William Kelly Major Works Commentary
The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace,Nehemiah Chapter 1
The book we enter upon tonight gives us the last view of the people of God in the Old Testament as far as their history is concerned; hence, it has a very deep interest for us. It is the last time for the Jew; as we are now called out in the last time for God's people here below. That last time for us began, as we know, before the last apostle was taken away, that God might give us distinctive, definite, divine instruction; not merely a sober and sound judgment drawn from Scripture, but that the Holy Ghost might be able to tell us distinctly that it is the last time. Thus we may see most clearly the strong analogy on the surface of it between the words that were spoken about Israel in those days and the position which the goodness of God has given to us now. I do not say this to set our imagination at work, but that we may gather the instruction which the Holy Ghost has given us - that which He tells us of the remnant that had returned, and of their state.
There is a considerable difference in the tone between the Book of Ezra and that of Nehemiah. Ezra shows us the remnant returning from Babylon and first gathering together in Jerusalem - in the land. The Book of Nehemiah shows us the same remnant at a later epoch - the last that Scripture shows us historically. Malachi, no doubt, falls in with Nehemiah, just as Zechariah and Haggai move with Ezra. Haggai and Zechariah were some time before Malachi. These will enable us, therefore, to connect the prophecy of these books of Scripture with the history.
But the first thing I wish to advert to, as a matter of practical profit for our own souls, is this - the spirit which imbues all the conduct of Nehemiah. He was the instrument that God formed for His own glory in the circumstances that now come before us. We shall find that there is a peculiar propriety in this book, without in the least wishing to affirm that all that Nehemiah did or said was according to God's mind and thoughts. Not so. After all, he was but a man - a man of God, but a man. Still, that the Holy Ghost wrought powerfully by thus man, and that what was wrought for God's own glory then is communicated to us for our profit now - who would deny?
What, then, is the first great and marked feature? What is the great moral trait that characterises Nehemiah? We shall find it, not only at the beginning, but all through, from first to last. It is, I venture to say, a deep and constant sense of the ruined state of God's people. Nothing more important for us! It does not at all follow that, because we who live in this day are the Lord's, we possess this feeling any more than did they because they were really Israelites. They were Israelites just as truly as Nehemiah, but who entered most imperfectly into the mind of God about the state of His people. Yet it is evident that such a primary judgment affects the whole course of our service, of our prayers, of our worship. We are either in communion with God - I do not mean about ourselves, but about His people - or we are not. If we are working with one thought and God with another - if we cherish one field, and God, on the contrary, has a little different one - it is evident that whatever may be the goodness of God in maintaining us, there, nevertheless, must be a divergence from His affections, as well as from that sound judgment which ought to be found in the child of God; for, very evidently, all that is true and holy and good and for God's glory depends upon our being in the current of God's mind and work. Nehemiah was, and Nehemiah had to be, content with but a scanty portion of the remnant. This is a sorrowful feeling, but we must always face the truth. This did not make Nehemiah slight the remnant. His reason for regarding them with peculiar affection, whether they were walking well or walking ill, was that they were God's people.
They had lost the title now, and this is a very important thing to bear in mind. As a people, what God had written upon them now was not merely Ichabod: the glory had departed long, long before. The glory had departed when the ark was taken by the Philistines; but they had been taken themselves and carried down, not merely into Philistia, but into Babylon. The great power that symbolises idolatry had carried them captive. A remnant was returned, but little had they learned the lesson of God. Outwardly they had, no doubt, profited by it. We never find them returning to idolatry after this; still, they had very little sense of the glory of God which they had lost. Now, this was what characterises Nehemiah. There are two things, beloved brethren, and if there be a failure in either, there is the greatest loss for the soul. One is to hold fast, on the one hand, the greatness of the ruin, and the other is to hold fast, on the other hand, the faithfulness of God, spite of that ruin. These were found, and they were found together in Nehemiah. The Lord grant that they may be found in us! We need both, and we never can be really answering to what God looks for from us unless we enter into both in communion with Him, and are enabled to hold fast both.
Now, there are many things that tend to make us forget. Supposing we are brought together in the name of the Lord, and He gives us a marked flow of the sense of His presence: we are in danger of forgetting the ruined state of the church. We begin to be, not merely thankful, which is always right, but we begin to be satisfied. With what? No doubt, it appears to be with the grace of God towards us. Yes, but we are in danger of actually being satisfied with ourselves. We are happy: quite right, but do we still carry the sense of ruin? Is it not a grief and a burden - the scattering of the members of Christ - the deep desolation of all that bears His name - everything that is done throughout this wide world against the Lord? What is that object upon our hearts? What the Pope is about? What Protestants are about? What is done by everything that bears the name of the Lord Jesus? Why, have we got anything to do with that? We ought to have - I will not say something to do with it, but we ought to feel much about it. We ought to be burdened by whatever tarnishes the glory of the Lord Jesus; and, therefore, the moment we sever ourselves in heart from that which bears the name of the Lord Jesus upon earth. and settle ourselves down in the comfort and in the enjoyed presence of the Lord, we are altogether wrong in the most fundamental principle of God as to that which befits us in the present state of the church of God.
See how Nehemiah feels. Personally, he was surrounded by every kind of comfort. It was a sorry exchange, as far as that went, to abandon the court of the great king and to go into all the desolations of the land and of Jerusalem; and, after all, it might be easily a matter of reasoning to him, 'Why should I trouble myself about Judζa? It was because of our sins that we were driven out, and it is evident that the people who are there are altogether unworthy. They are behaving themselves without a thought or care for the glory of God. Why should I trouble myself about it? Has not God said, "Not my people"? Has He not taken away all that place of honour in which we were once? Why should I trouble myself more about it? It is all done with. It is no good to think of the people of God. It is only a question of the soul individually. All I have to do is to serve the Lord where I am.' So he might have reasoned. No doubt whatever, Nehemiah was a pious man, and he was in a place, too, where he might have enjoyed his piety. He does not seem to have been under any restraint. He was evidently respected and valued by the great king. He was in a position of high responsibility, for you must not confound the place of a servant in modern days with that which was enjoyed by Nehemiah here.
The cup-bearer, in those days, was one who stood in nearest intimacy to the king, and, more, particularly, to the king of Persia. You are aware that they made themselves extremely little before the eyes of their servants. As to their people - their subjects - they did not allow them to see them except on comparatively rare occasions. This grew up more and more among them, and it was always, through the jealousy and fear of men, a very responsible position, because the way that many of the subjects retaliated upon the haughtiness and pride of these kings was by forsaking their masters and getting rid of them. The cup-bearer, therefore, was one that stood in one of the most delicate and responsible positions in the empire. He was one who had the life of the king more particularly under his command - if I may say so - and he who is in this position was, practically, in a place of most intimate relationship to the king - a sort of vizier or prime minister to the king, to a certain extent. Nehemiah had the king's confidence, as we can clearly see, and was not interfered with as to his conscience, but his heart was with the people of God.
He reminds us, in this closing book, of that which we find near the beginning of the history of God's people. Moses, the leader of the people out of Egypt, had just the very same feeling for the people of God. Providentially delivered brought into the house of Pharaoh's daughter, with the very brightest prospects, why should not he use them? Why should not he wait and employ his influence to bring the people out? Why should not he release them from their burdens gradually? Had he put it to the vote of Israel, I cannot doubt that they would have come to that conclusion. They would have said that no way would have been so excellent, so wise, so prudent as for Moses just to wait a little. He had, at that time, one foot, you may say, upon the throne. It would have been comparatively easy for him, for we do not hear of Pharaoh's son: we hear of Pharaoh's daughter. He could have easily gained that position which his genius would naturally entitle him to. Changes of dynasty were always very easily made in the Eastern world in ancient times, so that nothing would have seemed, therefore, a more providential opening than what God had given to Moses. But no; he loved the people, and, what was more than that, he loved God. He had the sense of what God's glory was, and a sense that God must act according to His own glory, and that there was no other way of blessing the people.
So now Nehemiah - as Moses at the beginning so he at the end of the history - the one before they were formed into a people - the other after. "Not my people," was written upon them - the same spirit, though in totally different circumstances. And so his heart was filled with grief. It was nothing personal; it was purely the grief of love, but it was the grief of love according to God. It was the love of the people because they were His people, even though God had blotted out their title. Still, there was the fact, and he knew right well that although God had cast off the people for a season it was not for ever, and that the title of "My people" will shine in Israel more brilliantly than ever when the Messiah takes them up again - when they turn in heart and repent before Him, and He vindicates and delivers them.
Nehemiah, then, loved the people of God at the very time when they had lost their title - when they were being chastised for their grievous faults and sins against God - at a time when it seemed, for example, the most reasonable thing to give them up. Had not God given them up? Why, then, should Nehemiah feel so much about them? Why should he pine about a people that were so utterly unworthy? That was not the least a question for him. He knew that there was upon earth only the remnant of that people, most guilty and most justly punished, but, nevertheless, the people of God, with whom God's plans of blessing and grace for the earth are bound up. He knew that there, and there only, was the Messiah to be born - that there the Christ was to come among that people and in that land. His heart, therefore, turns to Jerusalem. It might be in ruin, and it was; but there his heart turns.
Now, I should like to ask, beloved friends, whether that is the case with us, for the church of God is more to God than ever Israel was; and not more truly was Israel a people that had lost their place, than the church now is as an outward thing here below. The guilt of Christendom, I have no hesitation in saying, is worse than that of Israel. Incomparably more blest, it is incomparably more guilty, for the guilt is always in proportion to the mercies perverted or abused. Nevertheless, I dare to say that we ought to love the church, not merely the gospel, or the Lord, only; but, if we enter into the feelings of Christ, we shall know that Christ loves the church; and, therefore, to merely satisfy ourselves with the mercies which the Lord shows us would be just like Nehemiah blessing God for what he enjoyed in the palace of the great king, and being content to be without a thought and without a care and without a tear and without a prayer for the people of God. But not so. All his heart, as far as objects upon earth were concerned, was set upon them, and his grief was because of the way in which that people of God was now falling short of what was due to His glory here below. Hence, therefore, we see his weeping and mourning. "I sat down," as he says; "and mourned certain days and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven." And he pours out his heart to Him, and he confesses, and confesses, too, in a way which shows that there was no self-righteousness about it. He includes himself. "We have sinned against Thee, both I and my father's house have sinned." There is no isolation of his spirit from this confession of the failure. He feels his own part, and so much the more because he was faithful, for it is never persons who are most guilty that are most ready to confess. It is when you are out of the guilt of the sin that you can the more thoroughly confess the sin before God. While you are still under the darkness and cloud of it, you are not in a spirit of confession; but when the grace of God has lifted your head above it, shining upon you from above, then indeed you can confess thoroughly to God. Now Nehemiah could thus feel. We can easily see from his general spirit that, by the grace of God, he was a man walking with the Lord, and could feel things clearly, and could feel things rightly, and his heart was free to occupy itself about God's people. So he owns their failure, their departure, their utter dishonour; but he cries to God.
That Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.
And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.
And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,
And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments:
Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father's house have sinned.
We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.
Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations:
But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.
Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.
O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cupbearer.