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163

CHAPTER XV.

NEHEMIAH THE PATRIOT.

Nehemiah i. 1-3.

The Book of Nehemiah is the last part of the chronicler's narrative. Although it was not originally a separate work, we can easily see why the editor, who broke up the original volume into distinct books, divided it just where he did. An interval of twelve or thirteen years comes between Ezra's reformation and the events recorded in the opening of "Nehemiah." Still a much longer period was passed over in silence in the middle of "Ezra."126126   At Ezra vii. 1. A more important reason for the division of the narrative may be found in the introduction of a new character. The book which now bears his name is largely devoted to the actions of Nehemiah; and it commences with an autobiographical narrative, which occupies the first six chapters and part of the seventh.

Nehemiah plunges suddenly into his story, without giving us any hints of his previous history. His father, Hacaliah, is only a name to us. It was necessary to state this name in order to distinguish the writer from other men named Nehemiah.127127   E.g., the Nehemiah of Ezra ii. 2, who is certainly another person. There is164 no reason to think that his privileged position at court indicates high family connections. The conjecture of Ewald that he owed his important and lucrative office to his personal beauty and youthful attractions is enough to account for it. His appointment to the office formerly held by Zerubbabel is no proof that he belonged to the Jewish royal family. At the despotic Persian court the king's kindness towards a favourite servant would override all claims of princely rank. Besides, it is most improbable that we should have no hint of the Davidic descent if this had been one ground of the appointment. Eusebius and Jerome both describe Nehemiah as of the tribe of Judah. Jerome is notoriously inaccurate; Eusebius is a cautious historian, but it is not likely that in his late age—as long after Nehemiah as our age is after Thomas à Becket—he could have any trustworthy evidence beyond that of the Scriptures. The statement that the city of Jerusalem was the place of the sepulchres of his ancestors128128   Neh. ii. 3. lends some plausibility to the suggestion that Nehemiah belonged to the tribe of Judah. With this we must be content.

It is more to the point to notice that, like Ezra, the younger man, whose practical energy and high authority were to further the reforms of the somewhat doctrinaire scribe, was a Jew of the exile. Once more it is in the East, far away from Jerusalem, that the impulse is found for furthering the cause of the Jews. Thus we are again reminded that wave after wave sweeps up from the Babylonian plains to give life and strength to the religious and civic restoration.

The peculiar circumstances of Nehemiah deepen our165 interest in his patriotic and religious work. In his case it was not the hardships of captivity that fostered the aspirations of the spiritual life, for he was in a position of personal ease and prosperity. We can scarcely think of a lot less likely to encourage the principles of patriotism and religion than that of a favourite upper servant in a foreign, heathen court. The office held by Nehemiah was not one of political rank. He was a palace slave, not a minister of state like Joseph or Daniel. But among the household servants he would take a high position. The cup-bearers had a special privilege of admission to the august presence of their sovereign in his most private seclusion. The king's life was in their hands; and the wealthy enemies of a despotic sovereign would be ready enough to bribe them to poison the king, if only they proved to be corruptible. The requirement that they should first pour some wine into their own hands, and drink the sample before the King, is an indication that fear of treachery haunted the mind of an Oriental monarch, as it does the mind of a Russian czar to-day. Even with this rough safeguard it was necessary to select men who could be relied upon. Thus the cup-bearers would become "favourites." At all events, it is plain that Nehemiah was regarded with peculiar favour by the king he served. No doubt he was a faithful servant, and his fidelity in his position of trust at court was a guarantee of similar fidelity in a more responsible and far more trying office.

Nehemiah opens his story by telling us that he was in "the palace,"129129   Neh. i. 1. or rather "the fortress," at Susa, the winter abode of the Persian monarchs—an Elamite city,166 the stupendous remains of which astonish the traveller in the present day—eighty miles east of the Tigris and within sight of the Bakhtiyari Mountains. Here was the great nail of audience, the counterpart of another at Persepolis. These two were perhaps the largest rooms in the ancient world next to that at Karnak. Thirty-six fluted columns, distributed as six rows of six columns each, slender and widely spaced, supported a roof extending two hundred feet each way. The month Chislev, in which the occurrence Nehemiah proceeds to relate happened, corresponds to parts of our November and December. The name is an Assyrian and Babylonian one, and so are all the names of the months used by the Jews. Further, Nehemiah speaks of what he here narrates as happening in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, and in the next chapter he mentions a subsequent event as occurring in the month Nisan130130   Neh. ii. 1. in the same year. This shows that he did not reckon the year to begin at Nisan, as the Jews were accustomed to reckon it. He must have followed the general Asiatic custom, which begins the year in the autumn, or else he must have regulated his dates according to the time of the king's accession. In either case we see how thoroughly un-Jewish the setting of his narrative is—unless a third explanation is adopted, viz., that the Jewish year, beginning in the spring, only counts from the adoption of Ezra's edition of The Law. Be this as it may, other indications of Orientalism, derived from his court surroundings, will attract our attention in our consideration of his language later on. No writer of the Bible reflects the influence of alien culture more clearly than Nehemiah. Outwardly, he is167 the most foreign Jew we meet with in Scripture. Yet in his and character he is the very ideal of a Jewish patriot. His patriotism shines all the more splendidly because it bursts out of a foreign environment. Thus Nehemiah shows how little his dialect and the manners he exhibits can be taken as the gauge of a man's true life.

Nehemiah states that, while he was thus at Susa, in winter residence with the court, one of his brethren, named Hanani, together with certain men of Judah, came to him.131131   Neh. i. 2. The language here used will admit of our regarding Hanani as only a more or less distant relative of the cup-bearer; but a later reference to him at Jerusalem as "my brother Hanani"132132   Neh. vii. 2. shows that his own brother is meant.

Josephus has an especially graphic account of the incident. We have no means of discovering whether he drew it from an authentic source, but its picturesqueness may justify the insertion of it here: "Now there was one of those Jews who had been carried captive, who was cup-bearer to King Xerxes; his name was Nehemiah. As this man was walking before Susa, the metropolis of the Persians, he heard some strangers that were entering the city, after a long journey, speaking to one another in the Hebrew tongue; so he went to them and asked from whence they came; and when their answer was, that they came from Judæa, he began to inquire of them again in what state the multitude was, and in what condition Jerusalem was: and when they replied that they were in a bad state, for that their walls were thrown down to the ground, and that the neighbouring nations did a great deal of mischief168 to the Jews, while in the day-time they over-ran the country and pillaged it, and in the night did them mischief, insomuch that not a few were led away captive out of the country, and out of Jerusalem itself, and that the roads were in the day-time found full of dead men. Hereupon Nehemiah shed tears, out of commiseration of the calamities of his countrymen; and, looking up to heaven, he said, 'How long, O Lord, wilt thou overlook our nation, while it suffers so great miseries, and while we are made the prey and the spoil of all men?' And while he staid at the gate, and lamented thus, one told him that the king was going to sit down to supper; so he made haste, and went as he was, without washing himself, to minister to the king in his office of cup-bearer," etc.133133   Josephus, Ant., XI. v. 6.

Evidently Nehemiah was expressly sought out. His influence would naturally be valued. There was a large Jewish community at Susa, and Nehemiah must have enjoyed a good reputation among his people; otherwise it would have been vain for the travellers to obtain an interview with him. The eyes of these Jews were turned to the royal servant as the fellow-countryman of greatest influence at court. But Nehemiah anticipated their message and relieved them of all difficulty by questioning them about the city of their fathers. Jerusalem was hundreds of miles away across the desert; no regular methods of communication kept the Babylonian colony informed of the condition of the advance guard at the ancient capital; therefore scraps of news brought by chance travellers were eagerly devoured by those who were anxious for the rare information. Plainly Nehemiah shared this anxiety.169 His question was quite spontaneous, and it suggests that amid the distractions of his court life his thoughts had often reverted to the ancient home of his people. If he had not been truly patriotic, he could have used some device, which his palace experience would have readily suggested, so as to divert the course of this conversation with a group of simple men from the country, and keep the painful subject in the background. He must have seen clearly that for one in his position of influence to make inquiries about a poor and distressed community was to raise expectations of assistance. But his questions were earnest and eager, because his interest was genuine.

The answers to Nehemiah's inquiries struck him with surprise as well as grief. The shock with which he received them reminds us of Ezra's startled horror when the lax practices of the Jewish leaders were reported to him, although the trained court official did not display the abandonment of emotion which was seen in the student suddenly plunged into the vortex of public life and unprepared for one of those dread surprises which men of the world drill themselves to face with comparative calmness.

We must now examine the news that surprised and distressed Nehemiah. His brother and the other travellers from Jerusalem inform him that the descendants of the returned captives, the residents of Jerusalem, "are in great affliction and reproach"; and also that the city walls have been broken down and the gates burnt. The description of the defenceless and dishonoured state of the city is what most strikes Nehemiah. Now the question is to what calamities does this report refer? According to the usual understanding, it is a description of the state of Jerusalem which resulted170 from the sieges of Nebuchadnezzar. But there are serious difficulties in the way of this view. Nehemiah must have known all about the tremendous events, one of the results of which was seen in the very existence of the Jewish colony of which he was a member. The inevitable consequences of that notorious disaster could not have come before him unexpectedly and as startling news. Besides, the present distress of the inhabitants is closely associated with the account of the ruin of the defences, and is even mentioned first. Is it possible that one sentence should include what was happening now, and what took place a century earner, in a single picture of the city's misery? The language seems to point to the action of breaking through me walls rather than to such a general demolition of them as took place when the whole city was razed to the ground by the Babylonian invaders. Lastly, the action of Nehemiah cannot be accounted for on this hypothesis. He is plunged into grief by the dreadful news, and at first he can only mourn and fast and pray. But before long, as soon as he obtains permission from his royal master, he sets out for Jerusalem, and there his first great work is to restore the ruined walls. The connection of events shows that it is the information brought to him by Hanani and the other Jews from Jerusalem that rouses him to proceed to the city. All this points to some very recent troubles, which were previously unknown to Nehemiah. Can we find any indication of those troubles elsewhere?

The opening scene in the patriotic career of Nehemiah exactly fit in with the events which came under our consideration in the previous chapter. There we saw that the opposition to the Jews which is recorded as early as Ezra iv., but attributed to the reign of an171 "Artaxerxes," must have been carried into effect under Artaxerxes Longimanus—Nehemiah's master. This must have been subsequent to the mission of Ezra in the seventh year of Artaxerxes, as Ezra makes no mention of its distressful consequences. The news reached Nehemiah in the twentieth year of the same reign. Therefore the mischief must have been wrought some time during the intervening thirteen years. We have no history of that period. But the glimpse of its most gloomy experiences afforded by the detached paragraph in Ezra iv. exactly fits in with the description of the resulting condition of Jerusalem in the Book of Nehemiah. This will fully account for Nehemiah's surprise and grief; it will also throw a flood of light on his character and subsequent action. If he had only been roused to repair the ravages of the old Babylonian invasions, there would have been nothing very courageous in his undertaking. Babylon itself had been overthrown, and the enemy of Babylon was now in power. Anything tending to obliterate the destructive glory of the old fallen empire might be accepted with favour by the Persian ruler. But the case is quite altered when we think of the more recent events. The very work Nehemiah was to undertake had been attempted but a few years before, and it had failed miserably. The rebuilding of the walls had then excited the jealousy of neighbouring peoples, and their gross misrepresentations had resulted in an official prohibition of the work. This prohibition, however, had only been executed by acts of violence, sanctioned by the government. Worse than all else, it was from the very Artaxerxes whom Nehemiah served that the sanction had been obtained. He was an easy-going sovereign, readily accessible to the advice of his ministers; in the earlier part of his172 reign he showed remarkable favour towards the Jews, when he equipped and despatched Ezra on his great expedition, and it is likely enough that in the pressure of his multitudinous affairs the King would soon forgot his unfavourable despatch. Nevertheless he was an absolute monarch, and the lives of his subjects were in his hands. For a personal attendant of such a sovereign to show sympathy with a city that had come under his disapproval was a very risky thing. Nehemiah may have felt this while he was hiding his grief from Artaxerxes. But if so, his frank confession at the first opportunity reflects all the more credit on his patriotism and the courage with which he supported it.

Patriotism is the most prominent principle in Nehemiah's conduct. Deeper considerations emerge later, especially after he has come under the influence of an enthusiastic religious teacher in the person of Ezra. But at first it is the city of his fathers that moves his heart. He is particularly distressed at its desolate condition, because the burial-place of is ancestors is there. The great anxiety of the Jews about the bodies of their dead, and their horror of the exposure of a corpse, made them look with peculiar concern on the tombs of their people. In sharing the sentiments that spring out of the habits of his people in this respect, Nehemiah gives a specific turn to his patriotism. He longs to guard and honour the last resting-place of his people; he would hear of any outrage on the city where their sepulchres are with the greatest distress. Thus filial piety mingles with patriotism, and the patriotism itself is localised, like that of the Greeks, and directed to the interests of a single city. Nehemiah here represents a different attitude from that of Mordecai. It is not the Jew that he173 thinks of in the first instance, but Jerusalem; and Jerusalem is dear to him primarily, not because of his kinsmen who are living there, but because it is the city of his fathers' sepulchres, the city of the great past. Still the strongest feelings are always personal. Patriotism loves the very soil of the fatherland; but the depth and strength of the passion spring from association with an affection for the people that inhabit it. Without this patriotism degenerates into a flimsy sentiment. At Jerusalem Nehemiah develops a deep personal interest in the citizens. Even on the Susa acropolis, where the very names of these people are unknown to him, the thought of his ancestry gives a sanctity to the far-off city. Such a thought is enlarging and purifying. It lifts a man out of petty personal concerns; it gives him unselfish sympathies; it prepares demands for sacrifice and service. Thus, while the mock patriotism which cares only for glory and national aggrandisement is nothing but a vulgar product of enlarged selfishness, the true patriotism that awakens large human sympathies is profoundly unselfish, and shows itself to be a part of the very religion of a devoted man.


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