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259

CHAPTER XXIII.

WISE AS SERPENTS.

Nehemiah vi.

Open opposition had totally failed. The watchful garrison had not once permitted a surprise. In spite of the persistent malignity of his enemies, Nehemiah had raised the walls all round the city till not a breach remained anywhere. The doors had yet to be hung at the great gateways, but the fortification of Jerusalem had proceeded so far that it was hopeless for the enemy to attempt any longer to hinder it by violence. Accordingly the leading antagonists changed their tactics. They turned from force to fraud—a method of strategy which was a confession of weakness. The antagonism to the Jews was now in a very different position from that which it had attained before Nehemiah had appeared on the scene, and when all Syria was moved and Artaxerxes himself won over to the Samaritan view. It had no support from the Satrap. It was directly against the policy sanctioned by the king. In its impotence it was driven to adopt humiliating devices of cunning and deceit; and even these expedients proved to be ineffectual. It has been well remarked that the rustic tricksters from Samaria were no match for a trained courtier. Nehemiah easily260 detected the clumsy snares that were set to entrap him. Thus he illustrates that wisdom of the serpent which our Lord commends to His disciples as a useful weapon for meeting the temptations and dangers they must be prepared to encounter. The serpent, repulsive and noxious, the common symbol of sin, to some the very incarnation of the devil, was credited with a quality worthy of imitation by One who could see the "soul of goodness in things evil." The subtlety of the keen-eyed, sinuous beast appeared to Him in the light of a real excellence, which should be rescued from its degradation in the crawling reptile and set to a worthy use. He rejoiced in the revelation made to babes; but it would be an insult to the children whom He set before us as the typical members of the kingdom of heaven to mistake this for a benediction of stupidity. The fact is, dulness is often nothing but the result of indolence; it often comes from negligence in the cultivation of faculties God has given to men more generously than they will acknowledge. Surely, true religion, since it consists in a Divine life, must bring vitality to the whole man, and thus quicken the intellect as well as the heart. St. James refers to the highest wisdom as a gift which God bestows liberally and without upbraiding on those who ask for it.202202   James i. 5. Our plain duty, therefore, is not to permit ourselves to be befooled to our ruin.

But when we compare the wisdom of Nehemiah with the cunning of his enemies we notice a broad distinction between the two qualities. Sanballat and his fellow-conspirator, the Arab Geshem, condescend to the meanness of deceit: they try to allure their victim into their261 power; they invite him to trust himself to their hospitality while intending to reward his confidence with treachery; they concoct false reports to blacken the reputation of the man whom they dare not openly attack; with diabolical craft one of their agents endeavours to tempt Nehemiah to an act of cowardice that would involve apparently a culpable breach of religious propriety, in order that his influence may be undermined by the destruction of his reputation. From beginning to end this is all a policy of lies. On the other hand, there is not a shadow of insincerity in Nehemiah's method of frustrating it. He uses his keen intelligence in discovering the plots of his foes; he never degrades it by weaving counterplots. In the game of diplomacy he outwits his opponents at every stage. If he would lend himself to their mendacious methods, he might turn them round his finger. But he will do nothing of the kind. One after another he breaks up the petty schemes of the dishonest men who continue to worry him with their devices, and quietly hands them back the fragments, to their bitter chagrin. His replies are perfectly frank; his policy is clear as the day. Wise as the serpent, he is harmless as the dove. A man of astounding discernment, he is nevertheless "an Israelite indeed, in whom there is no guile."

The first proposal had danger written on the face of it, and the persistence with which so lame a device was repeated does not do much credit to the ingenuity of the conspirators. Their very malignity seems to have blinded them to the fact that they were not deceiving Nehemiah. Perhaps they thought that he would yield to sheer importunity. Their suggestion was that he should come out of Jerusalem and confer with Sanballat262 and his friends some miles away in the plain of Sharon.203203   At Ono. This place has not yet been found. It cannot well be Beit Unia, north-west of Jerusalem, near Beitin (Bethel). Its association with Lod (Lydda) in 1 Chron. viii. 12 and Neh. xi. 35, points to the neighbourhood of the latter place. The Jews were known to be hard-pressed, weary, and famine-stricken, and any overtures that promised an amicable settlement, or even a temporary truce, might be viewed acceptably by the anxious governor on whose sole care the social troubles of the citizens as well as the military protection of the city depended. Very likely information gleaned from spies within Jerusalem guided the conspirators in choosing the opportunities for their successive overtures. These would seem most timely when the social troubles of the Jews were most serious. In another way the invitation to a parley might be thought attractive to Nehemiah. It would appeal to his nobler feelings. A generous man is unwilling to suspect the dishonesty of his neighbours.

But Nehemiah was not caught by the "confidence trick." He knew the conspirators intended to do him mischief. Yet as this intention was not actually proved against them, he put no accusation into his reply. The inference from it was clear enough. But the message itself could not be construed into any indication of discourtesy. Nehemiah was doing a great work. Therefore he could not come down. This was a perfectly genuine answer. For the governor to have left Jerusalem at the present crisis would have been disastrous to the city. The conspirators then tried another plan for getting Nehemiah to meet them outside Jerusalem. They pretended that it was reported that his work in fortifying the city was carried on with263 the object of rebelling against the Persian government, and that this report had gone so far as to convey the impression that he had induced prophets to preach his kingship. Some such suspicion had been hinted at before, at the time of Nehemiah's coming up to Jerusalem,204204   Neh. ii. 19. but then its own absurdity had prevented it from taking root. Now the actual appearance of the walls round the once ruinous city, and the rising reputation of Nehemiah as a man of resource and energy, might give some colour to the calumny. The point of the conspirators' device, however, is not to be found in the actual spreading of the dangerous rumour, but in the alarm to be suggested to Nehemiah by the thought that it was being spread. Nehemiah would know very well how much mischief is wrought by idle and quite groundless talk. The libel may be totally false, and yet it may be impossible for its victim to follow it up and clear his character in every nook and cranny to which it penetrates. A lie, like a weed, if it is not nipped in the bud, sheds seeds which every wind of gossip will spread far and wide, so that it soon becomes impossible to stamp it out.

In their effort to frighten Nehemiah the conspirators suggested that the rumour would reach the king. They as much as hinted that they would undertake the business of reporting it themselves if he would not come to terms with them. This was an attempt at extracting blackmail. Having failed in their appeal to his generous instincts, the conspirators tried to work on his fears. For any one of less heroic mind than Nehemiah their diabolical threat would have been overwhelmingly powerful. Even he could not but feel264 the force of it. It calls to mind the last word of the Jews that determined Pilate to surrender Jesus to the death he knew was not merited: "If thou let this Man go, thou art not Cæsar's friend." The suspicion that always haunts the mind of an autocratic sovereign gives undue weight to any charges of treason. Artaxerxes was not a Tiberius. But the good-natured monarch was liable to persuasion. Nehemiah must have had occasion to witness many instances of the fatal consequences of royal displeasure. Could he rely on the continuance of his master's favour now he was far from the court, while lying tongues were trying to poison the ears of the king? Before first speaking of his project for helping his people, he had trembled at the risk he was about to incur; how then could he now learn with equanimity that a cruelly mendacious representation of it was being made to Artaxerxes? His sense of the gravity of the situation is seen in the way in which he met it. Nehemiah indignantly repudiated the charge. He boldly asserted that it had been invented by the conspirators. To them he showed an unwavering front. But we are able to look behind the scenes. It is one advantage of this autobiographical sketch of Nehemiah's that in it the writer repeatedly lifts the veil and reveals to us the secret of his thoughts. Heroic in the world, before men, he still knew his real human weakness. But he knew too that his strength was in God. Such heroism as his is not like the stolidity of the lifeless rock. It resembles the strength of the living oak, which grows more massive just in proportion as it is supplied with fresh sap. According to his custom in every critical moment of his life, Nehemiah resorted to prayer, and thus again we come upon one of those brief ejaculations uttered in265 the midst of the stress and strain of a busy life that light up the pages of his narrative from time to time. The point of his prayer is simple and definite. It is just that his hands may be strengthened. This would have a twofold bearing. In the first place, it would certainly seek a revival of inward energy. Nehemiah waits on the Lord that He may renew his strength. He knows that God helps him through his own exercise of energy, so that if he is to be protected he must be made strong. But the prayer means more than this. For the hands to be strengthened is for their work to prosper. Nehemiah craves the aid of God that all may go right in spite of the terrible danger from lying calumnies with which he is confronted; and his prayer was answered. The second device was frustrated.

The third was managed very differently. This time Nehemiah was attacked within the city, for it was now apparent that no attempts to lure him outside the walls could succeed. A curious characteristic of the new incident is that Nehemiah himself paid a visit to the man who was the treacherous instrument of his enemies' devices. He went in person to the house of Shemaiah the prophet—a most mysterious proceeding. We have no explanation of his reason for going. Had the prophet sent for Nehemiah? or is it possible that in the dread perplexity of the crisis, amid the snares that surrounded him, oppressed with the loneliness of his position of supreme responsibility, Nehemiah hungered for a Divine message from an inspired oracle? It is plain from this chapter that the common, every-day prophets—so much below the great messengers of Jehovah whose writings represent Hebrew prophecy to us to-day—had survived the captivity, and were still266 practising divination much after the manner of heathen soothsayers, as their fathers had done before them from the time when a young farmer's son was sent to Samuel to learn the whereabouts of a lost team of asses. If Nehemiah had resorted to the prophet of his own accord, his danger was indeed serious. In this case it would be the more to his credit that he did not permit himself to be duped.

Another feature of the strange incident is not very clear to us. Nehemiah tells us that the prophet was "shut up."205205   Neh. vi. 10. What does this mean? Was the man ceremonially unclean? or ill? or in custody under some accusation? None of these three explanations can be accepted, because Shemaiah proposed to proceed at once to the temple with Nehemiah, and thus confessed his seclusion to be voluntary. Can we give a metaphorical interpretation to the expression, and understand the prophet to be representing himself as under a Divine compulsion, the thought of which may give the more urgency to the advice he tenders to Nehemiah? In this case we should look for a more explicit statement, for the whole force of his message would depend upon the authority thus attributed to it. A simpler interpretation, to which the language of Shemaiah points, and one in accordance with all the wretched, scheming policy of the enemies of Nehemiah, is that the prophet pretended that he was himself in personal danger as a friend and supporter of the governor, and that therefore he found it necessary to keep himself in seclusion. Thus by his own attitude he would try to work on the fears of Nehemiah.

The proposal that the prophet should accompany267 Nehemiah to the shelter of the temple, even into the "Holy Place," was temptingly plausible. The heathen regarded the shrines of their gods as sanctuaries, and similar notions seem to have attached themselves to the Jewish altar. Moreover, the massive structure of the temple was itself a defence—the temple of Herod was the last fortress to be taken in the great final siege. In the temple, too, Nehemiah might hope to be safe from the surprise of a street émeute among the disaffected sections of the population. Above all, the presence and counsel of a prophet would seem to sanction and authorise the course indicated. Yet it was all a cruel snare. This time the purpose was to discredit Nehemiah in the eyes of the Jews, inasmuch as his influence depended largely on his reputation. But again Nehemiah could see through the tricks of his enemies. He was neither blinded by self-interest nor overawed by prophetic authority. The use of that authority was the last arrow in the quiver of his foes. They would attack him through his religious faith. Their mistake was that they took too low a view of that faith. This is the common mistake of the irreligious in their treatment of truly devout men. Nehemiah knew that a prophet could err. Had there not been lying prophets in the days of Jeremiah? It is a proof of his true spiritual insight that he could discern one in his pretended protector. The test is clear to a man with so true a conscience as we see in Nehemiah. If the prophet says what we know to be morally wrong, he cannot be speaking from God. It is not the teaching of the Bible—not the teaching of the Old Testament any more than that of the New—that revelation supersedes conscience, that we are ever to take on authority what our moral nature abhors. The humility that would lay268 conscience under the heel of authority is false and degrading, and it is utterly contrary to the whole tenor of Scripture. One great sign of the worth of a prophecy is its character. Thus the devout man is to try the spirits, whether they be of God.206206   1 John iv. 1. Nehemiah has the clear, serene conscience that detects sin when it appears in the guise of sanctity. He sees at a glance that it would be wrong for him to follow Shemaiah's advice. It would involve a cowardly desertion of his post. It would also involve a desecration of the sacred temple enclosure. How could he, being such as he was—i.e., a layman—go into the temple, even to save his life?207207   Neh. vi. 11. But did not our Lord excuse David for an analogous action in eating the shewbread? True. But Nehemiah did not enjoy the primitive freedom of David, nor the later enlightened liberty of Christ. In his intermediate position, in his age of nascent ceremonialism, it was impossible for him to see that simple human necessities could ever override the claims of ritual. His duty was shaped to him by his beliefs. So is it with every man. To him that esteemeth anything sin it is sin.208208   Rom. xiv. 14.

Nehemiah's answer to the proposal of the wily prophet is very blunt—"I will not go in." Bluntness is the best reply to sophistry. The whole scheme was open to Nehemiah. He perceived that God had not sent the prophet, that this man was but a tool in the hands of the Samaritan conspirators. In solemnly committing the leaders of the vile conspiracy to the judgment of Heaven, Nehemiah includes a prophetess, Noadiah—degenerate successor of the patriotic Deborah!—and the whole gang of corrupt, traitorous prophets. Thus the wrongness of Shemaiah's proposal not only discredited269 his mission; it also revealed the secret of his whole undertaking and that of his unworthy coadjutors. While Nehemiah detected the character of the false prophecy by means of his clear perceptions of right and wrong, those perceptions helped him to discover the hidden hand of his foe. He was not to be sheltered in the temple, as Shemaiah suggested; but he was saved through the keenness of his own conscience. In this case the wisdom of the serpent in him was the direct outcome of his high moral nature and the care with which he kept "conscience as the noontide clear."

Nehemiah adds two items by way of postscripts to his account of the building of the walls.

The first is the completion of the work, with its effect on the jealous enemies of the Jews. It was finished in fifty-two days—an almost incredibly short time, especially when the hindrances of internal troubles and external attacks are taken into account. The building must have been hasty and rough. Still it was sufficient for its purpose. The moral effect of it was the chief result gained. The sense of discouragement now passed over to the enemy. It was the natural reaction from the mockery with which they had assailed the commencement of the work, that at the sight of the completion of it they should be "much cast down."209209   Neh. vi. 16. We can imagine the grim satisfaction with which Nehemiah would write these words. But they tell of more than the humiliation of insulting and deceitful enemies; they complete an act in a great drama of Providence, in which the courage that stands to duty in face of all danger and the faith that looks to God in prayer are vindicated.

270 The second postscript describes yet another source of danger to Nehemiah—one possibly remaining after the walls were up. Tobiah, "the servant," had not been included in the previous conspiracies. But he was playing a little game of his own. The intermarriage of leading Jewish families with foreigners was bearing dangerous fruit in his case. Tobiah had married a Jewess, and his son had followed his example. In each case the alliance had brought him into connection with a well-known family in Jerusalem. These two families pleaded his merits with Nehemiah, and at the same time acted as spies and reported the words of the governor to Tobiah. The consequence was the receipt of alarmist letters from this man by Nehemiah. The worst danger might thus be found among the disaffected citizens within the walls who were irritated at the rigorously exclusive policy of Ezra, which Nehemiah had not discouraged, although he had not yet had occasion to push it further. The stoutest walls will not protect from treason within the ramparts. So after all the labour of completing the fortifications Nehemiah's trust must still be in God alone.


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