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Nehemiah ii. 1-8.

Nehemiah's prayer had commenced on celestial heights of meditation among thoughts of Divine grace and glory, and when it had stooped to earth it had swept over the wide course of his nation's history and poured out a confession of the whole people's sin; but the final point of it was a definite request for the prospering of his contemplated interview with the king. Artaxerxes was an absolute despot, surrounded with the semi-divine honours that Orientals associate with the regal state, and yet in speaking of him before "the God of heaven," "the great and terrible God," Nehemiah loses all awe for his majestic pomp, and describes him boldly as "this man."148148   Neh. i. 11. In the supreme splendour of God's presence all earthly glory fades out of the worshipper's sight, like a glow-worm's spark lost in the sunlight. Therefore no one can be dazzled by human magnificence so long as he walks in the light of God. Here, however, Nehemiah is speaking of an absent king. Now it is one thing to be fearless of man when alone with God in the seclusion of one's own chamber, and quite another to be equally imperturbable in the187 world and away from the calming influence of undisturbed communion with Heaven. We must remember this if we would do justice to Nehemiah, because otherwise we might be surprised that his subsequent action did not show all the courage we should have expected.

Four months passed away before Nehemiah attempted anything on behalf of the city of his fathers. The Jewish travellers probably thought that their visit to the court servant had been barren of all results. We cannot tell how this interval was occupied, but it is clear that Nehemiah was brooding over his plans all the time, and inwardly fortifying himself for his great undertaking. His ready reply when he was suddenly and quite unexpectedly questioned by the king shows that he had made the troubles of Jerusalem a subject of anxious thought, and that he had come to a clear decision as to the course which he should pursue. Time spent in such fruitful thinking is by no means wasted. There is a hasty sympathy that flashes up at the first sign of some great public calamity, eager "to do something," but too blind in its impetuosity to consider carefully what ought to be done; and this is often the source of greater evils, because it is inconsiderate. In social questions especially people are tempted to be misled by a blind, impatient philanthropy. The worst consequence of yielding to such an influence—and one is strongly urged to yield for fear of seeming cold and indifferent—is that the certain disappointment that follows is likely to provoke despair of all remedies, and to end in cynical callousness. Then, in the rebound, every enthusiastic effort for the public good is despised as but the froth of sentimentality.

188Very possibly Nehemiah had no opportunity of speaking to the king during these four months. A Persian sovereign was waited on by several cup-bearers, and it is likely enough that Nehemiah's terms of service were intermittent. On his return to the court in due course he may have had the first occasion for presenting his petition. Still it is not to be denied that he found great difficulty in bringing himself to utter it, and then only when it was dragged out of him by the king. It was a petition of no common kind. To request permission to leave the court might be misconstrued unfavourably. Herodotus says that people had been put to death both by Darius and by Xerxes for showing reluctance to accompany their king. Then had not this very Artaxerxes sanctioned the raid upon Jerusalem which had resulted in the devastation which Nehemiah deplored and which he desired to see reversed? If the king remembered his rescript to the Syrian governors, might he not regard a proposal for the reversal of its policy as a piece of unwarrantable impertinence on the part of his household slave—nay, as an indication of treasonable designs? All this would be apparent enough to Nehemiah as he handed the wine-cup on bended knee to the Great King. Is it wonderful then that he hesitated to speak, or that he was "very sore afraid" when the king questioned him about his sadness of countenance?

There is an apparent contradiction in Nehemiah's statement concerning this sad appearance of his countenance which is obscured in our English translation by the unwarrantable insertion of the word "beforetime" in Nehemiah ii. 1, so that the sentence reads, "Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence." This word is a gloss of the translators. What Nehemiah189 really says is simply, "Now I had not been sad in his presence"—a statement that evidently refers to the occasion then being described, and not to previous times nor to the cup-bearer's habitual bearing. Yet in the very next sentence we read how the king asked Nehemiah the reason for the sadness of his countenance. The contradiction would be as apparent to the writer as it is to us; and if he left it Nehemiah meant it to stand, no doubt intending to suggest by a dramatic description of the scene that he attempted to disguise his sorrow, but that his attempt was ineffectual—so strong, so marked was his grief. It was a rule of the court etiquette, apparently, that nobody should be sad in the king's presence. A gloomy face would be unpleasant to the monarch. Shakespeare's Cæsar knew the security of cheerful associates when he said:—

"Let me have men about me that are fat;

Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights:

Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look;

He thinks too much; such men are dangerous."

Besides, was not the sunshine of the royal countenance enough to drive away all clouds of trouble from the minds of his attendants? Nehemiah had drilled himself into the courtier's habitual pleasantness of demeanour. Nevertheless, though passing, superficial signs of emotion may be quite reined in by a person who is trained to control his features, indications of the permanent conditions of the inner life are so deeply cut in the lines and curves of the countenance that the most consummate art of an actor cannot disguise them. Nehemiah's grief was profound and enduring. Therefore he could not hide it. Moreover, it is a king's business to understand men, and long practice makes190 him an expert in it. So Artaxerxes was not deceived by the well-arranged smile of his servant; it was evident to him that something very serious was troubling the man. The sickness of a favourite attendant would not be unknown to a kind and observant king. Nehemiah was not ill, then. The source of his trouble must have been mental. Sympathy and curiosity combined to urge the king to probe the matter to the bottom. Though alarmed at his master's inquiry, the trembling cup-bearer could not but give a true answer. Here was his great opportunity—thrust on him since he had not had the courage to find it for himself. Artaxerxes was not to be surprised that a man should grieve when the city of his ancestors was lying desolate. But this information did not satisfy the king. His keen eye saw that there was more behind. Nehemiah had some request which as yet he had not been daring enough to utter. With real kindness Artaxerxes invited him to declare it.

The critical moment had arrived. How much hangs upon the next sentence—not the continuance of the royal favour only, but perhaps the very life of the speaker, and, what is of far more value to a patriot, the future destiny of his people! Nehemiah's perception of its intense importance is apparent in the brief statement which he here inserts in his narrative: "So I prayed to the God of heaven."149149   Neh. ii. 4. He is accustomed to drop in suggestive notes on his own private and behaviour along the course of his narrative. Only a few lines earlier we came upon one of these characteristic autobiographical touches in the words, "Now I had not been sad in his presence,"150150   Neh. ii. 1. soon followed by191 another, "Then I was very sore afraid."151151   Neh. ii. 2. Such remarks vivify the narrative, and keep up an interest in the writer. In the present case the interjection is peculiarly suggestive. It was natural that Nehemiah should be startled at the king's abrupt question, but it is an indication of his devout nature that as the crisis intensified his fear passed over into prayer. This was not a set season of prayer; the pious Jew was not in his temple, nor at any proseuché, there was no time for a full, elaborate, and orderly utterance, such as that previously recorded. Just at the moment of need, in the very presence of the king, with no time to spare, by a flash of thought, Nehemiah retires to that most lonely of all lonely places, "the inner city of the mind," there to seek the help of the Unseen God. And it is enough: the answer is as swift as the prayer; in a moment the weak man is made strong for his great effort.

Such a sudden uplifting of the soul to God is the most real of all prayers. This at least is genuine and heartfelt, whatever may be the case with the semi-liturgical composition the thought and beauty of which engaged our attention in the previous chapter. But then the man who can thus find God in a moment must be in the habit of frequently resorting to the Divine Presence; like the patriarchs, he must be walking with God. The brief and sudden prayer reaches heaven as an arrow suddenly shot from the bow; but it goes right home, because he who lets it off in his surprise is a good marksman, well practised. This ready prayer only springs to the lips of a man who lives in a daily habit of praying. We must associate the two kinds192 of prayer in order to account for that which is now before us. The deliberate exercises of adoration, confession, and petition prepare for the one sudden ejaculation. There we see the deep river which supplies the sea of devotion from which the momentary prayer is cast up as the spray of a wave. Therefore it was in a great measure on account of his deliberate and unwearying daily prayers that Nehemiah was prepared with his quick cry to God in the crisis of need. We may compare his two kinds of prayer with our Lord's full and calm intercession in John xvii. and the short agonised cry from the cross. In each case we feel that the sudden appeal to God in the moment of dire necessity is the most intense and penetrating prayer. Still we must recognise that this comes from a man who is much in prayer. The truth is that beneath both of these prayers—the calm, meditative utterance, and the simple cry for help—there lies the deep, true essence of prayer, which is no thing of words at all, but which lives on, even when it is voiceless, in the heart of one of whom it can be said, as Tennyson says of Mary,—

"Her eyes are homes of silent prayer."

Fortified by his moment's communion with God, Nehemiah now makes known his request. He asks to be sent to Jerusalem to repair its ruins and fortify the city. This petition contains more than lies on the surface of the words. Nehemiah does not say that he wishes to be appointed Governor of Jerusalem in the high office which had been held by Zerubbabel, but the subsequent narrative shows that he was assigned to this position, and his report of the king's orders about the house he was to dwell in at Jerusalem almost implies193 as much.152152   Neh. ii. 8. For one of the royal household servants to be appointed to such a position was doubtless not so strange an anomaly in the East in Nehemiah's day, as it would be with us now. The king's will was the fountain of all honour, and the seclusion in which the Persian monarchs lived gave unusual opportunities for the few personal attendants who were admitted into their presence to obtain great favours from them. Still Nehemiah's attitude seems to show some self-confidence in a young man not as yet holding any political office. Two or three considerations, however, will give a very different complexion to his request. In the first place, his city was in a desperate plight: deliverance was urgently needed; no help appeared to be forthcoming unless he stepped into the breach. If he failed, things could hardly become worse than they were already. Was this an occasion when a man should hold back from a sense of modesty? There is a false modesty which is really a product of the self-consciousness that is next door to vanity. The man who is entirely oblivious of self will sometimes forget to be modest. Moreover, Nehemiah's request was at the peril of his life. When it was granted he would be launched on a most hazardous undertaking. The ambition—if we must use the word—which would covet such a career is at the very antipodes of that of the vulgar adventurer who simply seeks power in order to gratify his own sense of importance. "Seekest thou great things for thyself? seek them not."153153   Jer. xlv. 5. That humbling rebuke may be needed by many men; but it was not needed by Nehemiah, for he was not seeking the great things for himself.

194 It was a daring request; yet the king received it most favourably. Again, then, we have the pleasing spectacle of a Persian monarch showing kindness to the Jews. This is not the first time that Artaxerxes has proved himself their friend, for there can be no doubt that he is the same sovereign as the Artaxerxes who despatched Ezra with substantial presents to the aid of the citizens of Jerusalem some twelve or thirteen years before.

Here, however, a little difficulty emerges. In the interval between the mission of Ezra and that of Nehemiah an adverse decree had been extracted from the compliant sovereign—the decree referred to in Ezra iv. Now the semi-divinity that was ascribed to a Persian monarch involved the fiction of infallibility, and this was maintained by a rule making it unconstitutional for him to withdraw any command that he had once issued. How then could Artaxerxes now sanction the building of the walls of Jerusalem, which but a few years before he had expressly forbidden? The difficulty vanishes on a very little consideration. The king's present action was not the withdrawal of his earlier decree, for the royal order to the Samaritans had been just to the effect that the building of the walls of Jerusalem should be stopped.154154   Ezra iv. 21. This order had been fully executed; moreover it contained the significant words, "until another decree shall be made by me."155155   Ibid. Therefore a subsequent permission to resume the work, issued under totally different circumstances, would not be a contradiction to the earlier order; and now that a trusty servant of the king was to superintend the operations, no danger of insurrection need be195 apprehended. Then the pointed notice of the fact that the chief wife—described as "The Queen"—was sitting by Artaxerxes, is evidently intended to imply that her presence helped the request of Nehemiah. Orientalists have discovered her name, Damaspia, but nothing about her to throw light on her attitude towards the Jews. She may have been even a proselyte, or she may have simply shown herself friendly towards the young cup-bearer. No political or religious motives are assigned for the conduct of Artaxerxes here. Evidently Nehemiah regarded the granting of his request as a direct result of the royal favour shown towards himself. "Put not your trust in princes"156156   Psalm cxlvi. 3. is a wholesome warning, born of the melancholy disappointment of the pilgrims who had placed too much hope in the Messianic glamour with which the career of poor Zerubbabel opened; but it does not mean that a man is to fling away the advantages which accrue to him from the esteem he has won in high places. Ever since the Israelites showed no scruple in spoiling the Egyptians—and who could blame them for seizing at the eleventh hour the overdue wages of which they had been defrauded for generations?—"the people of God" have not been slow to reap harvests of advantage whenever persecution or cold indifference has given place to the brief, fickle favour of the world. Too often this has been purchased at the price of the loss of liberty—a ruinous exchange. Here is the critical point. The difficulty is to accept aid without any compromise of principle. Sycophancy is the besetting snare of the courtier, and when the Church196 turns courtier she is in imminent danger of that, in her, most fatal fault. But Nehemiah affords a splendid example to the contrary. In his grand independence of character we have a fine instance of a wise, strong use of worldly advantages, entirely free from the abuses that too commonly accompany them. Thus he anticipates the idea of the Apocalypse where it is said, "The earth helped the woman."157157   Rev. xii. 16.

The interest of the king in his cup-bearer is shown by his repeated questions, and by the determined manner in which he drags out of Nehemiah all his plans and wishes. Every request is granted. The favourite servant is too much valued to get his leave of absence without some limit of time, but even that is fixed in accordance with Nehemiah's desire. He asks and obtains letters of introduction to the governors west of the Euphrates. The letters were most necessary, because these very men had bestirred themselves to obtain the adverse decree but a very few years before. It is not likely that they had all veered round to favour the hated people against whom they had just been exhibiting the most severe antagonism. Nehemiah therefore showed a wise caution in obtaining a sort of "safe conduct." The friendliness of Artaxerxes went still further. The king ordered timber to be provided for the building and fortifying operations contemplated by his cup-bearer; this was to be furnished from a royal hunting park—a "Paradise," to use the Persian word—probably one which formerly belonged to the royal demesne of Judah, somewhere in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem, as the head-forester bore a Hebrew name, "Asaph."158158   Neh. ii. 8. Costly cedars for the temple had to be197 fetched all the way from the distant mountains of Lebanon, in Phœnician territory; but the city gates and the castle and house carpentry could be well supplied from the oaks and other indigenous timber of Palestine.

All these details evince the practical nature of Nehemiah's patriotism. His last word on the happy conclusion of the interview with Artaxerxes, which he had anticipated with so much apprehension, shows that higher thoughts were not crushed out by the anxious consideration of external affairs. He concludes with a striking phrase, which we have met with earlier on the lips of Ezra.159159   Ezra vii. 28. "And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me."160160   Neh. ii. 8. Here is the same recognition of Divine Providence, and the same graphic image of the "hand" of God laid on the writer. It looks as though the younger man had been already a disciple of the Great Scribe. But his utterance is not the less genuine and heartfelt on that account. He perceives that his prayer has been heard and answered. The strength and beauty of his life throughout may be seen in his constant reference of all things to God in trust and prayer before the event, and in grateful acknowledgment afterwards.

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