By Edward Dennett
THE book opens with a brief narrative of the circumstance which God used to touch the heart of Nehemiah by the condition of His people, and to produce that exercise of soul in His presence which issued, in the ordering and purpose of God, in his mission to Jerusalem. First, giving the date and the place of the occurrence, Nehemiah says "it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace," etc. Nehemiah 11: 1 shows that this was the twentieth year of Artaxerxes; i.e., as already noted, thirteen years after Ezra had gone up to Jerusalem. He had gone up from Babylon (Ezra 7); but Nehemiah was occupied in the king's court as a personal attendant upon the king — "the king's cup-bearer" — at Shushan.1 While engaged in his duties, he says, "Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem." (v. 2.)
Nehemiah himself was thus an exile; but, though one of a captive race, he had found favour in the eyes of the king, and occupied a high and lucrative position. In such circumstances some might have forgotten the land of their fathers. Not so Nehemiah; for he was evidently known as one who did not cease to remember Zion, from the fact of the visit, here recorded, of his brother Hanani and certain men of Judah. And from the nature of his question, it will be perceived that his heart embraced all the people of the land. He enquired "concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity," that is, concerning those that were left behind when so many were carried away captive to Babylon; "and concerning Jerusalem" — concerning the remnant that had gone up, with the permission of Cyrus, to build the Lord's house. (Ezra 1) He was thus in fellowship with the heart of God, occupied as he was with His people and His interests. Surely Christians might learn many a lesson from these godly Jews. They never dreamt of isolating themselves from the whole nation, nor of seeking the welfare, for example, of a single tribe; but their affections, according to their measure, moved throughout the entire circle of God's interests on the earth. They lost themselves, so to speak, in the welfare and blessing of the whole people. If the ties which bound them together were so intimate and imperishable, how much more should it be so with those who have been all baptized by one Spirit into one body
In answer to his enquiry his visitor said, "The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire." (v. 3.) A sad account indeed of the chosen people in the land of promise! "A land," as Moses described it, "of hills and valleys, and drinketh water of the rain of heaven: a land which the Lord thy God careth for: the eyes of the Lord thy God are always upon it, from the beginning of the year even unto the end of the year." (Deut. 11: 11, 12.) Ah! what a tale is unfolded by the present circumstances of the children of the captivity — a tale of sin, rebellion, and even apostasy. And what were their circumstances? They were in great affliction, arising out of their own moral condition and from the activity and enmity of their enemies by whom they were surrounded. (See Neh. 4: 1, 2.) They were also in reproach. Blessed is it when God's people are reproached because they are His people or on account of the name of their God (compare 1 Peter 4: 14); but nothing is more sorrowful than when the Lord's people are reproached by, or become a reproach to, the world through their inconsistent walk and ways. And it would seem from the close of the book of Ezra that the reproach in this case was of the latter kind. Professing to be what they really were — God's people — they were denying it by their alliances with the heathen and by their forgetfulness of the claims of their God.
That this is the interpretation of their affliction and sorrowful condition would seem to be borne out by the statement concerning Jerusalem: "The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire." This was the fact, and Nebuchadnezzar had been the instrument, through his army, to accomplish it. (See 2 Chr. 36) There is however another meaning. The wall is the symbol of separation; and, as we have seen, the wall of separation between Israel and the heathen had been broken down. The gate was the place, and thus the emblem, of judgment; and we are thereby instructed that justice and equity were no longer administered.2 (See Nehemiah 5)
What then could be more lamentable than this report which was conveyed to Nehemiah concerning the remnant in Judah and Jerusalem? And the effect was great upon this true-hearted Israelite. He says, "And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven." (v. 4.) He made the sorrowful state of the people his own. He felt it according to God. In their affliction he was afflicted. But he knew to whom to turn. He wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed. "Is any man afflicted?" says James, "let him pray." And the sorrow and affliction of Nehemiah, as expressed in his tears, mourning, and fasting, found an outlet in his prayer. This was a true mark of a mighty action of the Spirit of God upon his soul.
Let us then examine the nature of his supplications. He said, "I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe His commandments; let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee; both I and my father's house have sinned. We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses." (vv. 5-7.)
So far, there are chiefly two things — vindication of God, and confession of sins. Nehemiah owns most distinctly God's faithfulness, that there has been no failure on His part; while, at the same time, he fully recognizes the character of God's relationship with Israel — that, in other words, His attitude towards them depended on their conduct. "He keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe His commandments." This, together with his address to God, brings out, in a most marked way, the contrast between law and grace. Devoted and God-fearing as Nehemiah was, one cannot but be sensible of distance in the terms which he uses — "O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God" — a distance necessitated by the dispensation under which he lived. How different from the place into which the Lord brought His disciples, consequent on His resurrection, as set forth in His words, "I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God."
But in the place he occupied, Nehemiah had learnt, what is rarely learnt, in such a measure, even by Christians, viz., how to be an intercessor for his people. "Day and night" he was praying for them; and hence it was that he had the power to confess their sins. No higher privilege could be vouchsafed to a servant than this which was granted to Nehemiah — the power so to identify himself with Israel, as to enable him to take up and confess their sins as his own. "I," he says, "and my father's house have sinned." This is a true sign of spiritual power. Many can lament the condition of God's people; but there are few who can identify themselves with it. It is only such that can truly intercede for them in the presence of God. And let it be noted, that, as yet, he could only take God's part against himself and his people. God is ever faithful to those that love Him and observe His commandments; but, alas! they had not kept His commandments, nor His statutes, nor His judgments. All this is fully confessed; but he now turns to a promise on which he can ground his prayer, and count upon the interposition of God on his behalf.
He proceeds: "Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: but if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there." (vv. 8, 9.) This reference is undoubtedly to Leviticus 26, and looks on to the final restoration of Israel. And herein lay the spiritual intelligence of Nehemiah, as led of the Spirit; for this restoration, as the reader may perceive if he turns to the chapter, will be a work of pure grace, founded upon God's absolute and unconditional covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. (See Lev. 26: 42.) Nehemiah really, therefore, threw himself, while confessing the sins of his people, upon the mercy and unconditional promises of God. He rose in this way above law, and reached, in his faith, the source of all blessing — the heart of God Himself. Hence he adds, gathering strength by waiting on God, "Now these are thy servants, and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand." (v. 10.) He thus touchingly presents Israel, sinners and transgressors as they were, before God on the ground of redemption, reminding God, as He graciously permits His people to do, of His purposes of grace towards them.
Having reached the only foundation on which he could rest, he presents the special petition that lay upon his heart. "O Lord," he says, "I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name; and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cup-bearer." It is to be observed that Nehemiah associated others with him in his prayer. It was continually so also with the apostle Paul. The fact is, when we are led of the Spirit of God we necessarily identify all in whose hearts He is also working with ourselves; whether in service, or in thanksgivings, or prayer. So one are the people of God, that isolation in spirit is impossible; and hence, when Nehemiah is bowed before God in his sorrow for the state of Israel, and his desires for their deliverance and blessing, he is assured that every godly Israelite is united with him in his supplications. His prayer is very simple; it is for "mercy in the sight of this man." For he knew that it was only through the king's permission that his desire could be accomplished. The sceptre of the earth having been transferred by God Himself, consequent upon the sin and rebellion of His chosen people, to the Gentiles, in acknowledgement of the authority which He Himself had ordained, God would now only work through and by means of the Gentile king. Nehemiah was therefore in communion with the mind of God in making this prayer. But it will also be perceived that, while he understood the position in which he and his people were placed in subjection to Gentile authority, the king was nothing in the presence of God, but "this man." A monarch of almost universal dominion, he dwindled into nothingness before the eyes of faith, being nothing but a man invested with a brief authority for the accomplishment of the purposes of God. Faith thus recognizes that, while the king was the appointed channel through which the requisite permission to go to Jerusalem must be obtained, all depended, not upon the king, but upon God acting on his mind to grant what Nehemiah desired.
Then Nehemiah adds the explanation — "For I was the king's cup-bearer" — to show how, humanly speaking, he was both entirely subject to and dependent on the king. With this the chapter closes. Nehemiah has poured out his heart before the Lord, made known his request, and now he must wait, and many days he must wait, in expectation of the answer to his cries. A prayer may be entirely according to the will of God, and the fruit of communion with His mind, and yet not be immediately answered. This should be well understood, or the soul might be plunged into distress and unbelief without a cause. A prayer is often heard and granted, although God waits, in His infinite wisdom, for the suited moment to bestow the answer. This was the case with that of Nehemiah.
1 Shushan (or Susa) was originally the capital of Elam; afterwards it was incorporated into the kingdom of Babylon, and finally, on the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, it passed into the possession of Persia, of which it seems, at the time of Nehemiah, to have been the metropolis. (See Smith's Bible Dictionary.)
2 The reader may contrast the description of the heavenly Jerusalem, in Rev. 21, with its wall "great and high," exclusive of all evil, and its twelve gates signifying perfection in the administration of government in righteousness.