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174

CHAPTER XVI.

NEHEMIAH'S PRAYER.

Nehemiah i. 4-11.

Nehemiah records the twofold effect of the melancholy news which his brother and the other travellers from Jerusalem brought him. Its first consequence was grief; its second prayer. The grief was expressed in the dramatic style of the Oriental by weeping, lamentations, fasting, and other significant acts and attitudes which the patriot kept up for some days. Demonstrative as all this appears to us, it was calm and restrained in comparison with Ezra's frantic outburst. Still it was the sign and fruit of heartfelt distress, for Nehemiah was really and deeply moved. Had the incident ended here, we should have seen a picture of patriotic sentiment, such as might be looked for in any loyal Jew, although the position of Nehemiah at court would have proved him loyal under exceptional circumstances. But the prayer which is the outcome of the soul-stirring thoughts and feelings of devout patriotism lifts the scene into a much higher interest. This prayer is singularly penetrating, revealing a keen insight into the secret of the calamities of Israel, and an exact perception of the relation of God to those calamities. It shows a knowledge of what we may call the theology of history, of the Divine laws and principles175 which are above and behind the laws and principles indicated by the expression "the philosophy of history." In form it is a combination of three elements,—the language of devotion cultivated by Persian sages; expressions culled from the venerated Hebrew law-book, Deuteronomy; and new phrases called out by the new needs of the immediate occasion. Nehemiah shows how natural it is for a person to fall into an accepted dialect of worship, even in an original prayer the end of which is novel and special.

He opens his prayer with an expression that seems to be more Persian than Jewish. He does not make his appeal to Jehovah as the "God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," but after the sacred name he adds the descriptive title "God of heaven." This is quite a favourite phrase of Nehemiah's. Thus in describing his interview with Artaxerxes he says, "So I prayed to the God of heaven";134134   Neh. ii. 4. and at Jerusalem he answers the mockery of his opponents by exclaiming, "The God of heaven, He will prosper us."135135   Neh. ii. 20. Now the same expression is found repeatedly in the chronicler's version of royal edicts—in the edict of Cyrus,136136   Ezra i. 2. in the edict of Darius,137137   Ezra vi. 10. in the edict of Artaxerxes.138138   Ezra vii. 12, 21, 23. If it is indeed of Persian origin, the use of it by Nehemiah is most significant. In this case, while it indicates the speaker's unconscious adoption of the language of his neighbours and shows him to be a Jew of Oriental culture, it also illustrates a far-reaching process of Providence. Here is an exalted name for God, the origin of which is apparently Gentile, accepted and used by a devout Jew, and through his employment176 of it passing over into the Scriptures,139139   It is used by the chronicler, and it is found in Jonah and Daniel, and once even in our recension of Genesis (Gen. xxiv. 7). so that the religion of Israel is enriched by a phrase from abroad. It would be but a poor championship of the truth of the Hebrew revelation that would lead us to close our eyes to whatever of good is to be found outside its borders. Certainly we honour God by gladly perceiving that He has not left Himself entirely without witness in the dim-lit temple of Pagan thought. It is a ground for rejoicing that, while the science of Comparative Religion has not touched the unique pre-eminence of the Hebrew and Christian Faith, that science has been able to recover scattered pearls of truth that lay strewn over the waste of the world's wide thinking. If in a few rare cases some such gems had been found earlier and even set in the crown of Israel, we can only be thankful that the One Spirit who is the source of all revelation has thus evinced the breadth of His activity. Nor should it disturb our faith if it could be proved that more important elements of our religion did not originate among the Jews, but came from Babylonian, Persian, or Greek sources; for why should not God speak through a Gentile if He chooses so to do? This is not a point of dogma. It is simply a question of fact to be determined by historical inquiry.

We cannot say for certain, however, that Nehemiah's phrase was coined in a Persian mint. Its novelty, its absence from earlier Hebrew literature, and its repeated appearance in the edicts of Persian kings favour the notion. But we know that before reaching us these edicts have been more or less translated into Hebrew forms of thought, so that the phrase may possibly be177 Jewish after all. Still even in that case it seems clear that it must have been first used in the East and under the Persian rule. The widening of his horizon and the elevation of his idea of Providence which resulted from the experience of the exile helped to enlarge and exalt the Jew's whole conception of God. Jehovah could no longer be thought of as a tribal divinity. The greater prophets had escaped from any such primitive notion much earlier, but not the bulk of the nation. Now the exiles saw that the domain of their God could not be limited to the hills and valleys of Palestine. They perceived how His arm reached from the river to the ends of the earth; how His might was everywhere supreme, directing the history of empires, overthrowing great monarchies, establishing new world-powers.

A more subtle movement of thought has been detected in the appearance of this suggestive phrase, "God of heaven." The idea of the transcendence of God is seen to be growing in the mind of the Jew. God appears to be receding into remote celestial regions—His greatness including distance. As yet this is only vaguely felt; but here we have the beginning of a characteristic of Judaism which becomes more and more marked in course of time, until it seems as though God were cut off from all direct connection with men on earth, and only administering the world through a whole army of intermediaries, the angels.

After this phrase with the Persian flavour, Nehemiah adds expressions borrowed from the Hebrew Book of Deuteronomy, a book with ideas and words from which his prayer is saturated throughout. God is described on the one hand as "great and terrible." and on the other hand as keeping "covenant and mercy for them178 that love Him and observe His commandments."140140   Neh. i. 5. See Deut. vii. 9. The Deuteronomist adds "to a thousand generations"—a clause not needed by Nehemiah, who is now only concerned with one special occasion. The first part of the description is in harmony with the new and exalted title of God, and therefore it fits in well here. It is also suitable for the circumstances of the prayer, because in times of calamity we are impressed with the power and terror of Providence. There is another side to these attributes, however. The mention of them suggests that the sufferers have not fallen into the hand of man. Hanani and his fellow-Jews made no allusion to a Divine action; they could not see beyond the jealousy of neighbouring people in the whole course of events. But Nehemiah at once recognised God's hand. This perception would calm him as he watched the solemn movement of the drama carried up into heavenly regions. Then, aided by the cheering thought which came to him from the book of Divine revelation on which his prayer was moulded, Nehemiah turns to the covenant-keeping mercy of God. The covenant which he appeals to here must be that of the Book of Deuteronomy; his subsequent references to the contents of that book make this quite clear.

It is important to see that Nehemiah recognises the relation of God's mercy to His covenant. He perceives that the two go together, that the covenant does not dispense with the need of mercy any more than it forecloses the action of mercy. When the covenant people fall into sin, they cannot claim forgiveness as a right; nor can they ever demand deliverance from trouble on the ground of their pact with God. God does179 not bargain with His children. A Divine covenant is not a business arrangement, the terms of which can be interpreted like those of a deed of partnership, and put into force by the determinate will of either party. The covenant is, from the first, a gracious Divine promise and dispensation, conditioned by certain requirements to be observed on man's side. Its very existence is a fruit of God's mercy, not an outcome of man's haggling, and its operation is just through the continuance of that mercy. It is true a promise, a sort of pledge, goes with the covenant; but that is a promise of mercy, a pledge of grace. It does not dispense with the mercy of God by converting what would otherwise be an act of pure grace on His part into a right which we possess and act upon of our own sole will. What it does is to afford a channel for the mercy of God, and to assure us of His mercy, which, however, remains mercy throughout.

From another point of view the covenant and the mercy go together. The mercy follows the covenant. The expression "the uncovenanted mercies of God" has been used in bitter irony, as though any hope that depended on such mercies was poor indeed, a bare refuge of despair. But so to treat the unknown goodness of God is to discredit that "ceaseless, unexhausted love" which has given us the latest and highest and best name of God. We do not know how far the vast ocean of the lovingkindness of God extends. On the other hand, certain definite assurances of mercy are given along the lines of a covenant. Therefore it is clearly wise and right for people who possess the covenant to follow those lines. Other people who are outside the covenant may meet with wonderful surprises in the infinite Fatherhood of God; but those of180 His children who are in the home must expect to be treated according to the established order of the house. No doubt they too will have their grand surprises of Divine grace, for God does not tie Himself to forms and rules at home while He exercises liberty abroad. To do so would be to make the home a prison. But still His revelation of methods of grace is a clear indication that it is our duty to observe those methods, and that we have no ground of complaint if we do not receive the grace we seek when we wilfully neglect them. Here then we see the necessity of studying the revelation of the will and mind of God. That prayer has most ground of hope in it which keeps nearest to the thought and spirit of Scripture.

The terms of the covenant quoted by Nehemiah require obedience on the part of those who would receive mercy under it, and this obedience is needed in those who are seeking restoration and forgiveness as well as in those who have not fallen from the covenant throughout. The reference to "mercy" makes that clear. The penitent submits, and in the surrender of his will he is made the recipient of the Divine mercy. But behind the obedience is the spirit of love that prompts it. The mercy is for them that love God and observe His commandments. Love is the fulfilling of the law from the first. It is expected in the Old Testament as well as in the New; it is prescribed by the Deuteronomist as decidedly as by St. John, for it is the only ground of real obedience. The slavish terror of the lash which squeezes out a reluctant utterance of submission will not open the door for the mercy of God. The Divine covenant secures mercy only for those who return to their allegiance in a spirit of love.

Having thus set forth the grounds of his prayer in181 his address to God and his plea of the covenant, Nehemiah proceeds to invoke the Divine attention to his petition. There is an echo of the courtier, perhaps, in his request that God's ear should be attentive and His eyes open;141141   Neh. i. 6. but his whole conduct forbids the idea of servile obsequiousness. His prayer, he here says, is offered "day and night"; so his report of it may be regarded as a sort of final summing up of a long, persevering succession of prayers. The unwearying persistence of the man reveals two favourable features in his character—his earnestness of purpose and his unflagging faith. Our Lord denounces "vain repetitions"142142   Matt. vi. 7.i.e., repetitions the very value of which is thought to reside in their number, as though prayer could be estimated arithmetically. But the prayer that is repeated simply because the worshipper is too persistent to be satisfied till it is answered does not come into the category of "vain repetitions"; it is anything but empty.

Immediately after his invocation of God's gracious attention Nehemiah plunges into a confession of sin. Ezra's great prayer was wholly occupied with confession,143143   Ezra ix. 6-15. and this mournful exercise takes a large place in Nehemiah's prayer. But the younger man has one special ground of confession. The startling news of the ruinous condition of the recently restored city of Jerusalem rouses a sort of national conscience in his breast. He knows that the captivity was brought about as a chastisement for the sins of the Jews. That great lesson—so recklessly ignored when it was insisted on by Jeremiah—had been burnt into the deepest convictions of the exiles. Therefore Nehemiah makes no182 complaint of the cruel behaviour of the enemies of Israel. He does not whine about the pitiable plight of the Jews. Their real enemies were their sins, and the explanation of their present distress was to be found in their own bad conduct. Thus Nehemiah goes to the root of the matter, and that without a moment's hesitation.

Further, it is interesting to see how he identifies himself with his people in this confession. Living far from the seat of the evil, himself a God-fearing, upright man, he might have been tempted to treat the citizens of Jerusalem as Job's comforters treated the patriarch of Uz, and denounce their sins from the secure heights of his own virtue. In declining to assume this pharisaic attitude, Nehemiah shows that he is not thinking of recent specific sins committed by the returned exiles. The whole history of Israel's apostasy is before him; he feels that the later as truly as the earlier calamities flow from this one deep, foul fountain of iniquity. Thus he can join himself with his fathers and the whole nation in the utterance of confession. This is different from the confession of Ezra, who was thinking of one definite sin which he did not share, but which he confessed in a priestly sympathy. Nehemiah is less concerned with formal legal precepts. He is more profoundly moved by the wide and deep course of his people's sin generally. Still it is a mark of self-knowledge and true humility, as well as of patriotism, that he honestly associates himself with his fellow-countrymen. He perceives that particular sins, such as those found in the recent misconduct of the Jews, are but symptoms of the underlying sinful character; and that while circumstances may save the individual from the temptation to exhibit every183 one of these symptoms, they are accidental, and they cannot be set to his credit. The common sin is in him still; therefore he may well join himself to the penitents, even though he has not participated in all their evil deeds. The solidarity of the race is, unhappily, never more apparent than in its sin. This sin is especially the "one touch of" fallen "nature" that "makes the whole world kin." It was to a trait of frailty that Shakespeare was alluding when he coined his famous phrase, as the context proves.144144   Troilus and Cressida, Act iii., Scene 3. The trail of the serpent is over every human life, and in this ugly mark we have a terrible sign of human brotherhood. Of all the elements of "Common Prayer," confession can be most perfectly shared by every member of a congregation, if only all the worshippers are in earnest and know their own hearts.

Nehemiah does not enter much into detail with this confession. It is sweeping and widely comprehensive. Two points, however, may be noticed. First, he refers to the Godward aspect of sin, its personal character as an offence against God. Thus he says, "We have dealt very corruptly against Thee."145145   Neh. i. 7 So the prodigal first confesses that he has sinned "against heaven."146146   Luke xv. 18. Secondly, he makes mention more than once of the commandments of Moses. The name of Moses is often appealed to with reverence in the history of this period of Ezra and Nehemiah. Evidently the minds of men reverted to the great founder of the nation at the time of national penitence and restoration. Under these circumstances no new edition of The Law could have been adopted unless it was believed to have embodied the substance of the older teaching.

184 After his confession Nehemiah goes on to appeal to the Divine promises of restoration made to the penitent in the great national covenant. He sums them up in a definite sentence, not quoting any one utterance of Deuteronomy, but garnering together the various promises of mercy and dovetailing almost the very language of them together, so as to present us with the total result. These promises recognise the possibility of transgression and the consequent scattering of the people so often insisted on by the prophets and especially by Jeremiah. They then go on to offer restoration on condition of repentance and a return to obedient allegiance. It is to be observed that this is all laid down on national lines. The nation sins; the nation suffers; the nation is restored to its old home. This is very much a characteristic of Judaism, and it gives a breadth to the operation of great religious principles which would otherwise be unattainable when almost all regard for a future life is left out of account. Christianity dwells more on individualism, but it obtains space at once by bringing the future life into prominence. In the Old Testament the future of the nation takes much the same place as that occupied by the future of the individual in the New Testament.

In reviewing the history of God's way with Israel Nehemiah lays his finger on the great fact of redemption. The Jews are the "people whom God had redeemed by His great power and His strong hand."147147   Neh. i. 10. Universal usage compels us to fix upon the exodus under Moses, and not Zerubbabel's pilgrimage, as the event to which Nehemiah here alludes. That event, which was the birth of the nation, always comes out in Hebrew literature185 as the supreme act of Divine grace. In some respects its position in the religion of Israel may be likened to that of the cross of Christ in Christianity. In both cases God's great work of redeeming His children is the supreme proof of His mercy and the grand source of assurance in praying to Him for new help. On the ground of the great redemption Nehemiah advances to the special petition with which his prayer closes. This is most definite. It is on behalf of his own need; it is for immediate help—"this day"; it is for one particular need—in his proposed approach to Artaxerxes to plead the cause of his people. Here then is an instance of the most special prayer. It is "to the point," and for most pressing present requirements. We cannot but be struck with the reality of such a prayer. Having reached this definite petition Nehemiah closes abruptly.

When we glance back over the prayer as a whole, we are struck with its order and progress. As in our Lord's model prayer, the first part is absorbed with thoughts of God; it is after uplifting his thoughts to heaven that the worshipper comes down to human need. Then a large place is given to sin. This comes first in the consideration of man after the worshipper has turned his eyes from the contemplation of God and felt the contrast of darkness after light. Lastly, the human subjects of the prayer begin in the wider circle of the whole nation; only at the very last, in little more than a sentence, Nehemiah brings forward his own personal petition. Thus the prayer gradually narrows down from the Divine to the human, and from the national to the individual: as it narrows it becomes more definite, till it ends in a single point; but this point is driven home by the weight and force of all that precedes.


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