'And the people blessed all the men that willingly offered themselves to dwell' in Uganda.
A meeting was held in the Church Missionary Society's house, to bid them farewell and to pray for a blessing on their work. Then each of the eight volunteers was asked to say a few words to the friends who were taking leave of them. Mr. Mackay, the young engineer, was the last to speak. Looking round on those who were sending him out, he said:
'There is one thing which my brethren have not said, and which I want to say. I want to remind the Committee that within six months they will probably hear that one of us is dead.'
There was a great silence in the room as he spoke these startling words.
'Yes,' he went on, 'is it at all likely that eight Englishmen should start for Central Africa and all be alive six months after? One of us at least—it may be I—will surely fall before that. But what I want to say is this, when the news comes do not be cast down, but send some one else immediately to take the vacant place.'
Mr. Mackay was not wrong. One of the eight, the builder, died as soon as he landed in Africa. The seven others set off for the interior to find the country of King Mtesa. Two of these, Mackay the engineer, and Robertson the blacksmith, were taken so ill with fever that they were compelled to go back to the coast.
It was a long wearisome journey, of from four to five months, from the coast to Victoria Nyanza; for a little way they were able to go in a boat which they had brought with them from England, but after a short distance they were obliged to leave the river, and, taking their boat to pieces, to carry it with them through the tangled forest. When they arrived at a place named Mpwapwa, it seemed such a good field for missionary labour that one of their number, Mr. Clark, was left to begin missionary work there, whilst the rest pressed forward to Uganda.
The great lake at last came in sight, and they were cheered by the sight of its blue waters. But, when they arrived on its shores, the naval officer and the doctor were both very ill; for thirty-one days they had been carried by the porters, being quite unable to walk, and only a few months after their arrival at the south end of the lake the young doctor died. He was worn to a skeleton, and suffered terribly. The three who remained buried him by the side of the lake, and put a heap of stones over his grave. On a slab of limestone they carved—
'JOHN SMITH, M.B. EDN., C.M.S. DIED MAY 11, 1877, AGED 25 YEARS.'
Now, only the clergyman, the architect, and the naval officer were left to carry on the work. But that very same year, in December, a quarrel broke out between two tribes living at the south of the lake. A man named Songoro, who had been friendly to the missionaries, fled to them for protection. They were at once surrounded by a party of the natives, and, on refusing to give up Songoro to his enemies, Lieutenant Smith and Mr. O'Neill, together with all the men who were with them, were murdered on December 7.
Only two days before, Lieutenant Smith had written a letter to a friend in England, in which were these words:
'One feels very near to heaven here, for who knows what a day may bring forth?'
Only one of the five who had arrived at the lake was now left, Mr. Wilson, the clergyman. But, thank God, man after man has offered himself to fill up the vacant places. Some have fallen, some still remain, labouring on.
The people blessed the men who willingly offered themselves for the post of danger. Should we not bless them too? Should we not day by day call down blessings on the brave noble missionaries? Should we not pray for them, that strength and courage may be given them? Should we not help them all we can? Let our daily prayer be:
'Lord, bless them all! Thy workers in the field, Where'er they be; Prosper them, Lord, and bless Their work for Thee— Lord, bless them all.
Lord, bless them all! Give them Thy smile to-day, Cheer each faint heart, More of Thy grace, more strength, Saviour, impart; Lord, bless them all!'
The post of danger is the post of honour, and at that post of honour Mr. Mackay, the engineer, died, February 8, 1890. For thirteen years he had bravely held on to his work. He had never had a holiday, he had never come home to see his friends. The Secretary of the Church Missionary Society wrote at last, urging him to come to England for rest and change. His answer to this letter arrived ten days after the sorrowful telegram which told of his death. He said, 'But what is this you write; come home? Surely now, in our terrible dearth of workers, it is not the time for any one to desert his post. Send us only our first twenty men, and I may be tempted to come to help you to find the second twenty.'
So he was faithful unto death.
The people blessed the men who willingly offered themselves, and surely God blessed them too, for 'God loveth a cheerful giver.' He who gives to God grudgingly, or because he feels obliged to do so, had better never give at all, for God will not receive the offering. The money must be willingly given, the service must be cheerfully rendered, the post of danger must be readily occupied, or God will have nothing to do with it.
The only giver whose gifts He can receive is the cheerful giver, the one who willingly offers himself.
To be comfortable is the great aim of our lives and our hearts by nature. But sometimes God calls us to be uncomfortable, to leave the cosy home, the bright fireside, the comparative luxury, and to go forth to the post of danger, or difficulty, or trial.
God grant that we may be amongst the number of those who go forth with a smiling face amongst the people who willingly offer themselves!
The Holy City.
In the time of the terrible siege of Jerusalem, when the Roman armies surrounded the city, when famine was killing the Jews by hundreds, and when every day the enemy seemed more likely to take the city, a strange thing happened. Some priests were watching, as was their custom, in the temple courts at dead of night. They had passed through the Beautiful Gate, crossed the Court of the Women, and had ascended the steps leading into the inner court, which was close to the Temple itself. Suddenly they stopped, for the earth shook beneath them, whilst overhead came a noise as of the rushing of many wings, and a multitude of voices was heard saying, again and again, the solemn words, 'Let us depart, let us depart.'
The angels of God were leaving the doomed city to its fate.
For centuries Jerusalem had been known as the Holy City. Why was it so called? Not because of its inhabitants, for, instead of being holy, many of them were sunk in wickedness and impurity. Jerusalem was called the Holy City simply because of one inhabitant; it was the dwelling-place of God, and His presence there made it what no other city of the earth was, the Holy City.
'In Salem also is His tabernacle, and His dwelling, place in Zion,' Psalm lxxvi. 2.
'Blessed be the Lord out of Zion, which dwelleth at Jerusalem,' Psalm cxxxv. 21.
So wrote the Psalmist, and he was right. God had chosen Jerusalem as His home on earth, His abiding-place, His dwelling; and so long as He remained there, Jerusalem and all its surroundings was holy. The mountain on which it stood was the Holy Mountain; the city itself was the Holy City; the courts of the temple were the Holy Place, the temple itself was the Most Holy Place, whilst the inner sanctuary, in which God's glory appeared, was the Holy of Holies.
But at the time of the siege of Jerusalem, God was leaving the city, it was no longer to be His dwelling-place, and consequently it was no longer to be called the Holy City. And therefore it was that the holy angels cried aloud to one another, Let us depart, for it is a holy city no longer, God has deserted it; it is His no more.
But in Nehemiah's day, Jerusalem, in spite of her sins, was still the Holy City. We find her twice called so in his book, Neh. xi. 1, 18, and inasmuch as it was the Holy City, God's home on earth, His special property, His constant dwelling-place, Nehemiah felt it was only right that, as soon as the city was finished, as soon as all within its walls was set in order, the city and all it contained should be dedicated to the service of that God to whom it belonged.
Accordingly, as we visit Jerusalem in thought, we find the people busily preparing for a great and glorious day; they are going, by means of a grand and imposing ceremonial, to dedicate the city to God.
It is nearly thirteen years since the walls were finished and the gates set up. Why then did not Nehemiah hold the service of dedication before? Why did he allow so long a time to elapse before he summoned the people to put the finishing touch to their work by laying it at the feet of their King?
The Tirshatha had probably two good reasons for the delay. In the first place, there was much to do inside the city after the walls and gates were finished; the city itself had to be rebuilt, strengthened, and put into order. Then he probably dare not attempt such a grand celebration without special leave from Persia. If he made a great demonstration of any kind, it would be easy for the Samaritans to put their own construction upon it, and to write off at once to Persia to accuse him of setting up the standard of rebellion. It was, therefore, advisable to obtain direct permission for such a step from Artaxerxes himself. Now the city is in order, the necessary precautions have been taken, and Nehemiah feels that there is nothing to hinder the holding of the solemn ceremonial of the dedication of the Holy City to God.
Who are these men who are arriving by companies at all the different gates of Jerusalem? They are the Levites, coming up from all parts of the country to the service of dedication. They are carrying with them various musical instruments—cymbals, trumpets, psalteries and harps—old instruments used by King David, and some of them evidently invented by him and bearing his name, for we find them called, in xii. 36:
'The musical instruments of David, the man of God.'
These are to be used in the grand service which is about to take place. Many new musical instruments had been invented since the time of David, and the Jews of the captivity had seen and used these in Babylon and Shushan. We read, in the Book of Daniel, of the cornet, the flute, the sackbut, the dulcimer; all these instruments were familiar to the Jews of Nehemiah's day. But we do not find one of these newly invented instruments in use at this grand service. They cling to the old instruments, used in the first temple, dear to their hearts as being connected with King David, and as having been used by their fathers before them, ver. 27.
Not only the musicians, but the singers are called together from the valleys round Jerusalem, in which the temple choir had chosen to live, in order that they might go up by turn to lead the temple singing, xii. 29.
When all who were to take part in the service had assembled, there was a great sprinkling. The priests and the Levites purified themselves, and purified the people, and the gates, and the wall.
A red heifer (see Num. xix.) was led by one of the priests outside the city. There she was killed, her blood was caught in a basin, and was sprinkled seven times before the temple. Then her flesh was burnt outside the city, and the ashes were carefully collected and mixed with water. This water was put into a number of basins, and the priests and Levites went with it up and down the city, sprinkling it first on themselves, then on the men, women and children in the city, and afterwards on the wall, and the gates, and all that was to be dedicated to God.
All were to be made pure before they could be used in God's service. The Great Master cannot use dirty vessels; they are not fit for His use, they cannot do His work.
If you want God to use you in His service, you must first be sprinkled, made pure from all defilement of sin. Until this has been done you cannot do one single thing to please God; until you have been cleansed, it is impossible for you to work for God.
How, then, can we be cleansed? How can we be made vessels meet for the Master's use, fit for the service of God? Thank God, we have a better way of cleansing than by washing in the ashes of a heifer.
'For if the ashes of an heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifieth to the purifying of the flesh: how much more shall the blood of Christ, who, through the Eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?' Heb. ix. 13, 14.
The blood must be sprinkled, the conscience must be purged, then begins the service of the living God; all works before that are dead, works of no avail, utterly worthless and good for nothing, in the Master's estimation.
When all was ready and the purification was complete, the great company of the musicians met in the temple courts. The blast of the priests' trumpets was heard on one side, and on the other the sweet melodious songs of the white-robed minstrels.
When all were in order they marched to the Valley Gate, on the western side of the city. Here Nehemiah divided them into two companies, in order that they might make the circuit of the city, walking in gay procession on the top of the new walls. One company was to go north and the other south, walking round the city until they met on the other side; whilst all the people stood below, watching the progress of the two processions, each of which was formed of singers, nobles and priests, who were dressed in white and flowing robes.
It must have been a grand and imposing sight, as the bright Eastern sun streamed on the dazzling white of their fine linen, and made their instruments glitter and shine. Then there was the sound of glorious music, which seemed to encircle the city in a wave of rejoicing and song. Everyone made merry that day, and no wonder; it was a day to be remembered.
The order of each procession was as follows. First and foremost went a band of musicians with their various instruments. Then followed a small company of princes, the finest men in the nation, arrayed in all the brilliance of Eastern costume, and bringing up the rear were seven priests, bearing trumpets. Each procession had a leader, Nehemiah conducted one, and Ezra the scribe the other.
Ezra's procession proceeded southward, and then eastward. They passed the Dung Gate, whence was swept out the refuse of the city. Then they came to the Fountain Gate, opposite to the Pool of Siloam, and here they descended by steps in the Tower of Siloam. They probably came down in order that they might dedicate the buildings over the Pool of Siloam and the Dragon Well, and then they climbed to the top of the wall again, by the steps that went up to that part of Jerusalem called the City of David. From thence Ezra's procession moved on to the eastern wall, where they were to meet the other party.
Nehemiah's company, on leaving the Valley Gate, turned northward, passed the Tower of the Furnaces, went across the Broad Wall, which was almost the only piece of the old wall still standing, passed the Gate of Ephraim, the Old Gate, the Tower of Hananeel, the Tower of Meah, the Sheep Gate, and so down to the temple, and the gate named the Prison Gate, because it opened upon a street leading to the court of the prison.
Then, somewhere near the Water Gate, the two processions met, and marched together into the court of the temple, the two bands now joining together in a united glorious strain, whilst the two companies of singers formed again one enormous united choir, and filled the temple courts with their harmonious song.
'So stood the two companies of them that gave thanks in the house of God,' xii. 40.
Not a voice was silent, there was no idle person in the choir. Headed by their choir-master they did their utmost to praise the Lord.
'The singers sang loud, with Jezrahiah their overseer.'
Nor were the musical people the only ones who showed their joy that happy day. For, as the priests offered great sacrifices, the rejoicing was both universal and tremendous. 'For God had made them rejoice with great joy.' Not the men alone, but the wives and the children, so that
'The joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off.'
Women's tears, how often we read of them in the Bible! Rachel weeps over her children and will not be comforted, Hagar lifts up her voice and weeps over her son, Naomi weeps as she comes back to her desolate home, Hannah weeps as she kneels in the tabernacle court, the widow weeps as she follows her only son to the grave, and the company of women weep as Jesus of Nazareth is led out to the cross.
So many women's tears, so very few women's smiles; so much mourning and lamentation, so very little happiness and rejoicing. But, on this day of dedication, the wives were as merry and glad as the husbands, and even the children took part in the general joy.
It is interesting to notice that the Book of Psalms was the national song-book of the Jewish nation, a large number of the Psalms having been composed for special occasions, in order to commemorate certain memorable days in the history of the nation.
One Psalm, namely Psalm cxlvii., was probably composed in the time of Nehemiah, in order that it might be sung at the dedication of the walls.
Ver. 1: 'Praise ye the Lord: for it is good to sing praises unto our God; for it is pleasant; and praise is comely.
Ver. 2: 'The Lord doth build up Jerusalem: He gathereth together the outcasts of Israel.'
Ver. 12: 'Praise the Lord, O Jerusalem; praise thy God, O Zion.
Ver. 13: 'For He hath strengthened the bars of thy gates; He hath blessed thy children within thee.'
There follows in the Psalm a curious mention of snow and ice. The dedication of the city took place late in the year, and probably Jerusalem was white with snow as the singers in their white robes went round the walls, the snow being a glorious emblem of the purification which had just taken place. White as snow,—white in the blood.
Vers. 16-18: 'He giveth snow like wool: He scattereth the hoar frost like ashes. He casteth forth His ice like morsels: who can stand before His cold? He sendeth out His word, and melteth them. He causeth His wind to blow, and the waters flow.'
Surely as the people rejoiced on the day that the city was finished, they must have remembered the words of old Daniel the prophet, written whilst they were in captivity, a hundred years before this time.
For what had Daniel declared? He had foretold that his nation should return from captivity, and that Jerusalem should be restored.
'The street shalt be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times.'
Nehemiah's work was evidently revealed to Daniel, and he was also told something about Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the other troublers of the Jews.
Then, says Daniel, as soon as the command goes forth to build Jerusalem, then can you begin to reckon the time to the coming of the Messiah, only a limited and stated time must then elapse before the Christ, the Saviour of Israel, shall appear (Dan. ix. 25).
No wonder then that the joy of Jerusalem was heard afar off that day, as they thought of the good days that were coming. The word of the living God had come true, the street was built, the wall was built, now they had only to wait for the fulfilment of the rest of the prophecy, for the coming of their own Messiah and King.
We should all like to have stood in Jerusalem on that joyous dedication day, and watched the glorious procession entering the temple on Mount Zion. But we shall see one day a far grander procession than that.
The leader of that procession will ride on a white horse. His eyes will be as a flame of fire, on His head will be many crowns, His name will be King of kings and Lord of lords. He will be followed in the procession by the armies of heaven, on white horses, clothed in fine linen, clean and white (Rev. xix.)
Coming down to earth, His feet shall stand in that day on the Mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and then passing through the Golden Gate, the King and His followers will enter Jerusalem.
Then again Jerusalem will become the Holy City, for from that day the name of the city shall be 'The Lord is there,' Ezek. xlviii. 35.
So soon as the Lord, who deserted Jerusalem, returns to her, she must become once more the Holy City. Even upon the bells of the horses and the vessels of the temple shall then be inscribed, Holiness to the Lord; all dedicated to Him and to His service.
Then indeed shall the glad cry go up:
'Awake, awake; put on thy strength, O Zion, put on thy beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city: for henceforth there shall no more come into thee the uncircumcised and the unclean.'
Then again, in that glad day, the joy of Jerusalem shall be heard afar off, for God Himself will call upon all to rejoice with her.
'Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her,' Isa. lxvi. 10.
And the King Himself will lead the rejoicing:
'And I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in My people: and the voice of weeping shall no more be heard in her, nor the voice of crying,' Isa. lxv. 19.
Shall we indeed take part in that grand procession? Shall we stand with the King of Glory on Olivet? Shall we pass within the gate into the city? It all depends upon whether we are sprinkled, made pure, washed white in the blood of the Lamb. Only those who were purified could take part in Nehemiah's procession; only sprinkled ones, cleansed by Christ, will be allowed to join in the song of rejoicing, when the Lord comes to reign in Jerusalem gloriously.
If we are indeed His redeemed ones, let us keep the blessed hope of that day ever before us. Let it cheer us as we are tossed to and fro on the waves of this troublesome world.
'Courage! oh, have courage, For soon His feet shall stand Upon the Mount of Olives, In the glorious Promised Land; For the Prince of Peace is coming, With pomp and royal state, To pass, with all His followers, Within the Golden Gate.
Courage! oh, have courage! For the time it is not long, E'en now across the mountains Comes a distant sound of song; The dreary night is closing, 'Tis near the break of day, And thy King, the King of Glory, Will soon be on His way.'
Having no Root.
The sky is brilliant and cloudless, the snow-clad mountains stand out clear in the distance, the air is laden with the scent of orange and lemon groves, and the sweet fragrance of thousands of lilies. Nehemiah the Tirshatha is once more in Shushan; his feet are treading again, as in days gone by, the streets of the capital of Persia.
It is thirteen years since he left the City of Lilies with his brother Hanani, in order that he might go to Jerusalem, and do his utmost to improve the ruined and desolate city. He has returned with his work accomplished. The walls are built, the gates are set up, the bare spaces in the city have been built over, the whole place has been strongly fortified, the people have been brought back to their allegiance to God, and, as the topstone of his work, he has seen, just before his departure for Persia, the city and all it contained dedicated to the service of the Great King.
Very glad, very thankful is Nehemiah, as he enters once more the glorious palace on the top of the hill, and stands before his master Artaxerxes, the long-handed, to give in his report of all he has done since the king gave him leave to return to his native land.
Nehemiah finds himself once more surrounded by luxury and refinement and beauty. What is Jerusalem compared with Shushan? Surely, now his work is accomplished, he will settle down to a life of ease in Persia, where he may dwell free from fear or anxiety or care, eating the dainties from the king's table, and partaking of all the pleasures of an Eastern court. After the rough life he has led during the last thirteen years, after the perils he has undergone, and the difficulties he has surmounted, he may surely retire, now that his work has been so happily accomplished, and spend the remainder of his life in peace and comfort.
But no; Nehemiah's heart was in Jerusalem, he preferred Jerusalem above his chief joy. All the time he had been absent he had been hungering for news, and receiving none; there were no posts across the vast deserts, nor did he live in these luxurious days when the heartache of anxiety may be relieved and set at rest by a telegram. What had been going on in his absence? Were the Samaritans quiet, or had Sanballat and Tobiah taken the opportunity afforded by his absence, and invaded Jerusalem? And the people; how were they? Were they keeping the solemn covenant which had been sealed in his presence? Were they continuing to serve and obey the Heavenly King? All this, and much more, Nehemiah longed to hear.
He is therefore only too thankful when, after spending a year in Persia, Artaxerxes gives him leave to return as governor of Jerusalem.
'In the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes, King of Babylon, came I unto the king, and after certain days obtained I leave of the king.
'After certain days.' This is a common expression in the Bible for a year. The same Hebrew word is translated a whole year in many other passages, e.g. Lev. xxv. 29, Num. ix. 22. Thus we may safely conclude that a year was the length of time that Nehemiah was absent from Jerusalem.
As soon as he had received the king's permission, Nehemiah left the lovely City of Lilies behind, and set out once more across the desert for Jerusalem. Probably no one there knew when he was coming, or whether he was coming at all. When Nehemiah left the city he possibly had no idea that he would be allowed to return, but expected that his royal master would again require his services as Rab-shakeh in the palace of Shushan; nor was it likely that any news had reached the city of the permission given him to return. Suddenly, one day, a small cavalcade of camels, mules, and donkeys arrived at the northern gate, and the news spread through the city that Nehemiah the governor had returned. Was this intelligence received with unmixed joy and thankfulness, or were there some in the city to whom it came as anything but pleasant tidings?
No sooner has the governor arrived than he begins to look round the city, to see and to inquire how all has been going on in his absence. He goes up to the temple, and no sooner has he entered the gate leading into the outer court, than he notices that the whole appearance of the place is changed. The temple enclosure looks empty and deserted; a few priests in their white robes are moving about, but where is the company of Levites who used to wait upon them, and help them in their work?
Nehemiah had left no less than 284 Levites in the temple, now he cannot see one of them. And, not only does he miss those Levites, whose duty it was to attend upon the priests, but he misses also the temple singers; the sons of Asaph and their companions are nowhere to be seen. The temple choir has entirely disappeared, and the services have accordingly languished. As Nehemiah looks round the whole place appears to him quiet, empty, and dismal. Nothing seems to be going on, all is apparently at a standstill.
Nehemiah feels sure that something is wrong, and the further he goes into the temple area the more convinced he is that he is not mistaken. Passing through the Beautiful Gate, he crosses the Court of the Women, and ascends the steps into the Court of Israel, where stands the temple itself.
Into the temple Nehemiah cannot pass, for none but the priests may enter the Holy Place and Holy of Holies. But round the temple building there had been erected an out-building or lean-to which surrounded the temple on three sides, and which was made up of three stories, each containing a number of rooms, some smaller, some larger. Just such an out-building as this had been made by Solomon in the first temple (1 Kings vi. 5-10), and the builders of the new temple had copied the idea, and had put up a similar lean-to against the outer walls.
In these rooms or chambers were kept all the stores belonging to the temple. The corn, and wine, and oil belonging to the priests and Levites; the first-fruits and free-will offerings brought by the people for the temple service; and the meat-offerings, which were cakes made of fine flour, salt, and oil. One of these cakes was offered twice a day, at the morning and evening sacrifice, besides on many other occasions, and with several other sacrifices; so that it was necessary to have a number of them always ready for use. In these chambers was also stored the frankincense, of which a large quantity was used every day, for a handful of it was burnt on the altar of incense both morning and night. This frankincense was very costly; it was brought on camels' backs from Arabia, where it was obtained by making incisions in the bark of a tree which grew in no other country. Out of these incisions oozed the gummy juice of the tree, and from this was made the frankincense. It was very rare, and could only be obtained occasionally, and therefore it was important to store it carefully in the temple.
Nehemiah wonders if the stores of the temple are in good condition, and he throws open the door of one of the chambers, to see if its contents are plentiful and well-stored. As he does so, he starts back in dismay. The whole place is altered, utterly and completely transformed. The small rooms have all been thrown into one vast chamber, the partition walls have been removed, the corn, the wine, the oil, the frankincense, and all the other stores are nowhere to be seen, they have all been cleared away; the vessels in use in the temple, the knives for cutting up the sacrifices, the censers for incense, the priests' robes and other garments have all disappeared. There is not one single thing to be found which ought to have been found there, and this chamber of the temple, instead of being a useful and necessary store-house, has become more like one of the grand reception rooms of the King of Persia, a luxurious drawing-room, fit for the palace of a king. Gay curtains cover the walls, costly furniture is set in order round the large room, the softest of divans, the most comfortable of cushions, the most elaborate ornaments and decorations surround Nehemiah on all sides, as he stands amazed and disconsolate in their midst.
Nehemiah calls one of the priests, and inquires the meaning of this extraordinary change in the building. He is told, to his horror, that this grand reception room has actually been made for the use and convenience of Tobiah the secretary. Tobiah the heathen, Tobiah, who had mocked them as they built the walls, and who had done all that was in his power ever since to annoy and to hinder Nehemiah and his helpers. This splendid apartment has actually been made and fitted up, in order that Tobiah may have a grand place in which to dwell, and in which to entertain his friends whenever he chooses to pay a visit to Jerusalem.
What an abominable thing is this, which the poor governor has discovered! For was not this Tobiah an Ammonite, a Gentile? and as such Nehemiah knew perfectly well he had no right to set his foot in the Court of the Women, or the Court of Israel; much less then had he the right to enter the temple building.
Where is Eliashib the high priest? How is it that he has not put a stop to this proceeding? Nehemiah finds, to his dismay, that Eliashib has actually been the very one who has had this chamber prepared. The very man who was responsible for the temple, and who had, by his office, the right and the power to shut out from the holy building all that was evil, had been the man to introduce Tobiah the heathen, with marked honour, into the temple itself.
Eliashib had begun well. Earnestly and heartily he had helped in building the walls; he had actually led the band of workers, and had been the very first to begin to build, chap. iii. 1.
But Eliashib had a grandson named Manasseh, and this young man had made what he thought a very good match. Priest though he was, he had married the daughter of Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, a heathen girl, who was rich and possibly good-looking, and whose father was the most powerful man in the country, but who did not fear or own the God of Israel. And the grandfather, so far from forbidding the marriage, seems to have connived at it and sanctioned it.
Nay, he seems not only to have allowed himself to be allied with Sanballat the governor, but also with Tobiah the secretary, chap. xiii. 4. In what way he was connected by marriage we are not told, but inasmuch as both Tobiah and his son had married Jewish wives, one or both of these may have been closely related to the high priest, chap. vi. 17, 18. So the friendship with the Samaritans had grown; Eliashib had probably visited Samaria, and had been made much of and royally entertained by Sanballat and his secretary; and in proportion as his friendship with the heathen had grown warm, his love and earnestness in the Lord's service had grown cold.
In the latter part of the Book of Nehemiah we never find Eliashib coming forward as a helper in any good work. Ezra stands in the huge pulpit to read the law of God, thirteen of the chief men in Jerusalem stand by him to help him, but Eliashib the high priest, who surely should have been well to the front in that pulpit, is conspicuous by his absence. How could he stand up and read the law to the people, when he knew, and they knew, that he was not keeping it himself?
Nehemiah draws up a covenant between the people and their God, in which they promise to obey God and keep His commandments. No less than eighty-four seals are fastened to that document, but not one of those seals bears the name of Eliashib.
How could he engage to keep that covenant, one article of which was a promise to have nothing to do with the heathen, when at the very time he was living on the most friendly terms with both Sanballat and Tobiah?
Then comes the grand service of dedication, when the city and all it contained was devoted to God. Not a single mention is made of Eliashib in the account of the services of the day. Many priests are mentioned by name, but the high priest, who, we should have expected, would have taken a prominent part in the proceedings, is never heard of throughout.
Eliashib's connection with the heathen had made him cold and remiss in the service of God. It is no wonder then that so soon as Nehemiah went away, and the restraint of his presence was removed, Eliashib did worse than ever, and at length actually entertained Tobiah in the temple itself.
But poor Nehemiah had not come to the end of his painful discoveries. He inquired next what had become of all the stores of corn and wine belonging to the Levites, all the tithes which the people were accustomed to bring to the temple for their support, and which, in that solemn covenant, they had so faithfully promised to supply. Since these stores have been removed from the place which was built on purpose to receive them, Nehemiah wishes to know what new store-house has been prepared for them. But the governor finds, to his sorrow and dismay, that no sooner was his back turned upon Jerusalem, than the people had ceased to bring their tithes and their contributions for the house of God.
It was not surprising then that Nehemiah found the temple so deserted. How could the Levites serve, how could the choir sing unless they were fed? They could not live on air, no food was provided for them; what could they do but take care of themselves? In order to save themselves from utter starvation, they had been driven to leave the temple, and to go to their fields and small farms in the country, which they had been accustomed to cultivate only at such times as they were not engaged in the work of the temple (Num. xxxv. 2). Now they were compelled to resort to these fields, as a means of keeping themselves and their families from beggary. No wonder then that few were found ready to help in the temple services.
The first Sabbath after Nehemiah's arrival, he sets out, with an anxious heart, to see how it is kept by his fellow-countrymen. In the solemn covenant the people had promised carefully to observe the day of rest. They have broken their word in the matter of the tithes; have they kept their promise with regard to the Sabbath?
Nehemiah, as he walks through the city on the Sabbath day, finds a regular market going on in the streets. He is horrified to find that all manner of fruit and all kinds of food are being bought and sold, as on any other day of the week. Wine, and oil, and merchandise of all kinds is being bargained for, and the streets are filled with the noisy cries and shouts of the sellers and purchasers.
Going on to the Fish Gate, Nehemiah finds that a colony of heathen Tyrians have come to live there, in order that they may hold a fish-market close to the gate. The fish was caught by their fellow-countrymen in Tyre and Sidon, and was sent down to Jerusalem slightly salted, in order to preserve it from corruption. Nehemiah finds that these Tyrians are doing a grand traffic in salted fish, especially on the Sabbath day. The Jews loved fish, and always have loved it. How they enjoyed it in Egypt, how they longed for it in the wilderness!
'We remember the fish which we did eat in Egypt freely.'
So they sighed, and murmured, as they thought of their lost luxuries.
There was nothing a Jew liked so well for his Sabbath dinner as a piece of fish; and, therefore, on the Sabbath, the Tyrians found they did more business than on any other day.
As Nehemiah leaves the city by the Fish Gate, he meets donkeys and mules bringing in sheaves of corn, or laden with paniers containing figs, and grapes, and melons; he meets men laden with all kinds of burdens, and women bringing in the country produce that they may sell it in the streets of Jerusalem.
Then, passing on into the fields, he notices that work is going on as usual. They are tilling the ground, gathering in the corn, pruning the vines, and standing bare-footed in the winepresses to tread out the juice of the grapes.
So the promise about the Sabbath has been kept no better than the other promise; the covenant has been totally disregarded.
Turning homewards, Nehemiah discovers that the remaining article of the agreement has also been broken. For, as he passes through the streets, and listens to the children at play, he finds that some of the little ones are talking a language he cannot understand. Here and there he catches a Jewish word, but most of their talk is entirely unintelligible to him. On inquiring into the reason of this, he is told that these children have Jewish fathers but Philistine mothers, and that they are being brought up to talk the language and learn the religion of their heathen parent. They are making for themselves a strange dialect, a mixture of the two languages they have spoken; it is half Jewish, half Philistine.
'Their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people,' xiii. 24.
Poor Nehemiah must have been filled with sorrow and bitter disappointment, as he found Jerusalem and its people in such a disgraceful condition. He had left the holy city like the garden of the Lord, he comes back to find the trail of the serpent all over his paradise. They did so well whilst he was there, they wandered to the right hand and the left so soon as he was parted from them.
Nor is Nehemiah the only one who has had this bitter disappointment; many a parent, many a teacher, many a friend can enter into his feelings, for they have gone through the same.
The young King Joash 'did that which was right in the sight of the Lord all the days of Jehoiada the priest.' But as soon as the old man was in his grave all was changed, and he did instead that which was evil.
And Joash has many followers, those who do well so long as they are under good and holy influence, and who do so badly when that influence is removed.
The young man, with the anxious, careful mother, who does so well as long as she lives, and who wanders from the right path as soon as she is taken from him; the young woman, who, whilst living under her parents' roof, sheltered and guarded by wise restrictions from all that would harm her, seems not far from the Kingdom of God, but, who, leaving home and becoming her own mistress, drifts into frivolity and carelessness; the man or woman who, when removed from good and holy influence, falls away from God and goes backwards; all these are followers of Joash, all these cause pain and distress to those who watch over their souls.
What is the reason of this sad change? Why is it that some only stand firm so long as they are under the care and influence of others? The Master has answered the question. He tells us the reason.
'These have no root.'
Last Christmas we had in our house a large green fir-tree. It reached from the floor to the ceiling, and spread its branches abroad in all directions. It stood well and firmly; it had all the appearance of growing; it held its head erect, and seemed as likely to stand as any of the trees outside in the garden.
But our tree only stood for a time. So long as the heavy weights and props which held it up remained, so long as the strings, which were tightly tied to nails in the wall, were uncut; just so long the tree remained upright and unmoved. But the very instant that the props and supports were taken away our tree came down with a crash.
What was the reason of its downfall? Why did the trees in the garden stand unsupported, and yet this tree fell so soon as its props were removed?
The answer is clear and simple. The trees in the garden had each of them a root, our Christmas tree had no root. Having no root, it was impossible for it to stand alone.
There is, alas, plenty of no-root religion now-a-days. We see around us too many whose godliness is dependent on their surroundings and their circumstances. They mean well, they try to do right, but there it ends. They have no root; the heart is unchanged, unconverted, unrenewed. Their religion is merely a surface religion.
So they for a time believe, for a time do well, for a time appear to be true Christians, but in time of temptation they fall away. Their 'goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away.'
If we would stand firm, we must see to it that our religion goes deep enough. I myself must be made new if I am to grow in grace; my heart must be Christ's if I am to stand firm in the faith.
'As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in Him. Rooted and built up in Him, and established in the faith.'
What an objection some people have to strong measures! They see around them, amongst those under their influence, a great deal going on which is downright evil. You call upon them to put a stop to it, and to do all in their power to prevent it.
But what do they say? They tell you they will go gently and quietly to work; but they do not like to hurt other people's feelings, or to tread upon their prejudices. They have no objection to try gradually, quietly, and gently, to turn the tide of evil into a good and holy channel, but they hate and abominate anything in the shape of strong measures.
And yet there are cases where nothing short of strong measures will be of any avail. Here is a man who has a diseased hand. For some time the doctor has been trying gentle remedies: the poultice, the plaster, the fomentation, have all been tried. But now the doctor sees a change in the appearance of the hand. He sees very clearly that mortification is setting in. No poultice, no plaster, no fomentation will be of any avail now, nothing but the knife, nothing but cutting off the limb will save the man's life. What a foolish doctor he would be, who should refuse in such a case to take strong measures!
The great reformer, Martin Luther, looked around him, and what did he see? The whole civilized world a slave at the feet of one man, the Pope of Rome, obeying that man as if he were God; believing every word that came from his mouth, following carefully in his footsteps as he led them astray.
Luther feels nothing will do but strong measures. He will not go gently and quietly to work in his reform, for he feels that would be of no use; the case is so serious that nothing but a strong and decided step will answer the purpose. His strong step consisted in the making of a bonfire. On December 10, 1520, as the students of the great University at Wittenburg came to the college, they found fastened to the walls a notice inviting them and the professors, and all who liked to come, to meet Martin Luther at the east gate of the college at nine o'clock the following morning.
Full of curiosity, they assembled in great numbers to find a bonfire, and Luther standing by it with a paper in his hand. That paper was a letter from the Pope to Luther, telling him that if he did not recant from all he was teaching in less than sixty days, the Pope would give him over to Satan. After reading the letter to the assembled crowd, Luther solemnly threw it into the flames and watched it burn to ashes, that all might see how little he cared for the Pope or his threats. From that time there could be no more peace between Luther and Rome.
It was certainly a strong measure, and Luther owns that he had to make a great effort to force himself to take it. He says: 'When I burnt the bull, it was with inward fear and trembling, but I look upon that act with more pleasure than upon any passage of my life.' For Luther felt, and felt rightly, that the glorious Reformation would never have been brought about unless he had used strong measures.
Nehemiah was the Martin Luther of his age, the great reformer of his nation, and never did he feel the need of strong measure to be so great, as when he came back to Jerusalem after his absence in Persia.
Four glaring evils were staring him in the face.
(1) In the temple itself a grand reception room had been prepared for Tobiah the Ammonite.
(2) The people had refused to pay tithes or contributions to the temple service, and the Levites had consequently all left the sanctuary.
(3) The Sabbath day was desecrated and profaned; trade went on as usual both within and without the city.
(4) So common had marriage with heathen people become, that even the very children in the street were chattering in foreign languages.
Four evils, all of them very serious and deep-rooted, all calling for instant reformation at his hand.
How does Nehemiah go to work? Does he shrink from giving offence, or hurting people's feelings, or calling things by their right names? No, he feels his nation have sinned; the disease of sin is spreading, mortification is setting in, nothing will do but strong measures. The offending members must be cut off, that the whole body may be saved.
He begins first with the temple. Going into the inner court, and taking with him a band of his faithful servants, he throws open the door of the great store-chamber and begins his work. Indignantly he bids his servants to clear out all Tobiah's goods, nay, he himself gives a helping hand, and leads them in the work. The grand divans, the elegant cushions, the elaborate mats, the bright-coloured curtains are all dragged out and cast forth outside. And then, when the great chamber is empty he has it thoroughly cleaned and purified and put in order, to receive again the temple vessels and stores.
A strong measure certainly, but a very necessary one. If Nehemiah had stopped to think what Tobiah might happen to say the next time he came to Jerusalem, or if he had held back because he was afraid of hurting the feelings of Eliashib the high priest, the sin would never have been stopped, the temple would never have been cleansed.
St. Paul tells all those who are Christ's, that they themselves are God's temple.
'Know ye not that ye are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwelleth in you? If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy; for the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are.'
Ye are the temple of God, you yourself God's dwelling-place. Examine then the secret chambers of your heart. Are any of Tobiah's goods there? Is there any secret sin hidden away in your heart?
If so, be your own Nehemiah; cleanse the chamber of your heart, or rather cry unto God to do it for you.
'Cleanse Thou me from secret faults.'
This is an all-important matter, for, unless the hidden sin is removed, you will receive no answer to your prayers, and therefore to attempt to pray is useless.
'If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.'
Then, too, the Holy Spirit will be grieved and will cease to move you, and without His help you can do nothing; He cannot inhabit that temple in the secret chambers of which is to be found cherished sin.
In such a case nothing but strong measures will avail. That sin must be given up, or your soul will be darkened; that chamber must be cleansed, or the holy presence of the Lord cannot remain.
Do you say, It is hard to give it up, to clear it out; it has become a second nature to me, and I know not how to rid myself of it?
Surely it is worth making the effort, however much pain and suffering it may cause. Amputation, however much agony it may entail, is necessary if mortification has set in.
'If thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell. And if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.'
The first evil has been dealt with and cleared away, Tobiah and his goods have been cast out of the temple. Nehemiah now passes on to the next thing which had so greatly shocked him on his arrival in Jerusalem, namely, the neglect on the part of the people with regard to the payment of what was due from them for the temple service.
Again Nehemiah takes strong measures. He calls together the rulers, as the leaders and representatives of the rest, and he gives them very strongly his mind on the subject. No smooth words or gentle hints will do. He tells us, 'I contended some time with them' (that is, I reproved them and argued with them), 'and I said, Why is the house of our God forsaken?'
Then, without waiting for a response to his appeal, he sends round to all the Levites and singers, bidding them with all haste to come up to the temple and to take up their work again. And the people, seeing he was determined, and that there was no possibility of his allowing the matter to drop, came also, bringing with them the corn, and the wine, and the oil, with which once more to fill the empty chamber.
'Then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries.'
And, in order to prevent such a thing ever happening again, Nehemiah appointed treasurers to look after the temple stores. Eliashib the high priest had been the store-keeper before, xiii. 4, but he had shown himself unworthy of his office. Four men are accordingly chosen to collect the stores, and afterwards to deal them out to the priests and Levites. One is a priest, one a Levite, one a layman of rank, and the fourth a scribe, ver. 13. Nehemiah tells us why he selected these four men. 'They were counted faithful,' and as faithful men they could be thoroughly depended upon.
Now, having set the temple in order, Nehemiah proceeds to fight the battle with regard to the observance of the Sabbath.
Again he uses strong measures. He once more speaks strongly and hotly to the nobles, for they had led the van in Sabbath desecration. They liked the freshest fruit and the daintiest dishes for their Sabbath feast, and they had, therefore, encouraged the market-people to go on with their Sabbath trade. Then, as now, there were plenty of people who, for their own self-pleasing, were ready to argue in favour of the loose observance of the fourth commandment.
Nehemiah reminds the nobles that the destruction of Jerusalem, the overthrow of that very city which they were taking so much trouble to rebuild, had all been brought about through desecration of the Sabbath day.
For what message had Jeremiah brought their fathers?
'If ye will not hearken unto me to hallow the Sabbath day, and not to bear a burden, even entering in at the gates of Jerusalem on the Sabbath day; then will I kindle a fire in the gates thereof, and it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem, and it shall not be quenched.'
God's word had come true. Their fathers, despising the warning, had continued to break the Sabbath, and Nebuchadnezzar had burnt and destroyed the very gates through which the Sabbath burdens had been carried. What safety, then, could they hope for now, how could they expect to keep their new gates from destruction, if they followed in the footsteps of their fathers, and did the very thing that God, by the mouth of Jeremiah, condemned?
'Then I contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the Sabbath day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the Sabbath.'
But though Nehemiah began by rebuking the nobles, he did not stop here. He took up the matter with a high hand. He commanded the gate-keepers to shut the gates on Friday evening, about half-an-hour earlier than usual. On other nights they were shut as soon as the sun had set, but now Nehemiah orders them to close the gates on Friday evenings, so soon as the shadows began to lengthen and the day was drawing to a close. They were also, in future, to be kept shut the whole of the Sabbath, so that no mules, or donkeys, or camels, or other beasts of burden, might be able to enter the city on the holy day.
The little gate, inside the large gate, by means of which foot-passengers might enter and leave the city, was left open, in order that people living in the country villages round might be able to come into the city to attend the temple services. But at this smaller gate Nehemiah took care to place some of his own trusty servants, and gave them strict instructions to admit no burdens, no parcel, no goods of any kind into the city on the Sabbath day, xiii. 19.
Very naturally, the merchants and the salespeople did not like this. They did a good stroke of business on the Sabbath day, and would not lose their large profits without a struggle. Accordingly, what do we find them doing? They were refused admittance into the city, so they set up their stalls outside the walls. If the Jerusalem people could not buy of them, because of that strait-laced, narrow-minded Nehemiah, still the country people who came in to attend the temple services could purchase at their stalls on their way home. They might thus maintain a certain amount of their Sabbath business, and secure at least a portion of their Sabbath gains. Not only so, but surely many Jews from the city itself, as they strolled through the gates on the day of rest, might pass by their stalls, and, in the conveniently loose folds of their robes, many, even of these inhabitants of Jerusalem, might conceal a pomegranate, or a melon, a piece of fish, or a bunch of grapes, a handful of figs, or a freshly-cut cucumber, and might easily escape detection by Nehemiah's servants, standing at the gate.
Nehemiah, seeing this state of things, feels that once again strong measures are required. He must make a clean sweep of these traders at once. So, going out to them, he gives them warning that they will be arrested and imprisoned the very next time that they come within sight of the city on the Sabbath day.
'So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice. Then I testified unto them: Why lodge ye about the wall? If ye do so again I will lay hands on you.'
That put a stop to it.
'From that time forth came they no more on the Sabbath.'
Then, from that day, Nehemiah held the Levites responsible for the strict observance of this rule. His own servants had guarded the gates in the first emergency, now he bids the Levites to take their place, and to do all in their power to enforce and to maintain the sanctity of the holy day.
Surely we need a Nehemiah now-a-days, we need some of his strong measures to stop the growing disregard of the Sabbath, which is creeping slowly but surely like a dark shadow over this country of ours. We need a man who will not be afraid of being called strait-laced, or narrow-minded, or peculiar, or Jewish, or Puritanical, but who will speak his mind clearly and decidedly on such an all-important point, and who will not hesitate to use strong measures to put down the Sabbath-breaking and the utter disregard of God's law, which is threatening the ruin of our beloved country.
Let each of us ask himself or herself, What am I doing in this matter? How do I keep the Sabbath myself? God asks for the whole day; do I give it to Him, or do I spend the best of its hours in bed? Am I careful not to please myself on the Lord's Day, or do I think it no shame to amuse myself on that day as I choose, by travelling, by light reading, or by any other means that I have within my disposal? Am I anxious to dedicate the day wholly and entirely to God, setting it apart entirely for His service, and looking upon it as a foretaste of the great and eternal Sabbath that is coming?
And, if I myself keep and reverence God's Sabbath, do I see that those over whom I have influence are doing the same? Am I anxious that my children, my servants, the visitors who come to see me, all who are in my home on the Lord's Day should do the same? Do I help them by every means in my power? Do I strive that in my home at least God shall have His due?
And if in my home the Sabbath is observed, what am I doing with regard to it outside, in my own town, or village, amongst my acquaintances, companions, and friends? Am I doing all I can, using all the influence God has given me, to lead others to reverence and observe the holy day?
And my country, dear old England; am I praying day by day that her glory may not depart, that her sun may not go down because of desecration of the Sabbath day? The old promise holds good still; it is true of individuals, of families, and of nations.
'If thou turn away thy foot from the Sabbath, from doing thy pleasure on My holy day; and call the Sabbath a delight, the holy of the Lord, honourable; and shalt honour Him, not doing thine own ways, nor finding thine own pleasure, nor speaking thine own word: then shalt thou delight thyself in the Lord; and I will cause thee to ride upon the high places of the earth.'
'FOR THE MOUTH OF THE LORD HATH SPOKEN IT.'
The Oldest Sin.
We have all read the adventures of Robinson Crusoe, and we have all pitied the man, alone on a desert island, alone without a friend, without a single companion, never hearing any voice but his own, being able to exchange thoughts with no one, alone, solitary, desolate.
Yet after all, in one respect, Robinson Crusoe was to be envied, for he was shut off from one of the greatest temptations which besets us in this world, a temptation which comes across the path of each of us, and from which it is by no means easy to escape. Of that temptation, Robinson Crusoe on his desert island knew nothing. He did not find himself ever tempted to one of the most common of sins. Robinson Crusoe was never tempted to keep bad company, for the simple reason that there was no bad company for him to keep.
What curious beings hermits are! they are to be found in China, India, Africa, in various parts of Europe, in fact, all over the world. And in olden time there was many a lonely cave, many a shady retreat on the hill-side, which was inhabited by one of these hermits.
Who then were these hermits? They were men who were so much afraid of falling into the snare of keeping bad company, that they refused to keep any company at all, men who so dreaded being led astray by their fellow men, that they shut themselves off from all intercourse with the human race.
It was not a right nor a wise thing to do, and these hermits found that sin followed them even to their quiet lonely caves; yet it is scarcely surprising that they dreaded evil companionship, and did all they could to avoid it, seeing as they did how much misery it had brought into the world.
For what was the oldest sin? What was the very first sin that entered into this fair earth of ours? Some say it was pride, or selfishness, or hard thoughts of God. But surely it was no other sin than this, the keeping of bad company.
There was Eve in the garden. God had provided her with company; He had given her Adam, the holy angels came in and out of that fair paradise; nay more, God Himself was her friend, in the cool of the day He walked with Eve under the trees of the garden, walked and talked with her as a companion and friend.
But, in spite of this, Eve got into bad company. She stands, she talks, she entertains Satan, the great enemy of God, against whom she must often have been warned by God and the holy angels. And the consequence was that Eve lost paradise, became a sinner, and brought sin and all its attendant miseries into the world. We should never have had our weary battle with sin if Eve had not kept bad company.
Nor was Eve the last of those who have brought trouble on themselves and others by the same sin.
If the descendants of Seth had not kept bad company and made friends of Cain's wicked race, the flood would never have swept them away. If Samson had not gone into bad company he would never have lost his strength, and have had to grind blindly and miserably at the mill. If Solomon had not kept bad company idolatry would never have ruined Jerusalem. If Rehoboam had not kept bad company the kingdom of Israel would never have been divided; and again, and again, both in the history of the past and in the story of the present, we see men and women led astray by keeping bad company.
We have already seen Nehemiah taking strong measures to put down three of the great glaring evils which he found in Jerusalem on his return. We have now to see him battling with this dreadful curse and snare—bad company. If the other three evils needed strong measures, Nehemiah feels there is a tenfold need to take decided steps in this fourth and all-important matter.
For what does he find as he walks through the streets of Jerusalem? He discovers that the inhabitants of the holy city are fast becoming foreigners and heathen. He hears the very children in the street talking a language he cannot understand.
So common has marriage with heathen foreigners become, that Nehemiah sees clearly that unless something is done to put a stop to it the next generation will grow up utterly un-Jewish in language, appearance, and dross, and worse still, heathen in their religion, kneeling down to idols of wood and stone, and carrying on in Jerusalem itself all the vile customs and abominations of the heathen.
'If the girls are pretty and nice, and if the men like them, why should not they please themselves?' So the Jerusalem folk had talked in Nehemiah's absence. They quite forgot to what it was all leading. They shut their eyes to the danger of keeping bad company, they thought only of what was pleasant and of what they liked, they quite forgot to ask what was right, and what was the will of God.
Nehemiah, as governor of Jerusalem, summons into his presence, and commands to appear before him in his judicial court, every man in Jerusalem who had married a foreign heathen wife.
When all were assembled:
(1) He contended with them, i.e. he rebuked and argued with them, as he had done with the rulers on the question of Sabbath observance.
(2) He cursed them, or as it is in the margin 'he reviled them.' Probably he pronounced, as governor of Jerusalem, speaking in the name of God, the judgments of God on those who broke his law.
(3) He smote certain of them. That is, he had some of them publicly beaten. Nehemiah called upon the officers of the court to make an example of some of the principal offenders by inflicting corporal punishment upon them.
(4) He plucked off their hair, lit., He made them bald. The Hebrew word, marat, which is used here, means to make smooth, to polish, to peel. The word hair is not expressed in the original.
We are surely not to suppose that Nehemiah, with his own hands, either struck these men or made them bald. What he did was simply this. He, as the head magistrate, inflicted a judicial punishment upon them, a double punishment.
(1) They were beaten.
(2) They were made bald.
We read (Matt, xxvii. 26) that Pontius Pilate took our Lord and scourged him; but we surely do not imagine that the Roman governor with his own hands inflicted the scourging, but we understand it to mean that he gave the order for the punishment to the Roman soldiers. Just so, Nehemiah the governor commanded these offending Jews to be beaten and made bald by the officers of the court.
One of the most flourishing trades in an Eastern city is the trade of the barber. This may easily be seen by walking through the streets of an Eastern town, and noting the numerous barbers at work, some in their shops, which are open to the street, and others outside on the doorsteps, or in some shady corner. Especially in the evening are these numerous barbers busy; when the work of the rest of the city is drawing to a close the barber's work is at its height. Yet, strange to say, although the barber is so busy, everyone in the East wears a beard; a man in the East would think it a terrible disgrace if he was obliged to be shorn of his beard.
The beard is considered a very sacred thing; it is thought a great insult even to touch a man's beard, and if you want to make any man an object of scorn and ridicule, you cannot do so better than by shaving off his beard. This was the way in which the Ammonites insulted David's ambassadors (2 Sam. x. 4, 5). And we read that they stopped at Jericho till their beards were grown, for 'the men were greatly ashamed.'
What then is the barber's work? If men in the East wear beards, what is it that keeps him so busy? The barber in the Eastern city shaves not the man's chin, but his head. It is a very natural custom in hot, dusty climates, where the head is always kept covered, both indoors and out of doors. It is also a very ancient custom, for even in the old Egyptian hieroglyphics we find pictures of barbers shaving the head. And we find that in these modern days, Egyptians, Copts, Turks, Arabs, Hindoos, and Chinese, all shave the head. But there is one great exception to this rule. A barber would find no work in a purely Jewish city, for not only do the Jews wear beards, but they also never shave their heads as their Eastern neighbours do. The only ones amongst the Jews who were allowed to have shaven heads were the poor outcast lepers. Hence the shaven head was to them a sign or symbol of uncleanness and of excommunication. They looked upon a man with a bald head very much as we look upon one whose hair is cropped very suspiciously close, and whom we therefore imagine must have been in gaol.
Thus it came to pass that 'Bald-head' became a common term of reproach and insult. Elisha, the holy prophet, goes up the hill, wearing a thick turban to protect his head from the sun. Out come a troop of wicked, mocking children. Elisha is not bald, for he is a Jew, nor, even if he had been bald, could these children have seen it, since his head is covered; but they wish to annoy and to insult the holy man, so they cry after him,
'Go up, thou bald head, go up.'
They simply use a common term of reproach. To have a bald head was amongst the Jews a sign that a man was cut off from his nation, that he was counted as a Gentile and an outsider, and therefore to call a man 'a bald head' was equivalent to calling him a Gentile dog and an outcast.
Now Nehemiah inflicts this very punishment on these Jews who have married heathen wives. He commands them to be made bald, as a sign of shame and disgrace. It was a very significant and appropriate punishment. They had thrown in their lot with the heathen Gentiles, let them then become Gentiles, let them be branded with their mark, let them, by being made bald, be stamped as those who are no longer citizens of Jerusalem, but who have become outcasts and foreigners.
Then, when this was done, Nehemiah calls them to him, and makes them take a solemn oath before God, that from that time forth they will never fall into the same sin again:
'I made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves.'
Then he reminds them how dreadful the consequences of the same sin had been to no less a person than their great and glorious King Solomon, the wisest of men, the beloved of his God. Even Solomon had been drawn aside into sin by his love of heathen foreigners, or outlandish women, as Nehemiah calls them, women living outside his own land. If he fell, if he the wisest of men, if he the beloved of his God, was led astray, was it likely that they could walk into the very same trap, and escape being caught and ensnared by it?
'Did not Solomon King of Israel sin by these things? Yet among many nations was there no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin. Shall we then hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?'
Did Nehemiah then break up the marriages which had already taken place, and send the wives away? We are not told that he did. Probably he only insisted, and insisted very strongly, that no more such marriages should take place. For he knew that if the custom was continued it would lead to ruin, shame, and disgrace, and he was therefore perfectly right to take strong measures to put a stop to it.
One man he saw fit to make an example of in a still more decided way—one offending member he felt must be cut off. This was Manasseh, the grandson of the high priest, the very one who had been the cause of Tobiah's entrance into the temple, and of the friendly feeling that existed between Eliashib and the Samaritans.
Here was Manasseh, a priest, living in the temple itself, dressed in the white robe, and taking part in the service of God, yet all the time having a heathen wife, and allowing heathen ways in his household. Manasseh's wife was actually Sanballat's daughter; and so long as he and she remained in the temple precincts, Nehemiah felt they would never be free from Sanballat's influence.
Accordingly we read:
'I chased him from me.'
Nehemiah banished him from the temple and from Jerusalem, and Manasseh went away with his wife to her father's grand home in Samaria.
No doubt Nehemiah was far from popular in Jerusalem that night. There were many who thought he had been too severe, too narrow, too particular. And doubtless there were many who, if they had dared, would have rebelled against his decision. But Nehemiah had done everything; he had taken all these strong measures, not to please men, but to please God. If the Master praised him, he cared not what others might say of him. 'Lord, what wilt Thou have me to do?' was the constant prayer of Nehemiah's heart; and though the work was oftentimes unpopular and disagreeable, Nehemiah did it both boldly and fearlessly.
The wheel of time goes round, and history, which works ever in a circle, constantly repeats itself, and so also does sin. The sin of Nehemiah's days is still to be seen; the same temptation which beset those Jerusalem Jews, besets us even in these more enlightened days.
We all love company. There is in us a natural shrinking from being alone and desolate. That feeling is born in us; we inherit it from our first father Adam. 'It is not good for the man to be alone,' said the Lord in His tenderness and His pity.
But a choice lies before us, a choice of friends. Our relatives are given us by God, no man can choose who shall be his father, or mother, or brother, or sister. But our friends are of our own choosing, and we do not sufficiently consider that upon that choice may hang our eternity. Heaven with all its brightness, hell with all its darkness and misery, which shall be for me? The answer may hang, it often does hang, on the choice of a friend.
For there are only two divisions in this world of ours, only two companies, only two flocks. The kingdom of darkness and the kingdom of light, the Lord's people and those who are none of His, the sheep and the goats. From which division, from which company, from which flock shall I choose my friends?
'Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers, for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?'
Especially careful should we be in that nearest and dearest of friendships, in the choice of the one who is to be to us our other self. Would we be made one, would we link ourselves by that firm and sacred tie, whilst knowing all the time that the one who is to be dearer to us than life itself is outside the fold? No blessing can surely rest on such a marriage. Jesus cannot be an invited guest at that marriage feast. For clear and unmistakable is the trumpet call of the great Captain of our salvation:
'Come out from among them, and be ye separate, said the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be My sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.'
How fond people are of collecting old books, and what a large price old books will fetch! Those who are so fortunate as to obtain possession of a book which is four or five hundred years old may put their own price upon it, for some antiquarian will be sure to purchase it.
But how modern, how very far from being ancient, the oldest of our English books, printed in the most primitive black letter, appears, when it is laid side by side with that curious old book which travellers, visiting the little village of Nablus, are shown this very day. Well may the old white-headed man who has charge of that book bring it out with pride, for it is one of the oldest books in the world.
The book is in the form of a roll of parchment. It is made of goat skins, twenty-five inches broad, and about fifteen feet long. The skins are neatly joined together, but in many places they have been torn and rather clumsily mended. The roll is kept in a grand silver-gilt case in the form of a cylinder, embossed and engraved. On this case are carved representations of the Tabernacle, of the ark, of the two altars, of the trumpets, and of the various instruments used in sacrifice. A crimson satin cover, on which inscriptions are worked in gold thread, is thrown over this precious book.
This old manuscript is written in Hebrew, and is said by the Jews to be the work of a man whose name has already come before us in Nehemiah's story. We saw that Eliashib, the high priest, had a grandson named Manasseh, that Manasseh married the daughter of Sanballat, the Samaritan governor, and that Nehemiah felt very strongly that the temple would never be cleansed, nor God's blessing rest upon them as a nation, so long as one of their own priests had a heathen wife, and was in constant communication with Sanballat. Accordingly he chased Manasseh from him, he made him at once leave the temple and his high position there; and Manasseh, in disgust and indignation, went off to Samaria to his father-in-law, Sanballat, taking his heathen wife and family with him.
Now it is that very Manasseh who was, according to the Jews, the writer of the Samaritan Pentateuch, that old copy of the Books of Moses. The Samaritans themselves declare that it is far more ancient; that it was written soon after the Israelites entered the land of Canaan, by the great-grandson of Aaron; whilst some scholars think it is far more modern than some other copies of the Pentateuch which have been discovered; but the Jews pronounce it to have been the work of Manasseh, the grandson of Eliashib, the high priest of Nehemiah's day.
Manasseh arrived in Samaria, indignant with Nehemiah, and determined to have his revenge. He and his father-in-law were resolved not to be outdone by the Jews. They in Samaria would build a grand temple, just as the Jews had done in Jerusalem. One hill was as good as another, so they thought; their own Gerizim, with its lovely trees and its sunny slopes, was as fair or fairer than Mount Moriah.
So they set to work with all their energy, to build the rival temple on the very hill where 1000 years before, in the time of Joshua, the blessings of the law had been read, whilst the curses were pronounced from the hill on the opposite side of the valley, Mount Ebal.
Here then, on Gerizim, the mount of blessing, rose the new temple, which was built with one object in view, that it might outvie in splendour the one in Jerusalem. When it was finished, Manasseh was made the rival high priest, and was able to do what he liked, and to exercise his authority in any way he pleased in his father-in-law's province.
Nor was Manasseh the only priest in the Gerizim temple; many other runaway priests joined him, all who were angry with Nehemiah, all who were offended or touchy, all who thought themselves injured in any way, all who had been found fault with for Sabbath-breaking or for any other sin, left Jerusalem for Samaria—chose the temple of Mount Gerizim instead of the holy temple on Mount Moriah.
Yet of the Samaritans it is said:
'They feared the Lord, and served their own gods.'
It was a half-and-half religion, Judaism and heathenism mixed up together, the worship of God and the worship of idols side by side.
Satan, now-a-days, has his modern temple of Gerizim. He does not try to lead nominal Christians to throw up religion altogether, for he sees that it would be of no use to do so. He knows we have a conscience, he knows that conscience is often busy, he knows that we fully believe that some day we must die, and that after death will come the judgment, and he sees therefore that we shall not be satisfied without some kind of religion. So Satan tries to tempt us to the Gerizim temple. Serve God by all means, he cries, but serve the world too. Go to church, say your prayers, have a fair polish of Sunday religion; it is decent, it is respectable, it is what is expected of you. But yet, at the very same time, serve the world, please yourself. Take part in any pleasure that attracts you, live as you please, enjoy yourself to the full. Let the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life have their share in your allegiance. Be half for God, and half for the world. Live partly for the world to come, and partly for this present world. By no means throw overboard religion altogether, but let it have its proper place, let it stand side by side with self-pleasing and worldliness.
But what says the Master?
'No man can serve two masters. Ye cannot serve God and mammon.'
Let us then choose this day whom we will serve. Shall it be Christ or Satan, Jerusalem or Gerizim, God or the world?
For centuries after the time of Nehemiah, these Samaritans continued a source of annoyance to the Jews, tempting all who were disaffected and lawless to come to Gerizim, and vexing and troubling the Jews in every possible way. No one who was travelling up to the rival temple was ever made welcome in Samaria, or treated as he passed through with the slightest show of hospitality. As our Lord and His disciples journeyed up to the feast, we read that they came to a village of the Samaritans, and our Lord sent messengers before Him to engage a lodging, where they might find refreshment and shelter on their way. But we read,
'They did not receive Him, because His face was as though He would go to Jerusalem.'
Sometimes they carried this antagonism to such a degree that they would even waylay and murder the temple pilgrims who were on their way through their country, and the poor travellers were compelled to take a much longer route to Jerusalem, crossing the Jordan, and journeying on the eastern side until they came opposite Jericho, and then ascending by the long, winding, difficult road from Jericho to Jerusalem.
Once, in order to mortify the Jews, the Samaritans were guilty of a very dreadful insult. The Passover was being kept in Jerusalem, and it was customary in Passover week for the priest to open the temple gates just after midnight. Through these opened gates, in the darkness of the night, stole in some Samaritans, carrying under their robes dead men's bones and bits of dead men's bodies, and these they strewed up and down the cloisters of the temple, to make them defiled and unclean.
But perhaps the most trying thing which the Samaritans did was to put a stop to a very old and very favourite custom of the Jews. For a long time those Jews who lived in Jerusalem had been accustomed to let their brethren in Babylon know the very time that the Passover moon rose in Jerusalem, so that they and their absent friends might keep the feast together at the very same time. They did this in a very curious and interesting way. As soon as the watchers on the Mount of Olives saw the moon rising, they lighted a beacon fire, other fires were already prepared on a succession of hilltops, reaching all the way from Jerusalem to Babylon. As soon as the light was seen on Olivet the next fire was lighted, and then the next, and the next, till in a very short time those Jews who sat by the waters of Babylon saw the signal, and joined in the Passover rejoicing with their friends hundreds of miles away in Jerusalem. It showed them that they were not forgotten, and it helped them to join in the prayer and the praise of those who were in their father-land.
But the Samaritans annoyed the Jews and spoilt this beautiful old custom, by lighting false fires on other mountains, on wrong days, and at wrong hours, and thus confusing those who were watching by the beacon-fires. After a time, so many mistakes were made by means of these false signals, that the Jews were compelled to give up the system of beacon-fires altogether, and to depend on the slower course of sending messengers.
We have now come to the end of Nehemiah's story, and we have, at the very same time, come to the end of the history of the Old Testament. For if all the historical books were arranged chronologically, Nehemiah's book would come the very last in the series. Nothing more is told us in the Book of God of this world's history, until St. Matthew takes up the pen and writes an account of the birth of the expected Messiah. Yet between the Book of Nehemiah and the Gospel of St. Matthew there is an interval of 400 years, years which were full of interest in Jewish history, but of which we are told nothing in the Bible story.
There was one prophet who lived in the time of Nehemiah, and whose book is a commentary on the book of Nehemiah. The prophet Malachi was living in Jerusalem at this very time, and if we look at his book we shall see that mention is made of many things of which we are told in the Book of Nehemiah. For instance, if we turn to Mai. iii. 8, 9, 10, we shall find the very words which the prophet spoke to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, at the time when the temple store-house was empty, and when the people had ceased to bring their tithes and offerings, and to give God the due proportion of their possessions.
'Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed Me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed Thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse; for ye have robbed Me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in Mine house.'
Thus, if we read the Book of Malachi carefully, we shall find much that throws light on Nehemiah's history; and we can easily imagine how much the prophet's sympathy and help must have cheered and strengthened the great reformer in his trying and difficult work.
What became of Nehemiah, the great cup-bearer, the faithful governor of Jerusalem, we do not know. Whether he returned to Persia and took up his old work in the palace, standing behind the king's chair in his office of Rab-shakeh, or whether he remained in Jerusalem, guarding his beloved city from enemies without and from false friends within, we are not told. Whether he died in the prime of life, or whether he lived to a good old age, neither the Bible nor profane history informs us.
But although we know nothing of Nehemiah's death, we know much of his life. We have watched him carefully and closely, and there is one thing which we cannot fail to have noticed, and that is that Nehemiah was emphatically a man of prayer. In every trouble, in each anxiety, in all times of danger, he turned to God. Standing behind the king's chair, Nehemiah prayed; in his private room in the Shushan palace, he pleaded for Jerusalem; and all through his rough anxious life as a reformer and a governor, we find him constantly lifting up his heart to God in short earnest prayers. When Tobiah mocked his work, when the Samaritans threatened to attack the city, when the people were inclined to be angry with him for his reforms, when he discovered that there were traitors and hired agents of Sanballat inside the very walls of Jerusalem, when he brought upon himself enmity and hatred because of his faithful dealing in the matter of the temple store-house, when he had to encounter difficulty and opposition in his determination with regard to the observance of the Sabbath, and when he still further incensed the half-hearted Jews by his prompt punishment of those who had taken heathen wives, and by his summary dismissal of Manasseh; in all these times of danger, difficulty, and trial, we find Nehemiah turning to the Lord in prayer.
There was one prayer of which he seems to have been especially fond, three times over does Nehemiah ask God to remember him.
'Think upon me, my God, for good,' v. 19.
'Remember me, O my God,' xiii. 14.
'Remember me, O my God, for good,' xiii. 31.
Can it be that this prayer was suggested to him by the words of his friend, the prophet Malachi? Can it be, that as he and Nehemiah took sweet counsel together, and spoke together of the Lord they loved, Malachi may have spoken those beautiful words which we find in chap. in. 16, 17, of his prophecy, in order to cheer and encourage his disheartened and unappreciated friend:—
'They that feared the Lord spake often one to another: and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for them that feared the Lord, and that thought upon His name. And they shall be Mine, saith the Lord of hosts, in that day when I make up My jewels; and I will spare them, as a man spareth his own son that serveth him.'
Can we wonder that Nehemiah longed to know that his name was in that book of remembrance of which his friend Malachi spoke, and that he often turned the desire into a prayer, pleading with God, 'Remember me, O my God?'
It is a very touching prayer. Nehemiah evidently felt that others did not value his work, nay, that Borne even condemned him for it. The people, instead of being grateful to him for his reforms, found fault with him, misunderstood him, and reproached him.
But God knew, the Master did not blame him. He saw that all Nehemiah did had been done for His glory and for the good of his nation. And to the Master whom he served Nehemiah appealed. Away from the fault-finding people, he turned to the merciful God.
Remember Thou me, O God, for good; others blame me, but it is Thy praise alone that I crave, wipe not Thou out my good deeds, spare Thou me in the greatness of Thy mercy.
There is no pride or boasting in this prayer. Is it not the very prayer of the penitent thief, 'Lord, remember me?' Look carefully at the wording of it, and you will notice, as Bishop Wordsworth so beautifully points out, that it is humble in its every detail. Nehemiah does not say, publish to the world my good deeds, but wipe them not out. He does not say, reward me, but remember me. He does not say, remember me for my merit, but according to the greatest of Thy mercies.
So Nehemiah passes away from our sight with that prayer on his lips, 'Remember me, O my God, for good.'
And was the prayer heard? Was Nehemiah remembered? Did God, has God forgotten His faithful servant? Surely not, for 'The righteous shall be had in everlasting remembrance.'
Remembered by God, and remembered for ever, entered in the great book of God's remembrance, of which he had so often thought, and of which Malachi had written.
The day is coming when we shall see Nehemiah the cup-bearer. In God's great day of reward, when one after another of His faithful servants shall appear before Him, we shall hear the response to Nehemiah's prayer.
'Remember me, O my God,' said Nehemiah, long years ago, as he toiled on, unthanked and unblessed by man.
And we shall hear the Lord answer, 'Well done, good and faithful servant, enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.'