By Edward Dennett
INSTEAD of continuing the narrative of building the wall, Nehemiah turns aside to describe the state of things within — amongst the people. And this is most instructive. If we are occupied in dealing with evil from without, we cannot afford to neglect our own moral condition or the condition of the assembly. This has been too often the case; so that it will be sometimes seen that zealous contenders for the truth are altogether neglectful of self-judgment and of discipline in the house of God. No sadder spectacle can be witnessed than an assembly, for example, which is utterly careless of its own state, of its own want of subjection to the word of God, proclaiming the need of separation from evil-doers or from false doctrine. Vessels unto honour, sanctified and meet for the Master's use, become prepared unto every good work by being themselves purged from all that by which they might be contaminated or defiled. Such too is the lesson of these chapters. Conflict characterizes chapter 4, and now in chapter 5 the lesson must be learnt that the builders and warriors must have on the breastplate of righteousness if they are to resist successfully the attacks of the foe.
In verse 1 the internal difficulty is indicated — "And there was a great cry of the people and their wives against their brethren the Jews." (Compare Acts 6) "The people and their wives" are evidently the poor, while "their brethren the Jews" are the rich. And division had come in through oppression by the latter, taking occasion through the poverty of the former to enrich themselves. (Compare James 5, and also 1 Cor. 11: 17-22.) Some had sold their sons and daughters to the rich for corn, that they might eat and live. Some had, with the same object, under pressure from the dearth, mortgaged their lands, vineyards, and houses; and others had borrowed money upon the security of their lands and vineyards to pay the king's tribute. The rich had used the needs of their poorer brethren to become richer, and to bring them completely under their power. The poor, bowed to the dust under the heavy burden of their bondage and need, raised "a great cry," and said, "Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards." (vv. 2-5.)
Such was the sad condition of the returned remnant, even while they were engaged in building the walls of their holy city Jerusalem. Let us then seek to discover the root of this festering sore. It lies in a word — used twice — "their brethren," "our brethren." They were brethren as being common descendants of Abraham, and even in a deeper sense. As God's chosen people they were alike on the ground of redemption, and all therefore were on the same footing before Him — the common objects of His grace, and as such heirs together of the promises made to their fathers. It was in view of this that Malachi challenged them with the question, "Have we not all one Father? hath not one God created us? why do we deal treacherously every man against his brother, by profaning the covenant of our fathers?" (Mal. 2: 10.) So now "the Jews" were dealing with the people as if they were not their brethren, in utter forgetfulness of the common relationship in which they stood before God, and so treating them as if they were aliens and heathen. The same evils reappear in varying forms in every age, and are especially noticed in the epistle of James. (See James 1: 9, 10; 2 and 5)
But there was more than forgetfulness of relationship in this conduct on the part of the Jews. There was also positive disobedience. (See Exodus 22: 25; Deut. 15). We may cite one verse: "If there be among you a poor man of one of thy brethren within any of thy gates, in thy land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thine heart, nor shut thine hand from thy poor brother; but thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him, and shalt surely lend him sufficient for his need, in that which he wanteth." (Deut. 15: 7, 8. Read the whole chapter.) As being themselves the recipients of grace, they were to express that grace to their brethren. (cp. 2 Cor. 8: 9 et seq.) But instead of this they denied, as we have pointed out, the truth of their redemptive position, and, exhibiting a spirit of rigour and oppression for the sake of gain, they violated the plainest precepts of the word of God. There are few who. as they read this narrative, would not condemn such gross disobedience; and yet it may be asked, What did it amount to? Simply the adoption of human thoughts instead of God's, of worldly usages and practices instead of those prescribed in the Scriptures. In a word, these Jews walked as men, and as men who hastened to be rich at the expense of their brethren! And is this sin unknown in the church of God? Nay, do not the usages of society and the maxims of the world often force themselves among Christians, and regulate their mutual relationships? Let our own consciences answer the question in the presence of God, and we shall soon discover if the sin of these Jews has its counterpart to-day amongst the Lord's people.
This was the state of things amongst the returned captives — the restored remnant; a moral condition that necessarily crippled the efforts of Nehemiah to cope with the advancing tide of evil from without. He tells us, "I was very angry when I heard their cry, and these words." His faithful heart entered into the sorrowful condition of his poor brethren, and he was righteously indignant with their oppressors. So Paul of a later date, according to the truth of the dispensation in which he was, exclaimed, "Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not?" (2 Cor. 11: 29.) In both cases, the anger of Nehemiah, and the sympathy of Paul, in their identification with the sorrows of God's people, were reflections, however feeble, of the heart of God Himself. (Compare Exodus 3: 7, 8.)
But the question for Nehemiah was, How could this state of things be remedied? The answer is found in verses 7-12. Observe the remarkable expression, "Then I consulted with myself" (v. 7); for therein is contained a principle of the utmost importance. The nobles and rulers, with whom, in ordinary circumstances, he might have taken counsel, were the chief offenders; and no light therefore or assistance could be expected from them. Thus it was that Nehemiah was cast on his own resources, or rather that he was shut up to God for guidance in the matter. When all have departed out of the way, and when, as a consequence, the authority of the word of God has been obscured, the man of faith — one who desires to walk with God — cannot afford to consult with others, or he might be fettered with their counsel; he must act alone and for himself, at whatever cost, according to the Word; and in this necessity he finds both strength and courage, because it begets confidence in the Lord, and ensures His presence. Hence the next step was that Nehemiah "rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother. And I set a great assembly against them." (v. 7.) He convicted them of their sin (see Exodus 22: 25); and, according to the apostolic injunction, rebuked them before all, saying, "We, after our ability, have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer," etc. (vv. 8-14.)
There are several points in Nehemiah's address worthy of special remark. It will be seen, in the first place, that he is enabled to rebuke the offenders by contrasting their conduct with his own. He had redeemed his brethren from the heathen; they had brought them into bondage to themselves, lording it over God's heritage. Most blessed is it when a shepherd amongst the people of God can point to his own conduct as their guide. It was so with the apostle Paul. Again and again he was led of the Holy Spirit to refer to himself as an example. (See Acts 20: 34, 35; Phil. 3: 17; 1 Thess. 1: 5, 6, etc.) So was it with Nehemiah in this instance. And in what a light did he thus place the conduct of the nobles and rulers! Nehemiah, from love to his brethren, and from grief for the dishonour to Jehovah's name by their condition, spent his substance in their redemption; they, from love to themselves, and from a desire to increase in riches, used the necessities of their brethren to bind the yoke of bondage about their necks. Nehemiah showed the spirit of Christ (compare 2 Cor. 8: 9), and they the spirit of Satan. Having thus exposed the nature of their conduct, he appeals to them on another ground. "Also I said, It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God, because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies?" (v. 9.) This appeal shows how dear to Nehemiah was the honour of his God, and that it grieved him to the heart to think that the conduct of Israel should furnish a just occasion for reproach from the enemy. They claimed, and claimed rightly, to be God's chosen people; and as such to be holy, to be separated from all the rest of the nations for His service. But if in their walk they resembled the heathen, what became of their profession? They did not cease to be God's people, but by their conduct they denied that they were, and publicly profaned the holy name by which they were called. No greater damage can be done by God's people than to give the enemy just ground for taunting them with their practices. (Contrast 1 Peter 2: 11, 12; 1 Peter 3: 15, 16; 1 Peter 4: 15-17.) On this appeal he based his exhortation — first, to cease to do evil, and then to learn to do well. Reminding them again, that he and his brethren and servants might have acted, if they had chosen, in a similar manner, he says, "I pray you, let us leave off this usury." Remark that he says, "let us;" putting himself in grace alongside of them in their sins, acknowledging, indeed, that he was one with them before God, and seeking thus in a spirit of meekness to effect their restoration. Moreover, he urged upon them to make restitution, to give back that day "their lands, etc., that ye exact of them." (v. 11)
The Lord was with His servant, and they consented to do as they had been urged; but Nehemiah, unwilling to leave the matter in any doubt, or fearing that they might be tempted, when they went back to their homes, to forget their promise, "called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise." Even more, to give greater solemnity to the transaction, he says, "Also I shook my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied. And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the Lord. And the people did according to this promise." (v. 13.) In this manner Nehemiah laboured for the good of the people, and corrected the abuses that had sprung up in their midst to the destruction of order, holiness, and fellowship.
From verse 14 to the end of the chapter, Nehemiah is led to give an account of his own conduct as governor. Looking at this, according to man, it might seem to be self-commendation and exaltation; but it must never be forgotten that we are reading God's word, and that it was therefore as guided of the Holy Spirit that this description is recorded for our instruction. And, as before observed, the lesson is, that the shepherds whom the Lord raises up for His people should ever be "ensamples to the flock." (See 1 Peter 5: 1-3.) Bearing this in mind, we shall be able to profit by the presentation of Nehemiah's conduct. First, he tells us that, for the twelve years he had been governor, neither he nor his brethren had eaten the bread of the governor as his predecessors had done; i.e., he had not, as he explains, been "chargeable unto the people." (vv. 14, 15.) His office entitled him to be so, but he did not use his authority in this respect. We are again reminded of the apostle Paul, who wrote to the Corinthians, "If we have sown unto you spiritual things, is it a great thing if we shall reap your carnal things? If others be partakers of this power over you, are not we rather? Nevertheless we have not used this power; but suffer all things, lest we should hinder the gospel of Christ." (1 Cor. 9: 11-13, et seq.; see also Acts 20: 33; 1 Thess. 2: 9.) Neither did he, like the former governors, permit his servants to bear rule over the people. No abuse is more common, even in the church of God, than that here indicated. It is often seen, for example, to the sorrow of the saints, and the perversion of the divine order, that the relatives of those who rightly have the place of rule assume place and authority, and expect to be acknowledged because of their relationship. As in Nehemiah's case, so also in the Church, office is personal, for qualification or gift is divinely bestowed, and cannot be transmitted to another. Even Samuel failed in this respect when he made his sons judges; and it was their conduct that provoked the people of Israel to desire a king. (1 Samuel 8: 15.)
Nehemiah was saved from this by walking and acting before God. "So did not I," he says, "because of the fear of God." This reveals to us a man whose conscience was tender and in lively exercise; one who was watchful over his ways and conduct, lest he might be governed by self-will or his own advantage, instead of God's word; one who cherished an habitual reverence both for His presence and His authority, and, maintaining a holy fear in his soul, ever sought to commend himself to the Lord. This was the secret both of his uprightness and devotedness, for he is able to say that he had been willing to spend and be spent in the Lord's service. "Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land; and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work." He gave himself to the work, he sought no earthly possessions for himself, and his servants, as well as himself, were devoted to building the wall. A blessed example surely of self-denial and consecration, and one well calculated, as the fruit of the grace of God, to stimulate the godly to follow in his steps, and to rebuke the avarice and covetousness of those who were trading upon their brethren's necessities. Nor was this all. "Moreover," he adds, "there were at my table an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, besides those that came unto us from among the heathen that are about us;" i.e., Jews who were scattered among the other peoples who at that time inhabited Palestine. And the next verse (18) tells us of the daily provision for his table, and of the store of all sorts of wine furnished once in ten days. From this we learn that Nehemiah was given to hospitality, and that he was "not forgetful to entertain strangers." He had therefore one of the qualifications which the apostle gives as indispensable for a bishop in the church of God (1 Tim. 3: 2) — a qualification which perhaps is now not so much esteemed as in former days. But it may be questioned whether anything more tends to bind together the hearts of the saints, and thus to promote fellowship, than the exercise of hospitality according to God. The word of God abounds in examples as well as in commendations of it. It was the special service of one beloved saint, as shown in his description by the apostle, when he wrote, "Gaius mine host, and of the whole church, saluteth you." (Rom. 16: 23. See also 3 John.) The source of its exercise is the activity of grace in the heart — delighting to give, and to be made happy in the happiness of others. It is therefore no mean expression of the heart of God. "Yet for all this," Nehemiah adds, "required not I the bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy upon this people." (v. 18.) His heart was touched with their condition and he had learnt the lesson that it was more blessed to give than to receive. He thus dispensed bountifully to those that came to him, and seems to have welcomed all.
Nor did he look for any human recompense, but, turning to God, in whose presence he walked and laboured, he said, "Think upon me, my God, according to all that I have done for this people." (v. 19.) It has been often said that this prayer, as others recorded by him, is evidence that Nehemiah moved on a low spiritual platform, as it would have been a far higher thing had he not thought of any recompense at all. It may be so; and, as we have pointed out, Nehemiah certainly had not the simple faith of Ezra. On the other hand, we cannot fail to see in the sketch here given that he was distinguished, in a day of confusion and ruin, by a rare devotedness to the service of his God, by an upright conscience, and by an utter self-forgetfulness in his intense desire for the glory of God in the welfare of His people. All that he was, and had, was laid upon the altar, yielded up to God for His use and service, and while it may be admitted that there are loftier prayers than the one here recorded, we prefer to see in it the expression of an earnest desire for the blessing of God in connection with his labours for His people. The Lord Himself said, "Whosoever shall give to drink unto one of these little ones a cup of cold water only in the name of a disciple, verily I say unto you, he shall in no wise lose his reward." It was in the spirit of this, and knowing the faithful Jehovah he had to do with, that Nehemiah turned away from all thought of selfish advantage to God, in the confidence that He who had wrought in his heart this love to His people would not allow him to lose his reward. Like Moses, he had "respect unto the recompence of the reward," but it was not from men, but from God.