By Edward Dennett
NEHEMIAH 13: 4-31.
IT is impossible now to determine the chronological place of the occurrences of this chapter. We are only told that "before this" Eliashib was allied unto Tobiah, and had been on great terms of intimacy with him; and that during this time Nehemiah was not at Jerusalem. (v. 6.) "Before this" would mean before the separation from the mixed multitude (v. 3), and hence the probability is that the dedication of the wall had been delayed through the absence of the governor; and that, if this were so, the events described here took place prior to the services in connection with the dedication of the wall. This however is of no consequence, for, as before intimated, what we have to seek is the moral and not the historical order. Interpreting the connection thus there is no difficulty; for what was the object of Nehemiah's mission to Jerusalem? It was to build the walls of the holy city (Neh. 3 and 6), and by the good hand of God upon him he was enabled to complete the work to which he had been called. The wall had been erected, and he and the people had celebrated the event with great joy, and under the influence of that day they had set the house of God in order, and recognized that they were a people set apart to Jehovah.
And what was the next thing? FAILURE — failure in every thing which they had undertaken to do, and to which they had bound themselves, under the penalty of a curse, by a solemn covenant. (See Neh. 10) The lesson of Nehemiah's mission is therefore the lesson of every dispensation; viz., that whatever God entrusts to man under responsibility ends in failure. Nay, there is more than this, for we learn that failure is brought in by man at the very moment of God's grace in blessing. It is not only that each successive dispensation ends, but it also begins with failure. Adam, for example, disobeyed as soon as he was set in the place of headship and blessing; Noah, in like manner, sinned as soon as he could gather the fruit of his first vineyard upon the new earth; Israel apostatized before even the tables of the law reached the camp; and David incurred blood-guiltiness soon after the establishment of the kingdom. Nor is it otherwise in the history of the Church. In the end of Acts 4 we see the perfect answer to the Lord's prayer, "that they all may be one" (John 17: 21), for "the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul" (v. 32); and then in Acts 5 we have the sin of Ananias and Sapphira, and in Acts 6 the murmuring of one class of disciples against another. So also with the mission of individuals. As an instance take the case of the apostle Paul. Long before he had finished his course he saw the outward failure of the Church, and "all they which are in Asia" had "turned away" from him. (2 Timothy 1: 15.) These examples will explain the significant moral order of Nehemiah's narrative. Scarcely had the echoes of Jerusalem's joy, in being surrounded once more by her wall of separation (Neh. 12: 43), died away, before all the evils which had hitherto afflicted the people, and which had been the cause of their long years of banishment, reappeared. And the book closes with the account of Nehemiah's conflict with the transgressors in Israel, and of his strenuous efforts to maintain the supremacy of Jehovah in the holy city.
The first thing mentioned is the sin of Eliashib. Eliashib was the grandson of Jeshua, who had returned with Zerubbabel. He filled the office of the priest, had "the oversight of the chamber of the house of our God," and yet, in defiance of the word of God, was allied unto Tobiah the Ammonite, and had even "prepared for him a great chamber, where aforetime they laid the meat-offerings, the frankincense, and the vessels, and the tithes of the corn, the new wine, and the oil" — the portion for the Levites, etc. — and this chamber was "in the courts of the house of God." (vv. 5, 7.) This was corruption in the head and representative of the people before God, and with such an example, what wonder if the people followed in his guilty steps? It is a terrible instance of the hardening effect of familiarity with sacred things when the heart is not upright before God. Eliashib was constantly engaged in the work of his high-priestly office in the holy places, and yet had become blunted and indifferent to the character of the God before whom he appeared, as well as to the holiness of His house. His office in his eyes was an office, and nothing more; and hence he used it for his own purposes and for the assistance of his friends, a pattern that has, alas! been frequently reproduced even in the Church of God.
All this time Nehemiah, as he informs us, was not at Jerusalem. He had paid a visit to the king (v. 6), but, on his return, was made acquainted with the evil Eliashib had perpetrated in connection with Tobiah; and he says, "it grieved me sore." (v. 8.) There are those who can understand the grief of this devoted man. It was a grief according to God; for it sprang from a sense of the dishonour done to the Lord's name. It was akin to that of Jeremiah when he cried, "O that my head were waters, and mine eyes a fountain of tears, that I might weep day and night for the slain of the daughter of my people!" or again to that of the apostle when he poured forth his earnest admonitions, entreaties, and remonstrances to his Galatian converts. Would that there were more filled with like zeal for the house of God! Nor was it grief only that Nehemiah felt, but it was grief that led him to purge this chamber of the temple from its pollutions. He cast forth all the household stuff of Tobiah, and says, "Then I commanded, and they cleansed the chambers: and thither brought I again the vessels of the house of God, with the meat-offering and the frankincense." (vv. 8, 9.) He thus restored the chamber, having purified it, to its proper use.
In connection with this another discovery was made. "I perceived that the portions of the Levites had not been given them: for the Levites and the singers, that did the work, were fled every one to his field." (v. 10.) Together with the admission of the enemy into the holy places of the temple, the ministers of God had been neglected. The Levites and singers had been wholly set apart for the sacred services of the house, and the burden of their maintenance, by divine appointment, fell upon, and had been acknowledged by, the people. But as soon as they lost, through the influence of Eliashib, all sense of the holiness of the house, they forgot their responsibilities; and the servants of the Lord in His house were compelled to have recourse to the ordinary means of support — "they fled every man to his field." The same thing is often seen in the Church. In seasons of devotedness, wrought upon by the Spirit of God, there are those who will give up all for the work of proclaiming the gospel or ministering the Word; and when the saints are walking with God they will welcome such, and "have fellowship with them," rejoicing that the Lord is sending forth more labourers into His harvest, and to care for the souls of His people. But whenever decline sets in, and saints become worldly, labourers are forgotten; so that those who have not learnt the lesson of dependence on God alone, that He is all-sufficient for their needs, are compelled to flee to their fields for support. This difference, however, must be marked. There is no obligation now, as there was with the Jew, to support the Levites, but it is a privilege to do so; and whenever it is done as unto the Lord, the things offered, as they were to Paul, are "an odour of a sweet smell, a sacrifice acceptable, well-pleasing to God." (Phil. 4: 18.) Nehemiah proceeded at once to rectify also this abuse. He contended with the rulers, and said, "Why is the house of God forsaken?" Then he gathered the Levites and singers together, and once more set them in their place. He thus went down to the root of the evil — forsaking the house of God (cp. Heb. 10: 25) — and at the same time dealt with those — the rulers — who were responsible for the neglect; for if they were careless, the people would soon imitate their example. In fact, it was the cropping up of the evil that has afflicted the people of God in every age — minding their own things instead of being occupied with the Lord, His interests and claims.
The influence of the energetic action of Nehemiah was instantly felt; for we read, "Then brought all Judah the tithe of the corn, and the new wine, and the oil into the treasuries." (v. 12.) The people had a heart, and their affections towards the house of God and His servants were ready to flow out as soon as Nehemiah led the way. It is another instance that the outward state of the people of God depends almost wholly upon the character of their leaders. If these are earnest and devoted, so will be also the people; while if those who take the lead are careless and worldly, these characteristics will also be displayed by the people. It is so now in different assemblies. Whatever those are who have places of prominence, so are the saints corporately. The leaders impress their own character upon the meeting. There may be individuals in the assembly of entirely another sort, but we speak of meetings as a whole. All this does but show out the solemn responsibility resting upon "the rulers," and will explain, at the same time, the character of the addresses to the angels of the seven churches; for the angels are but the collective responsibility, whether in one, two, or more, of the several assemblies, and hence their state is the state of all, and they are dealt with as responsible for it.
To provide against the recurrence of the evil, Nehemiah "made treasurers over the treasuries" (v. 13), the ground of his selection being that "they were counted faithful; and their office was to distribute unto their brethren." Upright himself before God, he was uninfluenced by any personal considerations; and, governed by the single eye, he had respect only to suitability for the post. Fidelity was the thing needed, as the office was one of trust, requiring faithfulness towards God and also towards their brethren; and hence he sought only such as possessed the necessary qualification. The very composition, moreover, of the treasurers — a priest, a scribe, a Levite, and another — shows how careful he also was in "providing for honest things, not only in the sight of the Lord, but also in the sight of men." (2 Cor. 8: 21.)
This accomplished, Nehemiah turns to God with the prayer, "Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof." (v. 14.) It has often been pointed out that Nehemiah in his prayers was too much occupied with himself and his own good deeds. We do not say that it might not have been so; but they are capable of another interpretation. He was almost alone in the midst of prevailing corruption, and it was only in God that he found his strength and encouragement; and thus, in the midst of all his difficulties, we find continually these ejaculatory petitions. At any rate, it is clear that he looked for no recompense from man, and that he was content to leave himself and the recognition of his doings in the hands of God, assured, as he was, that it was God's work in which he was engaged, and counting upon Him alone for the recompense.
Forsaking the house of God was not the only evil Nehemiah had to contend with. The next was the violation of the sabbath. "In those days," he says, "saw I in Judah some treading wine-presses on the sabbath, and bringing in sheaves, and lading asses; as also wine, grapes, and figs, and all manner of burdens, which they brought into Jerusalem on the sabbath-day," etc. (v. 15.) They were also selling victuals, and bought fish and ware of the men of Tyre on the sabbath. (v. 16.) Having lost all sense of the claims of God as to His house, it was but a natural consequence that they should also neglect the sanctity of the seventh day, the observance of which from redemption out of Egypt (Exodus 16; Deut. 5: 14, 15) and onwards, had been enjoined by God in connection with every covenant into which He had been pleased to enter with His people Israel. The profanation therefore of the sabbath was the sign that they had gone far in backsliding, that indeed they were verging upon apostasy; for they were sinning, in this respect, against both light and knowledge. Nehemiah, in his zeal for the Lord, was aroused, and he "contended with the nobles of Judah, and said unto them, What evil thing is this that ye do, and profane the sabbath-day? Did not your fathers thus, and did not our God bring all this evil upon us, and upon this city? yet ye bring more wrath upon Israel by profaning the sabbath." (vv. 17, 18.) It will be observed that as the rulers were in question in regard to forsaking the house of God, so the nobles are the head and front of the offence in respect of the sabbath. In both cases the fount of the evil was in those who ought to have been examples to the people. It is ever so in times of general declension, inasmuch as it is only the leaders who can draw the mass after them into sin. But this very fact rendered the task of Nehemiah all the more arduous. Single-handed he had to contend with those on whom he had a right to count to sustain his authority and influence. Truly he was a faithful man, and because he was such God was with him in his conflict with the transgressors in Israel. Having convicted them that had sinned before all (see 1 Tim. 5: 20), he used his authority as governor to prevent a recurrence of the evil. First, he commanded that the gates of Jerusalem should be shut before dark on the eve of the sabbath, and that they should be kept closed until the sabbath was over. It shows how few were to be depended upon for this service, in that he stationed some of his own servants at the gates to see to it, that "there should be no burden brought in on the sabbath-day." (v. 19) In addition, he gave his own unremitting attention to the matter; and thus when the Tyrian merchants and vendors lodged without Jerusalem once or twice — their very presence being a temptation to the people — he testified against them, and threatened to lay hands on them, and in this way they were driven off. Finally, he "commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, and that they should come and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath-day." (v. 22.) It is a beautiful picture of one devoted man seeking with all his might to stem the rushing tide of evil. To human eyes it might seem a hopeless struggle, and even, as to outward results, a failure. But it was God's battle that Nehemiah was fighting, and he knew it, and if but faithful to Him there could never be defeat. God is the appraiser of the conflict, and He counts as victory what human eyes regard as disaster. (See Isa. 49: 4-6.) Nehemiah had in measure learnt this lesson, and thus he turns again to God with the prayer, "Remember me, O my God, concerning this also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy." He looks not to man, but to God; and while he desires to be remembered for "this also," yet, in his true humility, conscious of all his own weakness and failure, he does but pray to be spared according to the "greatness" of God's mercy. Blessed state of soul is it when the servant is made to feel that, whatever his service, he has nothing to rest upon but the mercy of God! On that foundation — for Christ Himself is its channel and expression — he can repose, whatever his trials and conflicts, in perfect peace and security.
There was yet another trial. "In those days also," he says, "saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: and their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews' language, but according to the language of each people." (vv. 23, 24.) This was the evil that had so deeply afflicted the heart of Ezra (Ezra 9: 1-3), and which he earnestly sought to eradicate; but it had started up again, and confronted Nehemiah also all through his labours (Neh. 9: 2; Neh. 10: 30, etc.) with its sad and open testimony to the state of the people. For what did it declare? That Israel was abandoning the ground of separation unto God, and breaking down the holy wall of enclosure — "the middle wall of partition" by which He had shut them off from all the peoples that were upon the face of the earth. It was, in truth, no less than a denial that they were God's chosen nation — a holy people to the Lord; and it was thus a surrender of all the privileges, blessings, and hopes of their calling. It was no wonder therefore that Nehemiah was filled with such holy indignation that he "contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, Ye shall not give your daughters unto their sons, nor take their daughters unto your sons, or for yourselves." He reminded them, moreover, of the sad example of Solomon, that, "though there was no king like him, who was beloved of his God, and God made him king over all Israel: even him did outlandish women cause to sin. Shall we then," he enquired, "hearken unto you to do all this great evil, to transgress against our God in marrying strange wives?" (vv. 25-27.)
It must have been indeed a bitter trial to the heart of Nehemiah. It was the account of the great reproach and affliction of the remnant in the province, and of the wall in Jerusalem being broken down, as well as of the gates being burned with fire (Neh. 1: 3), that had been used to stir up the desire in his soul to remedy these evils. The desire of his heart was granted, and he had gone to Jerusalem, and laboured there for years, and at length, through the goodness of God, saw his desire accomplished. But now, together with the close of his labours, he has to mourn over the persistent refusal of the people to remain in holy security within the wall of separation. Having their treasure in the world, their hearts were there also, and they thus continually turned their backs upon all the blessings of the holy place in which they had been set. Still Nehemiah was undaunted, and with unwearied energy he persevered in his labours for the good of his people, seeking only, for the glory of God, to spend and be spent in their service. First, he "chased" from him one of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib the high priest, who was son-in-law to Sanballat the Horonite.
Eliashib himself, as we have seen, was "allied unto Tobiah," so that he and his family were linked up with the two active enemies of Israel. Here then, in the high priest's family, was the fount of corruption, from which flowed out the dark and bitter streams of sin through the people. To drive the sinner away was all that Nehemiah himself could accomplish; but he had another resource, of which he availed himself — he committed the matter to God. "Remember them, O my God," he cries, "because they have defiled the priesthood" (Lev. 21), "and the covenant of the priesthood, and of the Levites." (Malachi 2: 4-7.) It might seem strange that Nehemiah, armed as he was with authority as the governor, proceeded no further with the punishment of this guilty priest. The fact is, it is impossible, in the way of discipline, to go beyond the moral state of the people. To do so would be only to play into the hands of the enemy; and on this account many a godly man has to remain inactive in the presence of patent and flagrant departures from the word of God, and to content himself, like Nehemiah, with crying to the Lord against the offenders. Where there is no conscience about the sin, the Lord alone can deal with the offender, though it may be often necessary, as in the case before us, to "chase" away the sinner. But in the midst of all the confusion, it is a blessed resource to be able to commit all to the Lord, who, in His own time, will vindicate the name which we may have dishonoured.
Nehemiah nevertheless continued his work of reformation. He says, "Thus cleansed I them from all strangers, and appointed the wards of the priests and the Levites, every one in his business; and for the wood-offering, at times appointed, and for the firstfruits." For the moment all is ordered according to God, and in this way Nehemiah becomes a shadow, if not a distinct type, of Him who will "sit as a refiner and purifier of silver: and He shall purify the sons of Levi, and purge them as gold and silver, that they may offer unto the Lord an offering in righteousness." (Malachi 3: 3.)
Thus end the recorded labours of Nehemiah. He had fully identified himself with the interests of the Lord and with Israel, and he had persevered in his labours amid opposition and reproach; and now that the close had come he is content to leave all results in the hands of God. Hence, looking away from his work and from himself, he cries, "Remember me, O my God, for good." This prayer has already been answered; for it is God who has caused this account of Nehemiah's labours to be preserved, and He will answer it yet more abundantly, for the time will come when He will publicly acknowledge Nehemiah's faithful service, according to His own perfect estimate of his work. For while it is true, and ever to be remembered, that grace alone produces the energy and perseverance of service in the hearts of any, it is also true that the same grace reckons the fruits of labour to those in whose hearts they have been produced. God is the source of all; He calls and qualifies His servants; He sustains and directs them in their labours, and yet He says, "Well done, good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy Lord." To Him alone be all the praise!