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of Artaxerxes, inquires of the estate of his country, and brethren of Judea ; he might well find that holy scribe had not been idle. The commission of Artaxerxes had been improved by him to the utmost. Disorders were reformed, but the walls lay waste: the temple was built, but the city was ruinous; and if some streets were repaired, yet they stood unguarded, open to the mercy of an enemy, to the infestation of ill neighbourhood. Great bodies must have slow motions: as Jerusalem, so the church of God, whose type it was, must be finished by leisure.
Nehemiah sat warm in the court at Shushan, favoured by the great king Artaxerxes : nothing could be wanting to him, whether for pleasure or state: what needed he to trouble his head with thoughts for Jerusalem ? what if those remote walls lay on heaps, while himself dwelt fair? what if his far distant countrymen be despised, while himself is honoured by the great monarch of the world ?
It is not so easy for gracious dispositions to turn off the public calamities of God's church: neither can they do other than lose their private felicities, in the common distresses of the universal body. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning; if I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of
mouth.” Many Jews went up from Babylon and Shushan to Jerusalem, few ever returned voluntarily from their native home to the region of their captivity. Some occasion drew Hanani, with certain others of Judah, to this voyage. Of them doth Nehemiah carefully inquire the present condition of Jerusalem. It was no news, that the people were afflicted and reproached, the walls broken down, the gates burnt with fire. Ever since the furious vastation of Nebuzaradan, that city knew not better terms. Seldom doth the spiritual Jerusalem fare otherwise, in respect of outward estate. External glory and magnificence is an unsure note of the church.
Well had Nehemiah hoped that the gracious edict and beneficence of Darius, and the successive patronage of his lord Artaxerxes, had, by the continuance of twenty years' favour, advanced the strength and glory of Jerusalem: but now, finding the holy city to lie still in the dust of her confusion, neglected of God, despised of men, he sits down and weeps, and mourns, and fasts, and prays to the God of heaven. How many saw those ruins, and were little affected! he hears of them afar off, and is thus passionate. How many were upon this sight affected with a fruitless sorrow! his mourning is joined with the endeavours of redress. In vain is that grief, which hath no other end than itself.
Nehemiah is resolved to kneel to the king his master, for the repair of his Jerusalem : he dares not attempt the suit till he have begun with God. This good courtier knew well, that the hearts of these earthly kings are in the over-ruling hand of the King of heaven, to incline whither he pleaseth. Our prayers are the only true means to make way for our
If in all our occasions we do not begin with the first mover, the course is preposterous, and commonly speeds thereafter.
Who dares censure the piety of courtiers, when he finds Nehemiah standing before Artaxerxes ? even the Persian palace is not incapable of a saint. No man, that waits on the altar at Jerusalem, can compare for zeal with him, that waits on the cup of a Pagan monarch. The mercies of God are unlimited to places, to callings.
Thus armed with devotions, doth Nehemiah put himself into the presence of his master Artaxerxes. His face was overclouded with a deep sadness, neither was he willing to clear it. The king easily notes the disparity of the countenance of the bearer, and the wine that he bears; and, in a gracious familiarity, asks the reason of such unwonted change.
How well it becomes the great to stoop unto a cour
teous affability, and to exchange words of respect, even with their humble vassals !
Nehemiah had not been so long in the court, but he knew that princes like no other than cheerful attendants ; neither was he wont to bring any other face into that presence, than smooth and smiling
Greatness uses to be full of suspicion, and, where it sees a dejection and sourness of the brows, is ready to apprehend some sullen thoughts of discontentment, or, at the least, construes it for a disrespect to that sovereignty, whose beams should be of power to disperse all our inward mists. Even good manners forbid a man to press into the presence of a prince, except he can either lay by these unpleasing passions, or hide them : so had Nehemiah hitherto done. Now, he purposely suffers his sorrow to look through his eyes, that it may work both inquiry and compassion from his master; neither doth he fail of his hopes in either : “Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick ?” How sensible do we think the Father of mercies is of all our pensive thoughts, when a heathen master is so tender of a servant's grief? How ready should our tongues be to lay open our cares to the God of all comfort, when we see Nehemiah so quick in the expressions of his sorrow to an uncertain ear! “Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my father's sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof burnt with fire ?" Not without an humble preface doth Nehemiah lay forth his grievance ; complaints have ever an unpleasing harshness in them, which must be taken off by some discreet insinuation : although it could not but sound well in the generous ear of Artaxerxes, that his servant was so careful for the honour of his country. As nature hath made us all members of a community, and hath given us common interests, so it is most pleasing to us to see these public cares divide us from our own.
The king easily descries a sweet supplication wrapped up in this moanful answer, which the modest suitor was afraid to disclose ; and, therefore, he helps that bashful motion into the light : "For what dost thou make request ?". It is the praise of bounty to draw on the just petitions of fearful suppliants.
Nehemiah dares not open his mouth to the king till his heart hath opened itself by a sudden ejaculation to his God: no business can be so hasty but our prayer may prevent it; the wings whereof are so nimble, that it can fly up to heaven and solicit God, and bring down an answer, before ever our words need to come forth of our lips. In vain shall we hope that any design of ours can prosper, if we have not first sent this messenger on our errand.
After this silent and insensible preparation, Nehemiah moves his suit to the king, not yet at once, but by meet degrees, first he craves leave for his journey, and for building, then he craves aid for both; both are granted. Nehemiah departs furnished with letters to the governor for a convoy, with letters to the keeper of the king's forest for timber, not more full of desire than hope.
Who ever put his hand to any great work for the behoof of God's church without opposition? As the walls of the temple found busy enemies, so shall the walls of the city; and these so much more, as they promise more security and strength to Jerusalem. Sanballat, the deputy-lieutenant of the Moabites, and Tobiah, the like officer to the Ammonites, and Geshem to the Arabians, are galled with envy at the arrival of a man authorized to seek the welfare of the children of Israel. There cannot be a greater vexation to wicked hearts, than to see the spiritual Jerusalem in any likelihood of prosperity. Evil spirits and men need no other torment than their own despite.
This wise courtier hath learned that secrecy is the surest way of any important despatch. His errand could not but be known to the governors; their furtherance was enjoined for the provision of materials, else the walls of Jerusalem had overlooked the first notice of their Heathen neighbours. Without any noise doth Nehemiah arise in the dead of night, and taking some few into his company, none into his counsel, he secretly rounds the decayed walls of Jerusalem, and views the breaches, and observes the gates, and returns home in silence, joying in himself to foresee those reparations, which none of the inhabitants did once dream of. At last, when he had fully digested this great work in his own breast, he calls the rulers and citizens together; and having condoled with them the common distress and reproach, he tells them of the hand of his God, which was good upon him, he shows them the gracious commission of the king, his master, for that good work. They answer him with a zealous encouragement of each other, “Let us rise up and build.” Such a hearty invitation, countenanced by authority, hath easily strengthened the hands of the multitude: with what observance and dearness do they now look upon their unexpected patron ! how do they honour him as a man sent from heaven, for the welfare of Jerusalem! Every man flies to his hod and trowel, and rejoices to second so noble a leader, in laying a stone in that wall of their common defence.
Those emulous neighbours of theirs, Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem, the chief commanders of Moab, Ammon, Arabia, have soon espied the first mortar that is laid upon that old foundation. Envy is usually more quick-sighted than love; and now they scornfully apply themselves to these despised Jews, and think to scoff them out of their work. The favourablest persecution of any good cause is the lash of lewd tongues, whether by bitter taunts or by scurrilous invectives; which it is as impossible to avoid, as necessary to contemn. "he barking of these dogs does not hinder Nehemiah from walking on his way, professing his confidence in the God of heaven, whose work that