Page images

the hand strike the foot ? and if one flesh may challenge meet respects from us, how much more one spirit! The spirit is more noble than the flesh is base; the flesh is dead without the spirit; the spirit without the flesh active and immortal. Our soul, though shapeless and immaterial, is more apparently one than the flesh; and if the unity of our human spirit call us to a mutual care and tenderness in our carriage each to other, how much more of the divine ! by that we are men, by this we are Christians. As the soul animates us to a natural life, so doth God's Spirit animate the soul to an heavenly, which is so one that it cannot be divided. How should that one Spirit cause us so far to forget all natural and civil differences, as not to contemn, not to oppress any whom it informeth! they are not Christians, not men, that can enjoy the miseries of their brethren, whether in the flesh or spirit.

Good Nehemiah cannot choose but be much moved at the barbarous extortion of the people ; and now, like an impartial governor, he rebukes the rulers and nobles, whose hand was thus bloody with oppression. As of fishes, so of men, the lesser are a prey to the great. It is an ill use made of power, when the weight of it serves only to crush the weak. There were no living amongst men, had not God ordained higher than the highest ; and yet higher than they. Eminency of place cannot be better improved, than by taking down mighty offenders.

If nobility do embase itself to any foul sin, it is so much more worthy of coercion, by how much the person is of greater mark.

The justice of this reproof could not but shame impudence itself: “We, after our ability, have redeemed our brethren the Jews which were sold to the heathen, and will you sell your brethren, or shall they be sold to us?” Shall they find at home that yoke of bondage which they had put off abroad ? while they are still Jews, shall we turn Assyrians ? if they must be slaves, why not rather to enemies than to brethren ? how much more tolerable were a foreign servitude, than a domestical! Be ashamed, 0 ye nobles of Israel, to renew Babylon in Jerusalem. I marvel not, if the offenders be stricken dumb with so unanswerable an expostulation, Guiltiness and confusion have stopped their mouths.

Many of those who have not had grace enough to refrain sin, yet are not so utterly void of grace as to maintain sin. Our afterwits are able to discern a kind of unreasonableness in those wicked actions, which the first appearance represents unto us plausible. Gain leads in sin, but shame follows it out. There are those that are bold and witty to bear out commodious or pleasant evils; neither could these Jewish enormities have wanted some colours of defence: their stock was their own, which might have been otherwise improved to no less profit. The offer, the suit of these bargains, was from the sellers : these escheats fell into their hands unsought; neither did their contract cause the need of their brethren, but relieve it: but their conscience will not bear this plea. I know not whether the maintenance of the least evil be not worse than the commission of the greatest: this may be of frailty, that argues obstinacy. There is hope of that man that can blush, and be silent.

After the conviction of the fact, it is seasonable for Nehemiah to persuade reformation. No oratory is so powerful as that of mildness; especially, when we have to do with those, who either through stomach, or greatness, may not endure a rough reproof. The drops that fall easily upon the corn, ripen and fill the ear, but the stormy showers, that fall with violence, beat down the stalks flat to the earth, and lay whole fields, without hope of recovery. Who can resist this sweet and sovereign reprehension; “Ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God, because of the reproach of the heathen, our enemies ?” Did we dwell alone in the midst of the earth, yet the fear of our God

should over-awe our ways; but now that we dwell in the midst of our enemies, whose eyes are bent upon all our actions, whose tongues are as ready to blaspheme God as we to offend him, how carefully should we avoid those sins, which may draw shame upon our profession!

Now the scandal is worse than the fact; thus shall religion suffer more from the heathen, than our brethren do from us. If justice, if charity cannot sway with us, yet let the scornful insultations of the profane Gentiles fright us from these pressures. No ingenuous disposition can be so tender of his own disgrace, as the true Israelite is of the reproach of his God: what is it that he will not rather refrain, do, suffer, than that glorious name shall hazard a blemish? They cannot want outward retentives from sin, that live either among friends or enemies: if friends, they may not be grieved ; if enemies, they may not be provoked. Those that would live well, must stand in awe of all eyes ; even those that are without the church, yet may not be without regard. No person can be so contemptible, as that his censure should be contemned.

In dissuading from sin, reason itself cannot prevail more than example. “I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants might exact of them money and corn; but from the time that I was appointed to the charge of Judah, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.” He shall never rule well, that doth all that he may: it is not safe for either part, that a prince should live at the height of his power; and if the greatest abate of their right, is it for inferiors to extort? Had Nehemiah aimed at his own greatness, no man could have had fairer pretences for his gain.

“ The former governors, that were before him, were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, besides forty shekels of silver.” His foot had not first trod in this commodious path ; it was beaten by the steps of his predecessors ; neither did any

of them walk beside it. However it might be envious to raise new taxations, yet to continue those he found unrepined at, had been out of the reach of exception. A good governor looks not so much what hath been done, as what should be: precedents are not the rule whereby he rules, but justice, but piety. “So did not I, because of the fear of the Lord.” Laws are not a straiter curb to subjects, than conscience is to good princes.

They dare not do what they cannot do charitably. What advantage can they think it to be from under the controlment of men, when the God of heaven notes, and punishes their offences? Whoso walketh by this rule, can neither err nor miscarry. It is no trusting to the external remedies of sin ; either they are not always present, or if present, not powerful enough : but if the fear of God have once taken up the heart, it goes ever with us, and is strong enough to over-master the most forcible temptation.

Therefore must these Jews follow this example of Nehemiah, because he followed not the example of his predecessors ; because he left their evil, they must imitate his good. In vain shall rulers advise against their own practice ; when they lead the way, they may well challenge to be followed. Seldom hath it been ever seen, that great persons have not been seconded in evil: why should not their power serve to make patterns of their virtues ?

Thus well did it speed with Nehemiah : his merciful carriage, and zealous suit, have drawn the rulers to a promise of restitution; "We will restore them, and will require nothing of them, so will we do as thou sayest.

It is no small advantage that these nobles must forego in their releases: there cannot be a better sign of a sound amendment, than that we can be content to be losers by our repentance. Many formal penitents have yielded to part with so much of their sin, as may abate nothing of their profit: as if these rulers should have been willing to restore the persons, but withal should have stood stiffly to require their sums: this whining and partial satisfaction had been thankless. True remorse enlargeth the heart, and openeth the hand to a bountiful redemption of our eri

Good purposes do too often cool in time, and vanish into a careless forgetfulness : Nehemiah feared this issue of these holy resolutions; and therefore he prosecutes them in their first heat, not leaving these promises, till he had secured them with an oath ; the priests are called for, that in their mouths the adjuration may

be more solemn and sacred. It is the best point of wisdom to take the first opportunity of fixing good motions, which otherwise are of themselves light and slighty. To make all yet more sure, their oaths are cross-barred with his execration: “Also I shook

my lap, and said, So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied : and all the congregation said, Amen." A promise, an oath, a curse, are passed upon this act; now, no Israelite dares falter in the execution. When we have a sin in chase, it is good to follow it home, not slackening our pursuit till we have fully prevailed ; and when it is once fallen under our hands, we cannot kill it too much.

Now Nehemiah having thus happily delivered his people from a domestical captivity, commends his service to the gracious remuneration of the Almighty; “Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people ;" therefore doth he refuse the bread of the governor, that he may receive the reward of the Governor of heaven. Had he taken a temporary recompense, both he and it had been forgotten, now he hath made a happy change for eternity. Not that he pleads his merit, but sues for

« PreviousContinue »