The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence.Nehemiah 2
"And it came to pass in the month Nisan [the name given by the Persian Jews to the month previously called "Abib," the first month of the Jewish year, or that which followed the vernal equinox. It fell four months after Chisleu (see ch. Nehemiah 1:1)], in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes [it is generally agreed that the Artaxerxes intended is Longimanus, who reigned from b.c. 465 to b.c. 425] the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king" (Nehemiah 2:1).
The Result of Hanani's Message
The urn which held the ashes of Artaxerxes is in the British Museum, so that those who have any curiosity about the urn which held the ashes of the king can easily satisfy that curiosity. In the month of Nisan Nehemiah had his chance. He received the message about the month of December, and for some three months, more or less, he had been turning over this message in his mind, wondering what to do with it, eagerly looking for the gate being set ajar, that he might push it back a little farther and go through it, and do the work upon which his heart was set. For three months the gate seemed not to be opened at all, but in the month Nisan the opportunity came. Whether Artaxerxes took a little more wine than usual is not stated in the Scripture: we simply know that, whilst Artaxerxes had the wine in his hand and was enjoying his goblet, a certain conversation took place between him and his cupbearer which ended in very important consequences.
For three months Nehemiah was steady to his vow. How long are you going to keep that best vow you ever made in your life dumb in your heart? How long are you going to allow it to lie unredeemed, unrealised? The king's gate stands ajar: on it is written "Welcome,"—on it is written, "Knock and it shall be opened;" still further, "Now is the accepted time, now is the day of salvation!" Speak the word, it will be a sound in thine ear for ever: repeat the oath, and say thou wilt fulfil it to the letter; and the very utterance of the oath and the very repetition of the desire to be better will themselves be elements in your education, and will help you onward a step or two heavenward, Godward.
Let us follow the history and see what its modern applications may possibly be.
"Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence. Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid" (Nehemiah 2:1-2).
How beautifully, how exquisitely human and true is this! You have been waiting for your chance: the chance suddenly comes, and you who were on tiptoe of expectation for it, seeing it as it were face to face, fall back, and feel the chill of a great fear in your half-misgiving heart It is so with all great crises in life. Little things may happen, and we may say we expected these—they may come as mere matters of course—we have been looking for them, and now they have come we care next to nothing for them. But the great messages that make the soul new, that inspire the life with a new determination, the great gospels, the infinite evangels that regenerate and sanctify the soul, these, though waited for long, always awaken inexpressible surprise, and in not a few cases they first create a great fear before bringing in their complete and final joy. For three months Nehemiah said, "O that he would speak to me! I would be so glad." Artaxerxes spoke to him and he was sore afraid. Is that a contradiction? Only to a wooden life and to a dullard, not to a living soul, not to a sympathetic spirit, not to a man who has lived everywhere and through all time, who by the variety of his experience has been the contemporary of all ages. Do you know what is meant by waiting for a great opportunity—having a great opportunity set before you, and then falling back from it out of the fear of a great surprise? Such was Nehemiah's experience on that memorable day when Artaxerxes read the writing of sorrow on the face of his faithful cupbearer.
"And I said unto the king, Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad,. when the city, the place of my fathers' sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?" (Nehemiah 2:3).
Here is the beautifulness of an unselfish sorrow; here is an individual magnifying himself into a nation; here is one poor heart taking upon itself the sorrows of a kingdom. Do you know what such suffering is? You say your own burden is heavy enough, without taking any additional weight upon you. Then you can never enter into the meaning of the experience of Nehemiah. But you who do know what it is to have every orphan to keep, every poor soul to help, every blind man to lead over a corner in our streets—you who by the vastness and tenderness of your sympathy have every poor creature to take care of, will enter into Nehemiah's feeling when he assumed to represent the condition of the whole Jewish people under the circumstances narrated in the text. How could he be glad when his fathers' sepulchres were torn to pieces and the gates of his fathers' city were consumed? He entered into other people's feelings—he was more than a mere unit in the great aggregate, he was human; he took upon himself the sufferings of others, and when he did so, he was but preparing himself to take also upon his own heart the joys of others. He who can go deepest in sympathy with sorrow can rise highest in sympathy with laughter. If we have never had any keen, deep, devouring woe, we have never had any pure, lofty, inexpressible delight.
We have been told about a man who in the time of the Punic Wars had put a chaplet on his empty head and put his head out of the window to look at the difficulties, the struggles, the hazards of the people, and we know how the Romans treated that man: they took his chaplet off his head, and would have put his head itself in great danger if the head had been worth taking off. Ay, poor fool! could he put on his little green chaplet and say, "I am happy, what do I care for what is occurring in the commonwealth? I have bread enough: why should I think about those who are hungering? my thinking about them cannot help them." There have always been men of that kind, who have lifted their chaplets to their heads and worn individual joys in the midst of great public sorrows—men who could fatten themselves on the sepulchre of the commonwealth, who had no public soul, no sympathy with public distress, who could see an empire—their own empire—rending, aggravated by a thousand sorrows, and tormented by an unconquerable spirit of unrest, and yet take their four meals a day and their airing in the park. Of little use are such people in society, or to the state; they render no service to the body politic. Who would not rather be Nehemiah, sad in the public sorrow, bowed down by the general distress, feeling the agony of the commonwealth at heart, dejected and sad because the city of their fathers' traditions and sepulchres lying waste, and its gates black with fire?
The Jews always remembered this state of Jerusalem. For many a long century at least they never, even in their wealthiest times, built a great house to live in without leaving part of the wall, if it were only one square yard, unplastered, or leaving some out-building unfinished, and writing upon the incomplete parts in large Hebrew letters these words—"If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget her cunning." Do you understand the pathos of that feeling, or are you so wrapped up in your own little concerns, saying, Jerusalem is so far away, and the time of her desolation so remote, that we now plaster every inch of our walls, paper and paint the house throughout, and think of nothing but ourselves? Who could look on that square yard of unplastered wall, and see the expression upon it in memory of the desolation, without at once entering into complete sympathy with the people who did so? It is better to live thus: it gives us larger life, we take in more: life is more absorbent because more sympathetic, and we get things that help us to see into the deepest parts of human history.
"Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven" [mentally and momentarily before answering the king] (Nehemiah 2:4).
But he had been praying for three months. Yes. Why then did he pray to the God of heaven now? Because you must always have just a little supplementary prayer, if you are a true man. Did you ever finish a prayer? For three months Nehemiah had been opening his window and looking Godward, and pouring out his poor afflicted soul on account of what Hanani had told him, and now, when the king says, "What is thy request?" he stood and prayed to the God of heaven—one word more, gathering up all the three months' prayer in one final cry. Sometimes we have to gather up the prayers of a whole lifetime in one poignant, keenly accentuated petition; sometimes the prayers of a whole lifetime escape us in one deep heartfelt sigh, which the fool standing near, of unsympathetic heart, can never understand. He calls it but a sigh; yet that sigh has blood in it, and life and agony, and that sigh will move the almightiness of God. He knows what it costs. He knows how much heart goes up in that yearning pang to him. "So I stood and prayed to the God of heaven." For three months he had been kneeling, morning, noon, and night, and more frequently still, and now he stands and prays. Is it right to stand and pray? Certainly. Is it right to kneel and pray? Unquestionably. Is it right to pray in a crowd? Yes. Is it right to go into sandy places, and desert paths, and empty, dreary solitudes, and there to pray? Indisputably so. Pray always—pray without ceasing. Nothing depends on the mere form or the mere phrase. Stand and pray—kneel and pray—think and pray—speak and pray. Many a time we have prayed to God without ever saying a word—just the lifting of a speechless heart, and a lifting that is never without peculiar blessing.
This was what is called ejaculatory prayer. We need not change the word ejaculatory. There is a great deal of Latin in it, no doubt, but still it seems now to belong to the English tongue. It signifies thrown out—darted forth. It implies suddenness, terseness, earnestness. It was not a literary prayer; it was not artistically divided into sections; it was like an arm suddenly thrown out and thrown up. You can pray so, in the warehouse or in the crowded thoroughfare. Do not say that if you only had a little private place of your own to which you could retire, you would enjoy now and then a few moments' communion with God. Make a private place, create silence in the city, in the great seething, tumultuous mob find a sanctuary. A brief prayer, a cry, a sigh, the upward lifting of an eye may bring to thee all-needful angels and chariots of fire and help divine. We must get our ideas of prayer very much simplified. You really do not need a carpet and a hassock, that is unnecessary; you do not need fine words, beautiful phrases, well-turned sentences, bold and resonant literature. You need earnestness, fire, yearning, vehement desire, determination to take the kingdom of heaven by violence. Why, in that way you can always pray. You can say, "God be merciful to me a sinner!"—A brief prayer, all prayers in one, the liturgies of the universe condensed into one sentence. It is an endless prayer, because it involves an endless confession of sin, and weakness, and self-helplessness, and confidence in God.
Nehemiah opened his lips and told the king freely what he wanted. "Moreover I said unto the king------" When Nehemiah once got his lips opened he spoke with wondrous practical eloquence to Artaxerxes the king. "Moreover"—now what will he say?—"If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah."
"So I stood and prayed unto the God of heaven—then I asked the king to give me letters." That is the true model of prayer—to pray and then to ask for your letters—to pray to the King of kings and then to accept the ordinary appointments of life—to invoke Omnipotence, and then to use your senses. How have you been praying? Did you sit in the chair and pray that you might be able at the end of the week to make both ends meet, and then fall asleep until the time came, and wake up to find that both ends did not meet. That was not prayer at all; that was puerility, and sentiment, and nonsense, and profanity. I will pray God to help me to pay every debt I owe, to overcome every difficulty in my way, to beat down every mountain that intercepts my progress. Lord, help me to accomplish a faithful and noble ministry in thinking, in literature, in commerce, in the family—wherever my lot may be cast. Now, having said my prayer, let me go out and do it. There are people who do not believe in prayer, simply because they do not know what prayer is. The prayer they talk about is something defined in the dictionary. Never go to the dictionary for the meaning of a great heart-word. Such meaning you can only get in the agony of your own personal experience. Referring to that as a proof and test of prayer, we may call upon a thousand hearts to say if God be not the hearer and answerer of prayer. Never yet has God denied prayer, when the granting of it would have been a blessing in the true sense of the word, to our own spirit.
How very seldom we have the prayer and the answer on the same page! We have now and then just to keep our courage up. For years together we seem to have no literal proof of the existence and nearness of God to our life, and then, just when we can bear it no longer, when the little sand-glass—so little!—o our poor faith' is nearly run out, he meets us in burning bush, or in dream wherein the ladder is revealed, or in vision of the night, or in Bethlehem's leading star—somehow—and in that one moment we recover our years' experience, our years' loss, and become young and strong again. But these specialties are granted only now and then. A daily miracle would be a daily commonplace. Let him come as he will—but from the particular argue the universal, from the one instance of prayer answered argue the readiness of the Almighty to answer every prayer that he himself has inspired.
The arrangements were then made. Nehemiah went upon his journey—came to the governors beyond the river and gave them the king's letters. And now we read—
"When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel" (Nehemiah 2:10).
Sanballat and Tobiah are everywhere. There was a great vocalist singing recently—a great master of the divine art. And there was an encore. And a person who was there said, "That is not genuine, you know: that encore is got up by somebody just for the purpose of increasing her reputation or her popularity." It was some man who had come up from some village in some extra-rural district, who sat himself down in the great assembly and knew exactly how the encores were manufactured. Distressing man that—very sad to live with a person so acute—a dreadful martyrdom to have to sit near a person who can chatter such idiocy. But there are always a few people who understand everything—see through it—mark it: saw it just in time to observe how it was and to explain it to the infinite satisfaction of their own folly. Let us not be disagreeable with anybody, but pleasant and sympathetic—even with a preacher.
Nehemiah arrived on the scene of operation, and then he says—"I went out by night by the gate of the valley, even before the dragon well... and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire." Was there ever a picture touched with so delicate a hand? Ruins seen at night-time—think of that solemn picture, think of that scene that might have made the reputation of a Royal Academician—the ruins of the most famous city in the world, seen at night by a lonely man. He took with him some few men; the fewer the better, but probably he left even these at a distance. At a certain point he went out himself: he took his own measure of the situation—ruins—ruins softened by moonlight, ruins aggravated by shadows, ruins seen by a lonely man, ruins looked at by a heart that meant to restore them, and bring back every beam of the ancient glory. If we could paint that picture we might entrance the world!
Take your own measure of the destitution of the world. Every Christian man should go about in the world, so far as he is able to do so, by the aid of reports—to take his own measure of the situation—steal out by night and see what the devil has done with this human nature of ours, and whilst he is walking out under the soft light of the moon and viewing the ruined humanity, he should say, "God helping me, I will do my utmost to undo this mischief and to repair the shattered house of the Lord." Ye are the house of the Lord—ye are God's living temples: the house and the temple have been defiled and desolated, and every man who has the spirit of Nehemiah in him should take his own estimate—be his own missionary secretary, be his own missionary observer, and be his own missionary so far as it is possible for him to be so, and then he will do some good in his day and generation in the name of the Lord.
Then Nehemiah spoke unto the people, stated the case to them, and called upon them to co-operate with him in his great purpose, and gave them as a sign and token of good a repetition of the king's words that had been spoken unto him. And they said, "Let us arise and build." See what one man can do! One man can set fire to a thousand: Caesar was more than all Caesar's legions. When the Philistines saw that their champion was dead, they fled. We cannot all be Goliaths; we cannot all be Cæsars and Hannibals; we cannot all be inspirers; but we can all follow the great inspiration of biblical testimony, and the great lead of the patriotic philanthropic class of noble and godly men. Though we be but a cipher, yet with a unit at our head that unit shall strike individual value into that which of itself is of minor—of almost infinitesimal consequence. Who will arise and build? The people did; Nehemiah did.
"When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn and despised us" (Nehemiah 2:19).
Nehemiah and a handful of men, come to rebuild Jerusalem! and Sanballat nudged Tobiah, and Tobiah nodded to Geshem, and the three drank wine together, and laughed uproariously and with derisive accent, because the instrument was so little adapted to the end that was proposed to be accomplished. "Why do the heathen rage and the people imagine a vain thing?"—"It pleased God by the foolishness of preaching to save them that believe.... The foolishness of God is wiser than men.... God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty... and things that are not, to bring to nought things that are." The instrument which God has chosen is evidently out of all proportion to the end he seeks to accomplish. He will give to his Son the heathen for an inheritance and the uttermost parts of the earth for a possession; and the men going out in twos and threes, with cheap Bibles under their arms, and with the Cross to talk about—with this instrumentality they are going to convert the world! And to-day Sanballat has had his laugh, and Tobiah his rude merriment, and Geshem has declared that he never heard of anything so unreasonable—and from a human point of view they are quite right. But "if God be for us, who can be against us?"—"God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble"—"It is God that justifieth, who is he that condemneth?" It is God who says, "Go ye into all the world and rebuild the waste places, and call the wanderers home, and tell the story of the Cross;" and he who sent us has said, "For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and returneth not thither, but watereth the earth, and maketh it bring forth and bud, that it may give seed to the sower, and bread to the eater: so shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: for it shall not return unto me void." If this be a merely human arrangement, nothing so preposterous was ever conceived in the world, but because of the very preposterousness of the conception from an earthly and temporal point of view, is our faith in the divinity of its inspiration, and in the perfectness of its ultimate success.
What is true of great public movements—building city walls, restoring city gates, converting heathen nations—is also true of the building of character. To men of shattered character we say, Arise and build. To men all broken down, utterly dismantled and distressed, we say, Arise and build. Have you a withered hand? Put it out. But you cannot, except at God's bidding: if he had not bid thee put it out, thou couldst not, but his bidding, his telling thee to put it out is the first pledge that he means to make thee a whole man. God's promises are God's fulfilment.
Almighty God, teach us that all men are builders, that there is one foundation laid, a stone that is elect, precious, tried, infinite in value, and let every man take heed how he buildeth thereon. Some are building gold and silver and precious stones, upon which the fire shall have no mischievous effect, and some are building wood, and hay, and stubble—which the fire will utterly burn up; nevertheless, the builders themselves may be saved, the foundation upon which they are building is God. Teach us that thou wilt try every man's work of what sort it is, and that thou wilt give to every man according to his work; may we, therefore, labour by day and by night with both hands earnestly—never thinking of ourselves, always thinking of the good work that is to be done, and labouring at it with toil that is itself its own reward. If we have built anything that is strong and beautiful in life, behold thou didst show us where to build—thou didst teach our hands how to put things together: not unto us, therefore, not unto us, but unto thy name be the whole praise. Thou dost teach men how to get wealth—thou dost show them the way out of difficult places, and when they do bring themselves into entanglements and thickets, out of which there is no human deliverance, it is the divine hand that brings them forth into straight lines again, and into wide open spaces of liberty. We thank thee for a thousand deliverances. Behold our feet had slipped and our steps had gone, but thou didst find us in our ruin, and rebuild us, and because the good hand of our God has been upon us we are spared until this hour. Thou knowest what histories we represent, what broken hearts, what shattered fortunes, what unfulfilled vows, what secret cares, what fretful, vexatious anxieties, what prosperity, joy, honour, delight—what presumption, self-boasting, self-enclosure, defiance, challenge, and what modesty, humility, timidity resting upon the Eternal and yearning after the Infinite. According to our diversified experience do thou command thy blessing to rest upon us. Bring us all to Christ, Son of man, Son of God, God the Son. He loved us and gave himself for us, and he is in heaven now on our behalf—his the Mediator's seat—his the Intercessor's cry: O hear that blessed Saviour as he takes up our poor words and repronounces them with the emphasis of his own love. Amen.