The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews.Nehemiah 5
"And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews" (Nehemiah 5:1).
UP to this time Nehemiah and such as were willing to work with him had been engaged almost night and day in building the wall which he determined to reconstruct. Things have been going on with some excitement, because there were enemies among the heathen who were determined to do their very utmost to make the work of Nehemiah almost impossible. They tempted him, they threatened him, they scorned him: they left undone nothing that they could do to trouble his course, to foil his purposes, to cover his wishes and his plans with disappointment and mortification. Nehemiah, however, steadily pursued his way, with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other—the people kept on building—but in this chapter there is a new tone in the history. So long as the opposition came from Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arabian and the people who sympathised with them, all belonging to the camp of heathenism, Nehemiah went steadily forward, encouraging his people to pursue their toil hopefully and resolutely. But now the opposition is not from the enemy—there is sedition within the ranks of Nehemiah's own friends, or in the ranks of those who ought to have been his patriotic co-operators.
"There was a great cry of the people and of their wives," not against the heathen, not against Sanballat and Tobiah, "but against their brethren the Jews"—the wealthier Jews, the stronger men amongst them who wanted to make profit out of the difficulty of the case, who bought up the corn at one price and sold it at another—who lent out money at usurious rates and oppressed the people in demanding a heavy percentage on the loans which they had granted; so that there was not only the heathen opposition, there was internal difficulty. Outward assault Nehemiah could manage, but this internecine strife, this domestic oppression, this tyranny within the household line troubled him with a new difficulty, oppressed him with a new discouragement. When a man's foes are those of his own household, his heart simply gives way. "For it was not an enemy," he might have said, "then I could have borne it"—and it is the complaint of one that his familiar friend had lifted up the heel against him. And of Christ it is said, "He came unto his own, and his own received him not."
How difficult it is to permeate a whole nation with the spirit of high patriotism. Nehemiah will be faithful—a man here and a man there may be equal to the occasion, but how difficult to inspire a nation with the common sentiment of distrust of the enemy, with the common sentiment of mutual confidence. If an enemy were assaulting England, there are men who would sacrifice all they had to defend their paternal shores, and there are also Englishmen who would be within the lines turning the occasion to selfish profit, building up their personal fortunes out of the catastrophes of the empire. This is exactly what the wealthier and better-to-do Jews did in the days of Nehemiah: they oppressed the hireling, they added toil to the labour of the weary man; their one purpose was to increase themselves, to aggrandise their possessions, no matter what became of the name of the Jews or the fortunes of Israel. How is it with us? How difficult it is to be public-spirited, to care anything for the line that is beyond our own threshold. There are men in whom it is impossible to awaken a public spirit. They are not necessarily bad men—they may have many excellent virtues; they may be hospitable and kind: but rather than step forward and utter their voices in an exclamation that could be heard, they would be willing that the whole country should go down. Let us encourage them to take some interest in questions that lie beyond the little nut-shell of their own houses. Let us hear the younger people discussing great subjects, and we shall have hope of the country; but if they can talk upon nothing but the most gossipy and trivial themes, in that very fact we have a guarantee that the spirit of lofty self-sacrificing patriotism must go down.
Nehemiah was therefore discouraged by the brawling on one side and the oppression on the other, and there is a tone in brave, good Nehemiah's voice that we have not heard before. Up to this time it has been a good round voice—a mighty bell with a mighty clapper—but now there is a wail in it, a threnody, a mournfulness that is very pathetic. A man that can stand against a whole army of heathen opponents may succumb when his own little child lifts its tiny fist against him. Said the grand old Scipio, he would rather that Hannibal, his enemy, should tear out his heart and eat it with salt, than that Lelias, his friend, should speak one cross word to him. So we feel that to encounter all the argument, so-called, and all the opposition and flippant chatter and miserable objections of infidelity, is nothing: but when those who wear the king's badge lift up the hand of high treason or utter a word of sedition, then it is that the soldier's heart reels, trembles, dies: for if his friends turn against him, what will not his enemies do? Get strength at home, constancy in the Church, unity in the redeemed fellowship, public spiritedness in the commonwealth; then
So shall it be with the Church of God, if every member, from the oldest veteran to her youngest child, shall be one and indissoluble and loving. Have we been faithless, inconstant, sympathising with the enemy? Then let us repent of the high treason, crawling as the traitor that ought not to be forgiven, and for the sake of the great drops of blood that fell from us in our agony we shall have one more chance in the Church.
What was this new tone in the voice of good, brave Nehemiah? He tells us—
"And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words" (Nehemiah 5:6).
To see a noble people inflamed with a common sentiment, rising to demand the redress of an all but infinite wrong, is a picture on which no man can look, who has any spirit of patriotism or nobleness in him, without emotion and without religious thanksgiving. Take care that the rising does not become a mere fretfulness: let it be a holy and not a baleful fire, a lofty and sacred indignation, and not a miserable, petty self-protrusion and self-excuse. Nehemiah was very angry, but he still had himself to consult. A great man falls back upon himself—"a good man shall be satisfied from himself." Never give yourself away— always carry about with you, however hot the indignation that may inflame, an inner sanctuary into which you can retire to study that which is right and to do justly, although there be a great provocation to vindictiveness and even to finality of punishment.
What a speech the grand man made! "I rebuked the nobles and the rulers." Was he a noble? was he a ruler? Even though he was neither one nor the other, yet he was a noble and a ruler by the right of being right, and when a child is right he can make a giant quail. You that can crush a child by mere strength of muscle may be made to tremble before his pure glance, before his calm and searching look. He who is wrong is weak—a giant in stature, an infant in power: gigantic outside, but within is the desolation of moral weakness. He, therefore, who has a right cause to plead, and pleads it in the right spirit, can rebuke kings, can chase mighty men. The elevation comes from the nobleness of the cause, not necessarily from the preeminence of the individual gifts. A weak man with a great cause will be mighty because of the greatness of the object which has challenged his attention and fascinated his energies. Therefore it is that God chooses oftentimes the weak and foolish things of this world to confound the strong things and the mighty. You will do good if you want to do good. The meanest soul can speak the right word, and the success of his ministry shall be not in the splendour of his individual genius, but in the earnestness of the soul, in the Tightness of the spoken word, in the fitness of the opportunity. How good is a word spoken in season! Do not therefore let us say, "We are not nobles, we are not rulers—we have no right to speak," for every man has a right to speak in a good cause. Let those who have been dumb for a lifetime speak soon, that it may be known which side they are upon.
What did the good man demand of the Jews? He set a great assembly against them, and said:
"We after our ability have redeemed [Leviticus 25:48] our brethren [Nehemiah contrasts his own example with that of the rich Jews. He has spent money in redeeming some of his countrymen, who were in servitude among the heathen; they are causing others to be sold into slavery among the Jews] the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell [i.e. cause to be sold] your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us?" (Nehemiah 5:8).
That was the old method of rhetoric—that was the Demosthenic plan—appeal, interrogation, questioning, inquiry after inquiry like a shower of darts. How a question like this searches the conscience and makes the judgment sober, and causes the innermost heart to deliver up the key of its secret. "Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer." They were eloquent men when they had a good cause to plead, dumb men before the seat of judgment. So at the great day of assize, the eloquent orator, who could make the worse appear the better cause, shall be dumb before the charge that shall be laid upon him. Then the man of many words will be unable to frame one sentence in answer to the impeachment in which God shall involve him in the great day of the final audit. "Also I said, it is not good that ye do." Now he puts it gently: having brought them to silence he wants to bring them over from a negative surrender to a positive submission, so he adds—"it is not good that ye do." Before, the charge was sharp, the accent was keen; the result was silence, want of answer on the part of those who were indicted. And Nehemiah construed their silence into a partial acknowledgment at least, and now he lures them with the skill of a mighty leader. He says, lowering the scalding water full ten degrees at once, and making it more tolerable on the scorching skin of those who had been scorched by the heat—he says, "It is not good that ye do." There is a way of uttering such words that suggests a platform of return, that opens a door of re-entry to those who had abandoned their high crimes—"Ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?" That is the eternal appeal, as if he had said, "Nobles and rulers of Israel, is there not enough to do in contending with the assaults that come from the outside—has not Israel a common foe—are there not men round about us, yea even within earshot of this brawling and controversy, and possibly overlooking all these nefarious dealings of yours, who rejoice in the ashes of the old Jerusalem, and sneer at the overthrow of the sacred Zion? Ought we not, therefore, to remember their eyes are upon us, their ear is open to our discussions; ought we not to unite to show a common front to the common enemy, and cause terror to enter into their hearts, because of the constancy of our faith and the perfection and incorruptibleness of our patriotism?"
It was a heroic appeal; it is the same appeal that stirs nations to-day, that causes the fainting to pluck the banner from the conqueror, and to cause the forlorn hope to bloom into a new and happy expectation. Now Nehemiah was not content with the appeal; he said:
"Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them" (Nehemiah 5:11).
A practical man was Nehemiah, and the people heard that grand sermon, and they said instantly, "We will restore them." But Nehemiah was not content even with that promise; he instantly called in the priests, and the priests came forward, and that which the people had declared should be, was sealed by an oath that they should do according to their promise. The Lord send a Nehemiah into every land; a Nehemiah to lead every good cause; a Nehemiah to every section of the Church! An incorruptible patriot was Nehemiah; a man who sank his own individuality, his own ease, honour, fame, and everything that could possibly minister to his personal indulgence in the supreme desire to do good to the commonwealth of Israel.
Nehemiah was not content with the vow and with the oath—he did something himself: he says:
"I shook my lap [compare Acts 18:6. By 'lap; is meant what the Latins called the sinus, a fold in the bosom of the dress, capable of serving as a pocket], and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, [rather, And thus let him be shaken out] and emptied" (Nehemiah 5:13).
And then the people were made one, the true patriotic spirit seized them all: "The congregation said Amen, and praised the Lord," and Israel, broken, shattered, divided, was made one that day, and by its very unity became a new terror to Sanballat and his malignant companions. And what more did Nehemiah? He not only made the eloquent appeal and brought the controversy to a very satisfactory and healthful conclusion, but he set a magnificent example. He would not eat the bread of the governor.
14. Moreover, from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor [i.e. "have not, like other Persian governors, lived at the expense of the people under my government"].
15. But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver [not forty shekels a year from each person, as some suppose, but rather forty shekels a day from the entire province. For such a table as that kept up by Nehemiah (Nehemiah 5:18) this would be a very moderate payment]; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people: but so did not I, because of the fear of God.
16. Yea, also I continued [rather, I repaired; that is, as superintendent] in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land [I did not take advantage of the general poverty to buy poor men's plots]: and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work.
17. Moreover [The Speaker's Commentary says: Translate, "Moreover there were at my table, of the Jews, one hundred and fifty rulers, beside those, etc" The governor entertained daily one hundred and fifty of the chief resident Jews, besides keeping open house for such as came on a visit to Jerusalem from foreign countries], there were at my table an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, beside those that came unto us from among the heathen that are about us.
18. Now that which was prepared for me daily was one ox [comp. the provision for Solomon's table (1Kings 4:23)] and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and once in ten days store of all sorts of wine [wine was, no doubt, drunk every day; but the stock was renewed only once in ten days]: yet for all this required not I the bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy [the demands of the Persian crown upon the Jews, as its subjects, were heavy. Compare Nehemiah 5:4 of this chapter, and chap. Nehemiah 9:36-37)] upon this people.
A glorious man—the kind of man that has redeemed humanity, the unit that turns us poor cyphers into value. Is there no sacrifice for us to make, no leadership for us to take held of? If we cannot be Nehemiahs in the splendour of our personal qualifications, in the invincibleness of our persevering energy, we can at all events cheer the men and bless the leaders who do their best to make the country good and strong. We appeal to Christian men to be unselfish, to be noble, patriotic, public-spirited: to abhor all littleness, meanness, all sharp practice, all detestable conduct. We ask the church, by the spots of blood that make it singular in the eyes of the universe, to be noble and true. We call upon the redeemed, the blood-besprinkled church, to be incorruptible in its patriotism, noble in its every sentiment, self-sacrificing in disposition, ready to communicate in all things, to emulate the good of the past, that it may leave a legacy, a memorial, that shall cause it to be blessed by generations yet to come.
On reviewing the character of Nehemiah, we seem unable to find a single fault to counterbalance his many and great virtues. For pure and disinterested patriotism he stands unrivalled. The man whom the account of the misery and ruin of his native country, and the perils with which his countrymen were beset, prompted to leave his splendid banishment, and a post of wealth, power, and influence, in the first court in the world, that he might share and alleviate the sorrows of his native land, must have been pre-eminently a patriot. Every act of his during his government bespeaks one who had no selfishness in his nature. All he did was noble, generous, high-minded, courageous, and to the highest degree upright. But to stern integrity he united great humility and kindness, and a princely hospitality. As a statesman he combined forethought, prudence, and sagacity in counsel with vigour, promptitude, and decision in action. In dealing with the enemies of his country he was wary, penetrating, and bold. In directing the internal economy of the state, he took a comprehensive view of the real welfare of the people, and adopted the measures best calculated to promote it. In dealing whether with friend or foe, he was utterly free from favour or fear, conspicuous for the simplicity with which he aimed only at doing what was right, without respect of persons. But in nothing was he more remarkable than for his piety, and the singleness of eye with which he walked before God. He seems to have undertaken everything in dependence upon God, with prayer for His blessing and guidance, and to have sought his reward only from God.
Almighty God, thou dost grant unto man special moments: moments in which he sees his immortality, and knows it surely without doubt, and accepts it, not only without reluctance but with gratitude and delight and unutterable joy. If thou wilt grant us one such moment now, we shall be able to enter upon the engagements of the week with a sense of mastery and perfectness of dominion, and the world shall have no power against us. In the recollection of this lofty hour we shall pass through all the perils and engagements of the week as conquerors appointed of God. We ask thee now to open the door of heaven and let us overhear somewhat of the upper music. We ask thee to send a beam of light upon our life that shall enkindle upon it a glory above the brightness of the sun. We ask thee for a visitation of the Holy Spirit that shall animate us, renew our best purposes, recall our ambition from its debasement, and lift us up on high with a sure sense and a perfect and joyous consciousness of our sonship in God. We love the Saviour—we love his name—we gather around his cross, and as we touch it our dead bones live, all our hopes are re-enkindled, our delight is perfect in the Lord Jesus. Seeing therefore that we gather upon Calvary, and that every hand is laid upon the cross, that every heart is open with all its love to give welcome and rest and peace to the Son of God, enable us now to enter into the joy of our Lord. Keep us in the love of the truth—keep us steadfast in thy holy cause—save us from all hesitation, from all doubtfulness and uncertainty of mind—may we know that we rest upon the One Rock—that though the winds blow and the rains fall, yet our house cannot be overthrown. Amen.