An Ancient School for Scandal
Nehemiah 6:3
And I sent messengers to them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease…

That some people will say things about their neighbours is a great evil. That some persons will repeat what others, have said is a greater evil. That some persons will be disturbed by what other persons report that other persons have said about them or their friends, and will permit themselves to be turned aside from useful service, to be embittered in their personal feelings by such reports — this is the greatest evil of all. We hear a great deal about bigotry, intolerance, and persecution. These things have ever withstood the onward march of truth and righteousness. But no fiercest blast of persecution, no form of open antagonism, has ever injured the Church or hindered its work to such a degree as the secret and unrecorded workings of gossip and slander. The power of these evils lies in their very uncertainty and elusiveness. Whoever would fight them finds himself beating the air. Who tries to hold them fast closes his fingers upon a shadow. Do you wish to know all about the spirit of gossip and the method of its working? Then read the sixth chapter of Nehemiah. It antedates Sheridan's "School for Scandal" by more than twenty centuries, and surpasses it in quality even more than in age. It is a drama from real life. Toward every case Of slander or gossip four relations may be sustained. In the completing of the chain four persons may be involved. These relations and persons are represented by Sanballat, Gashmu, Shemaiah, and Nehemiah. First is Sanballat. He is not the originator of the slander, but he is the originator of the mischief, for he reports what he has heard, or professes to have heard, from another. Here is your typical scandal-monger. Who among us is so fortunate that he does not know Sanballat, yes, many Sanballats? The tribe of Sanballat is numerous. They are the persons who tell you so much, not on their own responsibility, but on the authority of others. They are dealers in cast-off testimony, traders in biographical second-hands. They keep no new goods, but they are master hands at polishing up that which is old and giving it a fresh lustre. They are the real mischief-makers, I say, for it is chiefly by this process of polishing and revamping that stories or statements become injurious and acquire unpleasant sharpness of venom. The most innocent and well-meant utterance falls into the hands of one of these repeaters and it is quickly transformed into a poisonous shaft. Some little modification of emphasis or inflection, an added or omitted word, and it becomes a source of heartburnings and bitterness and pain, a wedge that may sunder the strongest ties of affection and friendship. We are wont most severely to denounce the careless speaker, to lay all the blame of gossip and slander on the heads of those who say things about their fellows. And far be it from me to excuse or justify unkind speech even at first-hand, or to minify the sinfulness of "idle words." But I insist that he is a greater sinner who repeats what others say, especially if in the repetition he gives it the slightest change of form or emphasis. It is the Sanballat who comes to you with some story and tells you that "Gashmu saith it" who deserves the severest rebuke. He is the real pest of society, the enemy of all good. We may almost say, with Carlyle, that he "is among the most indubitable malefactors omitted, or inserted, in the criminal calendar." But what of Gashmu, the originator of the story? Who was Gashmu? A most important question, and one that has never been satisfactorily answered. The name occurs nowhere else except in this verse. The preceding narrative speaks of "Geshem the Arabian," and all the commentators assume that Gashmu is Geshem. Every reader assumes that the two are one. In fact, nobody doubts it. But it is worthy of notice that the names are not identical. Sanballat does not say, "Geshem saith it," but "Gashmu saith it." Why? He wants Nehemiah to understand the source of his information, but he does not propose to get caught by an exact statement. Nehemiah might take it into his head to trace the slander, and that would be extremely awkward for Sanballat. Is it not true to life? Is not Gashmu about as near as the modern retailer of gossip ever comes to Geshem? How often has one come to you with some injurious tale and left on your mind a very distinct impression as to its source without exactly telling you? How many a spicy bit of personal news is laid on the shoulders of the general public in the words, "They say." It matters little that you think you know Gashmu. Try to identify him and make him a responsible author of stories, and he will elude you every time. Go to Geshem with the stories that are attributed to Gashmu, and he will know nothing whatever about them. He will be utterly surprised that you could have imagined him to be their author. He will probably be very indignant that any one should have had the hardihood to invent such tales. Now this Gashmu, unreal though he may be, is an absolutely essential link in every chain of gossip. Gossip could not live without him. It were easier to spare the Prince of Denmark from the play of Hamlet than to omit Gashmu from the real School for Scandal. That is to say, there must be some point on the way which gossip has travelled where the trail becomes lost. Authority must vanish into impersonality. You attempt to follow up any bit of gossip or slander that you hear, and if you do not come to Gashmu sooner or later, your experience will be unique, not to say marvellous. The third person in this drama is Shemaiah. Shemaiah is the man who is afraid of gossip and runs away to hide himself, turning aside from good work and letting duty go by default. His invitation to meet in the house of God has a very pious sound, but, after all, it is only the expression of cowardice. Not for worship, but for safety, does he wish to enter the sanctuary. Now this, I submit, is a greater evil than gossip — this minding of gossip. You say that people will talk about you. Well, what if they do? Did talk ever kill anybody yet? Did it ever seriously hurt anybody when he was hard at work minding his own business and the Lord's? Keep a clear conscience, then, and you need have no fear of gossip, however venomous. Now listen to Nehemiah, the last of this quartet: "And I said, Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being such as I, would go into the temple to save his life?" That is the secret of it all. Get so thoroughly absorbed in work for God and man that the work shall seem great, and you will not mind gossip and slander any more than you mind the buzzing of flies outside the screen. Gossip may be afloat, but we are not obliged to hear it, still less to flee from it, or to pay it respectful attention, Our hearing is for the most part a matter of choice as well as our speaking. We are as truly responsible for the right use of our ears as for the right use of our tongues, though we seldom look at the matter in that light. "Take heed what ye hear."

(G. H. Hubbard, D. D.)

Parallel Verses
KJV: And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?

WEB: I sent messengers to them, saying, "I am doing a great work, so that I can't come down. Why should the work cease, while I leave it, and come down to you?"

A Great Work in the Face of Strong Antagonism
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