Charles Simeon's Devotional Commentaries
THE ZEAL OF NEHEMIAH
Nehemiah 2:20. The God of Heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build.
WHOEVER engages diligently in the work of God, must expect trials: as it is said in the apocryphal Book of Ecclesiasticus, "My son, if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for temptations Ecclesiastes 2:1." The ungodly will deride our efforts, and put the most unfavorable construction upon them, that the most ingenious malice can invent. The pious labors of Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, though sanctioned by the monarch himself, were regarded by his enemies as indications of folly, and as preparatives for rebellion verse 19. But Nehemiah, as David had done before him, "encouraged himself in the Lord his God 1 Samuel 30:6."
It is my intention,
I. To set before you the graces he exercised—
In the words which we have just read, we behold,
1. His confidence—
I am not aware that Nehemiah received from God any particular commission to engage in the work he had undertaken, or any direct promise of success: yet did he assure himself that God would prosper him. And this displayed a proper confidence in God. For he felt a consciousness, that in all that he had undertaken, he was seeking no interest of his own, but simply the honor of his God. In any matter that was purely personal, he would not have been justified in indulging so confident an expectation: but in a work like that in which he was engaged, and to the prosecution of which he was impelled by a high principle of love to God, he could have no doubt but that he should receive from Heaven such a measure of support as should bring his labors to a happy issue. The desire to embark in it had been stirred up in him by the Spirit of God: he trusted, therefore, that the blessing of God would accompany his endeavors.
This confidence, though right to be indulged, by no means warrants us to limit God as to the time, or manner, or measure of the success which he shall grant unto us. These things must be left to his all-wise disposal: for he alone knows what will tend most to the advancement of his own glory. But so far as the attainment of our objects will bring glory to him, we may assure ourselves, that we shall never be suffered to labor for him in vain.
2. His zeal—
Great were the difficulties which he had to encounter. For an hundred years since the return of the Jews from Babylon, had the walls of Jerusalem continued in a most dilapidated state, and all the gates had been destroyed by fire. No attempt had yet been made even to remove the rubbish verse 13, 14. Nor were the princes among the people at all disposed to cooperate with him in an effort to repair the ruins: they, alas! "would not put their neck to the work Nehemiah 3:5." His brethren of Judah, also, who should have been foremost in the work, discouraged it, by representing the task as hopeless and impracticable Nehemiah 4:10. His enemies at the same time exerted themselves to defeat his enterprise, by pouring contempt upon it, and conspiring, by all possible means, to counteract it Nehemiah 4:8. But Nehemiah was determined to execute the purpose which he had conceived: and for that end set all hands to work, every one in his own proper district, that, by a great and simultaneous effort, the desired object might be attained. And whereas he was menaced by armed bands who threatened to destroy him, he armed the laborers, each with his sword or spear, that they might be ready at an instant to repel any assault that might be made upon them; so that, as it were, they held the sword in one hand, and carried on the work with the other Nehemiah 4:16-18. This was a conduct worthy of a servant of the Most High God. In fact, the confidence he expressed, and the determination he formed, had a strict reference to each other. A servant of God was authorized to maintain the confidence, and was bound, in dependence on God, to form and execute the determination: "The Lord God, he will prosper us; therefore we, his servants, will arise and build," neither regarding difficulties, however great, nor fearing enemies, however powerful.
Admiring the virtues of this eminent saint, I proceed,
II. To commend them to your imitation—
Be you, my Brethren, followers of him,
1. In reference to God's work in the world at large—
The world is one great kingdom that belongs to Christ. But far is it from being in a state worthy of its Great Proprietor! Truly it is, as it were, in ruins; one great and shapeless mass of desolation, bearing upon the whole face of it the relentless efforts of the destroyer. And should not we, when informed of its miserable condition, be filled with grief, as Nehemiah for Jerusalem, and implore mercy for it, as he did for that ruined city? Should we not improve our influence for its good; and be ready, by our own personal exertions, to promote to the uttermost its welfare? What, if they who should take the lead are careless and supine? What, if many of our own brethren are lukewarm and desponding? What, if our means for helping forward its concerns are very narrow and contracted? What, if those who are hostile to such an attempt, exert themselves to intimidate and counteract us? Should we therefore sit down in listlessness and despair? No: we should encourage ourselves in God, and put forth all our energies in his service. In the incredibly short space of fifty-two days, Nehemiah, in the midst of all his discouragements, accomplished his work: for, we are told, "the people had a mind to work Nehemiah 4:6." And who shall say what Christians might effect, if they were but penetrated with becoming zeal, and would combine their efforts in a judicious way. From the state both of the Jewish and Gentile world, any one would have supposed it impossible for a few devout and pious persons to effect anything in so short a space of time as twenty or thirty years: yet, behold, plans originating with a few, who contemplated nothing but a little partial benefit, have spread almost over the world itself their beneficial efficacy; insomuch that what was at first but as a cloud, the size of a man's hand, has already overspread the heavens, and descended in fertilizing showers on every quarter of the globe. Let us take courage from what we have seen, and press forward in the work that is yet before us; not contemplating difficulties, but confiding in our God, and going on in his strength to fulfill his holy and blessed will.
2. In reference to God's work in our own souls—
These, too, are in a fearfully dilapidated state; so that one who looks at an arm of flesh only would be ready to despair. And need I say what discouragements are put in the way of those who would serve their God? Amidst princes that are supine, friends that are lukewarm, and spectators that are arrayed in hostility against us, it requires much faith and patience to carry us forward in so arduous an undertaking. But we should address ourselves to the work, and combine all our energies to repair the breaches which sin has made upon our souls. We should put on, too, the whole armor of God, and fight the good fight of faith. We should suffer neither men nor devils to deter us from our work, but should proceed with diligence until the whole work of God is wrought within us. If we would proceed with the zeal which such a cause should inspire, what might we not effect, perhaps in the space of a few days or weeks? Surely we should make our profiting to appear, to the honor of God, and to the confusion of all our enemies. Doubtless those who united not with Nehemiah would pour contempt upon his efforts, and deride him as a weak or wicked enthusiast. But is there a man in the universe that does not applaud him now? Thus must you expect to be derided now: but the day is coming, when God himself will applaud you before the assembled universe, and they who now condemn you will bitterly regret that they did not follow your steps.
THE EFFICACY OF ZEAL AND DILIGENCE
Nehemiah 4:6. The people had a mind to work.
GREAT and useful undertakings are often declined, from an idea that we are not able to carry them into effect, when, in fact, nothing is wanting to ensure success in them, but zeal and diligence. The history before us strongly exemplifies this remark. The walls of Jerusalem still continued in their desolate condition, notwithstanding the Jews had returned thither about ninety years: but, at the instigation of one single man, the people combined; and engaging heartily in the work, they effected in a short space of time what had appeared utterly impracticable: Nehemiah says, "So built we the wall; for the people had a mind to work."
Let us consider,
I. The reason assigned for their success—
The work which the people had to perform was attended with many difficulties—
The removal of the rubbish verse 2. was of itself no inconsiderable labor, considering how few hands there were to engage in it. But beside this, the enemies of the Jews exerted themselves by ridicule, by menaces, and by various other devices Nehemiah 2:10; Nehemiah 2:19 and Nehemiah 4:1; Nehemiah 4:3; Nehemiah 4:7-8 and Nehemiah 6:8-9, to discourage the undertaking, and to prevent the execution of it. The treachery and supineness of some among the Jews themselves verse 10, 12 and Nehemiah 6:18-19. formed also a very formidable obstacle in the way of those who desired to accomplish the work.
But by zeal and diligence they were enabled to accomplish it with incredible despatch—
Arduous as the work was, it was all finished in two and fifty days Nehemiah 6:15. But how was it effected so soon? We are told, in the text; "The people had a mind to the work:" every one engaged in it with his whole heart: they regarded neither fatigue nor danger: they would not so much as take off their clothes during the whole time, except for the sake of cleanliness verse 23; and they wore their swords by their side while they wrought with their hands verse 16–18, that they might be ready to resist their enemies in case of an attack. By this union of courageous zeal and unremitting diligence they effected their purpose, to the astonishment and confusion of all their enemies Nehemiah 6:16.
To show that this subject is capable of very useful improvement, we shall notice,
II. The instruction we may gather from it—
There are two truths that may justly be deduced from this history;
1. In everything we have to do for God, zeal and diligence are necessary—
The Jews at that time were actuated by a religious zeal, and exerted themselves for God Nehemiah 2:17-18. And the work which we have to do for God is by no means dissimilar, if only we consider what a typical aspect there was in the whole of their captivity and restoration See Isaiah 40:2; Isaiah 52:9-10; Isaiah 65:18. We may at least be permitted to accommodate this subject to the reparation of the soul for God, after the desolations it has suffered through the incursions of sin. We see that year after year the souls of men lie in ruins; that the generality have no heart to seek their restoration to their primitive grandeur; and that the greater part of those who begin to labor in this work, make little progress. But to what is this owing? The truth is, "they have no mind to the work:" they do not love their work: repentance is a burden: prayer is a task: self-denial is a drudgery: they would rather be excused from every part of their duty: they would not think of communion with God, or of conformity to his image, if they were not driven to it by an imperious necessity, a fear of everlasting torments. Hence their exertions are weak and intermitted; and their enemies are suffered to pull down their work, as fast as they build it up: so that, after an interval of months and years, little, if any, progress is made in their work. Ah! think of this, you who are complaining of the low state of your souls! It would have been thus with respect to the walls of Jerusalem, if the people had been as lukewarm as you: but "they had a mind to work;" and so must you, if you would do anything with effect: "Whatever your hand finds to do, you must do it with your might Ecclesiastes 9:10."
2. In everything we have to do for God, zeal and diligence will ensure success—
In the work of our souls we have to encounter difficulties not unlike to those which the Jews had to cope with; we have much rubbish to be removed, many reproaches and menaces to withstand, and many discouragements from weak or false brethren to surmount. But we need not fear: if we engage heartily in our work, we shall assuredly succeed. Nothing shall be able to obstruct our progress: yes, the opposition we meet with shall but inflame our ardor, and increase our energy; and we shall proceed triumphantly, in spite of the assaults either of men or devils. We do not mean to say, that our own arm can effect these things: we know full well that it cannot; and that, of ourselves, we cannot do anything that is good: but if we go forth with zeal and diligence in a humble dependence upon God, he will enable us to fulfill his will; yes, "through His strength we shall be able to do all things Philippians. 4:13." He is pledged to assist those who trust in him Psalm 125:1; and the weakest that relies on him shall be "more than conqueror:" yes, the weaker we are in ourselves, the more shall "his strength be perfected in our weakness 2 Corinthians 12:9." Let us but trust in him, and "the wall shall be built, though in troublous times Daniel 9:25;" and "what has been begun in grace shall soon be perfected in glory Philippians. 1:6."
1. Those who make excuses for not engaging in the work of their souls—
The generality are saying, "The time for the Lord's work is not yet come Hag. 1:2." But whatever excuses men urge for their delay, the true and only reason of it is, "They have no mind to the work." Be assured, my Brethren, that when God shall call you into judgment, the veil with which you cover your hypocrisy will be found thinner than the spider's web. Rest not then any longer in such dangerous delusions; but arise, and set yourselves to the work without delay.
2. To those who have entered on the Lord's work—
To exert yourselves with effect, there is need not only of individual zeal, but also of general and cordial cooperation. The builders all had their proper work assigned them: and of some it is said, "They built before their own houses Nehemiah 3:28-30;" and though the work seemed but ill adapted for females, some wrought in "concert with their daughters Nehemiah 3:12." How prosperous would our exertions be, if we would imitate them in these respects! See, Beloved, what work you have to do near your own houses. If all who profess to be engaged in this good work would attend diligently to their children, their servants, their dependents; if they would visit their sick neighbors, and labor to instruct those to whom they can gain easy and familiar access; methinks the wall would soon be built, to the admiration of men, and the confusion of devils. Let there then be a general zeal among you, and a determination to co-operate in every labor of love. It is mentioned to the disgrace of the nobles, that "they put not their necks to the work of the Lord Nehemiah 3:5." O let there not be any such among you! Rather, let the example of Nehemiah and his followers animate us all: then shall the work proceed rapidly around us, and our "Jerusalem shall soon become a praise in the earth Isaiah 62:7."
THE FEAR OF GOD A PRINCIPLE OF ACTION
Nehemiah 5:15. So did not I, because of the fear of God.
IT is obvious that there are in the world a people whose conduct differs widely from that of the world around them: and, in attempting to account for it, some impute it to pride and vanity, some to weakness and folly, and some to downright hypocrisy. But, if men would examine into this matter with candor, they might easily find a principle abundantly sufficient to account for all the singularity they observe: and this principle is "The fear of God." By this Nehemiah was actuated, while, in the governing of Israel, he maintained a system directly opposed to that of all who had preceded him. They all had exacted from the people, even in their low impoverished state, such contributions as they judged necessary for the upholding of their dignity and the discharge of their official duties. And Nehemiah might have felt himself fully justified in following their example, which was originally ordained by legitimate authority, and afterwards established by long uninterrupted usage. But, in existing circumstances, he judged the practice to be oppressive; and therefore he would no longer suffer it, because he was under the influence of a principle which was sufficient to outweigh all selfish considerations: "So did not I, because of the fear of God."
Now, it will be no unedifying subject, if we consider,
I. The principle by which he was actuated—
It is called, in my text, "The fear of God;" by which we are to understand, not a dread of God's displeasure, but rather a holy filial fear, comprehending under it an habitual respect to God; a respect to,
1. His word, as the rule of our conduct—
The maxims of the world are not unfrequently the very reverse of those which are inculcated in the Sacred Volume. We need not go back to the philosophers of Greece and Rome, to show the erroneousness of their opinions: the sentiments even of the Christian world are, in many respects, very far from according with the dictates of inspiration. Pride is by many held as equivalent with magnanimity: and humility, such as God requires, is as little approved among us, as it was among the unenlightened heathen. As to the duties of love to God, of faith in Christ, of entire devotedness to the pursuit of things invisible and eternal, we well know that they are kept altogether upon the back-ground, except, indeed, as sentiments proper to be delivered from the pulpit, but equally proper to be banished from all the scenes of social converse. But the man who is under the influence of the fear of God will not suffer himself to be regulated by the opinions of men; but "by the fear of the Lord he will surely depart from evil," and in every doubtful point will inquire, "What says the Lord?"
2. His authority, as the reason of our conduct—
A Christian may doubtless have many reasons for acting in this or that particular way: he may judge such a line of conduct to be conducive to his own comfort, and to the benefit of others. But all such motives will be in perfect subordination to the divine will, which he will determine to obey, whether the immediate act be in accordance with his own interests or in opposition to them. A man under the fear of God will not consider whether he shall gain or lose, whether he shall please or displease, by any act; his only concern will be to approve himself to God. If urged by any considerations of human authority or personal interest, his answer is, "Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge you: for I cannot but do the things which God commands."
3. His glory, as the end of our conduct—
The real saint feels that "God in all things should be glorified:" and he will not be satisfied with anything which will not conduce to this end. This idea he will carry into the most common transactions of his life: "Whether he eat or drink, or whatever he do, he will do all to the glory of God." In relation to this matter, there will be in him a tenderness, a sensibility, a great refinement of mind, such as, to a superficial observer, shall appear to have led him into great inconsistencies. Paul acted sometimes as under the Law, and sometimes as free from the Law; accommodating himself to the prejudices or weakness of men, as he saw occasion. But, whatever was his course, his object was the same; namely, to serve and honor God: and every one who truly fears God will propose to himself the same great end, and conduct himself in such a way as appears to him best calculated to effect it.
Such being the principle by which Nehemiah was actuated, let us notice,
II. The effect it produced on his life and conversation—
Methinks there is a striking agreement between the conduct of Nehemiah and of the Apostle Paul. Paul was entitled to demand support from the Christian Church, to which he ministered: but, so far was he from insisting on his right, that he wrought with his own hands, night and day, in order to support himself, and to exempt others from what they might have accounted a burden 2 Corinthians 11:7-12 with 1 Thessalonians 2:9 and 2 Thessalonians 3:8-9. Thus Nehemiah, doubtless, was entitled to support from those over whom he was placed: but this right having been abused, he waved it altogether; that so he might both lighten the burdens of his people and set to all an example of forbearance and love.
We see, then, in him how the fear of God will operate wherever it exists as a principle of action in the soul. It will surely teach us the following lessons:
1. Not to conform ourselves to any custom until we have examined it with care—
Thousands of things are customary, which yet are far from being defensible. See the habits of the world altogether; its customs, its fashions, its maxims. Will they bear the test of sound wisdom, or endure a scrutiny by the word of God? Numbers cannot change the qualities of things, and make that to be good which is in itself evil: nor can we be justified in doing anything merely because it is sanctioned by custom. On the contrary, we are commanded "not to be conformed to this world," and "not to follow a multitude to do evil."
2. Not to suffer ourselves to be biased by any personal interests in forming our judgment of doubtful matters—
There was a strong temptation to Nehemiah to continue the abuses which had so long obtained: but he suffered not his interest to blind his judgment. So neither should we practice or connive at any evil, because of its tendency to advance our interests. The whole system of trade, as carried on at this time, is founded, I fear I must say, on fraud; insomuch, that if a person, in any line of business, were to do nothing which would not bear the test of truth and uprightness, he would not be able to maintain his ground; so universally do the profits in trade arise from some kind or other of falsehood and imposition. But the generality of men see no evil in this state of things: they can adulterate their commodities, and practice impositions without any remorse. The things are only such as custom sanctions; and such as, men will say, necessity requires; and therefore they go on, without ever inquiring into the lawfulness of them in the sight of God. But it were surely better to examine into this matter, and to judge righteous judgment; because we know that the judgment of God will certainly be according to truth. We are told by God himself, and that repeatedly, that "there is a way which seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death Proverbs 14:12; Proverbs 16:25;" and surely it were wise to ascertain with care the correctness of our sentiments, lest we then detect the evil of them, when, alas! the discovery will be of no avail.
3. Not to fear condemning what our conscience does not approve—
Though the persons who had practiced the evil were the governors of the nation, Nehemiah boldly bore his testimony against them: "Thus and thus did they: but so did not I." Similar fortitude should we also manifest, especially in a way of holy practice. If we blame anything in others, let us at least be careful to do it, not so much in a way of harsh censure, as of better example. This we shall do, if we really fear God. Instead of "walking after the course of this world," we shall endeavor to be "as lights in the world, holding forth in our life and conversation the word of life," that "others, beholding our light, may glorify our Father that is in Heaven." If our singularity be complained of, we must remember the issue of Noah's fidelity; and must console ourselves with the thought, that we shall ultimately be saved from that deluge, which will soon overwhelm the whole ungodly world. We shall bear in remembrance, that "we have been bought with a price," even with the inestimable price of the Redeemer's blood; and we shall make it the one object of our lives to "glorify him with our body and our spirit, which are his."
Nehemiah 6:3-4. I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, while I leave it, and come down to you? Yet they sent unto me four times after this sort; and I answered them after the same manner.
NEVER can we be sufficiently thankful for the records which are given us respecting the saints of old. When we are put into arduous circumstances ourselves, and see the line of conduct which is required of us, we are ready to think that the requisition is impracticable. But when we behold others, in similar circumstances, approving themselves faithful to their God, we are encouraged, and emboldened to undertake whatever may come before us in the path of duty. Nehemiah, having received from the Persian monarch authority to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, addressed himself to the work with zeal and diligence. But he was not suffered to proceed any long time unmolested in his career. A conspiracy was formed against him, and every effort which malignity could suggest was used to impede him in his sacred course. How he baffled the attempts of his enemies we are told in the passage now before us: from whence I shall take occasion to show,
I. What efforts men will make to divert us from the service of our God—
It may be asked, What have we to do with the facts which are here recorded? I answer, They were all of a typical nature, intended to shadow forth the opposition which would be made to the cause of God in every age. The city of our God is erecting continually; and the builders are continually obstructed in their work by the enemies of our God and his Christ: and, as in the instance before us, those enemies will endeavor to prevail,
1. By artifice—
Four different times did Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arabian propose to Nehemiah some artifice whereby they might ensnare him to his destruction. And every species of device will the enemies of Christ contrive and execute, to divert his servants from the duties in which they are engaged. Proposals, in appearance the most friendly, shall be made, to draw them aside, and to ensnare their feet. Those who never took any interest about them in their unconverted state, will now express great anxiety to recover them from their supposed errors, and to restore them to the ways which they have forsaken.
2. By intimidation—
Parents and governors, who never offered so much as a word of advice to us to serve and honor God, will interpose their authority to keep us from serving him, the very instant that we should show ourselves on the Lord's side. Even at this present hour, notwithstanding the liberality which men profess on the subject of toleration, it is no uncommon thing for those who are possessed of power to use their influence, in an arbitrary and tyrannical way, for the suppression of religion: and the more nearly they are related to us, the more decided will they be in their efforts: "our greatest foes will generally be those of our own household".
3. By ridicule—
This is a weapon capable of being used by all: and all will have recourse to it, in order to expose to derision the most sacred characters. The enemies of Nehemiah ridiculed his efforts, saying, that "if but a fox should run up the wall which the Jews were constructing, he would throw it down." Thus will every thing that can bring odium upon us be reported concerning our principles and conduct: nor will any rank in society, any eminence of attainments, any wisdom of deportment, or any purity of manners, screen us from the envenomed shafts of ridicule and contempt.
But in the example of this holy man we see,
II. In what manner we should withstand them—
Two things in particular I would notice:
1. His wisdom—
He saw through the veil by which these hypocrites sought to cover their designs: but he forbore to bring any accusation against them, lest he should only inflame and irritate their minds, which he wished rather to soothe and to compose. But he appealed to them respecting the importance of prosecuting without intermission the work in which he was engaged: "I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down."
And are not we "doing a great work?" What, in the whole world, can be compared with that in which we are engaged, and on which an eternity of happiness or misery altogether depends?: If it be said, that a compliance with the habits of the world will not impede our spiritual progress, I utterly deny it: for if that be the case, why are we forbidden to be conformed to this world Romans 12:2. Why is it said, that "if any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him 1 John 2:15-16." What truth would there be in this assertion, that the friendship of the world is enmity against God; and that whoever even desires to be the friend of the world, he is thereby constituted the "enemy of God James 4:4. The Greek." The person who duly improves "the cross of Christ, is crucified to the world Galatians 6:14." To "serve God and mammon" too is impossible Matthew 6:24; and therefore the answer of Nehemiah is exactly suitable for us: "Why should the work cease, while I leave it, and come down to you?".
2. His firmness—
Four different times did these crafty enemies renew their attempts; and Nehemiah answered them continually to the same effect. He would not enter into disputations with them, but contented himself with such an answer as they could most easily appreciate, and such an one as ought to satisfy their minds. Thus it becomes us also to act. However frequent or continued the efforts of men are to turn us from God, we must withstand them all: and it will be well to keep in our stronghold, and not to descend into the field of controversy with them. Here is a plain fact, which they easily comprehend, and cannot possibly deny: the work of salvation is, beyond all comparison, more important than any other that can be proposed to us; and nothing under Heaven ought to be suffered to interfere with it. This is so plain and acknowledged a truth, that no one can withstand it. Men may dispute about the principles of the Gospel; but this admits of no dispute. Here, therefore, we should do well to take our stand; and, by whoever we are assaulted, to maintain our ground. An appeal, so made, must at last carry conviction with it, and silence our most inveterate opposers.
Let us learn from hence,
1. What we are to expect, if we will serve our God—
"All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution." It is in vain to imagine that we shall escape. Ungodly men hate the light as much as ever: and as, in the days of Ishmael, he who was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now, and ever will be, as long as there shall be an ungodly man upon earth. If, then, you will set yourselves to serve the Lord, prepare your souls for temptation Ecclesiastes 2:1.
2. How we must act, if we will approve ourselves to him—
We must yield to no artifice, no intimidation whatever. Whether persons come to us in the garb of friends or of foes, our plain answer must be, "Whether it be right to hearken unto you more than unto God, judge you Acts 4:19." If we "love even life itself" in comparison of Christ, "we shall lose it" forever Matthew 10:39; "We must be faithful unto death, if ever we would attain a crown of life Revelation 2:10."
Nehemiah 6:11. And I said, Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.
WHOEVER examines the character of the primitive saints, will see, without fail, how religion dignifies and ennobles the mind of man. It gives to its possessor a superiority above all the common interests of time and sense, and enables him, under the most trying circumstances, to act as in the immediate presence of his God. His efforts to honor God will necessarily involve him in difficulties: but these difficulties will only elicit his true character, and display the efficacy of the grace he has received.
Nehemiah had engaged in the arduous work of rebuilding Jerusalem. In this he was opposed by the enemies of the Jews, who sought, by every artifice, to weaken his hands, and divert him from his purpose. At last a person, from whom he might have hoped better things, Shemaiah by name, and who, it should seem, professed himself a prophet, concurred with his enemies in a plot against him, and, under a specious plea of consulting his safety, proposed to hold converse with him in the temple, where he would be out of the reach of those who sought his life. But Nehemiah, either suspecting treachery, or, at all events, seeing what advantage such a measure would give to his enemies to reproach him for cowardice, and for a distrust of God, indignantly rejected the proposal in the terms which I have just read.
Now, without confining myself to this particular occurrence, I will take occasion from it to set before you,
I. The subtlety with which our great adversary will assault us—
You cannot but see how specious was the proposal made to Nehemiah. It was an undoubted fact, that his enemies sought his life: and to go into the temple for safety seemed a very prudent measure. But it was a temptation cast in his way by the enemies of God. And thus, our great adversary endeavors to take advantage of us in a great variety of ways, if by any means he may prevail upon us to act in a way unworthy of the Christian chamber. He will propose to us,
1. To neglect our social duties, with a view to the furtherance of our spiritual welfare—
This is a common temptation; and extremely specious. For, who can doubt the superior importance of eternal things above those which are merely temporal? Consequently, it may be thought that the less important duties may give way to those which are of paramount consideration. Thus many, especially in younger life, will vindicate their neglect of those offices which their station in society has imposed upon them, thinking it a sufficient excuse to say that they were seeking the advancement of their eternal interests. The apprentice or the servant will be attending upon religious ordinances in public or private, when he should be executing the business of his own particular calling; imagining that his zeal for the one employment will justify his neglect of the other. Nor is it uncommon for students to inquire, whether their desire to qualify themselves for the ministerial office by one line of study will not justify their neglect of those studies which their collegiate course marks out for them, and academic discipline indispensably requires. But all such desires are founded in error. They proceed on the idea that our social and religious duties oppose each other; whereas activity in temporal concerns will not at all abate or interfere with fervor of spirit in the Lord's service See Romans 12:11; on the contrary, in discharging our duty to man, we do, in fact, fulfill our duty to God: and while, in relation to one set of duties, we say, "These ought you to have done," we must with equal decision add, in reference to the other, "These you are not to leave undone Luke 11:42."
2. To conform to the world, with a view to conciliate their regard—
This also is specious, and very commonly proposed. But it is as erroneous as the former; for, however much we may conform to the world, we can never draw them to the love of true religion: on the contrary, we shall rather confirm them in their persuasion, that religion does not require that measure of spirituality which the saints of old maintained. Our Lord says; "If you were of the world, the world would love its own: but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you John 15:19." But, while he here acknowledges that a conformity with them will disarm a measure of their enmity, does he recommend the adoption of such a plan? No: he inculcates the very reverse. Whether men will hate us or not, our walk must be the same: we must not accommodate ourselves to their wishes, but to God's commands: and he says, "Be not conformed to this world; but be you transformed in the renewing of your minds, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God Romans 12:2."
3. To use undue means with a view to the attainment of some desirable end—
Safety was desirable to Nehemiah: but, to secrete himself in the temple was not a right method of obtaining it. Such a step would have argued a distrust of God's power to preserve him in the way of duty, and would have given great occasion of triumph to his enemies verse 13. Thus there may be many objects which may be desirable in themselves, which yet we must not seek by any sacrifice of duty or conscience. Let it be granted, that there is some great danger to be avoided, or some valuable blessing, say, the preservation of life itself, to be acquired; still the maintenance of strict integrity and of a good conscience must be preferred: nor must we suffer ourselves to be diverted so much as an hair's breadth from the line of duty, for the attainment of any object under Heaven. Uzzah has taught us this. To keep the ark from falling was good: but he, not being a Levite, had no right to touch it: and God, in striking him dead upon the spot, has shown us, that, on no occasion whatever, are we at liberty to "do evil, that good may come Romans 3:8." Our answer to every temptation must be, "Shall I go into the temple to save my life? I will not go in."
The greater the subtlety of Satan is, the greater should be our vigilance, and the more immovable.
II. The firmness with which we should resist him—
The direction given us is, "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you James 4:7." And, as a pattern of firmness, we cannot have a better example than that before us: "Shall such a man as I flee?" a man invested with authority? a man engaged for the Lord? a man in whom any act of cowardice will be productive of the most injurious effects? "I will not go into the temple, even though it be to save my life." Now, thus should we set the Lord ever before us; bearing fully in mind,
1. Our relation to him—
Shall such a man as I yield to temptation of any kind? I, a servant of the living God? I, who profess myself to be a child of God? Nothing shall ever induce me to violate my duty to my heavenly Father, or to walk in any respect unsuitably to the relation I bear to him. God helping me, I will walk worthy of my high calling: and whoever he be that would seduce me from my duty, even though he were my dearest friend, I will spurn at his advice with honest indignation, and reject it with the utmost abhorrence Genesis 39:9.
2. Our obligations to him—
What do I owe to Almighty God, who gave his only-begotten Son to die for me, and to reconcile me to himself by his vicarious sacrifice upon the cross? And shall I, for any temporal advantage, offend his Divine Majesty? Shall I distrust his care of me, or be afraid to suffer for his sake? Abhorred be the thought! Let me only know the path of duty; and no consideration under Heaven shall divert me from it. Let those who know nothing of redeeming love please themselves, if they will: but so will not I: I will strive only to please my God, and to "render unto the Lord according to the benefits he has conferred upon me."
3. Our expectations from him—
Here am I, not only a candidate for Heaven, but, through grace, an expectant of it. I see crowns and kingdoms reserved for me in a better world. And shall I cast them all away? What carnal gratification can ever be put in competition with the glory that is prepared for me? or what temporary gain be weighed in the balance against an everlasting inheritance? Tell me of what dangers you will, they shall not appal my spirit; and tell me of what joys you will, they shall never allure my soul. For eternity I have been begotten, redeemed, and sanctified; and for eternity alone will I both live and die.
4. The interest which God himself has in the whole of our conduct—
This in particular pressed on the mind of this eminent saint. He saw that his enemies labored to draw him into sin, that they might have occasion for reproach against him, and might cast reflections upon God himself. And, under this conviction, he would risk life itself rather than comply with the solicitations of his friend. And thus it is that God's enemies endeavor to beguile us, in order that they may triumph over us, and exult in our shame. Only let them draw us into sin of any kind, and they will immediately exclaim, "There, there, so would we have it:" yes, if they can prevail to the extent they would, they will even "blaspheme the very name of God on our account." But who, that is aware of this, will not rather die than dishonor God? If we only consider how God's honor is involved in our conduct, we shall need no other motive for steadfastness in his holy ways: and if tempted to leave them, even for a moment, we shall reply, "Shall a man, situated as I am, be driven from his post, and go into the temple to save his life? No: I will not go in: nor shall all the powers of earth or Hell ever induce me to relax my diligence in the service of my God."
What, then, shall I say to you, my Brethren? This I say,
1. Expect temptation—
In the Book of Ecclesiasticus this advice is given: "My son, if you come to serve the Lord, prepare your soul for temptation Ecclesiastes 2:1." You must not expect that Satan will suffer his vassals to cast off his yoke, without many earnest endeavors to reduce them to their former bondage. And he has "wiles and devices" innumerable, whereby to assault our souls. He can even put on the aspect of an angel of light, in order the more effectually to beguile unstable souls 2 Corinthians 11:14. He will even make use of your own friends, yes, and of pious persons too, to draw you aside from the path of duty. It was no other than Peter, the bold and zealous Peter, whom he instigated to dissuade our blessed Lord from subjecting himself to the pains which were necessary for the redemption of a ruined world. But our Lord withstood him, saying to this favored disciple, "Get you behind me, Satan; you are an offence unto me: for you savor not the things that be of God, but those that be of men Matthew 16:23." So be you also on your guard not to follow implicitly the advice even of good men; but weigh every sentiment in the balance of the sanctuary, and conform yourselves in everything to the mind and will of God.
2. In every circumstance place your entire confidence in God—
This was Nehemiah's excellence. He knew in whom he had believed; and that, whatever conspiracies might be formed against him, he was safe in God's hands; "nor could any weapon that was formed against him prosper." Thus then do you. "Say not, A confederacy to all them that say a confederacy: neither fear you their fear, nor be afraid: but sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread Isaiah 8:12-13. See also Psalm 11:1-4." This your holy profession indispensably requires. When Ezra went from Babylon to Jerusalem with all the vessels of gold and silver which had been carried thither by Nebuchadnezzar, and was in danger of being plundered by robbers who infested the road, "he was ashamed to ask from Artaxerxes a guard of soldiers for his protection; for, says he, I had said to the king, The hand of our God is upon all them for good that seek him; but his power and his wrath is against all them that forsake him Ezra 8:22." And do not you profess the same truth, that God is the protector, and friend, and portion of all that seek him? Whom then will you fear? or what will you desire for your comfort, when you have such an all-sufficient Friend ever at hand? "If He be for you, who can be against you Romans 8:31." or, if He be your Shepherd, what can you want Psalm 23:1. Only "be strong in faith, giving glory to God;" and "you shall be kept in perfect peace;" "nor shall so much as a hair of your head perish." Your trials may be multiplied to the most fearful extent: but "you shall not be ashamed or confounded, world without end."
THE EXPEDITION WITH WHICH THE WALL OF JERUSALEM WAS BUILT
Nehemiah 6:15. So the wall was finished …in fifty and two days.
A MERE historic record of the time occupied in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem appears at first sight to be an uninteresting subject for a popular DISCOURSE but it will be found replete with interest, when the circumstances connected with it are taken into the account. The extremely dilapidated and ruined state of the fortifications at that time, the weakness and poverty of those who undertook to rebuild them, and the opposition which they met with from numerous and potent enemies, combine to render the record in our text almost incredible. For the completion of such a work, two and fifty weeks would have been a very short time; but two and fifty days seem utterly insufficient for it: such expedition appears perfectly beyond the physical powers of the persons engaged in it: yet in that time the wall was finished: and it will be very profitable to inquire,
I. How it was completed in so short a time—
To enter fully into the subject, the six first chapters of this book should be carefully read. In them we shall find that the means whereby this great work was accomplished, were,
1. The wisdom and energy of the governor—
In every step which Nehemiah took, we are struck with his consummate wisdom. When first he made known to the Persian monarch his desire to undertake the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, he kept out of sight every consideration which might tend to create jealousy in the monarch's mind, and mentioned only such as were likely to produce in him a favorable impression. With this view he speaks of Jerusalem, not as the city of the great God, which had been so great and powerful in former times, and was yet ordained of God to become the capital of an independent nation, but simply, as "the city of his fathers' sepulchers Nehemiah 2:5."
Having obtained permission to execute his purpose, and come to Jerusalem for that end, he again showed his wisdom in concealing from the people the reason of his journey, until he had personally himself inspected the walls, and was thereby qualified to obviate all objections which indifference or despondency might suggest Nehemiah 2:12-18.
The way in which he counteracted all the plots of his enemies, still further marked the depth and solidity of his judgment. He forbore to use any irritating expressions, notwithstanding the multiplied provocations which he met with: and while his enemies wasted their time in plotting how to arrest his progress, he occupied himself in the prosecution of his work, augmenting his exertions in proportion as they increased their efforts to impede him Nehemiah 2:19-20; Nehemiah 4:8-9; Nehemiah 4:13-14. Yet it is worthy of particular observation, that he neither trusted to his own exertions, nor yet neglected them under an idea that he should be protected by his God: but he combined a dependence on God with a diligent use of all proper means of self-defense Nehemiah 4:9; thereby setting us an example which we shall do well to follow in every difficulty which we may be called to encounter.
Nor was the energy of Nehemiah less admirable than his wisdom: we see throughout the whole of his conduct as much promptitude as consisted with sound discretion, and an invincible firmness in executing whatever his deliberate judgment had dictated. So intent was he on the prosecution of his purpose, that neither he, nor those under his immediate influence, ever put off their clothes for several weeks together, except for the purpose of their being washed Nehemiah 4:23. And when a proposal was made to him to hold a conference with some adversaries in an adjacent village, his reply was, "I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, while I leave it, and come down to you Nehemiah 6:2-3." Yes, when the same message was sent four times, he repeated the same answer: and when at the fifth time it was accompanied with a letter containing many accusations against him, he contented himself with exposing the falsehood of them, and more determinately than ever besought the Lord to strengthen his hands for the work in which he was engaged Nehemiah 6:5-9.
On the failure of that device, his enemies sought to intimidate him by reports of a conspiracy against his life, and advised him to take refuge in the temple: but he, with a fortitude worthy of his high character, answered, "Should such a man as I flee? And who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in Nehemiah 6:10-11." It is in connection with this anecdote that our text informs us, "So the wall was built in fifty and two days:" and certainly to this extraordinary combination of wisdom and energy in him we must ascribe it, that the wall was erected in so short a time.
2. The union and perseverance of the people—
An individual, however good and great, can do little, unless he is seconded by those who are under his direction: but in this case Nehemiah found instruments well fitted to his hands. No sooner did he make known to the rulers of Jerusalem the commission which he had received from the king of Persia, and call for their assistance in the execution of it, than they said, "Let us rise up and build:" and "immediately they strengthened their hands for this good work Nehemiah 2:17-19."
It is true, there were some exceptions, some who were too proud and fond of ease to work Nehemiah 3:5; and others, who yielded to despondency Nehemiah 4:10; and others who actually carried on a treasonable correspondence with Nehemiah's most inveterate enemies Nehemiah 6:17-19; but, on the other hand, there was such a zeal among the great mass of the people, that some performed double the work allotted them Nehemiah 3:5; Nehemiah 3:27, and even ladies of the highest rank combined their utmost efforts to assist in building the wall, not accounting any service either derogatory to their honor, or unsuited to their gender, if they might but encourage their brethren, and advance the glory of their God Nehemiah 3:12. And to this union is the success expressly ascribed: "So built we the wall; for the people had a mind to work Nehemiah 4:6."
There was also among them astonishing perseverance: for when they were menaced with a sudden assault, and were told ten times over, that an armed host would come suddenly upon them to destroy them, they persisted resolutely in their work, arming themselves for their defense, setting alternate watches for their preservation, and working with a trowel, as it were, in the one hand, and a sword in the other, determining rather to sacrifice their lives, than be deterred from the service in which they had embarked Nehemiah 4:11-13; Nehemiah 4:16-18; Nehemiah 4:21. Had they yielded to indolence or fear, the work could never have been carried forward: but by this zealous cooperation of all ranks and orders among them, all difficulties were overcome, and the wall was built with an expedition almost incredible.
3. The peculiar blessing of their God—
To this above all must the success be ultimately ascribed; for to this were owing the desire of Nehemiah to rebuild the wall Nehemiah 2:12, the consent of Artaxerxes to the plan proposed Nehemiah 1:11 with 2:4, 8, the wisdom and energy with which Nehemiah was inspired Nehemiah 2:18, the cordial cooperation of so many people, and the defeating of all the plots which were devised to retard the work Nehemiah 4:15. Even the very enemies themselves were so convinced that the work exceeded all the power of man, that they were constrained to acknowledge God himself as the author of it Nehemiah 4:1-3 with 6:16, since none but God could have carried them through such labors, or delivered them from such perils, or given a successful issue to such hopeless exertions.
It is of infinite importance that we notice this; for otherwise we shall be ready to give to the creature the honor that is due to God only. Throughout the whole work, application was made to God for his direction and blessing: it was not undertaken without prayer Nehemiah 1:4-11, nor carried on without prayer Nehemiah 2:4; Nehemiah 4:4-5; Nehemiah 4:9; Nehemiah 6:9; Nehemiah 6:11; but a reliance was placed on God as an all-sufficient Helper Nehemiah 2:20; and he showed himself worthy of the confidence reposed on him: he showed that "none who trust in Him shall ever be confounded."
Having thus traced Nehemiah's success to its true cause, we proceed to set before you,
II. The important lesson which we are to learn from it—
We might with great propriety direct your attention to those wonderful events which occupy the attention of the public at the present hour June 23, 1814, a day or two after peace had been proclaimed; for certainly, whether we consider the union which has been produced among all the allied powers, or the wisdom and energy with which their efforts have been combined, or the rapid and complete success with which their labors have been crowned, there never was an occurrence which more strongly marked the hand of God, or more strictly corresponded with that which we have been considering, than that which we now commemorate, the reestablishment of peace among all the powers of Europe. We may almost literally say, in reference to it, "The wall has been built in fifty and two days."
But we will direct your attention rather to that which will be of importance, not to the present age only, but to all people to the end of time.
Behold, then, in what way we should all engage in the Lord's work—
To every man in the universe is a work assigned, namely, To erect an house that shall be an everlasting habitation for our God. The walls of Jerusalem reduced to heaps of rubbish do but faintly represent the desperate state of the world around us; while the number and malice of those who obstructed the rebuilding of that wall give us a very inadequate idea of the enemies with whom we have to contend while executing the work which God has given us to do. Every one indeed must begin at home, and work before his own door Nehemiah 3:10; Nehemiah 3:23; Nehemiah 3:28; Nehemiah 3:30; for it is by getting the work of God advanced in our own souls that we shall best contribute to the good of the Church around us. But in the whole of our work we must cultivate wisdom. It is lamentable to reflect how often men defeat their own purposes by not attending to the counsels of wisdom. Many give great advantage to their adversaries by not considering what is the peculiar line of conduct which the particular time and circumstances call for, and how they may best overcome the difficulties with which they are surrounded. We are told to "walk in wisdom towards them that are without," and to unite "the wisdom of the serpent with the harmlessness of the dove:" and it is of absolute and indispensable necessity that we attend to these directions, if we would walk honorably before God ourselves, or be instrumental to the advancing of his work in the souls of others.
But to wisdom we must add energy. There is no time to be lost: "Whatever our hand finds to do, we must do it with all our might." We must be "fervent in spirit while serving the Lord:" and, if any one would divert us from our purpose, or tempt us to relax our diligence, we must make this our uniform and steady answer, "I am doing a great work, and cannot come down".
In this kind of conduct there should be an union among us all; ministers and people should all work together: yes, and women also should engage in the good work; for they, in their place and station, may be as helpful as any. Even the Apostles owed much to the labors of women Romans 16:1-4; Romans 16:12; and the most eminent ministers have been helped forward by their pious and well-regulated zeal Acts 18:26. Let all of us then be of one heart and one mind in relation to this great matter; for it is surprising how much more rapidly the work of God advances in the souls of men, where many are engaged in strengthening each other's hands, and in encouraging one another's hearts. There are a thousand works which may be carried on in concert, which an insulated individual can never accomplish: and whoever engages in such works for the good of others, will find that he himself is the most profited by his own exertions: "While watering others, his own soul will be watered" also.
Nor must we draw back through fear or weariness. We must be men of fortitude and self-denial. We should scarcely find time, as it were, for relaxation, any further than absolute necessity requires: and if menaced with assaults, we should put on the panoply of God, and stand ready for the contest: and if by a temporary desertion of our post we may even preserve our lives, we should be willing rather to lay down our lives than dishonor our God by cowardice in his service: "Should such a man as I flee?" must be our answer to every suggestion of our great adversary, and to every unbelieving fear that may arise in our own hearts.
But above all, we must go forward in dependence on God. He must teach us, and guide us, and prosper us, in all our way. "Without him we can do nothing:" but, on the other hand, "through Christ strengthening us we can do all things." We need not despond on account of the greatness of the work, nor be discouraged through the number and malignity of our enemies: "if God be for us, none can effectually be against us:" "He will perfect that which concerns us," and "carry on to the end the work he has begun." If only we "be steadfast, immovable, and always abounding in the work of the Lord, he has pledged himself to us, that our labor shall not be in vain in the Lord".
EFFECT OF EZRA'S PREACHING
Nehemiah 8:5-6. And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: and Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.
THOUGH in the time of our Lord it was the custom to read the law of God in the synagogues, it does not appear to have been any regular part of the priest's office to preach unto the people. On some occasions however we find persons sent through the land of Israel to make known the law; and here we behold Ezra, on a pulpit of wood, elevated above the people, and surrounded by an immense congregation, who had come together on purpose to hear the word of God expounded to them. Since the introduction of Christianity, the preaching of the Gospel to men has been the particular office assigned to men who are set apart for that purpose: and though we must chiefly look to the Apostles as our examples, and to the effects of their ministrations as the pattern of what we may expect to see among our auditors, yet may we profitably look back to the time of Ezra to learn from him and his ministry,
I. In what manner the word of God should be dispensed—
The mode adopted by Ezra, namely, the expounding of Scripture verse 8, we conceive to be peculiarly worthy of imitation. It is indeed but little practiced at the present day, though at the time of the Reformation it generally obtained: and it has very great advantages above the plan which has superseded it.
1. It leads the people into a better acquaintance with the Scriptures—
The Scriptures, except as a book for children, are but little read: persons are discouraged from perusing them by an idea that they are unintelligible to common capacities. But a very little explanation would render them, for the most part, easy to be understood by all. And what a vast advantage would this be! The people studying the word of God at home would be abundantly better qualified to understand it when read in public; and the explanations given to them in public, would enable them to study it to better purpose at home: whereas the present plan of taking only a small passage for a motto, or merely as a ground-work for some general observations, leads to an extreme neglect of the Holy Scriptures, and to a consequent ignorance of them among all classes of the community.
2. It brings every part of the sacred records into view—
There are some who bring forward the doctrinal part of Scripture exclusively, and leave the practical part entirely out of sight: there are others who insist only on the practical parts, and leave out the doctrinal. There are some also to whom many of the doctrines contained in the sacred volume are perfectly hateful; and who never in all their lives so much as mentioned the doctrines of predestination and election, but to explain them away, and to abuse the persons who maintained them. But by expounding whole books of Scripture, every doctrine must be noticed in its turn, and the connection between them and our practice must be pointed out. True it is, that this mode of preaching would not altogether exclude false doctrine: but it would render the establishment of errors more difficult, because the hearers would be able to judge, in some good measure, how far the true and legitimate sense of Scripture was given, and how far it was perverted. The benefit of this therefore cannot be too highly appreciated.
3. It brings home truth to the conscience with more authority—
The word of man, though true, has little weight, in comparison of the word of God: "that is quick and powerful, and sharper than a two-edged sword." It is inconceivable what an advantage a preacher has, when he can say, "Thus says the Lord:" then every doctrine demands the obedience of faith, and every precept the obedience of righteousness. When told that the word which is delivered to them will judge them in the last day, the people will not dare to trifle with it, as they will with the declarations of fallible men. Were this matter more attentively considered, we have no doubt but that more frequent appeals would be made to Scripture in our public harangues; and that the obsolete method of expounding Scripture would have at least some measure of that attention which it deserves This part of the subject, as addressed to Ministers, is deserving of much fuller notice, than it could receive as addressed to a common congregation.
But, in considering the word of God as explained to the people of Jerusalem, we are more particularly led to notice,
II. In what manner it should be heard—
Truly admirable was the conduct of the people on this occasion. Observe,
1. Their reverential awe—
When Ezra opened the book of God, all the people, in token of their reverence, stood up: and when he blessed God for giving them so rich a treasure, they "all with uplifted hands cried, Amen, Amen;" yes, "they bowed their heads also, and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground." This was a deportment which became sinners in the presence of their God: they did not look to the creature, but to God, whose voice they heard, and whose authority they acknowledged, in every word that was spoken. What a contrast does this form with the manner in which the word of God is heard among us! How rarely do we find persons duly impressed with a sense of their obligation to God for giving them a revelation of his will! How rarely do men at this day look through the preacher unto God, and hear God speaking to them by the voice of his servants! Even religious people are far from attending the ministration of the word in the spirit and temper that they ought: curiosity, fondness for novelties, and attachment to some particular preacher, too often supply the place of those better feelings by which men ought to be actuated in their attendance on the preached Gospel. To "stand in awe of God's word," and "to tremble at it," are far more suitable emotions, than those which we usually see around us. The Lord grant, that our duty in this respect may be more justly estimated, and more generally performed!
2. Their devout affections—
"When the people heard the words of the law, they all wept," as feeling that they had sinned greatly against it verse 9. And, when they were reminded, that, as the design of the present feast was to bring to their view the tender mercies of their God, and to encourage them to expect all manner of blessings at his hands, they ought rather to rejoice verse 10, 11, they did rejoice, insomuch that "there was very great gladness" among them verse 17; and they rejoiced especially on this account, that "they had understood the words that had been declared unto them verse 12." Now it is in this way that we should hear the word delivered to us. When it shows us our sins, we should weep, as it were in dust and ashes: and when it sets forth the exceeding great and precious promises of the Gospel, we should rejoice, yes, "rejoice with joy unspeakable and glorified." We should have our hearts rightly attuned, so that we should never want a string to vibrate to every touch of God's blessed word. But may it not be said to the generality in the present day, "We have piped unto you, and you have not danced; we have mourned unto you, and you have not lamented?" Yes; the Gospel has little more power over the affections of men than if it were "a cunningly devised fable." But we entreat you to consider, that, if the law, when expounded, was so powerful, much more should the Gospel be, since "it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believes."
3. Their unreserved obedience—
No sooner was it discovered that an ordinance, appointed by Moses, had been neglected, than they hastened to observe it according to the strict letter of the law, and actually did observe it with greater fidelity than it ever had been observed even from the days of Joshua to that present hour verse 13–18. This showed, that the impression made on their affections was deep and spiritual. And it is in this way that we also must improve the ministration of the word. If we attend to the Gospel as we ought to do, we shall find out many things which we have neglected, and many that we have done amiss: yes, many things which are not generally noticed even among the godly, will occur to our minds, and show us the defectiveness, not of our obedience only, but of the obedience of the best of men. Let us have our minds then open to conviction, and attentive to every commandment of our God. Nor let us be satisfied with paying only a customary attention to his revealed will, but let us aspire after higher degrees of purity, and a more perfect conformity to the divine image. This will serve as the best test of our sincerity, and it will show, that neither have you heard in vain, nor we dispensed his word in vain.
THE JOY OF THE LORD IS OUR STRENGTH
Nehemiah 8:10. The joy of the Lord is your strength.
THE preaching of God's word is a very ancient ordinance. In the context we have a description of the manner in which Nehemiah conducted it. These means of instruction were useful in that day; nor are they less necessary in every place and age. People need, not only reproof for what is wrong, but direction in what is right. The Jews wept bitterly at the hearing of the law; but Nehemiah corrected their sorrow as ill-timed, and exhorted them to rejoice in God, who had done so great things for them.
Let us observe,
I. What reason we have to rejoice in the Lord—
God is often said to rejoice over his people Zephaniah 3:17; but the joy here spoken of must be understood rather of that which we feel in the recollection of God's goodness towards us.
The Jews at that season had special cause for joy in God—
They had been miraculously delivered from Babylon. This temple had been rebuilt in twenty years, and the worship of God restored; and now, after seventy years more, the wall of the city was finished. They had been enabled to surmount innumerable difficulties Nehemiah 4:17; they had prospered, even to a miracle, in their endeavors Nehemiah 6:16. These were tokens of the divine favor, and pledges of its continuance. They were therefore called upon to rejoice with gratitude and confidence: nor was their sorrow, however just, to exclude this joy.
Such reason also have all the Lord's people to rejoice in the Lord—
They have experienced a redemption from sorer captivity, and been delivered by more stupendous means: Every day's preservation too from their numerous enemies is, as it were, a miracle; yet the work of their souls is carried on in spite of enemies, yes, is expedited through the means used to defeat it. Surely then they should say, like the Church of old, "The Lord has done great things for us, whereof we are glad Psalm 126:3." Moreover, these mercies are pledges to them, and earnests of yet richer blessings. They may well confide in so good and gracious a God. They have indeed still great cause for sorrow on account of their past violations of the law; yet is it their duty to rejoice, yes to "rejoice always in the Lord Philippians. 4:4."
To promote and encourage this, we proceed to show,
II. In what respects this joy is our strength—
We are as dependent on the frame of our minds as on the state of our bodies. Joy in God produces very important effects:
1. It disposes for action—
Fear and sorrow depress and overwhelm the soul Isaiah 57:16; they enervate and benumb all our faculties; they keep us from attending to any encouraging considerations Exodus 6:9; they disable us from extending relief to others Job 2:13; they indispose us for the most necessary duties Luke 22:45. We cannot pray, or speak, or do anything with pleasure. On the contrary, a joyous frame exhilarates the soul Proverbs 17:22. David well knew the effect it would produce Psalm 51:12-13; and every one may safely adopt his resolution, "I will run the way of your commandments, when you shall enlarge my heart Psalm 119:32."
2. It qualifies for suffering—
When the spirit is oppressed, the smallest trial is a burden. In those seasons we are apt to fret and murmur both against God and man. We consider our trials as the effects of divine wrath; or, overlooking God, we vent our indignation against the instruments he uses. But when the soul is joyous, afflictions appear light Hebrews 10:34; Hebrews 12:2. How little did Paul and Silas regard their imprisonment Acts 16:25. How willing was Paul to lay down his very life for Christ Acts 20:24. This accords with the experience of every true Christian Romans 5:2-3 and 2 Corinthians 6:10.
1. Let us not be always brooding over our corruptions—
Seasonable sorrows ought not to be discouraged: but we should never lose sight of all that God has done for us. It is our privilege to walk joyfully before the Lord Psalm 138:5; Psalm 149:5; Psalm 89:15-16. If we abounded more in praise, we should more frequently be crowned with victory 2 Chronicles. 20:21-22.
2. Let us, however, carefully guard against the fresh incursions of sin—
It is sin that hides the Lord from our eyes Isaiah 59:2. Joy will not consist with indulged sin Psalm 66:18. Let us then "mortify our earthly members," and our besetting sins. Let us be girt with our armor, while we work with our hands Nehemiah 4:17-18; Nor ever grieve the Holy Spirit, lest we provoke him to depart from us.
3. Let us be daily going to God through Christ—
If ever we rejoice in God at all, it must be through the Lord Jesus Christ Romans 5:11. It is through Christ alone that our past violations of the law can be forgiven Colossians 1:20. It is through Christ alone that the good work can be perfected in our hearts Hebrews 12:2. And, since "all things are through him, and from him, let them be to him also Romans 11:36."