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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Nehemiah 1

 

 

Verses 1-3

NEHEMIAH THE PATRIOT

Nehemiah 1:1-3

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. [Ezra 7:1] 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. There is 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 A 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 ancestors [Nehemiah 2:3] 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 our 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 cupbearers 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 today. 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," [Nehemiah 1:1] or rather "the fortress," at Susa, the winter abode of the Persian monarchs-an Elamite city, 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 hall 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 Nisan [Nehemiah 2:1] 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 is the most foreign Jew we meet with in Scripture. Yet in life 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. [Nehemiah 1:2] The language here used will admit of our regarding Hanani as only a more or less distant relative of the cupbearer, but a later reference to him at Jerusalem as "my brother Hanani" [Nehemiah 7:2] 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 cupbearer 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 Judaea, 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 mischief to the Jews, while in the daytime 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 daytime 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 cupbearer," etc.

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 method 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. 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, be 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 resulted 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 earlier, in a single picture of the city’s misery? The language seems to point to the action of breaking through the 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 fits 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 4:1-24, but attributed to the reign of an "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 4:1-24, 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 his 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 forget 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 his 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 he 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.


Verses 4-11

NEHEMIAH’S PRAYER

Nehemiah 1:4-11

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 heart felt 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 principles 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," hut 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" [Nehemiah 2:4] and at Jerusalem he answers the mockery of his opponents by exclaiming, "The God of heaven, He will prosper us." [Nehemiah 2:20] Now the same expression is found repeatedly in the chronicler’s version of royal edicts-in the edict of Cyrus, [Ezra 1:2] in the edict of Darius, [Ezra 6:10] in the edict of Artaxerxes. [Ezra 7:12; Ezra 7:21; Ezra 7:23] 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 employment of it passing over into the Scriptures, 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 preeminence 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 be Jewish, after all. Still, even in that ease 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 them that love Him and observe His commandments. [Nehemiah 1:5; See Deuteronomy 7:9] 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 reference 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 does 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 unconvenanted 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 loving kindness 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 of 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 in 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: [Nehemiah 1:6] 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" [Matthew 6:7] -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, [Ezra 9:6-15] 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 no 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 every 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. 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." [Nehemiah 1:7] So the prodigal first confesses that he has sinned "against heaven." [Luke 15:18] 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.

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 gathering 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." [Nehemiah 1:11] 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 literature 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 more 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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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 1:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/nehemiah-1.html.

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