Nehemiah, Or Labour And Conflict

By Edward Dennett

Chapter 3

THE zeal of Nehemiah was used of the Lord to rouse almost the whole people. There were degrees of energy amongst them, and it may be lukewarmness if not hostility in the hearts of some; but outwardly, and by profession, nearly all came forth and offered their services as builders. It was, in fact, a real revival; and such an one as could only be produced by the Spirit of God. And the value God set upon it, is seen in that He has caused the names of those who engaged in this work to be written and preserved. This very circumstance shows that they had His mind in building the wall. It could not be otherwise; for what was the meaning of their proposed work? It was that they, led forward by Nehemiah, confessed their need of separation from the nations around, and took measures to secure it. Long ages before, Moses had said to the Lord, "Wherein shall it be known here that I and thy people have found grace in thy sight? is it not in that thou goest with us? so shall we be separated, I and thy people, from all the people that are upon the face of the earth." (Exodus 33: 16.) They had forgotten this truth; but now, through grace, they were about once again to take the place of a people set apart for God. Such is the significance of the activity recorded in this chapter; though, alas! their energy and faithfulness were soon proved to be like the morning cloud that passes away.

There is much to interest in the details of the chapter, a chapter that can scarcely fail to remind the reader of Romans 16, in which the apostle Paul, as guided of the Spirit, specifies so many of the saints by name, and describes, in many cases, their different characteristics in service. For example, he says, "Salute Tryphena and Tryphosa, who labour in the Lord. Salute the beloved Persis, who laboured much in the Lord." (v. 12.) Thus by adding two words, in his salutation to Persis, he gives her a special place before God, as well as in his affections and the affections of the saints, and a superior commendation. So in our chapter we read, "After him Baruch the son of Zabbai earnestly repaired the other piece." (v. 20.) It tells us with what minuteness (if we may so speak) God surveys His people, how carefully He notes the state of their hearts and the character of their service, and how grateful to Him is the exhibition of devotedness to His glory. Such commendations — not of man, but of God, and therefore infallible — while they, on the one hand, anticipate the judgment-seat of Christ, should, on the other, stir us all up to seek the same zeal and unwearied diligence in the Lord's service.

While we may leave the reader to examine for himself this interesting record, some of its details may profitably be indicated.

Eliashib the high priest, and his brethren the priests, are the first workers mentioned; not, it is to be concluded, because they surpassed the rest in energy or devotedness, but rather because of the position they occupied amongst the people. It is their rank, as will be afterwards seen, that gives them the precedence in the record, "They builded the sheep gate; they sanctified it, and set up the doors of it; even unto the tower of Meah they sanctified it, unto the tower of Hananeel." Comparing this account with that in verse 3, a significant difference will be noted. "But the fish gate did the sons of Hassenaah build, who also laid the beams thereof, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof." (See also verse 6.) The high priest and his brethren builded a gate, and set up its door, but they did not lay "the beams thereof" to give it stability, nor is it mentioned that they provided locks or bars. The truth is, they were not so much in earnest as the sons of Hassenaah, and Jehoiada the son of Paseah, and his companion. They were willing to have the gate and its doors; but they made no provision to make it secure, in case of need, against the ingress of the enemy. They did not object to the convenience, but they were not prepared to renounce all commerce with the enemy. And the reason was, that Eliashib himself, in whose mouth the law of truth should have been found, and who should have walked with God in peace and equity, and have turned many from iniquity (Mal. 2: 6), was allied unto Tobiah the Ammonite (Neh. 13: 4), and his grandson was son-in-law of Sanballat the Horonite. (Neh. 13: 28.) He had, therefore, but faint heart for the work of separation, connected as he was, by such intimate ties, with the enemies of Israel, though under the influence of the energetic Nehemiah, he made a show of agreement with his brethren in their efforts to rebuild the wall and gates of the city. It was a solemn position for the high priest, as well as a source of danger to the people.

In verse 5 an exception is noted — "And next unto them the Tekoites repaired; but their nobles put not their necks to the work of their Lord." The Tekoites were willing servants; for in verse 27 it is said that they "repaired another piece." They evidently were zealous men, and this in spite of the indifference, if not opposition, of "their nobles." It is often the case, when God is working in the midst of His people, that "the nobles" are outside the circle of blessing. Even as not many mighty, not many noble are called of God in His grace, so in revivals, in new and distinct actions of the Spirit of God, the first to respond to His energy are most generally found amongst the poor and despised. The "nobles" may, in God's tender mercy, be drawn in afterwards; but He most frequently begins with the poor of this world, whom He has chosen rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which He has promised to them that love Him. Moreover, the cause of the dissent of these nobles is apparent. They "put not their necks to the work of their Lord." Pride was governing their hearts. They could not stoop low enough. They were not accustomed to the yoke, and they thus preferred their own importance and ease to the Lord's work. What a contrast to Him who, though rich, became poor, that we through His poverty might be rich for ever! He came into this world, to do the will of God, and was in the midst of His own "as One that serveth;" and having finished the work which the Father gave Him to do, He has, in His unspeakable grace and love, become for ever the servant of His people. It is well for every child of God to learn the lesson, that it is only in bowing their necks to the Lord's yoke that rest to their souls can be found. The nobles of Tekoa chose their own will, and lost by their stubbornness the blessing of the service offered to them, and at the same time procured for themselves everlasting exclusion from the commendation given to their brethren, as well as a mark of condemnation for their pride.

In several cases it is specified that certain repaired over against their houses. (vv. 10, 23, 28, 29, etc.) In these notices two things have to be distinguished — the fact and the teaching of the fact. The fact was, as stated, that these children of Israel undertook the building of the wall opposite their own dwellings; but, over and above this, the Spirit of God would have us understand its meaning. And it is not far to seek. We are thus taught — bearing in mind that the wall is an emblem of separation — that these servants of the Lord began first with their own houses; that they sought first of all to bring their own families into subjection to the word of God, and thereby to effect separation from evil within the circle of their own responsibility. And this has ever been the divine order. Thus when God called Gideon to be the deliverer of His people, He commanded him to throw down the altar of Baal in his father's house before he could go forth to battle against the Midianites. As another has remarked, "Faithfulness within precedes outward strength. Evil must be put away from Israel before the enemy can be driven out. Obedience first and then strength. This is God's order." The record, therefore, that these several individuals repaired every one over against his house, shows that conscience was at work; that they rightly understood God's claims upon them in the sphere of their own homes, and that they felt that to set their houses in order was a necessary qualification for any public service. This principle obtains also in the church. "A bishop," writes the apostle, must be" one that ruleth well his own house, having his children in subjection with all gravity." And deacons are also required to "rule their children and their own houses well." (1 Tim. 3) And it is to the loss of the church and of the saints, as well as to the damage of the souls of those who take the place of rule in the assembly, when this principle is neglected. It is true that the Spirit of God enjoins us to obey them that have the rule over us; but it is likewise important that those who have the lead should possess the scriptural qualifications for the places they have assumed or accepted.

Another interesting point may be noticed. Some who built the gates and assisted with the wall did not repair over against their houses. Eliashib the high priest, for example (cp. v. 1 with vv. 20, 21), and those who repaired over against their houses, are not said to have assisted in building the gates, etc. Two classes of saints are herein indicated. The first class are what may be termed ecclesiastical saints; i.e., those who are strong upon church-truth, and in maintaining the truth of separation from evil for the church, and at the same time are careless as to their own houses. A more sorrowful spectacle cannot be presented in the church of God (and one not infrequently seen), when a public advocate of the claims of Christ over His people, of the maintenance of His authority in the midst of those who are gathered to His name, allows his own house, through its disorder, to become an occasion of reproach by the enemy. Eliashib is an example, in this very chapter, of this class. Whatever the indifference of his heart, he was professedly engaged in the maintenance of separation and justice and judgment in Israel — through building, together with his brethren, the gate and sanctifying it; while, at the same time, he left others to care for the wall over against his own house. (See vv. 20, 21.) Tending the vineyard of others, his own vineyard he had not kept; and this is proved by the fact already mentioned, that he was allied unto Tobiah the Ammonite, while his grandson married a daughter of Sanballat the Horonite. Eli and Samuel and David of an earlier day are also examples of this numerous class.

Then there are others, as we learn from this chapter, who, most zealous in tending their own houses, and regulating them according to God, are almost entirely careless of the welfare of the church. Such have apprehended the truth that they themselves individually are to be witnesses for Christ; but they have not learnt that the church is to be a light-bearer in the midst of the world. In other words, they have not realized the oneness of God's people, that believers are "the body of Christ, and members in particular." As a consequence, while they fully admit that the word of God is their guide as to their individual path, they do not recognize its authority over the saints collectively or corporately. They are thus often linked with such departures from the truth, such disregard of the supremacy of Christ as Head of the church, through their public connection with the people of God, as would fill them with fear if they did but own their responsibility in the church as well as in their own families. But if we understand the position in which through grace we have been set, it will be our earnest desire to unite the repairing over against our own houses with building the wall and the gates.

Nothing in the service of the Lord's people passes unnoticed; and thus in verse 12 we read, that "next unto him repaired Shallum the son of Halohesh, the ruler of the half part of Jerusalem, he and his daughters." The zeal of these godly women has thus obtained for them a place in this memorial of the work of the Lord. Such a record, as well as the more abundant records of the New Testament, shows that there is never any difficulty as to women's place in service when they are filled with the energy of the Spirit of God. The account preserved of Joanna the wife of Chuza, Susanna, and many others, who ministered to the Lord of their substance, of Mary and Martha, of Phoebe, a servant of the church, of Priscilla, of Persis, and of many more, is surely sufficient for guidance to any who are willing to sit at Jesus' feet and learn His mind. This scripture gives us not necessarily what man, but what God saw. The father and his daughters were both engaged in repairing the wall, and the fact that it is mentioned is its commendation. Beyond this nothing can be said; but the examples already cited are enough to teach that there is room enough in the church of God, and also in the world, for women's utmost energy and devotedness to Christ, provided it be exhibited in subjection to Him and to His word.

In the case of Meshullam the son of Berechiah it is said that he repaired over against his chamber. (v. 30.) It would seem that he had no house, only a lodging; but though the circle of his responsibility was narrow, he was found faithful. As the apostle speaks of stewardship, "If there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not." This should be a comfort to those who are tempted to long after wider spheres of service. It is fidelity in the place in which the Lord has placed us that He values and commends; and hence the work of Meshullam is singled out for notice equally with that of Shallun the son of Col-hozeh, the ruler of part of Mizpah, of whom it is said that "he repaired the gate of the fountain;" "he built it, and covered it, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof, and the wall of the pool of Siloah by the king's garden, and unto the stairs that go down from the city of David." (v. 15.)

Reviewing the whole chapter, two other points of great importance may be specified. The reader will observe that some laboured in companies and some alone. Some were happiest when serving in fellowship with their brethren, and some preferred, while in full communion with the object their brethren had in view, to labour in single-eyed dependence upon, and alone with, the Lord. The same thing is observed in every age of the Church. There are vessels which are adapted for lonely service, and there are others almost useless unless in association with others. There are dangers besetting the path of both. The former are often tempted to be isolated, and to forget that the Lord has other servants working for the same ends; while the latter are sometimes betrayed into forgetfulness of individual dependence, as well as into the sacrifice of their own convictions as to the Lord's will in order to secure peace and union. The important thing is to receive the service from the Lord, to labour as He directs, to go where He sends, whether alone or in company with others, and ever to maintain a single eye to His glory. Happy is that servant who has learnt the lesson that it is the Lord's will, and not his own, which must govern the whole of his activities.

The second noteworthy thing is the variety of the service of these children of Israel. One did one thing and one another, while all were working for the same end. It was no mean shadow of the various functions of the members of the body. Paul, speaking of this, says, "Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith; or ministry, let us wait on our ministry: or he that teacheth, on teaching; or he that exhorteth, on exhortation," etc. (Rom. 12: 6, 7.) The importance of occupying the position given us to fill, and of exercising the special gift, or function in the body, bestowed upon us, cannot be too much pressed. Every Christian has his own place, which no one else can fill, and his own work, which no other can do; and the health and prosperity of the assembly depend upon the recognition and the practice of this truth.