Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. THE TRUE RELIGIOUS REFORMATION, both negative and positive.
1. Abuses must be vigorously attacked and cleansed away. The house of God has to be purified of strangers. The neglect of discipline a terrible evil. Unfaithful ministers the curse of the Church. The "mixed multitude" is no strength to Jerusalem, but weakness. The observance of the sabbath. To the Jew a typical commandment, which represented obedience altogether. While days cannot possess the same place under the new dispensation, there is guardianship of the day of rest which is absolutely necessary for the life of religion. In all active efforts of reformation personal caprice and mere self-assertion must be renounced. The open Bible must be the strong basis of operations, the unfailing armoury from which the weapons are taken. On that simply dependent, the true reformer can be bold, energetic, uncompromising, intolerant of evil, driving out the violators of God's law and defilers of his temple. We have a great example of consuming zeal in the Lord himself.
2. All really religious reformation will be constructive as well as destructive. The evil driven away will come back finding "the house empty and garnished" unless it be possessed by the spirit of active obedience. The only principle upon which we can keep out abuse is that of the right use of the things before abused. This applies to the service of God's house, to the observance of the sabbath, and to the purity of communion among God's people. Nehemiah re-established the true order of religious life. The safety of the Church lies in its activity and development according to the word of God. All living growth is defence against attack and decay.
II. THE TRUE MEMORIAL BEFORE GOD AND MAN. "Remember me, Lord, for good."
1. We should cast ourselves on the faithfulness of God. Men forget one another. God rewards his servants.
2. To hold a place among the honoured names of God's word, to be in the line of the great succession, is more than all that this world can offer us.
3. God's blessing descends to future generations. We build a monument in the characters and lives of those we leave behind us. - R.
I. THAT THE BIBLE SHOULD BE READ WITH A SPECIAL VIEW TO ITS BEARING ON OUR OWN LIVES (ver. 1). "On that day they read in the book of Moses, ... . and therein was found written that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever;"... and "when they had heard the law they separated," etc. (vers. 1, 3). The Israelites listened not only to understand and admire and be moved with joy and gladness, but to learn what they should do, that they might conform more perfectly to the will of God. We may read our Bible from
(1) the antiquarian point of view, or
(2) the poetical, or
(3) the professional, or
(4) perfunctorily, as a part of the day's routine;
but we shall not have treated it as it deserves to be treated, as its Divine Author would have us use it, as our own spiritual necessities demand that it should be approached, unless we come to it in the spirit of those old words, "Lord, what wilt thou have me to do?" We must study it devoutly, to learn what there is in us to be uprooted, about us to be avoided, absent from us to be implanted and cultivated.
II. THAT PLAIN DUTY, HOWEVER PAINFUL, MUST BE DONE FORTHWITH (vers. 3, 7, 8, 9). It is very soon told that "it came to pass when they had heard the law that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude." But the act of separation, of expulsion, must have been an exceedingly painful one. The "mixed multitude" must have been closely allied to and inwoven with "the congregation," and there must have been great rents and gaps made in families and connections and friendships for this excommunication to be thoroughly carried out. When, too, Nehemiah returned from Babylon, and found the house of the Lord used for an enemy's storehouse, it must have "grieved him sore" (ver. 8), not only to find this fact in existence, but also to have to put himself into direct antagonism with the high priest, and to reflect so sternly on his conduct as he did (vers. 8, 9). So Paul must have been troubled to withstand Peter to the face (Galatians 2:11), and we know how "out of much affliction and anguish of heart" he wrote "with many tears" a letter of reproach to the Church at Corinth (2 Corinthians 2:4). We are told that we are to deal tenderly and graciously with offenders; those who are spiritual restoring such "in the spirit of meekness" (Galatians 6:1); but when the integrity, the purity, the reputation of the family, the Church, the society absolutely demand severe measures, we must take them. We should in such cases act,
(1) where possible, after remonstrance and giving opportunity for repentance;
(2) with all possible regard to wounded feelings;
(3) with manifest attention to the directions of Scripture;
(4) thoroughly and speedily, lest slackness or delay should do as much harm as entire unfaithfulness.
III. THAT SIN HAS FAR-REACHING CONSEQUENCES IN ITS TRAIN. There was written in the law "that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever," etc. (vers. 1, 2). There is nothing so cruel in the end as undue leniency in the presence of sin; there is nothing so kind and wise, all things considered, as the manifestation of "righteous indignation" against iniquity. God's revealed anger at the transgressions of his people was one side of his mercy - the less pleasant to our view, but not the less necessary for our redemption. Hence, among other things, his severity and apparent harshness. Hence such an act of judgment as this against the Ammonite. An act of inhospitality, and then of seductive treachery, done a thousand years before, leading to exclusion from privilege now! What a long train of consequences has sin! How far in its injurious results may one guilty action reach!
"Oh, mortal man, beware IV. THAT INDIVIDUAL MEN HAVE A GREAT AND GRAVE POWER FOR GOOD AND EVIL (vers. 4, 5, 8, 9). One man, the high priest, had very gravely compromised the people by admitting Tobiah, the enemy, to a chamber of the house of the Lord. It is impossible to say how much evil might not have arisen from this foolish step had not Nehemiah come in time to take effective action against it. But it is not every Eliashib who has a Nehemiah to correct his follies and save his country from their consequences. One man in high office, or with great faculties, or with peculiar charms, may commit a large body of people to folly and sin, and may bring down on their head saddest visitations. On the other hand, one wise and strong man, acting energetically, may do as Nehemiah did - "cast forth" the evil (ver. 8), and "cleanse the chambers," and restore sacred places to a sacred use (ver. 9). Exalted station is much coveted by men, but it has grave responsibilities attached to it by God. We may be well content to be without its burden of obligation; or if, in God's providence, that should rest on us, it becomes our duty prayerfully and earnestly to rise to the height of our opportunity, and dedicate it to the service of our God and our race. - C.
IV. THAT INDIVIDUAL MEN HAVE A GREAT AND GRAVE POWER FOR GOOD AND EVIL (vers. 4, 5, 8, 9). One man, the high priest, had very gravely compromised the people by admitting Tobiah, the enemy, to a chamber of the house of the Lord. It is impossible to say how much evil might not have arisen from this foolish step had not Nehemiah come in time to take effective action against it. But it is not every Eliashib who has a Nehemiah to correct his follies and save his country from their consequences. One man in high office, or with great faculties, or with peculiar charms, may commit a large body of people to folly and sin, and may bring down on their head saddest visitations. On the other hand, one wise and strong man, acting energetically, may do as Nehemiah did - "cast forth" the evil (ver. 8), and "cleanse the chambers," and restore sacred places to a sacred use (ver. 9). Exalted station is much coveted by men, but it has grave responsibilities attached to it by God. We may be well content to be without its burden of obligation; or if, in God's providence, that should rest on us, it becomes our duty prayerfully and earnestly to rise to the height of our opportunity, and dedicate it to the service of our God and our race. - C.
I. THAT MATERIAL SUPPLIES AND SPIRITUAL PROSPERITY ARE IMPORTANTLY CONNECTED (ver. 10). "The portions of the Levites had not been given them," and, consequently, they had "fled every one to his field" (ver. 10). It may be open to question whether these Levites - singers and other officials - had shown as much disinterestedness and devotion as could have been wished. It might be argued that as servants of God they might have stood at their posts and starved rather than desert the field of sacred duty. Perhaps if they had been some degrees more heroic than they were they would have risked and suffered all privations rather than forsake their work. But however this may have been, it is certain that the people had no right whatever to reckon on such heroism; they ought to have acted on the supposition that these were men of average piety, and that men of ordinary goodness will not continue to serve if they are not sustained in their service. The human nature which there is in every good man - and which will certainly be shown in every class and order of good men - is a factor which must not be disregarded. It is a feature that must be taken into account; a want that must be provided for. If it be left out of account, then, whatever the system or society may be, there will be found, as here, negligence, desertion, duty undone, God's house forsaken, a fleeing from the temple to the field. Material resources have their place in the prosperity of the best of causes.
II. THAT GOOD MEN AS WELL AS GOOD METHODS ARE NECESSARY FOR LASTING SUCCESS. Judging from the four concluding verses of the preceding chapter (Nehemiah 12:44-47), we gather that a very satisfactory system for receiving and storing the offerings, and also for distributing them, had been devised and brought into action. Yet, in Nehemiah's absence, it failed to effect its purpose. When he returned and witnessed the failure, he immediately
(1) set to work to reorganise: he "set in their place" (ver. 11) the Levites, who, at his instance, returned to Jerusalem, and he "made treasurers over the treasuries "(ver. 12); but besides this, he
(2) appointed "faithful men" (ver. 12), on whom reliance could be placed, to do the work they undertook, infusing his own spirit into all the officers. He impressed on them all his own fervent and faithful genius. How long things went well we know not, but Nehemiah did the best he could do to provide for permanent prosperity: he associated good men with a good method. We should trust neither to one nor to the other. Again and again organisations have broken clown in the Church (whether tithe-taking, money-getting institutions, or others) because, though the machinery was excellent, there was no steam to work the wheels; again and again there has been an excellent spirit, but all has failed for want of a wise method. We must
(a) use our best judgment to perfect our system, and
(b) pray for, and look out for, the wise and earnest-minded men to work it.
III. THAT INDIVIDUAL FIDELITY WILL SURELY MEET WITH ITS APPROPRIATE RECOMPENSE (vers. 13, 14).
1. Usually from man. "I made treasurers... Shelemiah," etc. ... "for they were counted faithful." Integrity, diligence, conscientiousness will generally be seen of man and receive its reward. It may indeed pass unnoticed, but as a rule it is recognised and rewarded. Be faithful, and you will be "counted faithful."
2. Certainly from God. "Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds," etc. (ver. 14). There are many motives, all good, but some higher than others, which should prompt us to diligent and faithful labour for our Lord and our race. We may work in the vineyard of the Great Husbandman because
(1) be calls us, and it is our bounden duty to respond; or because
(2) our zeal is called forth by the apparent and urgent necessity for our help; or because
(3) we delight in holy activity, and are never so happy as when the weapon of usefulness is in our hand; or we may do so because
(4) we have "respect unto the recompense of the our God for good;" we would that he should "not wipe out our good deeds" (ver. 14), but record them in his "book of remembrance;" and, not being "unrighteous to forget our work and labor of love" (Hebrews 6:10), reward every one according to his work. The truest humility (Luke 17:10) may characterise the same disciple that has the most earnest aspiration to receive his Master's commendation, and to have rule given him over many things." We may turn this prayer into a prediction. God will remember us, and will suffer nothing to blot out our pure endeavours from his book. We shall surely meet them again. Our "works follow us," and will find us in his presence. - C.
I. A SERIOUS DELINQUENCY. The law of the sabbath (Exodus 20:8-11; Exodus 31:13-17; Numbers 15:32-36) was openly defied. Husbandmen were treading their wine-presses and were bringing corn into the city, and were lading asses on that day of sacred rest (ver. 15); all kinds of fruit were also carried in and sold (ver. 15). Tyrian traders were allowed to bring in and sell their fish and "all manner of ware" (ver. 16). The sacred character of the day was set at naught, and was fast disappearing. Persian rulers, Samaritan neighbours, Phoenician traders, had prevailed over Jewish principles, and the sabbath was most seriously threatened. There needed -
II. A VIGOROUS REFORM. Nehemiah set himself to change the whole aspect of affairs. He
(1) remonstrated energetically - he "contended with the nobles of Judah" (ver. 17), charging them with bringing this about - "What evil thing is this that ye do?"- by their guilty connivance, and prophetically threatening them with the wrath of God for their sin (ver. 18);
(2) caused the gates to be shut some time before, and to remain shut till some time after, the commencement and conclusion of the sacred day (ver. 19): he set his own servants (some of his own retinue), on whom he could most reckon, to see that this order was impartially carried out;
(3) not only obliged those who came to sell to remain outside all the day, but threatened to apprehend them if they did this again (vers. 20, 21); and
(4) enlisted the sympathy and aid of the Levites, that, when he was recalled and his own servants were withdrawn, they might maintain what he now instituted. These energetic measures succeeded; they had an immediate effect (ver. 21), and they appear to have had a permanent influence, as, from this time, we have reason to think that the Jews became scrupulous, even to a fault, on this question of sabbath observance. Nehemiah's reform was admirable and effective because -
(a) It was bold and impartial. He confronted and reproached the nobles as well as the traders and salesmen.
(b) It was energetic and full of action. He used magisterial rights; not exceeding his authority, but using it, and acting in harmony with the powers of his commission and the law of God.
(c) It was anticipative of future wants. He prepared for a time when he would not be there, and when other men like-minded would be prepared to continue his work (ver. 22). Concerning the observance of the sabbath or the Lord's day by ourselves, we may remark that it is -
I. OBVIOUSLY THE WILL OF GOD THAT WE SHOULD KEEP IT. We know that -
1. It was sanctified from the very beginning of our race (Genesis 2:2, 3).
2. It was included in the religious and moral statutes given by God to Moses, as if it belonged to that which is permanent and perpetual (Exodus 20.).
3. It was insisted upon by the prophetic voice, and declared to be decisive of national prosperity or decline (Jeremiah 17:19-27; Isaiah 58:13, 14) - the prophets being the upholders of the moral in preference to the formal and ceremonial.
4. It was declared by the Lord Jesus Christ to be "made for man" (Mark 2:27).
II. MANIFESTLY REQUISITE FOR BODILY AND SPIRITUAL WELFARE.
1. Bodily; for man and beast live longer and work better with than without it.
2. Spiritual; for without the spiritual refreshment and revival of sabbath services, more especially in these days of absorbing work and care, the light of life would burn even more dim and faint, until it went out into darkness. All those who hate (spiritual) death may well love and guard and use it well. Our duty in regard to it is -
(1) To avail ourselves of the bodily rest it brings, and to see that others have the same advantage - our children resting from their lessons, servants (domestic and public) resting from their toil.
(2) To make it a day of special spiritual privilege, including
(a) worship-drawing nigh to God;
(b) instruction - enlightenment, edification, the "beholding the beauty of the Lord and inquiring in his temple;" and
(c) inspiration - fresh determination, invigorated resolution that as for us and our household we will serve the Lord Christ. - C.
I. A CASE OF ALARMING DEFECTION. "In those days" of his return some of the Jews had married "wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab" (ver. 23). Ezra had encountered the same evil, and vehemently and vigorously resisted it (Ezra 9., 10.). But it had broken out again, to the sorrow and dismay of the faithful leader and "governor." It was an alarming defection because
(1) it was an act of downright disobedience. God had said by Moses, "Thou shalt not make marriages with them (foreigners); thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son" (Deuteronomy 7:3 and ver. 25). The Divine law was therefore deliberately and openly defied. What but the Divine anger could they expect to reap? More especially when so prominent a man as a grandson of the high priest had wrought this sin in the eyes of the whole people, thereby "defiling the priesthood" (ver. 29). And because
(2) it was surely conducting to fatal consequences. The great, the main mission of the Jewish nation was to be a sanctified or separate people unto the Lord, to preserve his name and truth intact; but the result of these marriages was a mongrel race, speaking a corrupt language: "their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod (Philistia), and could not speak in the Jews' language" (ver. 24). Not only would their national language be corrupted, but their national morals and religion too: they were on that downward course which led Solomon himself, "beloved of God" as he was (ver. 26), to sin and sorrow. The purity of their faith and the integrity of their national morality were seriously at stake.
II. AN INSTANCE OF VIGOROUS CORRECTION. Nehemiah
(1) contended with the delinquents (ver. 25). He expostulated and reasoned with them (vers. 26, 27); he also
(2) solemnly invoked condemnation and suffering on them in the event of impenitence: he "cursed them" (ver. 25); he even
(3) caused some of them to be punished with bodily chastisement: he "smote certain of them" (ver. 2,5); he
(4) summarily dismissed the high priest's grandson: "I chased him from me (ver. 28); he
(5) caused them to put away the strange wives and to take an oath not to continue the offence (vers. 25, 30). Nehemiah felt that the danger was so deadly that not only energy and vigour, but even vehemence and passion, were justified in putting it away. It wrought in him "indignation,... vehement desire,... zeal,... revenge," that his countrymen might "be clear in this matter" (2 Corinthians 7:11). Here is a very serious lesson for the young. They who are members of the Church of Christ find themselves, like these Jews at Jerusalem, under a temptation to an unholy alliance. The Church and the world are very closely intermingled, locally. They meet in the same street, in the same shop, under the same roof. They who would not choose to associate intimately with those that are servants of sin and sources of evil, come involuntarily into contact with companions who are devoid of Christian principle, but who are by no means wanting in other attractions. It may be personal beauty, or charm of disposition, or fascination of manner, or wealth, or some other worldly advantages which appeal to tastes and ambitions that are net of the highest order Here is temptation to intimate friendship or even to lifelong alliance. But let the young remember what is
(1) the will of Christ concerning them. Is there not an application we should make to ourselves in the injunction of the apostle, "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers"? (2 Corinthians 6:14). And is there not an inference to be drawn from the same writer to our conduct when he speaks of marrying "in the Lord"? (1 Corinthians 7:39). It is surely not his will that one who has taken his vows upon him should enter into closest and even lifelong intimacy with another who has no interest in his truth, no love for himself. Let them also remember what are
(2) the inevitable consequences. The result to themselves must be spiritual decline, So was it with Solomon, leading him to the verge of utter ruin, if not over the edge, and into the gulf of it; so has it been with many thousands of the children of men. The result to others is moral and spiritual deterioration. The children "speak half in the speech of Ashdod" (ver. 24): they inevitably catch something of the tone and strain of both parents. Their spirit and their language, themselves and their life, will not attain to perfect purity; they will bear about with them the mark of worldliness. The consequences of such union are evil, and they are irreparable. The choice of our intimate friends and of our one lifelong companion is much too lightly regarded. On our wisdom or folly here hangs our weal or our woe for life, and the future of others too, even of those in whom we shall be most deeply interested. If there be one step which, more than any other, should be taken with profound and protracted care, with devout and religious thoughtfulness, it is this step of choosing our friends, most particularly the friend of the heart and for the life. If we let humour speak on this subject, as we commonly do, it should only be on sufferance. We should make it speedily retire, that sound sense, and solemn consideration, and religious duty may utter their voice, and be obeyed. - C.
Nehemiah 13:31 (see also Nehemiah 5:19; 13:14, 22)God from man. There is something plaintive as well as supplicatory in their tone. We look at -
I. THE HUMAN NEGLIGENCE OF WHICH THEY ARE SUGGESTIVE. What! exclaims an earnest but inexperienced voice; is it meant that Nehemiah, the patriot prophet, who ventured so much in Persia for the people of God at Jerusalem; who, in the teeth of such dangers and difficulties, threw a wall of protection round Jerusalem, and made her safe and strong for centuries; who virtually repeopled and largely rebuilt her; who reinstituted her sacred feasts, and re-established her temple worship in its regularity; who redeemed her children from bondage; who purified her domestic life; who put down her sabbath desecration; who refused to receive fee or payment for his services, all the while showing a princely hospitality, - is it meant that he had to appeal to God from the indifference, the negligence of man? Only too possible, is the reply. Do we not remember that the ancestors of these Jews wearied of the faithful Samuel, and preferred the weak and vacillating Saul; that Greece had her Socrates and Aristides, and Rome her Coriolanus, and Spain her Columbus, and England her William Tyndale? Nay! can we forget that once a greater than Nehemiah was "despised and rejected of men"? He was despised, and men esteemed him not. Nehemiah, to be the builder and restorer he was, had to be an ardent and energetic reformer, i.e. he had to come into sharp collision with the views and (what was more) the interests of his contemporaries, and to challenge and even denounce their doings. These words, "Remember me, my God," follow his record of the vigorous part he took in the matters of
(1) usury (ch. 5.);
(2) the non-payment of tithes (vers. 10-14);
(3) sabbath desecration (vers. 15-22);
(4) the work of cleansing (ver. 30).
They speak of coldness, of suspicion, of disregard, of backbiting, on the part of some, if not many, of those he sought to serve. The strain is this: This people are overlooking my work for them, forgetting the sacrifices I have made, not sparing me their reproaches. Remember THOU me, O God, for good; wipe not thou out my good deeds, spare thou me in the greatness of thy mercy. We must not enter the field of Christian work only, or chiefly, for what man will give us as the reward of our labour. If we do, we may be miserably disappointed; we may reap more tares than wheat in the harvest-time; we may find more thistles on the ground than fruits on the tree; we may be like the Master, who had the crown of thorns pressed on his bleeding brow instead of the crown of honour laid lovingly on his head. It is not for us to "covet earnestly" the smile or praise or recompense of man. Doubtless it ought to be given in response to faithful work; it is better both for him that gives, as well as for him that receives, that it should be given; but as those that serve the Lord Jesus Christ, as those that follow the Son of man, we must be prepared to do without these things. And we can afford to do so, if needful, for there remains -
II. THE DIVINE FAITHFULNESS ON WHICH THESE WORDS ARE BASED. "Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done (ver. 19). But dare we ask God to think on us according to what we have done? For him to deal with us after our actions and to reward us according to our doings, is not this for him to deal with us after our sins and reward us according to our iniquities? Dare we, sinners, make our appeal to the God of righteousness? Must we not address ourselves to him as the God of mercy, who does pass by, blot out, remember no more" the things we had thought and said and done? Truly; yet this doctrine of grace and the doctrine that God will reward those who try to please and honour him stand well together. So Nehemiah felt; for while asking God to remember him for "this also" (this good deed), he asks him to "spare him according to the greatness of his mercy" (ver. 22). So Paul felt; for while speaking of those who "by patient continuance in well-doing seek for glory, honour, and immortality," etc. (Romans 2:7), he speaks of "counting all things but clung to win Christ and be found in him, not having his own righteousness" (Philippians 3:8, 9). The full truth on this subject is that
(1) God's general acceptance or condemnation of us at the last will turn on our acceptance or rejection of Jesus Christ in this life, but that
(2) the character of his approval and the measure of his award will depend on the kind of Christian life we shall have lived. There will be an acceptance which will simply be a not being condemned, a "being saved as by fire," and there will be a cordial, hearty, emphatic "Well done." There will be, for some, fewer cities and narrower spheres; for others, more cities and broader spheres over which to rule. Many Christians live in practical forgetfulness of this, and make no effort to win a cordial approval and a large reward. Hence their Christian life is
(c) idle and unfruitful.
Others, happily, are wiser than they. To such we say, Be faithful in every good word and work, like Nehemiah, and you may make a confident appeal to God for recognition, remembrance, recompense. Do not look anxiously about you for man's smile, but do look earnestly above you for Christ's approval, and beyond you for his reward. Do not think it wrong to gain incentive and inspiration from the hope of recompense because that may not be the very highest motive. It is not wrong to do so; it is wrong not to do so; for Christ calls you so to do. He calls you to put out all your talents, not only because you ought to put them out, but because, thus doing, you will be blessed hereafter; to run your race with patience (perseverance), not only because you ought to do this, but also that you may win the prize. So bear your witness bravely, live your life holily and blamelessly, do your work diligently and in the spirit of full. consecration; be not dismayed, deterred, or even checked by the absence of man's appreciation; walk with elastic step, with psalms of hope upon your lip, the path of holy usefulness, because the Lord your Saviour will "remember you for good;" because he will not "wipe out" your efforts, but write them in a book of remembrance which no hand may touch to blot or to erase; because he will give you a large reward, "abundance "of eternal joy, in the day of his appearing. - C.