The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Now these are the children of the province that went up out of the captivity, of those which had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away unto Babylon, and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city;Ezra 2
1. Now these are the children of the province [Judea] that went up out of the captivity, of those which had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away, unto Babylon [as into a lion's den, see Nahum 2:10], and came again unto Jerusalem and Judah, every one unto his city [the cities and villages are more distinctly enumerated by Nehemiah];
55. The children of Solomon's servants [formed of the residue of the Canaanites, supposed to be inferior to the Nethinims]: the children of Sotai, the children of Sophereth, the children of Peruda,
59. And these were they which went up from Tel-melah [hill of salt] Tel-harsa [hill of the wood], Cherub, Addan, and Immer: but they could not show their father's house, and their seed, whether they were of Israel [those who had lost the records of their lineage. Even of the priests there were three families without genealogy]:
60. The children of Delaiah, the children of Tobiah, the children of Nekoda, six hundred fifty and two.
61. And of the children of the priests: the children of Habaiah, the children of Koz, the children of Barzillai: which took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite [2Samuel 18:27], and was called after their [her] name:
62. These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood [Levitically disqualified].
WHATEVER the local incident may have been—and into that it may not be wholly profitable to inquire—the great principle remains in operation to-day, and is pathetically and painfully illustrated in many a living instance. The idea is that the people who are referred to sought their register expecting to find their names recorded, and when the scroll was searched the names were not found there. Here is the picture of men seeking a register, and finding nothing in it; looking up old family papers, and their names are not found in the tender record.
A man not known at home! He may have been born there, and have lived a good many years of his early life there; but to-day he has no record on the hearthstone, no place at the table, no portion in the family memory: it would be a breach of courtesy to name his name; his health may not be inquired after; even the most delicate and well-calculated solicitude must not be expressed. The man in question is not; he is living, he has a place somewhere on the earth, but those who gave him birth do not know where, and those who once cared for him never mention him even in prayer. Something must have happened. There is an ineffable sadness about this: all nature seems to be violated; instincts have been rooted out; natural affection seems to have been burned down and utterly destroyed: how is this? Events of this kind do not come about without explanation. Children are not cast out for small offences, for venial transgressions; these are forgotten by the hundred, and the great substantial affection is untouched. But here is an instance of a man taking you to his home to prove his nativity and his own home saying, in effect—I never knew you: you are as if you had never been. Consider the tremendous possibility of outliving one's natural rights, or forfeiting birthright, inheritance, paternal blessing, all the wealth of home's true love. Talk of falling from grace! What is this but an apostacy from the best grace—a fall from childhood's trust, the wilful obliteration of the name from the scroll whose meaning is nothing but love?
Here is a child who is not named in the will. He says, My progenitors are dead: the will is to be read to-day. I will be in good time to hear it, because my name is certain to occur in the will. The document is read, and no mention is made of the person in question. Men are not treated thus for trivial offences, let us say again and again. We must get at the root of this, or we shall trifle with facts, and shall heap opprobrium unjustly upon the memories of the dead. Consider what you have done. How infinite in detestation must have been the character which resulted in this issue! Surely they might have left you something at the last, and would have done so but that your conduct touched the point of unpardonableness. There is an unpardonable sin in social life: why all this ado about an unpardonable sin in higher spheres? The unpardonableness is not with God; but the utterness of the corruption, the completeness of the blasphemy, is with man. The testator halted at one point; he thought he would leave you something, but considerations crowded upon his memory, and not upon his memory only but upon his conscience, his sense of justice, and he felt at the very last, when men are most melted in heart, most clement and tender in feeling, that he could not overlook the tremendous transgression. He may have been wrong; we are not concerned now to rectify cases of that kind or inquire into them; but here is the principle, that it has been as a matter of fact found possible for a man to obliterate his name at home, and so to live that those who gave him birth have in effect forgotten his existence in shame.
Take more general ground, and the principle still applies. Here is a man who is unknown in the community; his name may be written upon certain official papers, but it is not inscribed on the scroll of the heart, on the memory of gratitude; it is not to be found anywhere put up as a thing most prized and loved. He is but a figure in the community, but a tax-payer, but an occupier of a house; he is not a living presence in any sense of beneficence, comforting the friendless, blessing the poor, assisting the helpless, and doing all ministries of love and tenderness. He is not known! When he is buried no one will miss him in the heart. His name is not written upon the register of trust, affection, or benevolent interest.
Seeing that all these things are possible there must be a reason for them: what is it? It is always a moral reason, where it touches any conception of general justice. Not because the child was deaf, dumb, blind, was he left out of the will—never; human nature rises to protest against the infamous suggestion. Not because the child was ill-shaped, wanting in fairness and loveliness of form and colour, was he forgotten at home: nay, contrariwise, he may have been the fairest of the whole flock, the very flower of all the family, bright in mind and invested with a thousand charms; but somehow his heart got wrong, his best nature was poisoned, perverted, turned downwards towards ruin; all natural feeling was extinguished; the man became as a beast in fierceness: he dispossessed himself by moral processes. That is the only dispossession that is possible. A man may overget everything else, but when he has forfeited confidence, trust, love, moral veneration, no matter how keen his wit, how vast his learning, how charming his personal manners, he is looked upon as twice dead, plucked up by the roots, something to be avoided, a life that spreads pestilence in the air. At the last shall we go to the book of life, and not find our names there? The answer is in our own lives. No man, be he ever so great a foe, can remove our names from God's book of life—there the enemy has no power; but we must have first so related ourselves to God as to have had a name written amongst the blessed, the pardoned, the pure. Let every man answer the question for himself. To-day it is of little or no consequence; but the time will come when registers will be looked up, when histories will be read, when old archives will be searched; and no matter where our names may be written if they are not written in the book of life, our fame will be infamy, our elevation will mark the spot from which our fall shall be the most tremendous. Sad to turn away from the record, saying, My name is not there! But, blessed be God, the humblest, least, vilest may, through the blood of the everlasting covenant, the whole mystery of the priesthood of Christ, have their names written in heaven. Compared with that, all other fame is noise, all other reputation is a bubble or a shadow.
We find the next point in the sixty-third verse—
"And the Tirshatha [the Feared] said unto them, that they should not eat of the most holy things [make a gain of the priesthood], till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim." (Ezra 2:63).
That principle still operates. It is the principle of regard to technicality, form, established stipulation, and regulation; it is the principle of mechanical piety or mechanical service. The rule was that religious privilege was to be denied until certain mechanical arrangements were re-established—"till there stood up a priest with Urim and with Thummim." No matter how great the hunger—for it was a question of hunger—they should not eat of the most holy things; until the technical arrangements were completed the eager appetite must be held in check. Blessed be God, there is nothing technical on the way to the enjoyment of God's love. Let us beware of man-made gates and locks and passwords. They are but human inventions, and they have done incalculable mischief to the very Church which they were intended in some general way to serve. Who are we that we should limit the number to be saved? By what authority do we stand at any house we have built and say, Only such and such shall enjoy the franchise of this dwelling of God? If we limit our attendances by certain regulations of our own invention, let those regulations be known, but never call the house by the name of God. You cannot have a great God and a little charity; an infinite Redeemer and a small prey taken from the spoiler by his mighty hand. By what names are our houses called? Call them by our own names, and then every magnitude may be measured by the scale of our personality; but call them by the name of God, the heaven and heaven of heavens cannot contain him; call them by the name of Christ, and he would have all the world evangelised and saved; call them by the name of the Holy Spirit, and who may limit the Holy One of Israel, saying, He shall dwell here, but not there, when his presence shineth as the lightning from the east even unto the west? There are ironies that cannot be tolerated even in social speech, but no irony can compare with a house called by the name of God, and yet limited as to its spiritual accommodation by the selfishness or the prejudice of man. But may not many come in unworthily? We answer, Many come in unworthily now. You never can keep the unworthy out; they will find some method of climbing over the wall or forcing their way. The people we keep out are the true, the honest, the modest, the simple, the self-distrustful. No wall ever built by human hands could keep a hypocrite out of the visible Church. No catechism, creed, or standard, could keep the bad man from the altar, if he wished to be there: his oath is ready, his signature is always within call; whatever the terms are he is ready to comply with them. The liar has great capacity; the vicious man has in some respects greater liberty of action than the virtuous man, for nothing stands in his way: he can run, or leap, or wait, or lie, or play the cunning trick, or speak the true word with an untrue emphasis; he can win his end, for a moment at least. On the other hand, how many are kept away from eating the most holy things because some priest has set up a gate through which the hungry ones must come, or must not come at all. All inventions of this kind must give way before the hunger of the heart. When the spiritual life is considered to be equivalent to the heart-hunger, conscious heart-need, then what freedom, even to the point of infinity and glory, shall be realised within the tabernacle and kingdom of God! This participation of the holy things is not a question of science, theology, formulated dogma, stipulated creed; it is a question of burning thirst, devouring hunger, holy desire after the living God. Where men are conscious of such thirst, such hunger, such desire, they may come into God's house, though there be no priest there in human form, no blazing stones worn by consecrated men: by the very sun that shines in the heavens, by the copious rain that falls on the just and on the unjust, they have a right to reason their way upward into the infinity of God's hospitality. If you are turned out of any church because of human regulations, then draw near to one another outside, on the common street, in the green field, under the shadowing tree, and there begin to exemplify the true idea of the Church: only learn from your own exclusion not to exclude other people, who do not see things precisely as you see them: the substantial requisite is, desire after the living God, conscious need of all that heaven means, self-distrust, and the outgoing of the heart towards the blessed cross of Christ,—find these, and you find a Church against which the gates of hell shall not prevail.
Now the great procession moved on towards the appointed place to accomplish the divinely-appointed work. Some kind of inventory is given of numbers and of possessions—
64. The whole congregation together was forty and two thousand three hundred and three score [the same as in Nehemiah].
65. Beside their servants and their maids, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred thirty and seven: and there were among them two hundred singing men and singing women [hired for lamentation as well as joy].
66. Their horses were seven hundred thirty and six; their mules, two hundred forty and five;
67. Their camels, four hundred thirty and five; their asses, six thousand seven hundred and twenty [in early Hebrew history the asses are the chief and most numerous beasts of burden].
There was mechanical arrangement, there was formality, there was order in the whole procession. Men who are going up to build God a house must in the very process of their going show at least some measure of equipment and qualification for their work. We cannot leap instantly out of disorder into order; we cannot live a slovenly, unformulated life six days in the week, and on the seventh become very patterns of piety and system and consecration. Even in going to his business a man shows somewhat of his qualification to discharge it; the very first step he takes out of his house towards the scene of labour shows him a man of precision, energy, determination. Do not despise the preliminary, the initial, the alphabetical. Numbers were used because every one was then accounted of value. Nothing was brought into great lumps and masses, so to speak, but everything was individualised, so that every man, woman, child, and animal had a place upon the record. Some with too critical an eye might observe that amongst the beasts that went up with the people the asses were the greatest in number—"their asses, six thousand seven hundred and twenty," and every one was counted. How does it come that this is always the same throughout the world? It is inexplicable, and yet it involves a principle which ought to be detected and applied, if we would touch some of the vital points in the great economy of God. How is it that the most of men are incapable, wanting in faculty, having a positive genius for doing things the wrong way? It is incredible but for facts a thousand thick, one coming in after the other to tell the tale of incapableness. The men are not altogether wanting in good qualities; they are civil, obliging; they are not indolent; and yet they always miss the point, or their arrow falls invariably within six inches of the target; they are if not industrious at least busy, often busy wearing themselves out, throwing buckets into empty wells, and bringing them up again; they often perspire more than men who are doing ten times the work. You cannot charge them with indolence, but somehow there is a marked incapableness about them. Have they no fingers? Do they not take hold of things properly? We cannot tell. We must not be severe upon them; they may have been given in charge to society; they may have been meant to play a wonderful part in the education of the world. God despises none: how much better, then, is a man than a sheep: if God take care of oxen will he not take care of men: if he take note of the way of the fowls of the air, will he be heedless regarding the steps of his children? Christ is a good shepherd; he will leave none of his sheep behind; he will cause the whole flock to halt until the weariest shall be recruited a little; yea, if need be, he will carry the lambs in his bosom. He knows our frame, he remembers that we are dust; he knows that he did not invest us all with ten talents; to some he gave two, and to some but one talent; he has not given an equality of genius to the human race: what if he has made the strong in order that they may help the weak; what if he has created the great that they may make themselves greater by taking benevolent interest in the weak and feeble and little? Thus is society consolidated and educated. "Ye that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak"; and, brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault—if one of his joints, literally, should be dislocated, stop and put the limb in its place again, for time so spent is not time wasted but time doubly improved, as holy disposition would improve it. There is a majority of quality as well as a majority of number. Some are to be weighed rather than counted, even when they come together in their hosts. God is judge. It is not for us always to say, These belong to horses, these to camels, these to mules, these to asses. We should abstain from all scornful and contemptuous names, and realise the great socialism of God which is suggested in the words—we belong to one another. There is not a poor man in the world that does not belong to the rich man; there is not a helpless creature on God's earth who has not, supposing character not to have been forfeited and blasted, some claim upon general human attention.
68. And some [and only some] of the chief of the fathers, when they came to the house [rather, the site of the house] of the Lord which is at Jerusalem, offered freely for the house of God to set it up in his place:
69. They gave after their ability unto the treasure of the work threescore and one thousand drams [a dram was little more than an English guinea] of gold, and five thousand pound [the pound was rather more than £4] of silver, and one hundred priests' garments.
70. So the priests, and the Levites, and some of the people, and the singers, and the porters, and the Nethinims, dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities [thus the revival was national, and not confined to Judah and Benjamin].
How delightful it is to read about the generosity of other people; is there any poetry equal to a subscription list filled with names of benevolent persons of whom we never heard? How charming to learn that a church has been opened free of debt; and how double the delight when we know that we did not subscribe one halfpenny to the result! To read of ancient generosity—why, it transports the feeling, it delights and ravishes the soul of man. So it may be in your little village: the people were poor, but they put their pennies together and struggled bravely with the burden, and at last threw it off, and you presided at the thanksgiving meeting, having subscribed nothing to it but a speech. At the same time, what can be more touching and more edifying than to read of the generous deeds of others? and how beautiful to recite chivalric poetry; how extremely entertaining for a young man who is afraid of the tiniest dog that ever barked to stand up and repeat heroic lines about illustrious ancestors. Let us get rid of this folly. We must ourselves be generous. We must ourselves be heroic. It is nothing but a mischief when a man has to live upon the reputation of his forefathers, either for generosity or chivalry. Our ancestors should re-live their lives in us, should double themselves in our personality; and we should try to take one step in advance of the most advanced forefather we ever had. But the building of God's house goes up; give who may, withhold who may, up goes the great temple of God. He will build if we desist: if we hold our peace the very stones will cry out, and God shall receive hallelujahs from unexpected tongues if the tongues of his children are silent. How great might be the house of God, how high, making the whole neighbourhood sacred; we ought to be able to say, The people in this or in that locality will be high-minded people, ennobled by religious veneration, because the church is in the midst of the neighbourhood, and that church could never be anywhere without elevating, ennobling, refining, the whole district in which it stands: its doctrine is so noble, its charity so sweet, its temper so benevolent; the eloquence of that house is so personated in actual life that it sanctifies the whole locality. How broad might be the Church, including all lawful amusement, recreation, entertainment; being a real family-house, an enlarged home, a place of hospitality, and music, and trust, and love. How enchanting might be the house of God, having within it all beauty, all loveliness, everything that can appeal to the highest sensibilities, and satisfy the best desires of sanctified human nature. To have had a hand in building God's house, that is fame enough; to have been allowed to put just one little stone in God's temple surely is sufficient renown for any man. Here is a work in which we can all engage: we can teach a little child; we can help a blind man across a thoroughfare; we can divide our loaf with some hungering and unfortunate fellow-creature; we can lend a hand where the burden is too heavy for the back; we can speak a word of cheer even where we cannot fulfil a sacrifice. Broad is the horizon, infinite the sphere and the opportunity of labour. Shame on him who stands back and declares that no man hath hired him. God asks for our service. In condescension he allows us to work. When we work we are happy. When we are indolent we lose our faculty, and our hope dies in cloud, in night.
Almighty God, come to us with a voice of joy and hope, saying unto us in our loneliness and fear, The winter is over and gone; now the summer is coming with all its broad warm light; and the voice of birds is heard in the air. Some are weary with waiting; they are full of sadness; their vision is one of gloom and dread, and they know not what shall be on the morrow except there be some deeper darkness. Our life itself is spent in the nighttime; we call some part of it by the name of day: but what can we tell of light? What do we know of thy meaning when thou callest men into the land of the morning? We have never seen the light as thou hast seen it; we have beheld that which is but a dim type of it, a grey outline of an infinite majesty. Help us to believe that the light cometh, and also the morning, and whilst we look forward to the dawn we shall forget the midnight, and remember our sorrows no more. What is thy gospel of love but a voice of hope, an assurance that we do not see everything now, and that what we do see is not beheld in all its reality and beauty? Hast thou not promised a sweet, bright by-and-by for those who put their trust in the living God and confidently wait upon him in all patience? Thou wilt surprise such by thy wealth of light; thou wilt astonish with a great astonishment of joy those who have been trusting thee in the nighttime, and walking onward, sometimes hesitatingly, sometimes stumblingly, yet always with their hand in thy hand, thou Parent and King of all. For all such hopes we bless thee: they make us patient: they give us victory over death and the grave; they enable us to mock our afflictions, calling them light and enduring but for a moment, when compared with the eternal weight of glory which is in reserve for those who through Christ Jesus walk steadfastly in the way of thy grace. Thou wilt not forget us; thou hast graven our names upon the palms of thy hands; the walls of Zion are continually before thee; thou dost beset us behind and before, and lay thine hand upon us, and no good thing dost thou withhold from us, except it be to quicken our hunger and make more intense our thirst for the living God and all his truth. Surely thou hast been with us all these days in the desert. Thou hast wrought within us a strange miracle: now time has no dread for us; time cannot threaten us with long duration; we have lived to see that time is nothing; the days are fleeting shadows and the end will be here presently, and all the twilight will depart and the full shining of the sun will come. Thou hast delivered us from one oppression after another. We bless thee for emancipating us from the prison of time. Once we counted the days, and thought them long; in our childhood the years were ages, and the ages were incalculable: now days come and go, and we know not the one from the other, and behold the earth has rolled through its little circle before we have had time to consider: eternity is nearer than time; heaven is closer upon us than is the earth, for the earth is slipping away from under our feet, and all heaven is enclosing us with an atmosphere of warmth, and filling our senses with peculiar and all-satisfying delight. Now deliver us from the bondage of the letter. We thank thee that we have somewhat escaped from that enslavement. We begin to see the meaning of the spirit, to know that the letter was but a signal pointing to something beyond itself and infinitely larger than itself: to that other and grander something we would come as the elders came to Mount Zion. May we grow from the bondage of service into the liberty of obedience, so that obedience shall no longer be a task, an effort, or an aspect of discipline, but shall be our supreme joy, the very beginning and pledge of heaven within us; we shall turn thy statutes into songs in the house of our pilgrimage. Thou hast set each of us to do some work: enable each worker to find out what his work really is, and then to do it with both hands earnestly, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, for daily inspiration, for daily succour. May our attitude be one of service and of expectation, knowing how blessed is that servant who shall be found watching and waiting when his Lord cometh. Blessed Saviour of the world, come to us in all thy gracious power and complete thy ministry in our hearts. We would be purified, elevated, ennobled, made holy and perfect as our Father in heaven. Thou only, Son of God, thou alone canst work in us all the perfectness of thy purpose. May there be nothing left in us that is untrue, unfaithful, but may the whole soul be transfigured; by the transforming power of thy grace may we reflect the image of the triune God. Pity us in all our littlenesses and unworthy thoughts, and conscious or unconscious infirmities; give us eyes that see everything aright; work in us that spirit of judgment that cannot be deceived; bless us with that discernment which knows wickedness afar off and hates it with infinite detestation. Give us power in prayer; may we be more than conquerors when we come before the throne to utter our supplications and wrestle with God for victory. Thou dost accommodate thine omnipotence to our weakness, so that in our wrestlings we are permitted to overthrow and to receive from thee a new name, significant of largeness and victory. Look upon all men, women, and children. Shed upon the world's weariness some balm that will help the world to recover its energy. Pity those who sit in darkness and fill the night with tears; have compassion upon those who know not the right hand from the left because of some sudden stroke which has thrown them into bewilderment. Save us from despair; save us from ourselves; give us consciousness of thy nearness and thy power: then shall our poor life work out its little tale of days, knowing that at the end the reward will come. Forgive us every sin; yea, the whole multitude of our sins do thou pardon, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who loved us and gave himself for us, and redeemed us with his own precious blood. We always await thine answer: we know how thou canst whisper to the heart; we know how thou canst assure us of all thy love. Come in thine own way, and at thine own time; only give us confidence that thou wilt come: then we can wait with the assurance of those who have no doubt, with the dignity of men who know that already the King is at the door and heaven is about to dawn. Amen.