy to start on the Christian course, so difficult to persevere; so easy to enlist in the army, so very hard to stand unmoved in the time of danger or trial. Yet what says the Master? He that endureth to the end (and he alone) shall be saved. What says the Captain? chat it is the soldier who is faithful unto death (and no one else) who shall receive the crown of life.
Who then amongst us are faithful, true and unmoved? Who amongst us can stand firm in spite of Satan's efforts to lead us aside? Who can hold on, not for a week only, but still faithful as the weeks change into months, and the months into years, faithful unto death? About 100 years before the time of Nehemiah, there lived a wise old Chinaman, the philosopher Confucius. Looking round upon his fellow-men, Confucius said that he noticed that a large proportion of them were 'Copper-kettle-boiling-water men.' The water in a copper kettle, said Confucius, boils very quickly, much more quickly than in an iron kettle; but the worst of it is that it just as quickly cools down, and ceases to boil.
So, said Confucius, is it with numbers of my fellow-men: they are one day hot and eager, boiling over with zeal in some particular cause; but the next day they have cooled down, and they take no interest in it whatever. Soon up, soon down, like the water in a copper kettle.
Just so is it in the service of God. There are, sad to say, many copper-kettle-boiling-water Christians, hot and earnest in the work of God one moment, but in the next they have cooled down, and are ready to leave the work to take care of itself.
But Nehemiah was no copper-kettle-boiling-water man, he comes before us as a man faithful to his post, standing firm to his duty, a man whom no one could draw from his work, or cause to swerve from what he knew to be right.
The Samaritans have made a mighty effort to stop Nehemiah's great work, the building of the walls of Jerusalem. They began with ridicule; but the builders took no notice of the shouts of laughter, but built on as before. Then they tried to stop the work by force; but they found the whole company of builders changed, as by a magic wand, into an army of soldiers, ready and waiting for their attack. Now the news reaches them, chap. vi. 1., that the walls are progressing, that the gaps are filled up, the different pieces are joined together, and that nothing now remains but to put up the gates in the various gateways.
They feel accordingly that no time is to be lost; they must, in some way or other, put a stop to Nehemiah and his work at once. They determine, therefore, to try a new plan, they will entrap Nehemiah by stratagem and deceit. So they send an invitation to Jerusalem, begging him to meet them in a certain place, that there they may settle their differences by a friendly conference.
Sanballat is to be there as the head of the Samaritans, Geshem as the head of the Arabians, and Nehemiah as the head of the Jews; and surely, meeting in a friendly way, and embued with a friendly spirit, nothing will be easier than quietly and peacefully to confer together, and then to arrange matters in a comfortable and satisfactory manner.
The place appointed for the meeting is the Plain of Ono—the green, beautiful plain between the Judean hills and the Mediterranean—called elsewhere the Plain of Sharon. There in later days stood Lydda, the place where St. Peter healed Aeneas; there stood Joppa, from which Jonah embarked; there, at the present day, may be seen fields of melons and cucumbers, groves of orange and lemon trees, and fields of waving corn. Nehemiah would have a journey of about thirty miles before he reached the appointed meeting-place.
Sanballat's proposal sounded very fine and even very friendly, but it was a trap. His real desire was to tempt Nehemiah from behind the walls of Jerusalem, to entice him to a safe distance from his brave friends and companions, and then to have him secretly assassinated. Who then would ever hear again of the power of Jerusalem? Who then would ever see the gates put in their places?
Is Nehemiah moved from his post of duty by Sanballat's message? Does he leave his work at once, and set off for the Plain of Ono? Look at his decided answer.
'I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?'
God's work would be done better, and with more success, if all His workmen were like Nehemiah. But, alas! many who call themselves workers for God are ready to run off from the work at every call, every invitation, every appeal from the world, the flesh, or the devil. I am doing a great work, but there is that amusement I want to take part in, the work must be left to-day.
I am doing a great work; but I do not feel inclined for it just now, I feel idle, or the weather is too cold to go out, or the sun shines so brightly I should like a walk instead, I must leave my work to others to-day.
I am doing a great work; but I love my own ease, or pleasure, or convenience, better than I love the work, these must come first and the work must come second.
So speak the actions of many so-called workers, and thus it is that so much Christian work is a dead failure.
But, says Nehemiah, 'I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?'
Let us remember his words, let us inwardly digest them, and the very next time that we are tempted to give up work for God and to run off to something else, let us take care to echo them.
But Sanballat is determined not to be beaten, he will try again and yet again. Four times over he sends Nehemiah a friendly invitation to a friendly conference, four times over Nehemiah steadily refuses to come. Then, when that plot completely fails, Sanballat loses his temper.
One day a messenger arrives at the gate of Jerusalem with an insult in his hand. The insult is in the form of a piece of parchment; it is a letter from Sanballat, an 'open letter,' ver. 5.
Letters in the East are not put into envelopes, but are rolled up like a map, then the ends are flattened and pasted together. The Persians make up their letters in a roll about six inches long, and then gum a piece of paper round them, and put a seal on the outside. But in writing to persons of distinction, not only is the letter gummed together, but it is tied up in several places with coloured ribbon, and then enclosed in a bag or purse. To send a letter to such a man as Nehemiah, not only untied and unenclosed, but actually not even having the ends pasted together, was a tremendous insult, and Nehemiah, who had been accustomed to the strict etiquette of the Persian court, knew this well.
But Sanballat probably sent this open letter not only with the intention of insulting Nehemiah, but also in order that every one whom the messenger came across might read it, and that the Jews in Jerusalem and its neighbourhood might be frightened by its contents, and might therefore be inclined to forward his plans.
The letter contained a piece of gossip.
'It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it.'
So the letter began, and then there followed the scandal, the gossip about Nehemiah.
People's tongues were busy 2,000 years ago, just as people's tongues are busy now, and the gossips of those days, like the gossips of to-day, were not particular about truth.
What was the gossip which Gashmu had started against Nehemiah? It was this: Jerusalem is being built, we all see that, says Gashmu. But now, what is at the bottom of this business? Hush! says Gashmu, do not tell any one, and I will tell you a secret. You would never believe it, you would never guess it; but what do you think? As soon as those walls are built and those gates are finished, you will hear news. There is going to be a king in Jerusalem, and his name is Nehemiah. As soon as ever he has a strong city in which to defend himself, he is going to rebel against Persia. Nay, he has already paid people inside Jerusalem to pretend to be prophets, and to say to the people:
'There is a king in Judah.'
That is the gossip, says Sanballat, that is going the round of all the gossips' tongues in the land. And now what will be the result? If the King of Persia hears of it, and it is sure to reach his ears sooner or later, it will go badly with you, Nehemiah. The best thing you can do is to consent to meet me, and we will talk the matter over and see what can be done to prevent this report reaching Persia.
'Come now therefore, and let us take counsel together.'
Nehemiah has stood firm under ridicule; he has been unmoved by force or deceitful friendships; will he be frightened from his duty by gossip? No, he cares not what they say, nor who says it. He simply sends Sanballat word that there is not a vestige of truth in the report, nor does he intend to take any notice of it.
'There are no such things done as thou sayest, but thou feignest them out of thine own heart.'
Over the entrance to one of our old English castles these words are carved in the stonework:—
THEY SAY. WHAT DO THEY SAY? LET THEM SAY.
These words are well worth our remembering. It is not pleasant to be talked about, especially if the words spoken about us are untrue, but it will be a wonderful thing if any of us escape the gossip's tongue.
They say, and they always will say, to the end of time; people will talk, and their talk will chiefly be of their neighbours.
What do they say? Do you answer like the Psalmist, 'They lay to my charge things I knew not?' They speak unkindly, untruly, unfairly. Never mind, Let them say. You cannot stop their mouths, but you can hinder yourself from taking notice of their words. Let them say, for they will have their say out, but they will end it all the sooner if you take no notice of it.
Let us try for the future to be thick-skinned, and when Gashmu's tongue is whispering, and whenever some busybody like Sanballat repeats Gashmu's words to us, let us act as Nehemiah did. Let us take no notice of the repeated tittle-tattle.
Yet, although we may practically ignore the gossiping tongue, if we are naturally sensitive and highly strung we cannot help feeling some sting from the unkind or untrue speech. Poor Nehemiah, unmoved though he was by the gossip, yet feels it necessary to remember the meaning of his name, and to turn from Sanballat's letter to 'the Lord my Comforter.'
'O God, strengthen my hands.'
So he cries from the depths of his soul, and so he was comforted.
Sanballat now feels that he is attempting an impossibility. It is of no use trying himself to move Nehemiah, for Nehemiah is thoroughly on his guard against him. If he reaches him at all, he must do so through others, whom Nehemiah does not suspect. So, by means of his gold, Sanballat tempts some of the Jerusalem Jews over to his side.
There is a woman living in Jerusalem named Noadiah, and she (to her shame be it spoken) is bribed by Sanballat to give herself out as a prophetess, and to be the bearer of messages to Nehemiah, pretending that those messages were sent to him by God. Nor is Noadiah the only one who is bribed by the Samaritan governor to pretend the gift of prophecy.
One day, Nehemiah is sent for to the house of one of these people who profess to be able to prophesy. He is a young man of the name of Shemaiah, whose family had returned from Babylon with Zerubbabel, but who had never been able to prove their Jewish descent (vii. 61, 62, 64).
This young man professes to be very fond of Nehemiah, and begs him to come to see him. Nehemiah does so, and finds him shut up, his doors barred and bolted, his house barricaded like a fortress. He admits Nehemiah, and seems, as he does so, to be in a great state of fear and terror.
Then he whispers a dreadful secret in his ear. He tells Nehemiah that his life is in immediate danger, that there is a plot set on foot by Sanballat to murder him that very night, and that this plot has been revealed to him by God. He tells him that he feels his own life, as one of Nehemiah's best friends, is also in danger, and therefore he proposes that they shall go together after dark to the temple courts, and, passing through these, enter into the sanctuary itself, the Holy Place, in which stood the altar of incense, the golden candlestick, and the table of showbread. There, having carefully closed the folding doors of fir-wood, they may hide till daybreak, and those who were coming to assassinate Nehemiah will seek him in vain.
Shemaiah gives this advice as a direct message from God, but Nehemiah saw through it. He felt sure God could not have sent that message, for God cannot contradict His own Word. And what said the Word? It was clearly laid down in the law of Moses that no man, unless he was a priest, might enter the Holy Place; if he attempted to do so, death would be the penalty.
'The stranger that cometh nigh shall be put to death.' So Nehemiah bravely answers:
'Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.'
Who is there, that, being as I am—that is, being a layman, not a priest—as I am, could go into the temple and live? for that is the better translation. In other words, if I, Nehemiah, who am not a priest, should break the clear command of God, by crossing the threshold of the temple, instead of saving my life I should lose it. I will not go in.
So failed this dastardly plot to get Nehemiah to sin, in order that his God might desert him. The sentinel stood unmoved at his post, Nehemiah goes on steadily with his work. Should such a man as I flee? And in fifty-two days after its commencement, in less than two months, the wall was finished, vi. 15.
With a huge army, with hundreds of horses, and with twenty elephants, Pyrrhus, King of Epirus, crossed over from Greece to Italy to conquer the Romans. No elephants had ever before been seen in Italy; and when the two armies met, and the huge animals advanced with their dark trunks curling and snorting, and their ponderous feet shaking the earth, the horses in the Roman army were so terrified that they refused to move, and Pyrrhus won an easy victory. After the battle was over Pyrrhus walked amongst the dead, and looked at the bodies of his slain foes. As he did so, one fact struck him very forcibly, and it was this, the Romans did not know how to run away. Not one had turned and fled from the field of battle. The wounds were all in front, not one was wounded in the back.
'Ah,' said Pyrrhus, 'with such soldiers as that the whole world would belong to me.'
Soldiers of Christ, let us be brave for the Master. Let the language of the heart of each in the Lord's army be that of Nehemiah, 'Should such a man as I flee?' Nay, I will not flee, I will not desert my post, I will stand my ground, bravely, consistently, perseveringly, unto death.
The Tarpeian Rock was the place where Roman criminals who had been guilty of the crime of treason were executed. They were thrown headlong from this rock into the valley below, and perished at its base. The rock took its name from a woman named Tarpeia, who has ever been a disgrace to her sex, and whose name was hated in Rome, for she was a traitress to her country. For a long time the war had raged between the Romans and the Sabines. The Romans were at last compelled to shut themselves up in their strong fortress, which the Sabines attempted to take, but in vain. So steep were the rocks on which it stood, so strong were the walls, that the Sabines must have given up their attempt in despair, had it not been for the treachery of Tarpeia, the governor's daughter. She looked down from the fortress into the Sabine host, and she noticed that, whilst with their right arms the Sabines held their swords, on their left arms were hung massive golden bracelets, such as Tarpeia had never beheld before. One day, leaning over the precipice, she managed to whisper into the ear of a Sabine soldier her treacherous plan. She was willing in the dead of night to unlock the gate of the fortress, and to admit the Sabines, provided that they promised on their part to give her what they carried on their left arms. Tarpeia's proposition was agreed to, and that night the governor's daughter stole the keys of the fortress from her father's room, and admitted the enemy.
But the Sabines had too much right feeling to let her treachery go unpunished. She stood by the gate, hoping to receive the bracelets, but each Sabine soldier, as he entered, threw at her head his massive iron shield, which he also carried on his left arm, until she was crushed to the ground, and buried beneath a mass of metal. They had fulfilled their promise, but in a way the treacherous Tarpeia did not expect. When she was quite dead, they took up her body, and threw it over the rock which ever after bore her name, as a warning to traitors.
Treachery within the camp, those in league with the enemy in the very midst of the citadel, those who whilst pretending to be friends are secretly conspiring to hinder and annoy. Surely such a state of things is enough to move any man's heart. Who could help feeling it bitterly?
David could not. Listen to his heartrending cry—
'For it is not an open enemy, that hath done me this dishonour; for then I could have borne it. Neither was it mine adversary that did magnify himself against me; for then I would have hid myself from him. But it was even thou, my companion, my guide, and mine own familiar friend.'
Nehemiah could not help feeling it. He had borne patiently ridicule, force, deceit from without; whatever of harm or mischief Sanballat did, he could not help, nor was he surprised at it. But when the trouble came nearer home, when he found that in Jerusalem itself, amongst those whom he had loved and for whom he had sacrificed so much, there were actually to be found traitors, then indeed Nehemiah's soul was stirred to its very depths.
He discovered to his horror that letters, secret, treacherous letters, were constantly passing from Tobiah the secretary to some of his so-called friends in Jerusalem. Nay more, he discovered that these letters were diligently answered, and that a quick correspondence was being kept up by Tobiah on the one side and these treacherous Jews on the other.
Worse still, Nehemiah found that many of those round him were acting as spies, watching all he did, taking note of every single thing that went on in Jerusalem, and then writing it down for Tobiah's benefit. And in spite of this, these Jews had the audacity and the bad taste when they met Nehemiah in the street, or sat at his table, or came across him in business, to harp constantly upon one string—the goodness, and perfections, and excellences of dear Tobiah.
'They reported his good deeds to me, and uttered my words to him.'
Nor was this communication with the secretary at all easy to break off, for he was connected by marriage with some of the first families in Jerusalem. Tobiah himself had obtained a Jewish girl for his wife, the daughter of one of Nehemiah's helpers—Shechaniah, the son of Arah.
Not only so, but Meshullam, one of the wealthiest men in the city, one of the most earnest builders on the wall, one who had worked so diligently that he had actually repaired two portions (chap. iii. 4, 30), one who must have been either a priest or a Levite, for we read of his having a chamber in the temple, this man, Meshullam, so well spoken of, and so much esteemed in Jerusalem, had actually forgotten himself so far as to let his daughter marry the son of the secretary, Tobiah. We cannot excuse Meshullam by suggesting that his daughter may have been spoilt or wilful, and may have married in spite of her father's displeasure, for, in the East, marriages are entirely arranged by the parents, and Meshullam's daughter probably had no choice in the matter.
Seeing then that there are enemies without, and half-hearted friends within, Nehemiah feels it necessary, so soon as the walls are finished and the gates set up, to do all he can to make Jerusalem secure and strong. Solomon had appointed 212 Levites to be porters or gate-keepers, to guard the entrances to the temple. Ever since his time there had been an armed body of Levites, kept always at hand, to guard the treasures of the temple, and to keep watch at the gates. From these Nehemiah selects the keepers for his new gates. Surely these Levites will be faithful, and they have had some experience in watching, inasmuch as they have for so long acted as temple police.
Nehemiah's next step was to appoint two men to superintend these guards, and to be responsible to him for the safety of the city. At any moment he might be recalled to Persia, at any moment he might have to leave his important work in Jerusalem, that he might stand again as cup-bearer behind the king's chair. He felt that he must therefore appoint deputies to guard the city for him, so that all might not hang upon the fact of his presence in the city.
Whom did Nehemiah choose for this post of enormous trust? One was his brother Hanani, the very one who had come to see him in Persia. Why, he would never have even thought of doing this great work, if it had not been for Hanani; and he felt he could thoroughly trust him, and rely upon him entirely.
His other choice was Hananiah, the ruler of the palace or the fort, which was a tower, standing in the temple courts on the spot on which, in Roman days, stood the Tower of Antonia. Nehemiah tells us exactly why he made choice of the man Hananiah.
'He was a faithful man, and feared God above many.'
He was a faithful man, thoroughly trustworthy and reliable. He feared God above many, and therefore Nehemiah knew that he would be kept safe and free from sin. 'So did not I,' he had said of himself, 'because of the fear of God; that fear held me back from sin,' and he felt sure it would be the same with Hananiah. He feared God, and therefore he could be depended upon.
These two rulers, Hanani and Hananiah, planned out the defence of the city. They divided the wall amongst all the men in Jerusalem, holding each man responsible for the safety of that part of the wall which lay nearest to his own house. Then, by Nehemiah's orders, they saw that the guards took care that the gates were not only carefully closed every night, but that they were kept closed till the sun was hot, that is, till some hours after sunrise. These orders were most necessary, seeing that there were traitors inside the gates as well as enemies without.
It was the sixth month of the Jewish year when the walls were finished. Then came Tisri, the seventh month, the greatest and grandest of the months. The Jews say that God made the world in the month Tisri, and in it they have no less than two feasts and one great fast.
On the first day of the month Tisri was held the Feast of Trumpets, or the day of blowing. On that day trumpets or horns were blown all day long in Jerusalem; on the house-tops, and from the courts and gardens, as well as from the temple.
Obedient to the voice of the trumpets, at early dawn the people all gathered together, and stood by the water-gate, in a large open space suitable for such a gathering. This gate is supposed to have been somewhere at the south-east of the temple courts, and to have taken its name from the fact that through it the temple servants, the Nethinims and the Gibeonites, carried water from the dragon well into the city.
Here a huge pulpit had been erected, not such a pulpit as we find in our churches, but such an one as is to be seen in the synagogues of Jerusalem, a pulpit as large as a small room, and capable of holding a large number of persons.
The pulpit by the water-gate was a raised platform, made for the purpose. In it stood Ezra the scribe, and beside him stood thirteen of the chief men of Jerusalem. Meshullam was there; but one man was conspicuous by his absence. Eliashib, the high priest, who should surely have been found taking a principal part in the solemn service of the day, was nowhere to be seen.
Before the great pulpit was gathered together an enormous crowd, men, women, and children, all those who were old enough to understand anything having been brought there, that they might listen to all that went on.
It was early in the morning, soon after sunrise, when the great company met together. The blowing of the trumpets ceased, and there was brought out by a Levite an old roll of parchment. What was it? It was the Book of the Law, the Bible of Nehemiah's day, consisting of the five books of Moses.
Slowly and reverently Ezra unrolled the law in the sight of all the people; and they, sitting below, watched him, and as soon as the book was opened they stood up, to show their respect and their reverence for the Word of God.
Then the reading began, and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. For no less than six hours Ezra read on, from early morning until midday, yet still the people stood, still the people listened attentively. There was no stir in the crowd, no one asked what time it was, there was no shuffling of feet, no yawning, no fidgeting; in earnest, fixed attention the people listened.
As Ezra read, a body of Levites went about amongst the crowd, translating what he said. So long had the people lived in captivity that some of them had forgotten the old Hebrew, or had been brought up from children to talk the Chaldean tongue. Thus many of Ezra's words and phrases were quite unintelligible to them. So the Levites acted as interpreters; and besides explaining the words, they also opened out the meaning of what was read.
'The Levites caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.'
And at the end of six hours there came tears—there was not a dry eye in the crowd—men and women alike wept like children. There was Ezra in his pulpit, his voice faltering as he read, and there were the people below, sobbing as they heard the words.
What was the matter? What had filled them with grief? St. Paul tells us the secret of their tears (Rom. iii. 20).
'By the law is the knowledge of sin.'
You draw a line. How shall you know if it be straight or not? Lay the ruler beside it, and you will soon find out its crookedness.
You build a wall. How shall you tell if it be perpendicular? Bring the plumb-line, put it against it, and you will soon find out where the wall bulges.
You take up a drawing of wood, and hill, and tree; how shall you know if it be correctly sketched? Put beside it the master's copy, look from one to another, and you will soon discover the mistakes and imperfections of the pupil.
Take the perfect law of God, lay it beside your own life, as these people did, you will find out exactly what they found. You will find that you are a sinner, that you have left undone what ought to have been done, that you have done what ought not to have been done, and that you yourself are full of sin.
'Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, with all thy mind, with all thy soul, and with all thy strength.'
Have you done that? No! Then you are not like the copy.
'Ye shall diligently keep the commandments of the Lord thy God.'
Have you done that? No! Then you are not like the copy.
So felt the company at the water-gate, as they listened to the word that day. And with the knowledge came tears, bitter, sorrowful tears, as they thought of the past. Each man, woman, and child amongst them was ready to cry out
'Red like crimson, deep as scarlet, Scarlet of the deepest dye, Are the manifold transgressions, That upon my conscience lie. God alone can count their number, God alone can look within, O the sinfulness of sinning, O the guilt of every sin!'
Some years ago there lived in Jerusalem a Scripture reader. He was an Austrian Jew, and he worked amongst the large Jewish population in Jerusalem. That man had been brought up to a very curious occupation. For years he had maintained himself in a very strange way. His business was this—to take children to school every morning, and to bring them home again in the evening. Each morning he called at the various houses, he led the children out, he carried the little ones, some on his back and some in his arms, he chastised with a stick those who were inclined to play truant, and he landed them all safely at the school-door.
St. Paul, when he went to the Rabbi's school in Tarsus, was taken there by just such a man as that, a man who was paid by his parents to drive him to school regularly, and to see that he arrived there in good time. This man was called in his day a Paidagogos, or Boy-driver.
Years afterwards, when the apostle was writing to the Galatians, he remembered his old Paidagogos, and he used him as an illustration. He said, in his epistle, that that boy-driver was like the law of God; just what the Paidagogos had done for him, that also the Word of God had done. That man had driven him to the school of the Rabbi, the law of God had driven him to the school of Christ. 'The law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.'
The word schoolmaster does not mean the man who teaches, but it is this very word Paidagogos or Boy-driver.
How, then, does the law of God drive us to Christ? Because it makes us feel that we need saving, that we are sinners and cannot help ourselves, that if ever we are to see the inside of the golden gates of heaven, it must be by learning in the school of Christ, by learning to know Him as our Saviour, our atonement, our all in all.
Lord, save me, or I perish, for I cannot save myself! All my righteousness is as filthy rags, I myself am full of sin. There is no hope for me except in Thee!
So the Law is our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ.
The Secret of Strength.
Who was the strongest person who ever lived? Surely there is no difficulty in answering that question, surely there has never been anyone to compare with Samson in wonderful feats of strength! Did he not alone and unaided rend a young lion in two, as easily as if it had been a kid? Did he not lift the massive iron gates of Gaza from their hinges, carry them on his back for forty miles, and climb with them to the top of a high hill? Did he not overthrow an enormous building by simply leaning on the huge stone pillars that held it up? We see trials of strength and feats of strength nowadays, we may have seen a man who could with one blow of the sword cut a sheep in two, we may have seen another who, by the mere power of his fist, could snap an iron chain, yet what modern Samson, strong and powerful and mighty above his fellows though he may be, can equal or rival the old Samson of Bible story.
Yet after all are we right in calling Samson the strongest man? It all depends upon the kind of strength of which we are speaking. If we mean bodily strength, mere physical force, then undoubtedly Samson was the strongest man.
But is bodily strength the only kind of force or power a man can possess? Is it the chief kind of strength?
What is one name that we give to physical power; do we not call it brute force? Why do we call it this? Because it is force which we have in common with the brutes, nay, it is strength in which the brutes can surpass us. Take the strongest man who ever lived, give him the most powerful limbs, the strongest back, the greatest strength of muscle, what is that man compared with an elephant? The mighty elephant has more power in one limb than the man has in his whole body. Bodily strength is then, after all, a kind of strength that is worth comparatively little, and of which we have small cause to boast, for even an animal can easily surpass us in it.
A stronger man than Samson, where shall we find him? Come to the Senate House in Cambridge, look at that man hard at work on the examination papers. Look at him well, for you will see that man's name at the head of the list when it comes out. Look at his broad forehead, his quick eager eye, his earnest face. That man is the strongest man in England: strong, not in bodily strength, he would do but little on the football field, nor could he win a single prize in athletic sports; he is a thin, slight, fragile man, but he is strong in mind, powerful and mighty in brain. That man's memory is simply perfect, his powers of reasoning are faultless, his grasp of a subject is enormous, he is a giant in intellect.
Here then we have another kind of strength, mental strength; and inasmuch as the mind is vastly superior to the body, and inasmuch as power of mind is a power which the animals so far from rivalling man, possess only in a very limited degree, we shall be ready to admit that the student is stronger than Samson, because he is strong in a superior kind of strength.
But there is a stronger than he, and it is a woman. She is weak and delicate, and has certainly no bodily strength; she knows very little, for she is a poor, simple country girl; she has no mental strength, but she is stronger than Samson, stronger than the Cambridge student, because she is endued with a strength far superior to bodily or mental strength—she is strong in soul.
A great crowd of people was gathered on the shore that day in the county of Wigton in Scotland. There lay the wooded hills and the heathery moors, and the quiet sea dividing them like a peaceful lake. Two prisoners, carefully guarded, were brought down to the shore, one was an old woman with white hair, the other was a young and beautiful girl. Two stakes were driven into the sand, one close to the approaching sea, the other much nearer to the shore. The old woman was tied to the stake nearest to the sea, and the young girl to the other. The tide was out when they were taken there, but they were told that, unless they would deny the Master whom they loved, unless they would renounce the truth of God, there they must remain, until the high tide had covered them, and life was extinct.
The old woman was questioned by her murderers. Would she renounce her Lord? Never; she could not deny the faith of Christ. So they left her to her fate, and the sea rose. Silently, quietly, stealthily it crept on, till her arms, her shoulders, her neck were covered, and then soon after the wave came which carried her into the presence of her Lord. Then they pleaded with the girl, they tried to make her change, they used every argument likely to move her, but all in vain. She was strong in soul, strong and mighty, so strong that death itself could not make her flinch. Still the sea crept on, still the water rose, and still they tried to make her deny her Lord. But, strong in spirit, the girl held bravely on. Higher and higher came that ever-encroaching water, and soon her head was covered, and she thought her sorrows were ended, but her tormentors brought her out of the water, rubbed and warmed her, and brought her to life again, only to put the question to her once more. Would she deny her Master? No; again she refused to do so, and was dragged back, wet and dripping as she was, once more to be chained to the stake, and to lay down her life a second time. But the Lord was with her, and she was faithful to the end.
That girl was strong in soul, strong in the highest, noblest form of strength; she could say No when tempted to do wrong, she was faithful when sorely tried. But Samson was weak as water, he had no strength of soul; a woman's pretty face, a woman's coaxing word, was quite sufficient to overthrow all the strength of soul he possessed. He could resist no temptation that came across his path; he was an easy prey to the tempter.
Oh! that we were all strong, strong in this highest, grandest form of strength, mighty giants in spirit!
But do you say, How can I obtain this strength, by what means can I acquire it? I feel I need it. I am often led astray; I listen to the voice of the tempter, I give way to my besetting sin. I want to break off from it, but I cannot; I want to leave the companions who are leading me wrong, but I have not the strength to do it. How can I become strong?
Here, in the story of Nehemiah, we find the answer. Let us come again to the water-gate, at the south-east of the city. There is the huge pulpit of wood, there is Ezra with the roll in his hand, there are the people, sobbing as if their hearts would break.
But 'blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted' It is for sin that their hearts are broken, they feel they have left undone so much that ought to have been done, they have done so much that they ought not to have done, that they are crushed with sorrow, and the tears will come.
But hush, who are these passing amongst the weeping crowd? There is Nehemiah the Tirshatha, or governor, there is Ezra the scribe, and they are followed by a company of Levites. They call to the people to stop crying, and to rejoice. Is not our God a God of mercy? Is there not forgiveness with Him? If sin is confessed and forsaken, will He not pardon it? Dry your tears then, and, instead of crying, rejoice. Be merry and glad that God is willing to forgive, nay, that He has forgiven you.
Cheer up, for this day is holy unto the Lord; it is a feast day, the joyous Feast of Trumpets. Mourn not, nor weep. Do not imagine that God likes you to be miserable; He wants you to be happy. You have owned your sin, you have repented of your sin; now let your hearts be filled with the joy that come from a sense of sin forgiven.
Go home now, and keep the feast. Eat and drink of the best you have, eat the fat and drink the sweet, the new sweet wine made from this year's grapes. Go home and enjoy yourselves to the full; but do not forget those who are worse off than yourselves, remember those poor people who have suffered so much from the late famine, who have paid their last penny to the tax-collector, who have lost their all in these hard times. Let them enjoy themselves too to-day. Eat the fat and drink the sweet, but do not forget to send portions to them for whom nothing is prepared. Remember the empty cupboards, and the bare tables, and the houses where the fat and the sweet are nowhere to be seen.
What a word for us at the time of our joyous Christmas feast! God loves us to be happy. He likes us to rejoice; He does not want us to go about with long faces and melancholy looks. A long-faced Christian is a Christian who brings disgrace on his Master.
Then as we meet, year by year, round the happy Christmas table, and sit down to our Christmas dinner, let us remember that God loves us to be happy; but let us also remember that in the midst of all our joy He would have us unselfish. He would have us send portions to them for whom nothing is prepared. Is there no one whom we can cheer? Is there no desolate home into which we can bring a ray of light? Is there no sorrowful heart to which we can bring comfort? And what about the portions? Is there no poor relative, or neighbour, or friend, with whom we can share the good things that have fallen to our lot?
Our own Christmas dinner will taste all the better if we have helped some one else to happiness or comfort, our own festal rejoicing will be tenfold more full of merriment and real joy, if we have helped to spread the festal joy into dark and gloomy places.
'Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength.'
Yes, there we have the secret of strength, of the highest kind of strength, of strength of soul. The joy of the Lord, that joy which comes from knowing our sin is pardoned.
Can I say—
'O happy day, O happy day When Jesus washed my sins away?'
Then I have spiritual strength, for the joy of the Lord is my strength. He has forgiven me, He has washed me from my sins in His own blood; how can I grieve Him? How can I pain Him by yielding to temptation? How can I ever risk losing the joy of my heart by going contrary to His will? I am joyful because I am forgiven, and I am strong because I am joyful.
Here then is the highest kind of strength, and it is a strength within the reach of all. Bodily strength some of us can never attain. We are born with weakly bodies, we have grown up delicate and frail, we could no more transform ourselves into strong, powerful men, than we could make ourselves into elephants.
There was a man who lived in Greece long before Hezekiah, who was determined to make his nation the strongest nation on earth; he was resolved that it should consist of mighty giants in strength, and that not one delicate or weak man should be found amongst them. But what did Lycurgus find himself obliged to do in order to secure his end? He was compelled to have every infant carefully examined as soon as it was born, and if a child had the least appearance of delicacy, he took it from its mother, and sent it to some lonely cave on the hill-side, where it was left to die of cold and hunger. He found that it was not possible to turn a puny delicate child into a strong man.
Bodily strength then is beyond the reach of many men; weak they were born, weak they live, and weak they will die, nothing will alter or improve them.
Nor can strength of mind be attained by many. They were born with no power of memory, no aptitude for learning, no gift for study; you may teach them, and labour with them, and they may work hard themselves, but no application can instil into them what was not born in them; they came into the world with second-rate intellects, and they will die with the same.
But, thank God, the highest form of strength, strength of soul is, in this respect, not like strength of body or strength of mind. No one is born with it, we are all by nature weak as water, an easy prey for Satan; but there is not one of us who may not acquire this spiritual power. If we will take the lost sinner's place, and claim the lost sinner's Saviour, we shall be filled by that Saviour with joy, joy because sin is forgiven, and with the joy will come the strength of soul.
In Greece, in that city in which all the weakly babies were murdered, those children who were spared and who were pronounced to be strong, were looked upon from that time as belonging not to their parents but to the state, and they were trained and brought up with this one object in view, to make them strong and powerful men. They were taught to bear cold, wearing the same clothing in winter as in summer; they were trained to bear fatigue, being accustomed to walk barefoot for miles; they were practised in wrestling, in racing, in throwing heavy weights, in carrying burdens, in anything and everything which was calculated to make the strength that was in them grow and increase. And it was wonderful how, by means of practice, the strength did grow.
We are told of one man, who in the public games carried a full grown ox for a mile, and we are told that he accomplished this by gradually accustoming himself to the weight. He began when the ox was a tiny calf to carry it a mile every day, and the increase of weight was so gradual that he did not feel it; his arms became used to the weight, and as the ox grew bigger, he at the same time grew stronger.
Strength of body then grows and increases in proportion to our use of it.
So, too, does strength of mind. Here is a boy, born with good abilities and with an intelligent mind. Take that child, and shut him off from every possibility of using his mind; never teach him anything, never allow him to look at a book or a picture, keep him shut off from everything that might tend to open his mind, tell him nothing, bring him up as a mere animal, and soon he will lose all his powers of mind, and become an imbecile. But, on the other hand, teach him, train him, educate him, let his mind have full scope and exercise, and his mental powers will grow and increase a hundred-fold, for strength of mind, like strength of body, grows with the using.
Just so is it with strength of soul. Every temptation you overcome makes you stronger, every lust you subdue, every battle of soul you fight, every inclination to evil you resist, makes you stronger.
'From strength to strength' is the motto of the Christian.
So let us press forward.
'Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man' (or as R.V. has it, a full-grown man) 'unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ.'
Now we are but children in spiritual strength, then we shall be giants in power, full-grown men, with full powers and energy and strength, ready to work for the Master through eternity.
The Eighty-four Seals.
Merrily the Christmas bells were chiming in the old city of York, on Christmas morning in the year 1890, speaking gaily and joyfully of the Christmas feast, when suddenly there came a change. The merry peal ceased, and was followed by the quiet sorrowful sound which always speaks of mourning and death, a muffled peal. News had reached the ringers that the Archbishop of York, who had been known and respected in the city for more than twenty-eight years, had gone home to God.
And as we ate our Christmas dinner that day, as we gathered round the table to eat the fat and drink the sweet, the solemn voice of Old Peter, the great minster bell, was heard tolling for the departed soul.
Truly in the midst of life we are in death, in the midst of joy there comes sorrow, in the midst of festivity we are plunged into mourning.
'Shadow and shine is life, little Annie, Flower and thorn.'
So the poet makes the old grandmother sum up her life's story.
And it is just the same in our religious life. One day the joy of the Lord makes us strong, the next the sense of sin weighs us to the ground; one moment we are ready to overflow with thanksgiving, the next we are down in the dust mourning and weeping.
Just such a change as this, a change from the gay to the solemn, from joy to mourning, from feasting to fasting, comes before us in the Book of Nehemiah.
Look at Jerusalem, as we visit it in imagination to-day, and take a bird's-eye view of the city. The whole place is mad with joy. They are keeping the gayest, the merriest, the prettiest feast in the whole year, the Feast of Tabernacles. It was a saying amongst the Jews, that unless a man had been present at the Feast of Tabernacles he did not know what joy was. And in Nehemiah's time this feast was kept more fully and with more rejoicing than it had been kept for a thousand years; no one had ever witnessed such a Feast of Tabernacles since the days of Joshua.
The city was a mass of green booths, made with branches of olive, pine, myrtle, and palm; and in these the people lived, and ate, and slept for eight days; whilst the whole city was lighted up, and glad music was constantly heard, and the people feasted, and laughed, and made merry.
It was the 22nd day of the month Tisri when the Feast of Tabernacles was ended, and only two days afterwards there came a remarkable change.
Look at Jerusalem again, you would hardly know it to be the same place. The green booths are all gone, they have been carefully cleared away. There is not a branch, or a banner, or a bit of decoration to be seen. The bright holiday dresses, the gay blue, and red, and yellow, and lilac robes, the smart, many-coloured turbans have all been laid by; there is not a sign of one of them. We see instead an extraordinary company of men, women and children making their way to the open space by the water gate. They are covered with rough coarse sackcloth, a material made of black goats' hair and used for making sacks. Every one of the company is dressed in this rough material; not only so, but the robe of each is made like a sack in shape, so that they look like a crowd of moving sacks, and on their heads are sprinkled earth and dust and ashes.
The rejoicing has turned into mourning, the feast into a fast. A great sense of sin has come over the people; they feel their need of forgiveness, and they are come to seek it.
The meeting seems to have assembled about nine o'clock, the time of the morning sacrifice. For a quarter of the day, for three hours, they read the law of God, for three hours more they fell prostrate on the ground, and confessed their sin. Their prayers were led by Levites, standing on high scaffoldings where everyone could see them, where all could hear them as they cried with a loud voice to God.
Then just at the time of the evening sacrifice, at three o'clock in the afternoon, the Levites called to the kneeling multitude and bade them rise, 'Stand up and bless the Lord your God for ever and ever: and blessed be Thy glorious name, which is exalted above all blessing and praise.'
Then the Levites went through the history of God's wonderful goodness to His people, to Abraham in Egypt, in the wilderness, in the land of Canaan; everywhere, and at all times He had been good to them, again and again He had delivered them. But they—what had they done?
'Thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly. Neither have our kings, our princes, our priests, nor our fathers kept Thy law, nor hearkened unto Thy commandments.... For they have not served Thee.' Therefore, as a natural consequence and result, 'Behold, we are servants this day.'
They would not serve God, they would not be His servants, so they had been made to serve someone else; they had, as a punishment for their sin, been made servants to the King of Persia. And what was the result?
'The land that Thou gavest unto our fathers to eat the fruit thereof and the good thereof, behold, we are servants in it. And it yieldeth much increase unto the kings whom Thou hast set over us because of our sins.'
The amount of tribute paid by Judea to Persia is not known; but the province of Syria, in which Judea was included, paid L90,000 a year.
'Also they have dominion over our bodies.'
They can force us against our will to be either soldiers or sailors, and can make us fight their battles for them.
They have dominion 'over our cattle.'
They can seize our cattle at their pleasure, for their own use or the use of their armies.
'And we are in great distress.'
Yes, our sin has indeed brought its punishment; and feeling this, realizing this very deeply, we have gathered together to do what we intend to do this day, to make a solemn agreement, a covenant with God. We intend to promise to have done with sin, and for the future to serve and glorify God.
Then a long roll of parchment was brought out, on which the covenant was written, and one by one all the leading men in Jerusalem came forward and put their seals to it, as a sign that they intended to keep it.
In the East it is always the seal that authenticates a document. In Babylon the documents were often sealed with half-a-dozen seals or more. These were impressed on moist clay, and then the clay was baked, and the seals were each fastened to the parchment by a separate string. In this way any number of seals could be attached.
We are given in Neh. x. the names of those who sealed, honoured names, for they made a brave and noble stand. First of all comes the name of Nehemiah, the governor, setting a good example to the rest. He is followed by Zidkijah, or Zadok, the secretary. Then come the names of eighty-two others, heads of families, all well-known men in Jerusalem. Each one fastened his seal to the roll of parchment containing the solemn covenant. No less than eighty-four seals were attached to it.
What then were the articles of the covenant?
What did those who sealed promise?
First of all, they bound themselves (x. 29) to walk in God's law, and to observe and do all the commandments. What need after that to enter a single other article in the covenant? If a man walks in God's law he cannot go wrong; if he keeps all God's commandments, what more can be required?
But they were wise men who drew up that solemn covenant. They knew and understood the human heart. Is it not a fact, that whilst we are all ready to own that we are sinners in a general sense, we are slow to own that we are guilty of any particular sin? We do not mind confessing that we are miserable sinners, but we should indignantly deny being selfish or idle, or unforgiving, or proud, or bad-tempered.
So those who wrote the parchment felt it best to go more into detail, and to put down certain things in which they felt they had done wrong in the past, but in which they meant to do better in the time to come.
(1) They promised that they would not in future marry heathen people, that they would not give their daughters to heathen men, or let their sons choose heathen wives.
(2) They engaged to keep the Sabbath, and not to buy and sell on the holy day; and they promised that if the heathen people round came to the city gates with baskets of fruit, or vegetables, or fish on the Sabbath, they would refuse to buy.
(3) They stated that for the future they would keep every seventh year as a year of Sabbath. The Sabbath year had in times past been a great blessing to the land. The one work and occupation of the Jews was agriculture, farming of all kinds. Every seventh year God commanded that all work was to stop; there was to be a year's universal holiday, that the nation might have rest and leisure to think of higher things. Yet they did not starve in the Sabbath year, for God gave them double crops in the sixth year, enough to cover all their wants until the crops of the eighth year were ripe. All that grew of itself during the seventh year, all the self-sown grain that sprang up, all the fruit that came on the olives, and the vines, and the fig-trees, was left for the poor people to gather; they went out and helped themselves, and comfort was brought to many a sad home, and cupboards which were often empty during the six ordinary years were kept well filled in the Sabbath year. But this command of God had been neglected by the Jews; it needed more faith and trust than they had possessed, and they had let it slip. Now, however, they promise once more to observe the Sabbath year.
The rest of the covenant concerned the amount to be contributed for the service of God. They agreed to pay one-third of a shekel each year towards the temple service, and to bring by turn the wood required for the sacrifices, beside giving God, regularly and conscientiously, the first-fruits of all they had.
This was the solemn covenant to which were fastened so many seals, this was the agreement by which they bound themselves to the service of God. As they went home, and shook the dust off their heads, and took off their sacks, they went home pledged to obey and to love their God.
Which of us will follow their example? Who will bind himself to God? Who will put his seal to the document, and promise to serve and obey the Master who died for him? Will you?
Is it not right, is it not wise to pull up at times and to look at our life, at what it has been, and at what it might have been? What about prayer? Has it been always earnest, heartfelt, true? What about our Bible reading? Has it been as regular, as profitable as it might have been? Do we not feel we have come short in the past, and that we should like to do better in the time to come?
What about sin, that besetting sin of ours, so often indulged in, so little fought against? Are we going on like this for ever, beaten by sin, overcome and defeated? Should we not like to leave the old careless days behind, and for the future to fight manfully against the world, the flesh, and the devil?
What about work for God? Have we done all that we could for His service? Have we given Him the tenth of our money? Have we consecrated to Him our time and our talents? Do we not feel we should like to do more for the Master in time to come?
It is a good plan to get alone and quiet for a time, and taking a piece of paper, to write down all we feel has been wrong in the past, all we mean to do in the future. Then let us sign our name to it, put the date at the bottom, fold it carefully up, put it away, let no one see it but God, it is a covenant between us and Him. He will give us grace to keep it if we only ask Him.
Will you try this plan this very night? Then you will open your eyes to-morrow morning with the recollection, 'I am the Lord's; I have given myself to Him; I am His now by my own agreement; I am pledged to His service.'
Lord, make me faithful, keep me humble, keep me prayerful, give me grace and courage and strength!
For 'better is it that thou shouldest not vow, than that thou shouldest vow and not pay.'
The Brave Volunteers.
'Jerusalem, my happy home, Name ever dear to me.'
So we sing, and it is the echo of the song that went up from the heart of many a Jew in olden time.
We all love our native land, our dear old England, yet none of us love it as the Jews loved Jerusalem. We have only to open the Book of Psalms to see how dear the city of their fathers was to the heart of the Jews.
'Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of His holiness. Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is Mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King,' Psalm xlviii. 1, 2.
'Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem. Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together. Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee. Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces,' Psalm cxxii. 2-4, 6, 7.
These are just samples of countless expressions of love and devotion for Jerusalem, their happy home. And all the time of the captivity in Babylon the Jews were longing to be once more in Jerusalem! Oh, to see the city of cities again; oh, to tread once more the streets of the holy Jerusalem! They could not even think of their far-off home without tears.
'By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning. If I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth; if I prefer not Jerusalem above my chief joy,' Psalm cxxxvii. 1, 5, 6.
Yet, strange to say, although the Jews were longing for the Holy City all the time they were in captivity, when they did return to their native land, and it was possible once more to live in Jerusalem, they seem to have preferred any other place before it. It was the most difficult thing to get any of them to consent to take up their abode in the capital.
Nehemiah found himself face to face with this difficulty when he had finished the repairs of the city. The rubbish was cleared away, the walls were built, the gates were set up, the fortresses were strengthened, but the city itself was nowhere. Here and there houses were scattered about, here and there was a group of buildings, but inside the walls were many great empty spaces, large pieces of unoccupied ground.
The walls had been set up on the old sites, and were about four miles in circumference. It was a large space to fill, and, as Nehemiah looked round, he saw that whilst the city was imposing from without, it was a bare, miserable place inside.
'The city was large and great; but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded.'
Not only so, not only was the city unsightly, but there were not enough inhabitants to protect the walls. In case of an attack, what would be done? Four miles of wall was a long space to guard and defend, how could more hands be secured? It was absolutely necessary that Jerusalem should have a larger population.
Yet Nehemiah found that no one wished to move from the country places round, and to come into Jerusalem. Every town, every village in Judea was more popular than the capital. They had rather live in sultry Jericho than on the mountain heights of Jerusalem; they preferred stony Bethel to the vine-clad hills of the City of God; they had rather live in the tiny insignificant village of Anathoth than in the capital itself.
Why was this? Why had the Jews of Nehemiah's day such an objection to living in Jerusalem? Why, after longing for Jerusalem all the time of the captivity, did they shrink from it on their return?
The reason was this. Jerusalem had become the point of danger. All round the returned captives were enemies. The Samaritans, the Moabites, the Ammonites, the Edomites, and a host of others were ready at any moment to pounce down upon the Jews. In case of an attack from their united forces, what would be the mark at which all these enemies would aim? What place would have to bear the whole force of the attack? Jerusalem itself. They would pass by Jericho, Bethel, and Anathoth, as places beneath their notice, but they would all make for Jerusalem. To live in the capital was consequently to live in constant danger and in constant fear. So it is not to be wondered at that they avoided it, and that they settled down in the villages and left the capital to take care of itself.
Nehemiah sees that steps must be taken to put a stop to this state of things. In order to bring about the end he had in view, he first took a census of the whole nation, and then he required each town and district to send a tenth of its people to live in Jerusalem.
But of whom was the tenth to consist? How should the number of those who were to migrate to the capital be chosen? It was done by lot; they drew lots who were to go and who were to stay. This was probably done in the usual Jewish way, by means of pebbles. The people of a village would be divided into tens, then a bag would be brought out containing nine dark-coloured pebbles and one white one. The ten men would all draw from the bag, and the man who drew the white pebble would be the one who was to remove to Jerusalem. By this means the capital would be provided with about 20,000 inhabitants, and would be in a condition to defend itself from attack.
No doubt there was much grumbling, and there were many groans and complaints when the lots were drawn, and those who drew the white stone found they must give up their little farms, their pretty country houses, the homes they had learnt to love so well and which they had built for themselves and their children, the vineyards which their own hands had planted, the olive yards and fig groves of which they had been so proud, and which had been so profitable to them, that they must give up all these which had been so dear to them and move at once into the city in which they would be in constant danger.
But there were certain brave volunteers. Besides those on whom the lot fell, a certain number came forward and offered to go of their own free will and choice to live in the capital. They would break up their country homes, and for love of their country and love of Jerusalem would move into the Holy City. The post of danger was the post which most needed them, and they were not afraid to go to it. Brave, noble men and women, no wonder that we read that blessings were called down upon them by the rest of their countrymen. 'And the people blessed all the men that willingly offered themselves to dwell at Jerusalem,' Neh. xi. 2.
But those brave Jews, who are mentioned here with so much honour, are not the only ones who of their own free will and choice have gone with open eyes to the point of danger.
Fourteen thousand pounds arrived in the course of a few days at a certain house in London, the office of the Church Missionary Society. One person sent L5,000 with no name, only a day or two afterwards another sent a second L5,000, whilst L4,000 was contributed in smaller sums.
For what purpose was this immense sum of money sent? It was forwarded to the Society in consequence of a very famous letter which appeared in the Daily Telegraph of November 15, 1876. This letter was written by Dr. Stanley, the great African traveller. It told of a new country he had discovered in the heart of Africa, a country inhabited by a nation clothed and living in houses, and reigned over by a king of some intelligence named Mtesa. Dr. Stanley had talked to this man, he had shown him his Bible, and told him something of Christianity, and in this letter in the Daily Telegraph Dr. Stanley stated that King Mtesa was ready and willing to receive Christian teachers, if any were prepared to go out to his kingdom of Uganda.
The result of that letter was, that in a few days no less than L14,000 was sent to the Church Missionary Society, in order that they might have the means to establish a mission by the shores of the Victoria Nyanza. A committee meeting was accordingly held, and the Society declared themselves ready to take up the work.
The money was forthcoming, but a great difficulty stared them in the face. Where were the men? Who would be found willing to go to such a place as the heart of Africa? The climate was most trying and dangerous for Europeans, the food was bad and scanty, and, worst of all, the country was so unsafe that all who went must go with their life in their hands, feeling that at any moment they might be attacked and murdered by the natives.
Would any offer for such a post of danger? Would any be found willing to volunteer for the work, would any be ready to leave their safe, comfortable homes in England to take up their abode in Uganda?
Yes, men were found who willingly offered themselves for the work. Eight noble men at once came forward. A young naval officer, Lieutenant Smith; a clergyman from Manchester, Mr. Wilson; an Irish architect, Mr. O'Neill; a Scotch engineer, Mr. Mackay; a doctor from Edinburgh, Dr. Smith; a railway contractor's engineer, Mr. Clark, and two working men, a blacksmith and a builder.