The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
On that day they read in the book of Moses in the audience of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever;Nehemiah 13
"Howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing" (Nehemiah 13:2.)
Curses and Blessings
PICTURE a very large concourse of people with Nehemiah at their head. They have assembled to read the law written in Moses. This was the habit of the ancients: when they were in trouble, when they were at their wits' end, they found it a high intellectual and spiritual tonic to read the law. We should find it to be exactly the same under events which we cannot control, and under sorrows for which we have no healing. If under such circumstances we bring ourselves face to face and heart to heart with the Eternal Word and the unchanging testimony, our health will be renewed and our hope will be rekindled.
Whilst the people were reading the law written in Moses they came upon a very singular and animating passage. Such passages abound in all the providential working of God and the true histories thereof; but sometimes a passage strikes us with peculiar accent and vividness, though we may have read it many times before without having been deeply impressed by its gravity and its application to ourselves. The passage in question ran to this effect: that the Ammonite and the Moabite should never enter the congregation of God for ever, because they met not the children of Israel with bread and water in the time of their necessity, but hired against the children of Israel the prophet Balaam to curse the children of Israel: "howbeit our God turned the curse [of Balaam] into a blessing." Observe the marvellous constancy of the divine arbitrament and justice. Why was the Ammonite and why was the Moabite excluded from the congregation of God? For the very selfsame reason that men will be excluded from the kingdom of heaven in the last great assize. "Depart from me, Ammonite and Moabite; for I was an hungered, and ye gave me no bread; I was thirsty, and ye gave me no drink." What he said to the Ammonite and the Moabite he will say to the goats upon his left hand when he comes to judge the world. It is one government, it is one law, it is one God; touch it where we may, we have the same response. Hence the beauty, the grandeur, the immortal majesty of the exclamation, "Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord." Our purpose is to show that God has the power to turn a curse into a blessing, and that this doctrine is the ultimate rest and the supreme comfort of every honest man.
"Our God turned the curse into a blessing." The ancient believers always seemed to have God so near that they had no difficulty in getting through the thicket which lures us—the thicket of secondary causes, intermediate agencies, tumultuous and confusing events in life. The Jews, in their better time and in their better estate, seemed to go right up to God as friend might go to friend, and openly confer with him. Nehemiah does not say that Balaam was met by another Balaam: that some man had more genius than the prophet that was hired: that Balaam was outwitted by a keener sagacity than his own: that Balaam was checkmated by a subtler policy than he had imagination enough to conceive. Nehemiah sees God at work, sees the finger of God in this transformation, and openly, gladly, gratefully acknowledges that the transformation of the curse was not the work of human goodwill or of human genius, but a direct operation of the divine almightiness itself. We lose so much by not seeing God immediately. We have left him so far behind he now stands far off from our consciousness: whereas the old men who laid the rocky foundation of human history, and won its early victories, were men who had simply to look up when they saw the Almighty: to turn round, and they beheld the gleaming of his countenance: to put out the hand and they touched the hern of his garment. Why do we allow God to go so far away from our consciousness and appreciation and love? Why do we not cry out for him, and bid him come to us, and give him no rest until he draws near? This is the true religion; this is the noble piety; this is the infinite privilege of the sons of God. It will be comforting to not a few if we reflect for a moment upon this great truth, that whatever curses are breathed upon our life by hired prophets, or by false priests and by traitorous friends, may be turned into blessings by the great and good hand of God.
Let me remind you of a few familiar principles upon which we are all agreed, and then illustrate how these principles, that seem to have no centre, but to be floating as vague generalities, gather themselves up in a central principle in the divine government, and are not loose and incoherent propositions, but really part of the sum total of the kingdom and government of God.
To be cursed of man is really no proof of God's disapprobation. Let us consider the case well, especially such as are labouring under harsh criticism, and exposed to unfriendly judgment: men who are misapprehended and misrepresented: men who have to suffer more or less of social excommunication and class ostracism; let us look carefully at the proposition—to be cursed of man is really no proof of God's disapprobation. Christ said, "Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." Paul says, "Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth." Who is man? What right has he to curse? What does any one man know about any other man, even his most familiar friend? We say, "Who can find out the Almighty unto perfection?" Who can find out any man to perfection? We have screens behind which we veil ourselves from the most loving and peering eyes; we can retire into solitudes and silences impregnable; we can be ourselves and by ourselves in an awful loneliness no friend can violate. Who can tell all the mysteries of our temperament and of our constitution, of the subtle circumstances that have made us what we are? Who can go back into our early history and trace us up day by day, and see the marvellous chemistry that has been going on, alike physiologically and socially and publicly, making up elements and composition for which there seem to be no words? And unless a man can estimate us critically and exhaustively, his judgment must be marred by the limitation of his knowledge.
He ought to be a very great man and a very pure, lofty, and godly soul who undertakes to curse anybody else. In cursing others we may be but showing our own littleness, and playing such fantastic tricks before high heaven as make the angels weep. Why should we be cruel, sharp, and harsh with each other? Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall. A curse should only come from holy lips. A malediction coming from unconsecrated lips hurts him who speaks, not him who hears. There is great need for this lesson in the church to-day, for there is a kind of pharisaic morality which is very prone to speak that which is very intolerable, and which seems to imagine it increases its own virtue by indicating very broadly and vividly the vices of other people. There are persons who have a keen eye for faults and a sharp tongue for harsh criticism, who can always tell who is not sound and who is not full weight, and who is not precisely perpendicular, and although these people would disavow the power of cursing, they practically avail themselves of the prerogative of malediction and excommunication. If men would speak only according to their holiness, we should hear but little of them; if they would let their own purity and honour be the measure of their criticism upon their fellow-citizens, we should have silence where now we have speech, and humiliation where now we have self-exalting. Let us understand, therefore, that though scourged by whips of unworthy men, borne down by injustice and unnecessary criticism,—to be cursed of men is not necessarily a proof of God's disapprobation. He may be unwise or unworthy who takes our name in vain—unworthy to set his feet in the dust we left behind on the highway, who ventures to say harsh words of us. Let our reply be a nobler bearing, tenderer love to God, profounder and deeper homage to all the law and requirement of the Holy One: answering not by vain words and by self-vindication as hollow as the curse it repays, but by growing massiveness of character, by higher dignity of spirit, by loftier aspiration, and by a more consecrated and honourable service in the kingdom of God.
It follows, however, that to be blest of man is no proof of God's favour. There are those who receive an applause which has no fame in it—men who are loudly called for, and whose names are received with echoing thunders of acclamation, who know that they do not deserve the cordiality with which they are hailed. And the real cursing is that which the man breathes upon himself. When he rises amid all this applause and welcoming, and says to himself, "You painted hypocrite, you know that you do not deserve these encomiums and approbations," then it is a hollow thunder that resounds around him. He is not touched by the applause—he declines it; for there is honesty in that thief, there is honour in that conscience. He receives it outwardly, and bows his grateful returns; but he declines it in his soul, for he knows that he has no right, title, lot, or memorial in any community of honest men.
To what blessing are we trusting? It is in vain to trust to any blessing that can be turned into a curse. Let us see to it that it is an essential blessing we get hold of—a vital, divine benediction. If it be a secondary benediction it can be reversed; if it be a decree from an inferior court, it may be annulled by an appeal to some higher assize. To what blessing are we trusting? To the blessing of those who know little about us, to the kind word of men who do not understand us, to the confidence and the honour of people who would despise us and throw us into the river of forgetfulness if they knew what we were. There can be no virtue in such benediction. Let us renounce the artificial solace, and know that a blessing, a favour, an approbation that is not sanctioned by conscience, endorsed and approved of God, must in the long run become a sting and fill us with intolerable remorse. And remember, as the complement of this truth, that it is unwise and irreligious to fear any curse which can be turned into a blessing. "Why art thou cast down, O my soul? and why art thou disquieted within me? hope thou in God: for I shall yet praise him, who is the health of my countenance, and my God." "Oh that my people had hearkened unto me, and Israel had walked in my ways! I should soon have subdued their enemies, and turned my hand against their adversaries." God's blessing is the only abiding approbation: any blessing short of the divine blessing is not worth having. Let God undertake for us; then it shall be true that if a man please the Lord he makes his enemies to be at peace with him. It shall be true of us that no weapon formed against us shall prosper. It shall be true or us in our degree, as of David's and of Christ's—his enemies will I clothe with shame: but upon himself shall his crown flourish. Why should we fear the malediction of men? Why should we court the approbation of a corrupt society? If we do anything unworthy for the purpose of bringing upon ourselves compliments and courtesies and benedictions which are hollow in themselves, and which come from unworthy sources, we are bribing society to dishonour ourselves.
How much needs to be spoken upon this point to those who are called to bear testimony for Christ! Ministers need to speak to themselves very clearly upon this, for the temptation is to fear the face and to dread the curse of men. When they stand in the pulpit to speak some unpopular truth, or to assail what they believe to be a great public iniquity, there is a spirit looking at them and saying: "Take care—perhaps you may offend some persons; perhaps they may leave your ministry; perhaps they may desert your pews. Do not put the thing so broadly, vividly, or graphically, but throw clouds around it and speak in ambiguous terms, lest you be considered to be too personal and too much to the point." O, cursed spirit! bringing with it not breath from heaven, but blasts from hell! Oh that Christian men may be lifted above all fear, have the courage of their convictions, and be clothed with the spirit which says it is unwise, it is irreligious, it is atheistic, to fear any curse that God has power enough to transform into a blessing!
How far have these general truths been illustrated and confirmed in our personal experience? Every man will have his tale upon this point; every narrative will go to show that these general principles have received individual corroboration. Thus, you have as a younger man been neglected by a certain section of society; you wished to connect yourself with this fellowship, or with that club or association; you wanted to be one of its members, and to enjoy its privileges and its delights; and people conspired against you, and said, "We will not have him amongst us." And at that time you said, "They have cursed me, and their curse is hard to bear." How did you deport yourself? You acted wisely and said, "Then I will turn to the Eternal—I will make friends with God." And in carrying out this high purpose you gave yourself to reading, to study, to education. You said, "I will seek intellectual expansion—mental refinement; I will acquire riches of the mind; I will attend to self-culture." And so you read the old prophets biblical, and the old teachers classical, and the new historians modern, and you acquainted yourself with manifold wisdom; whereas if you had got the blessing you sought for in the first instance, you would have frittered away your time—you would have been known at best as a brilliant gossip, and you would have gone out of the world without its having been the better for your coming into it. God turned the curse into a blessing; you never would have been the man you are if those people whose delightful society, as you then thought it to be, had not refused your fellowship and confidence. That, at the time a curse, was the making of you. In after years thou shalt say, "It was the best thing that ever happened to me was yonder malediction. I felt it at the time; it struck me heavily, I nearly succumbed—howbeit my God turned the curse into a blessing." Only you be true to God—hand up the human curse to him—let him treat it. "Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord;" therefore "avenge not yourselves."
All these thinkings and comfortings would be loose and uncertain if they did not lead up to a far greater principle than any we have yet stated, namely this: God means to turn his own curses into blessings. He does not mean any one of his curses pronounced upon the children of men within the region of the mediatorial and merciful to be his last word. He means his curse to be the beginning of a blessing, the darkness on which he will set his stars. His benediction is his last word, not his curse. When the end shall come—the great dread tragical end shall come—then his last word may be, "Depart from me;" but he will keep the heavens alive for thousands of ages yet, if he can but spare himself the utterance of that word upon any child he ever made. He does not want to say it; the word that he loves best and says most sweetly is, "Come." There is hospitality in it; there is redemption in it; there is immortality in it—in it there is heaven. Look at the curses of God, and you will find exactly what we mean. Once he cursed the ground for man's sake. Not only because man had sinned, but because by the cursing, and all that was involved in the malediction, he intended man to develop himself in all his powers, energies, and capacities, and fit himself for a destiny superior to any issue possible within the region of earth and time.
Men have been straining themselves, looking off to horizons, to illimitable distances, seeking shadows among the clouds; whereas the Redeemer was standing there within their own shadow length. He was amongst them, and they knew him not. Why all the searching for the mineral and the vegetable that shall heal? For man's sake. If we had not such trouble to go through we should soon die of monotony; but God says, "Try here." He retires, and says, "Perhaps, if you try there...." And so he lures us, challenges our intellectual activity, draws us onward from one discovery to another, until the time shall come when he will say: "Now you shall be masters. I call you no more servants, but friends. You shall find what you want under your feet, and in the very first plant that blooms." In the meantime it is good for us that the things should be hidden, that medical treatment should be a science, that great discoveries should be made, and great intellectual activity should be called for.
What is true in one particular is true in every other. Do you imagine that theology is the thorny maze, the difficult labyrinth, the horrible and entangling thicket which we make of it oftentimes and describe it to be in our laborious books? Nothing of the sort. The simplest of sciences, the easiest of truths, as we have to receive it now, the very alphabet of information and of wisdom; but it is good for us, if we use the opportunity aright, that we should have all this mental collision, this intellectual friction, this exchange of truth and of views, if only we keep our spirit sober; our spirit charitable, noble, catholic, always willing to give as well as to take. Then all this theological inquiry will lead to good and to happy results. But God means all this curse (so-called) of labour, toil, difficulty, intellectual oppositions and collisions, to end in a great blessing, in the discovery of infinite inheritances, and in the enjoyment of immeasurable, yea, infinite largesses of his grace and light. And so in what are called cross-providences, the Christian testimony should be, "God has always been right. I have said, 'Father, I want this,' and he has been silent; and I have said, 'I will have it!' I have taken it, and it has stung me. I have said, 'I will not go down this road; it looks dark and perilous, and there may be beasts of prey down there; birds of evil omen may be darkening the black shadows of the treacherous trees;' and God has said, 'Go down!' I have said, 'Spare me this!' but he has repeated, 'Go!' and I have in his strength gone down, and all the darkness was passed through in a few yards, and after that came a road thronged with angels, coloured with heaven, bright with all that makes heaven lustrous. God in my poor life has always been right, and when I have been crossed and punished and disappointed and chided and kept back, and when I have felt his hand upon me, and he has driven me down as if I had been his enemy, behold he has been seeking my welfare, turning me aside from dangerous paths; and I am a living man to bear this witness, that out of every disappointment I have received consolation, out of every sacrifice of my own will I have had revelations of the divine approbation and care which have widened and brightened and redeemed and cheered my life."
God has no wish to curse the creatures of his hand. Judgment is his strange work. Truly he can curse, and when he curses who can bless? He can make the harvest a heap, and send upon the earth a day of desperate sorrow. He can bow down the high ones of stature, and humble the haughty. He can make the trees of the forest so few that a child can write them; but this he will not do if we do not sin against him and against ourselves. It is hopeless for us to fight against God, for his will shall stand above the wreck and the humiliation of all human purpose. Babylon cannot establish herself on ground he has forbidden. The wild beasts of the glen shall lie there, and the houses of the proud shall be full of doleful creatures. He will break the staff of the wicked, and throw the spear of their joy into the sea. Yet if we will return unto the Lord he says he will heal us; if we will acquaint ourselves with him we shall be at peace. Yes, blessed be God! where the curse abounds the blessing shall abound still more.
The time will come when all curse shall be done away, when sin shall have played out its little mischief, and the great universe may be the better for the tragedy of Eden. It is possible that there may be more joy over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety-and-nine just persons who need no repentance. How this is to be we cannot tell, but the Cross shall be more beautiful than all other trees, and Calvary shall be more thickly planted than Lebanon. God will turn the curse somehow into blessing, and roses shall be gathered out of the sands of the desert This is our faith. We do not believe that human power can go beyond a very little length. Man likes to curse because he likes to show his own virtue; he thinks that in cursing others he is showing his own worthiness to be blessed. Let us abstain from cursing; let us trust in the living God, who alone has benedictions to give unto men.
But do not understand that a blessing will be given without any action on your part. "Seek ye the Lord while he may be found.... Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him: and to our God, for he will multiply to pardon"—roll in upon him the billows of his forgiveness as wave pursuing wave, until the track of his sin shall be obliterated, and he shall have no more memory of his guilt. Art thou suffering? Go to thy knees; tell God thy sin—tell it all right out; bitter, black, grim, ghastly, though it be; keep back no part of the price; and when thou hast told it all, and left no dreg in thy corrupt heart—when thou hast laid it all clear out before him, then the film shall be taken from thine eyes, thou shalt see the great mighty redeeming cross of Christ, and he shall say, "Thy sins, which are many, are all forgiven thee." The curse will be turned into a blessing, and thou shalt be the better for the abasement and the humiliation, and even for the sin of which thou hast fully confessed thyself, and which has been cleansed out of thee by the atoning blood of the Son of God.
Almighty God, do thou fill us with a godly concern respecting the state of man. May we look on all things from the altar of the sanctuary, and judge righteous judgment, and be so inspired as to be fearless in the presence of evil. May the questions we ask come out of the heart, burn like fire, and stand up in the presence of men as symbols of the judgment of God. We thank thee for all earnest souls that burn their way through the ages, whose ardour is recognised as that which is kindled from on high: we bless thee for men who dare look at evil and name it by its right name, and curse it at the altar of eternal righteousness; they suffer, but are strong; they are killed, yet they live; they are thy servants, yet they come to us as angels from God. Behold us, we beseech thee, and create in us a spirit of earnest desire to rectify that which is wrong, to find that which is gone astray and restore it; and may our whole soul be filled with the compassion which moved the heart of Christ. We rejoice to find in him our Master and our Lord. He has a right to our whole homage, to all the energy of every faculty, for he died the just for the unjust that he might bring us to God. We hear his solemn words, we listen to the fall of his judgments upon scribes and Pharisees, and pretenders, and hypocrites, and whited sepulchres; and we say, Never man spake like this Man, either in judgment or in tenderness, in the spirit of righteousness or in the spirit of redemption. May we listen to all the tones of his voice, and respond to them according to our necessity; especially may we respond to the Son of God when he offers to give us pardon, and purity, and rest, and hope of heaven: then may we run towards him with eagerness and delight, knowing that he hath proceeded forth from God that so he might deliver and enrich human kind. If we pray for men of various estate, passing through various difficulties, afflictions, and emotions, surely thou wilt hear our prayer, made strong and prevalent in the name of Jesus Christ. We pray for all who are overwhelmed with sorrow, for those who are suddenly seized by evil, or that which appears to be evil to the narrow vision of human ignorance. Thou knowest that life is hard to some, the battle never ceases; there is hardly any taste of victory in all the long fight: God help such, and tell them that after all the time is short, and may end any moment, and that the Lord will suddenly come to the rescue of those who put their trust in him. To others life is all sunshine, an easy victory, a swift run through places of flowers and still waters: the Lord save them in the time of danger, show them that all wealth is dangerous, all prosperity is perilous, all strength is temptation to self-trust. The Lord lend a hand to the blind man, or he will fall in the thoroughfare; the Lord take up the weary man and give him rest awhile or he will fall for want of breath; the Lord speak to the poor and the outcast, and the far away, and by the awakening of memory, or the rekindling of inspirations and new possibilities of thought and force, draw men to a new standing, and give all men some sense of liberty and growth. The Lord sanctify affliction of every kind and degree, whether falling suddenly on the life, or creeping upon it slowly and devouring it little by little; still let the sanctification of thy presence be found in the chamber of affliction and sorrow. Save us, we beseech thee, from all false trust; may we abhor that which is evil, and cleave to that which is good; may it be our joy to follow Christ even up the steepest way, and to find in his presence all helpful grace. Pity our littlenesses and infirmities: for are we not creatures of the dust and children of the wind, except it be that we realise our relation to thyself, in whom alone we find our glory and eternity. The Lord encourage every one who is in bewilderment and longing for release and light; the Lord keep us steadily to our work, and may we not relax our hold upon the plough until the going down of the sun. Let the Lord's heaven descend upon us, so that we may overhear its music, and be made glad by some hint of its ineffable rest. Amen.
1. On that day they read [Heb. there was read] in the book of Moses [Numbers 22:5; Deuteronomy 23:3] in the audience [Heb. ears] of the people; and therein was found written, that the Ammonite and the Moabite should not come into the congregation of God for ever;
2. Because they met not the children of Israel with bread and with water, but hired Balaam against them, that he should curse them: howbeit our God turned the curse into a blessing [see Numbers 23:7-11; Numbers 24:3-19].
3. Now it came to pass, when they had heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude.
4. ¶ And before this, Eliashib the priest, having the oversight [Heb. being set over] of the chamber [the entire out-building or "lean-to," which surrounded the temple on three sides, and was made up of three stories, each containing a number of rooms, some smaller, some larger (see 1Kings 6:5-10)] of the house of our God, was allied [connected by marriage] unto Tobiah:
5. And he had prepared for him a great chamber, where aforetime they laid the meat offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the corn, the new wine, and the oil, which was commanded to be given to the Levites, and the singers, and the porters; and the offerings of the priests [i.e. the portion of the offerings assigned for their sustenance to the priests].
6. But in all this time was not I at Jerusalem: for in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes king of Babylon came I unto the king, and after certain days [Heb. at the end of days] obtained I [or, I earnestly requested] leave of the king:
7. And I came to Jerusalem, and understood of the evil that Eliashib did for Tobiah, in preparing him a chamber in the courts of the house of God.
8. And it grieved me sore: therefore I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber.
9. Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meat offering and the frankincense.
10. ¶ And I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field.
11. Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken? And I gathered them together [Nehemiah gathered the Levites from their lands, and reinstated them in their set offices], and set them in their place [Heb. standing].
12. Then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn and the new wine and the oil unto the treasuries [or, storehouses].
13. And I made treasurers over the treasuries, Shelemiah the priest, and Zadok the scribe [probably the same as Zidkijah of ch. Nehemiah 10:1], and of the Levites, Pedaiah: and next to them was Hanan the son of Zaccur, the son of Mattaniah: for they were counted faithful, and their office was to distribute unto their brethren.
14. Remember me [once more the faithful servant of God begs a merciful remembrance of what he had done for the honour of God in the "observances" of the temple], O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds [Heb. kindnesses] that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices [observations] thereof.
15. ¶ In those days saw I in Judah some treading wine presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath day: and I testified against them in the day [rather, concerning the day] wherein they sold victuals.
16. There dwelt men of Tyre also therein, which brought fish, and all manner of ware, and sold on the sabbath unto the children of Judah, and in Jerusalem.
17. 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? [The desecration of the Sabbath is first brought into prominence among the sins of the Jewish people by Jeremiah (see ch. Jeremiah 17:21-27). It could not but have gained ground during the captivity, when foreign masters would not have allowed the cessation of labour one day in seven. On the return from captivity, the sabbatical rest appears to have been one of the institutions most difficult to re-establish.]
18. Did not your fathers thus [cf. Jeremiah 17:21-27], 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.
19. And it came to pass, that when the gates of Jerusalem began to be dark before the sabbath [i.e. at the sunset of the day before the sabbath; since the sabbath was regarded as commencing on the previous evening], I commanded that the gates should be shut, and charged that they should not be opened till after the sabbath: and some of my servants [comp. ch. Jeremiah 4:16-23; Jeremiah 5:16] set I at the gates, that there should no burden be brought in on the sabbath day.
20. So the merchants and sellers of all kind of ware lodged without Jerusalem once or twice.
21. Then I testified against them, and said unto them, Why lodge ye about [Heb. before] the wall [The Speaker's Commentary says: The lodging of the merchants with their merchandise just outside Jerusalem during the sabbath, while they impatiently waited for the moment when they might bring their wares in, was thought by Nehemiah to be unseemly, and to have an irreligious tendency. He therefore threatened the merchants with arrest if they continued the practice]? if ye do so again, I will lay hands on you. From that time forth came they no more on the sabbath.
22. And I commanded the Levites [at first Nehemiah had employed his own retinue in the work of keeping the gates; but, as this was inconvenient, he now made a change, and assigned the duty to the Levites, as one which properly belonged to them, since the object of the regulation was the due observance of the sabbath], that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day. Remember me [In this prayer also Nehemiah commits his fidelity to the merciful estimate of God. But something in connection with the sabbath, or with his retrospect of his own conduct, gives the passing prayer a peculiar pathos of humility], O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness [or, multitude] of thy mercy.
23. ¶ In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab:
24. And their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod [a mixture of Philistine and Aramic], and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people [Heb. of people and people],
25. And I contended with them, and cursed [or, reviled] them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair [scarcely with his own hand. The meaning rather is that Nehemiah caused them to be thus punished], and 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.
26. 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 [comp. 2Samuel 12:24-25], and God made him king over all Israel: nevertheless even him did outlandish women cause to sin.
27. Shall we then hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?
28. And one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, was son in law to Sanballat the Horonite: therefore I chased him from me. [Eliashib himself was allied by marriage to Tobiah, and one of his grandsons was married to Sanballat Him Nehemiah drove into exile.]
29. Remember them [this priestly violation of law is committed to God alone for punishment], O my God, because they have defiled the priesthood, and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites.
30. [This is a brief recapitulation of the special work of Nehemiah after his return.] Thus cleansed I them [after the acts of discipline described above there was doubtless some formal service of expiation] from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business;
31. And for the wood offering, at times appointed, and for the firstfruits.
[No special provision was made by the law for the supply of wood necessary to keep fire ever burning upon the altar; nor do David or Solomon appear to have instituted any definite regulations on the subject. It remained for Nehemiah to establish a system by which the duty of supplying the wood should be laid as a burthen in turn on the various clans or families, which were regarded as constituting the nation. The lot was used to determine the order in which the several families should perform the duty. A special day (the fourteenth of the fifth month, according to Josephus) was appointed for the bringing in of the supply; and this day was after a time regarded as a high festival, and called "The Festival of the Wood Offering."] Remember me, O my God, for good.
[With these words (Bishop Ellicott's Commentary) Nehemiah leaves the scene, committing himself and his discharge of duty to the righteous Judge. His conscientious fidelity had brought him into collision not only with external enemies, but with many of his own brethren. His rigorous reformation has been assailed by many moralists and commentators in every age. But in these words he commits all to God, as it were by anticipation. It may be added that with these words end the annals of the Old Testament History.]
Nehemiah's Temper and Questions
WHAT a different man is Nehemiah when the first chapter and the last of his book are brought into contrast! In the first chapter Nehemiah is meek enough; we read that—it came to pass, when he heard certain words, that he "sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven" (Nehemiah 1:4),—all that could be done in a private house. In the last chapter we find him laying about him with tremendous fury. He hurls everything out of his way in a righteous rage. There is nothing about weeping, and mourning, and fasting. The last chapter is a thunderstorm. Yet the first and the last are related; the man who cannot weep—that is to say, the man who cannot feel deeply and acutely—can never do any great and permanent reforming work in the world; the man who cannot fast—that is to say, hold himself in severest control—can never strike with any real effect; the man who cannot pray—that is to say, connect himself with all the highest forces and energies of the universe, ally himself with the very omnipotence of God—can never stand forth in heroic fearlessness and courage almost divine. In the first chapter we have the man's inner nature—in the last chapter we have the man at work; and between the two, though the contrast is outwardly so striking, there is an intimate and necessary relation.
What questions he asks! all reformation should be preceded by inquiry. Circumstances develop men. Nehemiah began in the history as a cupbearer; he ends in the same history as a mighty, resolute, beneficent reformer, never in any one of his reforms promoting his own interests, narrowly viewed as such, but everywhere considering the public weal, re-establishing law and order, that society may be secured and enabled to make useful progress. Nehemiah did not care who had done the mischief, he was bent upon undoing it. It was a priest who had "the oversight of the chamber of the house of our God," who had allied himself unto Tobiah, whose history we have studied; and that same priest had prepared for the enemy a great chamber, and when Nehemiah came he knotted as it were whipcord and laid about him, so that they who had done evil might suffer in the body for the mischief they had wrought. Possession was not to him nine points of the law. The man was in the wrong place, and he must be routed out. It was in vain to plead possession, prescriptive right, a kind of quasi-legal entrance upon the property: Nehemiah said, This is not yours; it was not in the gift of any man; you must be put out of this, and you must take care of your stuff, or it will be thrown into the fire. An awkward man to deal with! Tobiah could have borne any amount of argument, and he looked serene in the face of most eloquent persuasiveness; but Nehemiah was a man of action as well as a man of thought; he gave but little time to moving; the moving was to be accomplished; and it was well understood that when Nehemiah had made up his mind to a course, that course was as good as run.
Look at some of the questions which Nehemiah put:—
"Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the house of God forsaken?" (Nehemiah 13:11).
This is the voice of a man who means to hold the house of God in highest reverence. We dare not adopt the question now, because it is out of consonance with the spirit of Jesus Christ, that spirit being one of persuasion, reasoning, sympathy, entreaty,—well imaged in the words, "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock: if any man hear my voice, and open the door, I will come in to him." Still, we owe much to the spirit of Nehemiah. There was a time when the spirit of order and right could assert itself in very forcible terms. The earth was not made beautiful without much volcanic energy, without great upheavals and tumults: the sward that is on the top of it was not always there; it comes after great contention, conflict, stirring together, and a tremendous coalition of forces well-nigh infinite. It is the same with human history. We have come to halcyon days: we wonder that the sward is not more velvet-like, we complain if everything is not brought to the highest polish of civilisation; we now argue with men, and entreat them to do things which aforetime would have been commanded and insisted upon. The former is the better plan. It is founded on an eternal principle. Yet who shall say that we are not much indebted even to physical force and positive penal law for a good deal that is best amongst us to-day? Who can be sure that our penalties have not ended in very much of our best refinement, our highest forbearance and self-control and moral dignity? The point, however, to be kept in view is this—that there was a man who cared for God's house. That man ought to live through all time. He does live. His influence is not always exercised in the same way; but there is always in the human heart a great wonder, a mighty passion, leading to strenuous effort in the direction of filling the house of God. When God's house is cared for, no other house is neglected. We are not referring to that sentimental regard for the building which can leave other things to run to ruin, but of that intelligent, rational, reverent solicitude for the house of God, which expresses itself in all industries, and in every aspect of loving conscientious faithfulness. Let this be judged of by reality and fact. The matter is open to inquest upon almost statistical ground. Who cares for God's business shall be cared for by God. "Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's business?" was the question which Christ propounded. Let us put it in the new form—Wist ye not that I must be about my Father's house? The idea remains unimpaired. When we are about God's house in the right spirit the redemptive God is taking care of our home. He lives a foolish life who seeks his life upon narrow grounds. He that would save his life must know how to lose it; he who would save the little must attend to the great; he who would have all things added unto him must seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.
Look at another question:—
"What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath day?" (Nehemiah 13:17).
The same man here evinces the same spirit. The house of God and the day of God go together; they stand or fall together. The work of God is one, and his purpose is undivided, and all his ordinances interrelate themselves to one another, so that if you touch one you touch the whole, if you break the least you break the greatest. A marvellous unity of thought and purpose and law we find in the house of God! Nehemiah was a Sabbatarian of the severest type. We do well not to imitate his action in this matter. There can be no Sabbath-keeping by law. We cannot force a man to keep the day of God. We can compel him to withdraw from visible participation in merchandise; we can compel him to close his windows, and to give all his servants holiday; so far we can go. But unless the Sabbatic spirit is in the man there will be no Sabbath kept by him. It is the heart that obeys; it is the heart that is religious. We are not good because we assent to certain propositions and obey certain laws: we are only good because the spirit is at one in rational and loving consonance with God. Here again we must almost go to statistics for proof of the utility and beneficence of Sabbath-keeping. Let us rest this question on the strongest grounds, namely, those that are spiritual, social, healthful, beneficial, in every aspect and issue, and then our argument cannot be overthrown. If we should institute a comparison between those who keep the Sabbath with those who do not keep it, there can be no risk in believing that those who truly in their hearts consecrate a portion of their time to God are the best men: if they are not they ought to be; they do not live up to their profession of the Son of man. He ought to be the best man who sets apart a portion of his property, a portion of his time, to religious uses, and who does so not to escape a penalty but to express a high and noble sentiment of gratitude. If he is not the best man, then he is misusing his opportunity, playing false with his religious actions, and is unequal in his inner man and moral purpose to that which is outward and that which is externally attractive and good. The Sabbath, therefore, can only be kept by men who want to keep it. All our statutes and acts of parliament and preventatives are useless, and worse than useless, irritating and exasperating, unless there be a spirit in man which responds to the spirit of the Sabbath, and says, This is the gift of God; this is needful on social grounds, on healthful grounds, on religious grounds; therefore, the Sabbath should be kept holy unto the Lord.
So far did Nehemiah succeed that he drove out a good many who were doing business within the city on the Sabbath day. But they were not to be easily deterred: they loitered behind the wall; they thought they would watch their opportunity for doing a little business even on Nehemiah's Sabbath day. But Nehemiah was an out-and-out reformer; he did not look in one direction only, he looked over the wall, and seeing these men loitering about he said, If you come there again I will lay hands upon you—be off! The tone was needed at that time. Historically, it was right; the men could understand no other argument. There are persons who cannot understand a preacher, but they have some dim conception of a constable. Nehemiah, therefore, played the inspector, and looked over the wall, and hunted the rats out of their hole, and drove them away with righteous indignation, threatening them that if they returned they would be detained. A man of this kind is always useful in society; and the men who criticise him most severely are not always unwilling to realise the benefits which his policy secures: they will take whatever he may bring to them in the way of advantage, and then they will scrutinise severely his policy and his spirit, and wish that he were a man of another temper. Men of so-called bad temper have been of great use in society. Their temper has not been bad when looked at within the proper limits and in the right light: it was only bad to the men who were themselves bad, and who wished to escape judgment. There is a righteous indignation. There is a godly jealousy. There is an anger that may not cease with the shining of the sun, but burn at night and be ready for the morning, that evil may be contemned and scorched and destroyed.
This was the man Nehemiah. What probably enraged him more than anything else was the intermarriage of the Jews with the heathen. There he became most sublimely indignant; said he, "In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: and 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. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair," and made them swear in God's name that they would never do it again. This man was once only cupbearer; once he was a "mute inglorious Milton"; once he sat down and wept and mourned and fasted and prayed. Comparing the verse which represents him so doing with the twenty-fifth verse of the last chapter of his book, we find, though a great change passes in the matter of emotion and contemplation and action, the man is one and the same. The great argument was, "Did not Solomon king of Israel sin by these things?" his argument being, You have history to guide, you have example and warning on every hand; you are not guiltless, but doubly guilty, because even the king of Israel sinned in this way and incurred the judgment and displeasure of heaven. Here Nehemiah stood upon sound ground. He knew what had happened in the history of the world, which so few men know. Men may know the history of the world in bare facts and dates, in battles and victories, and coronations and changes of dynasty and policy, and yet know nothing about the central moral line that runs through all history and makes it organic, and turns it into a great teaching instrument. If we know dates only we know nothing about history. History has a moral aspect, and we must study its morale, its aims in relation to the moral health of the people, if we would grasp its philosophy and usefully apply its largest lesson.
Here, then, we have discipline, earnestness, definiteness,—the very Cromwell of the Old Testament, the man with a rod in his hand; and nothing stands in his way when he has right to vindicate, when he has law to protect. Where are the Nehemiahs of to-day? There are none. Where are the Cromwells of to-day? They are in the grave. Look at this man's attitude as described by himself; omitting the interstitial matter, let us catch all words in which he describes his personal action:—"I cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah out of the chamber "—"Then contended I with the rulers"—"I testified against them"—"I contended with the nobles of Judah"—"I commanded that the gates should be shut"—"I commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves "—"I said unto the Sabbath-breakers, If ye do so again, I will lay hands on you "—"I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God"—"I chased one of the sons of Joiada from me "—"Thus cleansed I them." And so he passes away from us in a great storm of reformation. "I contended—I commanded—I cast forth—I chased—I said—Thus I cleansed." He is not ashamed to speak of himself. He was indeed the only man of his time worth speaking about. He was as the very Spirit of judgment amongst the people. If we do not want Nehemiah's violence we want his earnestness. Never forget the distinction between these two terms. There may be those who condemn the violence of Nehemiah, and then sink into indifference regarding all that is sacred and noble and useful in human history. Do not let us escape on the plea that the day of violence has gone: the day of earnestness ought never to go.
What a time Nehemiah would have of it if he lived now! And what a time we should have of it if that same circumstance occurred! Nehemiah made his influence felt. Could he see what we see in all the capitals of the world, and yet hold his tongue, and pass down to church that he might say his own prayers, and find his own covert way to heaven? He would often be late for church; he would stand by the wayside to curse and denounce, and issue the judgments of God upon the things that are happening even in Metropolitan thoroughfares. Nehemiah could not look upon the sights which afflict our eyes without protestation. We have lost the spirit of Protestantism. We now make it a mere ecclesiastical term, whereas in its etymology and earliest history it was nothing of the kind. A Protestant is a witness—a man who testifies, witnesses to certain truth. If there were no Roman Catholic Church, Protestantism would still remain, as vital, energetic, and beneficent as ever, because it means testifying, witnessing, laying the hand of identification upon evil, and saying, Thou art wrong! I curse thee in the name of God. That is Protestantism—not going to chapel instead of going to church; not wearing a Geneva gown instead of some elaborately-decorated ritualistic garment. To protest is to witness. Nehemiah would be the leader of the Protestants. Could Nehemiah see the faces of the poor ground every day and say, "Nothing can be done: 'the poor ye have always with you:' it is a great mystery, and we must wait for its solution?" He might have to say that, but he would do a good deal before he did say it. He would go with these poor people and say, I will watch the whole process; I will see how you are treated, and you shall not be involved in my inspection, and I will beard the oppressor who crushes you, be his name what it may; though he be a pew-holder in my church, I will smite him in the face with a fist of righteousness. Could Nehemiah hear about our poor seamstresses being drilled by some commercial devil, and never say a word about it, but generalise on the mysteries of trade, and the difficulties of commerce, and the law of supply and demand, and the exactions of political economy? No! he would be more on the side of human nature than upon the side of any science that ever was invented for getting the last drop of blood out of a poor worker.
We much need Nehemiah's earnestness, we repeat, without Nehemiah's violence. We have already admitted that there was a time when violence itself might be historically justifiable, but even violence was inspired by earnestness. If the fury has been less, the passion and love of righteousness should still remain. If we were in earnest we could do more: we could make the country too hot for any man who was living by robbery and by oppression and cruelty; we should so organise ourselves as to get at the most skilfully concealed oppressor; we could make him feel that he is not to dine every day upon the flesh of human creatures, and drink his wine out of the skulls of his fellow men. Do not say that nothing can be done. A moral sentiment can be created, a grand public opinion can be organised, and the most cunning workers of evil can be made to feel that there is a spirit in the air, an invisible, ghostly, awful spirit,—the spirit of righteousness, the spirit of humanity, the spirit of pity, the spirit of judgment: there may be absence of visible organisation and positive definition, yet there will be a feeling that the enemy is behind or in front, or on the right hand or on the left, or just above or just below, but there he is,—the enemy so-called—the enemy of wrong-doing, the enemy of cruelty, the enemy of shamelessness, but the friend of God, and the true friend of man.
Can we not rouse ourselves to some heroic endeavour in this direction? One thing surely we can do: we can ask significant questions. Nehemiah pushed his inquiries as he might have thrust spears into the consciences of men. When the question is raised the answer may come; but if we do not raise the question we cannot be concerned about the issue. Why are all these thousands of children so ragged, so poverty-stricken, so hungered, so neglected? We can at least put the question, and we can put it with unction, we can ask it as if we meant it; and there is a way of asking some questions that amounts almost to their solution. We are not to make them questions of conversation, not to be eating our own smoking venison and drinking our own foaming wine, and asking how the poor live, and say how shocking it is that so many people should have nothing to eat and drink. That is not moral comment that has any value in it. There is, let us never forget, a way of putting a question that means that we are on the outlook for opportunities, and that the moment the opportunity can be secured it will be realised in the interests of man, in the interests of righteousness. Now all this is in the happiest accord with the Spirit of Jesus Christ. We need not go to the Old Testament for heroic reformers, for fundamental reconstructors of human history. All the men that went before him, who burned with the right spirit, pointed towards One who was coming, whose name is the Son of man, who so loved the world as to die for it, who on his way to the cross made that way the steeper and thornier because he said, Woe unto you, devourers of widows' houses, plunderers, thieves, hypocrites, whited sepulchres! If he did go to the cross, he might have gone by another and smoother road, but his road was all cross, it was the way of the cross; when he was born he died, when he died he was born. Jesus Christ could not be in our streets without putting searching questions. The Saviour of the world could not see holy things trampled upon without protest at least. Blessed is that people among whom there are many men with loud, clear, resonant voices, who will not let evil pass unchecked, unchallenged, but who, even if they have no means of immediate remedy, will still ask questions, and make their inquiries solemn as the judgment of God. When the Spirit of Jesus Christ comes back to the Church, the Church will rectify social problems, will defend the weak, will secure the rights of the poor, and will show that it is not an organism for the cultivation of sentiment, but an organism whose symbol is the cross, whose baptism is of blood, whose object is to save the world.