The King’s Cup-Bearer by Amy Catherine Walton

Produced by Joel Erickson, Michael Ciesielski, Marit Henningsen and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team. THE KING’S CUP-BEARER By MRS. O.F. WALTON Author of ‘Christie’s Old Organ,’ ‘A Peep Behind the Scenes,’ ‘Elisha, the Man of Abd-Meholah’ CONTENTS. * * * * * CHAP. I. THE CITY OF LILIES II. THE KING’S TABLE III. THE GOOD
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Produced by Joel Erickson, Michael Ciesielski, Marit Henningsen and the Online Distributed Proofreading Team.






Author of ‘Christie’s Old Organ,’ ‘A Peep Behind the Scenes,’ ‘Elisha, the Man of Abd-Meholah’


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The City of Lilies.

The great Rab-shakeh, magnificently attired in all the brilliancy of Oriental costume, is walking towards the city gate. Above him stretches the deep blue sky of the East, about and around him stream the warm rays of the sun. It is the month of December, yet no cold biting wind meets him, and he needs no warm wraps to shield him from the frost or snow.

The city through which the Rab-shakeh walks is very beautiful; it is the capital of the kingdom of Persia. Its name is Shushan, the City of Lilies, and it is so called from the fields of sweet-scented iris flowers which surround it. It is built on a sunny plain, through which flow two rivers,–the Choaspes and the Ulai; he sees them both sparkling in the sunshine, as they wind through the green plain, sometimes flowing quite close to each other, at one time so near that only two and a half miles lie between them, then wandering farther away only to return again, as if drawn together by some subtle attraction.

Then, in the distance, beyond the plain and beyond the rivers, the great Rab-shakeh sees mountains, for a high mountain range, about twenty-five miles from the city, bounds the eastern horizon. He has good reason to love those high mountains, which rise many thousands of feet above the plain, for even in the hottest weather, when the heat in Shushan would otherwise be unbearable, he can always enjoy the cooling breezes which come from the everlasting snow-fields on the top of that mountain range, and which blow refreshingly over the sultry plain beneath.

The City of Lilies is a very ancient place. It was probably built long before the time of Abraham. We read in Gen. xiv. of a certain Chedorlaomer, King of Elam, who gathered together a number of neighbouring kings, and by means of their assistance invaded Palestine, and took Lot prisoner. This Chedorlaomer probably lived by these very rivers, the Choaspes and the Ulai, and Shushan was the capital city of the old kingdom of Elam over which he ruled.

Later on the City of Lilies was taken by the Babylonians. They had their own capital city, the mighty Babylon, on the Euphrates. But although it was not the capital, still Shushan was a very important place in that first great world-empire. We find Daniel, the prime minister, staying in the palace of Shushan, to which he had been sent to transact business for the King of Babylon, and it was during his visit to the City of Lilies that God sent him one of his most famous visions. In his dream he thought he was standing by the river Ulai, the very river he could see from the palace window, and before that river stood the ram with the two horns and the strong he-goat, by means of which God drew out before his eyes a picture of the future history of the world.

But the great Babylonian empire did not last long. Cyrus the Persian took Babylon, Belshazzar was slain, the great Assyrian power passed away, and the second great world-empire, the Persian empire, was built upon its ruins.

What city did the Persian kings make their capital? Not Babylon, with its mighty walls and massive gates, but Shushan, the City of Lilies. They chose it as their chief city for three reasons; it was nearer to their old home, Persia, it was cooler than Babylon because of the neighbouring mountains, and lastly, and above all, it had the best water in the world. The water of the river Choaspes was so much esteemed for its freshness, its clearness, and its salubrity, that the Persian kings would drink no other; they had it carried with them wherever they went; even when they undertook long warlike expeditions, the water of the Choaspes was considered a necessary provision for the journey.

The City of Lilies, in the days of the Rab-shakeh, was a perfect fairy-land of beauty, surrounded as it was by fruit-gardens and corn-fields; the white houses standing out from amongst dark palm trees, and the high walls encircled by groves of citron and lemon trees. As the Rab-shakeh walks along the air is scented with their blossoms, and with the sweet fragrance of the countless Shushan lilies, growing beside the margin of the sparkling rivers.

Above him, in the midst of the city, stands his lordly home. It may well be a magnificent place, for it is the palace of the greatest king in the world, the mighty King of Persia. The palace in which the Rab-shakeh lives is not the old palace in which Daniel stayed when he visited Shushan; it is quite a new building, built only forty years before by the great Ahasuerus, the husband of Queen Esther. It was to celebrate the opening of this gigantic palace that the enormous and magnificent feast of which we read in Esther i., was given by the Persian monarch, who was its founder.

This new palace was built on a high platform of stone and brick, and the view from its windows of the green plain, of the shining rivers, of the gardens filled with fruit trees and flowers, and of the snow-clad mountains in the distance, was magnificent in the extreme. In the centre of the palace was a large hall filled with pillars, one of the finest buildings in the world, and round this hall were built the grand reception rooms of the king.

The ruins of Shushan, the City of Lilies, were discovered by Sir Fenwick Williams in the year 1851, and the bases of the very pillars which supported the roof of the great Rab-shakeh’s splendid home may be seen this very day on the plain between the two rivers.

But who was this Rab-shakeh, and how came he to live in the most glorious palace in the world? He was a Jew, a foreigner, a descendant of those Jews whom Nebuchadnezzar took captive, and carried into Assyria. Yet, although one of an alien race, we find him in one of the highest offices of the Persian court, namely, the office of Rab-shakeh.

This word Rab, so often found in the Bible, is a Chaldean word which means Master. Thus, in the New Testament, we find the Jewish teachers often addressed by the title Rabbi, Master. But the title Rab was also used in speaking of the highest officials in an Eastern court. Three such titles we find in the Bible:

Jer. xxxix. 13. RAB-SARIS, Master of the Eunuchs.

Jer. xxxix. 13. RAB-MAG, Master of the Magi.

2 Kings xviii. 17. RAB-SHAKEH, Master of the Cup-bearers.

This last office, that of Rab-shakeh, was a very important and responsible one. It was the duty of the man who held it to take charge of the king’s wine, to ensure that no poison was put into it, and to present it in a jewelled cup to the king at the royal banquets. It was a position of great trust and power; great trust, because the king’s life rested in the cup-bearer’s keeping; great power, because whilst the Persian monarchs, believing that familiarity breeds contempt, kept themselves secluded from the public gaze, and admitted very few to their august presence, the cup-bearer had access at all times to the king, and had the opportunity of speaking to him which was denied to others.

Strange that a Jew, one of a captive race, should be chosen to fill so important a post. But King Artaxerxes knew his man. He felt he could trust him fully, and he was not disappointed in his confidence, for the great Rab-shakeh served a higher Master than the King of Persia, he was a faithful servant of the God of Heaven.

The Rab-shakeh’s name was Nehemiah, a name chosen by his parents, not as a fancy name or as a family name, but chosen for the same reason which usually influenced Jewish parents in the selection of names for their children, because of its beautiful meaning. Nehemiah meant _The Lord my Comforter_.

What a sweet thought for Hachaliah and his wife as they called their boy in from play, or as they put him in his little bed and took leave of him for the night, ‘_The Lord is my Comforter_.’ Life in sunny Shushan was surely no brighter than life in our more clouded land; they had their times of sorrow as well as their times of joy, they had their temptations, their cares, their anxieties, and their trials, just as we have. How blessed for them in one and all of these to be reminded where true comfort was to be found, so that they might turn to God in every time of grief with the name of their little son on their lips, ‘The Lord is my Comforter.’

What do _we_ know of Nehemiah? Can we say from our heart, ‘The Lord is _my_ Comforter?’ I take Him my every sorrow, I tell Him my every trouble. He understands it, and He understands me, and He comforts me as no other can. The Lord is indeed my Comforter.

So the little Nehemiah had grown up an ever-present reminder in his parents’ home of the comfort of God.

How many children Hachaliah had we are not told, but Nehemiah had certainly one brother, Hanani. There had been some years before this a parting in Hachaliah’s family. Hanani, Nehemiah’s brother, had left Shushan for a distant land. Twelve years had passed since all the Jews in Shushan had been roused by the news that Ezra the scribe was going from Babylon to Jerusalem, and that he was calling upon all who loved the home of their forefathers to go with him, and to help him in the work he had undertaken. Bad news had been brought to Babylon of the state of matters in Palestine; those who had returned with Zerubbabel were not prospering, either in their souls or their bodies, and Ezra, shocked by what he had heard, determined to go to Jerusalem that he might reform the abuses which had arisen there, and do all in his power to rouse the people to a sense of their duty. A brave company had set forth with him. Eight thousand Jews had been ready to leave comfort, luxury, and affluence behind, that they might go to the desolate city, and endeavour to stir up its people to energy and life.

One of the 8,000 who went with Ezra was Nehemiah’s brother, Hanani. It is possible that Nehemiah himself was at that time too young to go; it is also probable that Hachaliah, the father, having been born and brought up in Shushan, was hard to move. So Hanani set forth alone, and the brothers were parted.

Twelve long years, and in all probability no news had reached the family in Shushan of the absent Hanani. A journey of five months lay between them and Jerusalem; and in those days, when all the conveniences we enjoy were unknown, they would not only never expect to meet again, but they would also never anticipate the pleasure of even hearing any news of each other, or of holding the slightest communication.

But as the Rab-shakeh walks to the gate of Shushan, on the day on which the story opens, he spies a caravan of travellers coming along the northern road. They have evidently come a long way, for they are tired, exhausted, and travel-stained. The mules walk slowly and heavily under their burdens, the skin of the travellers is burnt and cracked by the hot sun of the desert, their clothes are faded and covered with dust, their sandals are full of holes.

Where can the caravan have come from? Nehemiah finds to his astonishment that it has come from Jerusalem, the city of cities, as he had been taught to believe it, and, to his still greater surprise, he finds amongst the travellers his long-lost brother Hanani. What had brought Hanani back from Jerusalem we are not told; he may have wished once more to see his old father Hachaliah; but we can well imagine the joy with which he would be welcomed by all, and not the least by his brother Nehemiah.

As they walk together through Shushan to the palace, the Rab-shakeh asks anxiously after Jerusalem. Has Ezra’s work been successful? How are matters progressing? Are the people more in earnest? Is Jerusalem thriving?

But the travellers have a dismal tale to tell. Affairs in the Holy City are about as bad as it was possible for them to be.

Neh. i. 3: ‘They said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.’

In other words, things are just where they were twelve years ago; the people are miserable and depressed, beset with countless troubles; the city itself is still an utter ruin, just as Nebuchadnezzar left it. The temple, it is true, is built at last, but nothing more is done; the walls lie just as they were when the city was taken,–a mass of ruins; the gates are nowhere to be seen, only a few blackened stones mark the place where they used to stand.

The Rab-shakeh’s heart is very heavy as he goes to his rooms in the royal palace. What terrible news he has heard! Jerusalem is still, after all Ezra’s efforts to restore it, a desolate ruined city. Nehemiah is full of sorrow, sick at heart, overwhelmed with disappointment and trouble.

But he remembers his own name and its warning, Nehemiah, _The Lord is my Comforter_. At once, without a moment’s delay, he goes to his Comforter. He weeps, he mourns, he fasts, and he pours out all his sorrow to God. As a child runs to his mother, and pours into her ear his grief or his disappointment, so Nehemiah hastens to his God.

We walk through a splendid conservatory, the pride and glory of a nobleman’s garden; we admire the flowers of all shades of colour; rare blossoms from all parts of the world, ferns of every variety, palms, and grasses, and mosses, and all manner of natural beauties meet our eye at every turn. What is that plant standing in a conspicuous place in the conservatory? It is a beautiful azalea, covered with hundreds of pure white blossoms. But there is so much else to see in that conservatory that we scarcely notice it as we pass by. Nor are we at all surprised to see it there; it is just the very place in which we should look for such a plant. Nor are we astonished to find it so flourishing and so full of bloom, for we know that everything in that conservatory is calculated to improve its growth, the atmosphere is just what it should be, not too dry or too damp, it has exactly the right soil, the proper amount of light, the most carefully regulated heat; it has in fact everything which it ought to have to make it a flourishing and beautiful plant. Accordingly we are not surprised to find it full of bloom and beauty.

But suppose, on the other hand, that walking through the slums of London we see a similar sight. In one of the closest, most filthy courts we see, in a garret window, a white azalea full of flowers, pure as the untrodden snow.

Now indeed we are surprised to see it, for it is in the most unlikely place; there is nothing to favour its growth, the air is foul, the light is dim, everything is against it, yet there it stands, a marvel of beauty! And we look at it and say, ‘Wonderful!’

Surely we have even now seen the white azalea in the garret. For where should we expect to find a man of God? Dwelling in the holy temple in Jerusalem, surrounded by everything to remind him of God breathing in the very atmosphere of religion, with godly people all around him, with everything to help him to be holy and pure, no one would be astonished to find a man of God in such a place as that.

But here is Nehemiah the Rab-shakeh, living in a heathen palace, in the midst of a wicked court, surrounded by drunkenness, sensuality, and all that is vile and impure, breathing in the very atmosphere of sin, yet we find him a plant of the Lord, pure as the azalea, a man of faith, a man of prayer, a holy man of God. With everything against him, with nothing to favour his growth in holiness, he is a flourishing plant in the garden of the Lord. So it ever is. The plants of God’s grace often thrive in very unlikely places. There was a holy Joseph in the court of Pharaoh, a faithful Obadiah in the house of wicked Jezebel, a righteous Daniel in Babylon, and saints even in Caesar’s household.

Are we ever tempted to say, I cannot serve the Master faithfully? If I were in another position, if my home life were favourable to my becoming decided for Christ, if I had different companions, different occupation, different surroundings, then indeed I would grow in grace, and bring forth the fruit of a holy life. But as I am, and where I am, it is a simple impossibility; I can never, under existing circumstances, live near to God, or be what I often long to be, a true Christian.

What does the Master say as He hears words like these? ‘My grace is sufficient for thee.’ ‘As thy day so shall thy strength be.’

Even in most unlikely and unfruitful soil God can make His plants to grow and flourish. Where I am, and as I am, and with exactly the same surroundings as I now possess, God can bless me, and give me grace to serve and to glorify Him. If I do not become a flourishing plant, it is not my position that is to blame, it is because I will not seek that grace which the Lord is ready to give me. ‘Ye have not, because ye ask not. Ask, and ye shall receive, that your joy may be full.’


The King’s Table.

It was midnight in London, in the year 1665. The houses were closed and barred, but strange lurid fires were lighted in every street, a stifling odour of burning pitch and sulphur filled the air, and from time to time came the heavy rumble of wheels, as a terrible cart, with its awful load, passed by in the darkness of the night. With the cart came a cry; so loud, so clear, so piercing, that it could be heard in all the closed houses of the street. ‘Bring out your dead, bring out your dead!’ Then, one door after another was hurriedly opened, and from the plague-stricken houses one body after another was brought out, and was thrown hastily into that awful dead cart.

_Bring out your dead_! what a solemn, terribly solemn cry! How it must have filled with awe and dread all who heard it! And if that call were repeated, if the holy angels of God were to go through the length and breadth of our land, and, stopping before each house, were to cry to those within, ‘Bring out your dead, bring out your dead,’ not your dead bodies, but your dead souls; bring out all in your house who are not alive unto God, who are dead in trespasses and sins, how many would have to be carried out of our houses? Should we ourselves be left behind? Are we alive or dead?

The angels have not yet come to sever the dead from the living, but the time for that great separation is drawing daily nearer, when the Son of man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that offend; all the loathsomeness of death, and decay, and impurity shall be collected by angel hands, and, we read, they shall cast them, not into a vast pit such as was dug in London in the time of the plague, but into a furnace of fire, there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth.

Surely, then, it is worth while to find out whether our soul is alive or dead. What test then shall we use? How shall we settle the matter clearly and definitely?

There is one thing, and one thing only, which proves that a man has life. A man apparently drowned is brought out of the water. He does not speak, or see, or move, or feel. He is rubbed and warmed, but no sign of life can be perceived. Can we therefore conclude that the man is dead? Nay, we will put him to the test. Bring a feather, hold it before his mouth, watch it carefully, does it move? A crowd of anxious bystanders gather round to see. Soon a cry of joy is heard, the feather moves. The man lives, for he _breathes_, and the breath in him is the unmistakable sign of life.

How then shall I know if my soul lives? Does it breathe? That is the all-important question. But what is the breath of the soul? The breath of the soul is prayer. As the old hymn says–

‘Prayer is the Christian’s vital breath, The Christian’s native air.’

Saul of Tarsus, with all his outward religion, was a dead soul, till the Lord met him and gave him life. What then is the first thing we find Saul doing? ‘Behold he prayeth.’ As soon as he is alive, he breathes, he prays.

Here then is the test for us to apply to our own souls. Do I know anything of real prayer? Do I love to hold communion with my God? Am I ever lifting up my heart to Him? If I live in the atmosphere of prayer, then I am alive unto God; if, on the other hand, I feel prayer a weariness, and know not what it is for my heart to hold unseen intercourse with my Lord, then indeed I am dead in sin, having no breath, and I have consequently no life.

Nehemiah, the great Rab-shakeh, was a living soul, for he loved to pray. No sooner had he heard the sad news about Jerusalem, than he went to his private apartments in the palace, and began to plead with God. He feels that all the trouble that has come upon his nation has been richly deserved, so he begins with a humble confession of sin.

‘Let Thine ear now be attentive, and Thine eyes open, that Thou mayest hear the prayer of Thy servant, which I pray before Thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel Thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against Thee.’ And then, coming nearer home, he adds, ‘both I and my father’s house have sinned.’

Was it some special sin which he confessed before God then? Can his sin, and the sin of his father’s house, have been the refusing twelve years ago to leave home and comforts behind them, and to return with Ezra to Jerusalem?

Then Nehemiah pleads God’s promises to His people in time past, and ends by definitely stating his own special need and request (Neh. i. 8-11).

By day and by night Nehemiah prays, and nearly four months go by before he does anything further.

The next step was not an easy one. He had determined to speak to the great Persian monarch–to bring before him the desolate condition of Jerusalem, and to ask for leave of absence from the court at Shushan, in order that he might go to Jerusalem, and do all in his power to restore it to something of its former grandeur.

It is not surprising that Nehemiah dreaded this next step. The Persian kings had a great objection to being asked a favour. Xerxes, the husband of Queen Esther, when on his way to Greece with his enormous army, passed through Lydia in Asia Minor. Here he was feasted and entertained by a rich man named Pythius, who also gave him a large sum of money for the expense of the war, and furnished five sons for the army. After this Pythius thought he might venture to ask a favour of the Persian monarch, so he requested that his eldest son might be allowed to leave his regiment, in order that he might stay at home to be the comfort and support of his aged father. But, instead of granting this very natural request, Xerxes was so much enraged at having been asked a favour, that he commanded the eldest son to be killed and cut in two, and then caused his entire army to file between the pieces of the body.

Artaxerxes, the king whom Nehemiah served, was considered one of the gentlest of Persian monarchs, and yet even he was guilty of acts of savage cruelty, of which we cannot read without a shudder. For example, when he came to the throne, he found in the palace a certain eunuch named Mithridates, who had been concerned in his father’s murder. He condemned this man to be put to death in the most horrible and cruel way. He was laid on his back in a kind of horse-trough, and strongly fastened to the four corners of it. Then another trough was put over him, leaving only his head and hands and feet uncovered, for which purpose holes were made in the upper trough. Then his face was smeared with honey, and he was placed in the scorching rays of the sun. Hundreds of flies settled on his face, and he lay there in agony for many long days. Food was given him from time to time, but he was never moved or uncovered, and it was more than a fortnight before death released him from his sufferings.

It was the very king who had put one of his subjects to this death of awful torment before whom Nehemiah had to appear, and of whom he had to make a request. No wonder, then, that he dreaded the interview, and that he felt that he needed many months of prayer to make him ready for it. It was in the month Chisleu (December) that Hanani had arrived, it was not until Nisan (April) that he made up his mind to speak to the king.

Before leaving his room that morning, he knelt down, and put himself and his cause in the Lord’s hands, Neh. i. 11.

Then, attired in his official dress, the Rab-shakeh sets forth for the state apartments of the palace. The central building of that magnificent pile in which the king held court was very fine and imposing, as may be seen to-day from the extensive ruins of Shushan. In the centre of it was the Great Hall of Pillars, 200 feet square. In this hall were no less than thirty-six pillars, arranged in six rows, and all sixty feet high. Round this grand hall were the beautiful reception rooms of the king, and these were carefully arranged, in order to ensure perpetual coolness even in the hottest weather. There was no room on the hot south side of the palace, but on the west was the morning room, in which all the morning entertainments were held, whilst the evening banqueting hall was on the eastern side. By this arrangement the direct rays of the sun were never felt by those within the palace. Then, on the cool northern side was the grand throne room, in which the king sat in state, and through which a whole army of soldiers, or an immense body of courtiers, could file without the slightest confusion, entering and leaving the room by stone staircases placed opposite each other. The steps were only four inches in depth and sixteen feet wide, and were so built that horsemen could easily mount or descend them.

Into one of the grand halls of the palace Nehemiah the cup-bearer enters. The pavement is of coloured marble, red, white, and blue; curtains of blue and white, the Persian royal colours, drape the windows and are hanging in graceful festoons from the pillars; the fresh morning breeze is blowing from the snow-clad mountains, and is laden with the scent of lemons and oranges, and of the Shushan lilies and Persian roses in the palace gardens.

There is the royal table, covered with golden dishes and cups, and spread with every dainty that the world could produce.

There is the king, a tall, graceful man, but with one strange deformity–with hands so long that when he stood upright they touched his knees, from which he had received the nickname of Longimanus, the long-handed.

He is dressed in a long loose robe of purple silk, with wide sleeves, and round his waist is a broad golden girdle. His tunic or under-garment is purple and white, his trousers are bright crimson, his shoes are yellow, and have long pointed toes. On his head is a curious high cap with a band of blue spotted with white. He is moreover covered with ornaments: he has gold earrings, a gold chain, gold bracelets, and a long golden sceptre with a golden ball as its crown.

The king is sitting on a throne, in shape like a high-backed chair with a footstool before it. The chair stands on lion’s feet, and the stool on bull’s feet, and both are made of gold.

By the king’s side sits the queen; her name was Damaspia, but we know little more of her in history, except that she died on the same day as her husband. Behind the king and queen are the fan-bearers, and fly-flappers, and parasol-bearers, who are in constant attendance on their royal majesties, and around are the great officers of the household.

Fifteen thousand people ate the king’s food in that palace every day, but the king always dined alone. It was very rarely that even the queen or the royal children were allowed to sit at the king’s table, which is probably the reason why Nehemiah mentions the fact that the queen was sitting by him. Perhaps he hailed the circumstance as a proof that the king was in good humour that day, and would therefore be more likely to listen to his petition. But no one who was not closely related to the king was allowed to sit at the royal table, even the most privileged courtiers sat on the floor and ate at his feet.

The feast has begun, and it is time for the Rab-shakeh to present the wine to the king. He takes the jewelled cup from the table in the king’s presence, he carefully washes it, then he fills it with a specially rare wine, named the wine of Helbon, which was kept only for the king’s use. This wine was made from a very fine growth of grapes, at a place in the Lebanon not far from Damascus, named Helbon. Then Nehemiah pours a little wine into his left hand and drinks it, and then, lightly holding the cup between the tips of his fingers and thumbs, he gracefully presents it to the great monarch.

Artaxerxes glances at his cup-bearer as he rises from his knees, and at once notices something remarkable in his face. Nehemiah is pale and anxious and troubled; his whole face tells of the struggle going on within, and the king cannot fail to perceive it. Turning to the Rab-shakeh he asks: ‘Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? this is nothing else but sorrow of heart.’ ‘Then,’ says Nehemiah, ‘I was very sore afraid.’ It is no wonder that he was alarmed, for it was actually a crime, proscribed by law, for any one to look sad or depressed in the presence of a Persian king. However heavy might be his heart, however sorrowful his spirit, he must cross the threshold of the palace with a smiling face, and show no signs in the king’s presence of the trouble within. But Nehemiah’s face has betrayed him. What will the king do? Will he dismiss him from office? Will he degrade him from his high position? Will he punish him for his breach of court etiquette? Or can it be that this is a heaven-sent opportunity in which he may make his request? He answers at once:

‘Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?’

And the king, quite understanding from Nehemiah’s speech that he wants something from him, asks immediately:

‘For what dost thou make request?’

Oh, what a critical moment! How much depends on Nehemiah’s answer to this unexpected question! What shall he say? What dare he propose? The whole future of Jerusalem may hang on his answer to the king’s question.

There is a moment’s pause, but only a moment’s, and then Nehemiah’s answer is given. Only a moment, and yet great things have been done in that short time. ‘I prayed,’ says the Rab-shakeh, ‘to the God of Heaven.’

Did he then rush away to his own apartment to pray? Did he kneel down in the midst of the banqueting hall and call upon his God? No, he spoke no word aloud, he did not even close his eyes. The king saw nothing, knew nothing of what was going on; yet a mighty transaction took place in that short time between the silent man, who still stood holding the cup in his hands, and the King of Heaven.

We are not told what the prayer was, perhaps it was only, ‘Lord, help me.’ But quick as lightning the answer came. His fear fled, wisdom was given him to answer, and his heart’s desire was granted.

How often we hear the complaint, ‘I cannot pray long prayers, like the good people I read of in books. I lead a busy active life, and when work is done my body is weary and exhausted, and I find it impossible to pray for any length of time, and sometimes I fear that because I cannot offer long prayers I cannot therefore be the Lord’s.’ But surely it is not long prayers that the Lord requires. Most of the Bible prayers are short prayers, the Lord’s pattern-prayer is one of the shortest. It is the heathen who think they will be heard for their much speaking. Nehemiah’s was a true prayer, and an answered prayer, yet it was but a moment in length.

Nor are uttered words necessary to prayer. The followers of Baal cried aloud, thinking their much shouting would reach the ear of their god, but Nehemiah speaks not, does not even whisper, and his prayer is heard in heaven. Surely now-a-days, when there are some who seem to think that much noise, that loud shouting, that the uplifted voice must needs pierce the sky, it is well for us to be reminded that God heeds no language, hears no voice, but the language of the soul, the voice of the innermost heart.

Nor is posture a necessary part of prayer. Some choose to pray standing, others prefer to kneel. It is not the posture of body God looks at, but the posture of the heart. Reverence there must be, but such reverence as comes from the inner sanctuary of the soul, and which only finds outward expression in the body. Nehemiah stood with the jewelled cup in his hands, yet Nehemiah’s prayer was heard.

So we see that heartfelt prayer–prayer which is prayer indeed–may be short, silent, and offered in a strange place and at a strange time, and yet be heard and answered by God.

Let us try to grasp the full comfort of this thought, for we live in a world of surprises. We rise in the morning, not knowing what the day may bring forth. We are walking on a road with many turnings, and we never know what may meet us at the next step!

All of a sudden we find ourselves face to face with an unexpected perplexity. What shall we do? What course shall we take? Here is the little prayer made ready for our use–

Lord, guide me.

Then, at the next turn, comes a sudden temptation. Unjust, cruel words are spoken, and we feel we must give an angry reply. Let us stop one moment before we answer, and in that moment put up the short prayer–

Lord, help me.

Or a sudden danger, bodily or spiritual, stares us in the face. At once we may lift up the heart and cry–

Lord, save me.

There is no need to kneel down, no need to speak aloud, no need to move from our place. In the office, the workshop, the schoolroom, the place of business, the railway carriage, the street, wherever we may be and in whatever company, the short silent prayer may be sent up to the God of heaven.

Thank God, no such prayer is ever unanswered!


The Good Hand.

The mighty universe, the great empire of the King of kings, who shall give us even a faint idea of its size?

It has been calculated that about 100,000,000 stars can be seen from our world by means of a telescope. Yet who can grasp such a number as that? Which of us can picture in his mind 100,000,000 objects? Let us suppose that instead of 100,000,000 stars we have the same number of oranges; let us arrange our oranges in imagination on a long string, which shall pass through the centre of each of them. How long will our string have to be if it is to hold the 100,000,000 oranges? It will have to be no less than 6,000 miles long, and our 100,000,000 oranges will stretch in a straight line from England to China.

One hundred million stars, and of all these God is King. But these are but as a speck compared with His vast universe. Each telescope that is invented, which enables us to see a little further into space, discovers more and more worlds unseen before. Who can even guess how many still lie beyond, unseen, unnoticed, unheard of? The regions of space are endless, as God their Maker is endless.

And all these countless worlds are under the eye of the King of kings. He rules all, watches all, guides all. Can I, then, believe that He will have time to take notice of my tiny affairs? Can He care if I am sick, worried, or poor, or depressed? Surely I must be ready to say with the Psalmist–

‘When I consider Thy heavens, the work of Thy fingers, the moon and the stars which Thou hast ordained, what is man, that Thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that Thou visitest him?’

Yet that quaint old saying of John Flavel the Puritan is right, ‘The man who watches for Providence will never want a Providence to watch.’ In other words, he who trusts his concerns to a higher power, he who puts his cause in the Lord’s hands, will never be disappointed. The God who rules the universe will not forget to attend to him, but will watch him, and guide him, and help him, as tenderly as if he was the only being in that universe.

St. Augustine used to say, ‘Lord, when I look upon mine own life, it seems Thou hast led me so carefully and tenderly, Thou canst have attended to none else; but when I see how wonderfully Thou hast led the world and art leading it, I am amazed that Thou hast had time to attend to such as I.’

How much more must we wonder at God’s loving care, when we look beyond this tiny world to the countless millions of worlds in the universe!

Nehemiah was watching for Providence. He had taken his case to God, he had trusted all to Him, and Nehemiah did not want a Providence to watch; the God in whom he had put his confidence did not disappoint him.

‘Let me go that I may rebuild Jerusalem,’ says the cup-bearer; and the great Persian king does not refuse his request, but (prompted, it may be, by the queen who was sitting by him) he asks: ‘For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return?’

‘And I set him a time.’ How long a time we are not told. Nehemiah did not return to Persia for twelve years; but it is probable that he asked for a shorter leave of absence, and that this was extended later on, in order to enable him to finish his work.

Cheered and encouraged by the king’s manner, feeling sure that God is with him and is prospering him, Nehemiah asks another favour of the king. The Persian empire at that time was of such vast extent, that it reached from the river Indus to the Mediterranean, and the Euphrates was looked upon as naturally dividing it into two parts, east and west. Nehemiah asks, ch. ii. 7, for letters to the governors of the western division of the empire, that they may be instructed to help him and forward him on his way.

He asks, ver. 8, for something more. There is a certain man named Asaph, who has charge of the king’s forest or park (see margin of R.V.). The real word which Nehemiah used was paradise–the king’s paradise. The derivation of the word is from the Persian words Pairi, round about, and Deza, a wall. Up and down their empire, in various places, the Persian kings had these paradises–parks or pleasure grounds–surrounded and shut off from the neighbouring country by a high fence or wall. These paradises were places of beauty and loveliness, where the king and his friends might meet and walk together, and enjoy each other’s society.

Is not this the Lord’s own picture of the place He went to prepare for His people? Did He not say to the thief on the cross, ‘To-day thou shalt be with Me in Paradise?’ It was a new name taken by our Lord from these paradises of the Persian kings, and given by Him to that new place which He went to prepare for His people, even the Garden of the Lord, the pleasure ground of the King of kings, the place to which His people go when they die. There they enjoy His company, and see His face, and walk with Him and talk to Him, waiting for that glorious day when they shall pass from the garden of the King into the palace itself.

We are not told where this particular paradise was, of which Asaph was the keeper, but probably it was the place which the kings of Judah had always made their pleasure ground. This was at Etam, about seven miles from Jerusalem, where Solomon had fine gardens, and had made large lakes of water, fed by a hidden and sealed spring.

Solomon himself twice used the word paradise of his gardens, and these are the only places in which the word occurs in the Old Testament, except in Neh. ii. 8.

Solomon says, Eccles. ii. 5, ‘I made me gardens and paradises.’ In Cant. iv. 13 he speaks of ‘a paradise of pomegranates, with precious fruits.’

For three purposes Nehemiah wanted wood from Asaph’s paradise, and asked the king to give him an order for it, that he might deliver to the keeper.

He wanted it (1) for the gates of the palace of the house. _The_ house means the temple, and the palace should be translated the castle. It was a tower which stood at the north-west corner of the temple platform, and commanded and protected the temple courts. (2) He required wood for the gates of the wall, and (3) for ‘the house that I shall enter into,’ i.e. for my own dwelling-house.

All is granted–the royal secretaries are called, and are bidden to write the required instructions to the governors beyond the river, and to Asaph, the bailiff of the forest. Nehemiah takes no credit to himself that all has gone so prosperously, he does not praise his own courage, or wisdom, or tact in making the request, he knows it is a direct answer to a direct prayer, he recognises the fact that it is God’s doing, and not his.

‘The king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.’

That was Ezra’s motto, quoted by him again and again (Ezra vii. 6, 9, 28; viii. 18, 22, 31). In all his deliverances, in every one of his mercies, he had seen the good hand of his God, and he had taken those words, ‘The good hand of my God upon me,’ as the keynote of his praise, and as the motto of his life. But Nehemiah had in all probability never even seen Ezra, yet here we find him quoting Ezra’s favourite saying. Can it be that Hanani, his brother, who had been one of Ezra’s companions, had repeated it to him? Can it be that in order to cheer and encourage his brother when he undertook the difficult task of speaking to the king, he told him how Ezra was always repeating these words, and how he found them a sure refuge in time of need? If so, how gladly would Nehemiah hasten to his brother when his duties in the palace were completed, to tell him that Ezra’s motto has held good again, for ‘the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.’

‘The good hand of my God.’ What blessed words! Let trouble come, or temptation come, or death itself come, I will not fear. The good hand of my God is over me. None can pluck me from that hand. ‘All my times are in Thy hand, O Lord,’ and are safe there from even the fear of danger. Oh, how blessed to be one so sheltered, so shielded, underneath the good hand of my God! But the same hand is against them that do evil. I must either be in the hand, or have the hand raised against me! Which shall it be?

All is ready now, the preparations are ended, and Nehemiah, accompanied by his brother Hanani, and by a royal escort of soldiers, sets forth on his long journey. Jerusalem, the City of David–how often he had dreamt of it, how earnestly he had longed to see it! Now, at last, his desire is to be granted. The travellers could not sing, as they rode slowly over the scorching desert, ‘Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem,’ for the gates of the city were burned with fire, and only a blackened space showed where each had stood, but they may have joined together in that other psalm, which was probably written about this time, Psalm cii.

‘Thou shalt arise, and have mercy upon Zion: for the time to favour her, yea, the set time, is come.

‘For Thy servants take pleasure in her stones, and it pitieth them to see her in the dust.’

There is no misadventure on the journey, they travel safely under the care of the king’s guard; but surely Nehemiah saw a dark cloud on the horizon as he handed in his letters to the governors beyond the river. One of these was Sanballat, the satrap or governor of Samaria. His name was an Assyro-Babylonian one, so that he was probably descended from one of the Babylonian families settled in Samaria, and it signifies ‘The Moon God gives life.’ His native place was Horonaim in Moab, and Sanballat was by nation a descendant of Lot.

With the Samaritan governor was his secretary Tobiah, the servant or the feud slave, a man also descended from Lot, for he was an Ammonite, and standing evidently very high in Sanballat’s favour.

It was probably Tobiah who read Artaxerxes’ letter to his master, and very black and gloomy were both their faces as they heard the news it contained.

At the court of Sanballat was a friend of his, Geshem the Arabian, the head or chief of a tribe of Arabs, which we find, from the ancient Assyrian monuments recently discovered, had been planted in Samaria by Sargon, King of Assyria. This man Geshem was therefore a Bedouin, a descendant of Esau.

These three, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, cannot conceal their disgust that anyone has been sent from Persia to look after the welfare of Jerusalem. So far they have trampled the Jews under foot as much as possible, and the Jews have been powerless to resist them. But now here is a man come direct from the court at Shushan, with letters from their royal master in his hand, and with orders to rebuild and fortify Jerusalem.

From that moment Sanballat and his friends became Nehemiah’s bitter enemies, determined to thwart and to oppose him to the utmost of their power.

At length the wearisome journey is over, and Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem. He tells no one why he has come; but, worn out with the fatigue he has undergone, he goes quietly to the house of a friend, probably to that of his brother Hanani, and for three days he rests there. Then, on the third night after his arrival, when all Jerusalem is asleep, he rises, mounts a mule or donkey, and, with a few faithful followers, steals out to explore for himself the extent of the ruin, to see how things really were, what was the state of the walls, and how much had to be done to put them into good repair.

Stealing out of the city on the south side, at the spot on which in better days the Valley Gate had stood, a gate which was so called because it opened into the Valley of Hinnom, he turned into the ravine, and went eastward. No doubt there was a moon, and by its quiet light he could see the heaps of rubbish, and the work of the fire which had destroyed the gates 150 years ago. How sad and forsaken it all looked in the moonlight, as he turned ‘_towards_ the Dragon’s well’ (see Revised Version). The site of this Dragon’s Well is very uncertain, but it is generally identified with Upper Gihon. It is sometimes confounded with the Virgin’s Fount, called by the Arabs the Mother of Steps, because there are twenty-seven steps leading down to it, and the descent is very steep. This is the only spring near Jerusalem, and its water is carried by an underground passage to the Pool of Siloam. It is an intermittent spring, suddenly rising and as suddenly falling, at irregular intervals. Two explorers, Dr. Robinson and Mr. Smith, were just about to measure the water, when they found it suddenly rising; in less than five minutes it had risen a foot, in ten minutes more it had ceased to flow, and had sunk to its former level.

The common people believed in olden time, and believe still, that a dragon lies within the fountain, concealed from view; that when he is awake he stops the water from flowing, but that he finds it impossible to keep awake always, and when he falls asleep the water flows.

How eagerly those with Nehemiah would point out each object to him! We can picture Hanani walking by his side, showing him all the different objects, to himself so familiar, to Nehemiah so well known by name, but so strange by sight.

Coming down the Valley of Hinnom they reach the Dung Gate, the gate outside which lay piles of rubbish and offal, swept out of the city, and all collected together by this gate and left to rot in the valley.

Here he examines in the moonlight the masses of fallen stonework, the small portions of wall still standing, and the gap where the gate used to stand before it was burnt.

Then on he went until he came to the Gate of the Fountain, opposite the King’s Pool, or Pool of Siloam, which watered the king’s garden. But at this south-east corner the rubbish was so great that the mule he was riding on could not proceed. Pile upon pile of stone, heap upon heap of broken fragments of what had once been so magnificent, lay so thickly massed together that it was of no use attempting to ride further. So Nehemiah dismounted, and probably leaving his mule with some of his companions by the Gate of the Fountain, he went on foot a little further. Going up the Kedron valley he examined the eastern wall, which was in much better condition than the rest; and then, turning to the west, he came back to the rest of the party and returned with them to the Valley Gate.

Now Nehemiah has seen the work before him, and has realised that it is both vast and difficult. He is ready now to put his scheme before the people of Jerusalem. He finds the city governed by no single man, but by a kind of town council. He now summons a meeting of these rulers, and he also invites the nobles and the working men to be present. Then he makes his appeal:

‘Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.’

Then, to cheer them on to make the effort, he tells them how God has helped him up to that point; he tells them what the good hand has done for him already in opening the king’s heart and the king’s purse.

What response does he meet with? As one man that large assembly rises and joins in the cry, ‘Let us rise up and build.’ Happy Nehemiah to find such ready help, to find those he speaks to willing at once to fall in with his scheme, and to aid him in his work.

It is to be feared that had he lived in our more cautious and calculating days, Nehemiah would have had many a bucket of cold water thrown on him and his plan. One would have risen and would have said, ‘The work is too hard, the heaps of rubbish are too great, it is impossible to undertake such a task. Look at the south-east corner, who will ever be able to clear away the heaps that have accumulated there?’

Another would have been sure to grumble at the expense, would have asked how they, poor down-trodden Jews as they were, could ever afford to give time or money to such a vast undertaking?

A third would have risen with a long face, and would have asked, ‘What will Sanballat say if we rebuild the wall? What will Tobiah do? What will Geshem whisper? Now indeed we have no open rupture with the governors, but who can tell what the result of our taking action in this matter will be? Surely it is better to let well alone.’

A fourth would have given as his opinion, that what had served for 150 years would surely last their time. True, Jerusalem was forlorn and defenceless, but they had grown accustomed to it now. It struck Nehemiah, of course, coming as he did fresh from the glories of Shushan, but they had become used to it, and he would soon do the same. There was no need surely to make a disturbance about it or to run into any risk about it.

A fifth would have suggested, with some warmth, that surely old inhabitants of the city were better judges of its requirements than a stranger, and that it was for the town council to propose such a scheme if they saw the necessity for it, and not for a new-comer who had been less than a week in Jerusalem.

These, and countless other objections, might have been raised, had the meeting been called in our lukewarm days.

But the Jerusalem committee did not act thus, they did not fill Nehemiah’s way with difficulties and his soul with discouragement. A plain bit of work lay before him and before them; he was ready to lead, and they were ready to follow. ‘Let us rise and build,’ they cry. And ‘they strengthened their hands for this good work.’

Let us take heed that we, as servants of Christ, follow their example. Let us never be seen with the bucket of cold water, ready to throw on the efforts of others for good. As ‘iron sharpeneth iron, so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend.’ Let us ever be ready with the word of encouragement, with the helpful hand, with the cheering spirit of hope. There is work for us amongst the ruins of God’s fair world, and the labourers are few.

Let us then rise and build, each of us in earnest, each of us encouraging his brother, each of us looking beyond the discouragements of earth to the Master’s ‘Well done good and faithful servant.’


To Every Man his Work.

Once a year, in the University of Cambridge, there is a grand day called Commemoration Day. On that day, in the middle of the service, in each college chapel a list of honours is read out, a list containing the names of all those who, in times gone by, gave money or help to that college. The bodies of those whose names are read have many of them crumbled to dust long centuries ago, but their names are remembered still, remembered for what they have done; and that they may never be forgotten, they are publicly read aloud, year by year, on the great Commemoration Day.

Let us now take up God’s honour list, and see who are entered upon it. We shall find it filled with the names of those who have been dead more than 2000 years, but whose names are not forgotten; they stand out fair and clear in the Book of God, all are entered on the great list of honours, and are remembered for what they have done.

Where shall we find God’s great honour list? It is the list of all those who responded to Nehemiah’s appeal, and who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. In Neh. iii. we have a list of their names, not one is omitted. There those names have stood for 2000 years; there they will stand to the end of time. Brave men, noble men were those Jews, who, as soon as the scheme was laid before them, cried, ‘Let us arise and build;’ and who not only responded by word of mouth, but who at once set to work to do what they had promised.

Let us take a walk round the walls of Jerusalem and watch the builders at work. We will begin where they began, ver. 1, at the Sheep Gate on the east side of the city. As we stand by the gate we see beneath us the Kedron valley, and beyond it the slopes of the Mount of Olives. Close by us, but inside the city, is the sheep-market, where the sheep and lambs are sold to those who wish to sacrifice in the temple, and near this market is the pool where the sheep are washed before being led up into the temple courts. This is the pool mentioned in John v. 2, where in later times lay the impotent man waiting to be healed.

Who are these who are busily engaged repairing the Sheep Gate and the wall beyond it; they are the priests, who have left their work in the temple courts close by, and who, with their loins girded and their long white tunics turned up, are leading, as it was right they should, the van of Nehemiah’s effort.

Heading these priests, and superintending their work, is Eliashib the high priest. The meaning of his name is _God restores_, a grand name for the man who began the restoration of the Holy City. This Eliashib was the grandson of the high priest Jeshua, who had returned with Zerubbabel. He is honourably mentioned by Nehemiah as leading the way in this work; but, sad to say, though he earnestly built the wall round the city, Eliashib was afterward the one who let sin come within those very walls.

The priests are building from the Sheep Gate as far as the two towers, Meah and Hananeel, which stood at the north-east corner of the city.

We pass on, and next we see a number of men building; we notice at once, by their dress, that they are not priests, so we ask them where they come from. We find they are men of Jericho, the city of palm trees, fourteen miles away in the Jordan valley. They are the descendants of the 345 men of Jericho who returned with the first detachment of Jews in the time of Cyrus. This piece of the wall has been allotted to them because it faces their own city Jericho; they are building at the very spot from which the road started that led from Jerusalem to Jericho.

Passing the Jericho men we come to a bit of the wall where one solitary man is working. His name is Zaccur. He can only have a small piece of the wall allotted to him, for we are close now upon the Fish Gate, where other builders are at work, the sons of Hassenaah. Possibly this Zaccur was a man of no importance, for we never hear of him again; probably his share of the work was only a small one, yet it was well and faithfully done, and his name stands fast in God’s honour list, and will stand there while the world shall last.

We have come now to the Fish Gate, on the north side of the city. Close by us is the fish-market, for through that gate comes all the fish sold in Jerusalem. Men of Tyre are there with baskets of fish from the Mediterranean, and Galilean fishermen with fish from the great inland sea, on which in later times the apostles toiled for their daily bread.

Three men, who were probably well-known citizens, are repairing the three next pieces of the wall, their names are Meremoth, Meshullam, and Zadok. We will notice one of these three men, Meshullam, for we shall hear more of him presently. If Meshullam’s name is honourably mentioned here as one of the builders of Jerusalem, we shall find it very differently mentioned as we go on with Nehemiah’s story.

Passing these three men, we come to a part of the wall which is being built by the inhabitants of Tekoa, a small village not far from Jerusalem, whence came the wise woman whom Joab sent to King David. What is the matter at this part of the wall? The work does not get on as it should. They seem to have no leaders, these people of Tekoa, and to have a long stretch of wall, and but few hands to build it. We ask how this is, and we find that some in Tekoa have shirked the work (ver. 5):

‘Their nobles put not their necks to the work of their Lord.’

They have been like oxen, too idle to draw the plough, which have pulled their necks from under the yoke, and have stubbornly refused to go forward. So have these nobles of Tekoa stood aloof, too proud to work side by side with the common people of the village, or too idle to join in anything which requires continuous effort; they have left their poorer neighbours to bear the burden alone, and to do it or not as they please.

We are now passing the Old Gate, on the north of the city, the Damascus Gate of modern days, from which goes the great northern road to Samaria and Galilee.

The men of Gibeon and Mizpah, whose villages lay near together, we find next on the wall, working side by side as neighbours should, and building the part of the wall which faced their own homes, two villages standing on the hills about five miles from the northern gate.

Coming round the city we find ourselves passing the Gate of Ephraim and the Broad Wall. Here we see no workmen, for that part of the wall does not need repairing. Uzziah, King of Judah, had built a strong piece of wall here, about 200 yards long, and the Chaldeans had not been able to destroy it with the rest of the city. This wall was twice the thickness of the rest, and was always called the Broad Wall.

Near this wall we find men of two different trades working, goldsmiths and apothecaries. Trades in the East are almost always hereditary, passing down from father to son for many generations. Thus these goldsmiths and apothecaries were joined together in family guilds or unions, and came forward together to the work. The apothecaries were the spice makers, important persons in the East, where spices are so largely used in cooking, and where so many sweet-smelling and aromatic spices are employed in embalming the dead.

Then, passing on, we see the tower which protected the furnaces or brick kilns, in which the bricks were made which had been used in rebuilding the houses of the city. So unsettled was the country, that it is supposed it was found necessary to erect a tower for the defence of these brick-makers, who were often at work by night as well as by day. Close to the furnace tower we see a strange sight, and one which is well worthy of our notice. This part of the wall deserves our earnest attention, for here are actually young ladies engaged in the work, standing, trowel in hand, toiling away side by side with the other workmen. Who are these girls? They are the daughters of Shallum, the ruler of the half part of Jerusalem (ver. 12) (or rather of the country round Jerusalem). Shallum was evidently a wealthy and influential man, but he did not withdraw from the work, like the nobles of Tekoa, and so anxious are his daughters that the Lord’s work should be done, that here we find them toiling away by their father’s side. God noticed the effort made by these young ladies of Jerusalem, and did not forget to notice them in His great honour list.

Passing on, we come to the part of the wall which Nehemiah had examined in his moonlight ride. We see the Valley Gate, the Dung Gate, and the Gate of the Fountain, opposite the Pool of Siloam. This part of the city has suffered much from Nebuchadnezzar’s work of destruction, and the work of rebuilding it is therefore very heavy. But close to the south-east corner, at the place where Nehemiah’s mule stumbled and was unable to proceed, the builders have a stiff piece of work indeed. The piles of rubbish are so many and so deep, there is so much to be cleared away before they can commence building, that we find accordingly the piece given to each man to repair is not great, and that many hands are making the labour light.

We notice, too, that most of those who are working in this part of the city are repairing that bit of the wall which is immediately opposite their own houses. No less than six times we are told that the builder’s own house was close to the part of the wall he built.

One man we cannot help watching as we turn round towards the eastern wall. His name is Baruch, and there is something about him which attracts our attention at once. He works as if he were working for his life, he does not lose a moment; whoever is absent, Baruch is always at his post; whoever is idle, Baruch is ever hard at work, early in the morning and late at night, when the hot sun is scorching the city and when the night dews are falling, Baruch is always busy, toiling away on the wall with all his might and main. Ver. 20 tells us he ‘earnestly repaired.’ The word means to be hot, to be on fire with zeal and energy. He ‘earnestly repaired the _other_ piece,’ or as it would be better translated ‘_another_ piece.’ Having finished his own portion, in another part of the wall, Baruch has come to the rescue at the south-east corner, where the rubbish is deepest and the work is hardest. Baruch therefore receives the mark of distinction on God’s list of honour. Round the corner, on the eastern wall, one builder we cannot pass without notice, for he is an old white-headed man. His name is Shemaiah the son of Shechaniah. We find this man mentioned in 1 Chron. iii. 22 as a descendant of King David. His son Hattush had returned with Ezra, twelve years before; now here is the old man himself, determined not to let his white hairs prevent him from helping on the good work (ver 29). He builds by the gate which was his charge, the Golden Gate, at the east of the temple court and facing the Mount of Olives.

The last piece of the wall is being done by the goldsmiths and the merchants; and now, as we pass them, we find ourselves again at the Sheep Gate, at the very spot from which we started in our walk round the city.

Listen to the ring of the trowels, hearken to the shouts of the workmen, as they call to one another and cheer each other on in the work. From morning till night, day after day, the trowels are kept busy, and the work goes on, and already, as we watch, we begin to see the gaps filled up and the ruin of many years repaired.

It was the work of the Lord, a grand work, a glorious work, which those builders of Nehemiah were doing, and God noticed and marked, and put on His list of honour every one who joined in it.

Times have changed, manners have altered, kingdoms have passed away, since the eastern sun streamed upon Nehemiah’s workmen, but there is still work to be done for the Lord. The Master’s workshop is still open, and the Master’s eye is still fixed on the workers, and He still enters the name of each in a register, His great list of honour, kept not in earth, but in heaven.

Is my name then on God’s honour list? Am I working for Him? Am I to be found at my post, faithfully carrying out the work He has given me to do?

Looking at the walls of Jerusalem, surely the Lord would have us learn three great lessons.

(1) _Who_ should work.

(2) _Where_ they should work.

(3) _How_ they should work.

_Who should work_? What say the walls of Jerusalem? Everyone without exception. Do we not see people of all classes at work–rich men and poor men, people of all occupations, priests, goldsmiths and apothecaries, and merchants? men of all ages, the young and strong, and the old and white-headed? those from all parts of the country–men of Jericho, and Gibeon, and Mizpah, side by side with inhabitants of Jerusalem? people of both sexes, men and women? The goldsmith did not say, ‘I don’t understand building, therefore I cannot help.’ The apothecary did not object that it was not his trade, so he must leave it to the bricklayers and masons. Old Shemaiah did not say, ‘Surely an old white-headed man like myself cannot be expected to do anything.’ The men of Jericho did not complain that they were fourteen miles from their home, and that therefore it would be inconvenient for them to help. The daughters of Shallum did not say, ‘We are women, and therefore there is nothing for us to do.’

But all came forward, heartily, willingly, cheerfully, to do the work of their Lord.

There is only one exception, only one blot on the page, only one dark spot on the register. The nobles of Tekoa, for 2000 years their names have stood, enrolled as the shirkers in God’s grand work.

Who then are to work for God? Every one of us, whoever we are, whatever is our occupation, whatever our place of residence, whatever our age, whatever our sex, the motto in God’s great workshop remains the same–‘_To every one his work_,’ his own particular work, to be done by him, and by no one else.

_Where then shall we work_? Imitate Nehemiah’s builders; those living in the city built each the piece of wall before his own door, those living outside built the part of the wall facing their own village, whilst the priests built the piece nearest to the temple. Let us then, as God’s workers, begin at home, working from a centre outwards; our own heart first, surely there is plenty of work to do there; then our own family, our own household, our own street, our own congregation, our own city, our own country, letting the circle ever widen and widen, till it reacheth to the furthest corner of God’s great workshop, to the uttermost parts of the earth.

_How then shall we work_? Like Baruch, the son of Zabbai, hot with zeal, on fire with earnestness and energy. Baruch did not saunter round the walls to watch how the other builders were getting on; he stuck to his post. Baruch did not work well one day and lie in bed the next, he persevered steadily and patiently. Baruch did not work as if he were trying to make the job last as long as possible, idly pretending to work, but dreaming all the time, but he worked on bravely, earnestly, unceasingly, till the work was done. So let us work while it is called to-day, for the night cometh when no man can work.

It was no easy work those Jerusalem builders had. Outdoor work in the East is always hard and heavy; it is no light matter to stand for hours in the scorching sun without a particle of shade, toiling on at heavy and unaccustomed work. But the builders bravely endured, and were stedfast in the work, and they have their reward. Their names stand on God’s honour list, not even the most insignificant amongst them is omitted.

Workers for God, does the work seem hard? Are the difficulties great? Are you weary and faint as you keep at your post? Does the hot sun of temptation often tempt you to throw up the work? Think of Nehemiah’s builders. Hold on, cheer up, work well and bravely, remembering that the reward is sure. We read of certain people who lived at Philippi whose names were written in heaven. Who were these? (Phil. iv. 3.) St. Paul tells us; they were his fellow-labourers, the workers of God in that city.

No human hand, no hand of angel or archangel, enters the names on that register, for it is the Lamb’s book of life. None but the Lamb can open it, none but He can write in it, none but He will read its contents in the ears of the assembled universe.

What an honour, what a wonderful joy, what a glorious reward it will be to each faithful worker, as he hears his own name read from the list! Surely it will well repay him for all he has undergone in the working days of earth.


The Sword and the Trowel.

The sea is calm and quiet, blue as the sky above it, not a wave, not a ripple is to be seen; it is smooth as polished silver, shining like a mirror, and peaceful as the still lake amongst the mountains. On the sea is a boat, floating along as quietly and as gently as on a river. The man in the boat is having an easy time, as he rows out to sea, almost without an effort.

But what is that in the far distance? It is a black cloud, rising from the sea. In a little time the wind begins to moan and sigh, white lines are seen on the distant water, a storm is coming, and coming both swiftly and surely. The man in the boat at once rouses himself and prepares for action; it was an easy thing to go forward when all was still, he will find it a very different matter to meet the rising storm.

So found Nehemiah the governor. Up to this time all had gone smoothly and easily, the king had granted his request fully and freely, Asaph had given him the wood from the royal paradise, the committee, composed of the leading men in Jerusalem, had at once fallen in with his scheme, the people, great and small, men and women, old and young, had responded to his appeal, the walls were being rebuilt, the trowels were busy, the rubbish was being cleared away, and all was bright, cheerful, and encouraging. As Nehemiah walks round the city directing the builders, dressed, as a Persian governor, in a flowing robe, a soft cap, and with a gold chain round his neck, he feels his work both easy and pleasant. It is always a light task to direct and superintend those who have a mind to work, and Nehemiah for some time went peacefully on his way, as the man in his boat rowed easily along in the still, untroubled water.

But what is that dark cloud rising north of Jerusalem? What is that moaning, muttering sound in the far distance? Can it be a storm coming, a terrible storm of opposition and difficulty? Surely it is, for we see Nehemiah rousing himself, and preparing to row his frail boat through troubled waters.

Signs of the approaching storm had indeed been seen by him, before the first stone had been placed on the city wall. No sooner had he revealed his plans to the people of Jerusalem, no sooner had they responded, ‘We will arise and build,’ than something had occurred which might well make Nehemiah feel uncomfortable. A messenger had appeared at the northern gate, bearing in his hand a letter, written on parchment, and addressed to the Tirshatha, or governor. Nehemiah opened the roll, and found it contained an insulting message from Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, a message which was evidently expressed in very scornful and unpleasant words. The upshot of the letter was this (ii. 19):

‘What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?’

Do you, Nehemiah, intend to fortify Jerusalem, and then set up the standard of rebellion against Persia? Our master, the king, may be deceived by you, but I, Sanballat, see through your hypocrisy and your wicked designs.

Nehemiah’s answer was clear and to the point. Three things he would have Sanballat know:

(1) We have higher authority than that of man for what we do.

‘The God of heaven, He will prosper us.’

(2) We intend to go on with our work in spite of anything you may say or do.

‘We His servants will arise and build.’

(3) It is no business or concern of yours. You, Sanballat, have nothing whatever to do with it.

‘Ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.’

Be content then, Sanballat, to manage your own province of Samaria, and to leave Jerusalem and the Jews to me and to their God.

No answer came back to Nehemiah’s letter, and perhaps he and his companions fondly dreamed that this was an end to the matter, that the storm had blown over, and that Sanballat, when he saw that they were determined, and that they did not heed his threats or his ridicule, would in the future let them alone.

But one day, quite suddenly, the clouds returned, and the storm rose. The work is progressing splendidly. The priests and the merchants, and the goldsmiths and the apothecaries, the daughters of Shallum, earnest Baruch, and white-headed Shemaiah, are all at their post, when suddenly, as they look up, they see an unexpected sight. A great crowd of Samaritans is gathered together outside the northern wall, and is standing still, staring at them, and watching their every movement as they build the wall.

Sanballat the governor is there, Tobiah the secretary stands by his side, his chief counsellors have come with him, as have also the officers of his army. Dark and thick the storm is gathering, and surely the builders feel it, for the trowels cease their cheery ringing sound, and all are listening, waiting and wondering what will come next.

The silence is broken by a loud scornful voice, loud enough to be heard down the line of workers, and by Nehemiah as he stands among them. He knows that voice well; it is the voice of Sanballat the governor. In scoffing disagreeable words he is speaking to his companions, but he is talking about the builders, and is talking for their benefit too, that they may feel the full sting of his sarcastic words.

‘What do these feeble Jews?’ A poor weak, miserable down-trodden set of men; what can _they_ do?

‘Will they fortify themselves?’ Do they fondly dream they will ever finish their work, and fortify their city?

And how long will it take to build walls like these? Do they think it will be done directly? ‘Will they sacrifice? Will they make an end in a day?’ Do they expect to offer the sacrifice at the commencement of their work, and then the very same day to finish it?

Why, they have not even the necessary materials. Where will they get their stone from? Are they going to do what is impossible, to make good, solid building-stone out of the heaps of rubbish, the crumbling burnt masses which are all that remain of the old walls?

‘Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?’

Then when Sanballat had done speaking, there follows the loud coarse sneer of Secretary Tobiah. Why if a fox (or jackal) tries to get over their miserable wall, even his light foot will break it down.

‘Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.’

We can picture to ourselves the burst of laughter with which this speech would be hailed by the bystanders, the officers and courtiers of Sanballat.

What does Nehemiah answer? How does he reply to this cruel ridicule, these sharp, cutting, insolent words, that provoking laughter?

If we study Nehemiah’s character, we shall find that he was a man of quick feelings and of a sensitive nature. He was not one of those men who are so thick-skinned that hard speeches are not felt by them. He was moreover a man of great power and spirit. He must have felt much inclined to give Tobiah the bitter retort he so richly deserved, or to call upon his men to drive Sanballat and his party from the walls.

But Nehemiah speaks not. He does not utter a single word to Sanballat or to his friends. He remembers that this is God’s work, not his; and he therefore complains to God, not man:

‘Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity.’

Then, quietly and steadily, as if nothing had happened, he takes up his work again, and the people follow his example; they take no notice of the jeering company below, but they build on in silence, all the quicker and the more carefully for the scoffs of their enemies.

Sanballat and Tobiah soon tire of laughter and mockery, when they see it is of no avail; they move off discomfited, and the work goes on as before.

Satan, the great enemy of souls, is the same to-day as he was in Nehemiah’s time. He never lets a good work alone; he never permits Christ’s servants to row in smooth water, but immediately he sees work done for the Master, at once he stirs up the storm of opposition.

The young man who is careless about eternity, who is living simply to please self, has an easy time; he will not come across even a ripple of opposition, his sea will be smooth as glass. But let that young man be aroused, be awakened, be converted to God, let the good work of grace be begun in his soul, and at once Satan will stir up the storm of difficulty and opposition. Very often it begins, just as Nehemiah’s storm began, in laughter. It has been said that laughter hurts no one. That statement might be true if we were all body, but inasmuch as we have a spirit within us, it is not true that laughter cannot hurt. Surely it stings, and cuts, and wounds the sensitive soul, just as heavy blows sting, and cut, and wound the body. Satan knows this, and he makes full use of the knowledge.

The man who sets out for heaven will scarcely fail, before he has gone many steps, to come across a Sanballat. He will have his taunt and jest all ready. ‘What is this I hear of you? Have you turned a saint? I suppose you are too good for your old companions now; you are going to set the whole world to rights.’ Or, if the words are unspoken, Sanballat has the shrug of the shoulders, and the scornful gesture, which are just as hard to bear. Nor must the man who has his face heavenwards be surprised if he hears Tobiah’s sneer. ‘Ah, wait a bit,’ says Tobiah; ‘let us see if it will last. Even a fox will throw down that wall; the very first thing that comes to vex him, the very first temptation, however small, will be sufficient to overturn the wall of good resolutions, and his religious professions will lie low in the dust, and will be shown to be nothing but rubbish.’

It is well to be prepared for Sanballat and Tobiah, for any day we may come across them. How shall we answer them? Let us follow in Nehemiah’s footsteps, let us turn from man to God. He hears the taunt, even as it is spoken, and He says to each of His tried, tempted children:

‘For My Name’s sake, canst thou not bear that taunt, That cruel word?
Is not the sorrow small, the burden light, Borne for thy Lord?

For My Name’s sake, I see it, know it all, ‘Tis hard for thee,
But I have loved thee so, my child, canst thou Bear this for Me?’

Sanballat and Tobiah have moved away from the walls of Jerusalem, and the work goes on prospering; the gaps are being filled up, and already the wall is half its intended height (iv. 6), for the people had a mind to work, and much can be done in a short time when that is the case. Not a word more has, for some time, been heard of Sanballat, and perhaps the builders fancied and hoped they had seen the last of their enemies, when one day, suddenly, dreadful news is brought into the city.

Sanballat and his friends, having failed to stop the work by laughter and mockery, are going to take stronger measures, and have agreed to resort to force. Dark secret plots are being formed to gather an army together, and to come suddenly upon the defenceless builders and kill them at their work.

All the surrounding nations are invited to join Sanballat in his enterprise. Not only the Samaritans in the north, but the men of Ashdod from the west, the Arabians from the south, and the Ammonites from the east, are gathering together against Jerusalem. Psalm lxxxiii. is supposed by many to have been written at this time, and describes the great storm as it arose, and threatened to destroy the defenceless city (Psalm lxxxiii. 1-8).

Poor Nehemiah! he sees the raging of the waters, and he feels that the little boat needs a careful hand at the helm. He has a double receipt against this new opposition–a receipt which may be summed up in the two words which the Master has given us as our watch-word–Watch and pray.

‘Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night.’

But the billows rose higher. Three mighty waves came sweeping on, and threatened to swamp Nehemiah’s frail vessel.

(1) The builders grew discouraged and tired. The cry was raised inside the city, ‘We had better give up attempting to work, the rubbish is too deep, it will never be cleared away, the men who are carrying it away are worn out, we cannot build the wall, it is of no use to try any longer.’

Ver. 10: ‘And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall.’

(2) News was brought in from all sides, that any day, any night, at any moment, a sudden attack might be expected, for their enemies were boasting loudly to all they met that they were confident of taking the builders by surprise.

Ver. 11: ‘And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.’

And not only was there discouragement inside the city and threatened danger without, but the number of hands was lessened upon the city wall, for (3) men arrived from different parts of the country, saying that it was absolutely necessary that their brethren who had come up to work on the wall should at once return home. They were needed to guard their families and their homes from the approaching foe. Ten times over Nehemiah received deputations of this kind (ver. 12); and the spirits of the builders sank lower and lower.

But Nehemiah, like a true leader, rises to the occasion, and does not allow himself to be cast down. He did not make light of the difficulties he saw around him, but he manfully faced them, and in the hour of trial his people did not desert him.

One day, ver. 14, looking towards the north, Nehemiah suddenly saw the enemy coming. But all was ready; the weapons were laid where they could be taken up in a moment. No sooner is the alarm given than the work ceases, and the whole company of builders is changed into an army of soldiers, and swords, and spears, and bows are to be seen on the walls instead of trowels and hammers. Nehemiah had carefully arranged the position which each man was to occupy; he drew up his soldiers after their families, probably giving to each family the part of the wall nearest to their own house, that they might feel that they were fighting for their homes, their wives, and their children. Then when all were put in readiness Nehemiah called upon them to be brave in the defence of their city, and not to fear the foe.

‘Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.’

The enemy approaches; but instead of taking Jerusalem by surprise, as they had boasted they would, they find they are expected, and will meet with a warm reception if they advance farther. They are afraid to make the attempt; God guards the faithful city, and Sanballat and his allied forces withdraw discomfited. No sooner has the enemy beaten a retreat than the work begins again.

‘We returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work.’

But, from that time, the sword and the trowel must never be parted. Each builder worked with a sword hanging by his side; each porter held a hod in one hand, and a weapon in the other. They were always on the alert, ever ready for action.

Nehemiah had brought with him from Shushan a large following of faithful servants or slaves; on these he could thoroughly rely. He divided them into two parties, half worked at the building, filling up the gaps left by those who had returned home; the rest stood behind them, guarding the weapons, the shields, and the spears, and the bows, and the swords which were laid ready for immediate use. By Nehemiah’s side stood a trumpeter, ready to blow an alarm at the first sight or sound of the enemy.

For, says Nehemiah, ‘I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another. In what place therefore ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us: our God shall fight for us.’

So the work and the watching went on all day long, and when the sun set over the Mediterranean, and the stars came out in the quiet sky, and darkness made the work impossible, still the watching went on as before. Those who had laboured at the building all day lay down and slept, whilst others kept guard on the wall. The workmen who lived outside the walls were requested by Nehemiah to stay in the city all night, in order to increase the strength of their force. As for the governor himself and the little body of faithful servants, they gave themselves hardly any rest, either by night or by day. They were almost always on duty, not one of them even undressed all that long time of watching; if they laid down to sleep, they laid in their clothes, ready at any moment for the attack of the enemy (chap. iv. 28).

Thus, day by day, the work grew and the walls rose higher, strong lines of defence once more encircled the city, and the prayer of the captives in Babylon, offered so earnestly and amongst many tears, was already receiving an abundant answer.

‘Do good in Thy good pleasure to Zion, build Thou the walls of Jerusalem.’

The scene changes. Nehemiah and his workmen fade away; the walls of Jerusalem become dim and obscure, and, in their place, we see coming out, as in a dissolving view, other figures and another landscape. We see the Master, Christ Jesus, standing in the midst of His countless labourers and workmen, the great company of His faithful servants. We notice that each one is working busily at the special work the Master has given him to do, we see that this work is very varied, no two labourers have exactly the same task. But in one respect we notice that all the Master’s servants are alike, they all carry a sword, for it is not possible for any one to be a worker for Christ without also being at the same time a soldier.

Nor is it difficult to see the reason of this, for, if we serve Christ, we are certain to meet with opposition. The mighty hosts of hell will come against us, to hinder and to oppose us.

Let us, then, be prepared for their attack. Let us set a watch against them. Satan and his forces always watch for our weakest point. Let us find out what that point is. What is the weak part of our defences? Is it selfishness? Is it pride? Is it prayerlessness? Is it temper? Is it an unkind spirit? Whatever it is by which we are most easily led astray, that is our weak spot, and there we ought to set a double watch. David had his weak spot, and he knew it: unguarded, hasty words were ever coming out of his mouth, but he found out the weak point in his defences, and there he set a strong and powerful guard. He called upon God Himself to keep out the enemy at that weak place:

‘Set a watch, O Lord, before my mouth. Keep the door of my lips.’

Let us not only watch, but let us ever be ready to fight. Never let us lay down the sword of the Spirit, or the shield of faith. Never for a moment let us put off our armour, for we never know when the next attack may come. The unguarded moment is the moment for which Satan always watches, and which he knows only too well how to use.

Above all, let us pray, for the watching and the fighting will be of no avail unless we ask and obtain strength from on high. ‘Our God shall fight for us,’ cried Nehemiah to his discouraged men. But they had prayed day and night for the help which bore them safely through. ‘Ye have not, because ye ask not. Ask, and ye shall receive.’

‘Christian, seek not here repose,
Cast thy dreams of ease away,
Thou art in the midst of foes,
Therefore, Watch and pray.

Gird thy heavenly armour on,
Wear it ever night and day,
Near thee lurks the evil one,
Therefore, Watch and pray.


The World’s Bible.

A great cry, a piercing cry, raised by hundreds of voices, a cry which resounds through the streets of the city, and which is echoed by the surrounding hills. What can be the matter? What can be the cause of this mournful wail?

There was a great cry in Egypt on that awful night, when there was not a house in which there was not one dead. That was the great cry of terror.

Esau raised a great cry when he found that he had lost his father’s blessing, the great cry of disappointment.

There arose a great cry in the council chamber of Jerusalem, when the Apostle Paul stood before his judges,–the cry of conflicting opinion.

But the great cry which is sounding in our ears now is no cry of terror or of disappointment, and the men who join in it are all of one mind; yet the cry is none the less bitter or heartrending. As we listen to it, we can distinguish the shrill voices of women mingled with the deeper ones of men, and we notice also, that, although the cry is one of sorrow and distress, there is a deep undertone of anger and complaining.

Who are crying, and what is the cause of their distress? Who are crying? An excited mob of men and women, standing in the streets of Jerusalem. Look at them well, surely we know some of their faces. Is it possible, can it be, that we recognize some of those whom we saw working so happily and cheerfully on the walls? What a change, what a terrible change in their faces!

What is the cause of their distress? What can have happened to move them so deeply? Have the Samaritans returned to attack the city? Are the walls on which they have spent so much labour overturned and laid low in the dust? No, all without is peaceful, there is no sound of war in the streets, and the hills around stand out brightly in the sunshine, and are untrodden by the foot of any foe. The trouble is at home this time, and as poor Nehemiah listens to the dismal noise, and as he tries to still the shrill cries, that his voice may be heard, and as he watches the people rocking to and fro, as Easterns do when moved by sorrow, he may well feel downcast and disappointed, for a city divided against itself cannot stand, and as Nehemiah listens to the cry, he clearly sees that, at that moment, Jerusalem, the city he loves best on earth, is indeed a divided city.

Who then were these citizens of Jerusalem, these men and these women, who raised the great cry? They were the poorer classes of the city; it was a cry of the poor against the rich, a cry like that which was raised all over France at the time of the French Revolution, a cry for bread.

Nehemiah listens carefully to the cry and complaints of the people, and as he does so he feels sure they are not raised without cause. There is undoubtedly great and distressing poverty in the city, and he finds that this may be traced to three principal causes.

(1) The King of Persia had only allowed the returned captives a very small tract of country to live in. The rest of the land was filled up by the Samaritans, the Arabians, the Edomites and other nations who had settled in Palestine whilst the rightful owners were in Babylon. Consequently, as their families increased, the Jews found this narrow strip of country was not sufficient to maintain them, and, as is always the case, over-population and over-crowding was followed by great poverty.

(2) Then there had evidently been a severe famine, which had made matters worse, for there had been numbers of mouths to feed and barely anything to feed them on. No country is more subject to famine than Palestine, for the harvest there is entirely dependent on the rainfall. There are but few springs, there is no river but the Jordan, and that runs in a deep ravine; the whole fertility of the country hangs on the amount of rain that falls in autumn and winter. No rain means no corn, no corn means starvation, and the people know it well. Nowhere on earth are there such fervent prayers for rain, prayers which are offered by Turk, Jew, and Christian alike, as there are in Palestine to this very day, if the rainy season is passing away and a sufficient quantity of rain has not fallen.

(3) Then Nehemiah found there was a third cause of distress. Every year, in addition to earning money to keep his wife and children alive, the poor man had to be ready for a visitor, and this visitor never received a very hearty welcome. Once a year there arrived at his door an official sent by the King of Persia. He was the tax-collector, sent to collect the tribute which had to be paid yearly to their master, the great sovereign at Shushan. Whatever else went unpaid, that tribute must be paid; whatever other debts they incurred, that sum must be paid in full, and paid at once.

Over-population, famine, tribute, it was no wonder that the people were so poor.

But the great cry in the streets of Jerusalem was not merely a cry of suffering and distress; it was an angry complaining cry; it was the cry of those who felt that others were to blame for their sorrows.

As Nehemiah walks amongst the weeping crowds, and as he talks to the people one by one, he finds that there are no less than three sets of complainants.

(1) There are the utterly poor people, those who have no private means whatever, but who are entirely dependent on the work of their hands and on the wages they get for that work. These come to Nehemiah and pour out their sorrowful tale. ‘We,’ they say, ‘have large families, for

‘We, our sons, and our daughters, are many.’

But ‘Happy is the man that hath his quiver full of them,’ so runs the Psalm, and are not children a heritage and gift that cometh of the Lord? Yet when the quiver is _more_ than full (for a quiver only held four arrows), and when bread is scarce and work bad, it needs faith to trust the children which the Lord has given to His care, and to feel sure that He who sent them will send the bread to feed them.

‘Now,’ say these overburdened parents to Nehemiah, ‘we cannot let our children starve. We have been building this wall and earning nothing, but we have had to eat all these weeks; we have been obliged to take up corn for our families lest they should die, and the consequence is we have run very heavily into debt’ (ver. 2). That was the first class of complainants.

(2) But amongst the weepers Nehemiah found a second class, those who had once been somewhat better off, and had, in happier days, owned a little property, and had some means of their own, but who, at the time of the late famine, had got into difficulties. ‘I,’ said one, ‘had a little farm in a village near Jerusalem.’ ‘I,’ said another, ‘was the owner of a nice little vineyard or oliveyard on the hill side,’ ‘I,’ said a third, ‘built a house in the city on my return from captivity, and hoped to leave it to my children.’ ‘But so terrible was our distress in the famine,’ say these men, ‘that we were obliged to borrow money of our neighbours the rich Jews in Jerusalem. They were willing to lend the money, but they required security for it, and we were compelled to pledge or mortgage our little property to these men, and now times are still bad, and we see no hope whatever that we shall be able to buy our little possessions back again’ (ver. 3).

(3) But the shrillest cries of all came from the third class of complainants. These were men who, up to a certain point, resembled the second class. They had once possessed a little property, but in the time of famine they had parted with their lands, their houses, and their vineyards like the rest. But the story of the third class did not end here, these had since then got into still worse difficulties. The tax-collector had come round to collect the tribute for Artaxerxes, and he had demanded immediate payment. They had, however, nothing to give him. What could they do? They were obliged once more to borrow money of their rich neighbours, who lent it to them at the rate of 12 per cent, (one eighth part of the money to be paid monthly). And what pledge, what security did these nobles require for their money? The poor people had already lost their houses and their vineyards, there was nothing left to them but their children, and actually the son or the daughter was pledged or mortgaged to the rich money-lender. If the heavy interest is not paid, at any moment the child may be seized, and carried off to the noble’s house to be brought up as a slave. ‘Nay,’ cry some of the mothers in the crowd, ‘our case is worst of all; some of our daughters have been taken as slaves already, and we have no power to redeem them. Yet we love our children just as much as these rich people love theirs, they are just as dear to us as theirs are to them’ (ver. 5).

‘And then,’ says Nehemiah,’when I had heard their cry and listened to their tale, I was very angry.’ But surely it was wrong of Nehemiah to be angry. Is not anger a bad thing? Is it not one of the works of the devil, which we are bidden to lay aside?

Yet what says St. Paul? ‘Be ye angry, and sin not.’ So it is possible to be angry, and yet to be sinless. And we read, Mark iii. 5, that, in the synagogue at Capernaum, the Lord Jesus looked round on the hard-hearted Pharisees with anger; and in Him was no sin.

Nehemiah was very angry, yet Nehemiah sinned not in being so, for it was anger at sin, anger at the wrongdoing which was bringing disgrace on his nation, anger at the conduct which was offending God and doing harm to God’s cause. It was righteous anger against the cruelty and selfishness of those who, in those hard times, had profited from the poverty and distress of their poor fellow countrymen.

For some time Nehemiah did nothing, but he carefully turned the matter over in his mind. He says, ‘I consulted with myself,’ or as it is in the margin, ‘My heart consulted in me.’ We can picture him pacing up and down, saying again and again, What shall I do? What is the wisest course to take? How can this great evil be stopped? Doubtless, too, he took this trouble, as he had taken all his other anxieties and cares, and laid it before the God of heaven.

Then he sends for the nobles and all those who had oppressed the people, and he gives them very plainly his mind on the matter:

‘I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury, every one of his brother.’

And thereby they had broken the law, for no Jew was allowed to take interest, or increase, of another Jew, much less to exact usury: see Exod. xxii. 25; Ezek. xviii. 8, 17.

The Hebrew was to look upon every other Hebrew as his brother, and to treat him as such. There was to be brotherly love in time of misfortune, such love as would prevent the receiving of increase from the one who was in trouble. With regard to the mortgaging of land, it does not seem that these rich men had actually broken the law, such pledges were allowed, provided that the property mortgaged was returned in the year of jubilee. But, whilst they had not broken the letter of the law, these Jews had certainly acted in a hard, self-seeking way, showing no sympathy whatever for the sorrows of those around them.

How different was this from the generous conduct of Nehemiah himself! All the time of his government he drew no taxes or contributions from the people over whom he ruled, as other governors did, and as his predecessors in Jerusalem had done. Eastern governors in those days, like Turkish governors now, were accustomed to farm their provinces. That is to say, the king allowed them no salary, but he put the taxation of the people in their hands. A certain fixed sum was to be sent to him every year from the province; and whatever the governor could grind or squeeze out of the people, over and above this stated amount, went into his own pocket and formed his salary. Jerusalem now-a-days rings with many a cry of distress caused by the unjust means used by the pacha to increase his stipend by putting fresh burdens on the people. The former Jewish governors had made as much as forty shekels a day, or L1,800 a year out of the people in their province. But when Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, he found the people so poverty-stricken and oppressed that he would not take a single penny for himself. It is probable that his salary as cup-bearer had been continued, and on this he lived and kept his household going all the time of his government. Not only so; not only did Nehemiah pay all his private expenses, but he kept open house for the people of Jerusalem; every day 150 of the rulers and chief men dined with him, besides all the visitors to Jerusalem, Jews from other countries, strangers from foreign nations who were staying but a short time in the city, all of whom were invited to the governor’s house, and sat down at the governor’s table.

Nehemiah himself gives us his daily bill of fare, ver. 18.

1 ox.
6 fat sheep.
Fowls without number.
A fresh supply of wine of all kinds stored in every tenth day.

It was no small expense to have above 150 men to dinner daily, yet for all this Nehemiah took not a penny from his province, so touched was he to the heart by the poverty of the people. Not only so, but all the time the walls were being built he toiled away, and allowed all his household servants to work both night and day, and yet looked for no payment or compensation, ver. 16. Then besides all this, Nehemiah had been most generous in the time of the famine; he had supplied the poor people with money and with corn, and yet he had firmly refused to allow them to pledge or mortgage their lands, much less their children, ver. 10.

And Nehemiah tells us the secret of his consistent conduct; he tells us why he differed so much from the governors who went before him. A strong power held him back from sin.

‘So did not I, because of the fear of God.’