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Nehemiah iii.

The third chapter of the Book of Nehemiah supplies a striking illustration of the constructive character of the history of the Jews in the Persian period. Nor is that all. A mechanical, Chinese industry may be found side by side with indications of moral littleness. But the activity displayed in the restoration of the city walls is more than industrious, more than productive. We must be struck with the breadth of the picture. This characteristic was manifest in the earlier work of building the temple, and it pervades the subsequent religious movement of the shaping of Judaism and the development of The Law. Here it is apparent in the fact that the Jews unite in a great common work for the good of the whole community. It was right and necessary that they should rebuild their private houses; but though it would appear that some of these houses must have been in a very ruinous condition, for this was the case even with the governor's residence,166166   Neh. ii. 8. the great scheme now set on foot was for the public advantage. There is something almost socialistic about the execution of it; at all events we meet with that211 comprehensiveness of view, that elevation of tone, that sinking of self in the interests of society, which we should look for in true citizenship.

This is the more noteworthy because the object of the Jews in the present undertaking was what is now called "secular." The earlier public building operations carried out by their fathers had been confessedly and formally religious. Zerubbabel and Jeshua had led a band of pilgrims up to Jerusalem for the express purpose of rebuilding the temple, and at first the returned exiles had confined their attention to this work and its associated sacrificial rites, without revealing any political ambition, and apparently without even coveting any civic privileges. Subsequently some sense of citizenship had begun to appear in Ezra's reformation, but every expression of it had been since checked by jealous and hostile influences from without. At length Nehemiah succeeded in rousing the spirit of citizenship by means of the inspiration of religious faith. The new enthusiasm was not directly concerned with the temple; it aimed at fortifying the city. Yet it sprang from prayer and faith. Thus the Jews were feeling their way to that sacredness of civic duties which we in the freer air of Christianity have been so slow to acknowledge.

The special form of this activity in the public interest is also significant. The process of drawing a line round Jerusalem by enclosing it within the definite circuit of a wall helped to mark the individuality and unity of the place as a city, which an amorphous congerie of houses could not be, according to the ancient estimate, because the chief distinction between a city and a village was just this, that the city was walled while the village was unwalled. The first privilege enjoyed by212 the city would be its security—its strength to withstand assaults. But the walls that shut out foes shut in the citizens—a fact which seems to have been present to the mind of the poet who wrote,—

"Our feet are standing

Within thy gates, O Jerusalem;

Jerusalem, that art builded

As a city that is compact together."167167   Psalm cxxii. 2, 3.

The city is "compact together." City life is corporate life. It is not at all easy for us to appreciate this fact while our idea of a city is only represented by a crowd of men, women, and children crammed into a limited space, but with scarcely any sense of common life and aims; still less when we look behind the garish splendour of the streets to the misery and degradation, the disease and famine and vice, that make their nests under the very shadow of wealth and pleasure. Naturally we turn with loathing from such sights, and long for the fresh, quiet country life. But this accidental conglomerate of bricks and human beings is in no sense a city. The true city—such a city as Jerusalem, or Athens, or Rome in its best days—is a focus of the very highest development of life known to man. The word "civilisation" should remind us that it is the city which indicates the difference between the cultivated man and the savage. Originally it was the civis, the citizen, who marched in the van of the world's progress. Nor is it difficult to account for his position. Intercommunication of ideas sharpening intelligence—"as iron sharpeneth iron,"—division of labour permitting the specialisation of industry, combination in work making it possible for great undertakings to be carried out, the213 necessity for mutual considerateness among the members of a community and the consequent development of the social sympathies, all tend to progress. And the sense of a common life realised in this way has weighty moral issues. The larger the social unit becomes, the more will people be freed from pettiness of thought and selfishness of aim. The first step in this direction is made when we regard the family rather than the individual as the true unit. If we pass beyond this in modern times, we commonly advance straight on to the whole nation for our notion of a compact community. But the stride is too great. Very few people are able to reach the patriotism that sinks self in the larger life of a nation. With a Mazzini, and even with smaller men who are magnetised by the passion of such an enthusiast in times of excitement, this may be possible. But with ordinary men in ordinary times it is not very attainable. How many Englishmen leave legacies for the payment of the National Debt? Still more difficult is it to become really cosmopolitan, and acquire a sense of the supreme duty of living for mankind. Our Lord has come to our aid here in giving us a new unit—the Church; so that to be a citizen of this "City of God" is to be called out of the circle of the narrow, selfish interests into the large place where great, common duties and an all-comprehensive good of the whole body are set before us as the chief aims to be pursued.

In rebuilding the city walls, then, Nehemiah was accomplishing two good objects; he was fortifying the place, and he was restoring its organic unity. The two advantages would be mutually helpful, because the weakness of Jerusalem was destroying the peculiar character of her life. The aristocracy, thinking it impossible to preserve the community in isolation, had214 encouraged and practised intermarriage with neighbouring people, no doubt from a politic regard to the advantage of foreign alliances. Although Nehemiah was not yet prepared to grapple with this great question, his fortification of Jerusalem would help the citizens to maintain their Jewish separateness, according to the principle that only the strong can be free.

The careful report which Nehemiah has preserved of the organisation of this work shows us how complete it was. The whole circuit of the walls was restored. Of course it was most necessary that nothing less should be attempted, because, like the strength of a chain, the strength of a fortress is limited to that of its weakest part. And yet—obvious as it is—probably most failures, not only in public works, but also in private lives, are directly attributable to the neglect of this elementary principle of defence. The difficulty always is to reach that kind of perfection which is suggested by the circle, rather than the pinnacle—the perfection of completeness. Now in the present instance the completion of the circuit of the walls of Jerusalem testifies to the admirable organising power of Nehemiah, his tact in putting the right men in the right places—the most important and difficult duty of a leader of men, and his perseverance in overcoming the obstacles and objections that must have been thrust in his path—all of them what people call secular qualities, yet all sustained and perfected by a noble zeal and by that transparent unselfishness which is the most powerful solvent of the selfishness of other people. There are more moral qualities involved in the art of organisation than they would suppose who regard it as a hard, mechanical contrivance215 in which human beings are treated like parts of a machine. The highest form of organisation is never attained in that brutal manner. Directly we approach men as persons endowed with rights, convictions, and feelings, an element of sympathy is called for which makes the organising process a much more delicate concern.

Another point calls for remark here. Nehemiah's description of his organisation of the people for the purpose of building the walls links the several groups of men who were responsible for the different parts with their several districts. The method of division shows a devolution of responsibility. Each gang had its own bit of wall or its own gate to see to. The rule regulating the assignment of districts was that, as far as practicable, every man should undertake the work opposite his own house. He was literally to "do the thing that lay nearest" to him in this business. It was in every way a wise arrangement. It would prevent the disorder and vexation that would be excited if people were running about to select favourite sites—choosing the easiest place, or the most prominent, or the safest, or any other desirable spot. Surely there is no principle of organisation so simple or so wise as that which directs us to work near home in the first instance. With the Jews this rule would commend itself to the instinct of self-interest. Nobody would wish the enemy to make a breach opposite his own door, of all places. Therefore the most selfish man would be likely to see to it that the wall near his house was solidly built. If, however, no other inducements had been felt in the end, the work would have failed of any great public good, as all purely selfish work must ultimately fail. There would have been216 gaps which it was nobody's interest in particular to fill.

Next it is to be observed that this building was done by "piece work," and that with the names of the workmen attached to it, so that if any of them did their work ill the fact would be known and recorded to their lasting disgrace; but also so that if any put an extra amount of finish on their work this too should be known and remembered to their credit. The idle and negligent workman would willingly be lost in the crowd; but this escape was not to be permitted, he must be dragged out and set in the pillory of notoriety. On the other hand, the humble and devoted citizen would crave no recognition, doing his task lovingly for the sake of his God and his city, feeling that the work was everything—the worker nothing. For his own sake one who labours in this beautiful spirit seems to deserve to be sheltered from the blaze of admiration at the thought of which he shrinks back in dismay. And yet this is not always possible. St. Paul writes of the day when every man's work shall be made manifest.168168   1 Cor. iii. 13. If the honour is really offered to God, who inspires the work, the modesty which leads the human agent to seek the shade may be overstrained, for the servant need not blush to stand in the light when all eyes are directed to his Master. But when honour is offered to the servant also, this may not be without its advantages. Rightly taken it will humble him. He will feel that his unworthiness would not have permitted this if God had not been very gracious to him. Then he will feel also that he has a character to maintain. If it is ruinous to lose a reputation—"the better part of me," as poor217 Cassio exclaims in his agony of remorse—it must be helpful to have one to guard from reproach. "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches,"169169   Prov. xxii. 1. not only because of the indirect advantages it brings from the consideration of the world—its mere purchasing power in the market of human favour; this is its least advantage. Its chief value is in the very possession of it by one whose honour is involved in living worthily of it.

From another point of view the record of the names of people who have rendered good service may be valuable. It will be a stimulus to their successors. The Early Church preserved the names of her confessors and martyrs in the diptychs which were expressly provided for use in public worship, that God might be praised for their noble lives, and that the living might be stimulated to follow their example. Here is one of the great uses of history. We cannot afford to forget the loyal service of the past, because out of it we draw inspiration for the present. The people with a great history have come into a rich heritage. To be a child of a really noble house, to spring from a family truly without reproach—a family all whose sons are pure and all whose daughters are brave—surely this is to receive a high commission to cherish the good name unsullied. As the later Jews gazed at the towers of Jerusalem and marked well her bulwarks, with the thought that this massive strength was the fruit of the toil and sacrifice of their own forefathers—so that the very names of individual ancestors were linked with exact spots on the grey walls—they would hear a call to loyal service worthy of their noble predecessors.

218 To proceed, we may observe further that the groups of builders fall into several classes. The first place is given to the priestly order—"the high-priest and his brethren the priests."170170   Neh. iii. 1. This is quite in accordance with the sacerdotal spirit of the times, when the theocracy was emerging into power to take the place left vacant by the decay of the house of David. But the priests are not only named first. Nehemiah states that they were the first to respond to his appeal. "Then"—i.e., after he had addressed the assembled Jews—"Then Eliashib the high-priest rose up," etc. This man—the grandson of Jeshua, from whom so much was expected by Zechariah—was the first to set his hand to the tremendous task. First in honour, he was first in service. The beauty of his action lies in its silence. Not a word is recorded as spoken by him. But he was not satisfied to sanction the work of humbler men. He led the people in the best possible way, by beginning the work himself, by directly taking upon him his share of it. In this noble simplicity of service Eliashib was followed by the priesthood generally. These men put forth no claims to immunity from the obligation of civic duties or secular occupations. It never occurred to them to object that such employments were in the least degree inconsistent with their high office. The priestly order was hampered by the strictest rules of artificial separation; but the quaint notion—so common in the East, and not quite unknown in the West—that there is something degrading in hard work did not enter into them.

There are two points to be noticed in the special work of the priests. First, its locality. These ministers219 of the temple set up the "Sheep Gate," which was the gate nearest to the temple. Thus they made themselves responsible for their own quarters, guarding what was especially entrusted to their care. This was in accordance with the plan observed all round the city, that the inhabitants should work in the neighbourhood of their respective houses. The priests, who have the honour of special connection with the temple, feel that a special charge accompanies that honour; and rightly, for responsibility always follows privilege. Second, its consecration. The priests "sanctified" their work—i.e., they dedicated it to God. This was not in the sacred enclosure—the Haram as it is now called. Nevertheless, their gate and wall, as well as their temple, were to be reckoned holy. They did not hold the strange modern notion that while the cemetery, the city of the dead, is to de consecrated, the city of the living requires no consecration. They saw that the very stones and timbers of Jerusalem belonged to God, and needed His presence to keep them safe and pure. They were wise, for is He not "the God of the living" and of all the concerns of life?

The next class of workmen is comprised of men who were taken according to their families. These would probably be all of them citizens of Jerusalem, some present by right of birth as descendants of former citizens, others perhaps sprung from the inhabitants of distant towns not yet restored to Israel who had made Jerusalem their home. Their duty to fortify their own city was indubitable.

But now, as in the earlier lists, there is another class among the laity, consisting of the inhabitants of neighbouring towns, who are arranged, not according to families, but according to their residence. Most likely220 these men were living in Jerusalem at the time; and yet it is probable that they retained their interest in their provincial localities. But Jerusalem was the capital, the centre of the nation, the Holy City. Therefore the inhabitants of other cities must care for her welfare. In a great scheme of religious centralisation at Jerusalem Josiah had found the best means of establishing unity of worship, and so of impressing upon the worshippers the idea of the unity of God. The same method was still pursued. People were not yet ripe for the larger thoughts of God and His worship which Jesus expressed by Jacob's well. Until that was reached, external unity with a visible centre was essential if a multiplex division of divinity was to be avoided. After these neighbours who thus helped the metropolis we have two other groups—the temple servants and the trade guilds of goldsmiths and merchants.

Now, while on all sides ready volunteers press forward to the work, just one painful exception is found to mar the harmony of the scene, or rather to lessen its volume—for this was found in abstention, not in active opposition. To their shame it is recorded that the nobles of Tekoa "put not their necks to the work of their Lord."171171   Neh. iii. 5. The general body of citizens from this town took part. We are not told why the aristocracy held back. Did they consider the labour beneath their dignity? or was there a breach between them and the townsfolk? The people of Tekoa may have been especially democratic. Ages before, a herdsman from this same town, the rough prophet Amos, had shown little respect for the great ones of the earth. Possibly221 the Tekoites had vexed their princes by showing a similar spirit of independence. But if so, Nehemiah would regard their conduct as affording the princes no excuse. For it was the Lord's work that these nobles refused to undertake, and there is no justification for letting God's service suffer when a quarrel has broken out between His servants. Yet how common is this miserable result of divisions among men who should be united in the service of God. Whatever was the cause—whether it was some petty personal offence or some grave difference of opinion—these nobles go down the ages, like those unhappy men in the early days of the Judges who earned the "curse of Meroz," disgraced eternally, for no positive offence, but simply because they left undone what they ought to have done. Nehemiah pronounces no curse. He chronicles the bare fact. But his ominous silence in regard to any explanation is severely condemnatory. The man who builds his house on the sand in hearing Christ's words and doing them not, the servant who is beaten with many stripes because he knows his lord's will and does not perform it, that other servant who buries his talent, the virgins who forget to fill their vessels with oil, the people represented by goats on the left hand whose sole ground of accusation is that they refused to exercise the common charities—all these illustrate the important but neglected truth that our Lord's most frequent words of condemnation were expressed for what we call negative evil—the evil of harmless but useless lives.

Happily we may set exceptional devotion in another quarter over against the exceptional remissness of the nobles of Tekoa. Brief as is his summary of the division of the work, Nehemiah is careful to slip in222 a word of praise for one Baruch the son of Zabbai, saying that this man "earnestly repaired" his portion.172172   Neh. iii. 20. That one word "earnestly" is a truer stamp of worth than all the honours claimed by the abstaining nobles on grounds of rank or pedigree; it goes down the centuries as the patent of true nobility in the realm of industry.

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