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Title: Expositor's Bible: Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther
Author: Adeney, Walter F. (Walter Frederic), 1849-1920
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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Libraries)



  THE EXPOSITOR'S BIBLE

  EDITED BY THE REV.

  W. ROBERTSON NICOLL, M.A., LL.D.

  _Editor of "The Expositor"_


  AUTHORIZED EDITION, COMPLETE
  AND UNABRIDGED
  BOUND IN TWENTY-FIVE VOLUMES

  NEW YORK
  FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY
  LAFAYETTE PLACE
  1900

  EZRA, NEHEMIAH,
  AND
  ESTHER

  BY
  WALTER F. ADENEY, M.A.
  PROFESSOR OF NEW TESTAMENT EXEGESIS AND CHURCH HISTORY,
  NEW COLLEGE, LONDON

  NEW YORK
  FUNK & WAGNALLS COMPANY
  LAFAYETTE PLACE
  1900



CONTENTS.


  CHAPTER I.

                                              PAGE

  INTRODUCTORY: EZRA AND NEHEMIAH                1

  CHAPTER II.

  CYRUS                                         12

  CHAPTER III.

  THE ROYAL EDICT                               24

  CHAPTER IV.

  THE SECOND EXODUS                             36

  CHAPTER V.

  THE NEW TEMPLE                                48

  CHAPTER VI.

  THE LIMITS OF COMPREHENSION                   60

  CHAPTER VII.

  THE MISSION OF PROPHECY                       72

  CHAPTER VIII.

  NEW DIFFICULTIES MET IN A NEW SPIRIT          83

  CHAPTER IX.

  THE DEDICATION OF THE TEMPLE                  95

  CHAPTER X.

  EZRA THE SCRIBE                              107

  CHAPTER XI.

  EZRA'S EXPEDITION                            119

  CHAPTER XII.

  FOREIGN MARRIAGES                            131

  CHAPTER XIII.

  THE HOME SACRIFICED TO THE CHURCH            142

  CHAPTER XIV.

  THE COST OF AN IDEALIST'S SUCCESS            153

  CHAPTER XV.

  NEHEMIAH THE PATRIOT                         163

  CHAPTER XVI.

  NEHEMIAH'S PRAYER                            174

  CHAPTER XVII.

  THE PRAYER ANSWERED                          186

  CHAPTER XVIII.

  THE MIDNIGHT RIDE                            198

  CHAPTER XIX.

  BUILDING THE WALLS                           210

  CHAPTER XX.

  "MARK YE WELL HER BULWARKS"                  223

  CHAPTER XXI.

  ON GUARD                                     235

  CHAPTER XXII.

  USURY                                        247

  CHAPTER XXIII.

  WISE AS SERPENTS                             259

  CHAPTER XXIV.

  THE LAW                                      271

  CHAPTER XXV.

  THE JOY OF THE LORD                          284

  CHAPTER XXVI.

  THE RELIGION OF HISTORY                      295

  CHAPTER XXVII.

  THE COVENANT                                 307

  CHAPTER XXVIII.

  THE HOLY CITY                                317

  CHAPTER XXIX.

  BEGINNINGS                                   328

  CHAPTER XXX.

  THE RIGOUR OF THE REFORMER                   339

  CHAPTER XXXI.

  THE BOOK OF ESTHER: INTRODUCTORY             351

  CHAPTER XXXII.

  AHASUERUS AND VASHTI                         361

  CHAPTER XXXIII.

  HAMAN                                        371

  CHAPTER XXXIV.

  QUEEN ESTHER                                 382

  CHAPTER XXXV.

  MORDECAI                                     392



CHAPTER I.

_INTRODUCTORY: EZRA AND NEHEMIAH._


Though in close contact with the most perplexing problems of Old
Testament literature, the main history recorded in the books of 'Ezra'
and 'Nehemiah' is fixed securely above the reach of adverse criticism.
Here the most cautious reader may take his stand with the utmost
confidence, knowing that his feet rest on a solid rock. The curiously
inartistic process adopted by the writer is in itself some guarantee
of authenticity. Ambitious authors who set out with the design of
creating literature--and perhaps building up a reputation for
themselves by the way--may be very conscientious in their search for
truth; but we cannot help suspecting that the method of melting down
their materials and recasting them in the mould of their own style
which they usually adopt must gravely endanger their accuracy. Nothing
of the kind is attempted in this narrative. In considerable portions
of it the primitive records are simply copied word for word, without
the least pretence at original writing on the part of the historian.
Elsewhere he has evidently kept as near as possible to the form of his
materials, even when the plan of his work has necessitated some
condensation or readjustment. The crudity of this procedure must be
annoying to literary epicures who prefer flavour to substance, but it
should be an occasion of thankfulness on the part of those of us who
wish to trace the revelation of God in the life of Israel, because it
shows that we are brought as nearly as possible face to face with the
facts in which that revelation was clothed.

In the first place, we have some of the very writings of Ezra and
Nehemiah, the leading actors in the great drama of real life that is
here set forth. We cannot doubt the genuineness of these writings.
They are each of them composed in the first person singular, and they
may be sharply distinguished from the remainder of the narrative,
inasmuch as that is in the third person--not to mention other and
finer marks of difference. Of course this implies that the whole of
Ezra and Nehemiah should not be ascribed to the two men whose names
the books bear in our English Bibles. The books themselves do not make
any claim to be written throughout by these great men. On the
contrary, they clearly hint the opposite, by the transition to the
third person in those sections which are not extracted verbatim from
one or other of the two authorities.

It is most probable that the Scripture books now known as Ezra and
Nehemiah were compiled by one and the same person, that, in fact, they
originally constituted a single work. This view was held by the
scribes who arranged the Hebrew Canon, for there they appear as one
book. In the Talmud they are treated as one. So they are among the
early Christian writers. As late as the fifth century of our era
Jerome gives the name of "Esdras" to both, describing "Nehemiah" as
"The Second Book of Esdras."

Further, there seem to be good reasons for believing that the compiler
of our Ezra-Nehemiah was no other than the author of Chronicles. The
repetition of the concluding passage of 2 Chronicles as the
introduction to Ezra is an indication that the latter was intended to
be a continuation of the Chronicler's version of the History of
Israel. When we compare the two works together, we come across many
indications of their agreement in spirit and style. In both we
discover a disposition to hurry over secular affairs in order to
dilate on the religious aspects of history. In both we meet with the
same exalted estimation of The Law, the same unwearied interest in the
details of temple ritual and especially in the musical arrangements of
the Levites, and the same singular fascination for long lists of
names, which are inserted wherever an opportunity for letting them in
can be found.

Now, there are several things in our narrative that tend to show that
the Chronicler belongs to a comparatively late period. Thus in
Nehemiah xii. 22 he mentions the succession of priests down "to the
reign of Darius the Persian." The position of this phrase in
connection with the previous lists of names makes it clear that the
sovereign here referred to must be Darius III., surnamed Codommanus,
the last king of Persia, who reigned from B.C. 336 to B.C. 332. Then
the title "the Persian" suggests the conclusion that the dynasty of
Persia had passed away; so does the phrase "king of Persia," which we
meet with in the Chronicler's portion of the narrative. The simple
expression "the king," without any descriptive addition, would be
sufficient on the lips of a contemporary. Accordingly we find that it
is used in the first-person sections of Ezra-Nehemiah, and in those
royal edicts that are cited in full. Again, Nehemiah xii. 11 and 22
give us the name of Jaddua in the series of high-priests. But Jaddua
lived as late as the time of Alexander; his date must be about B.C.
331.[1] This lands us in the Grecian period. Lastly, the references to
"the days of Nehemiah"[2] clearly point to a writer in some subsequent
age. Though it is justly urged that it was quite in accordance with
custom for later scribes to work over an old book, inserting a phrase
here and there to bring it up to date, the indications of the later
date are too closely interwoven with the main structure of the
composition to admit this hypothesis here.

  [1] Josephus, _Ant._, XI. viii. 7.

  [2] Neh. xii. 26 and 47.

Nevertheless, though we seem to be shut up to the view that the
Grecian era had been reached before our book was put together, this is
really only a matter of literary interest, seeing that it is agreed on
all sides that the history is authentic, and that the constituent
parts of it are contemporary with the events they record. The function
of the compiler of such a book as this is not much more than that of
an editor. It must be admitted that the date of the final editor is as
late as the Macedonian Empire. The only question is whether this man
was the sole editor and compiler of the narrative. We may let that
point of purely literary criticism be settled in favour of the later
date for the original compilation, and yet rest satisfied that we have
all we want--a thoroughly genuine history in which to study the ways
of God with man during the days of Ezra and Nehemiah.

This narrative is occupied with the Persian period of the History of
Israel. It shows us points of contact between the Jews and a great
Oriental Empire; but, unlike the history in the dismal Babylonian age,
the course of events now moves forward among scenes of hopeful
progress. The new dominion is of an Aryan stock--intelligent,
appreciative, generous. Like the Christians in the time of the
Apostles, the Jews now find the supreme government friendly to them,
even ready to protect them from the assaults of their hostile
neighbours. It is in this political relationship, and scarcely, if at
all, by means of the intercommunication of ideas affecting religion,
that the Persians take an important place in the story of Ezra and
Nehemiah. We shall see much of their official action; we can but grope
about vaguely in search of the few hints of their influence on the
theology of Israel that may be looked for on the pages of the sacred
narrative. Still a remarkable characteristic of the leading religious
movement of this time is the Oriental and foreign locality of its
source. It springs up in the breasts of Jews who are most stern in
their racial exclusiveness, most relentless in their scornful
rejection of any Gentile alliance. But this is on a foreign soil. It
comes from Babylon, not Jerusalem. Again and again fresh impulses and
new resources are brought up to the sacred city, and always from the
far-off colony in the land of exile. Here the money for the cost of
the rebuilding of the temple was collected; here The Law was studied
and edited; here means were found for restoring the fortifications of
Jerusalem. Not only did the first company of pilgrims go up from
Babylon to begin a new life among the tombs of their fathers; but one
after another fresh bands of emigrants, borne on new waves of
enthusiasm, swept up from the apparently inexhaustible centres of
Judaism in the East to rally the flagging energies of the citizens of
Jerusalem. For a long while this city was only maintained with the
greatest difficulty as a sort of outpost from Babylon: it was little
better than a pilgrim's camp; often it was in danger of destruction
from the uncongenial character of its surroundings. Therefore it is
Babylonian Judaism that here claims our attention. The mission of this
great religious movement is to found and cultivate an offshoot of
itself in the old country. Its beginning is at Babylon; its end is to
shape the destinies of Jerusalem.

Three successive embassies from the living heart of Judaism in Babylon
go up to Jerusalem, each with its own distinctive function in the
promotion of the purposes of the mission. The first is led by
Zerubbabel and Jeshua in the year B.C. 537.[3] The second is conducted
by Ezra eighty years later. The third follows shortly after this with
Nehemiah as its central figure. Each of the two first-named
expeditions is a great popular migration of men, women, and children
returning home from exile; Nehemiah's journey is more personal--the
travelling of an officer of state with his escort. The principal
events of the history spring out of these three expeditions.
Zerubbabel and Jeshua are commissioned to restore the sacrifices and
rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Ezra sets forth with the visible
object of further ministering to the resources of the sacred shrine;
but the real end that he is inwardly aiming at is the introduction of
The Law to the people of Jerusalem. Nehemiah's main purpose is to
rebuild the city walls, and so restore the civic character of
Jerusalem and enable her to maintain her independence in spite of the
opposition of neighbouring foes. In all three cases a strong religious
motive lies at the root of the public action. To Ezra the priest and
scribe religion was everything. He might almost have taken as his
motto, "Perish the State, if the Church may be saved." He desired to
absorb the State into the Church: he would permit the former to exist,
indeed, as the visible vehicle of the religious life of the community;
but to sacrifice the religious ideal in deference to political
exigencies was a policy against which he set his face like flint when
it was advocated by a latitudinarian party among the priests. The
conflict which was brought about by this clash of opposing principles
was the great battle of his life. Nehemiah was a statesman, a
practical man, a courtier who knew the world. Outwardly his aims and
methods were very different from those of the unpractical scholar. Yet
the two men thoroughly understood one another. Nehemiah caught the
spirit of Ezra's ideas; and Ezra, whose work came to a standstill
while he was left to his own resources, was afterwards able to carry
through his great religious reformation on the basis of the younger
man's military and political renovation of Jerusalem.

  [3] Allowing some months for the preparation of the expedition--and
  this we must do--we may safely say that it started in the year after
  the decree of Cyrus, which was issued in B.C. 538.

In all this the central figure is Ezra. We are able to see the most
marked results in the improved condition of the city after his capable
and vigorous colleague has taken up the reins of government. But
though the hand is then the hand of Nehemiah, the voice is still the
voice of Ezra. Later times have exalted the figure of the famous
scribe into gigantic proportions. Even as he appears on the page of
history he is sufficiently great to stand out as the maker of his age.

For the Jews in all ages, and for the world at large, the great event
of this period is the adoption of The Law by the citizens of
Jerusalem. Recent investigations and discussions have directed renewed
attention to the publication of The Law by Ezra, and the acceptance of
it on the part of Israel. It will be especially important, therefore,
for us to study these things in the calm and ingenuous record of the
ancient historian, where they are treated without the slightest
anticipation of modern controversies. We shall have to see what hints
this record affords concerning the history of The Law in the days of
Ezra and Nehemiah.

One broad fact will grow upon us with increasing clearness as we
proceed. Evidently we have here come to the watershed of Hebrew
History. Up to this point all the better teachers of Israel had been
toiling painfully in their almost hopeless efforts to induce the Jews
to accept the unique faith of Jehovah, with its lofty claims and its
rigorous restraints. That faith itself however had appeared in three
forms,--as a popular cult, often degraded to the level of the local
religion of heathen neighbours; as a priestly tradition, exact and
minute in its performances, but the secret of a caste; and as a
subject of prophetic instruction, instinct with moral principles of
righteousness and spiritual conceptions of God, but too large and free
to be reached by a people of narrow views and low attainments. With
the publication of The Law by Ezra the threefold condition ceased, and
henceforth there was but one type of religion for the Jews.

The question when The Law was moulded into its present shape
introduces a delicate point of criticism. But the consideration of its
popular reception is more within the reach of observation. In the
solemn sealing of the covenant the citizens of Jerusalem--laity as
well as priests--men, women, and children--all deliberately pledged
themselves to worship Jehovah according to The Law. There is no
evidence to show that they had ever done so before. The narrative
bears every indication of novelty. The Law is received with curiosity;
it is only understood after being carefully explained by experts; when
its meaning is taken in, the effect is a shock of amazement bordering
on despair. Clearly this is no collection of trite precepts known and
practised by the people from antiquity.

It must be remembered, on the other hand, that an analogous effect was
produced by the spread of the Scriptures at the Reformation. It does
not fall within the scope of our present task to pursue the inquiry
whether, like the Bible in Christendom, the entire law had been in
existence in an earlier age, though then neglected and forgotten. Yet
even our limited period contains evidence that The Law had its roots
in the past. The venerated name of Moses is repeatedly appealed to
when The Law is to be enforced. Ezra never appears as a Solon
legislating for his people. Still neither is he a Justinian codifying
a system of legislation already recognised and adopted. He stands
between the two, as the introducer of a law hitherto unpractised and
even unknown. These facts will come before us more in detail as we
proceed.

The period now brought before our notice is to some extent one of
national revival; but it is much more important as an age of religious
construction. The Jews now constitute themselves into a Church; the
chief concern of their leaders is to develop their religious life and
character. The charm of these times is to be found in the great
spiritual awakening that inspires and shapes their history. Here we
approach very near to the Holy Presence of the Spirit of God in His
glorious activity as the Lord and Giver of Life. This epoch was to
Israel what Pentecost became to the Christians. Pentecost!--We have
only to face the comparison to see how far the later covenant exceeded
the earlier covenant in glory. To us Christians there is a hardness, a
narrowness, a painful externalism in the whole of this religious
movement. We cannot say that it lacks soul; but we feel that it has
not the liberty of the highest spiritual vitality. It is cramped in
the fetters of legal ordinances. We shall come across evidences of the
existence of a liberal party that shrank from the rigour of The Law.
But this party gave no signs of religious life; the freedom it claimed
was not the glorious liberty of the sons of God. There is no reason to
believe that the more devout people anticipated the standpoint of St.
Paul and saw any imperfection in their law. To them it presented a
lofty scheme of life, worthy of the highest aspiration. And there is
much in their spirit that commands our admiration and even our
emulation. The most obnoxious feature of their zeal is its pitiless
exclusiveness. But without this quality Judaism would have been lost
in the cross currents of life among the mixed populations of
Palestine.

The policy of exclusiveness saved Judaism. At heart this is just an
application--though a very harsh and formal application--of the
principle of separation from the world which Christ and His Apostles
enjoined on the Church, and the neglect of which has sometimes nearly
resulted in the disappearance of any distinctive Christian truth and
life, like the disappearance of a river that breaking through its
banks spreads itself out in lagoons and morasses, and ends by being
swallowed up in the sands of the desert.

The exterior aspect of the stern, strict Judaism of these days is by
no means attractive. But the interior life of it is simply superb. It
recognises the absolute supremacy of God. In the will of God it
acknowledges the one unquestionable authority before which all who
accept His covenant must bow; in the revealed truth of God it
perceives an inflexible rule for the conduct of His people. To be
pledged to allegiance to the will and law of God is to be truly
consecrated to God. That is the condition voluntarily entered into by
the citizens of Jerusalem in this epoch of religious awakening. A few
centuries later their example was followed by the primitive
Christians, who, according to the testimony of the two Bithynian
handmaidens tortured by Pliny, solemnly pledged themselves to lives of
purity and righteousness; again, it was imitated, though in strangely
perverted guise, by anchorites and monks, by the great founders of
monastic orders and their loyal disciples, and by mediæval reformers
of Church discipline such as St. Bernard; still later it was followed
more closely by the Protestant inhabitants of Swiss cities at the
Reformation, by the early Independents at home and the Pilgrim Fathers
in New England, by the Covenanters in Scotland, by the first
Methodists. It is the model of Church order, and the ideal of the
religious organisation of civic life. But it awaits the adequate
fulfilment of its promise in the establishment of the Heavenly City,
the New Jerusalem.



CHAPTER II.

_CYRUS._

EZRA i. I.


The remarkable words with which the Second Book of Chronicles closes,
and which are repeated in the opening verses of the Book of Ezra,
afford the most striking instance on record of that peculiar
connection between the destinies of the little Hebrew nation and the
movements of great World Empires which frequently emerges in history.
We cannot altogether set it down to the vanity of their writers, or to
the lack of perspective accompanying a contracted, provincial
education, that the Jews are represented in the Old Testament as
playing a more prominent part on the world's stage than one to which
the size of their territory--little bigger than Wales--or their
military prowess would entitle them. The fact is indisputable. No
doubt it is to be attributed in part to the geographical position of
Palestine on the highway of the march of armies to and fro between
Asia and Africa; but it must spring also in some measure from the
unique qualities of the strange people who have given their religion
to the most civilised societies of mankind.

In the case before us the greatest man of his age, one of the
half-dozen Founders of Empires, who constitute a lofty aristocracy
even among sovereigns, is manifestly concerning himself very specially
with the restoration of one of the smallest of the many subject races
that fell into his hands when he seized the garnered spoils of
previous conquerors. Whatever we may think of the precise words of his
decree as this is now reported to us by a Hebrew scribe, it is
unquestionable that he issued some such orders as are contained in it.
Cyrus, as it now appears, was originally king of Elam, the modern
Khuzistan, not of Persia, although the royal family from which he
sprang was of Persian extraction. After making himself master of
Persia and building up an empire in Asia Minor and the north, he swept
down on to the plains of Chaldæa and captured Babylon in the year B.C.
538. To the Jews this would be the first year of his reign, because it
was the first year of his rule over them, just as the year A.D. 1603
is reckoned by Englishmen as the first year of James I., because the
king of Scotland then inherited the English throne. In this year the
new sovereign, of his own initiative, released the Hebrew exiles, and
even assisted them to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their ruined
temple. Such an astounding act of generosity was contrary to the
precedent of other conquerors, who accepted as a matter of course the
arrangement of subject races left by their predecessors; and we are
naturally curious to discover the motives that prompted it.

Like our mythical King Arthur, the Cyrus of legend is credited with a
singularly attractive disposition. Herodotus says the Persians
regarded him as their "father" and their "shepherd." In Xenophon's
romance he appears as a very kindly character. Cicero calls him the
most just, wise, and amiable of rulers. Although it cannot be
dignified with the name of history, this universally accepted
tradition seems to point to some foundation in fact. It is entirely in
accord with the Jewish picture of the Great King. There is some reason
for believing that the privilege Cyrus offered to the Jews was one in
which other nations shared. On a small, broken, clay cylinder, some
four inches in diameter, discovered quite recently and now deposited
in the British Museum, Cyrus is represented as saying, "I assembled
all those nations, and I caused them to go back to their countries."
Thus the return of the Jews may be regarded as a part of a general
centrifugal movement in the new Empire.

Nevertheless, the peculiar favour indicated by the decree issued to
the Jews suggests something special in their case, and this must be
accounted for before the action of Cyrus can be well understood.

Little or no weight can be attached to the statement of Josephus, who
inserts in the very language of the decree a reference to the
foretelling of the name of Cyrus by "the prophets," as a prime motive
for issuing it, and adds that this was known to Cyrus by his reading
the book of Isaiah.[4] Always more or less untrustworthy whenever he
touches the relations between his people and foreigners, the Jewish
historian is even exceptionally unsatisfactory in his treatment of the
Persian Period. It may be, as Ewald asserts, that Josephus is here
following some Hellenistic writer; but we know nothing of his
authority. There is no reference to this in our one authority, the
Book of Ezra; and if it had been true there would have been every
reason to publish it. Some Jews at court may have shown Cyrus the
prophecies in question indeed it is most probable that men who wished
to please him would have done so. Plato in the "Laws" represents Cyrus
as honouring those who knew how to give good advice. But it is
scarcely reasonable to suppose, without a particle of evidence, that a
great monarch flushed with victory would set himself to carry out a
prediction purporting to emanate from the Deity of one of the
conquered peoples, when that prediction was distinctly in their
interest, unless he was first actuated by some other considerations.

  [4] _Ant._, XI. i. 1, 2.

Until a few years ago it was commonly supposed that Cyrus was a
Zoroastrian, who was disgusted at the cruel and lustful idolatry of
the Babylonians, and that when he discovered a monotheistic people
oppressed by vicious heathen polytheists, he claimed religious
brotherhood with them, and so came to show them singular favour.
Unfortunately for his fame, this fascinating theory has been recently
shattered by the discovery of the little cylinder already referred to.
Here Cyrus is represented as saying that "the gods" have deserted
Nabonidas--the last king of Babylon--because he has neglected their
service; and that Merodach, the national divinity of Babylon, has
transferred his favour to Cyrus; who now honours him with many
praises. An attempt has been made to refute the evidence of this
ancient record by attributing the cylinder to some priest of Bel, who,
it is said, may have drawn up the inscription without the knowledge of
the king, and even in direct opposition to his religious views. A most
improbable hypothesis! especially as we have absolutely no grounds for
the opinion that Cyrus was a Zoroastrian. The Avesta, the sacred
collection of hymns which forms the basis of the Parsee scriptures,
came from the far East, close to India, and it was written in a
language almost identical with Sanscrit and quite different from the
Old Persian of Western Persia. We have no ground for supposing that as
yet it had been adopted in the remote south-western region of Elam,
where Cyrus was brought up. That monarch, it would seem, was a
liberal-minded syncretist, as ready to make himself at home with the
gods of the peoples he conquered as with their territories. Such a man
would be astute enough to represent the indigenous divinities as
diverting their favour from the fallen and therefore discredited kings
he had overthrown, and transferring it to the new victor. We must
therefore descend from the highlands of theology in our search for an
explanation of the conduct of Cyrus. Can we find this in some
department of state policy?

We learn from the latter portion of our Book of Isaiah that the Jewish
captives suffered persecution under Nabonidas. It is not difficult to
guess the cause of the embitterment of this king against them after
they had been allowed to live in peace and prosperity under his
predecessors. Evidently the policy of Nebuchadnezzar, which may have
succeeded with some other races, had broken down in its application to
a people with such tough national vitality as that of the Jews. It was
found to be impossible to eradicate their patriotism--or rather the
patriotism of the faithful nucleus of the nation, impossible to make
Jerusalem forgotten by the waters of Babylon. This ancient "Semitic
question" was the very reverse of that which now vexes Eastern Europe,
because in the case of the Jews at Babylon the troublesome aliens were
only desirous of liberty to depart; but it sprang from the same
essential cause--the separateness of the Hebrew race.

Now things often present themselves in a true light to a new-comer
who approaches them with a certain mental detachment, although they
may have been grievously misapprehended by those people among whom
they have slowly shaped themselves. Cyrus was a man of real genius;
and immediately he came upon the scene he must have perceived the
mistake of retaining a restless, disaffected population, like a
foreign body rankling in the very heart of his empire. Moreover, to
allow the Jews to return home would serve a double purpose. While it
would free the Euphrates Valley from a constant source of distress, it
would plant a grateful, and therefore loyal, people on the western
confines of the empire--perhaps, as some have thought, to be used as
outworks and a basis of operations in a projected campaign against
Egypt. Thus a far-sighted statesman might regard the liberation of the
Jews as a stroke of wise policy. But we must not make too much of
this. The restored Jews were a mere handful of religious devotees,
scarcely able to hold their own against the attacks of neighbouring
villages; and while they were permitted to build their temple, nothing
was said in the royal rescript about fortifying their city. So feeble
a colony could not have been accounted of much strategic importance by
such a master of armies as Cyrus. Again, we know from the "Second
Isaiah" that, when the Persian war-cloud was hovering on the horizon,
the Jewish exiles hailed it as the sign of deliverance from
persecution. The invader who brought destruction to Babylon promised
relief to her victims; and the lofty strains of the prophet bespeak an
inspired perception of the situation which encouraged higher hopes. A
second discovery in the buried library of bricks is that of a small
flat tablet, also recently unearthed like the cylinder of Cyrus,
which records this very section of the history of Babylon. Here it is
stated that Cyrus intrigued with a disaffected party within the city.
Who would be so likely as the persecuted Jews to play this part?
Further, the newly found Babylonian record makes it clear that
Herodotus was mistaken in his famous account of the siege of Babylon
where he connected it with the coming of Cyrus. He must have
misapprehended a report of one of the two sieges under Darius, when
the city had revolted and was recaptured by force, for we now know
that after a battle fought in the open country Cyrus was received into
the city without striking another blow. He would be likely to be in a
gracious mood then, and if he knew there were exiles, languishing in
captivity, who hailed his advent as that of a deliverer, even apart
from the question whether they had previously opened up negotiations
with him, he could not but look favourably upon them; so that
generosity and perhaps gratitude combined with good policy to govern
his conduct. Lastly, although he was not a theological reformer, he
seems to have been of a religious character, according to his light,
and therefore it is not unnatural to suppose that he may have heartily
thrown himself into a movement of which his wisdom approved, and with
which all his generous instincts sympathised. Thus, after all, there
may be something in the old view, if only we combine it with our newer
information. Under the peculiar political circumstances of his day,
Cyrus may have been prepared to welcome the prophetic assurance that
he was a heaven-sent shepherd, if some of the Jews had shown it him.
Even without any such assurance, other conquerors have been only too
ready to flatter themselves that they were executing a sacred
mission.

These considerations do not in the least degree limit the Divine
element of the narrative as that is brought forward by the Hebrew
historian. On the contrary, they give additional importance to it. The
chronicler sees in the decree of Cyrus and its issues an
accomplishment of the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah.
Literally he says that what happens is in order that the word of the
Lord may _be brought to an end_. It is in the "_fulness_ of the time,"
as the advent of Christ was later in another relation.[5] The writer
seems to have in mind the passage--"And this whole land shall be a
desolation, and an astonishment; and these nations shall serve the
king of Babylon seventy years. And it shall come to pass, when seventy
years are accomplished, that I will punish the king of Babylon, and
that nation, saith the Lord, for their iniquity, and the land of the
Chaldeans; and I will make it desolate for ever";[6] as well as
another prophecy--"For thus saith the Lord, After seventy years be
accomplished for Babylon, I will visit you, and perform My good word
toward you, in causing you to return to this place."[7] Now if we do
not accept the notion of Josephus that Cyrus was consciously and
purposely fulfilling these predictions, we do not in any way diminish
the fact that the deliverance came from God. If we are driven to the
conclusion that Cyrus was not solely or chiefly actuated by religious
motives, or even if we take his action to be _purely_ one of state
policy, the ascription of this inferior position to Cyrus only
heightens the wonderful glory of God's overruling providence.
Nebuchadnezzar was described as God's "servant"[8] because, although
he was a bad man, only pursuing his own wicked way, yet, all unknown
to him, that way was made to serve God's purposes. Similarly Cyrus,
who is not a bad man, is God's "Shepherd," when he delivers the
suffering flock from the wolf and sends it back to the fold, whether
he aims at obeying the will of God or not. It is part of the great
revelation of God in history, that He is seen working out His supreme
purposes in spite of the ignorance and sometimes even by means of the
malice of men. Was not this the case in the supreme event of history,
the crucifixion of our Lord? If the cruelty of Nebuchadnezzar and the
feebleness of Pilate could serve God, so could the generosity of
Cyrus.

  [5] Gal. iv. 4.

  [6] Jer. xxv. 11, 12.

  [7] Jer. xxix. 10.

  [8] Jer. xxvii. 6.

The question of the chronological exactness of this fulfilment of
prophecy troubles some minds that are anxious about Biblical
arithmetic. The difficulty is to arrive at the period of seventy
years. It would seem that this could only be done by some stretching
at both ends of the exile. We must begin with Nebuchadnezzar's first
capture of Jerusalem and the first carrying away of a small body of
royal hostages to Babylon in the year B.C. 606. Even then we have only
sixty-eight years to the capture of Babylon by Cyrus, which happened
in B.C. 538. Therefore to get the full seventy years it is proposed to
extend the exile till the year B.C. 536, which is the date of the
commencement of Cyrus's sole rule. But there are serious difficulties
in these suggestions. In his prediction of the seventy years Jeremiah
plainly refers to the complete overthrow of the nation with the strong
words, "This whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment." As
a matter of fact, the exile only began in earnest with the final
siege of Jerusalem, which took place in B.C. 588. Then Cyrus actually
began his reign over the Jews in B.C. 538, when he took Babylon, and
he issued his edict in his first year. Thus the real exile as a
national trouble seems to have occupied fifty years, or, reckoning a
year for the issuing and execution of the edict, fifty-one years.
Instead of straining at dates, is it not more simple and natural to
suppose that Jeremiah gave a round figure to signify a period which
would cover the lifetime of his contemporaries, at all events? However
this may be, nobody can make a grievance out of the fact that the
captivity may not have been quite so lengthy as the previous warnings
of it foreshadowed. Tillotson wisely remarked that there is this
difference between the Divine promises and the Divine threatenings,
that while God pledges His faithfulness to the full extent of the
former, He is not equally bound to the perfect accomplishment of the
latter. If the question of dates shows a little discrepancy, what does
this mean but that God is so merciful as not always to exact the last
farthing? Moreover it should be remarked that the point of Jeremiah's
prophecy is not the exact length of the captivity, but the certain
termination of it after a long while. The time is fulfilled when the
end has come.

But the action of Cyrus is not only regarded as the accomplishment of
prophecy; it is also attributed to the direct influence of God
exercised on the Great King, for we read "the Lord stirred up the
spirit of Cyrus king of Persia," etc. It would indicate the radical
scepticism which is too often hidden under the guise of a rigorous
regard for correct belief, to maintain that because we now know Cyrus
to have been a polytheist his spirit could not have been stirred up
by the true God. It is not the teaching of the Bible that God confines
His influence on the hearts of men to Jews and Christians. Surely we
cannot suppose that the Father of all mankind rigidly refuses to hold
any intercourse with the great majority of His children--never
whispers them a guiding word in their anxiety and perplexity, never
breathes into them a helpful impulse, even in their best moments, when
they are earnestly striving to do right. In writing to the Romans St.
Paul distinctly argues on the ground that God has revealed Himself to
the heathen world,[9] and in the presence of Cornelius St. Peter as
distinctly asserts that God accepts the devout and upright of all
nations.[10] Here even in the Old Testament it is recognised that God
moves the king of Persia. This affords a singular encouragement for
prayer, because it suggests that God has access to those who are far
out of our reach; that He quite sets aside the obstruction of
intermediaries--secretaries, chamberlains, grand-viziers, and all the
_entourage_ of a court; that He goes straight into the audience
chamber, making direct for the inmost thoughts and feelings of the man
whom He would influence. The wonder of it is that God condescends to
do this even with men who know little of Him; but it should be
remembered that though He is strange to many men, none of them are
strange to Him. The Father knows the children who do not know Him. It
may be remarked, finally, on this point, that the special Divine
influence now referred to is dynamic rather than illuminating. To stir
up the spirit is to move to activity. God not only teaches; He
quickens. In the case of Cyrus, the king used his own judgment and
acted on his own opinions; yet the impulse which drove him was from
God. That was everything. We live in a God-haunted world: why then are
we slow to take the first article of our creed in its full meaning? Is
it so difficult to believe in God when all history is alive with His
presence?

  [9] Rom. i. 19.

  [10] Acts x. 34, 35.



CHAPTER III.

_THE ROYAL EDICT._

EZRA i. 2-4, 7-11.


It has been asserted that the Scripture version of the edict of Cyrus
cannot be an exact rendering of the original, because it ascribes to
the Great King some knowledge of the God of the Jews, and even some
faith in Him. For this reason it has been suggested that either the
chronicler or some previous writer who translated the decree out of
the Persian language, in which of course it must have been first
issued, inserted the word Jehovah in place of the name of Ormazd or
some other god worshipped by Cyrus, and shaped the phrases generally
so as to commend them to Jewish sympathies. Are we driven to this
position? We have seen that when Cyrus got possession of Babylon he
had no scruple in claiming the indigenous divinity Merodach as his
god. Is it not then entirely in accordance with his eclectic habit of
mind--not to mention his diplomatic art in humouring the prejudices of
his subjects--that he should draw up a decree in which he designed to
show favour to an exceptionally religious people in language that
would be congenial to them? Like most men of higher intelligence even
among polytheistic races, Cyrus may have believed in one supreme
Deity, who, he may have supposed, was worshipped under different
names by different nations. The final clause of Ezra i. 3 is
misleading, as it stands in the Authorised Version; and the Revisers,
with their habitual caution, have only so far improved upon it as to
permit the preferable rendering to appear in the margin, where we have
generally to look for the opinions of the more scholarly as well as
the more courageous critics. Yet even the Authorised Version renders
the same words correctly in the very next verse. There is no occasion
to print the clause, "He is the God," as a parenthesis, so as to make
Cyrus inform the world that Jehovah is the one real divinity. The more
probable rendering in idea is also the more simple one in
construction. Removing the superfluous brackets, we read right on: "He
is the God which is in Jerusalem"--_i.e._, we have an indication who
"Jehovah" is for the information of strangers to the Jews who may read
the edict. With this understanding let us examine the leading items of
the decree. It was proclaimed by the mouth of king's messengers, and
it was also preserved in writing, so that possibly the original
inscription may be recovered from among the burnt clay records that
lie buried in the ruins of Persian cities. The edict is addressed to
the whole empire. Cyrus announces to all his subjects his intention to
rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. Then he specialises the aim of the
decree by granting a licence to the Jews to go up to Jerusalem and
undertake this work. It is a perfectly free offer to all Jews in exile
without exception. "Who is there among you"--_i.e._, among all the
subjects of the empire--"of all His" (Jehovah's) "people, his God be
with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem," etc. In particular we may
observe the following points:--

First, Cyrus begins by acknowledging that "the God of Heaven"--whom he
identifies with the Hebrew "Jehovah," in our version of the edict--has
given him his dominions. It is possible to treat this introductory
sentence as a superficial formula; but there is no reason for so
ungenerous an estimate of it. If we accept the words in their honest
intention, we must see in them a recognition of the hand of God in the
setting up of kingdoms. Two opposite kinds of experience awaken in men
a conviction of God's presence in their lives--great calamities and
great successes. The influence of the latter experience is not so
often acknowledged as that of the former, but probably it is equally
effective, at least in extreme instances. There is something awful in
the success of a world-conqueror. When the man is a destroyer,
spreading havoc and misery, like Attila, he regards himself as a
"Scourge of God"; and when he is a vulgar impersonation of selfish
greed like Napoleon, he thinks he is swept on by a mighty tide of
destiny. In both instances the results are too stupendous to be
attributed to purely human energy. But in the case of Cyrus, an
enlightened and noble-minded hero is bringing liberty and favour to
the victims of a degraded tyranny, so that he is hailed by some of
them as the Anointed King raised up by their God, and therefore it is
not unnatural that he should ascribe his brilliant destiny to a Divine
influence.

Secondly, Cyrus actually asserts that God has charged him to build Him
a temple at Jerusalem. Again, this may be the language of princely
courtesy; but the noble spirit which breathes through the decree
encourages us to take a higher view of it, and to refrain from reading
minimising comments between the lines. It is probable that those
eager, patriotic Jews who had got the ear of Cyrus--or he would never
have issued such a decree as this--may have urged their suit by
showing him predictions like that of Isaiah xliv. 28, in which God
describes Himself as One "that saith of Cyrus, He is My shepherd, and
shall perform all my pleasure: even saying of Jerusalem, Let her be
built; and, Let the foundations of the temple be laid." Possibly Cyrus
is here alluding to that very utterance, although, as we have seen,
Josephus is incorrect in inserting a reference to Hebrew prophecy in
the very words of the decree, and in suggesting that the fulfilment of
prophecy was the chief end Cyrus had in view.

It is a historical fact that Cyrus did help to build the temple; he
supplied funds from the public treasury for that object. We can
understand his motives for doing so. If he desired the favour of the
God of the Jews, he would naturally aid in restoring His shrine.
Nabonidas had fallen, it was thought, through neglecting the worship
of the gods. Cyrus seems to have been anxious to avoid this mistake,
and to have given attention to the cultivation of their favour. If, as
seems likely, some of the Jews had impressed his mind with the
greatness of Jehovah, he might have desired to promote the building of
the temple at Jerusalem with exceptional assiduity.

In the next place, Cyrus gives the captive Jews leave to go up to
Jerusalem. The edict is purely permissive. There is to be no expulsion
of Jews from Babylon. Those exiles who did not choose to avail
themselves of the boon so eagerly coveted by the patriotic few were
allowed to remain unmolested in peace and prosperity. The restoration
was voluntary. This free character of the movement would give it a
vigour quite out of proportion to the numbers of those who took part
in it, and would, at the same time, ensure a certain elevation of tone
and spirit. It is an image of the Divine restoration of souls, which
is confined to those who accept it of their own free will.

Further, the object of the return, as it is distinctly specified, is
simply to rebuild the temple, not--at all events in the first
instance--to build up and fortify a city on the ruins of Jerusalem;
much less does it imply a complete restoration of Palestine to the
Jews, with a wholesale expulsion of its present inhabitants from their
farms and vineyards. Cyrus does not seem to have contemplated any such
revolution. The end in view was neither social nor political, but
purely religious. That more would come out of it, that the returning
exiles must have houses to live in and must protect those houses from
the brigandage of the Bedouin, and that they must have fields
producing food to support them and their families, are inevitable
consequences. Here is the germ and nucleus of a national restoration.
Still it remains true that the immediate object--the only object named
in the decree--is the rebuilding of the temple. Thus we see from the
first that the idea which characterises the restoration is religious.
The exiles return as a Church. The goal of their pilgrimage is a holy
site. The one work they are to aim at achieving is to further the
worship of their God.

Lastly, the inhabitants of the towns in which the Jews have been
settled are directed to make contributions towards the work. It is not
quite clear whether these "Benevolences" are to be entirely voluntary.
A royal exhortation generally assumes something of the character of a
command. Probably rich men were requisitioned to assist in providing
the gold and silver and other stores, together with the beasts of
burden which would be needed for the great expedition. This was to
supplement what Cyrus calls "the free-will offering for the house of
God that is in Jerusalem"--_i.e._, either the gifts of the Jews who
remained in Babylon, or possibly his own contribution from the funds
of the state. We are reminded of the Hebrews spoiling the Egyptians at
the Exodus. The prophet Haggai saw in this a promise of further
supplies, when the wealth of foreign nations would be poured into the
temple treasury in donations of larger dimensions from the heathen.
"For thus saith the Lord of hosts," he writes, "Yet once, it is a
little while, and I will shake the heavens, and the earth, and the
sea, and the dry land; ... and the desirable things of all nations
shall come, and I will fill this house with glory, saith the Lord of
hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, saith the Lord of
hosts."[11]

  [11] Hag. ii. 6-8.

The assumed willingness of their neighbours to contribute at a hint
from the king suggests that the exiles were not altogether unpopular.
On the other hand, it is quite possible that, under the oppression of
Nabonidas, they had suffered much wrong from these neighbours. A
public persecution always entails a large amount of private cruelty,
because the victims are not protected by the law from the greed and
petty spite of those who are mean enough to take advantage of their
helpless condition. Thus it may be that Cyrus was aiming at a just
return in his recommendation to his subjects to aid the Jews.

Such was the decree. Now let us look at the execution of it.

In the first place, there was a ready response on the part of some of
the Jews, seen especially in the conduct of their leaders, who "rose
up," bestirring themselves to prepare for the expedition, like
expectant watchers released from their weary waiting and set free for
action. The social leaders are mentioned first, which is a clear
indication that the theocracy, so characteristic of the coming age,
was not yet the recognised order. A little later the clergy will be
placed before the laity, but at present the laity are still named
before the clergy. The order is domestic. The leaders are the heads of
great families--"the chief of the fathers." For such people to be
named first is also an indication that the movement did not originate
in the humbler classes. Evidently a certain aristocratic spirit
permeated it. The wealthy merchants may have been loath to leave their
centres of commerce, but the nobility of blood and family were at the
head of the crusade. We have not yet reached the age of the democracy.
It is clear, further, that there was some organisation among the
exiles. They were not a mere crowd of refugees. The leaders were of
the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. We shall have to consider the
relation of the Ten Tribes to the restoration later on; here it may be
enough to observe in passing that representatives of the Southern
Kingdom take the lead in a return to Jerusalem, the capital of that
kingdom. Next come the ecclesiastical leaders, the priests and
Levites. Already we find these two orders named separately--an
important fact in relation to the development of Judaism that will
meet us again, with some hints here and there to throw light upon the
meaning of it.

There is another side to this response. It was by no means the case
that the whole of the exiles rose up in answer to the edict of Cyrus;
only those leaders and only those people responded "whose spirit God
had raised." The privilege was offered to all the Jews, but it was not
accepted by all. We cannot but be impressed by the religious faith and
the inspired insight of our historian in this matter. He saw that
Cyrus issued his edict because the Lord had stirred up his spirit; now
he attributes the prompting to make use of the proffered liberty to a
similar Divine influence. Thus the return was a movement of
heaven-sent impulses throughout. Ezekiel's vision of the dry bones
showed the deplorable condition of the Northern Kingdom in his
day--stripped bare, shattered to fragments, scattered abroad. The
condition of Judah was only second to this ghastly national ruin. But
now to Judah there had come the breath of the Divine Spirit which
Ezekiel saw promised for Israel, and a living army was rising up in
new energy. Here we may discover the deeper, the more vital source of
the return. Without this the edict of Cyrus would have perished as a
dead letter. Even as it was, only those people who felt the breath of
the Divine afflatus rose up for the arduous undertaking. So to-day
there is no return to the heavenly Jerusalem and no rebuilding the
fallen temple of human nature except in the power of the Spirit of
God. Regeneration always goes hand in hand with redemption--the work
of the Spirit with the work of the Christ. In the particular case
before us, the special effect of the Divine influence is "to raise the
spirit"--_i.e._, to infuse life, to rouse to activity and hope and
high endeavour. A people thus equipped is fit for any expedition of
toil or peril. Like Gideon's little, sifted army, the small band of
inspired men who rose up to accept the decree of Cyrus carried within
their breasts a superhuman power, and therefore a promise of ultimate
success. The aim with which they set out confirmed the religious
character of the whole enterprise. They accepted the limitations and
they gladly adopted the one definite purpose suggested in the edict of
Cyrus. They proceeded "to build the house of the Lord which is in
Jerusalem." This was their only confessed aim. It would have been
impossible for patriots such as these Jews were not to feel some
national hopes and dreams stirring within them; still we have no
reason to believe that the returning exiles were not loyal to the
spirit of the decree of the Great King. The religious aim was the real
occasion of the expedition. So much the more need was there to go in
the Spirit and strength of God. Only they whose spirit God has raised
are fit to build God's temple, because work for God must be done in
the Spirit of God.

Secondly, the resident neighbours fell in with the recommendation of
the king ungrudgingly, and gave rich contributions for the expedition.
They could not go themselves, but they could have a share in the work
by means of their gifts--as the home Church can share in the foreign
mission she supports. The acceptance of these bounties by the Jews
does not well accord with their subsequent conduct when they refused
the aid of their Samaritan neighbours in the actual work of building
the temple. It has an ugly look, as though they were willing to take
help from all sources excepting where any concessions in return would
be expected on the part of those who were befriending them. However,
it is just to remember that the aid was invited and offered by Cyrus,
not solicited by the Jews.

Thirdly, the execution of the decree appears to have been honestly
and effectively promoted by its author. In accordance with his
generous encouragement of the Jews to rebuild their temple, Cyrus
restored the sacred vessels that had been carried off by
Nebuchadnezzar on the occasion of the first Chaldæan raid on
Jerusalem, and deposited in a temple at Babylon nearly seventy years
before the time of the return. No doubt these things were regarded as
of more importance than other spoils of war. It would be supposed that
the patron god of the conquered people was humiliated when the
instruments of his worship were offered to Bel or Nebo. Perhaps it was
thought that some charm attaching to them would bring luck to the city
in which they were guarded. When Nabonidas was seized with frantic
terror at the approach of the Persian hosts, he brought the idols of
the surrounding nations to Babylon for his protection. The reference
to the temple vessels, and the careful and detailed enumeration of
them, without the mention of any image, is a clear proof that,
although before the captivity the majority of the Jews may have
consisted of idolaters, there was no idol in the temple at Jerusalem.
Had there been one there Nebuchadnezzar would most certainly have
carried it off as the greatest trophy of victory. In default of
images, he had to make the most of the gold and silver plate used in
the sacrificial ceremonies.

Viewed in this connection, the restitution of the stolen vessels by
Cyrus appears to be more than an act of generosity or justice. A
certain religious import belongs to it. It put an end to an ancient
insult offered by Babylon to the God of Israel; and it might be taken
as an act of homage offered to Jehovah by Cyrus. Yet it was only a
restitution, a return of what was God's before, and so a type of every
gift man makes to God.

It has been noticed that the total number of the vessels restored does
not agree with the sum of the numbers of the several kinds of vessels.
The total is 5400; but an addition of the list of the vessels only
amounts to 2499. Perhaps the less valuable articles are omitted from
the detailed account; or possibly there is some error of
transcription, and if so the question is, in which direction shall we
find it? It may be that the total was too large. On the other hand, in
1 Esdras nearly the same high total is given--viz., 5469--and there
the details are made to agree with it by an evidently artificial
manipulation of the numbers.[12] This gives some probability to the
view that the total is correct, and that the error must be in the
numbers of the several items. The practical importance of these
considerations is that they lead us to a high estimate of the immense
wealth of the Old Temple treasures. Thus they suggest the reflection
that much devotion and generosity had been shown in collecting such
stores of gold and silver in previous ages. They help us to picture
the sumptuous ritual of the first temple, with the "barbaric
splendour" of a rich display of the precious metals. Therefore they
show that the generosity of Cyrus in restoring so great a hoard was
genuine and considerable. It might have been urged that after the
treasures had been lying for two generations in a heathen temple the
original owners had lost all claim upon them. It might have been said
that they had been contaminated by this long residence among the
abominations of Babylonian idolatry. The restoration of them swept
away all such ideas. What was once God's belongs to Him by right for
ever. His property is inalienable; His claims never lapse with time,
never fail through change.

  [12] 1 Esdras ii. 14.

It is not without significance that the treasurer who handed over
their temple-property to the Jews was named "Mithredath"--a word that
means "given by Mithra," or "devoted to Mithra." This suggests that
the Persian sun-god was honoured among the servants of Cyrus, and yet
that one who by name at least was especially associated with this
divinity was constrained to honour the God of Israel. Next to Judaism
and Christianity, the worship of Mithra showed the greatest vitality
of all religions in Western Asia, and later even in Europe. So
vigorous was it as recently as the commencement of the Christian era,
that M. Renan has remarked, that if the Roman world had not become
Christian it would have become Mithrastic. In those regions where the
dazzling radiance and burning heat of the sun are felt as they are not
even imagined in our chill, gloomy climate, it was naturally supposed
that if any visible God existed He must be found in the great fiery
centre of the world's light and life. Our own day has seen the
scientific development of the idea that the sun's force is the source
of all the energy of nature. In the homage paid by one of the ancient
followers of Mithra, the sun-god, to the God of Israel, may we not see
an image of the recognition of the claims of the Supreme by our
priests of the sun--Kepler, Newton, Faraday? Men must be more blind
than the slaves of Mithra if they cannot recognise an awful, invisible
energy behind and above the forces of the solar system--nay more, a
living Spirit--God!



CHAPTER IV.

_THE SECOND EXODUS._

Ezra ii. 1-67.


The journey of the returning exiles from Babylon has some points of
resemblance to the exodus of their fathers from Egypt. On both
occasions the Israelites had been suffering oppression in a foreign
land. Deliverance had come to the ancient Hebrews in so wonderful a
way that it could only be described as a miracle of God: no material
miracle was recorded of the later movement; and yet it was so
marvellously providential that the Jews were constrained to
acknowledge that the hand of God was not less concerned in it.

But there were great differences between the two events. In the
original _Hegira_ of the Hebrews a horde of slaves was fleeing from
the land of their brutal masters; in the solemn pilgrimage of the
second exodus the Jews were able to set out with every encouragement
from the conqueror of their national enemy. On the other hand, while
the flight from Egypt led to liberty, the expedition from Babylon did
not include an escape from the foreign yoke. The returning exiles were
described as "children of the province"[13]--_i.e._, of the Persian
province of Judæa--and their leader bore the title of a Persian
governor.[14] Zerubbabel was no new Moses. The first exodus witnessed
the birth of a nation; the second saw only a migration within the
boundaries of an empire, sanctioned by the ruler because it did not
include the deliverance of the subject people from servitude.

  [13] Ezra ii. 1.

  [14] Tirshatha. Ezra ii. 63.

In other respects the condition of the Israelites who took part in the
later expedition contrasts favourably with that of their ancestors
under Moses. In the arts of civilisation, of course, they were far
superior to the crushed Egyptian bondmen. But the chief distinction
lay in the matter of religion. At length, in these days of Cyrus, the
people were ripe to accept the faith of the great teachers who
hitherto had been as voices crying in the wilderness. This fact
signalises the immense difference between the Jews in every age
previous to the exile, and the Jews of the return. In earlier periods
they appear as a kingdom, but not as a Church; in the later age they
are no longer a kingdom, but they have become a Church. The kingdom
had been mainly heathenish and idolatrous in its religion, and most
abominably corrupt in its morals, with only a thin streak of purer
faith and conduct running through the course of its history. But the
new Church, formed out of captives purified in the fires of
persecution, consisted of a body of men and women who heartily
embraced the religion to which but few of their forefathers had
attained, and who were even ready to welcome a more rigorous
development of its cult. Thus they became a highly developed Church.
They were consolidated into a Puritan Church in discipline, and a High
Church in ritual.

It must be borne in mind that only a fraction of the Jews in the East
went back to Palestine. Nor were they who tarried, in all cases, the
more worldly, enamoured of the fleshpots. In the Talmud it is said
that only the chaff returned, while the wheat remained behind. Both
Ezra and Nehemiah sprang from families still residing in the East long
after the return under Zerubbabel.

It is in accordance with these conditions that we come across one of
the most curious characteristics of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah--a
characteristic which they share with Chronicles, viz., the frequent
insertion of long lists of names.

Thus the second chapter of Ezra contains a list of the families who
went up to Jerusalem in response to the edict of Cyrus. One or two
general considerations arise here.

Since it was not a whole nation that migrated from the plains of
Babylon across the great Syrian desert, but only some fragments of a
nation, we shall not have to consider the fortunes and destinies of a
composite unity, such as is represented by a kingdom. The people of
God must now be regarded disjunctively. It is not the blessing of
Israel, or the blessing of Judah, that faith now anticipates; but the
blessing of those men, women, and children who fear God and walk in
His ways, though, of course, for the present they are all confined to
the limits of the Jewish race.

On the other hand, it is to be observed that this individualism was
not absolute. The people were arranged according to their families,
and the names that distinguished the families were not those of the
present heads of houses, but the names of ancestors, possibly of
captives taken down to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. As some of these
names occur in later expeditions, it is plain that the whole of the
families they represented were not found in the first body of
pilgrims. Still the people were grouped in family order. The Jews
anticipated the modern verdict of sociology, that the social unit is
the family, not the individual. Judaism was, through and through, a
domestic religion.

Further, it is to be noted that a sort of caste feeling was engendered
in the midst of the domestic arrangement of the people. It emerges
already in the second chapter of Ezra in the cases of families that
could not trace their genealogy, and it bears bitter fruit in some
pitiable scenes in the later history of the returned people. Not only
national rights, but also religious privileges, come more and more to
depend on purity of birth and descent. Religion is viewed as a
question of blood relationship. Thus even with the very appearance of
that new-born individualism which might be expected to counteract it,
even when the recovered people is composed entirely of volunteers, a
strong racial current sets in, which grows in volume until in the days
of our Lord the fact of a man's being a Jew is thought a sufficient
guarantee of his enjoying the favour of Heaven, until in our own day
such a book as "Daniel Deronda" portrays the race-enthusiasm of the
Israelite as the very heart and essence of his religion.

We have three copies of the list of the returning exiles--one in Ezra
ii., the second in Nehemiah vii., and the third in 1 Esdras v. They
are evidently all of them transcripts of the same original register;
but though they agree in the main, they differ in details, giving some
variation in the names and considerable diversity in the
numbers--Esdras coming nearer to Ezra than to Nehemiah, as we might
expect. The total, however, is the same in every case, viz., 42,360
(besides 7337 servants)--a large number, which shows how important the
expedition was considered to be.

The name of Zerubbabel appears first. He was the lineal descendant of
the royal house, the heir to the throne of David. This is a most
significant fact. It shows that the exiles had retained some latent
national organisation, and it gives a faint political character to the
return, although, as we have already observed, the main object of it
was religious. To fervent readers of old prophecies strange hopes
would dawn, hopes of the Messiah whose advent Isaiah, in particular,
had predicted. Was this new shoot from the stock of David indeed the
Lord's Anointed? Those who secretly answered the question to
themselves in the affirmative were doomed to much perplexity and not a
little disappointment. Nevertheless Zerubbabel was a lower, a
provisional, a temporary Messiah. God was educating His people through
their illusions. As one by one the national heroes failed to satisfy
the large hopes of the prophets, they were left behind, but the hopes
still maintained their unearthly vitality. Hezekiah, Josiah,
Zerubbabel, the Maccabees all passed, and in passing they all helped
to prepare for One who alone could realise the dreams of seers and
singers in all the best ages of Hebrew thought and life.

Still the bulk of the people do not seem to have been dominated by the
Messianic conception. It is one characteristic of the return that the
idea of the personal, God-sent, but human Messiah recedes; and
another, older, and more persistent Jewish hope comes to the
front--viz., the hope in God Himself as the Saviour of His people and
their Vindicator. Cyrus could not have suspected any political
designs, or he would not have made Zerubbabel the head of the
expedition. Evidently "Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah," to whom
Cyrus handed over the sacred vessels of the temple, is the same man as
Zerubbabel, because in v. 16 we read that Sheshbazzar laid the
foundation of the temple, while in iii. 8 this work is ascribed to
Zerubbabel, with whom the origin of the work is again connected in v.
2.

The second name is Jeshua.[15] The man who bears it was afterwards the
high-priest at Jerusalem. It is impossible to say whether he had
exercised any sacerdotal functions during the exile; but his prominent
place shows that honour was now offered to his priesthood. Still he
comes after the royal prince.

  [15] This name is a later form of "Joshua"; the older form of the name
  is used for the same person in Hag. i. 1, 14, and Zech. iii. 1.

Then follow nine names without any description.[16] Nehemiah's list
includes another name, which seems to have dropped out of the list in
Ezra. These, together with the two already mentioned, make an exact
dozen. It cannot be an accident that twelve names stand at the head of
the list; they must be meant to represent the twelve tribes--like the
twelve apostles in the Gospels, and the twelve gates of the New
Jerusalem in the Apocalypse. Thus it is indicated that the return is
for all Israel, not exclusively for the Judæan Hebrews. Undoubtedly
the bulk of the pilgrims were descendants of captives from the
Southern Kingdom.[17] The dispersion of the Northern Kingdom had begun
two centuries earlier than Nebuchadnezzar's invasion of Judæa; it had
been carried on by successive removals of the people in successive
wars. Probably most of these early exiles had been driven farther
north than those districts which were assigned to the Judæan captives;
probably, too; they had been scattered far and wide; lastly, we know
that they had been sunken in an idolatrous imitation of the manners
and customs of their heathen neighbours, so that there was little to
differentiate them from the people among whom they were domiciled.
Under all these circumstances, is it remarkable that the ten tribes
have disappeared from the observation of the world? They have
vanished, but only as the Goths have vanished in Italy, as the
Huguenot refugees have vanished in England--by mingling with the
resident population. We have not to search for them in Tartary, or
South America, or any other remote region of the four continents,
because we have no reason to believe that they are now a separate
people.

  [16] Of course the Nehemiah and Mordecai in this list are different
  persons from those who bear the same names in the Books of Nehemiah
  and Esther and belong to later dates.

  [17] See Ezra i. 5.

Still a very small "Remnant" was faithful. This "Remnant" was welcome
to find its way back to Palestine with the returning Judæans. As the
immediate object of the expedition was to rebuild the temple at the
rival capital of Jerusalem, it was not to be expected that patriots of
the Northern Kingdom would be very eager to join it. Yet some
descendants of the ten tribes made their way back. Even in New
Testament times the genealogy of the prophetess Anna was reckoned from
the tribe of Asher.[18] It is most improbable that the twelve leaders
were actually descendants of the twelve tribes. But just as in the
case of the apostles, whom we cannot regard as thus descended, they
represented all Israel. Their position at the head of the expedition
proclaimed that the "middle wall of partition" was broken down. Thus
we see that redemption tends to liberalise the redeemed, that those
who are restored to God are also brought back to the love of their
brethren.

  [18] Luke ii. 36.

The list that follows the twelve is divisible into two sections.
First, we have a number of families; then there is a change in the
tabulation, and the rest of the people are arranged according to their
cities. The most simple explanation of this double method is that the
families constitute the Jerusalem citizens.

The towns named in the second division are all situated in the
neighbourhood of Jerusalem. The only part of Palestine as yet restored
to the Jews was Jerusalem, with the towns in its vicinity. The
southern half of Judæa remained in the hands of the Edomites, who
begrudged to the Jews even the resumption of the northern portion--and
very naturally, seeing that the Edomites had held it for half a
century, a time which gives some assurance of permanent possession.
This must be borne in mind when we come across the troubles between
the returned exiles and their neighbours in Palestine. We can never
understand a quarrel until we have heard both sides. There is no
Edomite history of the wars of Israel. No doubt such a history would
put another face on the events--just as a Chinese history of the
English wars in the East would do, to the shame of the Christian
nation.

After the leaders and the people generally come the successive orders
of the temple ministry. We begin with the priests, and among these a
front rank is given to the house of Jeshua. The high-priest himself
had been named earlier, next to Zerubbabel, among the leaders of the
nation, so distinct was his position from that of the ordinary
priesthood. Next to the priests we have the Levites, who are now
sharply separated from the first order of the ministry. The very small
number of Levites in comparison with the large number of priests is
startling--over four thousand priests and only seventy-four Levites!
The explanation of this anomaly may be found in what had been
occurring in Chaldæa. Ezekiel declared that the Levites were to be
degraded because of their sinful conduct.[19] We see from the
arrangement in Ezra that the prophet's message was obeyed. The Levites
were now separated from the priests, and set down to a lower function.
This could not have been acceptable to them. Therefore it is not at
all surprising that the majority of them held aloof from the
expedition for rebuilding the temple in sullen resentment, or at best
in cool indifference, refusing to take part in a work the issue of
which would exhibit their humiliation to menial service. But the
seventy-four had grace to accept their lowly lot.

  [19] Ezek. xliv. 9-16.

The Levites are not set in the lowest place. They are distinguished
from several succeeding orders. The singers, the children of Asaph,
were really Levites; but they form a separate and important class, for
the temple service was to be choral--rich and gladsome. The
door-keepers are a distinct order, lowly but honourable, for they are
devoted to the service of God, for whom all work is glorious.

  "They also serve who only stand and wait."

Next come the Nethinims, or temple-helots. These seem to have been
aborigines of Canaan who had been pressed into the service of the old
Jerusalem temple, like the Gibeonites, the hewers of wood and drawers
of water. After the Nethinims come "the children of Solomon's
servants," another order of slaves, apparently the descendants of the
war captives whom Solomon had assigned to the work of building the
temple. It shows what thorough organisation was preserved among the
captives that these bondsmen were retained in their original position
and brought back to Jerusalem. To us this is not altogether admirable.
We may be grieved to see slavery thus enlisted in the worship of God.
But we must recollect that even with the Christian gospel in her hand,
for centuries, the Church had her slaves, the monasteries their serfs.
No idea is of slower growth than the idea of the brotherhood of man.

So far all was in order; but there were exceptional cases. Some of the
people could not prove their Israelite descent, and accordingly they
were set aside from their brethren. Some of the priests even could not
trace their genealogy. Their condition was regarded as more serious,
for the right of office was purely hereditary. The dilemma brought to
light a sad sense of loss. If only there were a priest with the Urim
and Thummim, this antique augury of flashing gems might settle the
difficulty! But such a man was not to be found. The Urim and Thummim,
together with the Ark and the Shekinah, are named by the rabbis among
the precious things that were never recovered. The Jews looked back
with regret to the wonderful time when the privilege of consulting an
oracle had been within the reach of their ancestors. Thus they shared
the universal instinct of mankind that turns fondly to the past for
memories of a golden age, the glories of which have faded and left us
only the dingy scenes of every-day life. In this instinct we may
detect a transference to the race of the vaguely perceived personal
loss of each man as he reflects on those far-off, dream-like
child-days, when even he was a "mighty prophet," a "seer blest," one
who had come into the world "trailing clouds of glory." Alas! he
perceives that the mystic splendours have faded into the light of
common day, if they have not even given place to the gloom of doubt,
or the black night of sin. Then, taking himself as a microcosm, he
ascribes a similar fate to the race.

Nothing is more inspiriting in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ
than its complete reversal of this dismal process of reflection, and
its promise of the Golden Age in the future. The most exalted Hebrew
prophecy anticipated something of the kind; here and there it lit up
its sombre pages with the hope of a brilliant future. The attitude of
the Jews in the present instance, when they simply set a question on
one side, waiting till a priest with Urim and Thummim should appear,
suggests too faint a belief in the future to be prophetic. But like
Socrates' hint at the possibility of one arising who should solve the
problems which were inscrutable to the Athenians of his day, it points
to a sense of need. When at length Christ came as "the Light of the
World," it was to supply a widely felt want. It is true He brought no
Urim and Thummim. The supreme motive for thankfulness in this
connection is that His revelation is so much more ample than the
wizard guidance men had formerly clung to, as to be like the broad
sunshine in comparison with the shifting lights of magic gems. Though
He gave no formal answers to petty questions such as those for which
the Jews would resort to a priest, as their heathen neighbours
resorted to a soothsayer, He shed a wholesome radiance on the path of
life, so that His followers have come to regard the providing of a
priest with Urim and Thummim as at best an expedient adapted to the
requirements of an age of superstition.

If the caravan lacked the privilege of an oracle, care was taken to
equip it as well as the available means would allow. These were not
abundant. There were servants, it is true. There were beasts of burden
too--camels, horses, asses; but these were few in comparison to the
numbers of the host--only at the rate of one animal to a family of
four persons. Yet the expedition set out in a semi-royal character,
for it was protected by a guard of a thousand horsemen sent by Cyrus.
Better than this, it possessed a spirit of enthusiasm which triumphed
over poverty and hardship, and spread a great gladness through the
people. Now at length it was possible to take down the harps from the
willows. Besides the temple choristers, two hundred singing men and
women accompanied the pilgrims to help to give expression to the
exuberant joyousness of the host. The spirit of the whole company was
expressed in a noble lyric that has become familiar to us:--

  "When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion,
  We were like unto them that dream.
  Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
  And our tongue with singing:
  Then said they among the nations,
  The Lord hath done great things for them.
  The Lord hath done great things for us;
  Whereof we are glad."[20]

  [20] Psalm cxxvi. 1-3.



CHAPTER V.

_THE NEW TEMPLE._

EZRA ii. 68-iii.


Unlike the historian of the exodus from Egypt, our chronicler gives no
account of adventures of the pilgrims on the road to Palestine,
although much of their way led them through a wild and difficult
country. So huge a caravan as that which accompanied Zerubbabel must
have taken several months to cover the eight hundred miles between
Babylon and Jerusalem;[21] for even Ezra with his smaller company
spent four months on their journey.[22] A dreary desert stretched over
the vast space between the land of exile and the old home of the Jews
among the mountains of the West; and here the commissariat would tax
the resources of the ablest organisers. It is possible that the
difficulties of the desert were circumvented in the most prosaic
manner--by simply avoiding this barren, waterless region, and taking a
long sweep round by the north of Syria. Passing over the pilgrimage,
which afforded him no topics of interest, without a word of comment,
the chronicler plants us at once in the midst of the busy scenes at
Jerusalem, where we see the returned exiles, at length arrived at the
end of their tedious journey, preparing to accomplish the one purpose
of their expedition.

  [21] _I.e._, if the route was the usual one, by Tadmor (Palmyra). The
  easier but roundabout way by Aleppo would have occupied a still longer
  time.

  [22] Ezra vii. 8, 9.

The first step was to provide the means for building the temple, and
contributions were made for this object by all classes of the
community--as we gather from the more complete account in
Nehemiah[23]--from the prince and the aristocracy to the general
public, for it was to be a united work. And yet it is implied by the
narrative that many had no share in it. These people may have been
poor originally or impoverished by their journey, and not at all
deficient in generosity or lacking in faith. Still we often meet with
those who have enough enthusiasm to applaud a good work and yet not
enough to make any sacrifice in promoting it. It is expressly stated
that the gifts were offered freely. No tax was imposed by the
authorities; but there was no backwardness on the part of the actual
donors, who were impelled by a glowing devotion to open their purses
without stint. Lastly, those who contributed did so "after their
ability." This is the true "proportionate giving." For all to give an
equal sum is impossible unless the poll-tax is to be fixed at a
miserable minimum. Even for all to give the same proportion is unjust.
There are poor men who ought not to sacrifice a tenth of what they
receive; there are rich men who will be guilty of unfaithfulness to
their stewardship if they do not devote far more than this fraction of
their vast revenues to the service of God and their fellow-men. It
would be reasonable for some of the latter only to reserve the tithe
for their own use and to give away nine-tenths of their income, for
even then they would not be giving "after their ability."

  [23] Neh. vii. 70-72.

After the preliminary step of collecting the contributions, the
pilgrims proceed to the actual work they have in hand. In this they
are heartily united; they gather themselves together "as one man" in a
great assembly, which, if we may trust the account in Esdras, is held
in an open space by the first gate towards the east,[24] and therefore
close to the site of the old temple, almost among its very ruins. The
unity of spirit and the harmony of action which characterise the
commencement of the work are good auguries of its success. This is to
be a popular undertaking. Sanctioned by Cyrus, promoted by the
aristocracy, it is to be carried out with the full co-operation of the
multitude. The first temple had been the work of a king; the second is
to be the work of a people. The nation had been dazzled by the
splendour of Solomon's court, and had basked in its rays so that the
after-glow of them lingered in the memories of ages even down to the
time of our Lord.[25] But there was a healthier spirit in the humbler
work of the returned exiles, when, forced to dispense with the king
they would gladly have accepted, they undertook the task of building
the new temple themselves.

  [24] 1 Esdras v. 47.

  [25] Matt. vi. 29.

In the centre of the mosque known as the "Dome of the Rock" there is a
crag with the well-worn remains of steps leading up to the top of it,
and with channels cut in its surface. This has been identified by
recent explorers as the site of the great Altar of Burnt-offerings. It
is on the very crest of Mount Moriah. Formerly it was thought that it
was the site of the inmost shrine of the temple, known as "The Holy
of Holies," but the new view, which seems to be fairly established,
gives an unexpected prominence to the altar. This rude square
structure of unhewn stone was the most elevated and conspicuous object
in temple. The altar was to Judaism what the cross is to Christianity.
Both for us and for the Jews what is most vital and precious in
religion is the dark mystery of a sacrifice. The first work of the
temple builders was to set up the altar again on its old foundation.
Before a stone of the temple was laid, the smoke of sacrificial fires
might be seen ascending to heaven from the highest crag of Moriah. For
fifty years all sacrifices had ceased. Now with haste, in fear of
hindrance from jealous neighbours, means were provided to re-establish
them before any attempt was made to rebuild the temple. It is not
quite easy to see what the writer means when, after saying "And they
set the altar upon his bases," he adds, "for fear was upon them
because of the people of those countries." The suggestion that the
phrase may be varied so as to mean that the awe which this religious
work inspired in the heathen neighbours prevented them from molesting
it is far-fetched and improbable. Nor is it likely that the writer
intends to convey the idea that the Jews hastened the building of the
altar as a sort of Palladium, trusting that its sacrifices would
protect them in case of invasion, for this is to attribute too low and
materialistic a character to their religion. More reasonable is the
explanation that they hastened the work because they feared that their
neighbours might either hinder it or wish to have a share in it--an
equally objectionable thing, as subsequent events showed.

The chronicler distinctly states that the sacrifices which were now
offered, as well as the festivals which were established later, were
all designed to meet the requirements of the law of Moses--that
everything might be done "as it is written in the law of Moses the man
of God." This statement does not throw much light on the history of
the Pentateuch. We know that that work was not yet in the hands of the
Jews at Jerusalem, because this was nearly eighty years before Ezra
introduced it. The sentence suggests that according to the chronicler
_some_ law bearing the name of Moses was known to the first body of
returned exiles. We need not regard that suggestion as a reflection
from later years. Deuteronomy may have been the law referred to; or it
may have been some rubric of traditional usages in the possession of
the priests.

Meanwhile two facts of importance come out here--_first_, that the
method of worship adopted by the returned exiles was a revival of
ancient customs, a return to the old ways, not an innovation of their
own, and _second_, that this restoration was in careful obedience to
the known will of God. Here we have the root idea of the Torah. It
announces that God has revealed His will, and it implies that the
service of God can only be acceptable when it is in harmony with the
will of God. The prophets taught that obedience was better than
sacrifice. The priests held that sacrifice itself was a part of
obedience. With both the primary requisite was obedience--as it is the
primary requisite in all religion.

The particular kind of sacrifice offered on the great altar was the
burnt-offering. Now we do occasionally meet with expiatory ideas in
connection with this sacrifice; but unquestionably the principal
conception attached to the burnt-offering, in distinction from the
sin-offering, was the idea of self-dedication on the part of the
worshipper. Thus the Jews re-consecrated themselves to God by the
solemn ceremony of sacrifice, and they kept up the thought of renewed
consecration by the regular repetition of the burnt-offering. It is
difficult for us to enter into the feelings of the people who
practised so antique a cult, even to them archaic in its ceremonies,
and dimly suggestive of primitive rites that had their origin in
far-off barbaric times. But one thing is clear, shining as with
letters of awful fire against the black clouds of smoke that hang over
the altar. This sacrifice was always a "whole offering." As it was
being completely consumed in the flames before their very eyes, the
worshippers would see a vivid representation of the tremendous truth
that the most perfect sacrifice is death--nay, that it is even more
than death, that it is absolute self-effacement in total and
unreserved surrender to God.

Various rites follow the great central sacrifice of the
burnt-offering, ushered in by the most joyous festival of the year,
the Feast of Tabernacles, when the people scatter themselves over the
hills round Jerusalem under the shade of extemporised bowers made out
of the leafy boughs of trees, and celebrate the goodness of God in the
final and richest harvest, the vintage. Then come New Moon and the
other festivals that stud the calendar with sacred dates and make the
Jewish year a round of glad festivities.

Thus, we see, the full establishment of religious services precedes
the building of the temple. A weighty truth is enshrined in this
apparently incongruous fact. The worship itself is felt to be more
important than the house in which it is to be celebrated. That truth
should be even more apparent to us who have read the great words of
Jesus uttered by Jacob's well, "The hour cometh when neither in this
mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father, ... when the
true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth."[26]
How vain then is it to treat the erection of churches as though it
were the promotion of a revival of religion! As surely as the empty
sea-shell tossed up on the beach can never secrete a living organism
to inhabit it, a mere building--whether it be the most gorgeous
cathedral or the plainest village meeting-house--will never induce a
living spirit of worship to dwell in its cold desolation. Every true
religious revival begins in the spiritual sphere and finds its place
of worship where it may--in the rustic barn or on the hill-side--if no
more seemly home can be provided for it, because its real temple is
the humble and contrite heart.

  [26] John iv. 21, 23.

Still the design of building the temple at Jerusalem was kept
constantly in view by the pilgrims. Accordingly it was necessary to
purchase materials, and in particular the fragrant cedar wood from the
distant forests of Lebanon. These famous forests were still in the
possession of the Phœnicians, for Cyrus had allowed a local
autonomy to the busy trading people on the northern sea-board. So in
spite of the king's favour it was requisite for the Jews to pay the
full price for the costly timber. Now, in disbursing the original
funds brought up from Babylon, it would seem that the whole of this
money was expended in labour, in paying the wages of masons and
carpenters. Therefore the Jews had to export agricultural
products--such as corn, wine, and olive oil--in exchange for the
imports of timber they received from the Phœnicians. The question
at once arises, how did they come to be possessed of these fruits of
the soil? The answer is supplied by a chronological remark in our
narrative. It was in the second year of their residence in Jerusalem
and its neighbourhood that the Jews commenced the actual building of
their temple. They had first patiently cleared, ploughed, and sown the
neglected fields, trimmed and trained the vines, and tended the olive
gardens, so that they were able to reap a harvest, and to give the
surplus products for the purchase of the timber required in building
the temple. As the foundation was laid in the spring, the order for
the cedar wood must have been sent before the harvest was
reaped--pledging it in advance with faith in the God who gives the
increase. The Phœnician woodmen fell their trees in the distant
forests of Lebanon; and the massive trunks are dragged down to the
coast, and floated along the Mediterranean to Joppa, and then carried
on the backs of camels or slowly drawn up the heights of Judah in
ox-waggons, while the crops that are to pay for them are still green
in the fields.

Here then is a further proof of devotion on the part of the Jews from
Babylon--though it is scarcely hinted at in the narrative, though we
can only discover it by a careful comparison of facts and dates.
Labour is expended on the fields; long weary months of waiting are
endured; when the fruits of toil are obtained, these hard-earned
stores are not hoarded by their owners: they too, like the gold and
silver of the wealthier Jews, are gladly surrendered for the one
object which kindles the enthusiasm of every class of the community.

At length all is ready. Jeshua the priest now precedes Zerubbabel, as
well as the rest of the twelve leaders, in inaugurating the great
work. On the Levites is laid the immediate responsibility of carrying
it through. When the foundation is laid, the priests in their new
white vestments sound their silver trumpets, and the choir of Levites,
the sons of Asaph, clang their brazen cymbals. To the accompaniment of
this inspiriting music they sing glad psalms in praise of God, giving
thanks to Him, celebrating His goodness and His mercy that endureth
for ever toward Israel. This is not at all like the soft music and
calm chanting of subdued cathedral services that we think of in
connection with great national festivals. The instruments blare and
clash, the choristers cry aloud, and the people join them with a
mighty shout. When shrill discordant notes of bitter wailing, piped by
a group of melancholy old men, threaten to break the harmony of the
scene, they are drowned in the deluge of jubilation that rises up in
protest and beats down all their opposition with its triumph of
gladness. To a sober Western the scene would seem to be a sort of
religious orgy, like a wild Bacchanalian festival, like the howling of
hosts of dervishes. But although it is the Englishman's habit to take
his religion sombrely, if not sadly, it may be well for him to pause
before pronouncing a condemnation of those men and women who are more
exuberant in the expression of spiritual emotion. If he finds, even
among his fellow-countrymen, some who permit themselves a more lively
music and a more free method of public worship than he is accustomed
to, is it not a mark of insular narrowness for him to visit these
unconventional people with disapprobation? In abandoning the severe
manners of their race, they are only approaching nearer to the
time-old methods of ancient Israel.

In this clangour and clamour at Jerusalem the predominant note was a
burst of irrepressible gladness. When God turned the captivity of
Israel, mourning was transformed into laughter. To understand the
wild excitement of the Jews, their pæan of joy, their very ecstasy, we
must recollect what they had passed through, as well as what they were
now anticipating. We must remember the cruel disaster of the overthrow
of Jerusalem, the desolation of the exile, the sickness of weary
waiting for deliverance, the harshness of the persecution that
embittered the later years of the captivity under Nabonidas; we must
think of the toilsome pilgrimage through the desert, with its dismal
wastes, its dangers and its terrors, followed by the patient work on
the land and gathering in of means for building the temple. And now
all this was over. The bow had been terribly bent; the rebound was
immense. People who cannot feel strong religious gladness have never
known the heartache of deep religious grief. These Israelites had
cried out of the depths; they were prepared to shout for joy from the
heights. Perhaps we may go further, and detect a finer note in this
great blast of jubilation, a note of higher and more solemn gladness.
The chastisement of the exile was past, and the long-suffering mercy
of God--enduring for ever--was again smiling out on the chastened
people. And yet the positive realisation of their hopes was for the
future. The joy, therefore, was inspired by faith. With little
accomplished as yet, the sanguine people already saw the temple in
their mind's eye, with its massive walls, its cedar chambers, and its
adornment of gold and richly dyed hangings. In the very laying of the
foundation their eager imaginations leaped forward to the crowning of
the highest pinnacles. Perhaps they saw more; perhaps they perceived,
though but dimly, something of the meaning of the spiritual
blessedness that had been foretold by their prophets.

All this gladness centred in the building of a temple, and therefore
ultimately in the worship of God. We take but a one-sided view of
Judaism if we judge it by the sour ideas of later Pharisaism. As it
presented itself to St. Paul in opposition to the gospel, it was stern
and loveless. But in its earlier days this religion was free and
gladsome, though, as we shall soon see, even then a rigour of
fanaticism soon crept in and turned its joy into grief. Here, however,
at the founding of the temple, it wears its sunniest aspect. There is
no reason why religion should wear any other aspect to the devout
soul. It should be happy; for is it not the worship of a happy God?

Nevertheless, in the midst of the almost universal acclaim of joy and
praise, there was the note of sadness wailed by the old men, who could
recollect the venerable fane in which their fathers had worshipped
before the ruthless soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar had reduced it to a
heap of ashes. Possibly some of them had stood on this very spot half
a century before, in an agony of despair, while they saw the cruel
flames licking the ancient stones and blazing up among the cedar
beams, and all the fine gold dimmed with black clouds of smoke. Was it
likely that the feeble flock just returned from Babylon could ever
produce such a wonder of the world as Solomon's temple had been? The
enthusiastic younger people might be glad in their ignorance; but
their sober elders, who knew more, could only weep. We cannot but
think that, after the too common habit of the aged, these mournful old
men viewed the past in a glamour of memory, magnifying its splendours
as they looked back on them through the mists of time. If so, they
were old indeed; for this habit, and not years, makes real old age. He
is aged who lives in bygone days, with his face ever set to the
irreparable past, vainly regretting its retreating memories,
uninterested in the present, despondent of the future. The true elixir
of life, the secret of perpetual youth of soul, is interest in the
present and the future, with the forward glance of faith and hope. Old
men who cultivate this spirit have young hearts though the snow is on
their heads. And such are wise. No doubt, from the standpoint of a
narrow common sense, with its shrunken views confined to the material
and the mundane, the old men who wept had more reason for their
conduct than the inexperienced younger men who rejoiced. But there is
a prudence that comes of blindness, and there is an imprudence that is
sublime in its daring, because it springs from faith. The despair of
old age makes one great mistake, because it ignores one great truth.
In noting that many good things have passed away, it forgets to
remember that God remains. God is not dead! Therefore the future is
safe. In the end the young enthusiasts of Jerusalem were justified. A
prophet arose who declared that a glory which the former temple had
never known should adorn the new temple, in spite of its humble
beginning; and history verified his word when the Lord took possession
of His house in the person of His Son.



CHAPTER VI.

_THE LIMITS OF COMPREHENSION._

EZRA iv. 1-5, 24.


The fourth chapter of the Book of Ezra introduces the vexed question
of the limits of comprehension in religion by affording a concrete
illustration of it in a very acute form. Communities, like individual
organisms, can only live by means of a certain adjustment to their
environment, in the settlement of which there necessarily arises a
serious struggle to determine what shall be absorbed and what
rejected, how far it is desirable to admit alien bodies and to what
extent it is necessary to exclude them. The difficulty thus occasioned
appeared in the company of returned exiles soon after they had begun
to rebuild the temple at Jerusalem. It was the seed of many troubles.
The anxieties and disappointments which overshadowed the subsequent
history nearly all of them sprang from this one source. Here we are
brought to a very distinguishing characteristic of the Persian period.
The idea of Jewish exclusiveness which has been so singular a feature
in the whole course of Judaism right down to our own day was now in
its birth-throes. Like a young Hercules, it had to fight for its life
in its very cradle. It first appeared in the anxious compilation of
genealogical registers and the careful sifting of the qualifications
of the pilgrims before they left Babylon. In the events which followed
the settlement at Jerusalem it came forward with determined insistence
on its rights, in opposition to a very tempting offer which would have
been fatal to its very existence.

The chronicler introduces the neighbouring people under the title "The
adversaries of Judah and Benjamin"; but in doing so he is describing
them according to their later actions; when they first appear on his
pages their attitude is friendly, and there is no reason to suspect
any hypocrisy in it. We cannot take them to be the remainder of the
Israelite inhabitants of the Northern Kingdom who had been permitted
to stay in their land when their brethren had been violently expelled
by the Assyrians, and who were now either showing their old enmity to
Judah and Benjamin by trying to pick a new quarrel, or, on the other
hand, manifesting a better spirit and seeking reconciliation. No doubt
such people existed, especially in the north, where they became, in
part at least, the ancestors of the Galileans of New Testament times.
But the men now referred to distinctly assert that they were brought
up to Palestine by the Assyrian king Esar-haddon. Neither can they be
the descendants of the Israelite priests who were sent at the request
of the colonists to teach them the religion of the land when they were
alarmed at an incursion of lions;[27] for only one priest is directly
mentioned in the history, and though he may have had companions and
assistants, the small college of missionaries could not be called "the
people of the land" (ver. 4). These people must be the foreign
colonists. There were Chaldæans from Babylon and the neighbouring
cities of Cutha and Sepharvaim (the modern _Mosaib_), Elamites from
Susa, Phœnicians from Sidon--if we may trust Josephus here[28]--and
Arabs from Petra. These had been introduced on four successive
occasions--first, as the Assyrian inscriptions show, by Sargon, who
sent two sets of colonists; then by Esar-haddon; and, lastly, by
Ashur-banipal.[29] The various nationalities had had time to become
well amalgamated together, for the first colonisation had happened a
hundred and eighty years, and the latest colonisation a hundred and
thirty years, before the Jews returned from Babylon. As the successive
exportations of Israelites went on side by side with the successive
importations of foreigners, the two classes must have lived together
for some time; and even after the last captivity of the Israelites had
been effected, those who were still left in the land would have come
into contact with the colonists. Thus, apart from the special mission
of the priest whose business it was to introduce the rites of
sacrificial worship, the popular religion of the Israelites would have
become known to the mixed heathen people who were settled among them.

  [27] 2 Kings xvii. 25-28.

  [28] _Ant._, XII. v. 5.

  [29] The "Osnappar" of Ezra iv. 10.

These neighbours assert that they worship the God whom the Jews at
Jerusalem worship, and that they have sacrificed to Him since the days
of Esar-haddon, the Assyrian king to whom, in particular, they
attribute their being brought up to Palestine, possibly because the
ancestors of the deputation to Jerusalem were among the colonists
planted by that king. For a century and a half they have acknowledged
the God of the Jews. They therefore request to be permitted to assist
in rebuilding the temple at Jerusalem. At the first blush of it their
petition looks reasonable and even generous. The Jews were poor; a
great work lay before them; and the inadequacy of their means in view
of what they aimed at had plunged the less enthusiastic among them
into grief and despair. Here was an offer of assistance that might
prove most efficacious. The idea of centralisation in worship of which
Josiah had made so much would be furthered by this means, because
instead of following the example of the Israelites before the exile
who had their altar at Bethel, the colonists proposed to take part in
the erection of the one Jewish temple at Jerusalem. If their previous
habit of offering sacrifices in their own territory was offensive to
rigorous Jews, although they might speak of it quite naively, because
they were unconscious that there was anything objectionable in it and
even regard it as meritorious, the very way to abolish this ancient
custom was to give the colonists an interest in the central shrine. If
their religion was defective, how could it be improved better than by
bringing them into contact with the law-abiding Jews? While the offer
of the colonists promised aid to the Jews in building the temple, it
also afforded them a grand missionary opportunity for carrying out the
broad programme of the Second Isaiah, who had promised the spread of
the light of God's grace among the Gentiles.

In view of these considerations we cannot but read the account of the
absolute rejection of the offer by Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of
the twelve leaders with a sense of painful disappointment. The less
pleasing side of religious intensity here presents itself. Zeal seems
to be passing into fanaticism. A selfish element mars the picture of
whole-hearted devotion which was so delightfully portrayed in the
history of the returned exiles up to this time. The leaders are
cautious enough to couch their answer in terms that seem to hint at
their inability to comply with the friendly request of their
neighbours, however much they may wish to do so, because of the
limitation imposed upon them in the edict of Cyrus which confined the
command to build the temple at Jerusalem to the Jews. But it is
evident that the secret of the refusal is in the mind and will of the
Jews themselves. They absolutely decline any co-operation with the
colonists. There is a sting in the carefully chosen language with
which they define their work: they call it building a house "unto
_our_ God." Thus they not only accept the polite phrase "Your God"
employed by the colonists in addressing them; but by markedly
accentuating its limitation they disallow any right of the colonists
to claim the same divinity.

Such a curt refusal of friendly overtures was naturally most offensive
to the people who received it. But their subsequent conduct was so
bitterly ill-natured that we are driven to think they must have had
some selfish aims from the first. They at once set some paid agents to
work at court to poison the mind of the government with calumnies
about the Jews. It is scarcely likely that they were able to win Cyrus
over to their side against his favourite _protégés_. The king may have
been too absorbed with the great affairs of his vast dominions for any
murmur of this business to reach him while it was being disposed of by
some official. But perhaps the matter did not come up till after Cyrus
had handed over the government to his son Cambyses, which he did in
the year B.C. 532--three years before his death. At all events the
calumnies were successful. The work of the temple building was
arrested at its very commencement--for as yet little more had been
done beyond collecting materials. The Jews were paying dearly for
their exclusiveness.

All this looks very miserable. But let us examine the situation.

We should show a total lack of the historical spirit if we were to
judge the conduct of Zerubbabel and his companions by the broad
principles of Christian liberalism. We must take into account their
religious training and the measure of light to which they had
attained. We must also consider the singularly difficult position in
which they were placed. They were not a nation; they were a Church.
Their very existence, therefore, depended upon a certain
ecclesiastical organisation. They must have shaped themselves
according to some definite lines, or they would have melted away into
the mass of mixed nationalities and debased eclectic religions with
which they were surrounded. Whether the course of personal
exclusiveness which they chose was wisest and best may be fairly
questioned. It has been the course followed by their children all
through the centuries, and it has acquired this much of
justification--it has succeeded. Judaism has been preserved by Jewish
exclusiveness. We may think that the essential truths of Judaism might
have been maintained by other means which would have allowed of a more
gracious treatment of outsiders. Meanwhile, however, we must see that
Zerubbabel and his companions were not simply indulging in churlish
unsociability when they rejected the request of their neighbours.
Rightly or wrongly, they took this disagreeable course with a great
purpose in mind.

Then we must understand what the request of the colonists really
involved. It is true they only asked to be allowed to assist in
_building_ the temple. But it would have been impossible to stay here.
If they had taken an active share in the labour and sacrifice of the
construction of the temple, they could not have been excluded
afterwards from taking part in the temple worship. This is the more
clear since the very grounds of their request were that they
worshipped and sacrificed to the God of the Jews. Now a great prophet
had predicted that God's house was to be a home of prayer for all
nations.[30] But the Jews at Jerusalem belonged to a very different
school of thought. With them, as we have learnt from the genealogies,
the racial idea was predominant. Judaism was for the Jews.

  [30] Isa. lvi. 7.

But let us understand what that religion was which the colonists
asserted to be identical with the religion of the returned exiles.
They said they worshipped the God of the Jews, but it was after the
manner of the people of the Northern Kingdom. In the days of the
Israelites that worship had been associated with the steer at Bethel,
and the people of Jerusalem had condemned the degenerate religion of
their northern brethren as sinful in the sight of God. But the
colonists had not confined themselves to this. They had combined their
old idolatrous religion with that of the newly adopted indigenous
divinity of Palestine. "They feared the Lord, and served their own
gods."[31] Between them, they adored a host of Pagan divinities, whose
barbarous names are grimly noted by the Hebrew historian--Succoth-benoth,
Nergal, Ashima, etc.[32] There is no evidence to show that this heathenism
had become extinct by the time of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple.
At all events, the bastard product of such a worship as that of the Bethel
steer and the Babylonian and Phœnician divinities, even when purged of
its most gross corruption, was not likely to be after the mind of the
puritan pilgrims. The colonists did not offer to adopt the traditional
Torah, which the returned exiles were sedulously observing.

  [31] 2 Kings xvii. 33.

  [32] 2 Kings xvii. 30, 31.

Still it may be said, if the people were imperfect in knowledge and
corrupt in practice, might not the Jews have enlightened and helped
them? We are reminded of the reproach that Bede brings so sternly
against the ancient British Christians when he blames them for not
having taught the gospel to the Saxon heathen who had invaded their
land. How far it would have been possible for a feeble people to
evangelise their more powerful neighbours, in either case, it is
impossible to say.

It cannot be denied, however, that in their refusal the Jews gave
prominence to racial and not to religious distinctions. Yet even in
this matter it would be unreasonable for us to expect them to have
surpassed the early Christian Church at Jerusalem and to have
anticipated the daring liberalism of St. Paul. The followers of St.
James were reluctant to receive any converts into their communion
except on condition of circumcision. This meant that Gentiles must
become Jews before they could be recognised as Christians. Now there
was no sign that the mixed race of colonists ever contemplated
becoming Jews by humbling themselves to a rite of initiation. Even if
most of them were already circumcised, as far as we know none of them
gave an indication of willingness to subject themselves wholly to
Jewish ordinances. To receive them, therefore, would be contrary to
the root principle of Judaism. It is not fair to mete out a harsh
condemnation to Jews who declined to do what was only allowed among
Christians after a desperate struggle, which separated the leader of
the liberal party from many of his brethren and left him for a long
while under a cloud of suspicion.

Great confusion has been imported into the controversy on Church
comprehension by not keeping it separate from the question of
tolerance in religion. The two are distinct in many respects.
Comprehension is an ecclesiastical matter; tolerance is primarily
concerned with the policy of the state. Whilst it is admitted that
nobody should be coerced in his religion by the state, it is not
therefore to be assumed that everybody is to be received into the
Church.

Nevertheless we feel that there is a real and vital connection between
the ideas of toleration and Church comprehensiveness. A Church may
become culpably intolerant, although she may not use the power of the
state for the execution of her mandates; she may contrive many painful
forms of persecution, without resorting to the rack and the
thumb-screw. The question therefore arises, What are the limits to
tolerance within a Church? The attempt to fix these limits by creeds
and canons has not been wholly successful, either in excluding the
unworthy or in including the most desirable members. The drift of
thought in the present day being towards wider comprehensiveness, it
becomes increasingly desirable to determine on what principles this
may be attained. Good men are weary of the little garden walled
around, and they doubt whether it is altogether the Lord's peculiar
ground; they have discovered that many of the flowers of the field are
fair and fragrant, and they have a keen suspicion that not a few
weeds may be lurking even in the trim parterre; so they look over the
wall and long for breadth and brotherhood, in a larger recognition of
all that is good in the world. Now the dull religious lethargy of the
eighteenth century is a warning against the chief danger that
threatens those who yield themselves to this fascinating impulse.
Latitudinarianism sought to widen the fold that had been narrowed on
one side by sacerdotal pretensions and on the other side by puritan
rigour. The result was that the fold almost disappeared. Then religion
was nearly swallowed up in the swamps of indifference. This deplorable
issue of a well-meant attempt to serve the cause of charity suggests
that there is little good in breaking down the barriers of
exclusiveness unless we have first established a potent centre of
unity. If we have put an end to division simply by destroying the
interests which once divided men, we have only attained the communion
of death. In the graveyard friend and foe lie peaceably side by side,
but only because both are dead. Wherever there is life two opposite
influences are invariably at work. There is a force of attraction
drawing in all that is congenial, and there is a force of a contrary
character repelling everything that is uncongenial. Any attempt to
tamper with either of these forces must result in disaster. A social
or an ecclesiastical division that arbitrarily crosses the lines of
natural affinity creates a schism in the body, and leads to a painful
mutilation of fellowship. On the other hand, a forced comprehension of
alien elements produces internal friction, which often leads to an
explosion, shattering the whole fabric. But the common mistake has
been in attending to the circumference and neglecting the centre, in
beating the bounds of the parish instead of fortifying the citadel.
The liberalism of St. Paul was not latitudinarian, because it was
inspired by a vital principle which served as the centre of all his
teaching. He preached liberty and comprehensiveness, because he had
first preached Christ. In Christ he found at once a bond of union and
an escape from narrowness. The middle wall of partition was broken
down, not by a Vandal armed with nothing better than the besom of
destruction, but by the Founder of a new kingdom, who could dispense
with artificial restrictions because He could draw all men unto
Himself.

Unfortunately the returned captives at Jerusalem did not feel
conscious of any such spiritual centre of unity. They might have found
it in their grandly simple creed, in their faith in God. But their
absorption in sacrificial ritual and its adjuncts shows that they were
too much under the influence of religious externalism. This being the
case, they could only preserve the purity of their communion by
carefully guarding its gates. It is pitiable to see that they could
find no better means of doing this than the harsh test of racial
integrity. Their action in this matter fostered a pride of birth which
was as injurious to their own better lives as it was to the extension
of their religion in the world. But so long as they were incapable of
a larger method, if they had accepted counsels of liberalism they
would have lost themselves and their mission. Looking at the positive
side of their mission, we see how the Jews were called to bear witness
to the great principle of separateness. This principle is as essential
to Christianity as it was to Judaism. The only difference is that with
the more spiritual faith it takes a more spiritual form. The people
of God must ever be consecrated to God, and therefore separate from
sin, separate from the world--separate unto God.

     NOTE.--For the section iv. 6-23 see Chapter XIV. This
     section is marked by a change of language; the writer adopts
     Aramaic at iv. 8, and he continues in that language down to
     vi. 18. The decree of Artaxerxes in vii. 12-26 is also in
     Aramaic.



CHAPTER VII.

_THE MISSION OF PROPHECY._

EZRA v. 1, 2.


The work of building the temple at Jerusalem, which had been but
nominally commenced in the reign of Cyrus, when it was suddenly
arrested before the death of that king, and which had not been touched
throughout the reigns of the two succeeding kings, Cambyses and
Pseudo-Bardes, was taken up in earnest in the second year of Darius,
the son of Hystaspes (B.C. 521). The disorders of the empire were then
favourable to local liberty. Cambyses committed suicide during a
revolt of his army on the march to meet the Pretender who had assumed
the name of his murdered brother, Bardes. Seven months later the
usurper was assassinated in his palace by some of the Persian nobles.
Darius, who was one of the conspirators, ascended the throne in the
midst of confusion and while the empire seemed to be falling to
pieces. Elam, the old home of the house of Cyrus, revolted; Syria
revolted; Babylon revolted twice, and was twice taken by siege. For a
time the king's writ could not run in Palestine. But it was not on
account of these political changes that the Jews returned to their
work. The relaxing of the supreme authority had left them more than
ever at the mercy of their unfriendly neighbours. The generous
disposition of Darius might have led them to regard him as a second
Cyrus, and his religion might have encouraged them to hope that he
would be favourable to them, for Darius was a monotheist, a worshipper
of Ormazd. But they recommenced their work without making any appeal
to the Great King and without receiving any permission from him, and
they did this when he was far too busy fighting for his throne to
attend to the troubles of a small, distant city.

We must look in another direction for the impetus which started the
Jews again upon their work. Here we come upon one of the most striking
facts in the history of Israel, nay, one of the greatest phenomena in
the spiritual experience of mankind. The voice of prophecy was heard
among the ruins of Jerusalem. The Cassandra-like notes of Jeremiah had
died away more than half a century before. Then Ezekiel had seen his
fantastic visions, "a captive by the river of Chebar," and the Second
Isaiah had sounded his trumpet-blast in the East summoning the exiles
to a great hope; but as yet no prophet had appeared among the pilgrims
on their return to Jerusalem. We cannot account for the sudden
outburst of prophecy. It is a work of the Spirit that breathes like
the wind, coming we know not how. We can hear its sound; we can
perceive the fact. But we cannot trace its origin, or determine its
issues. It is born in mystery and it passes into mystery. If it is
true that "_poeta nascitur, non fit_," much more must we affirm that
the prophet is no creature of human culture. He may be cultivated,
after God has made him; he cannot be manufactured by any human
machinery. No "School of the Prophets" ever made a true prophet. Many
of the prophets never came near any such institution; some of them
distinctly repudiated the professional "order." The lower prophets
with which the Northern Kingdom once swarmed were just dervishes who
sang and danced and worked themselves into a frenzy before the altars
on the high places; these men were quite different from the truly
inspired messengers of God. Their craft could be taught, and their
sacred colleges recruited to any extent from the ranks of fanaticism.
But the rare, austere souls that spoke with the authority of the Most
High came in a totally different manner. When there was no prophet and
when visions were rare men could only wait for God to send the
hoped-for guide; they could not call him into existence. The
appearance of an inspired soul is always one of the marvels of
history. Great men of the second rank may be the creatures of their
age. But it is given to the few of the very first order to be
independent of their age, to confront it and oppose it if need be,
perhaps to turn its current and shape its course.

The two prophets who now proclaimed their message in Jerusalem
appeared at a time of deep depression. They were not borne on the
crest of a wave of a religious revival, as its spokesmen to give it
utterance. Pagan orators and artists flourished in an Augustan age.
The Hebrew prophets came when the circumstances of society were least
favourable. Like painters arising to adorn a dingy city, like poets
singing of summer in the winter of discontent, like flowers in the
wilderness, like wells in the desert, they brought life and strength
and gladness to the helpless and despondent, because they came from
God. The literary form of their work reflected the civilisation of
their day, but there was on it a light that never shone on sea or
shore, and this they knew to be the light of God. We never find a
true religious revival springing from the spirit of the age. Such a
revival always begins in one or two choice souls--in a Moses, a
Samuel, a John the Baptist, a St. Bernard, a Jonathan-Edwards, a
Wesley, a Newman. Therefore it is vain for weary watchers to scan the
horizon for signs of the times in the hope that some general
improvement of society or some widespread awakening of the Church will
usher in a better future. This is no reason for discouragement,
however. It rather warns us not to despise the day of small things.
When once the spring of living water breaks out, though it flows at
first in a little brook, there is hope that it may swell into a great
river.

The situation is the more remarkable since the first of the two
prophets was an old man, who even seems to have known the first temple
before its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar.[33] Haggai is called simply
"the prophet," perhaps because his father's name was not known, but
more likely because he himself had attained so much eminence that the
title was given to him _par excellence_. Still this may only apply to
the descriptions of him in the age of the chronicler. There is no
indication that he prophesied in his earlier days. He was probably one
of the captives who had been carried away to Babylon in his childhood,
and who had returned with Zerubbabel to Jerusalem. Yet all this time
and during the first years of his return, as far as we know, he was
silent. At length, in extreme old age, he burst out into inspired
utterance--one of Joel's old men who were to dream dreams,[34] like
John the Evangelist, whose greatest work dates from his last years,
and Milton, who wrote his great epic when affliction seemed to have
ended his life-work. He must have been brooding over the bitter
disappointment in which the enthusiasm of the returned captives had
been quenched. It could not be God's will that they should be thus
mocked and deceived in their best hopes. True faith is not a
will-o'-the-wisp that lands its followers in a dreary swamp. The hope
of Israel is no mirage. For God is faithful. Therefore the despair of
the Jews must be wrong.

  [33] Hag. i. 1, ii. 9.

  [34] Joel ii. 28.

We have a few fragments of the utterances of Haggai preserved for us
in the Old Testament Canon. They are so brief and bald and abrupt as
to suggest the opinion that they are but notes of his discourses, mere
outlines of what he really said. As they are preserved for us they
certainly convey no idea of wealth of poetic imagination or richness
of oratorical colouring. But Haggai may have possessed none of these
qualities, and yet his words may have had a peculiar force of their
own. He is a reflective man. The long meditation of years has taught
him the value of thoughtfulness. The burden of his message is
"Consider your ways."[35] In short, incisive utterances he arrests
attention and urges consideration. But the outcome of all he has to
say is to cheer the drooping spirits of his fellow-citizens, and urge
on the rebuilding of the temple with confident promises of its great
future. For the most part his inspiration is simple, but it is
searching, and we perceive the triumphant hopefulness of the true
prophet in the promise that the latter glory of the house of God shall
be greater than the former.[36]

  [35] Hag. i. 5, 7.

  [36] Hag. ii. 9.

Haggai began to prophesy on the first day of the sixth month of the
second year of Darius.[37] So effective were his words that Zerubbabel
and his companions were at once roused from the lethargy of despair,
and within three weeks the masons and carpenters were again at work on
the temple.[38] Two months after Haggai had broken the long silence of
prophecy in Jerusalem Zechariah appeared. He was of a very different
stamp; he was one of the young men who see visions. Familiar with the
imagery of Babylonian art, he wove its symbols into the pictures of
his own exuberant fancy. Moreover, Zechariah was a priest. Thus, like
Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he united the two rival tendencies which had
confronted one another in marked antagonism during the earlier periods
of the history of Israel. Henceforth the brief return of prophetism,
its soft after-glow among the restored people, is in peaceable
alliance with priestism. The last prophet, Malachi, even exhorts the
Jews to pay the priests their dues of tithe. Zechariah, like Haggai,
urges on the work of building the temple.

  [37] Hag. i. 1.

  [38] Hag. ii. 1 _seq._

Thus the chronicler's brief note on the appearance of two prophets at
Jerusalem, and the electrical effect of their message, is a striking
illustration of the mission of prophecy. That mission has been
strangely misapprehended by succeeding ages. Prophets have been
treated as miraculous conjurers, whose principal business consisted in
putting together elaborate puzzles, perfectly unintelligible to their
contemporaries, which the curious of later times were to decipher by
the light of events. The prophets themselves formed no such idle
estimate of their work, nor did their contemporaries assign to them
this quaint and useless rôle. Though these men were not the creatures
of their times, they lived for their times. Haggai and Zechariah, as
the chronicler emphatically puts it, "prophesied to the Jews that were
in Jerusalem, ... _even unto them_." The object of their message was
immediate and quite practical--to stir up the despondent people and
urge them to build the temple--and it was successful in accomplishing
that end. As prophets of God they necessarily touched on eternal
truths. They were not mere opportunists; their strength lay in the
grasp of fundamental principles. This is why their teaching still
lives, and is of lasting use for the Church in all ages. But in order
to understand that teaching we must first of all read it in its
original historical setting, and discover its direct bearing on
contemporary needs.

Now the question arises, In what way did these prophets of God help
the temple-builders? The fragments of their utterances which we
possess enable us to answer this question. Zerubbabel was a
disappointing leader. Such a man was far below the expected Messiah,
although high hopes may have been set upon him when he started at the
head of the caravan of pilgrims from Babylon. Cyrus may have known him
better, and with the instinct of a king in reading men may have
entrusted the lead to the heir of the Jewish throne, because he saw
there would be no possibility of a dangerous rebellion resulting from
the act of confidence. Haggai's encouragement to Zerubbabel to "be
strong" is in a tone that suggests some weakness on the part of the
Jewish leader. Both the prophets thought that he and his people were
too easily discouraged. It was a part of the prophetic insight to look
below the surface and discover the real secret of failure. The Jews
set down their failure to adverse circumstances; the prophets
attributed it to the character and conduct of the people and their
leaders. Weak men commonly excuse their inactivity by reciting their
difficulties, when stronger men would only regard those difficulties
as furnishing an occasion for extra exertion. That is a most
superficial view of history which regards it as wholly determined by
circumstances. No great nation ever arose on such a principle. The
Greeks who perished at Thermopylæ within a few years of the times we
are now considering are honoured by all the ages as heroes of
patriotism just because they refused to bow to circumstances. Now the
courage which patriots practised in pagan lands is urged upon the Jews
by their prophets from higher considerations. They are to see that
they are weak and cowardly when they sit in dumb despair, crushed by
the weight of external opposition. They have made a mistake in putting
their trust in princes.[39] They have relied too much on Zerubbabel
and too little on God. The failure of the arm of flesh should send
them back to the never-failing out-stretched arm of the Almighty.

  [39] Psalm cxviii. 8, 9.

Have we not met with the same mistaken discouragement and the same
deceptive excuses for it in the work of the Church, in missionary
enterprises, in personal lives? Every door is shut against the servant
of God but one, the door of prayer. Forgetting this, and losing sight
of the key of faith that would unlock it, he sits, like Elijah by
Kerith, the picture of abject wretchedness. His great enterprises are
abandoned because he thinks the opposition to them is insuperable. He
forgets that, though his own forces are small, he is the envoy of the
King of kings, who will not suffer him to be worsted if only he
appeals to Heaven for fresh supplies. A dead materialism lies like a
leaden weight on the heart of the Church, and she has not faith enough
to shake it off and claim her great inheritance in all the spiritual
wealth of the Unseen. Many a man cries, like Jacob, "All these things
are against me," not perceiving that, even if they are, no number of
"things" should be permitted to check the course of one who looks
above and beyond what is seen and therefore only temporal to the
eternal resources of God.

This was the message of Zechariah to Zerubbabel: "Not by might, nor by
power, but by My spirit, saith the Lord of hosts. Who art thou, O
great mountain? before Zerubbabel thou shalt become a plain: and he
shall bring forth the head stone with shoutings of Grace, grace unto
it!"[40]

  [40] Zech. iv. 6, 7.

Here, then, is the secret of the sudden revival of activity on the
part of the Jews after they had been slicing for years in dumb apathy,
gazing hopelessly on the few stones that had been laid among the ruins
of the old temple. It was not the returning favour of the court under
Darius, it was not the fame of the house of David, it was not the
priestly dignity of the family of Zadok that awakened the slumbering
zeal of the Jews; the movement began in an unofficial source, and it
passed to the people through unofficial channels. It commenced in the
meditations of a calm thinker; it was furthered by the visions of a
rapt seer. This is a clear indication of the fact that the world is
ruled by mind and spirit, not merely by force and authority. Thought
and imagination lie at the springs of action. In the heart of it
history is moulded by ideas. "Big battalions," "the sinews of war,"
"blood and iron," are phrases that suggest only the most external and
therefore the most superficial causes. Beneath them are the _ideas_
that govern all they represent.

Further, the influence of the prophets shows that the ideas which have
most vitality and vigour are moral and spiritual in character. All
thoughts are influential in proportion as they take possession of the
minds and hearts of men and women. There is power in conceptions of
science, philosophy, politics, sociology. But the ideas that touch
people to the quick, the ideas that stir the hidden depths of
consciousness and rouse the slumbering energies of life, are those
that make straight for the conscience. Thus the two prophets exposed
the shame of indolence; they rallied their gloomy fellow-citizens by
high appeals to the sense of right.

Again, this influence was immensely strengthened by its relation to
God. The prophets were more than moralists. The meditations of Marcus
Aurelius could not touch any people as the considerations of the calm
Haggai touched the Jews, for the older prophet, as well as the more
rousing Zechariah, found the spell of his message in its revelation of
God. He made the Jews perceive that they were not deserted by Jehovah;
and directly they felt that God was with them in their work the weak
and timid citizens were able to quit them like men. The irresistible
might of Cromwell's Ironsides at Marston Moor came from their
unwavering faith in their battle-cry, "The Lord of Hosts is with us!"
General Gordon's immeasurable courage is explained when we read his
letters and diaries, and see how he regarded himself as simply an
instrument through whom God wrought. Here, too, is the strong side of
Calvinism.

Then this impression of the power and presence of God in their
destinies was deepened in the Jews by the manifest Divine authority
with which the prophets spake. They prophesied "in the name of the God
of Israel"--the one God of the people of both kingdoms now united in
their representatives. Their "Thus saith the Lord" was the powder that
drove the shot of their message through the toughest hide of apathy.
Except to a Platonist, ideas are impossible apart from the mind that
thinks them. Now the Jews, as well as their prophets, felt that the
great ideas of prophecy could not be the products of pure human
thinking. The sublime character, the moral force, the superb
hopefulness of these ideas proclaimed their Divine origin. As it is
the mission of the prophet to speak for God, so it is the voice of God
in His inspired messenger that awakes the dead and gives strength to
the weak.

This ultimate source of prophecy accounts for its unique character of
hopefulness, and that in turn makes it a powerful encouragement for
the weak and depressed people to whom it is sent. Wordsworth tells us
that we live by "admiration, love, and hope." If one of these three
sources of vitality is lost, life itself shrinks and fades. The man
whose hope has fled has no lustre in his eye, no accent in his voice,
no elasticity in his tread; by his dull and listless attitude he
declares that the life has gone out of him. But the ultimate end of
prophecy is to lead up to a gospel, and the meaning of the word
"gospel" is just that there is a message from God bringing hope to the
despairing. By inspiring a new hope this message kindles a new life.



CHAPTER VIII.

_NEW DIFFICULTIES MET IN A NEW SPIRIT._

EZRA v. 3-vi. 5.


It is in keeping with the character of his story of the returned Jews
throughout, that no sooner has the chronicler let a ray of sunshine
fall on his page--in his brief notice of the inspiriting mission of
the two prophets--than he is compelled to plunge his narrative again
into gloom. But he shows that there was now a new spirit in the Jews,
so that they were prepared to meet opposition in a more manly fashion.
If their jealous neighbours had been able to paralyse their efforts
for years, it was only to be expected that a revival of energy in
Jerusalem should provoke an increase of antagonism abroad, and
doubtless the Jews were prepared for this. Still it was not a little
alarming to learn that the infection of the anti-Jewish temper had
spread over a wide area. The original opposition had come from the
Samaritans. But in this later time the Jews were questioned by the
Satrap of the whole district east of the Euphrates--"the governor
beyond the river,"[41] as the chronicler styles him, describing his
territory as it would be regarded officially from the standpoint of
Babylon. His Aramaic name, Tattenai, shows that he was not a Persian,
but a native Syrian, appointed to his own province, according to the
Persian custom. This man and one Shethar-bozenai, whom we may assume
to be his secretary, must have been approached by the colonists in
such a way that their suspicions were roused. Their action was at
first only just and reasonable. They asked the Jews to state on what
authority they were rebuilding the temple with its massive walls. In
the Hebrew Bible the answer of the Jews is so peculiar as to suggest a
corruption of the text. It is in the first person plural--"Then said
_we_ unto them," etc.[42] In the Septuagint the third person is
substituted--"Then said _they_," etc., and this rendering is followed
in the Syriac and Arabic versions. It would require a very slight
alteration in the Hebrew text. The Old Testament Revisers have
retained the first person--setting the alternative reading in the
margin. If we keep to the Hebrew text as it stands, we must conclude
that we have here a fragment from some contemporary writer which the
chronicler has transcribed literally. But then it seems confusing.
Some have shaped the sentence into a direct statement, so that in
reply to the inquiry for their authority the Jews give the names of
the builders. How is this an answer? Possibly the name of Zerubbabel,
who had been appointed governor of Jerusalem by Cyrus, could be quoted
as an authority. And yet the weakness of his position was so evident
that very little would be gained in this way, for it would be the
right of the Satrap to inquire into the conduct of the local governor.
If, however, we read the sentence in the third person, it will
contain a further question from the Satrap and his secretary,
inquiring for the names of the leaders in the work at Jerusalem. Such
an inquiry threatened danger to the feeble Zerubbabel.

  [41] Ezra v. 3.

  [42] Ezra v. 4.

The seriousness of the situation is recognised by the grateful comment
of the chronicler, who here remarks that "the eye of their God was
upon the elders of the Jews."[43] It is the peculiarity of even the
dryest records of Scripture that the writers are always ready to
detect the presence of God in history. This justifies us in describing
the Biblical narratives as "sacred history," in contrast to the
so-called "secular history" of such authors as Herodotus and Livy. The
narrow conception of the difference is to think that God was with the
Jews, while He left the Greeks and Romans and the whole Gentile world
to their fate without any recognition or interference on His part.
Such a view is most dishonouring to God, who is thus regarded as no
better than a tribal divinity, and not as the Lord of heaven and
earth. It is directly contradicted by the Old Testament historians,
for they repeatedly refer to the influence of God on great world
monarchies. No doubt a claim to the Divine graciousness as the
peculiar privilege of Israel is to be seen in the Old Testament. As
far as this was perverted into a selfish desire to confine the
blessings of God to the Jews, it was vigorously rebuked in the Book of
Jonah. Still it is indisputable that those who truly sought God's
grace, acknowledged His authority, and obeyed His will, must have
enjoyed privileges which such of the heathen as St. Paul describes in
the first chapter of his Epistle to the Romans could not share. Thus
the chronicler writes as though the leaders of the Jews in their
difficulties were the special objects of the Divine notice. The eye of
God was on _them_, distinctively. God is spoken of as _their_ God.
They were men who knew, trusted, and honoured God, and at the present
moment they were loyally carrying out the direction of God's prophets.
All this is special. Nevertheless, it remains true that the chief
characteristic of Biblical history is its recognition of the presence
of God in the affairs of mankind generally, and this applies to all
nations, although it is most marked among those nations in which God
is known and obeyed.

  [43] Ezra v. 5.

The peculiar form of Providence which is brought before us in the
present instance is the Divine observation. It is difficult to believe
that, just as the earth is visible to the stars throughout the day
while the stars are invisible to the earth, we are always seen by God
although we never see Him. When circumstances are adverse--and these
circumstances are only too visible--it is hard not to doubt that God
is still watching all that happens to us, because although we cry out
in our agony no answer breaks the awful silence and no hand comes out
of the clouds to hold us up. It seems as though our words were lost in
the void. But that is only the impression of the moment. If we read
history with the large vision of the Hebrew chronicler, can we fail to
perceive that this is not a God-deserted world? In the details His
presence may not be discerned, but when we stand back from the canvas
and survey the whole picture, it flashes upon us like a sunbeam spread
over the whole landscape. Many a man can recognise the same happy
truth in the course of his own life as he looks back over a wide
stretch of it, although while he was passing through his perplexing
experience the thicket of difficulties intercepted his vision of the
heavenly light.

Now it is a most painful result of unbelief and cowardice working on
the consciousness of guilt lurking in the breast of every sinful man,
that the "eye of God" has become an object of terror to the
imagination of so many people. Poor Hagar's exclamation of joy and
gratitude has been sadly misapprehended. Discovering to her amazement
that she is not alone in the wilderness, the friendless, heart-broken
slave-girl looks up through her tears with a smile of sudden joy on
her face, and exclaims, "Thou God seest me!"[44] And yet her happy
words have been held over terrified children as a menace! That is a
false thought of God which makes any of His children shrink from His
presence, except they are foul and leprous with sin, and even then
their only refuge is, as St. Augustine found, to come to the very God
against whom they have sinned. We need not fear lest some day God may
make a miserable discovery about us. He knows the worst, already. Then
it is a ground of hope that while He sees all the evil in us God still
loves His children--that He does not love us, as it were, under a
misapprehension. Our Lord's teaching on the subject of the Divine
observation is wholly reassuring. Not a sparrow falls to the ground
without our Father's notice, the very hairs of our head are all
numbered, and the exhortation based on these facts is not "Beware of
the all-seeing Eye!" but "Fear not."[45]

  [44] Gen. xvi. 13.

  [45] Luke xii. 7.

The limitation of the chronicler's remark is significant. He speaks of
the _eye_ of God, not of God's mighty hand, nor of His outstretched
arm. It was not yet the time for action; but God was watching the
course of events. Or if God was acting, His procedure was so secret
that no one could perceive it. Meanwhile it was enough to know that
God was observing everything that was transpiring. He could not be
thought of as an Epicurean divinity, surveying the agony and tragedy
of human life with a stony gaze of supercilious indifference, as the
proud patrician looks down on the misery of the dim multitude. For God
to see is for God to care; and for God to care is for God to help. But
this simple statement of the Divine observation maintains a reserve as
to the method of the action of God, and it is perhaps the best way of
describing Providence so that it shall not appear to come into
collision with the free will of man.

The chronicler distinctly associates the Divine observation with the
continuance of the Jews in their work. Because the eye of God was on
them their enemies could not cause them to cease until the matter had
been referred to Darius and his answer received. This may be explained
by some unrecorded juncture of circumstances which arrested the action
of the enemies of Israel; by the overruling Providence according to
which the Satrap was led to perceive that it would not be wise or just
for him to act until he had orders from the king; or by the new zeal
with which the two prophets had inspired the Jews, so that they took
up a bold position in the calm confidence that God was with them.
Account for it as we may, we see that in the present case the Jews
were not hindered in their work. It is enough for faith to perceive
the result of the Divine care without discovering the process.

The letter of the Satrap and his secretary embodies the reply of the
Jews to the official inquiries, and that reply clearly and boldly
sets forth their position. One or two points in it call for passing
notice.

In the first place, the Jews describe themselves as "servants of the
God of heaven and earth." Thus they start by mentioning their
religious status, and not any facts about their race or nation. This
was wise, and calculated to disarm suspicion as to their motives; and
it was strictly true, for the Jews were engaged in a distinctly
religious work. Then the way in which they describe their God is
significant. They do not use the national name "Jehovah." That would
serve no good purpose with men who did not know or acknowledge their
special faith. They say nothing to localise and limit their idea of
God. To build the temple of a tribal god would be to further the ends
of the tribe, and this the jealous neighbours of the Jews supposed
they were doing. By the larger title the Jews lift their work out of
all connection with petty personal ends. In doing so they confess
their true faith. These Jews of the return were pure monotheists. They
believed that there was one God who ruled over heaven and earth.

In the second place, with just a touch of national pride, pathetic
under the circumstances, they remind the Persians that their nation
has seen better days, and that they are rebuilding the temple which a
great king had set up. Thus, while they would appeal to the generosity
of the authorities, they would claim their respect, with the dignity
of men who know they have a great history. In view of this the next
statement is most striking. Reciting the piteous story of the
overthrow of their nation, the destruction of their temple, and the
captivity of their fathers, the Jews ascribe it all to their national
sins. The prophets had long ago discerned the connection of cause and
effect in these matters. But while it was only the subject of
prediction, the proud people indignantly rejected the prophetic view.
Since then their eyes had been opened by the painful purging of dire
national calamities. One great proof that the nation had profited by
the fiery ordeal of the captivity is that it now humbly acknowledged
the sins which had brought it into the furnace. Trouble is
illuminating. While it humbles men, it opens their eyes. It is better
to see clearly in a lowly place than to walk blindfold on perilous
heights.

After this explanatory preamble, the Jews appeal to the edict of
Cyrus, and describe their subsequent conduct as a direct act of
obedience to that edict. Thus they plead their cause as loyal subjects
of the Persian empire. In consequence of this appeal, the Satrap and
his secretary request the king to order a search to be made for the
edict, and to reply according to his pleasure.

The chronicler then proceeds to relate how the search was prosecuted,
first among the royal archives at Babylon--in "the house of
books."[46] One of Mr. Layard's most valuable discoveries was that of
a set of chambers in a palace at Koyunjik, the whole of the floor of
which was covered more than a foot deep with terra-cotta tablets
inscribed with public records.[47] A similar collection has been
recently found in the neighbourhood of Babylon.[48] In some such
record-house the search for the edict of Cyrus was made. But the
cylinder or tablet on which it was written could not be found. The
searchers then turned their attention to the roll-chamber at the
winter palace of Ecbatana, and there a parchment or papyrus copy of
the edict was discovered.

  [46] Ezra vi. 1.

  [47] "Nineveh and Babylon," p. 345.

  [48] Bertheau-Ryssel, "Kurzgefasstes exegetisches Handbuch," p. 74.

One of the items of this edict as it is now given is somewhat
surprising, for it was not named in the earlier account in the first
chapter of the Book of Ezra. This is a description of the dimensions
of the temple which was to be built at Jerusalem. It must have been
not a little humiliating to the Jews to have to take these
measurements from a foreign sovereign, a heathen, a polytheist.
Possibly, however, they had been first supplied to the king by the
Jews, so that the builders might have the more explicit permission for
what they were about to undertake. On the other hand, it may be that
we have here the outside dimensions, beyond which the Jews were not
permitted to go, and that the figures represent a limit for their
ambitions. In either case the appearance of the details in the decree
at all gives us a vivid conception of the thoroughness of the Persian
autocracy, and of the perfect subjection of the Jews to Cyrus.

Some difficulty has been felt in interpreting the figures because they
seem to point to a larger building than Solomon's temple. The height
is given at sixty cubits, and the breadth at the same measurement. But
Solomon's temple was only thirty cubits high, and its total breadth,
with its side-chambers, was not more than forty cubits.[49] When we
consider the comparative poverty of the returned Jews, the
difficulties under which they laboured, the disappointment of the old
men who had seen the former building, and the short time within which
the work was finished--only four years[50]--it is difficult to believe
that it was more than double the size of the glorious fabric for which
David collected materials, on which Solomon lavished the best
resources of his kingdom, and which even then took many more years in
building. Perhaps the height includes the terrace on which the temple
was built, and the breadth the temple adjuncts. Perhaps the temple
never attained the dimensions authorised by the edict. But even if the
full size were reached, the building would not have approached the
size of the stupendous temples of the great ancient empires. Apart
from its courts Solomon's temple was certainly a small building. It
was not the size, but the splendour of that famous fabric that led to
its being regarded with so much admiration and pride.

  [49] 1 Kings vi. 2.

  [50] Ezra iv. 24, vi. 15.

The most remarkable architectural feature of all these ancient temples
was the enormous magnitude of the stones with which they were built.
At the present day the visitor to Jerusalem gazes with wonder at huge
blocks, all carefully chiselled and accurately fitted together, where
parts of the old foundations may still be discerned. The narrative in
Ezra makes several references to the great stones--"stones of
rolling"[51] it calls them, because they could only be moved on
rollers. Even the edict mentions "three rows of great stones,"
together with "a row of new timber,"[52]--an obscure phrase, which
perhaps means that the walls were to be of the thickness of three
stones, while the timber formed an inner pannelling; or that there
were to be three storeys of stone and one of wood; or yet another
possibility, that on three tiers of stone a tier of wood was to be
laid. In the construction of the inner court of Solomon's temple this
third method seems to have been followed, for we read, "And he built
the inner court with three rows of hewn stone and a row of cedar
beams."[53] However we regard it--and the plan is confusing and a
matter of much discussion--the impression is one of massive strength.
The jealous observers noted especially the building of "the wall" of
the temple.[54] So solid a piece of work might be turned into a
fortification. But no such end seems to have been contemplated by the
Jews. They built solidly because they wished their work to stand. It
was to be no temporary tabernacle; but a permanent temple designed to
endure to posterity. We are struck with the massive character of the
Roman remains in Britain, which show that when the great world
conquerors took possession of our island they settled down in it and
regarded it as a permanent property. The same grand consciousness of
permanence must have been in the minds of the brave builders who
planted this solid structure at Jerusalem in the midst of troubles and
threatenings of disaster. To-day, when we look at the stupendous
Phœnician and Jewish architecture of Syria, we are struck with
admiration at the patience, the perseverance, the industry, the
thoroughness, the largeness of idea that characterised the work of
these old-world builders. Surely it must have been the outcome of a
similar tone and temper of mind. The modern mind may be more nimble,
as the modern work is more expeditious. But for steadfastness of
purpose the races that wrought so patiently at great enduring works
seem to have excelled anything we can attain. And yet here and there a
similar characteristic is observable--as, for example, in the
self-restraint and continuous toil of Charles Darwin, when he
collected facts for twenty years before he published the book which
embodied the conclusion he had drawn from his wide induction.

  [51] Ezra v. 8.

  [52] Ezra vi. 4.

  [53] 1 Kings vi. 36.

  [54] Ezra v. 9.

The solid character of the temple-building is further suggestive,
because the work was all done for the service of God. Such work should
never be hasty, because God has the leisure of eternity in which to
inspect it. It is labour lost to make it superficial and showy without
any real strength, because God sees behind all pretences. Moreover,
the fire will try every man's work of what sort it is. We grow
impatient of toil; we weary for quick results; we forget that in
building the spiritual temple strength to endure the shocks of
temptation and to outlast the decay of time is more valued by God than
the gourd-like display which is the sensation of the hour, only to
perish as quickly as it has sprung up.



CHAPTER IX.

_THE DEDICATION OF THE TEMPLE._

EZRA vi. 6-22.


The chronicler's version of the edict in which Darius replies to the
application of the Satrap Tattenai is so very friendly to the Jews
that questions have been raised as to its genuineness. We cannot but
perceive that the language has been modified in its transition from
the Persian terra-cotta cylinder to the roll of the Hebrew chronicler,
because the Great King could not have spoken of the religion of Israel
in the absolute phrases recorded in the Book of Ezra. But when all
allowance has been made for verbal alterations in translation and
transcription, the substance of the edict is still sufficiently
remarkable. Darius fully endorses the decree of Cyrus, and even
exceeds that gracious ordinance in generosity. He curtly bids Tattenai
"let the work of the house of God alone." He even orders the Satrap to
provide for this work out of the revenues of his district. The public
revenues are also to be used in maintaining the Jewish priests and in
providing them with sacrifices--"that they may offer sacrifices of
sweet savour unto the God of heaven, and pray for the life of the king
and of his sons."[55]

  [55] Ezra vi. 10.

On the other hand, it cannot be doubted that Darius sent a reply that
was favourable to the Jews, for all opposition to their work was
stopped, and means were found for completing the temple and
maintaining the costly ritual. The Jews gratefully acknowledged the
influence of God on the heart of Darius. Surely they were right in
doing so. They were gifted with the true insight of faith. It is no
contradiction to add that--in the earthly sphere and among the human
motives through which God works, by guiding them--what we know of
Darius will account to some extent for his friendliness towards the
Jews. He was a powerful ruler, and when he had quelled the serious
rebellions that had broken out in several quarters of his kingdom, he
organised his government in a masterly style with a new and thorough
system of satrapies.[56] Then he pushed his conquests farmer afield,
and subsequently came into contact with Europe, although ultimately to
suffer a humiliating defeat in the famous battle of Marathon. In fact,
we may regard him as the real founder of the Persian Empire. Cyrus,
though his family was of Persian origin, was originally a king of
Elam, and he had to conquer Persia before he could rule over it; but
Darius was a prince of the Persian royal house. Unlike Cyrus, he was
at least a monotheist, if not a thoroughgoing Zoroastrian. The
inscription on his tomb at _Naksh-i-Rustem_ attributes all that he has
achieved to the favour of Ormazd. "When Ormazd saw this earth filled
with revolt and civil war, then did he entrust it to me. He made me
king, and I am king. By the grace of Ormazd I have restored the
earth." "All that I have done I have done through the grace of
Ormazd. Ormazd brought help to me until I had completed my work. May
Ormazd protect from evil me and my house and this land. Therefore I
pray unto Ormazd, May Ormazd grant this to me." "O Man! May the
command of Ormazd not be despised by thee: leave not the path of
right, sin not!"[57] Such language implies a high religious conception
of life. Although it is a mistake to suppose that the Jews had
borrowed anything of importance from Zoroastrianism during the
captivity or in the time of Cyrus--inasmuch as that religion was then
scarcely known in Babylon--when it began to make itself felt there,
its similarity to Judaism could not fail to strike the attention of
observant men. It taught the existence of one supreme God--though it
co-ordinated the principles of good and evil in His being, as two
subsidiary existences, in a manner not allowed by Judaism--and it
encouraged prayer. It also insisted on the dreadful evil of sin and
urged men to strive after purity, with an earnestness that witnessed
to the blending of morality with religion to an extent unknown
elsewhere except among the Jews. Thus, if Darius were a Zoroastrian,
he would have two powerful links of sympathy with the Jews in
opposition to the corrupt idolatry of the heathen--the spiritual
monotheism and the earnest morality that were common to the two
religions. And in any case it is not altogether surprising to learn
that when he read the letter of the people who described themselves as
"the servants of the God of heaven and earth," the worshipper of
Ormazd should have sympathised with them rather than with their
semi-pagan opponents. Moreover, Darius must have known something of
Judaism from the Jews of Babylon. Then, he was restoring the temples
of Ormazd which his predecessor had destroyed. But the Jews were
engaged in a very similar work; therefore the king, in his antipathy
to the idolaters, would give no sanction to a heathenish opposition to
the building of the temple at Jerusalem by a people who believed in
One Spiritual God.

  [56] Herodotus, iii. 89.

  [57] Sayce, Introduction, pp. 57, 58.

Darius was credited with a generous disposition, which would incline him to
a kindly treatment of his subjects. Of course we must interpret this
according to the manners of the times. For example, in his edict about the
temple-building he gives orders that any one of his subjects who hinders
the work is to be impaled on a beam from his own house, the site of which
is to be used for a refuse heap.[58] Darius also invokes the God of the
Jews to destroy any foreign king or people who should attempt to alter or
destroy the temple at Jerusalem. The savagery of his menace is in harmony
with his conduct when, according to Herodotus, he impaled _three thousand_
men at Babylon after he had recaptured the city.[59] Those were cruel
times--Herodotus tells us that the besieged Babylonians had previously
strangled their own wives when they were running short of provisions.[60]
The imprecation with which the edict closes may be matched by one on the
inscription of Darius at _Behistum_, where the Great King invokes the curse
of Ormazd on any persons who should injure the tablet. The ancient despotic
world-rulers had no conception of the modern virtue of humanitarianism. It
is sickening to picture to ourselves their methods of government. The
enormous misery involved is beyond calculation. Still we may believe that
the worst threats were not always carried out; we may make some allowance
for Oriental extravagance of language. And yet, after all has been said,
the conclusion of the edict of Darius presents to us a kind of state
support for religion which no one would defend in the present day. In
accepting the help of the Persian sovereign the Jews could not altogether
dissociate themselves from his way of government. Nevertheless it is fair
to remember that they had not asked for his support. They had simply
desired to be left unmolested.

  [58] Ezra. vi. 11.

  [59] Herodotus, iii. 159.

  [60] _Ibid._

Tattenai loyally executed the decree of Darius; the temple-building
proceeded without further hindrance, and the work was completed about four
years after its recommencement at the instigation of the prophet Haggai.
Then came the joyous ceremony of the dedication. All the returned exiles
took part in it. They are named collectively "the children of
Israel"--another indication that the restored Jews were regarded by the
chronicler as the representatives of the whole united nation as this had
existed under David and Solomon before the great schism. Similarly there
are _twelve_ he-goats for the sin-offering--for the twelve tribes.[61]
Several classes of Israelites are enumerated,--first the clergy in their
two orders, the priests and the Levites, always kept distinct in "Ezra";
next the laity, who are described as "the children of the captivity." The
limitation of this phrase is significant. In the dedication of the temple
the Israelites of the land who were mixed up with the heathen people are
not included. Only the returned exiles had built the temple; only they were
associated in the dedication of it. Here is a strictly guarded Church.
Access to it is through the one door of an unimpeachable genealogical
record. Happily the narrowness of this arrangement is soon to be broken
through. In the meanwhile it is to be observed that it is just the people
who have endured the hardship of separation from their beloved Jerusalem to
whom the privilege of rejoicing in the completion of the new temple is
given. The tame existence that cannot fathom the depths of misery is
incapable of soaring to the heights of bliss. The joy of the harvest is for
those who have sown in tears.

  [61] Ezra vi. 17.

The work was finished, and yet its very completion was a new
commencement. The temple was now dedicated--literally "initiated"--for
the future service of God.

This dedication is an instance of the highest use of man's work. The
fruit of years of toil and sacrifice is given to God. Whatever
theories we may have about the consecration of a building--and surely
every building that is put to a sacred use is in a sense a sacred
building--there can be no question as to the rightness of dedication.
This is just the surrender to God of what was built for Him out of the
resources that He had supplied. A dedication service is a solemn act
of transfer by which a building is given over to the use of God. We
may save it from narrowness if we do not limit it to places of public
assembly. The home where the family altar is set up, where day by day
prayer is offered, and where the common round of domestic duties is
elevated and consecrated by being faithfully discharged as in the
sight of God, is a true sanctuary; it too, like the Jerusalem temple,
has its "Holy of Holies." Therefore when a family enters a new house,
or when two young lives cross the threshold of what is to be
henceforth their "home," there is as true a ground for a solemn act of
dedication as in the opening of a great temple. A prophet declared
that "Holiness to the Lord" was to characterise the very vessels of
household use in Jerusalem.[62] It may lift some of the burden of
drudgery which presses on people who are compelled to spend their time
in common house-toil, for them to perceive that they may become
priests and priestesses ministering at the altar even in their daily
work. In the same spirit truly devout men of business will dedicate
their shops, their factories, their offices, the tools of their work,
and the enterprises in which they engage, so that all may be regarded
as belonging to God, and only to be used as His will dictates. Behind
every such act of dedication there must be a prior act of
self-consecration, without which the gift of any mere thing to God is
but an insult to the Father who only seeks the hearts of His children.
Nay, without this a real gift of any kind is impossible. But the
people who have first given their own selves to the Lord are prepared
for all other acts of surrender.

  [62] Zech. xiv. 21.

According to the custom of their ritual, the Jews signalised the
dedication of the temple by the offering of sacrifices. Even with the
help of the king's bounty these were few in number compared with the
lavish holocausts that were offered in the ceremony of dedicating
Solomon's temple.[63] Here, in the external aspect of things, the
melancholy archæologists might have found another cause for
lamentation. But we are not told that any such people appeared on the
present occasion. The Jews were not so foolish as to believe that the
value of a religious movement could be ascertained by the study of
architectural dimensions. Is it less misleading to attempt to estimate
the spiritual prosperity of a Church by casting up the items of its
balance-sheet, or tabulating the numbers of its congregations?

  [63] 1 Kings viii. 63.

Looking more closely into the chronicler's description of the
sacrifices, we see that these were principally of two distinct
kinds.[64] There were some animals for burnt offerings, which
signified complete dedication, and pledged their offerers to it. Then
there were other animals for sin-offerings. Thus even in the joyous
dedication of the temple the sin of Israel could not be forgotten. The
increasing importance of sacrifices for sin is one of the most marked
features of the Hebrew ritual in its later stages of development. It
shows that in the course of ages the national consciousness of sin was
intensified. At the same time it makes clear that the inexplicable
conviction that without shedding of blood there could be no remission
of sins was also deepened. Whether the sacrifice was regarded as a
gift pleasing and propitiating an offended God, or as a substitute
bearing the death-penalty of sin, or as a sacred life, bestowing, by
means of its blood, new life on sinners who had forfeited their own
lives; in any case, and however it was interpreted, it was felt that
blood must be shed if the sinner was to be freed from guilt.
Throughout the ages this awful thought was more and more vividly
presented, and the mystery which the conscience of many refused to
abandon continued, until there was a great revelation of the true
meaning of sacrifice for sin in the one efficacious atonement of
Christ.

  [64] Ezra vi. 17.

A subsidiary point to be noticed here is that there were just _twelve_
he-goats sacrificed for the twelve tribes of Israel. These were
national sin-offerings, and not sacrifices for individual sinners.
Under special circumstances the individual could bring his own private
offering. But in this great temple function only national sins were
considered. The nation had suffered as a whole for its collective sin;
in a corresponding way it had its collective expiation of sin. There
are always national sins which need a broad public treatment, apart
from the particular acts of wickedness committed by separate men.

All this is said by the chronicler to have taken place in accordance
with The Law--"As it is written in the book of Moses."[65] Here, as in
the case of the similar statement of the chronicler in connection with
the sacrifices offered when the great altar of burnt-offerings was set
up,[66] we must remember, in the first place, that we have to do with
the reflections of an author writing in a subsequent age, to whom the
whole Pentateuch was a familiar book. But then it is also clear that
before Ezra had startled the Jews by reading The Law in its later
revelation there must have been some earlier form of it, not only in
Deuteronomy, but also in a priestly collection of ordinances. It is a
curious fact that no full directions on the division of the courses of
the priests and Levites is now to be found in the Pentateuch. On this
occasion the services must have been arranged on the model of the
traditional priestly law. They were not left to the caprice of the
hour. There was order; there was continuity; there was obedience.

  [65] Ezra vi. 18.

  [66] Ezra iii. 2.

The chronicler concludes this period of his history by adding a
paragraph[67] on the first observance of the Passover among the
returned Jews. The national religion is now re-established, and
therefore the greatest festival of the year can be enjoyed. One of the
characteristics of this festival is made especially prominent in the
present observance of it. The significance of the unleavened bread is
pointedly noticed. All leaven is to be banished from the houses during
the week of the Passover. All impurity must also be banished from the
people. The priests and Levites perform the ceremonial purifications
and get themselves legally clean. The franchise is enlarged; and the
limitations of genealogy with which we started are dispensed with. A
new class of Israelites receives a brotherly welcome in this time of
general purification. In distinction from the returned captives, there
are now the Israelites who "had separated themselves unto them from
the filthiness of the heathen of the land, to seek the Lord." Jehovah
is pointedly described as "the God of Israel"--_i.e._, the God of all
sections of Israel.[68] These people cannot be proselytes from
heathenism--there could be few if any such in exclusive times. They
might consist of Jews who had been living in Palestine all through the
captivity, Israelites also left in the Northern Kingdom, and scattered
members of the ten tribes from various regions. All such are welcome
on condition of a severe process of social purging. They must break
off from their heathen associations. We may suspect a spirit of Jewish
animosity in the ugly phrase "the filthiness of the heathen." But it
was only too true that both the Canaanite and the Babylonian habits
of life were disgustingly immoral. The same horrible characteristic is
found among most of the heathen to-day. These degraded people are not
simply benighted in theological error; they are corrupted by horrible
vices. Missionary work is more than the propagation of Christian
theology; it is the purging of Augean stables. St. Paul reminds us
that we must put away the old leaven of sinful habits in order to
partake of the Christian Passover,[69] and St. James that one feature
of the religious service which is acceptable to God is to keep oneself
unspotted from the world.[70] Though unfortunately with the
externalism of the Jews their purification too often became a mere
ceremony, and their separation an ungracious race-exclusiveness,
still, at the root of it, the Passover idea here brought before us is
profoundly true. It is the thought that we cannot take part in a
sacred feast of Divine gladness except on condition of renouncing sin.
The joy of the Lord is the beatific vision of saints, the blessedness
of the pure in heart who see God.

  [67] Here, at Ezra vi. 18, the author drops the Aramaic
  language--which was introduced at iv. 8--and resumes the Hebrew. See
  page 71.

  [68] Ezra vi. 21.

  [69] 1 Cor. v. 7.

  [70] James i. 27.

On this condition, for the people who were thus separate, the festival
was a scene of great gladness. The chronicler calls attention to three
things that were in the mind of the Jews inspiring their praises
throughout.[71] The first is that God was the source of their
joy--"the Lord had made them joyful." There is joy in religion; and
this joy springs from God. The second is that God had brought about
the successful end of their labours by directly influencing the Great
King. He had "turned the heart of the king of Assyria"--a title for
Darius that speaks for the authenticity of the narrative, for it
represents an old form of speech for the ruler of the districts that
had once belonged to the king of Assyria. The third fact is that God
had been the source of strength to the Jews, so that they had been
able to complete their work. The result of the Divine aid was "to
strengthen their hands in the work of the house of God, the God of
Israel." Among his own people joy and strength from God, in the great
world a providential direction of the mind of the king--this was what
faith now perceived, and the perception of so wonderful a Divine
activity made the Passover a festival of boundless gladness. Wherever
that ancient Hebrew faith is experienced in conjunction with the
Passover spirit of separation from the leaven of sin religion always
is a well of joy.

  [71] Ezra vi. 22.



CHAPTER X.

_EZRA THE SCRIBE._

EZRA vii. 1-10.


Although the seventh chapter of "Ezra" begins with no other indication
of time than the vague phrase "Now after these things," nearly sixty
years had elapsed between the events recorded in the previous chapter
and the mission of Ezra here described. We have no history of this
long period. Zerubbabel passed into obscurity without leaving any
trace of his later years. He had accomplished his work; the temple had
been built; but the brilliant Messianic anticipations that had
clustered about him at the outset of his career were to await their
fulfilment in a greater Son of David, and people could afford to
neglect the memory of the man who had only been a sort of temporary
trustee of the hope of Israel. We shall come across indications of the
effects of social trouble and religious decadence in the state of
Jerusalem as she appeared at the opening of this new chapter in her
history. She had not recovered a vestige of her ancient civic
splendour; the puritan rigour with which the returned exiles had
founded a Church among the ruins of her political greatness had been
relaxed, so that the one distinguishing feature of the humble colony
was in danger of melting away in easy and friendly associations with
neighbouring peoples. When it came, the revival of zeal did not
originate in the Holy City. It sprang up among the Jews at Babylon.
The earlier movement in the reign of Cyrus had arisen in the same
quarter. The best of Judaism was no product of the soil of Palestine:
it was an exotic. The elementary "Torah" of Moses emerged from the
desert, with the learning of Egypt as its background, long before it
was cultivated at Jerusalem to blossom in the reformation of Josiah.
The final edition of The Law was shaped in the Valley of the
Euphrates, with the literature and science of Babylon to train its
editors for their great task, though it may have received its
finishing touches in Jerusalem. These facts by no means obscure the
glory of the inspiration and Divine character of The Law. In its
theology, in its ethics, in its whole spirit and character, the
Pentateuch is no more a product of Babylonian than of Egyptian ideas.
Its purity and elevation of character speak all the more emphatically
for its Divine origin when we take into account its corrupt
surroundings; it was like a white lily growing on a dung-heap.

Still it is important to notice that the great religious revival of
Ezra's time sprang up on the plains of Babylon, not among the hills of
Judah. This involves two very different facts--the peculiar spiritual
experience with which it commenced, and the special literary and
scientific culture in the midst of which it was shaped.

First, it originated in the experience of the captivity, in
humiliation and loss, and after long brooding over the meaning of the
great chastisement. The exiles were like poets who "learn in sorrow
what they teach in song." This is apparent in the pathetic psalms of
the same period, and in the writings of the visionary of Chebar, who
contributed a large share to the new movement in view of the
re-establishment of religious worship at Jerusalem.

Thus Jerusalem was loved by the exiles, the temple pictured in detail
to the imagination of men who never trod its sacred courts, and the
sacrificial system most carefully studied by people who had no means
of putting it in practice. No doubt The Law now represented an
intellectual rather than a concrete form of religion. It was an ideal.
So long as the real is with us, it tends to depress the ideal by its
material bulk and weight. The ideal is elevated in the absence of the
real. Therefore the pauses of life are invaluable; by breaking through
the iron routine of habit, they give us scope for the growth of larger
ideas that may lead to better attainments.

Secondly, this religious revival appeared in a centre of scientific
and literary culture. The Babylonians "had cultivated arithmetic,
astronomy, history, chronology, geography, comparative philology, and
grammar."[72] In astronomy they were so advanced that they had mapped
out the heavens, catalogued the fixed stars, calculated eclipses, and
accounted for them correctly. Their enormous libraries of terra-cotta,
only now being unearthed, testify to their literary activity. The Jews
brought back from Babylon the names of the months, the new form of
letters used in writing their books, and many other products of the
learning and science of the Euphrates. Internally the religion of
Israel is solitary, pure, Divine. Externally the literary form of it,
and the physical conception of the universe which it embodies, owe not
a little to the light which God had bestowed upon the people of
Babylon; just as Christianity, in soul and essence the religion of
Jesus of Nazareth, was shaped in theory by the thought, and in
discipline by the law and order, with which God had endowed the two
great European races of Greece and Rome.

  [72] Rawlinson, "Ezra and Nehemiah," p. 2.

The chronicler introduces Ezra with a brief sketch of his origin and a
bare outline of his expedition to Jerusalem.[73] He then next
transcribes a copy of the edict of Artaxerxes which authorised the
expedition.[74] After this he inserts a detailed account of the
expedition from the pen of Ezra himself, so that here the narrative
proceeds in the first person--though, in the abrupt manner of the
whole book, without a word of warning that this is to be the case.[75]

  [73] Ezra vii. 1-10.

  [74] Ezra vii. 11-26.

  [75] Ezra vii. 27-ix.

In the opening verses of Ezra vii. the chronicler gives an epitome of
the genealogy of Ezra, passing over several generations, but leading
up to Aaron. Ezra, then, could claim a high birth. He was a born
priest of the select family of Zadok, but not of the later house of
high-priests. Therefore the privileges which are assigned to that
house in the Pentateuch cannot be accounted for by ascribing ignoble
motives of nepotism to its publisher. Though Ezra is named "The
Priest," he is more familiarly known to us as "The Scribe." The
chronicler calls him "a ready scribe" (or, a scribe skilful) "in the
law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given." Originally the
title "Scribe" was used for town recorders and registrars of the
census. Under the later kings of Judah, persons bearing this name were
attached to the court as the writers and custodians of state
documents. But these are all quite distinct from the scribes who
appeared after the exile. The scribes of later days were guardians and
interpreters of the written Torah, the sacred law. They appeared with
the publication and adoption of the Pentateuch. They not only studied
and taught this complete law; they interpreted and applied its
precepts. In so doing they had to pronounce judgments of their own.
Inasmuch as changing circumstances necessarily required modifications
in rules of justice, while The Law could not be altered after Ezra's
day, great ingenuity was required to reconcile the old law with the
new decisions. Thus arose sophistical casuistry. Then in "fencing" The
Law the scribes added precepts of their own to prevent men from coming
near the danger of transgression.

Scribism was one of the most remarkable features of the later days of
Israel. Its existence in so much prominence showed that religion had
passed into a new phase, that it had assumed a literary aspect. The
art of writing was known, indeed, in Egypt and Babylon before the
exodus; it was even practised in Palestine among the Hittites as early
as Abraham. But at first in their religious life the Jews did not give
much heed to literary documents. Priestism was regulated by
traditional usages rather than by written directions, and justice was
administered under the kings according to custom, precedent, and
equity. Quite apart from the discussion concerning the antiquity of
the Pentateuch, it is certain that its precepts were neither used nor
known in the time of Josiah, when the reading of the roll discovered
in the temple was listened to with amazement. Still less did
prophetism rely on literary resources. What need was there of a book
when the Spirit of God was speaking through the audible voice of a
living man? At first the prophets were men of action. In more
cultivated times they became orators, and then their speeches were
sometimes preserved--as the speeches of Demosthenes were
preserved--for future reference, after their primary end had been
served. Jeremiah found it necessary to have a scribe, Baruch, to write
down his utterances. This was a further step in the direction of
literature; and Ezekiel was almost entirely literary, for his
prophecies were most of them written in the first instance. Still they
were prophecies; _i.e._, they were original utterances, drawn directly
from the wells of inspiration. The function of the scribes was more
humble--to collect the sayings and traditions of earlier ages; to
arrange and edit the literary fragments of more original minds. Their
own originality was almost confined to their explanations of difficult
passages, or their adaptation of what they received to new needs and
new circumstances. Thus we see theology passing into the reflective
stage: it is becoming historical; it is being transformed into a
branch of archæology. Ezra the Scribe is nervously anxious to claim
the authority of Moses for what he teaches. The robust spirit of
Isaiah was troubled with no such scruple. Scribism rose when prophecy
declined. It was a melancholy confession that the fountains of living
water were drying up. It was like an aqueduct laboriously constructed
in order to convey stored water to a thirsty people from distant
reservoirs. The reservoirs may be full, the aqueduct may be sound;
still who would not rather drink of the sparkling stream as it springs
from the rock? Moreover scribism degenerated into rabbinism, the
scholasticism of the Jews. We may see its counterpart in the Catholic
scholasticism which drew supplies from patristic tradition, and again
in Protestant scholasticism--which came nearer to the source of
inspiration in the Bible, and yet which stiffened into a traditional
interpretation of Scripture, confining its waters to iron pipes of
orthodoxy.

But some men refuse to be thus tied to antiquarianism. They dare to
believe that the Spirit of God is still in the world, whispering in
the fancy of little children, soothing weary souls, thundering in the
conscience of sinners, enlightening honest inquirers, guiding
perplexed men of faith. Nevertheless we are always in danger of one or
other of the two extremes of formal scholasticism and indefinite
mysticism. The good side of the scribes' function is suggestive of
much that is valuable. If God did indeed speak to men of old "in
divers portions and in divers manners,"[76] what He said must be of
the greatest value to us, for truth in its essence is eternal. We
Christians have the solid foundation of a historical faith to build
upon, and we cannot dispense with our gospel narratives and doctrinal
epistles. What Christ was, what Christ did, and the meaning of all
this, is of vital importance to us; but it is chiefly important
because it enables us to see what He is to-day--a Priest ever living
to make intercession for us, a Deliverer who is even now able to save
unto the uttermost all who come unto God by Him, a present Lord who
claims the active loyalty of every fresh generation of the men and
women for whom He died in the far-off past. We have to combine the
concrete historical religion with the inward, living, spiritual
religion to reach a faith that shall be true both objectively and
subjectively--true to the facts of the universe, and true to personal
experience.

  [76] Heb. i. 1.

Ezra accomplished his great work, to a large extent, because he
ventured to be more than a scribe. Even when he was relying on the
authority of antiquity, the inspiration which was in him saved him
from a pedantic adherence to the letter of the Torah as he had
received it. The modification of The Law when it was reissued by the
great scribe, which is so perplexing to some modern readers, is a
proof that the religion of Israel had not yet lost vitality and
settled down into a fossil condition. It was living; therefore it was
growing, and in growing it was casting its old shell and evolving a
new vesture better adapted to its changed environment. Is not this
just a signal proof that God had not deserted His people?

Ezra is presented to us as a man of a deeply devout nature. He
cultivated his own personal religion before he attempted to influence
his compatriots. The chronicler tells us that he had prepared
(directed) his heart, to seek the law of the Lord and to do it. With
our haste to obtain "results" in Christian service, there is danger
lest the need of personal preparation should be neglected. But work is
feeble and fruitless if the worker is inefficient, and he must be
quite as inefficient if he has not the necessary graces as if he had
not the requisite gifts. Over and above the preparatory intellectual
culture--never more needed than in our own day--there is the
all-essential spiritual training. We cannot effectually win others to
that truth which has no place in our own hearts. Enthusiasm is kindled
by enthusiasm. The fire must be first burning within the preacher
himself if he would light it in the breasts of other men. Here lies
the secret of the tremendous influence Ezra exerted when he came to
Jerusalem. He was an enthusiast for the law he so zealously
advocated. Now enthusiasm is not the creation of a moment's thought;
it is the outgrowth of long meditation, inspired by deep, passionate
love. It shows itself in the experience expressed by the Psalmist when
he said, "While I mused the fire burned."[77] Ours is not an age of
musing. But if we have no time to meditate over the great verities of
our faith, the flames will not be kindled, and in place of the glowing
fire of enthusiasm we shall have the gritty ashes of officialism.

  [77] Psalm xxxix. 3.

Ezra turned his thoughts to the law of his God; he took this for the
subject of his daily meditation, brooding over it until it became a
part of his own thinking. This is the way a character is made. Men
have larger power over their thoughts than they are inclined to admit;
and the greatness or the meanness, the purity or the corruption of
their character depends on the way in which that power is used. Evil
thoughts may come unbidden to the purest mind--for Christ was tempted
by the devil; but such thoughts can be resisted, and treated as
unwelcome intruders. The thoughts that are welcomed and cherished,
nourished in meditation, and sedulously cultivated--these bosom
friends of the inner man determine what he himself is to become. To
allow one's mind to be treated as the plaything of every idle
reverie--like a boat drifting at the mercy of wind and current without
a hand at the helm--is to court intellectual and moral shipwreck. The
first condition of achieving success in self-culture is to direct the
course of the thinking aright. St. Paul enumerated a list of good and
honourable subjects to bid us "think on" such things.[78]

  [78] Phil. iv. 8.

The aim of Ezra's meditation was threefold. First, he would "seek the
law of the Lord," for the teacher must begin with understanding the
truth, and this may involve much anxious searching. Possibly Ezra had
to pursue a literary inquiry, hunting up documents, comparing data,
arranging and harmonising scattered fragments. But the most important
part of his seeking was his effort to find the real meaning and
purpose of The Law. It was in regard to this that he would have to
exercise his mind most earnestly. Secondly, his aim was "to do it." He
would not attempt to preach what he had not tried to perform. He would
test the effect of his doctrine on himself before venturing to
prescribe it for others. Thus he would be most sure of escaping a
subtle snare which too often entraps the preacher. When the godly man
of business reads his Bible, it is just to find light and food for his
own soul; but when the preacher turns the pages of the sacred book, he
is haunted by the anxiety to light upon suitable subjects for his
sermons. Every man who handles religious truths in the course of his
work is in danger of coming to regard those truths as the tools of his
trade. If he succumbs to this danger it will be to his own personal
loss, and then even as instruments in his work the degraded truths
will be blunt and inefficient, because a man can never know the
doctrine until he has begun to obey the commandment. If religious
teaching is not to be pedantic and unreal, it must be interpreted by
experience. The most vivid teaching is a transcript from life.
Thirdly, Ezra would "teach in Israel statutes and judgments." This
necessarily comes last--after the meditation, after the experience.
But it is of great significance as the crown and finish of the rest.
Ezra is to be his nation's instructor. In the new order the first
place is not to be reserved for a king; it is assigned to a
schoolmaster.

This will be increasingly the case as knowledge is allowed to prevail,
and as truth is permitted to sway the lives of men and fashion the
history of communities.

So far we have Ezra's own character and culture. But there was another
side to his preparation for his great life-work of which the
chronicler took note, and which he described in a favourite phrase of
Ezra's, a phrase so often used by the scribe that the later writer
adopted it quite naturally. Ezra's request to be permitted to go up to
Jerusalem with a new expedition is said to have been granted him by
the king "according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him."[79]
Thus the chronicler here acknowledges the Divine hand in the whole
business, as he has the inspired insight to do again and again in the
course of his narrative. The special phrase thus borrowed from Ezra is
rich in meaning. In an earlier passage the chronicler noticed that
"the _eye_ of their God was upon the elders of the Jews."[80] Now, in
Ezra's phrase, it is the _hand_ of his God that is on Ezra. The
expression gives us a distinct indication of the Divine activity. God
works, and, so to speak, uses His hand. It also suggests the nearness
of God. The hand of God is not only moving and acting; it is upon
Ezra. God touches the man, holds him, directs him, impels him; and, as
he shows elsewhere, Ezra is conscious of the influence, if not
immediately, yet by means of a devout study of the providential
results. This Divine power even goes so far as to move the Persian
monarch. The chronicler ascribes the conduct of successive kings of
Persia to the immediate action of God. But here it is connected with
God's hand being on Ezra. When God is holding and directing His
servants, even external circumstances are found to work for their
good, and even other men are induced to further the same end. This
brings us to the kernel, the very essence of religion. That was not
found in Ezra's wisely chosen meditations; nor was it to be seen in
his devout practices. Behind and beneath the man's earnest piety was
the unseen but mighty action of God; and here, in the hand of his God
resting upon him, was the root of all his religious life. In
experience the human and the Divine elements of religion are
inextricably blended together; but the vital element, that which
originates and dominates the whole, is the Divine. There is no real,
living religion without it. It is the secret of energy and the
assurance of victory. The man of true religion is he who has the hand
of God resting upon him, he whose thought and action are inspired and
swayed by the mystic touch of the Unseen.

  [79] Ezra vii. 6.

  [80] Ezra v. 5.



CHAPTER XI.

_EZRA'S EXPEDITION._

EZRA vii. 11-viii.


Like the earlier pilgrimage of Zerubbabel and his companions, Ezra's
great expedition was carried out under a commission from the Persian
monarch of his day. The chronicler simply calls this king "Artaxerxes"
(_Artahshashta_), a name borne by three kings of Persia; but there can
be no reasonable doubt that his reference is to the son and successor
of Xerxes--known by the Greeks as "Macrocheir," and by the Romans as
"Longimanus"--Artaxerxes "of the long hand," for this Artaxerxes alone
enjoyed a sufficiently extended reign to include both the commencement
of Ezra's public work and the later scenes in the life of Nehemiah
which the chronicler associates with the same king. Artaxerxes was but
a boy when he ascended the throne, and the mission of Ezra took place
in his earlier years, while the generous enthusiasm of the kindly
sovereign--whose gentleness has become historic--had not yet been
crushed by the cares of empire. In accordance with the usual style of
our narrative, we have his decree concerning the Jews preserved and
transcribed in full; and yet here, as in other cases, we must make
some allowance either for the literary freedom of the chronicler, or
for the Jewish sympathies of the translator; for it cannot be
supposed that a heathen, such as Artaxerxes undoubtedly was, would
have shown the knowledge of the Hebrew religion, or have owned the
faith in it, which the edict as we now have it suggests. Nevertheless,
here again, there is no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of
the document, for it is quite in accord with the policy of the
previous kings Cyrus and Darius, and in its special features it
entirely agrees with the circumstances of the history.

This edict of Longimanus goes beyond any of its predecessors in
favoring the Jews, especially with regard to their religion. It is
directly and personally addressed to Ezra, whom the king may have
known as an earnest, zealous leader of the Hebrew community at
Babylon, and through him it grants to all Jewish exiles who wish to go
up to Jerusalem liberty to return to the home of their fathers. It may
be objected that after the decree of Cyrus any such fresh sanction
should not have been needed. But two generations had passed away since
the pilgrimage of the first body of returning captives, and during
this long time many things had happened to check the free action of
the Jews and to cast reproach upon their movements. For a great
expedition to start now without any orders from the reigning monarch
might excite his displeasure, and a subject people who were dependent
for their very existence on the good-will of an absolute sovereign
would naturally hesitate before they ventured to rouse his suspicions
by undertaking any considerable migration on their own account.

But Artaxerxes does much more than sanction the journey to Jerusalem;
he furthers the object of this journey with royal bounty, and he lays
a very important commission on Ezra, a commission which carries with
it the power, if not the name, of a provincial magistrate. In the
first place, the edict authorises a state endowment of the Jewish
religion. Ezra is to carry great stores to the poverty-stricken
community at Jerusalem. These are made up in part of contributions
from the Babylonian Jews, in part of generous gifts from their
friendly neighbours, and in part of grants from the royal treasury.
The temple has been rebuilt, and the funds now accumulated are not
like the bulk of those collected in the reign of Cyrus for a definite
object, the cost of which might be set down to the "Capital Account"
in the restoration of the Jews; they are destined in some measure for
improvements to the structure, but they are also to be employed in
maintenance charges, especially in supporting the costly services of
the temple. Thus the actual performance of the daily ritual at the
Jerusalem sanctuary is to be kept up by means of the revenues of the
Persian Empire. Then, the edict proceeds to favour the priesthood by
freeing that order from the burden of taxation. This "clerical
immunity," which suggests an analogy with the privileges the Christian
clergy prized so highly in the Middle Ages, is an indirect form of
increased endowment, but the manner in which the endowment is granted
calls especial attention to the privileged status of the order that
enjoys it. Thus the growing importance of the Jerusalem hierarchy is
openly fostered by the Persian king. Still further, Artaxerxes adds to
his endowment of the Jewish religion a direct legal establishment.
Ezra is charged to see that the law of his God is observed throughout
the whole region extending up from the Euphrates to Jerusalem. This
can only be meant to apply to the Jews who were scattered over the
wide area, especially those of Syria. Still the mandate is startling
enough, especially when we take into account the heavy sanctions with
which it is weighted, for Ezra has authority given him to enforce
obedience by excommunication, by fine, by imprisonment, and even by
the death-penalty. "The law of his God" is named side by side with
"the law of the king."[81] and the two are to be obeyed equally.
Fortunately, owing to the unsettled condition of the country as well
as to Ezra's own somewhat unpractical disposition, the reformer never
seems to have put his great powers fully to the test.

  [81] Ezra vii. 26.

Now, as in the previous cases of Cyrus and Darius, we are confronted
with the question, How came the Persian king to issue such a decree?
It has been suggested that as Egypt was in revolt at the time, he
desired to strengthen the friendly colony at Jerusalem as a western
bulwark. But, as we have seen in the case of Cyrus, the Jews were too
few and feeble to be taken much account of among the gigantic forces
of the vast empire; and, moreover, it was not the military
fortification of Jerusalem--certainly a valuable stronghold when well
maintained--but the religious services of the temple and the
observance of The Law that this edict aimed at aiding and encouraging.
No doubt in times of unsettlement the king would behave most
favourably towards a loyal section of his people. Still, more must be
assigned as an adequate motive for his action. Ezra is charged as a
special commissioner to investigate the condition of the Jews in
Palestine. He is to "inquire concerning Judah and Jerusalem."[82]
Inasmuch as it was customary for the Persian monarchs to send out
inspectors from time to time to examine and report on the condition
of the more remote districts of their extensive empire, it has been
plausibly suggested that Ezra may have been similarly employed. But in
the chronicler's report of the edict we read, immediately after the
injunction to make the investigation, an important addition describing
how this was to be done, viz., "According to the law of thy God which
is in thine hand,"[83] which shows that Ezra's inquiry was to be of a
religious character, and as a preliminary to the exaction of obedience
to the Jewish law. It may be said that this clause was not a part of
the original decree; but the drift of the edict is religious
throughout rather than political, and therefore the clause in question
is fully in harmony with its character. There is one sentence which is
of the deepest significance, if only we can believe that it embodies
an original utterance of the king himself--"Whatsoever is commanded by
the God of heaven, let it be done exactly for the house of the God of
heaven; _for why should there be wrath against the realm of the king
and his sons_?"[84] While his empire was threatened by dangerous
revolts, Artaxerxes seems to have desired to conciliate the God whom
the most devout of his people regarded with supreme awe.

  [82] Ezra vii. 14.

  [83] Ezra. vii. 14.

  [84] Ezra vii. 23.

What is more clear and at the same time more important is the great
truth detected by Ezra and recorded by him in a grateful burst of
praise. Without any warning the chronicler suddenly breaks off his own
narrative, written in the third person, to insert a narrative written
by Ezra himself in the first person--beginning at Ezra vii. 27 and
continued down to Ezra x. The scribe opens by blessing God--"the Lord
God of our fathers," who had "put such a thing in the king's heart as
to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem."[85] This,
then, was a Divine movement. It can only be accounted for by ascribing
the original impulse to God. Natural motives of policy or of
superstition may have been providentially manipulated, but the hand
that used them was the hand of God. The man who can perceive this
immense fact at the very outset of his career is fit for any
enterprise. His transcendent faith will carry him through difficulties
that would be insuperable to the worldly schemer.

  [85] Ezra vii. 27.

Passing from the thought of the Divine influence on Artaxerxes, Ezra
further praises God because he has himself received "mercy ... before
the king and his counsellors, and before all the king's mighty
princes."[86] This personal thanksgiving is evidently called forth by
the scribe's consideration of the part assigned to him in the royal
edict. There was enough in that edict to make the head of a
self-seeking, ambitious man swim with vanity. But we can see from the
first that Ezra is of a higher character. The burning passion that
consumes him has not a particle of hunger for self-aggrandisement; it
is wholly generated by devotion to the law of his God. In the
narrowness and bigotry that characterise his later conduct as a
reformer, some may suspect the action of that subtle self-will which
creeps unawares into the conduct of some of the noblest men. Still the
last thing that Ezra seeks, and the last thing that he cares for when
it is thrust upon him, is the glory of earthly greatness.

  [86] Ezra vii. 28.

Ezra's aim in leading the expedition may be gathered from the
reflection of it in the royal edict, since that edict was doubtless
drawn up with the express purpose of furthering the project of the
favoured Jew. Ezra puts the beautifying of the temple in the front of
his grateful words of praise to God. But the personal commission
entrusted to Ezra goes much further. The decree significantly
recognises the fact that he is to carry up to Jerusalem a copy of the
Sacred Law. It refers to "the law of thy God which is in thine
hand."[87] We shall hear more of this hereafter. Meanwhile it is
important to see that the law, obedience to which Ezra is empowered to
exact, is to be conveyed by him to Jerusalem. Thus he is both to
introduce it to the notice of the people, and to see that it does not
remain a dead letter among them. He is to teach it to those who do not
know it.[88] At the same time these people are distinctly separated
from others, who are expressly described as "all such as know the laws
of thy God."[89] This plainly implies that both the Jerusalem Jews,
and those west of the Euphrates generally, were not all of them
ignorant of the Divine Torah. Some of them, at all events, knew the
laws they were to be made to obey. Still they may not have possessed
them in any written form. The plural term "laws" is here used, while
the written compilation which Ezra carried up with him is described in
the singular as "The Law." Ezra, then, having searched out The Law and
tested it in his own experience, is now eager to take it up to
Jerusalem, and get it executed among his fellow-countrymen at the
religious metropolis as well as among the scattered Jews of the
provincial districts. His great purpose is to make what he believes to
be the will of God known, and to see that it is obeyed. The very idea
of a Torah implies a Divine will in religion. It presses upon our
notice the often-forgotten fact that God has something to say to us
about our conduct, that when we are serving Him it is not enough to be
zealous, that we must also be obedient. Obedience is the keynote of
Judaism. It is not less prominent in Christianity. The only difference
is that Christians are freed from the shackles of a literal law in
order that they may carry out "the law of liberty," by doing the will
of God from the heart as loyal disciples of Jesus Christ, so that for
us, as for the Jews, obedience is the most fundamental fact of
religion. We can walk by faith in the freedom of sons; but that
implies that we have "the obedience of faith." The ruling principle of
our Lord's life is expressed in the words "I delight to do Thy will, O
My God," and this must be the ruling principle in the life of every
true Christian.

  [87] Ezra vii. 14.

  [88] Ezra vii. 25.

  [89] _Ibid._

Equipped with a royal edict, provided with rich contributions,
inspired with a great religious purpose, confident that the hand of
his God was upon him, Ezra collected his volunteers, and proceeded to
carry out his commission with all practicable speed. In his record of
the journey, he first sets down a list of the families that
accompanied him. It is interesting to notice names that had occurred
in the earlier list of the followers of Zerubbabel, showing that some
of the descendants of those who refused to go on the first expedition
took part in the second. They remind us of Christiana and her
children, who would not join the Pilgrim when he set out from the City
of Destruction, but who subsequently followed in his footsteps.

But there was little at Jerusalem to attract a new expedition; for the
glamour which had surrounded the first return, with a son of David at
its head, had faded in grievous disappointments; and the second series
of pilgrims had to carry with them the torch with which to rekindle
the flames of devotion.

Ezra states that when he had marshalled his forces he spent three days
with them by a river called the "Ahava," apparently because it flowed
by a town of that name. The exact site of the camp cannot be
determined, although it could not have been far from Babylon, and the
river must have been either one of the tributaries of the Euphrates or
a canal cut through its alluvial plain. The only plausible conjecture
of a definite site settles upon a place now known as _Hit_, in the
neighbourhood of some bitumen springs; and the interest of this place
may be found in the fact that here the usual caravan route leaves the
fertile Valley of the Euphrates and plunges into the waterless desert.
Even if Ezra decided to avoid the difficult desert track, and to take
his heavy caravan round through Northern Syria by way of Aleppo and
the Valley of the Orontes--an extended journey which would account for
the three months spent on the road--it would still be natural for him
to pause at the parting of the ways and review the gathered host. One
result of this review was the startling discovery that there were no
Levites in the whole company. We were struck with the fact that but a
very small and disproportionate number of these officials accompanied
the earlier pilgrimage of Zerubbabel, and we saw the probable
explanation in the disappointment if not the disaffection of the
Levites at their degradation by Ezekiel. The more rigid arrangement of
Ezra's edition of The Law, which gave them a definite and permanent
place in a second rank, below the priesthood, was not likely to
encourage them to volunteer for the new expedition. Nothing is more
difficult than self-effacement even in the service of God.

There was a community of Levites at a place called Casiphia,[90] under
the direction of a leader named Iddo. It would be interesting to think
that this community was really a sort of Levitical college, a school
of students of the Torah; but we have no data to go upon in forming an
opinion. One thing is certain. We cannot suppose that the new edition
of The Law had been drawn up in this community of the Levites, because
Ezra had started with it in his hand as the charter of his great
enterprise; nor, indeed, in any other Levitical college, because it
was not at all according to the mind of the Levites.

  [90] The site of this town has not been identified. It could not have
  been far from Ahava.

After completing his company by the addition of the Levites, Ezra made a
solemn religious preparation for his journey. Like the Israelites after the
defeat at Gibeah in their retributive war with Benjamin;[91] like the
penitent people at Mizpeh, in the days of Samuel, when they put away their
idols;[92] like Jehoshaphat and his subjects when rumours of a threatened
invasion filled them with apprehension,[93]--Ezra and his followers fasted
and humbled themselves before God in view of their hazardous undertaking.
The fasting was a natural sign of the humiliation, and this prostration
before God was at once a confession of sin and an admission of absolute
dependence on His mercy. Thus the people reveal themselves as the "poor in
spirit" to whom our Lord directs his first beatitude. They are those who
humble themselves, and therefore those whom God will exalt.

  [91] Judges xx. 26.

  [92] 1 Sam. vii. 6.

  [93] 2 Chron. xx. 3.

We must not confound this state of self-humiliation before God with
the totally different condition of abject fear which shrinks from
danger in contemptible cowardice. The very opposite to that is the
attitude of these humble pilgrims. Like the Puritan soldiers who
became bold as lions before man in the day of battle, just because
they had spent the night in fasting and tears and self-abasement
before God, Ezra and his people rose from their penitential fast,
calmly prepared to face all dangers in the invincible might of God.
There seems to have been some enemy whom Ezra knew to be threatening
his path, for when he got safely to the end of his journey he gave
thanks for God's protection from this foe;[94] and, in any case, so
wealthy a caravan as his was would provoke the cupidity of the roving
hordes of Bedouin that infested the Syrian wastes. Ezra's first
thought was to ask for an escort; but he tells us that he was ashamed
to do so, as this would imply distrust in God.[95] Whatever we may
think of his logic, we must be struck by his splendid faith, and the
loyalty which would run a great risk rather than suffer what might
seem like dishonour to his God. Here was one of God's heroes. We
cannot but connect the preliminary fast with this courageous attitude
of Ezra's. So in tales of chivalry we read how knights were braced by
prayer and fast and vigil to enter the most terrible conflicts with
talismans of victory. In an age of rushing activity it is hard to find
the hidden springs of strength in their calm retreats. The glare of
publicity starts us on the wrong track, by tempting us to advertise
our own excellences, instead of abasing ourselves in the dust before
God. Yet is it not now as true as ever that no boasted might of man
can be in any way comparable to the Divine strength which takes
possession of those who completely surrender their wills to God? Happy
are they who have the grace to walk in the valley of humiliation, for
this leads to the armoury of supernatural power!

  [94] Ezra viii. 31.

  [95] Ezra viii. 22.



CHAPTER XII.

_FOREIGN MARRIAGES._

EZRA ix.


The successful issue of Ezra's undertaking was speedily followed by a
bitter disappointment on the part of its leader, the experience of
which urged him to make a drastic reformation that rent many a happy
home asunder and filled Jerusalem with the grief of broken hearts.

During the obscure period that followed the dedication of the
temple--a period of which we have no historical remains--the rigorous
exclusiveness which had marked the conduct of the returned exiles when
they had rudely rejected the proposal of their Gentile neighbours to
assist them in rebuilding the temple was abandoned, and freedom of
intercourse went so far as to permit intermarriage with the
descendants of the Canaanite aborigines and the heathen population of
neighbouring nations. Ezra gives a list of tribal names closely
resembling the lists preserved in the history of early ages, when the
Hebrews first contemplated taking possession of the promised land;[96]
but it cannot be imagined that the ancient tribes preserved their
independent names and separate existence as late as the time of the
return--though the presence of the gypsies as a distinct people in
England to-day shows that racial distinction may be kept up for ages
in a mixed society. It is more probable that the list is literary,
that the names are reminiscences of the tribes as they were known in
ancient traditions. In addition to these old inhabitants of Canaan,
there are Ammonites and Moabites from across the Jordan, Egyptians,
and, lastly, most significantly separate from the Canaanite tribes,
those strange folk, the Amorites, who are discovered by recent
ethnological research to be of a totally different stock from that of
the Canaanite tribes, probably allied to a light-coloured people that
can be traced along the Libyan border, and possibly even of Aryan
origin. From all these races the Jews had taken them wives. So wide
was the gate flung open!

  [96] Ezra. ix. 1.

This freedom of intermarriage may be viewed as a sign of general
laxity and indifference on the part of the citizens of Jerusalem, and
so Ezra seems to have regarded it. But it would be a mistake to
suppose that there was no serious purpose associated with it, by means
of which grave and patriotic men attempted to justify the practice. It
was a question whether the policy of exclusiveness had succeeded. The
temple had been built, it is true; and a city had risen among the
ruins of ancient Jerusalem. But poverty, oppression, hardship, and
disappointment had settled down on the little Judæan community, which
now found itself far worse off than the captives in Babylon. Feeble
and isolated, the Jews were quite unable to resist the attacks of
their jealous neighbours. Would it not be better to come to terms with
them, and from enemies convert them into allies? Then the policy of
exclusiveness involved commercial ruin; and men who knew how their
brethren in Chaldæa were enriching themselves by trade with the
heathen, were galled by a yoke which held them back from foreign
intercourse. It would seem to be advisable, on social as well as on
political grounds, that a new and more liberal course should be
pursued, if the wretched garrison was not to be starved out. Leading
aristocratic families were foremost in contracting the foreign
alliances. It is such as they who would profit most, as it is such as
they who would be most tempted to consider worldly motives and to
forgo the austerity of their fathers. There does not seem to have been
any one recognised head of the community after Zerubbabel; the
"princes" constituted a sort of informal oligarchy. Some of these
princes had taken foreign wives. Priests and Levites had also followed
the same course. It is a historical fact that the party of rigour is
not generally the official party. In the days of our Lord the priests
and rulers were mostly Sadducean, while the Pharisees were men of the
people. The English Puritans were not of the Court party. But in the
case before us the leaders of the people were divided. While we do not
meet any priests among the purists, some of the princes disapproved of
the laxity of their neighbours, and exposed it to Ezra.

Ezra was amazed, appalled. In the dramatic style which is quite
natural to an Oriental, he rent both his tunic and his outer mantle,
and he tore his hair and his long priestly beard. This expressed more
than the grief of mourning which is shown by tearing one garment and
cutting the hair. Like the high-priest when he ostentatiously rent his
clothes at what he wished to be regarded as blasphemy in the words of
Jesus, Ezra showed indignation and rage by his violent action. It was
a sign of his startled and horrified emotions; but no doubt it was
also intended to produce an impression on the people who gathered in
awe to watch the great ambassador, as he sat amazed and silent on the
temple pavement through the long hours of the autumn afternoon.

The grounds of Ezra's grief and anger may be learnt from the
remarkable prayer which he poured out when the stir occasioned by the
preparation of the vesper ceremonies roused him, and when the
ascending smoke of the evening sacrifice would naturally suggest to
him an occasion for drawing near to God. Welling up, hot and
passionate, his prayer is a revelation of the very heart of the
scribe. Ezra shows us what true prayer is--that it is laying bare the
heart and soul in the presence of God. The striking characteristic of
this outburst of Ezra's is that it does not contain a single petition.
There is no greater mistake in regard to prayer than the notion that
it is nothing more than the begging of specific favours from the
bounty of the Almighty. That is but a shallow kind of prayer at best.
In the deepest and most real prayer the soul is too near to God to ask
for any definite thing; it is just unbosoming itself to the Great
Confidant, just telling out its agony to the Father who can understand
everything and receive the whole burden of the anguished spirit.

Considering this prayer more in detail, we may notice, in the first
place, that Ezra comes out as a true priest, not indeed officiating at
the altar with ceremonial sacrifices, but identifying himself with the
people he represents, so that he takes to his own breast the shame of
what he regards as the sin of his people. Prostrate with
self-humiliation, he cries, "O my God, I am ashamed and blush to lift
up my face to Thee, my God,"[97] and he speaks of the sins which have
just been made known to him as though he had a share in them, calling
them "_our_ iniquities" and "_our_ trespass."[98] Have we not here a
glimpse into that mystery of vicarious sin-bearing which is
consummated in the great intercession and sacrifice of our Lord?
Though himself a sinful man, and therefore at heart sharing the guilt
of his people by personal participation in it, as the holy Jesus could
not do, still in regard to the particular offence which he is now
deploring, Ezra is as innocent as an unfallen angel. Yet he blushes
for shame, and lies prostrate with confusion of face. He is such a
true patriot that he completely identifies himself with his people.
But in proportion as such an identification is felt, there must be an
involuntary sense of the sharing of guilt. It is vain to call it an
illusion of the imagination. Before the bar of strict justice Ezra was
as innocent of this one sin, as before the same bar Christ was
innocent of all sin. God could not really disapprove of him for it,
any more than He could look with disfavour on the great Sin-bearer.
But subjectively, in his own experience, Ezra did not feel less
poignant pangs of remorse than he would have felt if he had been
himself personally guilty. This perfect sympathy of true priesthood is
rarely experienced; but since Christians are called to be priests, to
make intercession, and to bear one another's burdens, something
approaching it must be shared by all the followers of Christ; they who
would go forth as saviours of their brethren must feel it acutely. The
sin-bearing sacrifice of Christ stands alone in its perfect efficacy,
and many mysteries crowd about it that cannot be explained by any
human analogies. Still here and there we come across faint likenesses
in the higher experiences of the better men, enough to suggest that
our Lord's passion was not a prodigy, that it was really in harmony
with the laws by which God governs the moral universe.

  [97] Ezra ix. 6.

  [98] _Ibid._

In thus confessing the sin of the people before God, but in language
which the people who shared with him a reverence for The Law could
hear, no doubt Ezra hoped to move them also to share in his feelings
of shame and abhorrence for the practices he was deploring. He came
dangerously near to the fatal mistake of preaching through a prayer,
by "praying at" the congregation. He was evidently too deeply moved to
be guilty of an insincerity, a piece of profanity, at which every
devout soul must revolt. Nevertheless the very exercise of public
prayer--prayer uttered audibly, and conducted by the leader of a
congregation--means that this is to be an inducement for the people to
join in the worship. The officiating minister is not merely to pray
before the congregation, while the people kneel as silent auditors.
His prayer is designed to guide and help their prayers, so that there
may be "common prayer" throughout the whole assembly. In this way it
may be possible for him to influence men and women by praying with
them, as he can never do by directly preaching to them. The essential
point is that the prayer must first of all be real on the part of the
leader--that he must be truly addressing God, and then that his
intention with regard to the people must be not to exhort them through
his prayer, but simply to induce them to join him in it.

Let us now inquire what was the nature of the sin which so grievously
distressed Ezra, and which he regarded as so heavy a slur on the
character of his people in the sight of God. On the surface of it,
there was just a question of policy. Some have argued that the party
of rigour was mistaken, that its course was suicidal, that the only
way of preserving the little colony was by means of well-adjusted
alliances with its neighbours--a low view of the question which Ezra
would not have glanced at for a moment, because with his supreme faith
in God no consideration of worldly expediency or political diplomacy
could be allowed to deflect him from the path indicated, as he
thought, by the Divine will. But a higher line of opposition has been
taken. It has been said that Ezra was illiberal, uncharitable,
culpably narrow, and heartlessly harsh. That the man who could pour
forth such a prayer as this, every sentence of which throbs with
emotion, every word of which tingles with intense feeling--that this
man was heartless cannot be believed. Still it may be urged that Ezra
took a very different view from that suggested by the genial outlook
across the nations which we meet in Isaiah. The lovely idyll of Ruth
defends the course he condemned so unsparingly. The Book of Jonah was
written directly in rebuke of one form of Jewish exclusiveness. Ezra
was going even further than the Book of Deuteronomy, which had allowed
marriages with the heathen,[99] and had laid down definite marriage
laws in regard to foreign connections.[100] It cannot be maintained
that all the races named by Ezra were excluded. Could it be just to
condemn the Jews for not having followed the later and more exacting
edition of The Law, which Ezra had only just brought up with him, and
which had not been known by the offenders?

  [99] Deut. xxi. 13.

  [100] Deut. xxiii. 1-8.

In trying to answer these questions, we must start from one clear
fact. Ezra is not merely guided by a certain view of policy. He may be
mistaken, but he is deeply conscientious, his motive is intensely
religious. Whether rightly or wrongly, he is quite persuaded that the
social condition at which he is so grievously shocked is directly
opposed to the known will of God. "We have forsaken Thy commandments,"
he exclaims. But what commandments, we may ask, seeing that the people
of Jerusalem did not possess a law that went so far as Ezra was
requiring of them? His own language here comes in most appositely.
Ezra does not appeal to Deuteronomy, though he may have had a passage
from that book in mind,[101] neither does he produce the Law Book
which he has brought up with him from Babylon and to which reference
is made in our version of the decree of Artaxerxes;[102] but he turns
to the prophets, not with reference to any of their specific
utterances, but in the most general way, implying that his view is
derived from the broad stream of prophecy in its whole course and
character. In his prayer he describes the broken commandments as
"those which Thou hast commanded by Thy servants the prophets." This
is the more remarkable because the prophets did not favour the
scrupulous observance of external rules, but dwelt on great principles
of righteousness. Some of them took the liberal side, and expressed
decidedly cosmopolitan ideas in regard to foreign nations as Ezra must
have been aware. He may have mentally anticipated the excuses which
would be urged in reliance on isolated utterances of this character.
Still, on a survey of the whole course of prophecy, he is persuaded
that it is opposed to the practices which he condemns. He throws his
conclusion into a definite sentence, after the manner of a verbal
quotation,[103] but this is only in accordance with the vivid,
dramatic style of Semitic literature, and what he really means is that
the spirit of his national prophecy and the principles laid down by
the recognised prophets support him in the position which he has taken
up. These prophets fought against all corrupt practices, and in
particular they waged ceaseless war with the introduction of
heathenish manners to the religious and social life of Israel. It is
here that Ezra finds them to be powerful allies in his stern
reformation. They furnish him, so to speak, with his major premiss,
and that is indisputable. His weak place is in his minor premiss,
viz., in the notion that intermarriage with Gentile neighbours
necessarily involves the introduction of corrupt heathenish habits.
This he quietly assumes. But there is much to be said for his
position, especially when we note that he is not now concerned with
the Samaritans, with whom the temple-builders came into contact and
who accepted some measure of the Jewish faith, but in some cases with
known idolaters--the Egyptians for instance. The complex social and
moral problems which surround the quarrel on which Ezra here embarks
will come before us more fully as we proceed. At present it may
suffice for us to see that Ezra rests his action on his conception of
the main characteristics of the teaching of the prophets.

  [101] Deut. vii. 3.

  [102] Ezra vii. 14.

  [103] Ezra ix. 11.

Further, his reading of history comes to his aid. He perceives that
it was the adoption of heathenish practices that necessitated the
severe chastisement of the captivity. God had only spared a small
remnant of the guilty people. But He had been very gracious to that
remnant, giving them "a nail in His holy place";[104] _i.e._, a
fixture in the restored sanctuary, though as yet, as it were, but at
one small point, because so few had returned to enjoy the privileges
of the sacred temple worship. Now even this nail might be drawn. Will
the escaped remnant be so foolish as to imitate the sins of their
forefathers, and risk the slight hold which they have as yet obtained
in the renewed centre of Divine favour? So to repudiate the lessons of
the captivity, which should have been branded irrevocably by the hot
irons of its cruel hardships, what was this but a sign of the most
desperate depravity? Ezra could see no hope even of a remnant escaping
from the wrath which would consume the people who were guilty of such
wilful, such open-eyed apostasy.

  [104] Ezra ix. 8.

In the concluding sentences of his prayer Ezra appeals to the
righteousness of God, who had permitted the remnant to escape at the
time of the Babylonian Captivity, saying, "O Lord, the God of Israel,
Thou art righteous; for we are left a remnant that is escaped, as it
is this day."[105] Some have supposed that God's righteousness here
stands for His goodness, and that Ezra really means the mercy which
spared the remnant. But this interpretation is contrary to usage, and
quite opposed to the spirit of the prayer. Ezra has referred to the
mercy of God earlier, but in his final sentences he has another
thought in mind. The prayer ends in gloom and despondency--"behold,
we are before Thee in our guiltiness; for none can stand before Thee
because of this."[106] The righteousness of God, then, is seen in the
fact that _only_ a remnant was spared. Ezra does not plead for the
pardon of the guilty people, as Moses did in his famous prayer of
intercession.[107] As yet they are not conscious of their sin. To
forgive them before they have owned their guilt would be immoral. The
first condition of pardon is confession. "_If we confess_ our sins, He
is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us
from all unrighteousness."[108] Then, indeed, the very righteousness
of God favours the pardon of the sinner. But till this state of
contrition is reached, not only can there be no thought of
forgiveness, but the sternest, darkest thoughts of sin are most right
and fitting. Ezra is far too much in earnest simply to wish to help
his people to escape from the consequences of their conduct. This
would not be salvation. It would be moral shipwreck. The great need is
to be saved from the evil conduct itself. It is to this end that the
very passion of his soul is directed. Here we perceive the spirit of
the true reformer. But the evangelist cannot afford to dispense with
something of the same spirit, although he can add the gracious
encouragements of a gospel; for the only true gospel promises
deliverance from sin itself in the first instance as from the greatest
of all evils, and deliverance from no other evil except on condition
of freedom from this.

  [105] Ezra ix. 15.

  [106] Ezra ix. 15.

  [107] Exod. xxxii. 31, 32.

  [108] 1 John i. 9.



Chapter XIII.

_THE HOME SACRIFICED TO THE CHURCH._

EZRA x.


Ezra's narrative, written in the first person, ceases with his prayer,
the conclusion of which brings us to the end of the ninth chapter of
our Book of Ezra; at the tenth chapter the chronicler resumes his
story, describing, however, the events which immediately follow. His
writing is here as graphic as Ezra's, and if it is not taken from
notes left by the scribe, at all events it would seem to be drawn from
the report of another eye-witness; for it describes most remarkable
scenes with a vividness that brings them before the mind's eye, so
that the reader cannot study them even at this late day without a pang
of sympathy.

Ezra's prayer and confession, his grievous weeping and prostrate
humiliation before God, deeply affected the spectators; and as the
news spread through the city, a very great congregation of men, women,
and children assembled together to gaze at the strange spectacle. They
could not gaze unmoved. Deep emotion is contagious. The man who is
himself profoundly convinced and intensely concerned with his
religious ideas will certainly win disciples. Where the soundest
arguments have failed to persuade, a single note of sincere faith
often strikes home. It is the passion of the orator that rouses the
multitude, and even where there is no oratory the passion of true
feeling pleads with irresistible eloquence. Ezra had not to speak a
word to the people. What he was, what he felt, his agony of shame, his
agony of prayer--all this melted them to tears, and a cry of
lamentation went up from the gathered multitudes in the temple courts.
Their grief was more than a sentimental reflection of the scribe's
distress, for the Jews could see plainly that it was for them and for
their miserable condition that this ambassador from the Persian court
was mourning so piteously. His sorrow was wholly vicarious. By no
calamity or offence of his own, but simply by what he regarded as
their wretched fall, Ezra was now plunged into heart-broken agony.
Such a result of their conduct could not but excite the keenest
self-reproaches in the breasts of all who in any degree shared his
view of the situation. Then the only path of amendment visible before
them was one that involved the violent rupture of home ties; the cruel
severance of husband and wife, of parent and child; the complete
sacrifice of human love on what appeared to be the altar of duty to
God. It was indeed a bitter hour for the Jews who felt themselves to
be offenders, and for their innocent wives and children who would be
involved in any attempted reformation.

The confusion was arrested by the voice of one man, a layman named
Shecaniah the son of Jehiel, who came to the assistance of Ezra as a
volunteer spokesman of the people. This man entirely surrendered to
Ezra's view, making a frank and unreserved confession of his own and
the people's sin. So far then Ezra has won his point. He has begun to
gain assent from among the offenders. Shecaniah adds to his confession
a sentence of some ambiguity, saying, "Yet now there is hope for
Israel concerning this thing."[109] This might be thought to mean that
God was merciful, and that there was hope in the penitent attitude of
the congregation that He would take pity on the people and not deal
hardly with them. But the similarity of the phraseology to the words
of the last verse of the previous chapter, where the expression
"because of this"[110] plainly points to the offence as the one thing
in view, shows that the allusion here is to that offence, and not to
the more recent signs of penitence. Shecaniah means, then, that there
is hope concerning this matter of the foreign marriages--viz., that
they may be rooted out of Israel. The hope is for a reformation, not
for any condoning of the offence. It means despair to the unhappy
wives, the end of all home peace and joy in many a household--a lurid
hope surely, and hardly worthy of the name except on the lips of a
fanatic. Shecaniah now proceeds to make a definite proposal. He would
have the people enter into a solemn covenant with God. They are not
only to undergo a great domestic reformation, but they are to take a
vow in the sight of God that they will carry it through. Shecaniah
shows the unreflecting zeal of a raw convert; an officious person, a
meddler, he is too bold and forward for one whose place is the
penitent's bench. The covenant is to pledge the people to divorce
their foreign wives. Yet the unfeeling man will not soften his
proposal by any euphemism, nor will he hide its more odious features.
He deliberately adds that the children should be sent away with their
mothers. The nests are to be cleared of the whole brood.

  [109] Ezra x. 2.

  [110] Ezra ix. 15.

Ezra had not ventured to draw out such a direful programme. But
Shecaniah says that this is "according to the counsel of my
lord,"[111] using terms of unwonted obsequiousness--unless, as seems
less likely, the phrase is meant to apply to God, _i.e._, to be read,
"According to the counsel of _The Lord_." Shecaniah evidently gathered
the unexpressed opinion of Ezra from the language of his prayer and
from his general attitude. This was the only way out of the
difficulty, the logical conclusion from what was now admitted. Ezra
saw it clearly enough, but it wanted a man of coarser fibre to say it.
Shecaniah goes further, and claims the concurrence of all who "tremble
at the words of the God of Israel." These people have been mentioned
before as forming the nucleus of the congregation that gathered about
Ezra.[112] Then this outspoken man distinctly claims the authority of
The Law for his proposition. Ezra had based his view of the heathen
marriages on the general character of the teaching of the prophets;
Shecaniah now appeals to The Law as the authority for his scheme of
wholesale divorce. This is a huge assumption of what has never been
demonstrated. But such people as Shecaniah do not wait for niceties of
proof before making their sweeping proposals.

  [111] Ezra x. 3.

  [112] Ezra ix. 4.

The bold adviser followed up his suggestion by rallying Ezra and
calling upon him to "be of good courage," seeing that he would have
supporters in the great reformation. Falling in with the proposed
scheme, Ezra there and then extracted an oath from the people--both
clergy and laity--that they would execute it. This was a general
resolution. Some time was required and many difficulties had to be
faced before it could be carried into practice, and meanwhile Ezra
withdrew into retirement, still fasting and mourning.

We must now allow for an interval of some months. The chronological
arrangement seems to have been as follows. Ezra and his company left
Babylon in the spring, as Zerubbabel had done before him--at the same
season as that of the great exodus from Egypt under Moses. Each of
these three great expeditions began with the opening of the natural
year, in scenes of bright beauty and hopefulness. Occupying four
months on his journey, Ezra reached Jerusalem in the heat of July. It
could not have been very long after his arrival that the news of the
foreign marriages was brought to him by the princes, because if he had
spent any considerable time in Jerusalem first he must have found out
the state of affairs for himself. But now we are transported to the
month of December for the meeting of the people when the covenant of
divorce is to be put in force. Possibly some of the powerful leaders
had opposed the summoning of such a gathering, and their hindrance may
have delayed it; or it may have taken Ezra and his counsellors some
time to mature their plans. Long brooding over the question could not
have lessened the scribe's estimate of its gravity. But the suggestion
of all kinds of difficulties and the clear perception of the terrible
results which must flow from the contemplated reformation did not
touch his opinion of what was right, or his decision, once reached,
that there must be a clearing away of the foreign elements, root and
branch, although they had entwined their tendrils about the deepest
affections of the people. The seclusion and mourning of Ezra is
recorded in Ezra x. 6. The next verse carries us on to the preparation
for the dreadful assembly, which, as we must conclude, really took
place some months later. The summons was backed up by threats of
confiscation and excommunication. To this extent the great powers
entrusted to Ezra by the king of Persia were employed. It looks as if
the order was the issue of a conflict of counsels in which that of
Ezra was victorious, for it was exceedingly peremptory in tone and it
only gave three days notice. The people came, as they were bound to
do, for the authority of the supreme government was behind the
summons; but they resented the haste with which they had been called
together, and they pleaded the inconvenience of the season for an
open-air meeting. They met in the midst of the winter rains; cold and
wet they crouched in the temple courts, the picture of wretchedness.
In a hot, dry country so little provision is made for inclement
weather, that when it comes the people suffer from it most acutely, so
that it means much more distress to them than to the inhabitants of a
chill and rainy climate. Still it may seem strange that, with so
terrible a question as the complete break-up of their homes presented
to them, the Jews should have taken much account of the mere weather
even at its worst. History, however, does not shape itself according
to proportionate proprieties, but after the course of very human
facts. We are often unduly influenced by present circumstances, so
that what is small in itself, and in comparison with the supreme
interests of life, may become for the moment of the most pressing
importance, just because it is present and making itself felt as the
nearest fact. Moreover, there is a sort of magnetic connection between
the external character of things and the most intangible of internal
experiences. The "November gloom" is more than a meteorological fact;
it has its psychological aspect. After all, are we not citizens of
the great physical universe? and is it not therefore reasonable that
the various phases of nature should affect us in some degree, so that
the common topic of conversation, "the weather," may really be of more
serious concern than we suspect? Be that as it may, it is clear that
while these Jews, who usually enjoyed brilliant sunshine and the fair
blue Syrian sky, were shivering in the chill December rains, wet and
miserable, they were quite unable to discuss a great social question,
or to brace themselves up for an act of supreme renunciation. It was a
season of depression, and the people felt limp and heartless, as
people often do feel at such a season. They pleaded for delay. Not
only was the weather a great hindrance to calm deliberation, but, as
they said, the proposed reformation was of a widespread character. It
must be an affair of some time. Let it be regularly organised. Let it
be conducted only before appointed courts in the several cities. This
was reasonable enough, and accordingly it was decided to adopt the
suggestion. It is easy to be a reformer in theory; but they who have
faced a great abuse in practice know how difficult it is to uproot it.
This is especially true of all attempts to affect the social order.
Wild ideas are floated without an effort. But the execution of these
ideas means far more toil and battle, and involves a much greater
tumult in the world, than the airy dreamers who start them so
confidently and who are so surprised at the slowness of dull people to
accept them ever imagine.

Not only was there a successful plea for delay. There was also direct
opposition to Ezra's stern proposal--although this did not prove to be
successful. The indication of opposition is obscured by the imperfect
rendering of the Authorised Version. Turning to the more correct
translation in the Revised Version we read, "Only Jonathan the son of
Asahel and Jahzeiah the son of Tikvah stood up against this matter:
and Meshullam and Shabbethai the Levite helped them."[113] Here was a
little knot of champions of the poor threatened wives, defenders of
the peaceful homes so soon to be smitten by the ruthless axe of the
reformer, men who believed in the sanctity of domestic life as not
less real than the sanctity of ecclesiastical arrangements, men
perhaps to whom love was as Divine as law, nay, was law, wherever it
was pure and true.

  [113] Ezra x. 15.

This opposition was borne down; the courts sat; the divorces were
granted; wives were torn from their husbands and sent back to their
indignant parents; and children were orphaned. Priests, Levites, and
other temple officers did not escape the domestic reformation; the
common people were not beneath its searching scrutiny; everywhere the
pruning knife lopped off the alien branches from the vine of Israel.
After giving a list of families involved, the chronicler concludes
with the bare remark that men put away wives _with children_ as well
as those who had no children.[114] It is baldly stated. What did it
mean? The agony of separation, the lifelong division of the family,
the wife worse than widowed, the children driven from the shelter of
the home, the husband sitting desolate in his silent house--over all
this the chronicler draws a veil; but our imaginations can picture
such scenes as might furnish materials for the most pathetic
tragedies.

  [114] Ezra x. 44.

In order to mitigate the misery of this social revolution, attention
has been called to the freedom of divorce which was allowed among the
Jews and to the inferior status assigned to women in the East. The
wife, it is said, was always prepared to receive a bill of divorce
whenever her husband found occasion to dismiss her: she would have a
right to claim back her dowry; and she would return to her father's
house without the slightest slur upon her character. All this may be
true enough; and yet human nature is the same all the world over, and
where there is the strong mutual affection of true wedded love,
whether in the England of our Christian era or in the Palestine of the
olden times, to sever the tie of union must mean the agony of torn
hearts, the despair of blighted lives. And was this necessary? Even if
it was not according to the ordinance of their religion for Jews to
contract marriages with foreigners, having contracted such marriages
and having seen children grow up about them, was it not a worse evil
for them to break the bonds by violence and scatter the families? Is
not the marriage law itself holy? Nay, has it not a prior right over
against Levitical institutions or prophetic ordinances, seeing that it
may be traced back to the sweet sanctities of Eden? What if the stern
reformer had fallen into a dreadful blunder? Might it not be that this
new Hildebrand and his fanatical followers were even guilty of a huge
crime in their quixotic attempt to purge the Church by wrecking the
home?

Assuredly from our point of view and with our Christian light no such
conduct as theirs could be condoned. It was utterly undiscriminating,
riding roughshod over the tenderest claims. Gentile wives such as Ruth the
Moabitess might have adopted the faith of their husbands--doubtless in many
cases they had done so--yet the sweeping, pitiless mandate of separation
applied to them as surely as if they had been heathen sorceresses. On the
other hand, we must use some historical imagination in estimating these
sorrowful scenes. The great idea of Ezra was to preserve a separate people.
He held that this was essential to the maintenance of pure religion and
morals in the midst of the pagan abominations which surrounded the little
colony. Church separation seemed to be bound up with race separation. This
Ezra believed to be after the mind of the prophets, and therefore a truth
of Divine inspiration. Under all the circumstances it is not easy to say
that his main contention was wrong, that Israel could have been preserved
as a Church if it had ceased to keep itself separate as a race, or that
without Church exclusiveness religious purity could have been maintained.

We are not called upon to face any such terrible problem, although St.
Paul's warning against Christians becoming "unequally yoked with
unbelievers"[115] reminds us that the worst ill-assortment in marriage
should not be thought of as only concerned with diversity of rank,
wealth, or culture; that they are most ill-matched who have not common
interests in the deepest concerns of the soul. Then, too, it needs to
be remembered in these days, when ease and comfort are unduly prized,
that there are occasions on which even the peace and love of the home
must be sacrificed to the supreme claims of God. Our Lord ominously
warned His disciples that He would send a sword to sever the closest
domestic ties--"to set a man at variance against his father, and the
daughter against her mother," etc.,[116] and He added, "He that loveth
father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me."[117] In times of
early Christian persecution it was necessary to choose between the
cross of Christ and the nearest domestic claims, and then faithful
martyrs accepted the cross even at the cost of the dear love of home
and all its priceless jewels, as, for instance, in the familiar story
of Perpetua and Felicitas. The same choice had to be made again under
Catholic persecution among the Huguenots, as we are reminded by
Millais' well-known picture, and even in a quasi-protestant
persecution in the case of Sir Thomas More. It faces the convert from
Hindooism in India to-day. Therefore whatever opinion we may form of
the particular action of Ezra, we should do well to ponder gravely
over the grand principle on which it was based. God must have the
first place in the hearts and lives of His people, even though in some
cases this may involve the shipwreck of the dearest earthly
affections.

  [115] Cor. vi. 14.

  [116] Matt. x. 35.

  [117] Matt. x. 37.



CHAPTER XIV.

_THE COST OF AN IDEALIST'S SUCCESS._

EZRA iv. 6-23.


The fourth chapter of the Book of Ezra contains an account of a
correspondence between the Samaritan colonists and two kings of
Persia, which follows sharply on the first mention of the intrigues of
"the enemies of Judah and Benjamin" at the Persian court in the later
days of Cyrus, and which precedes the description of the fortunes of
the Jews in the reign of Darius. If this has its right chronological
position in the narrative, it must relate to the interval during which
temple-building was in abeyance. In that case the two kings of Persia
would be Cambyses, the son and successor of Cyrus, and Pseudo-Bardes.
But the names in the text are Ahasuerus (_Ahashverosh_) and Artaxerxes
(_Artahshashta_). It has been suggested that these are second names
for the predecessors of Darius. Undoubtedly it was customary for
Persian monarchs to have more than one name. But elsewhere in the
Biblical narratives these two names are invariably applied to the
successors of Darius--the first standing for the well-known Xerxes and
the second for Artaxerxes Longimanus. The presumption therefore is
that the same kings are designated by them here. Moreover, when we
examine the account of the correspondence with the Persian court, we
find that this agrees best with the later period. The opening verses
of the fourth chapter of Ezra deal with the building of the temple;
the last verse of that chapter and the succeeding narrative of the
fifth chapter resume the same topic. But the correspondence relates to
the building of _the walls of the city_. There is not a word about any
such work in the context. Then in the letter addressed to Artaxerxes
the writers describe the builders of the walls as "the Jews _which
came up from thee_."[118] This description would not fit Zerubbabel
and his followers, who migrated under Cyrus. But it would apply to
those who accompanied Ezra to Jerusalem in the reign of Artaxerxes.
Lastly, the reign of Pseudo-Bardes is too brief for all that would
have to be crowded into it. It only occupied seven months. Yet a
letter is sent up from the enemies of the Jews; inquiry is made into
the history of Jerusalem by Persian officials at the court; a reply
based on this inquiry is transmitted to Palestine; in consequence of
this reply an expedition is organised which effectually stops the
works at Jerusalem, but only after the exercise of force on the spot.
It is nearly impossible for all this to have happened in so short a
time as seven months. All the indications therefore concur to assign
the correspondence to the later period.

  [118] Ezra iv. 12.

The chronicler must have inserted this section out of its order for
some reason of his own. Probably he desired to accentuate the
impression of the malignant and persistent enmity of the colonists,
and with this end in view described the later acts of antagonism
directly after mentioning the first outbreak of opposition. It is
just possible that he perceived the unfavourable character of his
picture of the Jews in their curt refusal of assistance from their
neighbours, and that he desired to balance this by an accumulation of
weighty indictments against the people whom the Jews had treated so
ungraciously.

In his account of the correspondence with the Persian court the
chronicler seems to have taken note of three separate letters from the
unfriendly colonists. First, he tells us that in the beginning of the
reign of Ahasuerus they wrote an accusation against the Jews.[119]
This was before the mission of Ezra; therefore it was a continuance of
the old opposition that had been seen in the intrigues that preceded
the reign of Darius; it shows that after the death of that friendly
monarch the slumbering fires broke out afresh. Next, he names certain
men who wrote to Artaxerxes, and he adds that their letter was
translated and written in the Aramaic language--the language which was
the common medium of intercourse in trade and official affairs among
the mixed races inhabiting Syria and all the regions west of the
Euphrates.[120] The reference to this language probably arises from
the fact that the chronicler had seen a copy of the translation. He
does not tell us anything either of the nationality of the writers or
of the subject of their letter. It has been suggested that they were
Jews in Jerusalem who wrote to plead their cause with the Persian
king. The fact that two of them bore Persian names--viz., Bishlam and
Mithredath--does not present a serious difficulty to this view, as we
know that some Jews received such names, Zerubbabel, for example,
being named Sheshbazzar. But as the previous passage refers to an
accusation against the Jews, and as the following sentences give an
account of a letter also written by the inimical colonists, it is
scarcely likely that the intermediate colourless verse which mentions
the letter of Bishlam and his companions is of a different character.
We should expect some more explicit statement if that were the case.
Moreover, it is most improbable that the passage which follows would
begin abruptly without an adversative conjunction--as is the case--if
it proceeded to describe a letter provoked by opposition to another
letter just mentioned. Therefore we must regard Bishlam and his
companions as enemies of the Jews. Now some who have accepted this
view have maintained that the letter of Bishlam and his friends is no
other than the letter ascribed to Rehum and Shimshai in the following
verses. It is stated that the former letter was in the Aramaic
language, and the letter which is ascribed to the two great officials
is in that language. But the distinct statement that each group of men
wrote a letter seems to imply that there were two letters written in
the reign of Artaxerxes, or three in all.

  [119] Ezra iv. 6.

  [120] Ezra iv. 7.

The third letter is the only one that the chronicler has preserved. He
gives it in the Aramaic language, and from Ezra iv. 8, where this is
introduced, to vi. 18, his narrative proceeds in that language,
probably because he found his materials in some Aramaic document.

Some have assigned this letter to the period of the reign of
Artaxerxes prior to the mission of Ezra. But there are two reasons for
thinking it must have been written after that mission. The first has
been already referred to--viz., that the complaint about "the Jews
which came up from thee" points to some large migration during the
reign of Artaxerxes, which must be Ezra's expedition. The second
reason arises from a comparison of the results of the correspondence
with the description of Jerusalem in the opening of the Book of
Nehemiah. The violence of the Samaritans recorded in Ezra iv. 23 will
account for the deplorable state of Jerusalem mentioned in Nehemiah i.
3, the effects of the invasion referred to in the former passage
agreeing well with the condition of the dismantled city reported to
Nehemiah. But in the history of Ezra's expedition no reference is made
to any such miserable state of affairs. Thus the correspondence must
be assigned to the time between the close of "Ezra" and the beginning
of "Nehemiah."

It is to Ezra's company, then, that the correspondence with Artaxerxes
refers. There were two parties in Jerusalem, and the opposition was
against the active reforming party, which now had the upper hand in
the city. Immediately we consider this, the cause of the continuance
and increase of the antagonism of the colonists becomes apparent.
Ezra's harsh reformation in the expulsion of foreign wives must have
struck the divorced women as a cruel and insulting outrage. Driven
back to their paternal homes with their burning wrongs, these poor
women must have roused the utmost indignation among their people. Thus
the reformer had stirred up a hornets' nest. The legislator who
ventures to interfere with the sacred privacy of domestic life excites
the deepest passions, and a wise man will think twice before he
meddles in so dangerous a business. Only the most imperative
requirements of religion and righteousness can justify such a course,
and even when it is justified nobody can foresee how far the trouble
it brings may spread.

The letter which the chronicler transcribes seems to have been the most
important of the three. It was written by two great Persian officials. In
our English versions the first of these is called "the chancellor," and the
second "the scribe". "The chancellor" was probably the governor of a large
district, of which Palestine was but a provincial section; and "the scribe"
his secretary. Accordingly it is apparent that the persistent enmity of the
colonists, their misrepresentations, and perhaps their bribes, had resulted
in instigating opposition to the Jews in very high places. The action of
the Jews themselves may have excited suspicion in the mind of the Persian
Satrap, for it would seem from his letter that they had just commenced to
fortify their city. The names of the various peoples who are associated
with these two great men in the title of the letter also show how far the
opposition to the Jews had spread. They are given as the peoples whom
Osnappar (_Esar-bani-pal_) had brought over and set in the city of Samaria,
"_and in the rest of the country beyond the river_."[121] That is to say,
the settlers in the vast district west of the Euphrates are included. Here
were _Apharsathchites_--who cannot be the Persians, as some have thought,
because no Assyrian king ever seems to have penetrated to Persia, but may
be the Parætaceni of Herodotus,[122] a Median people; _Tarpelites_--
probably the people named among the Hebrews after Tubal;[123]
_Apharsites_--also wrongly identified by some with the Persians, but
probably another Median people; _Archevites_, from the ancient Erech
(_Uruk_);[124] _Babylonians_, not only from the city of Babylon, but also
from its neighbourhood; _Shushanchites_, from Shusan (_Susa_), the capital
of Susiana; _Dehaites_--possibly the Dai of Herodotus,[125] because, though
these were Persians, they were nomads who may have wandered far;
_Elamites_, from the country of which Susa was capital. A terrific array!
The very names would be imposing. All these people were now united in a
common bond of enmity to the Jews of Jerusalem. Anticipating the fate of
the Christians in the Roman Empire, though on very different grounds, the
Jews seem to have been regarded by the peoples of Western Asia with
positive antipathy as enemies of the human race. Their anti-social conduct
had alienated all who knew them. But the letter of indictment brought a
false charge against them. The opponents of the Jews could not formulate
any charge out of their real grievances sufficiently grave to secure an
adverse verdict from the supreme authority. They therefore trumped up an
accusation of treason. It was untrue, for the Jews at Jerusalem had always
been the most peaceable and loyal subjects of the Great King. The search
which was made into the previous history of the city could only have
brought to light any evidence of a spirit of independence as far back as
the time of the Babylonian invasions. Still this was enough to supplement
the calumnies of the irritated opponents which the Satrap and his secretary
had been persuaded to echo with all the authority of their high position.
Moreover, Egypt was now in revolt, and the king may have been persuaded to
suspect the Jews of sympathy with the rebels. So Jerusalem was condemned as
a "bad city"; the Persian officials went up and forcibly stopped the
building of the walls, and the Jews were reduced to a condition of
helpless misery.

  [121] Ezra iv. 10.

  [122] Herodotus, i. 101.

  [123] Gen. x. 2.

  [124] Gen. x. 10.

  [125] Herodotus, i. 125.

This was the issue of Ezra's reformation. Can we call it a success?
The answer to such a question will depend on what kind of success we
may be looking for. Politically, socially, regarded from the
standpoint of material profit and loss, there was nothing but the most
dismal failure. But Ezra was not a statesman; he did not aim at
national greatness, nor did he aim even at social amelioration. In our
own day, when social improvements are regarded by many as the chief
ends of government and philanthropy, it is difficult to sympathise
with conduct which ran counter to the home comforts and commercial
prosperity of the people. A policy which deliberately wrecked these
obviously attractive objects of life in pursuit of entirely different
aims is so completely remote from modern habits of thought and conduct
that we have to make a considerable effort of imagination if we would
understand the man who promoted it. How are we to picture him?

Ezra was an idealist. Now the success of an idealist is not to be
sought for in material prosperity. He lives for his idea. If this idea
triumphs he is satisfied, because he has attained the one kind of
success he aimed at. He is not rich; but he never sowed the seed of
wealth. He may never be honoured: he has determined to set himself
against the current of popular fashion; how then can he expect popular
favour? Possibly he may meet with misapprehension, contempt, hatred,
death. The greatest Idealist the world ever saw was excommunicated as
a heretic; insulted by His opponents, and deserted by most of His
friends; tortured and crucified. The best of His disciples, those who
had caught the enthusiasm of His idea, were treated as the
offscouring of the earth. Yet we now recognise that the grandest
victory ever achieved was won at Calvary; and we now regard the
travels of St. Paul through stoning and scourging, through Jewish
hatred and Christian jealousy, on to the block, as nothing less than a
magnificent triumphant march. The idealist succeeds when his idea is
established.

Judged by this standard--the only fair standard--Ezra's work cannot be
pronounced a failure. On the contrary, he accomplished just what he
aimed at. He established the separateness of the Jews. Among
ourselves, more than two thousand years after his time, his great idea
is still the most marked feature of his people. All along the ages it
has provoked jealousy and suspicion; and often it has been met by
cruel persecution. The separate people have been treated as only too
separate from the rest of mankind. Thus the history of the Jews has
become one long tragedy. It is infinitely sad. Yet it is incomparably
more noble than the hollow comedy of existence to which the absence of
all aims apart from personal pleasure reduces the story of those
people who have sunk so low that they have no ideas. Moreover, with
Ezra the racial idea was really subordinate to the religious idea. To
secure the worship of God, free from all contamination--this was his
ultimate purpose. In accomplishing it he must have a devoted people
also free from contamination, a priesthood still more separate and
consecrated, and a ritual carefully guarded and protected from
defilement. Hence arose his great work in publishing the authoritative
codified scriptures of the Jews. To a Christian all this has its
defects--formalism, externalism, needless narrowness. Yet it succeeded
in saving the religion of the Jews, and in transmitting that religion
to future ages as a precious casket containing the seed of the great
spiritual faith for which the world was waiting. There is something of
the schoolmaster in Ezra; but he is like the law he loved so
devoutly--a schoolmaster who brings us to Christ. He was needed both
for his times and also in order to lay the foundation of coming ages.
Who shall say that such a man was not sent of God? How can we deny to
his unique work the inspiration of the Holy Spirit? The harshness of
its outward features must not blind us to the sublimity of its inner
thought or the beneficence of its ultimate purpose.



CHAPTER XV.

_NEHEMIAH THE PATRIOT._

NEHEMIAH i. 1-3.


The Book of Nehemiah is the last part of the chronicler's narrative.
Although it was not originally a separate work, we can easily see why
the editor, who broke up the original volume into distinct books,
divided it just where he did. An interval of twelve or thirteen years
comes between Ezra's reformation and the events recorded in the
opening of "Nehemiah." Still a much longer period was passed over in
silence in the middle of "Ezra."[126] A more important reason for the
division of the narrative may be found in the introduction of a new
character. The book which now bears his name is largely devoted to the
actions of Nehemiah; and it commences with an autobiographical
narrative, which occupies the first six chapters and part of the
seventh.

  [126] At Ezra vii. 1.

Nehemiah plunges suddenly into his story, without giving us any hints
of his previous history. His father, Hacaliah, is only a name to us.
It was necessary to state this name in order to distinguish the writer
from other men named Nehemiah.[127] There is no reason to think that
his privileged position at court indicates high family connections.
The conjecture of Ewald that he owed his important and lucrative
office to his personal beauty and youthful attractions is enough to
account for it. His appointment to the office formerly held by
Zerubbabel is no proof that he belonged to the Jewish royal family. At
the despotic Persian court the king's kindness towards a favourite
servant would override all claims of princely rank. Besides, it is
most improbable that we should have no hint of the Davidic descent if
this had been one ground of the appointment. Eusebius and Jerome both
describe Nehemiah as of the tribe of Judah. Jerome is notoriously
inaccurate; Eusebius is a cautious historian, but it is not likely
that in his late age--as long after Nehemiah as our age is after
Thomas à Becket--he could have any trustworthy evidence beyond that of
the Scriptures. The statement that the city of Jerusalem was the place
of the sepulchres of his ancestors[128] lends some plausibility to the
suggestion that Nehemiah belonged to the tribe of Judah. With this we
must be content.

  [127] _E.g._, the Nehemiah of Ezra ii. 2, who is certainly another
  person.

  [128] Neh. ii. 3.

It is more to the point to notice that, like Ezra, the younger man,
whose practical energy and high authority were to further the reforms
of the somewhat doctrinaire scribe, was a Jew of the exile. Once more
it is in the East, far away from Jerusalem, that the impulse is found
for furthering the cause of the Jews. Thus we are again reminded that
wave after wave sweeps up from the Babylonian plains to give life and
strength to the religious and civic restoration.

The peculiar circumstances of Nehemiah deepen our interest in his
patriotic and religious work. In his case it was not the hardships of
captivity that fostered the aspirations of the spiritual life, for he
was in a position of personal ease and prosperity. We can scarcely
think of a lot less likely to encourage the principles of patriotism
and religion than that of a favourite upper servant in a foreign,
heathen court. The office held by Nehemiah was not one of political
rank. He was a palace slave, not a minister of state like Joseph or
Daniel. But among the household servants he would take a high
position. The cup-bearers had a special privilege of admission to the
august presence of their sovereign in his most private seclusion. The
king's life was in their hands; and the wealthy enemies of a despotic
sovereign would be ready enough to bribe them to poison the king, if
only they proved to be corruptible. The requirement that they should
first pour some wine into their own hands, and drink the sample before
the King, is an indication that fear of treachery haunted the mind of
an Oriental monarch, as it does the mind of a Russian czar to-day.
Even with this rough safeguard it was necessary to select men who
could be relied upon. Thus the cup-bearers would become "favourites."
At all events, it is plain that Nehemiah was regarded with peculiar
favour by the king he served. No doubt he was a faithful servant, and
his fidelity in his position of trust at court was a guarantee of
similar fidelity in a more responsible and far more trying office.

Nehemiah opens his story by telling us that he was in "the
palace,"[129] or rather "the fortress," at Susa, the winter abode of
the Persian monarchs--an Elamite city, the stupendous remains of
which astonish the traveller in the present day--eighty miles east of
the Tigris and within sight of the Bakhtiyari Mountains. Here was the
great nail of audience, the counterpart of another at Persepolis.
These two were perhaps the largest rooms in the ancient world next to
that at Karnak. Thirty-six fluted columns, distributed as six rows of
six columns each, slender and widely spaced, supported a roof
extending two hundred feet each way. The month Chislev, in which the
occurrence Nehemiah proceeds to relate happened, corresponds to parts
of our November and December. The name is an Assyrian and Babylonian
one, and so are all the names of the months used by the Jews. Further,
Nehemiah speaks of what he here narrates as happening in the twentieth
year of Artaxerxes, and in the next chapter he mentions a subsequent
event as occurring in the month Nisan[130] in the same year. This
shows that he did not reckon the year to begin at Nisan, as the Jews
were accustomed to reckon it. He must have followed the general
Asiatic custom, which begins the year in the autumn, or else he must
have regulated his dates according to the time of the king's
accession. In either case we see how thoroughly un-Jewish the setting
of his narrative is--unless a third explanation is adopted, viz., that
the Jewish year, beginning in the spring, only counts from the
adoption of Ezra's edition of The Law. Be this as it may, other
indications of Orientalism, derived from his court surroundings, will
attract our attention in our consideration of his language later on.
No writer of the Bible reflects the influence of alien culture more
clearly than Nehemiah. Outwardly, he is the most foreign Jew we meet
with in Scripture. Yet in his and character he is the very ideal of a
Jewish patriot. His patriotism shines all the more splendidly because
it bursts out of a foreign environment. Thus Nehemiah shows how little
his dialect and the manners he exhibits can be taken as the gauge of a
man's true life.

  [129] Neh. i. 1.

  [130] Neh. ii. 1.

Nehemiah states that, while he was thus at Susa, in winter residence
with the court, one of his brethren, named Hanani, together with
certain men of Judah, came to him.[131] The language here used will
admit of our regarding Hanani as only a more or less distant relative
of the cup-bearer; but a later reference to him at Jerusalem as "my
brother Hanani"[132] shows that his own brother is meant.

  [131] Neh. i. 2.

  [132] Neh. vii. 2.

Josephus has an especially graphic account of the incident. We have no
means of discovering whether he drew it from an authentic source, but
its picturesqueness may justify the insertion of it here: "Now there
was one of those Jews who had been carried captive, who was cup-bearer
to King Xerxes; his name was Nehemiah. As this man was walking before
Susa, the metropolis of the Persians, he heard some strangers that
were entering the city, after a long journey, speaking to one another
in the Hebrew tongue; so he went to them and asked from whence they
came; and when their answer was, that they came from Judæa, he began
to inquire of them again in what state the multitude was, and in what
condition Jerusalem was: and when they replied that they were in a bad
state, for that their walls were thrown down to the ground, and that
the neighbouring nations did a great deal of mischief to the Jews,
while in the day-time they over-ran the country and pillaged it, and
in the night did them mischief, insomuch that not a few were led away
captive out of the country, and out of Jerusalem itself, and that the
roads were in the day-time found full of dead men. Hereupon Nehemiah
shed tears, out of commiseration of the calamities of his countrymen;
and, looking up to heaven, he said, 'How long, O Lord, wilt thou
overlook our nation, while it suffers so great miseries, and while we
are made the prey and the spoil of all men?' And while he staid at the
gate, and lamented thus, one told him that the king was going to sit
down to supper; so he made haste, and went as he was, without washing
himself, to minister to the king in his office of cup-bearer,"
etc.[133]

  [133] Josephus, _Ant._, XI. v. 6.

Evidently Nehemiah was expressly sought out. His influence would
naturally be valued. There was a large Jewish community at Susa, and
Nehemiah must have enjoyed a good reputation among his people;
otherwise it would have been vain for the travellers to obtain an
interview with him. The eyes of these Jews were turned to the royal
servant as the fellow-countryman of greatest influence at court. But
Nehemiah anticipated their message and relieved them of all difficulty
by questioning them about the city of their fathers. Jerusalem was
hundreds of miles away across the desert; no regular methods of
communication kept the Babylonian colony informed of the condition of
the advance guard at the ancient capital; therefore scraps of news
brought by chance travellers were eagerly devoured by those who were
anxious for the rare information. Plainly Nehemiah shared this
anxiety. His question was quite spontaneous, and it suggests that
amid the distractions of his court life his thoughts had often
reverted to the ancient home of his people. If he had not been truly
patriotic, he could have used some device, which his palace experience
would have readily suggested, so as to divert the course of this
conversation with a group of simple men from the country, and keep the
painful subject in the background. He must have seen clearly that for
one in his position of influence to make inquiries about a poor and
distressed community was to raise expectations of assistance. But his
questions were earnest and eager, because his interest was genuine.

The answers to Nehemiah's inquiries struck him with surprise as well
as grief. The shock with which he received them reminds us of Ezra's
startled horror when the lax practices of the Jewish leaders were
reported to him, although the trained court official did not display
the abandonment of emotion which was seen in the student suddenly
plunged into the vortex of public life and unprepared for one of those
dread surprises which men of the world drill themselves to face with
comparative calmness.

We must now examine the news that surprised and distressed Nehemiah.
His brother and the other travellers from Jerusalem inform him that
the descendants of the returned captives, the residents of Jerusalem,
"are in great affliction and reproach"; and also that the city walls
have been broken down and the gates burnt. The description of the
defenceless and dishonoured state of the city is what most strikes
Nehemiah. Now the question is to what calamities does this report
refer? According to the usual understanding, it is a description of
the state of Jerusalem which resulted from the sieges of
Nebuchadnezzar. But there are serious difficulties in the way of this
view. Nehemiah must have known all about the tremendous events, one of
the results of which was seen in the very existence of the Jewish
colony of which he was a member. The inevitable consequences of that
notorious disaster could not have come before him unexpectedly and as
startling news. Besides, the present distress of the inhabitants is
closely associated with the account of the ruin of the defences, and
is even mentioned first. Is it possible that one sentence should
include what was happening now, and what took place a century earner,
in a single picture of the city's misery? The language seems to point
to the action of breaking through me walls rather than to such a
general demolition of them as took place when the whole city was razed
to the ground by the Babylonian invaders. Lastly, the action of
Nehemiah cannot be accounted for on this hypothesis. He is plunged
into grief by the dreadful news, and at first he can only mourn and
fast and pray. But before long, as soon as he obtains permission from
his royal master, he sets out for Jerusalem, and there his first great
work is to restore the ruined walls. The connection of events shows
that it is the information brought to him by Hanani and the other Jews
from Jerusalem that rouses him to proceed to the city. All this points
to some very recent troubles, which were previously unknown to
Nehemiah. Can we find any indication of those troubles elsewhere?

The opening scene in the patriotic career of Nehemiah exactly fit in
with the events which came under our consideration in the previous
chapter. There we saw that the opposition to the Jews which is
recorded as early as Ezra iv., but attributed to the reign of an
"Artaxerxes," must have been carried into effect under Artaxerxes
Longimanus--Nehemiah's master. This must have been subsequent to the
mission of Ezra in the seventh year of Artaxerxes, as Ezra makes no
mention of its distressful consequences. The news reached Nehemiah in
the twentieth year of the same reign. Therefore the mischief must have
been wrought some time during the intervening thirteen years. We have
no history of that period. But the glimpse of its most gloomy
experiences afforded by the detached paragraph in Ezra iv. exactly
fits in with the description of the resulting condition of Jerusalem
in the Book of Nehemiah. This will fully account for Nehemiah's
surprise and grief; it will also throw a flood of light on his
character and subsequent action. If he had only been roused to repair
the ravages of the old Babylonian invasions, there would have been
nothing very courageous in his undertaking. Babylon itself had been
overthrown, and the enemy of Babylon was now in power. Anything
tending to obliterate the destructive glory of the old fallen empire
might be accepted with favour by the Persian ruler. But the case is
quite altered when we think of the more recent events. The very work
Nehemiah was to undertake had been attempted but a few years before,
and it had failed miserably. The rebuilding of the walls had then
excited the jealousy of neighbouring peoples, and their gross
misrepresentations had resulted in an official prohibition of the
work. This prohibition, however, had only been executed by acts of
violence, sanctioned by the government. Worse than all else, it was
from the very Artaxerxes whom Nehemiah served that the sanction had
been obtained. He was an easy-going sovereign, readily accessible to
the advice of his ministers; in the earlier part of his reign he
showed remarkable favour towards the Jews, when he equipped and
despatched Ezra on his great expedition, and it is likely enough that
in the pressure of his multitudinous affairs the King would soon
forgot his unfavourable despatch. Nevertheless he was an absolute
monarch, and the lives of his subjects were in his hands. For a
personal attendant of such a sovereign to show sympathy with a city
that had come under his disapproval was a very risky thing. Nehemiah
may have felt this while he was hiding his grief from Artaxerxes. But
if so, his frank confession at the first opportunity reflects all the
more credit on his patriotism and the courage with which he supported
it.

Patriotism is the most prominent principle in Nehemiah's conduct.
Deeper considerations emerge later, especially after he has come under
the influence of an enthusiastic religious teacher in the person of
Ezra. But at first it is the city of his fathers that moves his heart.
He is particularly distressed at its desolate condition, because the
burial-place of is ancestors is there. The great anxiety of the Jews
about the bodies of their dead, and their horror of the exposure of a
corpse, made them look with peculiar concern on the tombs of their
people. In sharing the sentiments that spring out of the habits of his
people in this respect, Nehemiah gives a specific turn to his
patriotism. He longs to guard and honour the last resting-place of his
people; he would hear of any outrage on the city where their
sepulchres are with the greatest distress. Thus filial piety mingles
with patriotism, and the patriotism itself is localised, like that of
the Greeks, and directed to the interests of a single city. Nehemiah
here represents a different attitude from that of Mordecai. It is not
the Jew that he thinks of in the first instance, but Jerusalem; and
Jerusalem is dear to him primarily, not because of his kinsmen who are
living there, but because it is the city of his fathers' sepulchres,
the city of the great past. Still the strongest feelings are always
personal. Patriotism loves the very soil of the fatherland; but the
depth and strength of the passion spring from association with an
affection for the people that inhabit it. Without this patriotism
degenerates into a flimsy sentiment. At Jerusalem Nehemiah develops a
deep personal interest in the citizens. Even on the Susa acropolis,
where the very names of these people are unknown to him, the thought
of his ancestry gives a sanctity to the far-off city. Such a thought
is enlarging and purifying. It lifts a man out of petty personal
concerns; it gives him unselfish sympathies; it prepares demands for
sacrifice and service. Thus, while the mock patriotism which cares
only for glory and national aggrandisement is nothing but a vulgar
product of enlarged selfishness, the true patriotism that awakens
large human sympathies is profoundly unselfish, and shows itself to be
a part of the very religion of a devoted man.



CHAPTER XVI.

_NEHEMIAH'S PRAYER._

NEHEMIAH i. 4-11.


Nehemiah records the twofold effect of the melancholy news which his
brother and the other travellers from Jerusalem brought him. Its first
consequence was grief; its second prayer. The grief was expressed in
the dramatic style of the Oriental by weeping, lamentations, fasting,
and other significant acts and attitudes which the patriot kept up for
some days. Demonstrative as all this appears to us, it was calm and
restrained in comparison with Ezra's frantic outburst. Still it was
the sign and fruit of heartfelt distress, for Nehemiah was really and
deeply moved. Had the incident ended here, we should have seen a
picture of patriotic sentiment, such as might be looked for in any
loyal Jew, although the position of Nehemiah at court would have
proved him loyal under exceptional circumstances. But the prayer which
is the outcome of the soul-stirring thoughts and feelings of devout
patriotism lifts the scene into a much higher interest. This prayer is
singularly penetrating, revealing a keen insight into the secret of
the calamities of Israel, and an exact perception of the relation of
God to those calamities. It shows a knowledge of what we may call the
theology of history, of the Divine laws and principles which are
above and behind the laws and principles indicated by the expression
"the philosophy of history." In form it is a combination of three
elements,--the language of devotion cultivated by Persian sages;
expressions culled from the venerated Hebrew law-book, Deuteronomy;
and new phrases called out by the new needs of the immediate occasion.
Nehemiah shows how natural it is for a person to fall into an accepted
dialect of worship, even in an original prayer the end of which is
novel and special.

He opens his prayer with an expression that seems to be more Persian
than Jewish. He does not make his appeal to Jehovah as the "God of
Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," but after the sacred name he adds the
descriptive title "God of heaven." This is quite a favourite phrase of
Nehemiah's. Thus in describing his interview with Artaxerxes he says,
"So I prayed to the God of heaven";[134] and at Jerusalem he answers
the mockery of his opponents by exclaiming, "The God of heaven, He
will prosper us."[135] Now the same expression is found repeatedly in
the chronicler's version of royal edicts--in the edict of Cyrus,[136]
in the edict of Darius,[137] in the edict of Artaxerxes.[138] If it is
indeed of Persian origin, the use of it by Nehemiah is most
significant. In this case, while it indicates the speaker's
unconscious adoption of the language of his neighbours and shows him
to be a Jew of Oriental culture, it also illustrates a far-reaching
process of Providence. Here is an exalted name for God, the origin of
which is apparently Gentile, accepted and used by a devout Jew, and
through his employment of it passing over into the Scriptures,[139]
so that the religion of Israel is enriched by a phrase from abroad. It
would be but a poor championship of the truth of the Hebrew revelation
that would lead us to close our eyes to whatever of good is to be
found outside its borders. Certainly we honour God by gladly
perceiving that He has not left Himself entirely without witness in
the dim-lit temple of Pagan thought. It is a ground for rejoicing
that, while the science of Comparative Religion has not touched the
unique pre-eminence of the Hebrew and Christian Faith, that science
has been able to recover scattered pearls of truth that lay strewn
over the waste of the world's wide thinking. If in a few rare cases
some such gems had been found earlier and even set in the crown of
Israel, we can only be thankful that the One Spirit who is the source
of all revelation has thus evinced the breadth of His activity. Nor
should it disturb our faith if it could be proved that more important
elements of our religion did not originate among the Jews, but came
from Babylonian, Persian, or Greek sources; for why should not God
speak through a Gentile if He chooses so to do? This is not a point of
dogma. It is simply a question of fact to be determined by historical
inquiry.

  [134] Neh. ii. 4.

  [135] Neh. ii. 20.

  [136] Ezra i. 2.

  [137] Ezra vi. 10.

  [138] Ezra vii. 12, 21, 23.

  [139] It is used by the chronicler, and it is found in Jonah and
  Daniel, and once even in our recension of Genesis (Gen. xxiv. 7).

We cannot say for certain, however, that Nehemiah's phrase was coined
in a Persian mint. Its novelty, its absence from earlier Hebrew
literature, and its repeated appearance in the edicts of Persian kings
favour the notion. But we know that before reaching us these edicts
have been more or less translated into Hebrew forms of thought, so
that the phrase may possibly be Jewish after all. Still even in that
case it seems clear that it must have been first used in the East and
under the Persian rule. The widening of his horizon and the elevation
of his idea of Providence which resulted from the experience of the
exile helped to enlarge and exalt the Jew's whole conception of God.
Jehovah could no longer be thought of as a tribal divinity. The
greater prophets had escaped from any such primitive notion much
earlier, but not the bulk of the nation. Now the exiles saw that the
domain of their God could not be limited to the hills and valleys of
Palestine. They perceived how His arm reached from the river to the
ends of the earth; how His might was everywhere supreme, directing the
history of empires, overthrowing great monarchies, establishing new
world-powers.

A more subtle movement of thought has been detected in the appearance
of this suggestive phrase, "God of heaven." The idea of the
transcendence of God is seen to be growing in the mind of the Jew. God
appears to be receding into remote celestial regions--His greatness
including distance. As yet this is only vaguely felt; but here we have
the beginning of a characteristic of Judaism which becomes more and
more marked in course of time, until it seems as though God were cut
off from all direct connection with men on earth, and only
administering the world through a whole army of intermediaries, the
angels.

After this phrase with the Persian flavour, Nehemiah adds expressions
borrowed from the Hebrew Book of Deuteronomy, a book with ideas and
words from which his prayer is saturated throughout. God is described
on the one hand as "great and terrible." and on the other hand as
keeping "covenant and mercy for them that love Him and observe His
commandments."[140] The Deuteronomist adds "to a thousand
generations"--a clause not needed by Nehemiah, who is now only
concerned with one special occasion. The first part of the description
is in harmony with the new and exalted title of God, and therefore it
fits in well here. It is also suitable for the circumstances of the
prayer, because in times of calamity we are impressed with the power
and terror of Providence. There is another side to these attributes,
however. The mention of them suggests that the sufferers have not
fallen into the hand of man. Hanani and his fellow-Jews made no
allusion to a Divine action; they could not see beyond the jealousy of
neighbouring people in the whole course of events. But Nehemiah at
once recognised God's hand. This perception would calm him as he
watched the solemn movement of the drama carried up into heavenly
regions. Then, aided by the cheering thought which came to him from
the book of Divine revelation on which his prayer was moulded,
Nehemiah turns to the covenant-keeping mercy of God. The covenant
which he appeals to here must be that of the Book of Deuteronomy; his
subsequent references to the contents of that book make this quite
clear.

  [140] Neh. i. 5. See Deut. vii. 9.

It is important to see that Nehemiah recognises the relation of God's
mercy to His covenant. He perceives that the two go together, that the
covenant does not dispense with the need of mercy any more than it
forecloses the action of mercy. When the covenant people fall into
sin, they cannot claim forgiveness as a right; nor can they ever
demand deliverance from trouble on the ground of their pact with God.
God does not bargain with His children. A Divine covenant is not a
business arrangement, the terms of which can be interpreted like those
of a deed of partnership, and put into force by the determinate will
of either party. The covenant is, from the first, a gracious Divine
promise and dispensation, conditioned by certain requirements to be
observed on man's side. Its very existence is a fruit of God's mercy,
not an outcome of man's haggling, and its operation is just through
the continuance of that mercy. It is true a promise, a sort of pledge,
goes with the covenant; but that is a promise of mercy, a pledge of
grace. It does not dispense with the mercy of God by converting what
would otherwise be an act of pure grace on His part into a right which
we possess and act upon of our own sole will. What it does is to
afford a channel for the mercy of God, and to assure us of His mercy,
which, however, remains mercy throughout.

From another point of view the covenant and the mercy go together. The
mercy follows the covenant. The expression "the uncovenanted mercies
of God" has been used in bitter irony, as though any hope that
depended on such mercies was poor indeed, a bare refuge of despair.
But so to treat the unknown goodness of God is to discredit that
"ceaseless, unexhausted love" which has given us the latest and
highest and best name of God. We do not know how far the vast ocean of
the lovingkindness of God extends. On the other hand, certain definite
assurances of mercy are given along the lines of a covenant. Therefore
it is clearly wise and right for people who possess the covenant to
follow those lines. Other people who are outside the covenant may meet
with wonderful surprises in the infinite Fatherhood of God; but those
of His children who are in the home must expect to be treated
according to the established order of the house. No doubt they too
will have their grand surprises of Divine grace, for God does not tie
Himself to forms and rules at home while He exercises liberty abroad.
To do so would be to make the home a prison. But still His revelation
of methods of grace is a clear indication that it is our duty to
observe those methods, and that we have no ground of complaint if we
do not receive the grace we seek when we wilfully neglect them. Here
then we see the necessity of studying the revelation of the will and
mind of God. That prayer has most ground of hope in it which keeps
nearest to the thought and spirit of Scripture.

The terms of the covenant quoted by Nehemiah require obedience on the
part of those who would receive mercy under it, and this obedience is
needed in those who are seeking restoration and forgiveness as well as
in those who have not fallen from the covenant throughout. The
reference to "mercy" makes that clear. The penitent submits, and in
the surrender of his will he is made the recipient of the Divine
mercy. But behind the obedience is the spirit of love that prompts it.
The mercy is for them that _love_ God and observe His commandments.
Love is the fulfilling of the law from the first. It is expected in
the Old Testament as well as in the New; it is prescribed by the
Deuteronomist as decidedly as by St. John, for it is the only ground
of real obedience. The slavish terror of the lash which squeezes out a
reluctant utterance of submission will not open the door for the mercy
of God. The Divine covenant secures mercy only for those who return to
their allegiance in a spirit of love.

Having thus set forth the grounds of his prayer in his address to God
and his plea of the covenant, Nehemiah proceeds to invoke the Divine
attention to his petition. There is an echo of the courtier, perhaps,
in his request that God's ear should be attentive and His eyes
open;[141] but his whole conduct forbids the idea of servile
obsequiousness. His prayer, he here says, is offered "day and night";
so his report of it may be regarded as a sort of final summing up of a
long, persevering succession of prayers. The unwearying persistence of
the man reveals two favourable features in his character--his
earnestness of purpose and his unflagging faith. Our Lord denounces
"vain repetitions"[142]--_i.e._, repetitions the very value of which
is thought to reside in their number, as though prayer could be
estimated arithmetically. But the prayer that is repeated simply
because the worshipper is too persistent to be satisfied till it is
answered does not come into the category of "_vain_ repetitions"; it
is anything but empty.

  [141] Neh. i. 6.

  [142] Matt. vi. 7.

Immediately after his invocation of God's gracious attention Nehemiah
plunges into a confession of sin. Ezra's great prayer was wholly
occupied with confession,[143] and this mournful exercise takes a
large place in Nehemiah's prayer. But the younger man has one special
ground of confession. The startling news of the ruinous condition of
the recently restored city of Jerusalem rouses a sort of national
conscience in his breast. He knows that the captivity was brought
about as a chastisement for the sins of the Jews. That great
lesson--so recklessly ignored when it was insisted on by Jeremiah--had
been burnt into the deepest convictions of the exiles. Therefore
Nehemiah makes no complaint of the cruel behaviour of the enemies of
Israel. He does not whine about the pitiable plight of the Jews. Their
real enemies were their sins, and the explanation of their present
distress was to be found in their own bad conduct. Thus Nehemiah goes
to the root of the matter, and that without a moment's hesitation.

  [143] Ezra ix. 6-15.

Further, it is interesting to see how he identifies himself with his
people in this confession. Living far from the seat of the evil,
himself a God-fearing, upright man, he might have been tempted to
treat the citizens of Jerusalem as Job's comforters treated the
patriarch of Uz, and denounce their sins from the secure heights of
his own virtue. In declining to assume this pharisaic attitude,
Nehemiah shows that he is not thinking of recent specific sins
committed by the returned exiles. The whole history of Israel's
apostasy is before him; he feels that the later as truly as the
earlier calamities flow from this one deep, foul fountain of iniquity.
Thus he can join himself with his fathers and the whole nation in the
utterance of confession. This is different from the confession of
Ezra, who was thinking of one definite sin which he did not share, but
which he confessed in a priestly sympathy. Nehemiah is less concerned
with formal legal precepts. He is more profoundly moved by the wide
and deep course of his people's sin generally. Still it is a mark of
self-knowledge and true humility, as well as of patriotism, that he
honestly associates himself with his fellow-countrymen. He perceives
that particular sins, such as those found in the recent misconduct of
the Jews, are but symptoms of the underlying sinful character; and
that while circumstances may save the individual from the temptation
to exhibit every one of these symptoms, they are accidental, and they
cannot be set to his credit. The common sin is in him still; therefore
he may well join himself to the penitents, even though he has not
participated in all their evil deeds. The solidarity of the race is,
unhappily, never more apparent than in its sin. This sin is especially
the "one touch of" _fallen_ "nature" that "makes the whole world kin."
It was to a trait of frailty that Shakespeare was alluding when he
coined his famous phrase, as the context proves.[144] The trail of the
serpent is over every human life, and in this ugly mark we have a
terrible sign of human brotherhood. Of all the elements of "Common
Prayer," confession can be most perfectly shared by every member of a
congregation, if only all the worshippers are in earnest and know
their own hearts.

  [144] _Troilus and Cressida_, Act iii., Scene 3.

Nehemiah does not enter much into detail with this confession. It is
sweeping and widely comprehensive. Two points, however, may be
noticed. First, he refers to the Godward aspect of sin, its personal
character as an offence against God. Thus he says, "We have dealt very
corruptly _against Thee_."[145] So the prodigal first confesses that
he has sinned "against heaven."[146] Secondly, he makes mention more
than once of the commandments of Moses. The name of Moses is often
appealed to with reverence in the history of this period of Ezra and
Nehemiah. Evidently the minds of men reverted to the great founder of
the nation at the time of national penitence and restoration. Under
these circumstances no new edition of The Law could have been adopted
unless it was believed to have embodied the substance of the older
teaching.

  [145] Neh. i. 7

  [146] Luke xv. 18.

After his confession Nehemiah goes on to appeal to the Divine promises
of restoration made to the penitent in the great national covenant. He
sums them up in a definite sentence, not quoting any one utterance of
Deuteronomy, but garnering together the various promises of mercy and
dovetailing almost the very language of them together, so as to
present us with the total result. These promises recognise the
possibility of transgression and the consequent scattering of the
people so often insisted on by the prophets and especially by
Jeremiah. They then go on to offer restoration on condition of
repentance and a return to obedient allegiance. It is to be observed
that this is all laid down on national lines. The nation sins; the
nation suffers; the nation is restored to its old home. This is very
much a characteristic of Judaism, and it gives a breadth to the
operation of great religious principles which would otherwise be
unattainable when almost all regard for a future life is left out of
account. Christianity dwells more on individualism, but it obtains
space at once by bringing the future life into prominence. In the Old
Testament the future of the nation takes much the same place as that
occupied by the future of the individual in the New Testament.

In reviewing the history of God's way with Israel Nehemiah lays his
finger on the great fact of redemption. The Jews are the "people whom
God had redeemed by His great power and His strong hand."[147]
Universal usage compels us to fix upon the exodus under Moses, and not
Zerubbabel's pilgrimage, as the event to which Nehemiah here alludes.
That event, which was the birth of the nation, always comes out in
Hebrew literature as the supreme act of Divine grace. In some
respects its position in the religion of Israel may be likened to that
of the cross of Christ in Christianity. In both cases God's great work
of redeeming His children is the supreme proof of His mercy and the
grand source of assurance in praying to Him for new help. On the
ground of the great redemption Nehemiah advances to the special
petition with which his prayer closes. This is most definite. It is on
behalf of his own need; it is for immediate help--"this day"; it is
for one particular need--in his proposed approach to Artaxerxes to
plead the cause of his people. Here then is an instance of the most
special prayer. It is "to the point," and for most pressing present
requirements. We cannot but be struck with the reality of such a
prayer. Having reached this definite petition Nehemiah closes
abruptly.

  [147] Neh. i. 10.

When we glance back over the prayer as a whole, we are struck with its
order and progress. As in our Lord's model prayer, the first part is
absorbed with thoughts of God; it is after uplifting his thoughts to
heaven that the worshipper comes down to human need. Then a large
place is given to sin. This comes first in the consideration of man
after the worshipper has turned his eyes from the contemplation of God
and felt the contrast of darkness after light. Lastly, the human
subjects of the prayer begin in the wider circle of the whole nation;
only at the very last, in little more than a sentence, Nehemiah brings
forward his own personal petition. Thus the prayer gradually narrows
down from the Divine to the human, and from the national to the
individual: as it narrows it becomes more definite, till it ends in a
single point; but this point is driven home by the weight and force of
all that precedes.



CHAPTER XVII.

_THE PRAYER ANSWERED._

NEHEMIAH ii. 1-8.


Nehemiah's prayer had commenced on celestial heights of meditation
among thoughts of Divine grace and glory, and when it had stooped to
earth it had swept over the wide course of his nation's history and
poured out a confession of the whole people's sin; but the final point
of it was a definite request for the prospering of his contemplated
interview with the king. Artaxerxes was an absolute despot, surrounded
with the semi-divine honours that Orientals associate with the regal
state, and yet in speaking of him before "the God of heaven," "the
great and terrible God," Nehemiah loses all awe for his majestic pomp,
and describes him boldly as "this man."[148] In the supreme splendour
of God's presence all earthly glory fades out of the worshipper's
sight, like a glow-worm's spark lost in the sunlight. Therefore no one
can be dazzled by human magnificence so long as he walks in the light
of God. Here, however, Nehemiah is speaking of an absent king. Now it
is one thing to be fearless of man when alone with God in the
seclusion of one's own chamber, and quite another to be equally
imperturbable in the world and away from the calming influence of
undisturbed communion with Heaven. We must remember this if we would
do justice to Nehemiah, because otherwise we might be surprised that
his subsequent action did not show all the courage we should have
expected.

  [148] Neh. i. 11.

Four months passed away before Nehemiah attempted anything on behalf
of the city of his fathers. The Jewish travellers probably thought
that their visit to the court servant had been barren of all results.
We cannot tell how this interval was occupied, but it is clear that
Nehemiah was brooding over his plans all the time, and inwardly
fortifying himself for his great undertaking. His ready reply when he
was suddenly and quite unexpectedly questioned by the king shows that
he had made the troubles of Jerusalem a subject of anxious thought,
and that he had come to a clear decision as to the course which he
should pursue. Time spent in such fruitful thinking is by no means
wasted. There is a hasty sympathy that flashes up at the first sign of
some great public calamity, eager "to do something," but too blind in
its impetuosity to consider carefully what ought to be done; and this
is often the source of greater evils, because it is inconsiderate. In
social questions especially people are tempted to be misled by a
blind, impatient philanthropy. The worst consequence of yielding to
such an influence--and one is strongly urged to yield for fear of
seeming cold and indifferent--is that the certain disappointment that
follows is likely to provoke despair of all remedies, and to end in
cynical callousness. Then, in the rebound, every enthusiastic effort
for the public good is despised as but the froth of sentimentality.

Very possibly Nehemiah had no opportunity of speaking to the king
during these four months. A Persian sovereign was waited on by several
cup-bearers, and it is likely enough that Nehemiah's terms of service
were intermittent. On his return to the court in due course he may
have had the first occasion for presenting his petition. Still it is
not to be denied that he found great difficulty in bringing himself to
utter it, and then only when it was dragged out of him by the king. It
was a petition of no common kind. To request permission to leave the
court might be misconstrued unfavourably. Herodotus says that people
had been put to death both by Darius and by Xerxes for showing
reluctance to accompany their king. Then had not this very Artaxerxes
sanctioned the raid upon Jerusalem which had resulted in the
devastation which Nehemiah deplored and which he desired to see
reversed? If the king remembered his rescript to the Syrian governors,
might he not regard a proposal for the reversal of its policy as a
piece of unwarrantable impertinence on the part of his household
slave--nay, as an indication of treasonable designs? All this would be
apparent enough to Nehemiah as he handed the wine-cup on bended knee
to the Great King. Is it wonderful then that he hesitated to speak, or
that he was "very sore afraid" when the king questioned him about his
sadness of countenance?

There is an apparent contradiction in Nehemiah's statement concerning
this sad appearance of his countenance which is obscured in our
English translation by the unwarrantable insertion of the word
"beforetime" in Nehemiah ii. 1, so that the sentence reads, "Now I had
not been _beforetime_ sad in his presence." This word is a gloss of
the translators. What Nehemiah really says is simply, "Now I had not
been sad in his presence"--a statement that evidently refers to the
occasion then being described, and not to previous times nor to the
cup-bearer's habitual bearing. Yet in the very next sentence we read
how the king asked Nehemiah the reason for the sadness of his
countenance. The contradiction would be as apparent to the writer as
it is to us; and if he left it Nehemiah meant it to stand, no doubt
intending to suggest by a dramatic description of the scene that he
attempted to disguise his sorrow, but that his attempt was
ineffectual--so strong, so marked was his grief. It was a rule of the
court etiquette, apparently, that nobody should be sad in the king's
presence. A gloomy face would be unpleasant to the monarch.
Shakespeare's Cæsar knew the security of cheerful associates when he
said:--

  "Let me have men about me that are fat;
  Sleek-headed men, and such as sleep o' nights:
  Yond' Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
  He thinks too much; such men are dangerous."

Besides, was not the sunshine of the royal countenance enough to drive
away all clouds of trouble from the minds of his attendants? Nehemiah
had drilled himself into the courtier's habitual pleasantness of
demeanour. Nevertheless, though passing, superficial signs of emotion
may be quite reined in by a person who is trained to control his
features, indications of the permanent conditions of the inner life
are so deeply cut in the lines and curves of the countenance that the
most consummate art of an actor cannot disguise them. Nehemiah's grief
was profound and enduring. Therefore he could not hide it. Moreover,
it is a king's business to understand men, and long practice makes
him an expert in it. So Artaxerxes was not deceived by the
well-arranged smile of his servant; it was evident to him that
something very serious was troubling the man. The sickness of a
favourite attendant would not be unknown to a kind and observant king.
Nehemiah was not ill, then. The source of his trouble must have been
mental. Sympathy and curiosity combined to urge the king to probe the
matter to the bottom. Though alarmed at his master's inquiry, the
trembling cup-bearer could not but give a true answer. Here was his
great opportunity--thrust on him since he had not had the courage to
find it for himself. Artaxerxes was not to be surprised that a man
should grieve when the city of his ancestors was lying desolate. But
this information did not satisfy the king. His keen eye saw that there
was more behind. Nehemiah had some request which as yet he had not
been daring enough to utter. With real kindness Artaxerxes invited him
to declare it.

The critical moment had arrived. How much hangs upon the next sentence--not
the continuance of the royal favour only, but perhaps the very life of the
speaker, and, what is of far more value to a patriot, the future destiny of
his people! Nehemiah's perception of its intense importance is apparent in
the brief statement which he here inserts in his narrative: "So I prayed to
the God of heaven."[149] He is accustomed to drop in suggestive notes on
his own private and behaviour along the course of his narrative. Only a few
lines earlier we came upon one of these characteristic autobiographical
touches in the words, "Now I had not been sad in his presence,"[150] soon
followed by another, "Then I was very sore afraid."[151] Such remarks
vivify the narrative, and keep up an interest in the writer. In the present
case the interjection is peculiarly suggestive. It was natural that
Nehemiah should be startled at the king's abrupt question, but it is an
indication of his devout nature that as the crisis intensified his fear
passed over into prayer. This was not a set season of prayer; the pious Jew
was not in his temple, nor at any _proseuché_, there was no time for a
full, elaborate, and orderly utterance, such as that previously recorded.
Just at the moment of need, in the very presence of the king, with no time
to spare, by a flash of thought, Nehemiah retires to that most lonely of
all lonely places, "the inner city of the mind," there to seek the help of
the Unseen God. And it is enough: the answer is as swift as the prayer; in
a moment the weak man is made strong for his great effort.

  [149] Neh. ii. 4.

  [150] Neh. ii. 1.

  [151] Neh. ii. 2.

Such a sudden uplifting of the soul to God is the most real of all
prayers. This at least is genuine and heartfelt, whatever may be the
case with the semi-liturgical composition the thought and beauty of
which engaged our attention in the previous chapter. But then the man
who can thus find God in a moment must be in the habit of frequently
resorting to the Divine Presence; like the patriarchs, he must be
walking with God. The brief and sudden prayer reaches heaven as an
arrow suddenly shot from the bow; but it goes right home, because he
who lets it off in his surprise is a good marksman, well practised.
This ready prayer only springs to the lips of a man who lives in a
daily habit of praying. We must associate the two kinds of prayer in
order to account for that which is now before us. The deliberate
exercises of adoration, confession, and petition prepare for the one
sudden ejaculation. There we see the deep river which supplies the sea
of devotion from which the momentary prayer is cast up as the spray of
a wave. Therefore it was in a great measure on account of his
deliberate and unwearying daily prayers that Nehemiah was prepared
with his quick cry to God in the crisis of need. We may compare his
two kinds of prayer with our Lord's full and calm intercession in John
xvii. and the short agonised cry from the cross. In each case we feel
that the sudden appeal to God in the moment of dire necessity is the
most intense and penetrating prayer. Still we must recognise that this
comes from a man who is much in prayer. The truth is that beneath both
of these prayers--the calm, meditative utterance, and the simple cry
for help--there lies the deep, true essence of prayer, which is no
thing of words at all, but which lives on, even when it is voiceless,
in the heart of one of whom it can be said, as Tennyson says of
Mary,--

  "Her eyes are homes of silent prayer."

Fortified by his moment's communion with God, Nehemiah now makes known
his request. He asks to be sent to Jerusalem to repair its ruins and
fortify the city. This petition contains more than lies on the surface
of the words. Nehemiah does not say that he wishes to be appointed
Governor of Jerusalem in the high office which had been held by
Zerubbabel, but the subsequent narrative shows that he was assigned to
this position, and his report of the king's orders about the house he
was to dwell in at Jerusalem almost implies as much.[152] For one of
the royal household servants to be appointed to such a position was
doubtless not so strange an anomaly in the East in Nehemiah's day, as
it would be with us now. The king's will was the fountain of all
honour, and the seclusion in which the Persian monarchs lived gave
unusual opportunities for the few personal attendants who were
admitted into their presence to obtain great favours from them. Still
Nehemiah's attitude seems to show some self-confidence in a young man
not as yet holding any political office. Two or three considerations,
however, will give a very different complexion to his request. In the
first place, his city was in a desperate plight: deliverance was
urgently needed; no help appeared to be forthcoming unless he stepped
into the breach. If he failed, things could hardly become worse than
they were already. Was this an occasion when a man should hold back
from a sense of modesty? There is a false modesty which is really a
product of the self-consciousness that is next door to vanity. The man
who is entirely oblivious of self will sometimes forget to be modest.
Moreover, Nehemiah's request was at the peril of his life. When it was
granted he would be launched on a most hazardous undertaking. The
ambition--if we must use the word--which would covet such a career is
at the very antipodes of that of the vulgar adventurer who simply
seeks power in order to gratify his own sense of importance. "Seekest
thou great things for thyself? seek them not."[153] That humbling
rebuke may be needed by many men; but it was not needed by Nehemiah,
for he was not seeking the great things for _himself_.

  [152] Neh. ii. 8.

  [153] Jer. xlv. 5.

It was a daring request; yet the king received it most favourably.
Again, then, we have the pleasing spectacle of a Persian monarch
showing kindness to the Jews. This is not the first time that
Artaxerxes has proved himself their friend, for there can be no doubt
that he is the same sovereign as the Artaxerxes who despatched Ezra
with substantial presents to the aid of the citizens of Jerusalem some
twelve or thirteen years before.

Here, however, a little difficulty emerges. In the interval between
the mission of Ezra and that of Nehemiah an adverse decree had been
extracted from the compliant sovereign--the decree referred to in Ezra
iv. Now the semi-divinity that was ascribed to a Persian monarch
involved the fiction of infallibility, and this was maintained by a
rule making it unconstitutional for him to withdraw any command that
he had once issued. How then could Artaxerxes now sanction the
building of the walls of Jerusalem, which but a few years before he
had expressly forbidden? The difficulty vanishes on a very little
consideration. The king's present action was not the withdrawal of his
earlier decree, for the royal order to the Samaritans had been just to
the effect that the building of the walls of Jerusalem should be
stopped.[154] This order had been fully executed; moreover it
contained the significant words, "until another decree shall be made
by me."[155] Therefore a subsequent permission to resume the work,
issued under totally different circumstances, would not be a
contradiction to the earlier order; and now that a trusty servant of
the king was to superintend the operations, no danger of insurrection
need be apprehended. Then the pointed notice of the fact that the
chief wife--described as "The Queen"--was sitting by Artaxerxes, is
evidently intended to imply that her presence helped the request of
Nehemiah. Orientalists have discovered her name, Damaspia, but nothing
about her to throw light on her attitude towards the Jews. She may
have been even a proselyte, or she may have simply shown herself
friendly towards the young cup-bearer. No political or religious
motives are assigned for the conduct of Artaxerxes here. Evidently
Nehemiah regarded the granting of his request as a direct result of
the royal favour shown towards himself. "Put not your trust in
princes"[156] is a wholesome warning, born of the melancholy
disappointment of the pilgrims who had placed too much hope in the
Messianic glamour with which the career of poor Zerubbabel opened; but
it does not mean that a man is to fling away the advantages which
accrue to him from the esteem he has won in high places. Ever since
the Israelites showed no scruple in spoiling the Egyptians--and who
could blame them for seizing at the eleventh hour the overdue wages of
which they had been defrauded for generations?--"the people of God"
have not been slow to reap harvests of advantage whenever persecution
or cold indifference has given place to the brief, fickle favour of
the world. Too often this has been purchased at the price of the loss
of liberty--a ruinous exchange. Here is the critical point. The
difficulty is to accept aid without any compromise of principle.
Sycophancy is the besetting snare of the courtier, and when the
Church turns courtier she is in imminent danger of that, in her, most
fatal fault. But Nehemiah affords a splendid example to the contrary.
In his grand independence of character we have a fine instance of a
wise, strong use of worldly advantages, entirely free from the abuses
that too commonly accompany them. Thus he anticipates the idea of the
Apocalypse where it is said, "The earth helped the woman."[157]

  [154] Ezra iv. 21.

  [155] _Ibid._

  [156] Psalm cxlvi. 3.

  [157] Rev. xii. 16.

The interest of the king in his cup-bearer is shown by his repeated
questions, and by the determined manner in which he drags out of
Nehemiah all his plans and wishes. Every request is granted. The
favourite servant is too much valued to get his leave of absence
without some limit of time, but even that is fixed in accordance with
Nehemiah's desire. He asks and obtains letters of introduction to the
governors west of the Euphrates. The letters were most necessary,
because these very men had bestirred themselves to obtain the adverse
decree but a very few years before. It is not likely that they had all
veered round to favour the hated people against whom they had just
been exhibiting the most severe antagonism. Nehemiah therefore showed
a wise caution in obtaining a sort of "safe conduct." The friendliness
of Artaxerxes went still further. The king ordered timber to be
provided for the building and fortifying operations contemplated by
his cup-bearer; this was to be furnished from a royal hunting park--a
"Paradise," to use the Persian word--probably one which formerly
belonged to the royal demesne of Judah, somewhere in the neighbourhood
of Jerusalem, as the head-forester bore a Hebrew name, "Asaph."[158]
Costly cedars for the temple had to be fetched all the way from the
distant mountains of Lebanon, in Phœnician territory; but the city
gates and the castle and house carpentry could be well supplied from
the oaks and other indigenous timber of Palestine.

  [158] Neh. ii. 8.

All these details evince the practical nature of Nehemiah's
patriotism. His last word on the happy conclusion of the interview
with Artaxerxes, which he had anticipated with so much apprehension,
shows that higher thoughts were not crushed out by the anxious
consideration of external affairs. He concludes with a striking
phrase, which we have met with earlier on the lips of Ezra.[159] "And
the king granted me, _according to the good hand of my God upon
me_."[160] Here is the same recognition of Divine Providence, and the
same graphic image of the "hand" of God laid on the writer. It looks
as though the younger man had been already a disciple of the Great
Scribe. But his utterance is not the less genuine and heartfelt on
that account. He perceives that his prayer has been heard and
answered. The strength and beauty of his life throughout may be seen
in his constant reference of all things to God in trust and prayer
before the event, and in grateful acknowledgment afterwards.

  [159] Ezra vii. 28.

  [160] Neh. ii. 8.



CHAPTER XVIII.

_THE MIDNIGHT RIDE._

NEHEMIAH ii. 9-20.


Nehemiah's journey up to Jerusalem differed in many respects from
Ezra's great expedition, with a host of emigrants, rich stores, and
all the accompaniments of a large caravan. Burdened with none of these
encumbrances, the newly appointed governor would be able to travel in
comparative ease. Yet while Ezra was "ashamed" to ask for a military
escort to protect his defenceless multitude and the treasures which
were only too likely to attract the vulture eyes of roving hordes of
Bedouin, because, as he tells us, he feared such a request might be
taken as a sign of distrust in his God, Nehemiah accepted a troop of
cavalry without any hesitation. This difference, however, does not
reflect any discredit on the faith of the younger man.

In the first place, his claims on the king were greater than those of
Ezra, who would have had to petition for the help of soldiers if he
had wanted it, whereas Nehemiah received his body-guard as a matter of
course. Ezra had been a private subject previous to his appointment,
and though he had subsequently been endowed with large authority of an
indefinite character, that authority was confined to the execution of
the Jewish law; it had nothing to do with the general concerns of the
Persian government in Syria or Palestine. But Nehemiah came straight
from the court, where he had been a favourite servant of the king, and
he was now made the official governor of Jerusalem. It was only in
accordance with custom that he should have an escort assigned him when
he went to take possession of his district. Then, probably to save
time, Nehemiah would travel by the perilous desert route through
Tadmor, and thus cover the whole journey in about two months--a route
which Ezra's heavy caravan may have avoided. When he reached Syria the
fierce animosity which had been excited by Ezra's domestic
reformation--and which therefore had broken out after Ezra's
expedition--would make it highly dangerous for a Jew who was going to
aid the hated citizens of Jerusalem to travel through the mixed
population.

Nevertheless, after allowing their full weight to these
considerations, may we not still detect an interesting trait of the
younger man's character in Nehemiah's ready acceptance of the guard
with which Ezra had deliberately dispensed? In the eyes of the world
the idealist Ezra must have figured as a most unpractical person. But
Nehemiah, a courtier by trade, was evidently well accustomed to
"affairs." Naturally a cautious man, he was always anxious in his
preparations, though no one could blame him for lack of decision or
promptness at the moment of action. Now the striking thing about his
character in this relation--that which lifts it entirely above the
level of purely secular prudence--is the fact that he closely
associated his careful habits with his faith in Providence. He would
have regarded the rashness which excuses itself on the plea of faith
as culpable presumption. His religion was all the more real and
thorough because it did not confine itself to unearthly experiences,
or refuse to acknowledge the Divine in any event that was not visibly
miraculous. No man was ever more impressed with the great truth that
God was with him. It was this truth, deeply rooted in his heart, that
gave him the joy which became the strength, the very inspiration of
his life. He was sure that his commonest secular concerns were moulded
by the hand of his God. Therefore to his mind the detachment of
Persian cavalry was as truly assigned to him by God as if it had been
a troop of angels sent straight from the hosts of heaven.

The highly dangerous nature of his undertaking and the necessity for
exercising the utmost caution were apparent to Nehemiah as soon as he
approached Jerusalem. Watchful enemies at once showed themselves
annoyed "that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children
of Israel."[161] It was not any direct injury to themselves, it was
the prospect of some favour to the hated Jews that grieved these
people; though doubtless their jealousy was in part provoked by dread
lest Jerusalem should regain the position of pre-eminence in Palestine
which had been enjoyed during her depression by the rival city of
Samaria. Under these circumstances Nehemiah followed the tactics which
he had doubtless learnt during his life among the treacherous
intrigues of an Oriental court. He did not at first reveal his plans.
He spent three days quietly in Jerusalem. Then he took his famous ride
round the ruins of the city walls. This was as secret as King Alfred's
exploration of the camp of the Danes. Without breathing a word of his
intention to the Jews, and taking only a horse or an ass to ride on
himself and a small body of trusty attendants on foot, Nehemiah set
out on his tour in the dead of night. No doubt the primary purpose of
this secrecy was that no suspicion of his design should reach the
enemies of the Jews. Had these men suspected it they would have been
beforehand with their plans for frustrating it; spies and traitors
would have been in the field before Nehemiah was prepared to receive
them; emissaries of the enemy would have perverted the minds even of
loyal citizens. It would be difficult enough under any circumstances
to rouse the dispirited people to undertake a work of great toil and
danger. If they were divided in counsel from the first it would be
hopeless. Moreover, in order to persuade the Jews to fortify their
city, Nehemiah must be prepared with a clear and definite proposal. He
must be able to show them that he understands exactly in what
condition their ruined fortifications are lying. For his personal
satisfaction, too, he must see the ruins with his own eyes. Ever since
the travellers from Jerusalem who met him at Susa had shocked him with
their evil tidings, a vision of the broken walls and charred gates had
been before his imagination. Now he would really see the very ruins
themselves, and ascertain whether all was as bad as it had been
represented.

  [161] Neh. ii. 10.

The uncertainty which still surrounds much of the topography of
Jerusalem, owing to its very foundations having been turned over by
the ploughshare of the invader, while some of its sacred sites have
been buried under huge mounds of rubbish, renders it impossible to
trace Nehemiah's night ride in all its details. If we are to accept
the latest theory, according to which the gorge hitherto regarded as
the _Tyropœon_ is really the ancient Valley of Hinnom, some other
sites will need considerable readjustment. The "Gate of the Valley"
seems to be one near the head of the Valley of Hinnom; we know nothing
of the "Dragon Well"; the "Dung Port" would be a gateway through which
the city offal was flung out to the fires in the Valley of Hinnom; the
"King's Pool" is very likely that afterwards known as the "Pool of
Siloam." The main direction of Nehemiah's tour of inspection is fairly
definite to us. He started at the western exit from the city and
passed down to the left, to where the Valley of Hinnom joins the
Valley of the Kidron; ascending this valley, he found the masses of
stones and heaps of rubbish in such confusion that he was compelled to
leave the animal he had been riding hitherto and to clamber over the
ruins on foot. Reaching the north-eastern corner of the Valley of the
Kidron, he would turn round by the northern side of the city, where
most of the gates had been situated, because there the city, which was
difficult of access to the south and the east on account of the
encircling ravines, could be easily approached.

And what did he gain by his journey? He gained knowledge. The
reformation that is planned by the student at his desk, without any
reference to the actual state of affairs, will be, at best, a Utopian
dream. But if the dreamer is also a man of resources and
opportunities, his impracticable schemes may issue in incalculable
mischief. "Nothing is more terrible," says Goethe, "than _active
ignorance_." We can smile at a knight-errant Don Quixote; but a Don
Quixote in power would be as dangerous as a Nero. Most schemes of
socialism, though they spring from the brains of amiable enthusiasts,
break up like empty bubbles on the first contact with the real world.
It is especially necessary, too, to know the worst. Optimism is very
cheering in idea, but when it is indulged in to the neglect of truth,
with an impatient disregard for the shady side of life, it simply
leads its devotees into a fools' paradise. The highest idealist must
have something of the realist in him if he would ever have his ideas
transformed into facts.

Further, it is to be noted that Nehemiah would gather his information for
himself; he could not be content with hearsay evidence. Here again he
reveals the practical man. It is not that he distrusts the honesty of any
agents he might employ, nor merely that he is aware of the deplorable
inaccuracy of observers generally and the inability of nearly all people to
give an uncoloured account of what they have seen; but he knows that there
is an impression to be obtained by personal observation which the most
correct description cannot approach. No map or book will give a man a right
idea of a place that he has never visited. If this is true of the external
world, much more is it the case with those spiritual realities which the
eye hath not seen, and which _therefore_ it has not entered into the heart
of man to conceive. Wordsworth frequently refers to his sensations of
surprise and disappointment passing over into a new delight when he first
beheld scenes long ago described to him in verse of legend. He finds
"Yarrow visited" very unlike "Yarrow unvisited." One commonplace
distinction we must all have noticed under similar circumstances--viz.,
that the imagination is never rich and varied enough to supply us with the
complications of the reality. Before we have looked at it our idea of the
landscape is too simple, and an invariable impression produced by the
actual sight of it is to make us feel how much more elaborate it is. Indeed
a personal investigation of most phenomena reveals an amount of
complication previously unsuspected. Where the investigation is, like
Nehemiah's, concerned with an evil we propose to attack, the result is that
we begin to see that the remedy cannot be so simple as we imagined before
we knew all the facts.

But the chief effect of Nehemiah's night ride would be to impress him
with an overwhelming sense of the desolation of Jerusalem. We may know
much by report, but we feel most keenly that of which we have had
personal experience. Thus the news of a gigantic cataclysm in China
does not affect us with a hundredth part of the emotion that is
excited in us by a simple street accident seen from our own windows.
The man whose heart will be moved enough for him to sacrifice himself
seriously in relieving misery is he who will first "_visit_ the
fatherless and widows in their affliction."[162] Then the proof that
the impression is deep and real, and not a mere idle sentiment, will
be seen in the fact that it prompts action. Nehemiah was moved to
tears by the report of the ruinous condition of Jerusalem, which
reached him in the far-off palace beyond the Euphrates. What the scene
meant to him as he slowly picked his way among the huge masses of
masonry is seen by his conduct immediately afterwards. It must have
stirred him profoundly. The silence of the sleeping city, broken now
and again by the dismal howls of packs of dogs scouring the streets,
or perhaps by the half-human shrieks of jackals on the deserted hills
in the outlying country; the dreary solitude of the interminable heaps
of ruins; the mystery of strange objects half-descried in the
distance by starlight, or, at best, by moonlight; the mournful
discovery, on nearer view, of huge building stones tumbled over and
strewn about on mountainous heaps of dust and rubbish; the gloom, the
desolation, the terror,--all this was enough to make the heart of a
patriot faint with despair. Was it possible to remedy such huge
calamities?

  [162] James i. 27.

Nehemiah does not despair. He has no time to grieve. We hear no more
of his weeping and lamentation and fasting. Now he is spurred on to
decisive action.

Fortified by the knowledge he has acquired in his adventurous night
ride, and urged by the melancholy sights he has witnessed, Nehemiah
loses no time in bringing his plans before the oligarchy of nobles who
held the rule in Jerusalem previous to his coming, as well as the rest
of the Jews. Though he is now the officially appointed governor, he
cannot arrange matters with a high hand. He must enlist the sympathy
and encourage the faith, both of the leaders and of the people
generally.

The following points in his speech to the Jews may be noticed. First,
he calls attention to the desolate condition of Jerusalem.[163] This
is a fact well known. "Ye _see_ the evil case that we are in," he
says, "how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned
with fire." The danger was that apathy would succeed to despair, for
it is possible for people to become accustomed to the most miserable
condition. The reformer must infuse a "Divine discontent"; and the
preliminary step is to get the evil plight well recognised and
heartily disliked. In the second place, Nehemiah exhorts the nobles
and people to join him in building the walls. So now he clearly
reveals his plan. The charm in his utterance here is in the use of the
first person plural: not the first person _singular_--he cannot do the
work alone, nor does he wish to; not the _second_ person--though he is
the authoritative governor, he does not enjoin on others a task the
toil and responsibility of which he will not share himself. In the
genuine use of this pronoun "we" there lies the secret of all
effective exhortation. Next Nehemiah proceeds to adduce reasons for
his appeal. He calls out the sense of patriotic pride in the remark,
"that we be no more a reproach"; and he goes further, for the Jews are
the people of God, and for them to fail is for reproach to be cast on
the name of God Himself. Here is the great religious motive for not
permitting the city of God to lie in ruins, as it is to-day the
supreme motive for keeping all taint of dishonour from the Church of
Christ.

  [163] Neh. ii. 17, 18.

But direct encouragements are needed. A sense of shame may rouse us
from our lethargy, and yet in the end it will be depressing if it does
not give place to the inspiration of a new hope. Now Nehemiah has two
fresh grounds of encouragement. He first names that which he esteems
highest--the presence and help of God in his work. "I told them," he
says, "of the hand of my God which was good upon me." How could he
despair, even at the spectacle of the ruined walls and gateways, with
the consciousness of this great and wonderful truth glowing in his
heart? Not that he was a mystic weaving fantastic dreams out of the
filmy substance of his own vague feelings. It is true he felt impelled
by the strong urging of his patriotism, and he knew that God was in
that holy passion. Yet his was an objective mind and he recognised
the hand of God chiefly in external events--in the Providence that
opens doors and indicates paths, that levels mountains of difficulty
and fills up impassable chasms, that even bends the wills of great
kings to do its bidding. This action of Providence he had himself
witnessed; his very presence at Jerusalem was a token of it. He, once
a household slave in the jealous seclusion of an Oriental palace, was
now the governor of Jerusalem, appointed to his post for the express
purpose of restoring the miserable city to strength and safety. In all
this Nehemiah felt the hand of God upon him. Then it was a gracious
and merciful Providence that had led him. Therefore he could not but
own further that the hand of God was "good." He perceived God's work,
and that work was to him most wonderfully full of lovingkindness. Here
indeed was the greatest of all encouragements to proceed. It was well
that Nehemiah had the devout insight to perceive it; a less
spiritually minded man might have received the marvellous favour
without ever discovering the hand from which it came. Following the
example of the miserable, worldly Jacob, some of us wake up in our
Bethel to exclaim with surprise, "Surely the Lord is in this place;
and I knew it not."[164] But even that is better than to slumber on in
dull indifference, too dead to recognise the Presence that guides and
blesses every footstep, provoking the melancholy lamentation: "The ox
knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's crib: but Israel doth not
know, My people doth not consider."[165]

  [164] Gen. xxviii. 16.

  [165] Isa. i. 3.

Lastly, Nehemiah not only perceived the hand of God and took courage
from his assurance of the fact; he made this glorious fact known to
the nobles of Jerusalem in order to rouse their enthusiasm. He had the
simplicity of earnestness, the openness of one who forgets self in
advocating a great cause. Is not reticence in religion too often a
consequence of the habit of turning one's thoughts inward? Such a
habit will vanish at the touch of a serious purpose. The man who is in
dead earnest has no time to be self-conscious; he does not indulge in
sickly reflections on the effect of what he says on other people's
opinions about himself; he will not care what they think about him so
long as he moves them to do the thing it is laid on his soul to urge
upon them. But it is difficult to escape from the selfish subjectivity
of modern religion, and recover the grand naturalness of the saints
alike of Old and of New Testament times.

After this revelation of the Divine Presence, Nehemiah's second ground
of encouragement is of minor interest; it can be but one link in the
chain of providential leading. Yet for a man who had not reached his
lofty point of view, it would have filled the whole horizon. The king
had given permission to the Jews to rebuild the walls; and he had
allowed Nehemiah to visit Jerusalem for the very purpose of carrying
out the work. This king, Artaxerxes, whose firman had stopped the
earlier attempt and even sanctioned the devastating raid of the
enemies of the Jews, was now proving himself the friend and champion
of Jerusalem! Here was cheering news!

It is not surprising that such a powerful appeal as this of Nehemiah's
was successful. It was like the magic horn that awoke the inmates of
the enchanted castle. The spell was broken. The long, listless torpor
of the Jews gave place to hope and energy, and the people braced
themselves to commence the work. These Jews who had been so lethargic
hitherto were now the very men to undertake it. Nehemiah brought no
new labourers; but he brought what was better, the one essential
requisite for every great enterprise--an inspiration. He brought what
the world most needs in every age. We wait for better men to arise and
undertake the tasks that seem to be too great for our strength; we cry
for a new race of God-sent heroes to accomplish the Herculean labours
before which we faint and fail. But we might ourselves become the
better men; nay, assuredly we should become God's heroes, if we would
but open our hearts to receive the Spirit by the breath of which the
weakest are made strong and the most indolent are fired with a Divine
energy. To-day, as in the time of Nehemiah, the one supreme need is
inspiration.



CHAPTER XIX.

_BUILDING THE WALLS._

NEHEMIAH iii.


The third chapter of the Book of Nehemiah supplies a striking
illustration of the constructive character of the history of the Jews
in the Persian period. Nor is that all. A mechanical, Chinese industry
may be found side by side with indications of moral littleness. But
the activity displayed in the restoration of the city walls is more
than industrious, more than productive. We must be struck with the
breadth of the picture. This characteristic was manifest in the
earlier work of building the temple, and it pervades the subsequent
religious movement of the shaping of Judaism and the development of
The Law. Here it is apparent in the fact that the Jews unite in a
great common work for the good of the whole community. It was right
and necessary that they should rebuild their private houses; but
though it would appear that some of these houses must have been in a
very ruinous condition, for this was the case even with the governor's
residence,[166] the great scheme now set on foot was for the public
advantage. There is something almost socialistic about the execution
of it; at all events we meet with that comprehensiveness of view,
that elevation of tone, that sinking of self in the interests of
society, which we should look for in true citizenship.

  [166] Neh. ii. 8.

This is the more noteworthy because the object of the Jews in the
present undertaking was what is now called "secular." The earlier
public building operations carried out by their fathers had been
confessedly and formally religious. Zerubbabel and Jeshua had led a
band of pilgrims up to Jerusalem for the express purpose of rebuilding
the temple, and at first the returned exiles had confined their
attention to this work and its associated sacrificial rites, without
revealing any political ambition, and apparently without even coveting
any civic privileges. Subsequently some sense of citizenship had begun
to appear in Ezra's reformation, but every expression of it had been
since checked by jealous and hostile influences from without. At
length Nehemiah succeeded in rousing the spirit of citizenship by
means of the inspiration of religious faith. The new enthusiasm was
not directly concerned with the temple; it aimed at fortifying the
city. Yet it sprang from prayer and faith. Thus the Jews were feeling
their way to that sacredness of civic duties which we in the freer air
of Christianity have been so slow to acknowledge.

The special form of this activity in the public interest is also
significant. The process of drawing a line round Jerusalem by
enclosing it within the definite circuit of a wall helped to mark the
individuality and unity of the place as a _city_, which an amorphous
congerie of houses could not be, according to the ancient estimate,
because the chief distinction between a city and a village was just
this, that the city was walled while the village was unwalled. The
first privilege enjoyed by the city would be its security--its
strength to withstand assaults. But the walls that shut out foes shut
in the citizens--a fact which seems to have been present to the mind
of the poet who wrote,--

  "Our feet are standing
  Within thy gates, O Jerusalem;
  Jerusalem, that art builded
  As a city that is compact together."[167]

  [167] Psalm cxxii. 2, 3.

The city is "compact together." City life is corporate life. It is not
at all easy for us to appreciate this fact while our idea of a city is
only represented by a crowd of men, women, and children crammed into a
limited space, but with scarcely any sense of common life and aims;
still less when we look behind the garish splendour of the streets to
the misery and degradation, the disease and famine and vice, that make
their nests under the very shadow of wealth and pleasure. Naturally we
turn with loathing from such sights, and long for the fresh, quiet
country life. But this accidental conglomerate of bricks and human
beings is in no sense a city. The true city--such a city as Jerusalem,
or Athens, or Rome in its best days--is a focus of the very highest
development of life known to man. The word "civilisation" should
remind us that it is the city which indicates the difference between
the cultivated man and the savage. Originally it was the _civis_, the
citizen, who marched in the van of the world's progress. Nor is it
difficult to account for his position. Intercommunication of ideas
sharpening intelligence--"as iron sharpeneth iron,"--division of
labour permitting the specialisation of industry, combination in work
making it possible for great undertakings to be carried out, the
necessity for mutual considerateness among the members of a community
and the consequent development of the social sympathies, all tend to
progress. And the sense of a common life realised in this way has
weighty moral issues. The larger the social unit becomes, the more
will people be freed from pettiness of thought and selfishness of aim.
The first step in this direction is made when we regard the family
rather than the individual as the true unit. If we pass beyond this in
modern times, we commonly advance straight on to the whole nation for
our notion of a compact community. But the stride is too great. Very
few people are able to reach the patriotism that sinks self in the
larger life of a nation. With a Mazzini, and even with smaller men who
are magnetised by the passion of such an enthusiast in times of
excitement, this may be possible. But with ordinary men in ordinary
times it is not very attainable. How many Englishmen leave legacies
for the payment of the National Debt? Still more difficult is it to
become really cosmopolitan, and acquire a sense of the supreme duty of
living for mankind. Our Lord has come to our aid here in giving us a
new unit--the Church; so that to be a citizen of this "City of God" is
to be called out of the circle of the narrow, selfish interests into
the large place where great, common duties and an all-comprehensive
good of the whole body are set before us as the chief aims to be
pursued.

In rebuilding the city walls, then, Nehemiah was accomplishing two
good objects; he was fortifying the place, and he was restoring its
organic unity. The two advantages would be mutually helpful, because
the weakness of Jerusalem was destroying the peculiar character of her
life. The aristocracy, thinking it impossible to preserve the
community in isolation, had encouraged and practised intermarriage
with neighbouring people, no doubt from a politic regard to the
advantage of foreign alliances. Although Nehemiah was not yet prepared
to grapple with this great question, his fortification of Jerusalem
would help the citizens to maintain their Jewish separateness,
according to the principle that only the strong can be free.

The careful report which Nehemiah has preserved of the organisation of
this work shows us how complete it was. The whole circuit of the walls
was restored. Of course it was most necessary that nothing less should
be attempted, because, like the strength of a chain, the strength of a
fortress is limited to that of its weakest part. And yet--obvious as
it is--probably most failures, not only in public works, but also in
private lives, are directly attributable to the neglect of this
elementary principle of defence. The difficulty always is to reach
that kind of perfection which is suggested by the circle, rather than
the pinnacle--the perfection of completeness. Now in the present
instance the completion of the circuit of the walls of Jerusalem
testifies to the admirable organising power of Nehemiah, his tact in
putting the right men in the right places--the most important and
difficult duty of a leader of men, and his perseverance in overcoming
the obstacles and objections that must have been thrust in his
path--all of them what people call secular qualities, yet all
sustained and perfected by a noble zeal and by that transparent
unselfishness which is the most powerful solvent of the selfishness of
other people. There are more moral qualities involved in the art of
organisation than they would suppose who regard it as a hard,
mechanical contrivance in which human beings are treated like parts
of a machine. The highest form of organisation is never attained in
that brutal manner. Directly we approach men as persons endowed with
rights, convictions, and feelings, an element of sympathy is called
for which makes the organising process a much more delicate concern.

Another point calls for remark here. Nehemiah's description of his
organisation of the people for the purpose of building the walls links
the several groups of men who were responsible for the different parts
with their several districts. The method of division shows a
devolution of responsibility. Each gang had its own bit of wall or its
own gate to see to. The rule regulating the assignment of districts
was that, as far as practicable, every man should undertake the work
opposite his own house. He was literally to "do the thing that lay
nearest" to him in this business. It was in every way a wise
arrangement. It would prevent the disorder and vexation that would be
excited if people were running about to select favourite
sites--choosing the easiest place, or the most prominent, or the
safest, or any other desirable spot. Surely there is no principle of
organisation so simple or so wise as that which directs us to work
near home in the first instance. With the Jews this rule would commend
itself to the instinct of self-interest. Nobody would wish the enemy
to make a breach opposite his own door, of all places. Therefore the
most selfish man would be likely to see to it that the wall near his
house was solidly built. If, however, no other inducements had been
felt in the end, the work would have failed of any great public good,
as all purely selfish work must ultimately fail. There would have
been gaps which it was nobody's interest in particular to fill.

Next it is to be observed that this building was done by "piece work,"
and that with the names of the workmen attached to it, so that if any
of them did their work ill the fact would be known and recorded to
their lasting disgrace; but also so that if any put an extra amount of
finish on their work this too should be known and remembered to their
credit. The idle and negligent workman would willingly be lost in the
crowd; but this escape was not to be permitted, he must be dragged out
and set in the pillory of notoriety. On the other hand, the humble and
devoted citizen would crave no recognition, doing his task lovingly
for the sake of his God and his city, feeling that the work was
everything--the worker nothing. For his own sake one who labours in
this beautiful spirit seems to deserve to be sheltered from the blaze
of admiration at the thought of which he shrinks back in dismay. And
yet this is not always possible. St. Paul writes of the day when
_every_ man's work shall be made manifest.[168] If the honour is
really offered to God, who inspires the work, the modesty which leads
the human agent to seek the shade may be overstrained, for the servant
need not blush to stand in the light when all eyes are directed to his
Master. But when honour is offered to the servant also, this may not
be without its advantages. Rightly taken it will humble him. He will
feel that his unworthiness would not have permitted this if God had
not been very gracious to him. Then he will feel also that he has a
character to maintain. If it is ruinous to lose a reputation--"the
better part of me," as poor Cassio exclaims in his agony of
remorse--it must be helpful to have one to guard from reproach. "A
good name is rather to be chosen than great riches,"[169] not only
because of the indirect advantages it brings from the consideration of
the world--its mere purchasing power in the market of human favour;
this is its least advantage. Its chief value is in the very possession
of it by one whose honour is involved in living worthily of it.

  [168] 1 Cor. iii. 13.

  [169] Prov. xxii. 1.

From another point of view the record of the names of people who have
rendered good service may be valuable. It will be a stimulus to their
successors. The Early Church preserved the names of her confessors and
martyrs in the diptychs which were expressly provided for use in
public worship, that God might be praised for their noble lives, and
that the living might be stimulated to follow their example. Here is
one of the great uses of history. We cannot afford to forget the loyal
service of the past, because out of it we draw inspiration for the
present. The people with a great history have come into a rich
heritage. To be a child of a really noble house, to spring from a
family truly without reproach--a family all whose sons are pure and
all whose daughters are brave--surely this is to receive a high
commission to cherish the good name unsullied. As the later Jews gazed
at the towers of Jerusalem and marked well her bulwarks, with the
thought that this massive strength was the fruit of the toil and
sacrifice of their own forefathers--so that the very names of
individual ancestors were linked with exact spots on the grey
walls--they would hear a call to loyal service worthy of their noble
predecessors.

To proceed, we may observe further that the groups of builders fall
into several classes. The first place is given to the priestly
order--"the high-priest and his brethren the priests."[170] This is
quite in accordance with the sacerdotal spirit of the times, when the
theocracy was emerging into power to take the place left vacant by the
decay of the house of David. But the priests are not only named first.
Nehemiah states that they were the first to respond to his appeal.
"_Then_"--_i.e._, after he had addressed the assembled Jews--"Then
Eliashib the high-priest _rose up_," etc. This man--the grandson of
Jeshua, from whom so much was expected by Zechariah--was the first to
set his hand to the tremendous task. First in honour, he was first in
service. The beauty of his action lies in its silence. Not a word is
recorded as spoken by him. But he was not satisfied to sanction the
work of humbler men. He led the people in the best possible way, by
beginning the work himself, by directly taking upon him his share of
it. In this noble simplicity of service Eliashib was followed by the
priesthood generally. These men put forth no claims to immunity from
the obligation of civic duties or secular occupations. It never
occurred to them to object that such employments were in the least
degree inconsistent with their high office. The priestly order was
hampered by the strictest rules of artificial separation; but the
quaint notion--so common in the East, and not quite unknown in the
West--that there is something degrading in hard work did not enter
into them.

  [170] Neh. iii. 1.

There are two points to be noticed in the special work of the priests.
First, _its locality_. These ministers of the temple set up the
"Sheep Gate," which was the gate nearest to the temple. Thus they made
themselves responsible for their own quarters, guarding what was
especially entrusted to their care. This was in accordance with the
plan observed all round the city, that the inhabitants should work in
the neighbourhood of their respective houses. The priests, who have
the honour of special connection with the temple, feel that a special
charge accompanies that honour; and rightly, for responsibility always
follows privilege. Second, _its consecration_. The priests
"sanctified" their work--_i.e._, they dedicated it to God. This was
not in the sacred enclosure--the _Haram_ as it is now called.
Nevertheless, their gate and wall, as well as their temple, were to be
reckoned holy. They did not hold the strange modern notion that while
the cemetery, the city of the dead, is to de consecrated, the city of
the living requires no consecration. They saw that the very stones and
timbers of Jerusalem belonged to God, and needed His presence to keep
them safe and pure. They were wise, for is He not "the God of the
living" and of all the concerns of life?

The next class of workmen is comprised of men who were taken according
to their families. These would probably be all of them citizens of
Jerusalem, some present by right of birth as descendants of former
citizens, others perhaps sprung from the inhabitants of distant towns
not yet restored to Israel who had made Jerusalem their home. Their
duty to fortify their own city was indubitable.

But now, as in the earlier lists, there is another class among the
laity, consisting of the inhabitants of neighbouring towns, who are
arranged, not according to families, but according to their residence.
Most likely these men were living in Jerusalem at the time; and yet
it is probable that they retained their interest in their provincial
localities. But Jerusalem was the capital, the centre of the nation,
the Holy City. Therefore the inhabitants of other cities must care for
her welfare. In a great scheme of religious centralisation at
Jerusalem Josiah had found the best means of establishing unity of
worship, and so of impressing upon the worshippers the idea of the
unity of God. The same method was still pursued. People were not yet
ripe for the larger thoughts of God and His worship which Jesus
expressed by Jacob's well. Until that was reached, external unity with
a visible centre was essential if a multiplex division of divinity was
to be avoided. After these neighbours who thus helped the metropolis
we have two other groups--the temple servants and the trade guilds of
goldsmiths and merchants.

Now, while on all sides ready volunteers press forward to the work,
just one painful exception is found to mar the harmony of the scene,
or rather to lessen its volume--for this was found in abstention, not
in active opposition. To their shame it is recorded that the nobles of
Tekoa "put not their necks to the work of their Lord."[171] The
general body of citizens from this town took part. We are not told why
the aristocracy held back. Did they consider the labour beneath their
dignity? or was there a breach between them and the townsfolk? The
people of Tekoa may have been especially democratic. Ages before, a
herdsman from this same town, the rough prophet Amos, had shown little
respect for the great ones of the earth. Possibly the Tekoites had
vexed their princes by showing a similar spirit of independence. But
if so, Nehemiah would regard their conduct as affording the princes no
excuse. For it was the Lord's work that these nobles refused to
undertake, and there is no justification for letting God's service
suffer when a quarrel has broken out between His servants. Yet how
common is this miserable result of divisions among men who should be
united in the service of God. Whatever was the cause--whether it was
some petty personal offence or some grave difference of opinion--these
nobles go down the ages, like those unhappy men in the early days of
the Judges who earned the "curse of Meroz," disgraced eternally, for
no positive offence, but simply because they left undone what they
ought to have done. Nehemiah pronounces no curse. He chronicles the
bare fact. But his ominous silence in regard to any explanation is
severely condemnatory. The man who builds his house on the sand in
hearing Christ's words and doing them not, the servant who is beaten
with many stripes because he knows his lord's will and does not
perform it, that other servant who buries his talent, the virgins who
forget to fill their vessels with oil, the people represented by goats
on the left hand whose sole ground of accusation is that they refused
to exercise the common charities--all these illustrate the important
but neglected truth that our Lord's most frequent words of
condemnation were expressed for what we call negative evil--the evil
of harmless but useless lives.

  [171] Neh. iii. 5.

Happily we may set exceptional devotion in another quarter over
against the exceptional remissness of the nobles of Tekoa. Brief as is
his summary of the division of the work, Nehemiah is careful to slip
in a word of praise for one Baruch the son of Zabbai, saying that
this man "_earnestly_ repaired" his portion.[172] That one word
"earnestly" is a truer stamp of worth than all the honours claimed by
the abstaining nobles on grounds of rank or pedigree; it goes down the
centuries as the patent of true nobility in the realm of industry.

  [172] Neh. iii. 20.



CHAPTER XX.

"_MARK YE WELL HER BULWARKS._"

NEHEMIAH iii.


The Book of Nehemiah is our principal authority for the ancient
topography of Jerusalem. But, as we have been already reminded, the
sieges from which the city has suffered, and the repeated destruction
of its walls and buildings, have obliterated many of the old landmarks
beyond recovery. In some places the ground is now found to be raised
sixty feet above the original surface; and in one spot it was even
necessary to dig down a hundred and twenty feet to reach the level of
the old pavement. It is therefore not at all wonderful that the
attempt to identify the sites here named should have occasioned not a
little perplexity. Still the explorations of underground Jerusalem
have brought some important facts to light, and others can be fairly
divined from a consideration of the historical record in the light of
the more general features of the country, which no wars or works of
man can alter.

The first, because the most obvious, thing to be noted in considering
the site of Jerusalem is its mountainous character. Jerusalem is a
mountain city, as high as a Dartmoor tor, some two thousand feet above
the Mediterranean, with a drop of nearly four thousand feet on the
farther side, beyond the Mount of Olives, towards the deep pit where
the Dead Sea steams in tropical heat. Looked at from the wilderness,
through a gap in the hills round Bethlehem, she soars above us, with
her white domes and towers clean-cut against the burning sky, like a
city of clouds. In spite of the blazing southern sunshine, the air
bites keenly on that fine altitude. It would be only reasonable to
suppose that the vigour of the highlanders who dwelt in Jerusalem was
braced by the very atmosphere of their home. And yet we have had to
trace every impulse of zeal and energy after the restoration to the
relaxing plains of the Euphrates and the Tigris! In all history the
moral element counts for more than the material. Race is more than
_habitat_; and religion is more than race.

Closely associated with this mountainous character of Jerusalem is a
second feature. It is clear that the site for the city was chosen
because of its singularly valuable ready-made defences. Jerusalem is a
natural fortress. Protected on three sides by deep ravines, it would
seem that she could be easily made impregnable. How awful, then, is
the irony of her destiny! This city, so rarely favoured by nature for
security against attack, has been more often assaulted and captured,
and has suffered more of the horrors of war, than any other spot on
earth.

The next fact to be noticed is the small size of Jerusalem. The
dimensions of the city have varied in different ages. Under the Herods
the buildings extended far beyond the ancient limits, and villas were
dotted about on the outlying hills. But in Nehemiah's day the city was
confined within a surprisingly contracted area. The discovery of the
"Siloam inscription," leading to the identification of the gorge known
to the Romans as the _Tyropœon_ with the ancient "Valley of
Hinnom" or "Tophet," cuts off the whole of the modern Zion from the
site of the ancient city, and points to the conclusion that the old
Zion must have been nearer Moriah, and all Jerusalem crowded in the
little space to the east of the chasm which was once thought to have
run up through the middle of the city. No doubt the streets were
narrow; the houses may have been high. Still the population was but
slender, for after the walls had been built Nehemiah found the space
he had enclosed too large for the inhabitants.[173] But our interest
in Jerusalem is in no way determined by her size, or by the number of
her citizens. A little town in a remote province, she was politically
insignificant enough when viewed from the standpoint of Babylon, and
in comparison with the many rich and populous cities of the vast
Persian dominions. It is the more remarkable, then, that successive
Persian sovereigns should have bestowed rare favours on her. From the
day when Solomon built his temple, the unique glory of this city had
begun to appear. Josiah's reformation in concentrating the national
worship at Jerusalem advanced her peculiar privileges, which the
rebuilding of the temple before the restoration of the city further
promoted. Jerusalem is the religious metropolis of the world. To be
first in religious honour it was not necessary that she should be
spacious or populous. Size and numbers count for very little in
religion. Its valuation is qualitative, not quantitative. Even the
extent of its influence, even the size and mass of this, depends
mainly on its character. Moreover, in Jerusalem, as a rule, the really
effective religious life was confined to a small group of the
"pious"; sometimes it was gathered up in a single individual--a
Jeremiah, an Ezra, a Nehemiah. This is a fact replete with
encouragement for faith. It is an instance of the way in which God
chooses the weak things--weak as to this world--to confound the
strong. If a small city could once take the unique position held by
Jerusalem, then why should not a small Church now? And if a little
knot of earnest men within the city could be the nucleus of her
character and the source of her influence, why should not quite a
small group of earnest people give a character to their Church, and,
through the Church, work wonders in the world, as the grain of mustard
seed could move a mountain? The secret of the miracle is, like the
secret of nature, that God is in the city and the Church, as God is in
the seed. When once we have discovered this truth as a certain fact of
life and history, our estimate of the relative greatness of things is
revolutionised. The map and the census then cease to answer our most
pressing questions. The excellence we look for must be spiritual--vigour
of faith, self-abnegation of love, passion of zeal.

  [173] Neh. xi. 1.

As we follow Nehemiah round the circuit of the walls the more special
features of the city are brought under our notice. He begins with the
"Sheep Gate," which was evidently near the temple, and the
construction of which was undertaken by the priests as the first piece
of work in the great enterprise. The name of this gate agrees well
with its situation. Opening on the Valley of the Kidron, and facing
the Mount of Olives and the lonely pass over the hills towards
Jericho, it would be the gate through which shepherds would bring in
their flocks from the wide pasturage of the wilderness. Possibly there
was a market at the open space just inside. The vicinity of the
temple would make it easy to bring up the victims for the sacrifices
by this way. As the Passover season approached, the whole
neighbourhood would be alive with the bleating of thousands of lambs.
Rich associations would thus cluster round the name of this gate. It
would be suggestive of the pastoral life so much pursued by the men of
Judah, whose favourite king had been a shepherd lad; and it would call
up deeper thoughts of the mystery of sacrifice and the joy of the
Paschal redemption of Israel. To us Christians the situation of the
"Sheep Gate" has a far more touching significance. It seems to have
stood near where the "St. Stephen's Gate" now stands; here, then,
would be the way most used by our Lord in coming to and fro between
Jerusalem and Bethany, the way by which He went out to Gethsemane on
the last night, and probably the way by which He was brought back "as
a sheep" among her shearers, "as a lamb" led to the slaughter.

Going round from this spot northwards, we have the part of the wall
built by the men of Jericho, which would still look east, towards
their own city, so that they would always see their work when they got
their first glimpse of Jerusalem as they passed over the ridge of the
Mount of Olives on their pilgrimages up to the feasts. The task of the
men of Jericho ended at one of the northern gates, the construction of
which, together with the fitting of its ponderous bolts and bars, was
considered enough for another group of builders. This was called the
"Fish Gate." Since it faced north, it would scarcely have been used by
the traders who came up from the sea fisheries in the Mediterranean;
it must have received the fish supply from the Jordan, and perhaps
from as far as the Sea of Galilee. Still its name suggests a wider
range of commerce than the "Sheep Gate," which let in flocks chiefly
from neighbouring hills. Jerusalem was in a singularly isolated spot
for the capital of a country, one chosen expressly on account of its
inaccessibility--the very opposite requisite from that of most
capitals, which are planted by navigable rivers. Nevertheless she
maintained communication, both political and commercial, with distant
towns all along the ages of her chequered history.

After passing the work of one or two Jewish families and that of the
Tekoites, memorable for the painful fact of the abstention of the
nobles, we come to the "Old Gate." That a gate should bear such a name
would lead us to think that once gates had not been so numerous as
they were at this time. Yet most probably the "Old Gate" was really
new, because very little of the original city remained above ground.
But men love to perpetuate memories of the past. Even what is new in
fact may acquire a flavour of age by the force of association. The
wise reformer will follow the example of Nehemiah in linking the new
on to the old, and preserving the venerable associations of antiquity
wherever these do not hinder present efficiency.

Next we come to the work of men from the northern Benjamite towns of
Gibeon and Mizpah,[174] whose volunteer service was a mark of their
own brotherly spirit. It should be remembered, however, that Jerusalem
originally belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. Working at the northern
wall, in accordance with the rule observed throughout that all the
Jews from outlying places should build in the direction of their own
cities, these Benjamites carried it on as far as the districts of the
goldsmiths and apothecaries,[175] whose principal bazaars seem to have
occupied the north quarter of the city--the quarter most suitable for
trade, because first reached by most travellers. There, however--if we
are to accept the generally received emendation of the text mentioned
in the margin of the Revised Version--they found a bit of wall that
had escaped destruction, and also probably the "Ephraim Gate," which
is not named here, although it existed in the days of Nehemiah.[176]
Inasmuch as the invasions had come from the north, and the recent
Samaritan raid had also proceeded from the same quarter, it seems
likely that the city had been taken on this side. If so, the enemy,
after having got in through a gate which they had burnt, or through a
breach in the wall, did not think it necessary to waste time in the
heavy labour of tearing down the wall in their rear. Perhaps as this
was the most exposed quarter, the wall was most solid here--it was
known as "the _broad_ wall." The wealthy goldsmiths would have been
anxious that their bazaars should not be the first parts of the city
to entertain a marauding host through any weakness in the defences.
The next bit of wall was in the hands of a man of some importance,
known as "the ruler of half the district of Jerusalem";[177] _i.e._,
he had the management of half the land belonging to the city--either a
sort of police supervision of private estates, or the direct control
of land owned by the municipality, and possibly farmed for the time
being on communal principles.

  [174] Neh. iii. 7.

  [175] Neh. iii. 8.

  [176] Neh. viii. 16.

  [177] Neh. iii. 9.

Still following the northern wall, we pass the work of several
Jerusalem families, and so on to the potteries, as we may infer from
the remark about "the tower of the _furnaces_."[178] Here we must be
at the "Corner Gate,"[179] which, however, is not now named; "the
tower of the furnaces" may have been part of its fortifications.
Evidently this was an important position. The manager of the second
half of the city estates and the villages on them--known as "his
daughters"--had the charge of the work here. It was four hundred
cubits from the "Ephraim Gate" to the corner.[180] At this point the
long north wall ends, and the fortifications take a sharp turn
southwards. Following the new direction, we pass by the course of the
Valley of Hinnom, leaving it on our right. The next gate we meet is
named after this ravine of evil omen the "Valley Gate." It would be
here that the poor children, victims to the savage Moloch worship, had
been led out to their fate. The name of the gate would be a perpetual
reminder of the darkest passage in the old city's history of sin and
shame. The gate would face west, and, in accordance with the
arrangement throughout, the inhabitants of Zanoah, a town lying out
from Jerusalem ten miles in that direction, undertook the erection of
it. They also had charge of a thousand cubits of wall--an
exceptionally long piece; but the gates were fewer on this side, and
here possibly the steepness of the cliff rendered a slighter wall
sufficient.

  [178] Neh. iii. 11.

  [179] 2 Chron. xxvi. 9; Jer. xxxi. 38.

  [180] 2 Kings xiv. 13.

This long, unbroken stretch of wall ends at the "Dung Gate," through
which the refuse of the city was flung out to the now degraded valley
which once had been so famous for its pleasure gardens. Sanitary
regulations are of course most necessary. We admire the minuteness
with which they are attended to in the Pentateuch, and we regard the
filthy condition of modern eastern cities as a sign of neglect and
decay. Still the adornment of a grand gateway by the temple, or the
solid building of a noble approach to the city along the main route
from the north, would be a more popular undertaking than this
construction of a "Dung Gate." It is to the credit of Nehemiah's
admirable skill in organisation that no difficulty was found in
filling up the less attractive parts of his programme, and it is even
more to the credit of those who accepted the allotment of them that,
as far as we know, they made no complaint. A common zeal for the
public good overcame personal prejudices. The just and firm
application of a universal rule is a great preventative of complaints
in such a case. When the several bands of workers were to undertake
the districts opposite their own houses if they were inhabitants of
the city, or opposite their own towns if they were provincial Jews, it
would be difficult for any of them to frame a complaint. The builders
of the "Dung Gate" came, it would seem, from the most conspicuous
eminence in the wilderness of Southern Judæa--that now known as the
"Frank Mountain." The people who would take to such an out-of-the-world
place of abode would hardly be such as we should look to for work requiring
fineness of finish. Perhaps they were more suited to the unpretentious task
which fell to their lot. Still this consideration does not detract from the
credit of their good-natured acquiescence, for self-seeking people are the
last to admit that they are not fit for the best places.

The next gate was in a very interesting position at the south-west
corner, where the _Tyropœon_ runs down to the Valley of the Kidron.
It was called the "Fountain Gate," perhaps after the one natural
spring which Jerusalem possesses--that now known as the "Virgin's
Fountain," and near to the Pool of Siloam, where the precious water
from this spring was stored. The very name of the gate would call up
thoughts of the value of its site in times of siege, when the fountain
had to be "sealed" or covered over, to save it from being tampered
with by the enemy. Close by is a flight of steps, still extant, that
formerly led down to the king's garden. We are now near to Zion, in
what was once the favourite and most aristocratic portion of the town.
The lowering of the top of Zion in the time of the Maccabees, that it
might not overlook the temple on Mount Moriah, and the filling up of
the ravines, considerably detract from the once imposing height of
this quarter of the city. Here ancient Jerusalem had looked
superb--like an eagle perched on a rock. With such a fortress as Zion
her short-sighted citizens had thought her impregnable; but Nehemiah's
contemporaries were humbler and wiser men than the infatuated Jews who
had rejected the warnings of Jeremiah.

The adjoining piece of wall brings us round to the tombs of the kings,
which, according to the custom of antiquity, as we learn from a
cuneiform inscription at Babylon, were within the city walls, although
the tombs of less important people were outside--just as to this day
we bury our illustrious dead in the heart of the metropolis. Nehemiah
had been moved at the first report of the ruin of Jerusalem by the
thought that his fathers' sepulchres were there.

From this spot it is not so easy to trace the remainder of the wall.
The mention of the Levites has given rise to the opinion that Nehemiah
now takes us at once to the temple again; but this is hardly possible
in view of his subsequent statements. We must first work round by
Ophel, the "Water", the "East," and the "Horse" Gates--all of them
apparently leading out towards the Valley of the Kidron. Levites and
Priests, whose quarters we are gradually approaching, and other
inhabitants of houses in this district, together with people from the
Jordan Valley and the east country, carried out this last piece of
work as far as a great tower standing out between Ophel and the corner
of the temple wall, a tower so massive that some of its masonry can be
seen still standing. But the narrative is here so obscure, and the
sites have been so altered by the ravages of war and time, that the
identification of most of them in this direction baffles inquiry.

"Mark ye well her bulwarks." Alas! they are buried in a desolation so
huge that the utmost skill of engineering science fails to trace their
course. The latest great discovery, which has simply revolutionised
the map by identifying the _Tyropœon_ with the Old Testament
"Valley of Hinnom" or "Tophet," is the most striking sign of these
topographical difficulties. The valley itself has been filled up with
masses of rubbish, the sight of which to-day confirms the dreadful
tragedy of the history of Jerusalem, the most tragic history on
record. No city was ever more favoured by Heaven, and no city was ever
more afflicted. Hers were the most magnificent endowments, the highest
ideals, the fairest promises; hers too was the most miserable failure.
Her beauty ravaged, her sanctity defiled, her light extinguished, her
joy turned into bitterness, Heaven's bride has been treated as the
scum of the streets. And now, after being abused by her own children,
shattered by the Babylonian, outraged by the Syrian, demolished by the
Roman, the city which stoned her prophets and clamoured successfully
for the death of her Saviour has again revived in poverty and
misery--the pale ghost of her past, still the victim of the oppressor.
The witchery of this wonderful city fascinates us to-day, and the very
syllables of her name "JERUSALEM" sound strangely sweet and ineffably
sad--

  "Most musical, most melancholy."

It was fitting that the tenderest, most mournful lament ever uttered
should have been called forth by our Lord's contemplation of such a
city--a city which, deeming herself destined to be the joy of all the
earth, became the plague-spot of history.



CHAPTER XXI.

_ON GUARD._

NEHEMIAH ii. 10, 19; iv.


All his arrangements for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem show that
Nehemiah was awake to the dangers with which he was surrounded. The
secrecy of his night ride was evidently intended to prevent a
premature revelation of his plans. The thorough organisation, the
mapping out of the whole line of the wall, and the dividing of the
building operations among forty-two bands of workpeople, secured equal
and rapid progress on all sides. Evidently the idea was to "rush" the
work, and to have it fairly well advanced, so as to afford a real
protection for the citizens, before any successful attempts to
frustrate it could be carried out. Even with all these precautions,
Nehemiah was harassed and hindered for a time by the malignant devices
of his enemies. It was only to be expected that he would meet with
opposition. But a few years before all the Syrian colonists had united
in extracting an order from Artaxerxes for the arrest of the earlier
work of building the walls, because the Jews had made themselves
intensely obnoxious to their neighbours by sending back the wives they
had married from among the Gentile peoples. The jealousy of Samaria,
which had taken the lead in Palestine so long as Jerusalem was in
evidence, envenomed this animosity still more. Was it likely then that
her watchful foes would hear with equanimity of the revival of the
hated city--a city which must have seemed to them the very embodiment
of the anti-social spirit?

Now, however, since a favourite servant of the Great King had been
appointed governor of Jerusalem, the Satrap of the Syrian provinces
could scarce be expected to interfere. Therefore the initiative fell
into the hands of smaller men, who found it necessary to abandon the
method of direct hostility, and to proceed by means of intrigues and
ambuscades. There were three who made themselves notorious in this
undignified course of procedure. Two of them are mentioned in
connection with the journey of Nehemiah up to Jerusalem.[181] The
first, the head of the whole opposition, is Sanballat, who is called
the Horonite, seemingly because he is a native of one of the
Beth-horons, and who appears to be the governor of the city of
Samaria, although this is not stated. Throughout the history he comes
before us repeatedly as the foe of the rival governor of Jerusalem.
Next to him comes Tobiah, a chief of the little trans-Jordanic tribe
of the Ammonites, some of whom had got into Samaria in the strange
mixing up of peoples after the Babylonian conquest. He is called the
servant, possibly because he once held some post at court, and if so
he may have been personally jealous of Nehemiah's promotion.

  [181] Neh. ii. 10.

Sanballat and his supporter Tobiah were subsequently joined by an
Arabian Emir named Geshem. His presence in the group of conspirators
would be surprising if we had not been unexpectedly supplied with the
means of accounting for it in the recently deciphered inscription
which tells how Sargon imported an Arabian colony into Samaria. The
Arab would scent prey in the project of a warlike expedition.

The opposition proceeded warily. At first we are only told that when
Sanballat and his friend Tobiah heard of the coming of Nehemiah, "it
grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare
of the children of Israel."[182] In writing these caustic words
Nehemiah implies that the jealous men had no occasion to fear that he
meant any harm to them, and that they knew this. It seems very hard to
him, then, that they should begrudge any alleviation of the misery of
the poor citizens of Jerusalem. What was that to them? Jealousy might
foresee the possibility of future loss from the recovery of the rival
city, and in this they might find the excuse for their action, an
excuse for not anticipating which so fervent a patriot as Nehemiah may
be forgiven; nevertheless the most greedy sense of self-interest on
the part of these men is lost sight of in the virulence of their
hatred to the Jews. This is always the case with that cruel
infatuation--the Anti-Semitic rage. Here it is that hatred passes
beyond mere anger. Hatred is actually pained at the welfare of its
object. It suffers from a Satanic misery. The venom which it fails to
plant in its victim rankles in its own breast.

  [182] Neh. ii. 10.

At first we only hear of this odious distress of the jealous
neighbours. But the prosecutions of Nehemiah's immediately lead to a
manifestation of open hostility--verbal in the beginning. No sooner
had the Jews made it evident that they were responsive to their
leader's appeal and intended to rise and build, than they were
assailed with mockery. The Samaritan and Ammonite leaders were now
joined by the Arabian, and together they sent a message of scorn and
contempt, asking the handful of poor Jews whether they were fortifying
the city in order to rebel against the king. The charge of a similar
intention had been the cause of stopping the work on the previous
occasion.[183] Now that Artaxerxes' favourite cup-bearer was at the
head of affairs, any suspicion of treason was absurd; but since hatred
is singularly blind--far more blind than love--it is barely possible
that the malignant mockers hoped to raise a suspicion. On the other
hand, there is no evidence to show that they followed the example of
the previous opposition and reported to headquarters. For the present
they seem to have contented themselves with bitter raillery. This is a
weapon before which weak men too often give way. But Nehemiah was not
so foolish as to succumb beneath a shower of poor, ill-natured jokes.

  [183] Ezra iv. 13.

His answer is firm and dignified.[184] It contains three assertions.
The first is the most important. Nehemiah is not ashamed to confess
the faith which is the source of all his confidence. In the eyes of
men the Jews may appear but a feeble folk, quite unequal to the task
of holding their ground in the midst of a swarm of angry foes. If
Nehemiah had only taken account of the political and military aspects
of affairs, he might have shrunk from proceeding. But it is just the
mark of his true greatness that he always has his eye fixed on a
Higher Power. He knows that God is in the project, and therefore he is
sure that it must prosper. When a man can reach this conviction,
mockery and insult do not move him. He has climbed to a serene
altitude, from which he can look down with equanimity on the boiling
clouds that are now far beneath his feet. Having this sublime ground
of confidence, Nehemiah is able to proceed to his second point--his
assertion of the determination of the Jews to arise and build. This is
quite positive and absolute. The brave man states it, too, in the
clearest possible language. Now the work is about to begin there is to
be no subterfuge or disguise. Nehemiah's unflinching determination is
based on the religious confession that precedes it. The Jews are God's
servants; they are engaged in His work; they know He will prosper
them; therefore they most certainly will not stay their hand for all
the gibes and taunts of their neighbours. Lastly, Nehemiah
contemptuously repudiates the claim of these impertinent intruders to
interfere in the work of the Jews; he tells them that they have no
excuse for their meddling, for they own no property in Jerusalem, they
have no right of citizenship or of control from without, and there are
no tombs of _their_ ancestors in the sacred city.

  [184] Neh. ii. 20.

In this message of Nehemiah's we seem to hear an echo of the old words
with which the temple-builders rejected the offer of assistance from
the Samaritans, and which were the beginning of the whole course of
jealous antagonism on the part of the irritated neighbours. But the
circumstances are entirely altered. It is not a friendly offer of
co-operation, but its very opposite, a hostile and insulting message
designed to hinder the Jews, that is here so proudly resented. In the
reply of Nehemiah we hear the Church refusing to bend to the will of
the world, because the world has no right to trespass on her
territory. God's work is not to be tampered with by insolent
meddlers. Jewish exclusiveness is painfully narrow, at least in our
estimation of it, when it refuses to welcome strangers or to recognise
the good that lies outside the sacred enclosure; but this same
characteristic becomes a noble quality, with high ethical and
religious aims, when it firmly refuses to surrender its duty to God at
the bidding of the outside world. The Christian can scarcely imitate
Nehemiah's tone and temper in this matter; and yet if he is loyal to
his God he will feel that he must be equally decided and
uncompromising in declining to give up any part of what he believes to
be his service of Christ to please men who unhappily as yet have "no
part, or right, or memorial" in the New Jerusalem; although, unlike
the Jew of old, he will be only too glad that all men should come in
and share his privileges.

After receiving an annoying answer it was only natural that the
antagonistic neighbours of the Jews should be still more embittered in
their animosity. At the first news of his coming to befriend the
children of Israel, as Nehemiah says, Sanballat and Tobiah were
grieved; but when the building operations were actually in process the
Samaritan leader passed from vexation to rage--"he was wroth and took
great indignation."[185] This man now assumed the lead in opposition
to the Jews. His mockery became more bitter and insulting. In this he
was joined by his friend the Ammonite, who declared that if only one
of the foxes that prowl on the neighbouring hills were to jump upon
the wall the creature would break it down.[186] Perhaps he had
received a hint from some of his spies that the new work that had been
so hastily pressed forward was not any too solid. The "Palestine
Exploration Fund" has brought to light the foundations of what is
believed to be a part of Nehemiah's wall at Ophel, and the base of it
is seen to be of rubble, not founded on the rock, but built on the
clay above, so that it has been possible to drive a mine under it from
one side to the other--a rough piece of work, very different from the
beautifully finished temple walls.[187]

  [185] Neh. iv. 1.

  [186] Neh. iv. 3.

  [187] Conder, "Bible Geography," p. 131

Nehemiah met the renewed shower of insults in a startling manner. He
cursed his enemies.[188] Deploring before God the contempt that was
heaped on the Jews, he prayed that the reproach of the enemies might
be turned on their own head, devoted them to the horrors of a new
captivity, and even went so far as to beg that no atonement might be
found for their iniquity, that their sin might not be blotted out. In
a word, instead of himself forgiving his enemies, he besought that
they might not be forgiven by God. We shudder as we read his terrible
words. This is not the Christ spirit. It is even contrary to the less
merciful spirit of the Old Testament. Yet, to be just to Nehemiah, we
must consider the whole case. It is most unfair to tear his curse out
of the history and gibbet it as a specimen of Jewish piety. Even
strong men who will not give way before ridicule may feel its
stabs--for strength is not inconsistent with sensitiveness. Evidently
Nehemiah was irritated; but then he was much provoked. For the moment
he lost his self-possession. We must remember that the strain of his
great undertaking was most exhausting, and we must be patient with the
utterances of one so sorely tried. If lethargic people criticise
adversely the hasty utterances of a more intense nature, they forget
that, though they may never lose their self-control, neither do they
ever rouse themselves to the daring energy of the man whose failings
they blame. Then it was not any personal insults hurled against
himself that Nehemiah resented so fiercely. It was his work that the
Samaritans were trying to hinder. This he believed to be really God's
work, so that the insults offered to the Jews were also directed
against God, who must have been angry also. We cannot justify the
curse by the standard of the Christian law; but it is not reasonable
to apply that standard to it. We must set it by the side of the
Maledictory Psalms. From the standpoint of its author it can be fully
accounted for. To say that even in this way it can be defended,
however, is to go too far. We have no occasion to persuade ourselves
that any of the Old Testament saints were immaculate, even in the
light of Judaism. Nehemiah was a great and good man, yet he was not an
Old Testament Christ.

  [188] Neh. iv. 4.

But now more serious opposition was to be encountered. Such enemies as
those angry men of Samaria were not likely to be content with venting
their spleen in idle mockery. When they saw that the keenest shafts of
their wit failed to stop the work of the citizens of Jerusalem,
Sanballat and his friends found it necessary to proceed to more active
measures, and accordingly they entered into a conspiracy for the
double purpose of carrying on actual warfare and of intriguing with
disaffected citizens of Jerusalem--"to cause confusion therein."[189]
Nehemiah was too observant and penetrating a statesman not to become
aware of what was going on; the knowledge that the plots existed
revealed the extent of his danger, and compelled him to make active
preparations for thwarting them. We may notice several important
points in the process of the defence.

  [189] Neh. iv. 8, 11.

1. _Prayer._--This was the first, and in Nehemiah's mind the most
essential defensive measure. We find him resorting to it in every
important juncture of his life. It is his sheet-anchor. But now he
uses the plural number. Hitherto we have met only with his private
prayers. In the present case he says, "_We_ made _our_ prayer unto
_our_ God."[190] Had the infection of his prayerful spirit reached his
fellow-citizens, so that they now shared it? Was it that the imminence
of fearful danger drove to prayer men who under ordinary circumstances
forgot their need of God? Or were both influences at work? However it
was brought about, this association in prayer of some of the Jews with
their governor must have been the greatest comfort to him, as it was
the best ground for the hope that God would not now let them fall into
the hands of the enemy. Hitherto there had been a melancholy
solitariness about the earnest devotion of Nehemiah. The success of
his mission began to show itself when the citizens began to
participate in the same spirit of devotion.

  [190] Neh. iv. 9.

2. _Watchfulness._--Nehemiah was not the fanatic to blunder into the
delusion that prayer was a substitute for duty, instead of being its
inspiration. All that followed the prayer was really based upon it.
The calmness, hope, and courage won in the high act of communion with
God made it possible to take the necessary steps in the outer world.
Since the greatest danger was not expected as an open assault, it was
most necessary that an unbroken watch should be maintained, day and
night. Nehemiah had spies out in the surrounding country, who reported
to him every planned attack. So thorough was this system of espionage,
that though no less than ten plots were concocted by the enemy, they
were all discovered to Nehemiah, and all frustrated by him.

3. _Encouragement._--The Jews were losing heart. The men of Judah came
to Nehemiah with the complaint that the labourers who were at work on
the great heaps of rubbish were suffering from exhaustion. The
reduction in the numbers of workmen, owing to the appointment of the
guard, would have still further increased the strain of those who were
left to toil among the mounds. But it would have been fatal to draw
back at this juncture. That would have been to invite the enemy to
rush in and complete the discomfiture of the Jews. On Nehemiah came
the obligation of cheering the dispirited citizens. Even the leading
men, who should have rallied the people, like officers at the head of
their troops, shared the general depression. Nehemiah was again
alone--or at best supported by the silent sympathy of his companions
in prayer. There was very nearly a panic; and for one man to stand out
under such circumstances as these in solitary courage, not only
resisting the strong contagion of fear, but stemming the tide and
counteracting its movement, this would be indeed the sublimity of
heroism. It was a severe test for Nehemiah; and he came out of it
triumphant. His faith was the inspiration of his own courage, and it
became the ground for the encouragement of others. He addressed the
people and their nobles in a spirited appeal. First, he exhorted them
to banish fear. The very tone of his voice must have been reassuring;
the presence of one brave man in a crowd of cowards often shames them
out of their weakness. But Nehemiah proceeded to give reasons for his
encouragement. Let the men remember their God Jehovah, how great and
terrible He is! The cause is His, and His might and terror will defend
it. Let them think of their people and their families, and fight for
brethren and children, for wives and homes! Cowardice is unbelief and
selfishness combined. Trust in God and a sense of duty to others will
master the weakness.

4. _Arms._--Nehemiah gave the first place to the spiritual and moral
defences of Jerusalem. Yet his material defences were none the less
thorough on account of his prayers to God or his eloquent exhortation
of the people and their leaders. They were most complete.

His arrangements for the military protection of Jerusalem converted
the whole city into an armed camp. Half the citizens in turn were to
leave their work, and stand at arms with swords and spears and bows.
Even in the midst of the building operations the clatter of weapons
was heard among the stones, because the masons at work on the walls
and the labourers while they poised on their heads baskets full of
rubbish from the excavations had swords attached to their sashes.
Residents of the suburbs were required to stay in the city instead of
returning home for the night, and no man could put off a single
article of clothing when he lay down to sleep. Nor was this martial
array deemed sufficient without some special provision against a
surprise. Nehemiah therefore went about with a trumpeter, ready to
summon all hands to any point of danger on the first alarm.

Still, though the Jews were hampered with these preparations for
battle, tired with toil and watching, and troubled by dreadful
apprehensions, the work went on. This is a great proof of the
excellency of Nehemiah's generalship. He did not sacrifice the
building to the fighting. The former was itself designed to produce a
permanent defence, while the arms were only for temporary use. When
the walls were up the citizens could give the laugh back to their
foes. But in itself the very act of working was reassuring. Idleness
is a prey to fears which industry has no time to entertain. Every man
who tries to do his duty as a servant of God is unconsciously building
a wall about himself that will be his shelter in the hour of peril.



CHAPTER XXII.

_USURY._

NEHEMIAH v.


We open the fifth chapter of "Nehemiah" with a shock of pain. The
previous chapter described a scene of patriotic devotion in which
nearly all the people were united for the prosecution of one great
purpose. There we saw the priests and the wealthy citizens side by
side with their humble brethren engaged in the common task of building
the walls of Jerusalem and guarding the city against assault. The
heartiness with which the work was first undertaken, the readiness of
all classes to resume it after temporary discouragements, and the
martial spirit shown by the whole population in standing under arms in
the prosecution of it, determined to resist any interference from
without, were all signs of a large-minded zeal in which we should have
expected private interests to have given place to the public
necessities of the hour. But now we are compelled to look at the seamy
side of city life. In the midst of the unavoidable toils and dangers
occasioned by the animosity of the Samaritans, miserable internal
troubles had broken out among the Jews; and the perplexing problems
which seem to be inseparable from the gathering together of a number
of people under any known past or present social system had developed
in the most acute form. The gulf between the rich and the poor had
widened ominously; for while the poor had been driven to the last
extremity, their more fortunate fellow-citizens had taken a
monstrously cruel advantage of their helplessness. Famine-stricken men
and women not only cried to Nehemiah for the means of getting corn for
themselves and their families; they had a complaint to make against
their brethren. Some had lost their lands after mortgaging them to
rich Jews. Others had even been forced by the money-lenders to sell
their sons and daughters into slavery. They must have been on the
brink of starvation before resorting to such an unnatural expedient.
How wonderfully, then, do they exhibit the patience of the poor in
their endurance of these agonies! There were no bread-riots. The
people simply appealed to Nehemiah, who had already proved himself
their disinterested friend, and who, as governor, was responsible for
the welfare of the city.

It is not difficult to see how it came about that many of the citizens
of Jerusalem were in this desperate plight. In all probability most of
Zerubbabel's and Ezra's pilgrims had been in humble circumstances. It
is true successive expeditions had gone up with contributions to the
Jerusalem colony; but most of the stores they had conveyed had been
devoted to public works, and even anything that may have been
distributed among the citizens could only have afforded temporary
relief. War utterly paralyses industry and commerce. In Judæa the
unsettled state of the country must have seriously impeded
agricultural and pastoral occupations. Then the importation of corn
into Jerusalem would be almost impossible while roving enemies were on
the watch in the open country, so that the price of bread would rise
as a result of scarcity. At the same time the presence of persons from
the outlying towns would increase the number of mouths to be fed
within the city. Moreover, the attention given to the building of the
walls and the defence of Jerusalem from assault would prevent artisans
and tradesmen from following the occupations by which they usually
earned their living. Lastly, the former governors had impoverished the
population by exacting grievously heavy tribute. The inevitable result
of all this was debt and its miserable consequences.

Just as in the early history of Athens and later at Rome, the troubles
to the state arising from the condition of the debtors were now of the
most serious character. Nothing disorganises society more hopelessly
than bad arrangements with respect to debts and poverty. Nehemiah was
justly indignant when the dreadful truth was made known to him. We may
wonder why he had not discovered it earlier, since he had been going
in and out among the people. Was there a certain aloofness in his
attitude? His lonely night ride suggests something of the kind. In any
case his absorbing devotion to his one task of rebuilding the city
walls could have left him little leisure for other interests. The man
who is engaged in a grand scheme for the public good is frequently the
last to notice individual cases of need. The statesman is in danger of
ignoring the social condition of the people in the pursuit of
political ends. It used to be the mistake of most governments that
their foreign policy absorbed their attention to the neglect of home
interests.

Nehemiah was not slow in recognising the public need, when it was
brought under his notice by the cry of the distressed debtors.
According to the truly modern custom of his time in Jerusalem, he
called a public meeting, explained the whole situation, and appealed
to the creditors to give back the mortgaged lands and remit the
interest on their loans. This was agreed to at once, the popular
conscience evidently approving of the proposal. Nehemiah, however, was
not content to let the matter rest here. He called the priests, and
put them on their oath to see that the promise of the creditors was
carried out. This appeal to the priesthood is very significant. It
shows how rapidly the government was tending towards a sacerdotal
theocracy. But it is important to notice that it was a social and not
a purely political matter in which Nehemiah looked to the priests. The
social order of the Jews was more especially bound up with their
religion, or rather with their law and its regulations, while as yet
questions of quasi-foreign policy were freely relegated to the purely
civil authorities, the heads of families, the nobles, and the supreme
governor under the Persian administration.

Nehemiah followed the example of the ancient prophets in his
symbolical method of denouncing any of the creditors who would not
keep the promise he had extracted from them. Shaking out his mantle,
as though to cast off whatever had been wrapped in its folds, he
exclaimed, "So God shake out every man from his house, and from his
labour, that performeth not this promise; even thus be he shaken out,
and emptied."[191] This was virtually a threat of confiscation and
excommunication. Yet the _Ecclesia_ gladly assented, crying "Amen" and
praising the Lord.

  [191] Neh. v. 13.

The extreme position here taken up by Nehemiah and freely conceded by
the people may seem to us unreasonable unless we have considered all
the circumstances. Nehemiah denounced the conduct of the money-lenders
as morally wrong. "The thing that ye do is not good," he said. It was
opposed to the will of God. It provoked the reproach of the heathen.
It was very different from his own conduct, in redeeming captives and
supporting the poor out of his private means. Now, wherein was the
real evil of the conduct of these creditors? The primitive law of the
"Covenant" forbad the Jews to take interest for loans among their
brethren.[192] But why so? Is there not a manifest convenience in the
arrangements by which those people who possess a superfluity may lend
to those who are temporarily embarrassed? If no interest is to be paid
for such loans, is it to be expected that rich people will run the
risk and put themselves to the certain inconvenience they involve? The
man who saves generally does so in order that his savings may be of
advantage to him. If he consents to defer the enjoyment of them, must
not this be for some consideration? In proportion as the advantages of
saving are reduced the inducements to save will be diminished, and
then the available lending fund of the community will be lessened, so
that fewer persons in need of temporary accommodation will be able to
receive it. From another point of view, may it not be urged that if a
man obtains the assistance of a loan he should be as willing to pay
for it as he would be to pay for any other distinct advantage? He does
not get the convenience of a coach-ride for nothing: why should he not
expect to pay anything for a lift along a difficult bit of his
financial course? Sometimes a loan may be regarded as an act of
partnership. The tradesman who has not sufficient capital to carry on
his business borrows from a neighbour who possesses money which he
desires to invest. Is not this an arrangement in which lending at
interest is mutually advantageous? In such a case the lender is really
a sort of "sleeping partner," and the interest he receives is merely
his share in the business, because it is the return which has come
back to him through the use of his money. Where is the wrong of such a
transaction? Even when the terms are more hard on the debtor, may it
not be urged that he does not accept them blindfold? He knows what he
is doing when he takes upon himself the obligations of his debt and
its accompanying interest; he willingly enters into the bond,
believing that it will be for his own advantage. How then can he be
regarded as the victim of cruelty?

  [192] Exod. xxii. 25.

This is one side of the subject, and it is not to be denied that it
exhibits a considerable amount of truth from its own point of view.
Even on this ground, however, it may be doubted whether the advantages
of the debtor are as great as they are represented. The system of
carrying on business by means of borrowed capital is answerable for
much of the strain and anxiety of modern life, and not a little of the
dishonesty to which traders are now tempted when hard pressed. The
offer of "temporary accommodation" is inviting, but it may be
questioned whether this is not more often than not a curse to those
who accept it. Very frequently it only postpones the evil day.
Certainly it is not found that the multiplication of "pawn-shops"
tends to the comfort and well-being of the people among whom they
spring up, and possibly, if we could look behind the scenes, we should
discover that lending agencies in higher commercial circles were not
much more beneficial to the community.

Still, it may be urged, even if the system of borrowing and lending is
often carried too far, there are cases in which it is manifestly
beneficial. The borrower may be really helped over a temporary
difficulty. In a time of desperate need he may even be saved from
starvation. This is not to be denied. We must look at the system as a
whole, however, rather than only at its favourable instances.

The strength of the case for lending money at interest rests upon
certain plain laws of "Political Economy." Now it is absurd to
denounce the science of "Political Economy" as "diabolical." No
science can be either good or bad, for by its nature all science deals
only with truth and knowledge. We do not talk of the morality of
chemistry. The facts may be reprehensible; but the scientific
co-ordination of them, the discovery of the principles which govern
them, cannot be morally culpable. Nevertheless "Political Economy" is
only a science on the ground of certain pre-suppositions. Remove those
pre-suppositions, and the whole fabric falls to the ground. It is not
then morally condemned; it is simply inapplicable, because its data
have disappeared. Now one of the leading data of this science is the
principle of self-interest. It is assumed throughout that men are
simply producing and trading for their own advantage. If this
assumption is allowed, the laws and their results follow with the iron
necessity of fate. But if the self-seeking principle can be removed,
and a social principle be made to take its place, the whole process
will be altered. We see this happening with Nehemiah, who is willing
to lend free of interest. In his case the strong pleas for the
reasonableness, for the very necessity of the other system fall to the
ground. If the contagion of his example were universal, we should have
to alter our books of "Political Economy," and write on the subject
from the new standpoint of brotherly kindness.

We have not yet reached the bottom of this question. It may still be
urged that, though it was very gracious of Nehemiah to act as he did,
it was not therefore culpable in others who failed to share his views
and means not to follow suit. In some cases the lender might be
depending for a livelihood on the produce of his loans. If so, were he
to decline to exact it, he himself would be absolutely impoverished.
We must meet this position by taking into account the actual results
of the money-lending system practised by the Jews in Jerusalem in the
days of Nehemiah. The interest was high--"the hundredth part of the
money"[193]--_i.e._, with the monthly payments usual in the East,
equivalent to twelve per cent. annual interest. Then those who could
not pay this interest, having already pledged their estates, forfeited
the property. A wise regulation of Deuteronomy--unhappily never
practised--had required the return of mortgaged land every seven
years.[194] This merciful regulation was evidently intended to prevent
the accumulation of large estates in the hands of rich men who would
"add field to field" in a way denounced by the prophets with
indignation.[195] Thus the tendency to inequality of lots would be
avoided, and temporary embarrassment could not lead to the permanent
ruin of a man and his children after him. It was felt, too, that there
was a sacred character in the land, which was the Lord's possession.
It was not possible for a man to whom a portion had been allotted to
wholly alienate it; for it was not his to dispose of, it was only his
to hold. This mystical thought would help to maintain a sturdy race of
peasants--Naboth, for example--who would feel their duty to their land
to be of a religious nature, and who would therefore be elevated and
strengthened in character by the very possession of it. All these
advantages were missed by the customs that were found to be prevalent
in the time of Nehemiah.

  [193] Neh. v. 11.

  [194] Deut. xv. 1-6.

  [195] _E.g._, Isa. v. 8.

Far worse than the alienation of their estates was the selling of
their children by the hard-pressed creditors. An ancient law of rude
times recognised the fact and regulated it in regard to
daughters;[196] but it is not easy to see how in an age of
civilisation any parents possessed of natural feeling could bring
themselves to consent to such a barbarity. That some did so is a proof
of the morally degrading effect of absolute penury. When the wolf is
at the door, the hungry man himself becomes wolfish. The horrible
stories of mothers in besieged cities boiling and eating their own
children can only be accounted for by some such explanation as this.
Here we have the severest condemnation of the social system which
permits of the utter destitution of a large portion of the community.
It is most hurtful to the characters of its victims; it de-humanises
them, it reduces them to the level of beasts.

  [196] Exod. xxi. 7.

Did Ezra's stern reformation prepare the way for this miserable
condition of affairs? He had dared to tamper with the most sacred
domestic ties. He had attacked the sanctities of the home. May we
suppose that one result of his success was to lower the sense of home
duties, and even to stifle the deepest natural affections? This is at
least a melancholy possibility, and it warns us of the danger of any
invasion of family claims and duties by the Church or the State.

Now it was in face of the terrible misery of the Jews that Nehemiah
denounced the whole practice of usury which was the root of it. He was
not contemplating those harmless commercial transactions by which, in
our day, capital passes from one hand to another in a way of business
that may be equally advantageous to borrower and lender. All he saw
was a state of utter ruin--land alienated from its old families, boys
and girls sold into slavery, and the unfortunate debtors, in spite of
all their sacrifices, still on the brink of starvation. In view of
such a frightful condition, he naturally denounced the whole system
that led to it. What else could he have done? This was no time for a
nice discrimination between the use and the abuse of the system.
Nehemiah saw nothing but abuse in it. Moreover, it was not in
accordance with the Hebrew way ever to draw fine distinctions. If a
custom was found to be working badly, that custom was reprobated
entirely; no attempt was made to save from the wreck any good elements
that might have been discovered in it by a cool scientific analysis.
In The Law, therefore, as well as in the particular cases dealt with
by Nehemiah, lending at interest among Jews was forbidden, because as
usually practised it was a cruel, hurtful practice. Nehemiah even
refers to lending on a pledge, without mentioning the interest, as an
evil thing, because it was taken for granted that usury went with
it.[197] But that usury was not thought to be morally wrong in itself
we may learn from the fact that Jews were permitted by their law to
practise it with foreigners,[198] while they were not allowed to do
any really wrong thing to them. This distinction between the treatment
of the Jew and that of the Gentile throws some light on the question
of usury. It shows that the real ground of condemnation was that the
practice was contrary to brotherhood. Since then Christianity enlarges
the field of brotherhood, the limits of exactions are proportionately
extended. There are many things that we cannot do to a man when we
regard him as a brother, although we should have had no compunction in
performing them before we had owned the close relationship.

  [197] Neh. v. 7, 10, where instead of "usury" (A.V.) we should read
  "pledge."

  [198] Deut. xv. 3-6.

We see then that what Nehemiah and the Jewish law really condemned was
not so much the practice of taking interest in the abstract as the
carrying on of cruel usury among brothers. The evil that lies in that
also appears in dealings that are not directly financial. The world
thinks of the Jew too much as of a Shylock who makes his money breed
by harsh exactions practised on Christians. But when Christians grow
rich by the ill-requited toil of their oppressed fellow-Christians,
when they exact more than their pound of flesh, when drop by drop they
squeeze the very life-blood out of their victims, they are guilty of
the abomination of usury--in a new form, but with few of its evils
lightened. To take advantage of the helpless condition of a fellow-man
is exactly the wickedness denounced by Nehemiah in the heartless rich
men of his day. It is no excuse for this that we are within our
rights. It is not always right to insist upon our rights. What is
legally innocent may be morally criminal. It is even possible to get
through a court of justice what is nothing better than a theft in the
sight of Heaven. It can never be right to push any one down to his
ruin.

But, it may be said, the miserable man brought his trouble upon
himself by his own recklessness. Be it so. Still he is our brother,
and we should treat him as such. We may think we are under no
obligation to follow the example of Nehemiah, who refused his pay from
the impoverished citizens, redeemed Israelites from slavery in foreign
lands, lent money free of interest, and entertained a number of Jews
at his table--all out of the savings of his old courtier days at Susa.
And yet a true Christian cannot escape from the belief that there is a
real obligation lying on him to imitate this royal bounty as far as
his means permit.

The law in Deuteronomy commanded the Israelite to lend willingly to
the needy, and not harden his heart or shut up his hands from his
"poor brother."[199] Our Lord goes further, for He distinctly requires
His disciples to lend when they do not expect that the loan will ever
be returned--"If ye lend to them of whom ye hope to receive," He asks,
"what thanks have ye? even sinners lend to sinners, to receive again
as much."[200] And St. Paul is thinking of no work of supererogation
when he writes, "Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the
_law_ of Christ."[201] Yet if somebody suggests that these precepts
should be taken seriously and put in practice to-day, he is shouted
down as a fanatic. Why is this? Will Christ be satisfied with less
than His own requirements?

  [199] Deut. xv. 7, 8.

  [200] Luke vi. 34.

  [201] Gal. vi. 2.



CHAPTER XXIII.

_WISE AS SERPENTS._

NEHEMIAH vi.


Open opposition had totally failed. The watchful garrison had not once
permitted a surprise. In spite of the persistent malignity of his
enemies, Nehemiah had raised the walls all round the city till not a
breach remained anywhere. The doors had yet to be hung at the great
gateways, but the fortification of Jerusalem had proceeded so far that
it was hopeless for the enemy to attempt any longer to hinder it by
violence. Accordingly the leading antagonists changed their tactics.
They turned from force to fraud--a method of strategy which was a
confession of weakness. The antagonism to the Jews was now in a very
different position from that which it had attained before Nehemiah had
appeared on the scene, and when all Syria was moved and Artaxerxes
himself won over to the Samaritan view. It had no support from the
Satrap. It was directly against the policy sanctioned by the king. In
its impotence it was driven to adopt humiliating devices of cunning
and deceit; and even these expedients proved to be ineffectual. It has
been well remarked that the rustic tricksters from Samaria were no
match for a trained courtier. Nehemiah easily detected the clumsy
snares that were set to entrap him. Thus he illustrates that wisdom of
the serpent which our Lord commends to His disciples as a useful
weapon for meeting the temptations and dangers they must be prepared
to encounter. The serpent, repulsive and noxious, the common symbol of
sin, to some the very incarnation of the devil, was credited with a
quality worthy of imitation by One who could see the "soul of goodness
in things evil." The subtlety of the keen-eyed, sinuous beast appeared
to Him in the light of a real excellence, which should be rescued from
its degradation in the crawling reptile and set to a worthy use. He
rejoiced in the revelation made to babes; but it would be an insult to
the children whom He set before us as the typical members of the
kingdom of heaven to mistake this for a benediction of stupidity. The
fact is, dulness is often nothing but the result of indolence; it
often comes from negligence in the cultivation of faculties God has
given to men more generously than they will acknowledge. Surely, true
religion, since it consists in a Divine _life_, must bring vitality to
the whole man, and thus quicken the intellect as well as the heart.
St. James refers to the highest wisdom as a gift which God bestows
liberally and without upbraiding on those who ask for it.[202] Our
plain duty, therefore, is not to permit ourselves to be befooled to
our ruin.

  [202] James i. 5.

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

The first proposal had danger written on the face of it, and the
persistence with which so lame a device was repeated does not do much
credit to the ingenuity of the conspirators. Their very malignity
seems to have blinded them to the fact that they were not deceiving
Nehemiah. Perhaps they thought that he would yield to sheer
importunity. Their suggestion was that he should come out of Jerusalem
and confer with Sanballat and his friends some miles away in the
plain of Sharon.[203] The Jews were known to be hard-pressed, weary,
and famine-stricken, and any overtures that promised an amicable
settlement, or even a temporary truce, might be viewed acceptably by
the anxious governor on whose sole care the social troubles of the
citizens as well as the military protection of the city depended. Very
likely information gleaned from spies within Jerusalem guided the
conspirators in choosing the opportunities for their successive
overtures. These would seem most timely when the social troubles of
the Jews were most serious. In another way the invitation to a parley
might be thought attractive to Nehemiah. It would appeal to his nobler
feelings. A generous man is unwilling to suspect the dishonesty of his
neighbours.

  [203] At Ono. This place has not yet been found. It cannot well be
  _Beit Unia_, north-west of Jerusalem, near _Beitin_ (Bethel). Its
  association with Lod (Lydda) in 1 Chron. viii. 12 and Neh. xi. 35,
  points to the neighbourhood of the latter place.

But Nehemiah was not caught by the "confidence trick." He knew the
conspirators intended to do him mischief. Yet as this intention was
not actually proved against them, he put no accusation into his reply.
The inference from it was clear enough. But the message itself could
not be construed into any indication of discourtesy. Nehemiah was
doing a great work. Therefore he could not come down. This was a
perfectly genuine answer. For the governor to have left Jerusalem at
the present crisis would have been disastrous to the city. The
conspirators then tried another plan for getting Nehemiah to meet them
outside Jerusalem. They pretended that it was reported that his work
in fortifying the city was carried on with the object of rebelling
against the Persian government, and that this report had gone so far
as to convey the impression that he had induced prophets to preach his
kingship. Some such suspicion had been hinted at before, at the time
of Nehemiah's coming up to Jerusalem,[204] but then its own absurdity
had prevented it from taking root. Now the actual appearance of the
walls round the once ruinous city, and the rising reputation of
Nehemiah as a man of resource and energy, might give some colour to
the calumny. The point of the conspirators' device, however, is not to
be found in the actual spreading of the dangerous rumour, but in the
alarm to be suggested to Nehemiah by the thought that it was being
spread. Nehemiah would know very well how much mischief is wrought by
idle and quite groundless talk. The libel may be totally false, and
yet it may be impossible for its victim to follow it up and clear his
character in every nook and cranny to which it penetrates. A lie, like
a weed, if it is not nipped in the bud, sheds seeds which every wind
of gossip will spread far and wide, so that it soon becomes impossible
to stamp it out.

  [204] Neh. ii. 19.

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

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

Another feature of the strange incident is not very clear to us.
Nehemiah tells us that the prophet was "shut up."[205] What does this
mean? Was the man ceremonially unclean? or ill? or in custody under
some accusation? None of these three explanations can be accepted,
because Shemaiah proposed to proceed at once to the temple with
Nehemiah, and thus confessed his seclusion to be voluntary. Can we
give a metaphorical interpretation to the expression, and understand
the prophet to be representing himself as under a Divine compulsion,
the thought of which may give the more urgency to the advice he
tenders to Nehemiah? In this case we should look for a more explicit
statement, for the whole force of his message would depend upon the
authority thus attributed to it. A simpler interpretation, to which
the language of Shemaiah points, and one in accordance with all the
wretched, scheming policy of the enemies of Nehemiah, is that the
prophet pretended that he was himself in personal danger as a friend
and supporter of the governor, and that therefore he found it
necessary to keep himself in seclusion. Thus by his own attitude he
would try to work on the fears of Nehemiah.

  [205] Neh. vi. 10.

The proposal that the prophet should accompany Nehemiah to the
shelter of the temple, even into the "Holy Place," was temptingly
plausible. The heathen regarded the shrines of their gods as
sanctuaries, and similar notions seem to have attached themselves to
the Jewish altar. Moreover, the massive structure of the temple was
itself a defence--the temple of Herod was the last fortress to be
taken in the great final siege. In the temple, too, Nehemiah might
hope to be safe from the surprise of a street _émeute_ among the
disaffected sections of the population. Above all, the presence and
counsel of a prophet would seem to sanction and authorise the course
indicated. Yet it was all a cruel snare. This time the purpose was to
discredit Nehemiah in the eyes of the Jews, inasmuch as his influence
depended largely on his reputation. But again Nehemiah could see
through the tricks of his enemies. He was neither blinded by
self-interest nor overawed by prophetic authority. The use of that
authority was the last arrow in the quiver of his foes. They would
attack him through his religious faith. Their mistake was that they
took too low a view of that faith. This is the common mistake of the
irreligious in their treatment of truly devout men. Nehemiah knew that
a prophet could err. Had there not been lying prophets in the days of
Jeremiah? It is a proof of his true spiritual insight that he could
discern one in his pretended protector. The test is clear to a man
with so true a conscience as we see in Nehemiah. If the prophet says
what we know to be morally wrong, he cannot be speaking from God. It
is not the teaching of the Bible--not the teaching of the Old
Testament any more than that of the New--that revelation supersedes
conscience, that we are ever to take on authority what our moral
nature abhors. The humility that would lay conscience under the heel
of authority is false and degrading, and it is utterly contrary to the
whole tenor of Scripture. One great sign of the worth of a prophecy is
its character. Thus the devout man is to try the spirits, whether they
be of God.[206] Nehemiah has the clear, serene conscience that detects
sin when it appears in the guise of sanctity. He sees at a glance that
it would be wrong for him to follow Shemaiah's advice. It would
involve a cowardly desertion of his post. It would also involve a
desecration of the sacred temple enclosure. How could he, being such
as he was--_i.e._, a layman--go into the temple, even to save his
life?[207] But did not our Lord excuse David for an analogous action
in eating the shewbread? True. But Nehemiah did not enjoy the
primitive freedom of David, nor the later enlightened liberty of
Christ. In his intermediate position, in his age of nascent
ceremonialism, it was impossible for him to see that simple human
necessities could ever override the claims of ritual. His duty was
shaped to him by his beliefs. So is it with every man. To him that
esteemeth anything sin it is sin.[208]

  [206] 1 John iv. 1.

  [207] Neh. vi. 11.

  [208] Rom. xiv. 14.

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

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

The first is the completion of the work, with its effect on the
jealous enemies of the Jews. It was finished in fifty-two days--an
almost incredibly short time, especially when the hindrances of
internal troubles and external attacks are taken into account. The
building must have been hasty and rough. Still it was sufficient for
its purpose. The moral effect of it was the chief result gained. The
sense of discouragement now passed over to the enemy. It was the
natural reaction from the mockery with which they had assailed the
commencement of the work, that at the sight of the completion of it
they should be "much cast down."[209] We can imagine the grim
satisfaction with which Nehemiah would write these words. But they
tell of more than the humiliation of insulting and deceitful enemies;
they complete an act in a great drama of Providence, in which the
courage that stands to duty in face of all danger and the faith that
looks to God in prayer are vindicated.

  [209] Neh. vi. 16.

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



CHAPTER XXIV.

THE LAW.

NEHEMIAH viii. 1-8.


The fragmentary nature of the chronicler's work is nowhere more
apparent than in that portion of it which treats of the events
immediately following on the completion of the fortifications of
Jerusalem. In Nehemiah vii. we have a continuation of the governor's
personal narrative of his work, describing how the watch was organised
after the walls had been built and the gates set up.[210] This is
followed by a remark on the sparseness of the city population,[211]
which leads Nehemiah to insert the list of Zerubbabel's pilgrims that
the chronicler subsequently copies out in his account of Zerubbabel's
expedition.[212] Here the subject is dropped, to be resumed at
Nehemiah xi., where the arrangements for increasing the population of
Jerusalem are described. Thus we might read right on with a continuous
narrative--allowing for the insertion of the genealogical record, the
reason for which is obvious--and omit the three intermediate chapters
without any perceptible hiatus, but, on the contrary, with a gain in
consecutiveness.

  [210] Neh. vii. 1-3.

  [211] Neh. vii. 4.

  [212] Neh. vii. 5-73 = Ezra ii.

These three chapters stand by themselves, and they are devoted to
another matter, and that a matter marked by a certain unity and
distinctive character of its own. They are written in the third
person, by the chronicler himself. In them Ezra suddenly reappears
without any introduction, taking the leading place, while Nehemiah
recedes into the background, only to be mentioned once or twice, and
then as the loyal supporter of the famous scribe. The style has a
striking resemblance to that of Ezra, from whom therefore, it has been
conjectured, the chronicler may have derived his materials.

These facts and minor points that seem to support them, have raised
the question whether the section Nehemiah viii.-x. is found in its
right place; whether it should not have been joined on to the Book of
Ezra as a description of what followed immediately after the events
there recorded and before the advent of Nehemiah to Jerusalem. Ezra
brought the book of The Law with him from Babylon. It would be most
reasonable to suppose that he would seize the first opportunity for
making it known. Accordingly we find that the corresponding section in
1 Esdras is in this position.[213] Nevertheless it is now generally
agreed that the three chapters as they stand in the Book of Nehemiah
are in their true chronological position. Twice Nehemiah himself
appears in the course of the narrative they contain. He is associated
with Ezra and the Levites in teaching The Law,[214] and his name
stands first in the lists of the covenanters.[215] The admission of
these facts is only avoided in 1 Esdras by an alteration of the text.
If we were to suppose that the existence of the name in our narrative
is the result of an interpolation by a later hand, it would be
difficult to account for this, and it would be still more difficult
to discover why the chronicler should introduce confusion into his
narrative by an aimless misplacement of it. His methods of procedure
are sometimes curious, it must be admitted, and that we met with a
misplaced section in an earlier chapter cannot be reasonably
questioned.[216] But the motive which probably prompted that peculiar
arrangement does not apply here. In the present case it would result
in nothing but confusion.

  [213] 1 Esdras ix. 37-55.

  [214] Neh. viii. 9.

  [215] Neh. x. 1.

  [216] Ezra iv. 7-23.

The question is of far more than literary interest. The time when The
Law was first made known to the people in its entirety is a landmark
of the first importance for the History of Israel. There is a profound
significance in the fact that though Ezra had long been a diligent
student and a careful, loving scribe, though he had carried up the
precious roll to Jerusalem, and though he had been in great power and
influence in the city, he had not found a fitting opportunity for
revealing his secret to his people before all his reforming efforts
were arrested, and the city and its inhabitants trampled under foot by
their envious neighbours. Then came Nehemiah's reconstruction. Still
the consideration of The Law remained in abeyance. While Jerusalem was
an armed camp, and while the citizens were toiling at the walls or
mounting guard by turn, there was no opportunity for a careful
attention to the sacred document. All this time Ezra was out of sight,
and his name not once mentioned. Yet he was far too brilliant a star
to have been eclipsed even by the rising of Nehemiah. We can only
account for the sudden and absolute vanishing of the greatest figure
of the age by supposing that he had retired from the scene, perhaps
gone back to Babylon alone with his grief and disappointment. Those
were not days for the scholar's mission. But now, with the return of
some amount of security and its accompanying leisure, Ezra emerges
again, and immediately he is accorded the front place and
Nehemiah--the "Saviour of Society"--modestly assumes the attitude of
his disciple. A higher tribute to the exalted position tacitly allowed
to the scribe or a finer proof of the unselfish humility of the young
statesman cannot be imagined. Though at the height of his power,
having frustrated the many evil designs of his enemies and completed
his stupendous task of fortifying the city of his fathers in spite of
the most vexatious difficulties, the successful patriot is not in the
least degree flushed with victory. In the quietest manner possible he
steps aside and yields the first place to the recluse, the student,
the writer, the teacher. This is a sign of the importance that ideas
will assume in the new age. The man of action gives place to the man
of thought. Still more is it a hint of the coming ecclesiasticism of
the new Jewish order. As the civil ruler thus takes a lower ground in
the presence of the religious leader, we seem to be anticipating those
days of the triumph of the Church when a king would stand like a groom
to hold the horse of a pope. And yet this is not officially arranged.
It is not formally conceded on the one side, nor is it formally
demanded on the other side. The situation may be rather compared with
that of Savonarola in Florence when by sheer moral force he overtopped
the power of the Medici, or that of Calvin at Geneva when the
municipal council willingly yielded to the commanding spirit of the
minister of religion because it recognised the supremacy of religion.

In such a condition of affairs the city was ripe for the public
exposition of The Law. But even then Ezra only published it after
having been requested to do so by the people. We cannot assign this
delay of his to any reluctance to let his fellow-countrymen know the
law which he had long loved and studied in private. We may rather
conclude that he perceived the utter inutility of any attempt to
thrust it upon inattentive hearers--nay, the positive mischievousness
of such a proceeding. This would approach the folly described by our
Lord when He warned His disciples against casting pearls before swine.
Very much of the popular indifference to the Bible among large
sections of the population to-day must be laid at the doors of those
unwise zealots who have dinned the mere letter of it into the ears of
unwilling auditors. The conduct of Ezra shows that, with all his
reverence for The Law, the Great Scribe did not consider that it was
to be imposed, like a civil code, by magisterial authority. The decree
of Artaxerxes had authorised him to enforce it in this way on every
Jew west of the Euphrates.[217] But either the unsettled state of the
country or the wisdom of Ezra had not permitted the application of the
power thus conferred. The Law was to be voluntarily adopted. It was to
be received, as all true religion must be received, in living faith,
with the acquiescence of the conscience, judgment, and will of those
who acknowledged its obligations.

  [217] Ezra vii. 25, 26.

The occasion for such a reception of it was found when the Jews were
freed from the toil and anxiety that accompanied the building of their
city walls. The chronicler says that this was in the seventh month;
but he does not give the year. Considering the abrupt way in which he
has introduced the section about the reading of The Law, we cannot be
certain in what year this took place. If we may venture to take the
narrative continuously, in connection with Nehemiah's story in the
previous chapters, we shall get this occurrence within a week after
the completion of the fortifications. That was on "the twenty-fifth
day of the month Elul"[218]--_i.e._, the sixth month. The reading
began on "the first day of the seventh month."[219] That is to say, on
this supposition, it followed immediately on the first opportunity of
leisure. Then the time was specially appropriate, for it was the day
of the Feast of Trumpets, which was observed as a public holiday and
an occasion for an assembly--"a holy convocation."[220] On this day
the citizens met in a favourite spot, the open space just inside the
Water Gate, at the east end of the city, close to the temple, and now
part of the Haram, or sacred enclosure. They were unanimous in their
desire to have no more delay before hearing the law which Ezra had
brought up to Jerusalem as much as thirteen years before. Why were
they all on a sudden thus eager, after so long a period of
indifference? Was it that the success of Nehemiah's work had given
them a new hope and confidence, a new idea, indeed? They now saw the
compact unity of Jerusalem established. Here was the seal and centre
of their separateness. Accepting this as an accomplished fact, the
Jews were ready and even anxious to know that sacred law in which
their distinction from other people and their consecration to Jehovah
were set forth.

  [218] Neh. vi. 15.

  [219] Neh. viii. 2.

  [220] Lev. xxiii. 24.

Not less striking is the manner in which Ezra met this welcome
request of the Jews. The scene which follows is unique in history--the
Great Scribe with the precious roll in his hand standing on a
temporary wooden platform so that he may be seen by everybody in the
vast crowd--seven Levites supporting him on either side[221]--other
select Levites going about among the people after each section of The
Law has been read in order to explain it to separate groups of the
assembly[222]--the motley gathering comprising the bulk of the
citizens, not men only but women also, for the brutal Mohammedan
exclusiveness that confines knowledge to one sex was not anticipated
by the ancient Jews; not adults only, but children also, "those that
could understand," for The Law is for the simplest minds, the religion
of Israel is to be popular and domestic--the whole of this multitude
assembling in the cool, fresh morning when the first level rays of the
sun smite the city walls from over the Mount of Olives, and standing
reverently hour after hour, till the hot autumn noon puts an end to
the lengthy meeting.

  [221] In Neh. viii. 4 six names are given for the right-hand
  contingent and seven for the left-hand. But since in the corresponding
  account of 1 Esdras fourteen names occur, one name would seem to have
  dropped out of Nehemiah. The prominence given to the Levites in all
  these scenes and the absence of reference to the priests should be
  noted. The Levites were still important personages, although degraded
  from the priesthood. The priests were chiefly confined to ritual
  functions; later they entered on the duties of civil government. The
  Levites were occupied with teaching the people, with whom they came
  into closer contact. Their work corresponded more to that of the
  pastoral office. In these times, too, most of the scribes seem to have
  been Levites.

  [222] Not translating it into the Aramaic dialect. That would have
  been a superfluous task, for the Jews certainly knew Hebrew at this
  time. Ezra and Nehemiah and the prophets down to Malachi wrote in
  Hebrew.

In all this the fact which comes out most prominently, accentuated by
every detail of the arrangements, is the popularisation of The Law.
Its multiplex precepts were not only recited in the hearing of men,
women, and children; they were carefully expounded to the people.
Hitherto it had been a matter of private study among learned men; its
early development had been confined to a small group of faithful
believers in Jehovah; its customary practices had been privately
elaborated through the ages almost like the mysteries of a secret
cult; and therefore its origin had been buried in hopeless obscurity.
So it was like the priestly ritual of heathenism. The priest of
Eleusis guarded his secrets from all but those who were favoured by
being solemnly initiated into them. Now this unwholesome condition was
to cease. The most sacred rites were to be expounded to all the
people. Ezra knew that the only worship God would accept must be
offered with the mind and the heart. Moreover, The Law concerned the
actions of the people themselves, their own minute observance of
purifications and careful avoidance of defilements, their own
offerings and festivals. No priestly performances could avail as a
substitute for these popular religious observances.

Yet much of The Law was occupied with directions concerning the
functions of the priests and the sacrificial ritual. By acquainting
the laity with these directions, Ezra and his helpers were doing their
best to fortify the nation against the tyranny of sacerdotalism. The
Levites, who at this time were probably still sore at the thought of
their degradation, and jealous of the favoured line of Zadok, would
naturally fall in with such a policy. It was the more remarkable
because the new theocracy was just now coming into power. Here would
be a powerful protection against the abuse of its privileges by the
hierarchy. Priests, all the world over, have made capital out of their
exclusive knowledge of the ritual of religion. They have jealously
guarded their secrets from the uninitiated multitude, so as to make
themselves necessary to anxious worshippers who dreaded to give
offence to their gods or to fail in their sacrifices through ignorance
of the prescribed methods. By committing the knowledge of The Law to
the people, Ezra protected the Jews against this abuse. Everything was
to be above board, in broad daylight; and the degradation of ignorant
worship was not to be encouraged, much as a corrupt priesthood in
later times might desire it. An indirect consequence of this
publication of The Law with the careful instruction of the people in
its contents was that the element of knowledge took a more exalted
position in religion. It is not the magical priest, it is the logical
scribe who really leads the people now. Ideas will mean more than in
the old days of obscure ritual. There is an end to the "dim religious
light." Henceforth _Torah--Instruction_--is to be the most fundamental
ground of faith.

It is important that we should see clearly what was contained in this
roll of The Law out of which Ezra read to the citizens of Jerusalem.
The distress with which its contents were received would lead us to
suppose that the grave minatory passages of Deuteronomy were
especially prominent in the reading. We cannot gather from the present
scene any further indications of the subjects brought before the Jews.
But from other parts of the Book of Nehemiah we can learn for certain
that the whole of the Pentateuch was now introduced to the people. If
it was not all read out in the Ecclesia, it was all in the hands of
Ezra, and its several parts were made known from time to time as
occasion required. First, we may infer that in addition to Deuteronomy
Ezra's law contained the ancient Jehovistic narrative, because the
treatment of mixed marriages[223] refers to the contents of this
portion of the Pentateuch.[224] Secondly, we may see that it included
"The Law of Holiness," because the regulations concerning the sabbatic
year[225] are copied from that collection of rules about defilement
and consecration.[226] Thirdly, we may be equally sure that it did not
lack "The Priestly Code"--the elaborate system of ritual which
occupies the greater part of Numbers and Leviticus--because the law of
the firstfruits[227] is taken from that source.[228] Here, then, we
find allusions to the principal constituent elements of the Pentateuch
scattered over the brief Book of Nehemiah. It is clear, therefore,
that the great accretion of customs and teachings, which only reached
completion after the close of the captivity, was the treasure Ezra now
introduced to his people. Henceforth nothing less can be understood
when the title "The Law" is used. From this time obedience to the
Torah will involve subjection to the whole system of priestly and
sacrificial regulations, to all the rules of cleanness and
consecration and sacrifice contained in the Pentateuch.[229]

  [223] Neh. x. 30.

  [224] Exod. xxxiv. 16.

  [225] Neh. x. 31.

  [226] Lev. xxv. 2-7.

  [227] Neh. x. 35-39.

  [228] Lev. xxvii. 30; Num. xv. 20 ff., xviii. 11-32.

  [229] Strictly speaking, the Hexateuch, as "Joshua" was undoubtedly
  included in the volume. But the familiar term Pentateuch may serve
  here, as it is to the _legal_ requirements contained in the earlier
  books that reference is made.

A more difficult point to be determined is, how far this Pentateuch
was really a new thing when it was introduced by Ezra. Here we must
separate two very different questions. If they had always been kept
apart, much confusion would have been avoided. The first is the
question of the novelty of The Law _to the Jews_. There is little
difficulty in answering this question. The very process of reading The
Law and explaining it goes on the assumption that it is not known. The
people receive it as something strange and startling. Moreover, this
scene of the revelation of The Law to Israel is entirely in harmony
with the previous history of the nation. Whenever The Law was shaped
as we now know it, it is clear that it was not practised in its
present form by the Jews before Ezra's day. We have no contemporary
evidence of the use of it in the earlier period. We have clear
evidence that conduct contrary to many of its precepts was carried on
with impunity, and even encouraged by prophets and religious leaders
without any protest from priests or scribes. The complete law is new
to Israel. But there is a second question--viz., how far was this law
_new in itself_? Nobody can suppose that it was an absolutely novel
creation of the exile, with no roots in the past. Their repeated
references to Moses show that its supporters relegated its origin to a
dim antiquity, and we should belie all we know of their character if
we did not allow that they were acting in good faith. But we have no
evidence that The Law had been completed, codified, and written out in
full before the time of Ezra. In antiquity, when writing was
economised and memory cultivated to a degree of accuracy that seems to
us almost miraculous, it would be possible to hand down a considerable
system of ritual or of jurisprudence by tradition. Even this
stupendous act of memory would not exceed that of the rhapsodists who
preserved and transmitted the unwritten _Iliad_. But we are not driven
to such an extreme view. We do not know how much of The Law may have
been committed to writing in earlier ages. Some of it was, certainly.
It bears evidence of its history in the several strata of which it is
composed, and which must have been deposited successively.
Deuteronomy, in its essence and original form, was certainly known
before the captivity. So were the Jehovistic narrative and the Law of
the Covenant. The only question as regards Ezra's day turns on the
novelty of the Priestly Code, with the Law of Holiness, and the final
editing and redaction of the whole. This is adumbrated in Ezekiel and
the degradation of the Levites, who are identified with the priests in
Deuteronomy, but set in a lower rank in Leviticus, assigned to its
historical occasion. Here, then, we see the latest part of Ezra's law
in the making. It was not created by the scribe. It was formed out of
traditional usages of the priests, modified by recent directions from
a prophet. The origin of these usages was lost in antiquity, and
therefore it was natural to attribute them to Moses, the great founder
of the nation. We cannot even affirm that Ezra carried out the last
redaction of The Law with his own hand, that he codified the
traditional usages, the "Common Law" of Israel. What we know is, that
he published this law. That he also edited it is an inference drawn
from his intimate connection with the work as student and scribe, and
supported by the current of later traditions. But while this is
possible, what is indubitable is that to Ezra is due the glory of
promulgating the law and making it pass into the life of the nation.
Henceforth Judaism is legalism. We know this in its imperfection and
its difference from the spiritual faith of Christ. To the
contemporaries of Ezra it indicated a stage of progress--knowledge in
place of superstitious bondage to the priesthood, conscientious
obedience to ordinances instituted for the public welfare instead of
careless indifference or obstinate self-will. Therefore its appearance
marked a forward step in the course of Divine revelation.



CHAPTER XXV.

_THE JOY OF THE LORD._

NEHEMIAH viii. 9-18.


"All the people wept when they heard the words of the law." Was it for
this mournful end that Ezra had studied the sacred law and guarded it
through the long years of political unrest, until at length he was
able to make it known with all the pomp and circumstance of a national
festival? Evidently the leaders of the people had expected no such
result. But, disappointing as it was, it might have been worse. The
reading might have been listened to with indifference; or the great,
stern law might have been rejected with execration, or scoffed at with
incredulity. Nothing of the kind happened. There was no doubt as to
the rightness of The Law, no reluctance to submit to its yoke, no
disposition to ignore its requirements. This law had come with all the
authority of the Persian government to sanction it; and yet it is
evidently no fear of the magistrate, but their own convictions, their
confirming consciences, that here influence the people and determine
their attitude to it. Thus Ezra's labours were really honoured by the
Jews, though their fruits were received so sorrowfully.

We must not suppose that the Jews of Ezra's day anticipated the ideas
of St. Paul. It was not a Christian objection to law that troubled
them; they did not complain of its externalism, its bondage, its
formal requirements and minute details. To imagine that these features
of The Law were regarded with disapproval by the first hearers of it
is to credit them with an immense advance in thought beyond their
leaders--Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites. It is clear that their grief
arose simply from their perception of their own miserable
imperfections in contrast to the lofty requirements of The Law, and in
view of its sombre threats of punishment for disobedience. The
discovery of a new ideal of conduct above that with which we have
hitherto been satisfied naturally provokes painful stings of
conscience, which the old salve, compounded of the comfortable little
notions we once cherished, will not neutralise. In the new light of
the higher truth we suddenly discover that the "robe of righteousness"
in which we have been parading is but as "filthy rags." Then our once
vaunted attainments become despicable in our own eyes. The eminence on
which we have been standing so proudly is seen to be a wretched
mole-hill compared with the awful snow-peak from which the clouds have
just dispersed. Can we ever climb that? Goodness now seems to be
hopelessly unattainable; yet never before was it so desirable, because
never before did it shine with so rare and fascinating a lustre.

But, it may be objected, was not the religious and moral character of
the teaching of the great prophets--of Hosea, Isaiah, Micah,
Jeremiah--larger and higher and more spiritual than the legalism of
the Pentateuch? That may be granted; but it is not to the point here.
The lofty prophetic teaching had never been accepted by the nation.
The prophets had been voices crying in the wilderness. Their great
spiritual thoughts had never been seriously followed except by a small
group of devout souls. It was the Christian Church that first built on
the foundation of the prophets. But in Ezra's day the Jews as a body
frankly accepted The Law. Whether this were higher or lower than the
ideal of prophetism does not affect the case. The significant fact is
that is was higher than any ideal the people had hitherto adopted in
practice. The perception of this fact was most distressing to them.

Nevertheless the Israelite leaders did not share the feeling of grief.
In their eyes the sorrow of the Jews was a great mistake. It was even
a wrong thing for them thus to distress themselves. Ezra loved The
Law, and therefore it was to him a dreadful surprise to discover that
the subject of his devoted studies was regarded so differently by his
brethren. Nehemiah and the Levites shared his more cheerful view of
the situation. Lyrics of this and subsequent ages bear testimony to
the passionate devotion with which the sacred Torah was cherished by
loyal disciples. The author of the hundred and nineteenth Psalm
ransacks his vocabulary for varying phrases on which to ring the
changes in praise of the law, the judgments, the statutes, the
commandments of God. He cries:--

  "I will delight in Thy statutes:
  I will not forget Thy word.

        *      *      *      *

  "Open Thou mine eyes, that I may behold
  Wondrous things out of Thy law.

        *      *      *      *

  "Unless Thy law had been my delight,
  I should have perished in mine affliction.

        *      *      *      *

  "Great peace have they that love Thy law,
  And they have none occasion of stumbling."

Moreover, the student of The Law to-day can perceive that its
intention was beneficent. It maintained righteousness; and
righteousness is the chief good. It regulated the mutual relations of
men with regard to justice; it ordained purity; it contained many
humane rules for the protection of men and even of animals; it
condescended to most wholesome sanitary directions. Then it declared
that he who kept its ordinances should live, not merely by reason of
an arbitrary arrangement, but because it pointed out the natural and
necessary way of life and health. The Divine Spirit that had guided
the development of it had presided over something more inviting than
the forging of fetters for a host of miserable slaves, something more
useful than the creation of a tantalising exemplar that should be the
despair of every copyist. Ezra and his fellow-leaders knew the
_intention_ of The Law. This was the ground of their joyous confidence
in contemplation of it. They were among those who had been led by
their personal religion into possession of "the secret of the Lord."
They had acquainted themselves with Him, and therefore they were at
peace. Their example teaches us that we must penetrate beyond the
letter to the spirit of revelation if we would discover its hidden
thoughts of love. When we do so even The Law will be found to enshrine
an evangel. Not that these men of the olden times perceived the
fanciful symbolism which many Christians have delighted to extract
from the most mechanical details of the tabernacle ritual. Their eyes
were fixed on the gracious Divine purpose of creating a holy
nation--separate and pure--and The Law seemed to be the best
instrument for accomplishing that purpose. Meanwhile its
impracticability did not strike them, because they thought of the
thing in itself rather than of the relation of men to it. Religious
melancholy springs from habits of subjectivity. The joyous spirit is
that which forgets self in the contemplation of the thoughts of God.
It is our meditation of Him--not of self--that is sweet.

Of course this would have been unreasonable if it had totally ignored
human conditions and their relation to the Divine. In that case Ezra
and his companions would have been vain dreamers, and the sorrowing
multitude people of common-sense perceptions. But we must remember
that the new religious movement was inspired by faith. It is faith
that bridges the vast chasm between the real and the ideal. God had
given The Law in lovingkindness and tender mercy. Then God would make
the attainment of His will revealed in it possible. The part of brave
and humble men was to look away from themselves to the revelation of
God's thought concerning them with grateful admiration of its glorious
perfection.

While considerations of this sort would make it possible for the
leaders to regard The Law in a very different spirit from that
manifested by the rest of the Jews, other reflections led them to go
further and check the outburst of grief as both unseemly and hurtful.

It was unseemly, because it was marring the beauty of a great
festival. The Jews were to stay their grief seeing that the day was
holy unto the Lord.[230] This was as much as to say that sorrow was
defiling. The world had to wait for the religion of the cross reveal
to it the sanctity of sorrow. Undoubtedly the Jewish festivals were
joyous celebrations. It is the greatest mistake to represent the
religion of the Old Testament as a gloomy cult overshadowed by the
thunder-clouds of Sinai. On the contrary, its greatest offices were
celebrated with music, dancing, and feasting. The high day was a
holiday, sunny and mirthful. It would be a pity to spoil such an
occasion with unseasonable lamentations. But Nehemiah and Ezra must
have had a deeper thought than this in their deprecation of grief at
the festival. To allow such behaviour is to entertain unworthy
feelings towards God. A day sacred to the Lord is a day in which His
presence is especially felt. To draw near to God with no other
feelings than emotions of fear and grief is to misapprehend His nature
and His disposition towards His people. Worship should be inspired
with the gladness of grateful hearts praising God, because otherwise
it would discredit His goodness.

  [230] Neh. viii. 9.

This leads to a thought of wider range and still more profound
significance, a thought that flashes out of the sacred page like a
brilliant gem, a thought so rich and glad and bountiful that it speaks
for its own inspiration as one of the great Divine ideas of
Scripture--"The joy of the Lord is your strength." Though the
unseemliness of mourning on a feast day was the first and most obvious
consideration urged by the Jewish leaders in their expostulation with
the distressed multitude, the real justification for their rebukes and
exhortations is to be found in the magnificent spiritual idea that
they here give expression to. In view of such a conviction as they now
gladly declare they would regard the lamentation of the Jews as more
than unseemly, as positively hurtful and even wrong.

By the expression "the joy of the Lord" it seems clear that Nehemiah
and his associates meant a joy which may be experienced by men through
their fellowship with God. The phrase could be used for the gladness
of God Himself; as we speak of the righteousness of God or the love of
God, so we might speak of His joy in reference to His own infinite
life and consciousness. But in the case before us the drift of the
passage directs our thoughts to the moods and feelings of men. The
Jews are giving way to grief, and they are rebuked for so doing and
encouraged to rejoice. In this situation some thoughts favourable to
joy on their part are naturally suitable. Accordingly they are called
to enter into a pure and lofty gladness in which they are assured they
will find their strength.

This "joy of the Lord," then, is the joy that springs up in our hearts
by means of our relation to God. It is a God-given gladness, and it is
found in communion with God. Nevertheless the other "joy of the Lord"
is not to be left out of account when we think of the gladness which
comes to us from God, for the highest joy is possible to us just
because it is first experienced by God. There could be no joy in
communion with a morose divinity. The service of Moloch must have been
a terror, a perfect agony to his most loyal devotees. The feelings of
a worshipper will always be reflections from what he thinks he
perceives in the countenance of his god. They will be gloomy if the
god is a sombre personage, and cheerful if he is a glad being. Now the
revelation of God in the Bible is the unveiling with growing clearness
of a countenance of unspeakable love and beauty and gladness. He is
made known to us as "the blessed God"--the happy God. Then the joy of
His children is the overflow of His own deep gladness streaming down
to them. This is the "joy in the presence of the angels" which,
springing from the great heart of God, makes the happiness of
returning penitents, so that they share in their Father's delight, as
the prodigal shares in the home festivities when the fatted calf is
killed. This same communication of gladness is seen in the life of our
Lord, not only during those early sunny days in Galilee when His
ministry opened under a cloudless sky, but even amid the darkness of
the last hours at Jerusalem, for in His final discourse Jesus prayed
that His joy might be in His disciples in order that their joy might
be full. A more generous perception of this truth would make religion
like sunshine and music, like the blooming of spring flowers and the
outburst of woodland melody about the path of the Christian pilgrim.
It is clear that Jesus Christ expected this to be the case since He
commenced His teaching with the word "Blessed." St. Paul, too, saw the
same possibility, as his repeated encouragements to "Rejoice" bear
witness. Religion may be compared to one of those Italian city
churches which are left outwardly bare and gloomy, while within they
are replete with treasures of art. We must cross the threshold, push
aside the heavy curtain, and tread the sacred pavement, if we would
see the beauty of sculptured column and mural fresco and jewelled
altar-piece. Just in proportion as we draw near to God shall we behold
the joy and love that ever dwell in Him, till the vision of these
wonders kindles our love and gladness.

Now the great idea that is here suggested to us connects this Divine
joy with strength--the joy is an inspiration of energy. By the nature
of things joy is exhilarating, while pain is depressing. Physiologists
recognise it as a law of animal organisms that happiness is a nerve
tonic. It would seem that the same law obtains in spiritual
experience. On the other hand, nothing is more certain than that there
are enervating pleasures, and that the free indulgence in pleasure
generally weakens the character; with this goes the equally certain
truth that men may be braced by suffering, that the east wind of
adversity may be a real stimulant. How shall we reconcile these
contradictory positions? Clearly there are different kinds and grades
of delight, and different ways of taking and using every form of
gladness. Pure hedonism cannot but be a weak system of life. It is the
Spartan, not the Sybarite, who is capable of heroic deeds. Even
Epicurus, whose name has been abused to shelter low pleasure-seeking,
perceived, as clearly as "The Preacher," the melancholy truth that the
life that is given over to the satisfaction of personal desires is but
"vanity of vanities." The joy that exhilarates is not sought as a
final goal. It comes in by the way when we are pursuing some objective
end. Then this purest joy is as far above the pleasure of the
self-indulgent as heaven is above hell. It may even be found side by
side with bodily pain, as when martyrs exult in their flames, or when
stricken souls in more prosaic circumstances awake to the wonderful
perception of a rare Divine gladness. It is this joy that gives
strength. There is enthusiasm in it. Such a joy not being an end in
itself is a means to a great practical end. God's glad children are
strong to do and bear His will, strong in their very gladness.

This was good news to the Jews, outwardly but a feeble flock and a
prey to the ravening wolves from neighbouring lands. They had
recovered hope after building their walls; but these hastily
constructed fortifications did not afford them their most secure
stronghold. Their refuge was God. They carried bows and spears and
swords; but the strength with which they wielded these weapons
consisted in the enthusiasm of a Divine gladness--not the orgiastic
fury of the heathen, but the deep, strong joy of men who knew the
secret of their Lord, who possessed what Wordsworth calls "inward
glee." This joy was essentially a moral strength. It bestowed the
power wherewith to keep the law. Here was the answer to the
discouragement of the people in their dawning perception of the lofty
requirements of God's holy will. The Christian can best find energy
for service, as well as the calm strength of patience, in that still
richer Divine gladness which is poured into his heart by the grace of
Christ. It is not only unfortunate for anybody to be a mournful
Christian; it is dangerous, hurtful, even wrong. Therefore the gloomy
servant of God is to be rebuked for missing the Divine gladness.
Seeing that the source of it is in God, and not in the Christian
himself, it is attainable and possible to the most sorrowful. He who
has found this "pearl of great price" can afford to miss much else in
life and yet go on his way rejoicing.

It was natural that the Jews should have been encouraged to give
expression to the Divine joy at a great festival. The final
harvest-home of the year, the merry celebration of the vintage, was
then due. No Jewish feast was more cheerful than this, which expressed
gratitude for "wine that maketh glad the heart of man." The
superiority of Judaism over heathenism is seen in the tremendous
contrast between the simple gaiety of the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles
and the gross debauchery of the Bacchanalian orgies which disgraced a
similar occasion in the pagan world. It is to our shame in modern
Christendom that we dare not imitate the Jews here, knowing too well
that if we tried to do so we should only sink to the heathen level.
Our Feast of Tabernacles would certainly become a Feast of Bacchus,
bestial and wicked. Happily the Jews did not feel the Teutonic danger
of intemperance. Their festival recognised the Divine bounty in
nature, in its richest, ripest autumn fruitfulness, which was like the
smile of God breaking out through His works to cheer His children.
Bivouacking in greenwood bowers, the Jews did their best to return to
the life of nature and share its autumn gladness. The chronicler
informs us that since the days of Joshua the Jews had never observed
the feast as they did now--never with such great gladness and never so
truly after the directions of their law. Although the actual words he
gives as from The Law[231] are not to be found in the Pentateuch, they
sum up the regulations of that work. This then is the first
application of The Law which the people have received with so much
distress. It ordains a glad festival. So much brighter is religion
when it is understood and practised than when it is only contemplated
from afar! Now the reading of The Law can go on day by day, and be
received with joy.

  [231] Neh. viii. 14, 15

Finally, like the Christians who collected food and money at the
_Agapé_ for their poorer brethren and for the martyrs in prison, the
Jews were to "send portions" to the needy.[232] The rejoicing was not
to be selfish; it was to stimulate practical kindness. Here was its
safeguard. We shrink from accepting joy too freely lest it should be
followed by some terrible Nemesis; but if, instead of gloating over it
in secret, selfishly and greedily, we use it as a talent, and
endeavour to lessen the sorrows of others by inviting them to share
it, the heathenish dread is groundless. He who is doing his utmost to
help his brother may dare to be very happy.

  [232] Neh. viii. 12.



CHAPTER XXVI.

_THE RELIGION OF HISTORY._

NEHEMIAH ix.


After the carnival--Lent. This Catholic procedure was anticipated by
the Jews in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. The merry feast of
Tabernacles was scarcely over, when, permitting an interval of but a
single day, the citizens of Jerusalem plunged into a demonstration of
mourning--fasting, sitting in sackcloth, casting dust on their heads,
abjuring foreign connections, confessing their own and their fathers'
sins. Although the singular revulsion of feeling may have been quite
spontaneous on the part of the people, the violent reaction to which
it gave rise was sanctioned by the authorities. In an open-air meeting
which lasted for six hours--three of Bible-reading and three of
confession and worship--the Levites took the lead, as they had done at
the publication of The Law a few weeks earlier. But these very men had
rebuked the former outburst of lamentation. Must we suppose that their
only objection on that occasion was that the mourning was then
untimely, because it was indulged in at a festival, whereas it ought
to have been postponed to a fast day? If that were all, we should have
to contemplate a miserably artificial condition of affairs. Real
emotions refuse to come and go at the bidding of officials
pedantically set on regulating their alternate recurrence in
accordance with a calendar of the church year. A theatrical
representation of feeling may be drilled into some such orderly
procession. But true feeling itself is of all things in the universe
the most restive under direct orders.

We must look a little deeper. The Levites had given a great spiritual
reason for the restraint of grief in their wonderful utterance, "The
joy of the Lord is your strength." This noble thought is not an elixir
to be administered or withheld according to the recurrence of
ecclesiastical dates. If it is true at all, it is eternally true.
Although the application of it is not always a fact of experience, the
reason for the fluctuations in our personal relations to it is not to
be looked for in the almanack; it will be found in those dark passages
of human life which, of their own accord, shut out the sunlight of
Divine gladness. There is then no absolute inconsistency in the action
of the Levites. And yet perhaps they may have perceived that they had
been hasty in their repression of the first outburst of grief; or at
all events that they did not then see the whole truth of the matter.
There was some ground for lamentation after all, and though the
expression of sorrow at a festival seemed to them untimely, they were
bound to admit its fitness a little later. It is to be observed that
another subject was now brought under the notice of the people. The
contemplation of the revelation of God's will should not produce
grief. But the consideration of man's conduct cannot but lead to that
result. At the reading of Divine law the Jews' lamentation was
rebuked; at the recital of their own history it was encouraged. Yet
even here it was not to be abject and hopeless. The Levites exhorted
the people to shake off the lethargy of sorrow, to _stand up_ and
bless the Lord their God. Even in the very act of confessing sin we
have a special reason for praising God, because the consciousness of
our guilt in His sight must heighten our appreciation of His
marvellous forbearance.

The Jews' confession of sin led up to a prayer which the Septuagint
ascribes to Ezra. It does so, however, in a phrase that manifestly breaks
the context, and thus betrays its origin in an interpolation.[233]
Nevertheless the tone of the prayer, and even its very language, remind us
forcibly of the Great Scribe's outpouring of soul over the mixed marriages
of his people recorded in Ezra ix. No one was more fitted to lead the Jews
in the later act of devotion, and it is only reasonable to conclude that
the work was undertaken by the one man to whose lot it would naturally
fall.

  [233] LXX. Ezra ix. 6-15.

The prayer is very like some of the historical psalms. By pointing to
the variegated picture of the History of Israel, it shows how God
reveals Himself through events. This suggests the probability that the
three hours' reading of the fast day had been taken from the
historical parts of the Pentateuch. The religious teachers of Israel
knew what riches of instruction were buried in the history of their
nation, and they had the wisdom to unearth those treasures for the
benefit of their own age. It is strange that we English have made so
little use of a national history that is not a whit less providential,
although it does not glitter with visible miracles. God has spoken to
England as truly through the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the Puritan
Wars, and the Revolution, as ever He spoke to Israel by means of the
Exodus, the Captivity, and the Return.

The arrangement and method of the prayer lend themselves to a
singularly forcible presentation of its main topics, with heightening
effect as it proceeds in a recapitulation of great historical
landmarks. It opens with an outburst of praise to God. In saying that
Jehovah is God alone, it makes more than a cold pronouncement of
Jewish monotheism; it confesses the practical supremacy of God over
His universe, and therefore over His people and their enemies. God is
adored as the Creator of heaven; and, perhaps with an allusion to the
prevalent Gentile title "God of heaven," as even the Maker of the
heaven of heavens, of that higher heaven of which the starry firmament
is but the gold-sprinkled floor. There, in those far-off, unseen
heights, He is adored. But earth and sea, with all that inhabit them,
are also God's works. From the highest to the lowest, over great and
small, He reigns supreme. This glowing expression of adoration
constitutes a suitable exordium. It is right and fitting that we
should approach God in the attitude of pure worship, for the moment
entirely losing ourselves in the contemplation of Him. This is the
loftiest act of prayer, far above the selfish shriek for help in dire
distress to which unspiritual men confine their utterance before God.
It is also the most enlightening preparation for those lower forms of
devotion that cannot be neglected so long as we are engaged on earth
with our personal needs and sins, because it is necessary for us first
of all to know what God is, and to be able to contemplate the thought
of His being and nature, if we would understand the course of His
action among men, or see our sins in the only true light--the light of
His countenance. We can best trace the course of low-lying valleys
from a mountain height. The primary act of adoration illumines and
directs the thanksgiving, confession, and petition that follow. He who
has once seen God knows how to look at the world and his own heart,
without being misled by earthly glamour or personal prejudice.

In tracking the course of revelation through history, the author of
the prayer follows two threads. First one and then the other is
uppermost, but it is the interweaving of them that gives the definite
pattern of the whole picture. These are God's grace and man's sin. The
method of the prayer is to bring them into view alternately, as they
are illustrated in the History of Israel. The result is like a drama
of several acts, and three scenes in each act. Although we see
progress and a continuous heightening of effect, there is a startling
resemblance between the successive acts, and the relative characters
of the scenes remain the same throughout. In the _first_ scene we
always behold the free and generous favour of God offered to the
people He condescends to bless, altogether apart from any merits or
claims on their part. In the _second_ we are forced to look at the
ugly picture of Israel's ingratitude and rebellion. But this is
invariably followed by a _third_ scene, which depicts the wonderful
patience and long-suffering of God, and His active aid in delivering
His guilty people from the troubles they have brought on their own
heads by their sins, whenever they turn to Him in penitence.

The recital opens where the Jews delighted to trace their origin, in
Ur of the Chaldees. These returned exiles from Babylon are reminded
that at the very dawn of their ancestral history the same district was
the starting-point. The guiding hand of God was seen in bringing up
the Father of the Nation in that far-off tribal migration from Chaldæa
to Canaan. At first the Divine action did not need to exhibit all the
traits of grace and power that were seen later, because Abraham was
not a captive. Then, too, there was no rebellion, for Abraham was
faithful. Thus the first scene opens with the mild radiance of early
morning. As yet there is nothing tragic on either side. The chief
characteristic of this scene is its promise, and the author of the
prayer anticipates some of the later scenes by interjecting a grateful
recognition of the faithfulness of God in keeping His word. "For Thou
art righteous," he says.[234] This truth is the keynote to the prayer.
The thought of it is always present as an undertone, and it emerges
clearly again towards the conclusion, where, however, it wears a very
different garb. There we see how in view of man's sin God's
righteousness inflicts chastisement. But the intention of the author
is to show that throughout all the vicissitudes of history God holds
on to His straight line of righteousness, unwavering. It is just
because He does not change that His action must be modified in order
to adjust itself to the shifting behaviour of men and women. It is the
very immutability of God that requires Him to show Himself froward
with the froward, although He is merciful with the merciful.

  [234] Neh. ix. 8.

The chief events of the Exodus are next briefly recapitulated, in
order to enlarge the picture of God's early goodness to Israel. Here
we may discern more than promise; the fulfilment now begins. Here,
too, God is seen in that specific activity of deliverance which comes
more and more to the front as the history proceeds. While the
calamities of the people grow worse and worse, God reveals Himself
with ever-increasing force as the Redeemer of Israel. The plagues of
Egypt, the passage of the Red Sea, the drowning of the Egyptians, the
cloud-pillar by day and the pillar of fire by night, the descent on
Sinai for the giving of The Law--in which connection the one law of
the Sabbath is singled out, a point to be noted in view of the great
prominence given to it later on--the manna, and the water from the
rock, are all signs and proofs of God's exceeding kindness towards His
people.

But now we are directed to a very different scene. In spite of all
this never-ceasing, this ever-accumulating goodness of God, the
infatuated people rebel, appoint a captain to take them back to Egypt,
and relapse into idolatry. This is the human side of the history,
shown up in its deep blackness against the luminous splendour of the
heavenly background.

Then comes the marvellous third scene, the scene that should melt the
hardest heart. God does not cast off His people. The privileges
enumerated before are carefully repeated, to show that God has not
withdrawn them. Still the cloud-pillar guides by day and the
fire-pillar by night. Still the manna and the water are supplied. But
this is not all. Between these two pairs of favours a new one is now
inserted. God gives His "good Spirit" to instruct the people. The
author does not seem to be referring to any one specific event, as
that of the Spirit falling on the elders, or the incident of the
unauthorised prophet, or the bestowal of the Spirit on the artists of
the tabernacle. We should rather conclude from the generality of his
terms that he is thinking of the gift of the Spirit in each of these
cases, and also in every other way in which the Divine Presence was
felt in the hearts of the people. Prone to wander, they needed and
they received this inward monitor. Thus God showed His great
forbearance, by even extending His grace and giving more help because
the need was greater.

From this picture of the wilderness life we are led on to the conquest
of the Promised Land. The Israelites overthrow the kings east of the
Jordan, and take possession of their territories. Growing in numbers,
after a time they are enough to cross the Jordan, seize the land of
Canaan, and subdue the aboriginal inhabitants. Then we see them
settling down in their new home and inheriting the products of the
labours of their more civilised predecessors. All this is a further
proof of the favour of God. Yet again the dreadful scene of
ingratitude is repeated, and that in an aggravated form. A wild fury
of rebellion takes hold of the wicked people. They rise up against
their God, fling His Torah behind their backs, murder the prophets He
sends to warn them, and sink down into the greatest wickedness. The
head and front of their offence is the rejection of the sacred Torah.
The word Torah--law or instruction--must here be taken in its widest
sense to comprehend both the utterances of the prophets and the
tradition of the priests, although it is represented to the
contemporaries of Ezra by its crown and completion, the Pentateuch. In
this second act of heightened energy on both sides, while the
characters of the actors are developing with stronger features, we
have a third scene--forgiveness and deliverance from God.

Then the action moves more rapidly. It becomes almost confused. In
general terms, with a few swift strokes, the author sketches a
succession of similar movements--indeed he does little more than hint
at them. We cannot see how often the threefold process was repeated;
only we perceive that it always recurred in the same form. Yet the
very monotony deepens the impression of the whole drama--so madly
persistent was the backsliding habit of Israel, so grandly continuous
was the patient long-suffering of God. We lose all count of the
alternating scenes of light and darkness as we look at them down the
long vista of the ages. And yet it is not necessary that we should
assort them. The perspective may escape us; all the more must we feel
the force of the process which is characterised by so powerful a unity
of movement.

Coming nearer to his own time, the author of the prayer expands into
detail again. While the kingdom lasted God did not cease to plead with
his people. They disregarded His voice, but His Spirit was in the
prophets, and the long line of heavenly messengers was a living
testimony to the Divine forbearance. Heedless of this greatest and
best means of bringing them back to their forsaken allegiance, the
Jews were at length given over to the heathen. Yet that tremendous
calamity was not without its mitigations. They were not utterly
consumed. Even now God did not forsake them. He followed them into
their captivity. This was apparent in the continuous advent of
prophets--such as the Second Isaiah and Ezekiel--who appeared and
delivered their oracles in the land of exile; it was most gloriously
manifest in the return under Cyrus. Such long-continued goodness,
beyond the utmost excess of the nation's sin, surpassed all that could
have been hoped for. It went beyond the promises of God; it could not
be wholly comprehended in His faithfulness. Therefore another Divine
attribute is now revealed. At first the prayer made mention of God's
righteousness, which was seen in the gift of Canaan as a fulfilment of
the promise to Abraham, so that the author remarked, in regard to the
performance of the Divine word, "for Thou art righteous." But now he
reflects on the greater kindness, the uncovenanted kindness of the
Exile and the Return; "for Thou art a gracious and merciful God."[235]
We can only account for such extended goodness by ascribing it to the
infinite love of God.

  [235] Neh. ix. 31.

Having thus brought his review down to his own day, in the concluding
passage of the prayer the author appeals to God with reference to the
present troubles of His people. In doing so he first returns to his
contemplation of the nature of God. Three Divine characteristics rise
up before him,--first, _majesty_ ("the great, the mighty, the terrible
God"); second, _fidelity_ (keeping "covenant"); third, _compassion_
(keeping "mercy").[236] On this threefold plea he beseeches God that
all the national trouble which has been endured since the first
Assyrian invasion may not "seem little" to Him. The greatness of God
might appear to induce disregard of the troubles of His poor human
children, and yet it would really lead to the opposite result. It is
only the limited faculty that cannot stoop to small things because its
attention is confined to large affairs. Infinity reaches to the
infinitely little as readily as to the infinitely great. With the
appeal for compassion goes a confession of sin, which is national
rather than personal. All sections of the community on which the
calamities have fallen--with the significant exception of the prophets
who had possessed God's Spirit, and who had been so grievously
persecuted by their fellow-countrymen--all are united in a common
guilt. The solidarity of the Jewish race is here apparent. We saw in
the earlier case of the sin-offering that the religion of Israel was
national rather than personal. The punishment of the captivity was a
national discipline; now the confession is for national sin. And yet
the sin is confessed distributively, with regard to the several
sections of society. We cannot feel our national sin in the bulk. It
must be brought home to us in our several walks of life.

  [236] Neh. ix. 32.

After this confession the prayer deplores the present state of the
Jews. No reference is now made to the temporary annoyance occasioned
by the attacks of the Samaritans. The building of the walls has put an
end to that nuisance. But the permanent evil is more deeply rooted.
The Jews are mournfully conscious of their subject state beneath the
Persian yoke. They have returned to their city; but they are no more
free men than they were in Babylon. Like the _fellaheen_ of Syria
to-day, they have to pay heavy tribute, which takes the best of the
produce of their labour. They are subject to the conscription, having
to serve in the armies of the Great King--Herodotus tells us that
there were "Syrians of Palestine" in the army of Xerxes.[237] Their
cattle are seized by the officers of the government, arbitrarily, "at
their pleasure." Did Nehemiah know of this complaint? If so, might
there not be some ground for the suspicion of the informers after all?
Was that suspicion one reason for his recall to Susa? We cannot answer
these questions. As to the prayer, this leaves the whole case with
God. It would have been dangerous to have said more in the hearing of
the spies who haunted the streets of Jerusalem. And it was needless.
It is not the business of prayer to try to move the hand of God. It is
enough that we lay bare our state before Him, trusting His wisdom as
well as His grace--not dictating to God, but confiding in Him.

  [237] Herodotus, vii. 89.



CHAPTER XXVII.

_THE COVENANT._

NEHEMIAH x.


The tenth chapter of "Nehemiah" introduces us to one of the most vital
crises in the History of Israel. It shows us how the secret cult of
the priests of Jehovah became a popular religion. The process was
brought to a focus in the public reading of The Law; it was completed
in the acceptance of The Law which the sealing of the covenant
ratified. This event may be compared with the earlier scene, when the
law-book discovered in the temple by Hilkiah was accepted and enforced
by Josiah. Undoubtedly that book is included in Ezra's complete
edition of The Law. Generations before Ezra, then, though nothing more
than Deuteronomy may have been forthcoming, that vital section of The
Law, containing as it did the essential principles of Judaism, was
adopted. But how was this result brought about? Not by the intelligent
conviction, nor by the voluntary action of the nation. It was the work
of a king, who thought to drive his ideas into his subjects. No doubt
Josiah acted in a spirit of genuine loyalty to Jehovah; and yet the
method he followed could not lead to success. The transient character
of his spasmodic attempt to save his people at the eleventh hour,
followed by the total collapse of the fabric he had built up, shows
how insecure a foundation he had obtained. It was a royal reformation,
not a revival of religion on the part of the nation. We have an
instance of a similar course of action in the English reformation
under Edward VI., which was swept away in a moment when his Catholic
sister succeeded to the throne, because it was a movement originating
in the court and not supported by the country, as was that under
Elizabeth when Mary had opened the eye of the English nation to the
character of Romanism.

But now a very different scene presents itself to our notice. The
sealing of the covenant signifies the voluntary acceptance of The Law
by the people of Israel, and their solemn promise to submit to its
yoke. There are two sides to this covenant arrangement. The first is
seen in the conduct of the people in entering into the covenant. This
is absolutely an act of free will on their part. We have seen that
Ezra never attempted to force The Law upon his fellow-countrymen--that
he was slow in producing it; that when he read it he only did so at
the urgent request of the people; and that even after this he went no
further, but left it with the audience for them to do with it as they
thought fit. It came with the authority of the will of God, which to
religious men is the highest authority; but it was not backed by the
secular arm, even though Ezra possessed a _firman_ from the Persian
court which would have justified him in calling in the aid of the
civil government. Now the acceptance of The Law is to be in the same
spirit of freedom. Of course somebody must have started the idea of
forming a covenant. Possibly it was Nehemiah who did so. Still this
was when the people were ripe for entering into it, and the whole
process was voluntary on their part. The only religion that can be
real to us is that which we believe in with personal faith and
surrender ourselves to with willing obedience. Even when the law is
recorded on parchment, it must also be written on the fleshy table of
the heart if it is to be effective.

But there is another side to the covenant-sealing. The very existence
of a covenant is significant. The word "covenant" suggests an
agreement between two parties, a mutual arrangement to which each is
pledged. So profound was the conviction of Israel that in coming to an
agreement with God it was not possible for man to bargain with his
Maker on equal terms, that in translating the Hebrew name for covenant
into Greek the writers of the Septuagint did not use the term that
elsewhere stands for an agreement among equals (συνθἡκν),
but employed one indicative of an arrangement made by one party to the
transaction and submitted to the other (διαθἡκνδιαθἡκν). The
covenant, then, is a Divine disposition, a Divine ordinance. Even
when, as in the present instance, it is formally made by men, this is
still on lines laid down by God; the covenanting is a voluntary act of
adhesion to a law which comes from God. Therefore the terms of the
covenant are fixed, and not to be discussed by the signatories. This
is of the very essence of Judaism as a religion of Divine law. Then
though the sealing is voluntary, it entails a great obligation;
henceforth the covenant people are bound by the covenant which they
have deliberately entered into. This, too, is a characteristic of the
religion of law. It is a bondage, though a bondage willingly submitted
to by those who stoop to its yoke. To St. Paul it became a crushing
slavery. But the burden was not felt at first, simply because neither
the range of The Law, nor the searching force of its requirements,
nor the weakness of men to keep their vows, was yet perceived by the
sanguine Jews who so unhesitatingly surrendered to it. As we look back
to their position from the vantage ground of Christian liberty, we are
astounded at the Jewish love of law, and we rejoice in our freedom
from its irksome restraints. And yet the Christian is not an
antinomian; he is not a sort of free lance, sworn to no obedience. He
too has his obligation. He is bound to a lofty service--not to a law,
indeed, but to a personal Master; not in the servitude of the letter,
but, though with the freedom of the spirit, really with far higher
obligations of love and fidelity than were ever recognised by the most
rigorous covenant-keeping Jews. Thus he has a new covenant, sealed in
the blood of his Saviour; and his communion with his Lord implies a
sacramental vow of loyalty. The Christian covenant, however, is not
visibly exhibited, because a formal pledge is scarcely in accordance
with the spirit of the gospel. We find it better to take a more
self-distrustful course, one marked by greater dependence of faith on
the preserving grace of God, by turning our vows into prayers. While
the Jews "entered into a curse and into an oath" to keep the law, we
shrink from anything so terrible; yet our duty is not the less because
we limit our professions of it.

The Jews were prepared for their covenant by two essential
preliminaries. The first was knowledge. The reading of The Law
preceded the covenant, which was entered into intelligently. There is
no idea of what is called "implicit faith." The whole situation is
clearly surveyed, and The Law is adopted with a consciousness of what
it means as far as the understanding of its requirements by the people
will yet penetrate into its signification. It is necessary to count
the cost before entering on a course of religious service. With a view
to this our Lord spoke of the "narrow way" and the "cross," much to
the disappointment of His more sanguine disciples, but as a real
security for genuine loyalty. With religion, of all things, it is
foolish to take a leap in the dark. Judaism and Christianity
absolutely contradict the idea that "Ignorance is the mother of
devotion."

The second preparation consisted in the moral effect on the Jews of
the review of their history in the light of religion, and their
consequent confession of sin and acknowledgment of God's goodness.
Here was the justification for the written law. The old methods had
failed. The people had not kept the desultory _Torah_ of the prophets.
They needed a more formal system of discipline. Here too were the
motives for adopting the covenant. Penitence for the nation's
miserable past prompted the desire for a better future, and gratitude
for the overwhelming goodness of God roused an enthusiasm of devotion.
Nothing urges us to surrender ourselves to God so much as these two
motives--our repentance and His goodness. They are the two powerful
magnets that draw souls to Christ.

The chronicler--always delighting in any opportunity to insert his
lists of names--records the names of the signatories of the covenant.
The seals of these men were of importance so long as the original
document to which they were affixed was preserved, and so long as any
recognised descendants of the families they represented were living.
To us they are of interest because they indicate the orderly
arrangement of the nation and the thoroughness of procedure in the
ratification of the covenant. Nehemiah, who is again called by his
Persian title Tirshatha, appears first. This fact is to be noted as a
sign that as yet even in a religious document the civil ruler takes
precedence of the hierarchy. At present it is allowed for a layman to
head the list of leading Israelites. We might have looked for Ezra's
name in the first place, for he it was who had taken the lead in the
introduction of The Law, while Nehemiah had retreated into the
background during the whole month's proceedings. But the name of Ezra
does not appear anywhere on the document. The probable explanation of
its absence is that only heads of houses affixed their seals, and that
Ezra was not accounted one of them. Nehemiah's position in the
document is official. The next name, Zedekiah, possibly stands for
Zadok the Scribe mentioned later,[238] who may have been the writer of
the document, or perhaps Nehemiah's secretary. Then come the priests.
It was not the business of these men to assist in the reading of The
Law. While the Levites acted as scribes and instructors of the people,
the priests were chiefly occupied with the temple ritual and the
performance of the other ceremonies of religion. The Levites were
teachers of The Law; the priests were its administrators. In the
question of the execution of The Law, therefore, the priests have a
prominent place, and after remaining in obscurity during the previous
engagements, they naturally come to the front when the national
acceptance of the Pentateuch is being confirmed. The hierarchy is so
far established that, though the priests follow the lay ruler of
Jerusalem, they precede the general body of citizens, and even the
nobility. No doubt many of the higher families were in the line of the
priesthood. But this was not the case with all of them, and therefore
we must see here a distinct clerical precedence over all but the very
highest rank.

  [238] Neh. xiii. 13.

Most of the names in this list of priests occur again in a list of
those who came up with Zerubbabel and Jeshua,[239] from which fact we
must infer that they represent families, not individuals. But some of
the names in the other list are missing here. A most significant
omission is that of the high-priest. Are we merely to suppose that
some names have dropped out in course of transcription? Or was the
high-priest, with some of his brethren, unwilling to sign the
covenant? We have had earlier signs that the high-priest did not enjoy
the full confidence of Ezra.[240] The heads of the hierarchy may have
resented the popularising of The Law. Since formerly, while the people
were often favoured with the moral Torah of the prophets, the
ceremonial Torah of the priests was kept among the _arcana_ of the
initiated, the change may not have been pleasing to its old
custodians. Then these conservatives may not have approved of Ezra's
latest recension of The Law. A much more serious difficulty lay with
those priests who had contracted foreign marriages, and who had
favoured the policy of alliance with neighbouring peoples which Ezra
had so fiercely opposed. Old animosities from this source were still
smouldering in the bosoms of some of the priests. But apart from any
specific grounds of disaffection, it is clear that there never was
much sympathy between the scribes and the priests. Putting all these
considerations together, it is scarcely too much to conjecture that
the absentees were designedly holding back when the covenant was
signed. The only wonder is that the disaffected minority was so small.

  [239] Neh. xii. 1-7.

  [240] _E.g._, Ezra viii. 33; where the high-priest is passed over in
  silence.

According to the new order advised by Ezekiel and now established, the
Levites take the second place and come after the priests, as a
separate and inferior order of clergy. Yet the hierarchy is so far
honoured that even the lowest of the clergy precede the general body
of the laity. We come down to the porters, the choristers, and the
temple-helots before we hear of the mass of the people. When this lay
element is reached, the whole of it is included. Men, women, and
children are all represented in the covenant. The Law had been read to
all classes, and now it is accepted by all classes. Thus again the
rights and duties of women and children in religion are recognised,
and the thoroughly domestic character of Judaism is provided for.
There is a solidity in the compact. A common obligation draws all who
are included in it together. The population generally follows the
example of the leaders. "They clave to their brethren, their
nobles,"[241] says the chronicler. The most effective unifying
influence is a common enthusiasm in a great cause. The unity of
Christendom will only be restored when the passion of loyalty to
Christ is supreme in every Christian, and when every Christian
acknowledges that this is the case with all his brother-Christians.

  [241] Neh. x. 29.

It is clear that the obligation of the covenant extended to the whole
law. This is called "God's law, which was given by Moses the servant
of God."[242] Nothing can be clearer than that in the eyes of the
chronicler, at all events, it was the Mosaic law. We have seen many
indications of this view in the chroniclers narrative. Can we resist
the conclusion that it was held by the contemporaries of Ezra and
Nehemiah? We are repeatedly warned against the mistake of supposing
that the Pentateuch was accepted as a brand-new document. On the
contrary, it was certainly received on the authority of the Mosaic
origin of its contents, and because of the Divine authority that
accompanied this origin. By the Jews it was viewed as the law of
Moses, just as in Roman jurisprudence every law was considered to be
derived from the "Twelve Tables." No doubt Ezra also considered it to
be a true interpretation of the genius of Mosaism adapted to modern
requirements. If we keep this clearly before our minds, the
Pentateuchal controversy will lose its sharpest points of conflict.
The truth here noted once more is so often disregarded that it needs
to be repeatedly insisted on at the risk of tautology.

  [242] _Ibid._

After the general acceptance of the whole law, the covenant specifies
certain important details. First comes the separation from the
heathen--the burning question of the day. Next we have Sabbath
observance--also made especially important, because it was distinctive
of Judaism as well as needful for the relief of poor and oppressed
labourers. But the principal part of the schedule is occupied with
pledges for the provision of the temple services. Immense supplies of
fuel would be required for the numerous sacrifices, and therefore
considerable prominence was given to the collecting of wood;
subsequently a festival was established to celebrate this action.
According to a later tradition, Nehemiah kindled the flames on the
great altar of the burnt-offerings with supernatural fire.[243] Like
the Vestal virgins at Rome, the temple officials were to tend the
sacred fire as a high duty, and never let it go out. "Fire shall be
kept burning upon the altar continually,"[244] was the Levitical rule.
Thus the very greatest honour was given to the rite of sacrifice. As
the restoration of the religion of Israel began with the erection of
the altar before the temple was built, so the preservation of that
religion was centred in the altar fire--and so, we may add, its
completion was attained in the supreme sacrifice of Christ.

  [243] 2 Macc. i. 19-22.

  [244] Lev. vi. 13.

Finally, special care was taken for what we may call "Church finance"
in the collection of the tithes. This comes last; yet it has its
place. Not only is it necessary for the sake of the work that is to be
carried on; it is also important in regard to the religious obligation
of the worshipper. The cry for a cheap religion is irreligious,
because real religion demands sacrifices, and, indeed, necessarily
promotes the liberal spirit from which those sacrifices flow. But if
the contributions are to come within the range of religious duties,
they must be voluntary. Clearly this was the case with the Jewish
tithes, as we may see for two reasons. First, they were included in
the covenant; and adhesion to this was entirely voluntary. Secondly,
Malachi rebuked the Jews for withholding the payment of tithes as a
sin against God,[245] showing that the payment only rested on a sense
of moral obligation on the part of the people. It would have been
difficult to go further while a foreign government was in power, even
if the religious leaders had desired to do so. Moreover, God can only
accept the offerings that are given freely with heart and will, for
all He cares for is the spirit of the gift.

  [245] Mal. iii. 8-12.



CHAPTER XXVIII.

_THE HOLY CITY._

NEHEMIAH vii. 1-4; xi.


We have seen that though the two passages that deal with the sparsity
of the population of Jerusalem are separated in our Bibles by the
insertion of the section on the reading of The Law and the formation
of the covenant, they are, in fact, so closely related that, if we
skip the intermediate section, the one runs on into the other quite
smoothly, as by a continuous narrative;[246] that is to say, we may
pass from Nehemiah vii. 4 to Nehemiah xi. 1 without the slightest sign
of a junction of separate paragraphs. So naive and crude is the
chronicler's style, that he has left the raw edges of the narrative
jagged and untrimmed, and thereby he has helped us to see distinctly
how he has constructed his work. The foreign matter which he has
inserted in the great gash is quite different in style and contents
from that which precedes and follows it. This is marked with the Ezra
stamp, which indicates that in all probability it is founded on notes
left by the scribe; but the broken narrative in the midst of which it
appears is derived from Nehemiah, the first part consisting of
memoirs written by the statesman himself, and the second part being
an abbreviation of the continuation of Nehemiah's writing. The
beginning of this second part directly links it on to the first part,
for the word "and" has no sort of connection with the immediately
preceding Ezra section, while it exactly fits into the broken end of
the previous Nehemiah section; only with his characteristic
indifference to secular affairs, in comparison with matters touching
The Law and the temple worship, the chronicler abbreviates the
conclusion of Nehemiah's story. It is easy to see how he constructs
his book in this place. He has before him two documents--one written
by Nehemiah, the other written either by Ezra or by one of his close
associates. At first he follows Nehemiah, but suddenly he discovers
that he has reached the date when the Ezra record should come in.
Therefore, without any concern for the irregularity of style that he
is perpetrating, he suddenly breaks off Nehemiah's narrative to insert
the Ezra material, at the end of which he simply goes back to the
Nehemiah document, and resumes it exactly where he has left it, except
that now, after introducing it in the language of the original writer,
he compresses the fragment, so that the composition passes over into
the third person. It is not to be supposed that this is done
arbitrarily or for no good reason. The chronicler here intends to tell
his story in chronological order. He shows that the course of events
referred to at the opening of the seventh chapter really was broken by
the occurrences the record of which then follows. The interruptions in
the narrative just correspond to the real interruptions in the
historical facts. History is not a smooth-flowing river; its course is
repeatedly broken by rocks and shoals, and sometimes entirely
deflected by impassable cliffs. In the earlier part of the narrative
we read of Nehemiah's anxiety on account of the sparsity of the
population of Jerusalem; but before he was able to carry out any plans
for the increase of the number of inhabitants the time of the great
autumn festivals was upon him, and the people were eager to take
advantage of the public holidays that then fell due in order to induce
Ezra to read to them the wonderful book he had brought up from Babylon
years before, and of which he had not yet divulged the contents. This
was not waste time as regards Nehemiah's project. Though the civil
governor stood in the background during the course of the great
religious movement, he heartily seconded the clerical leaders of it in
their efforts to enlighten and encourage the people, and he was the
first to seal the covenant which was its fruit. Then the people who
had been instructed in the principles of their faith and consecrated
to its lofty requirements were fitted to take their places as citizens
of the Holy City.

  [246] Pages 271-273.

The "population question" which troubled Nehemiah at this time is so
exactly opposite to that which gives concern to students of social
problems in our own day, that we need to look into the circumstances
in which it emerged in order to understand its bearings. The powerful
suction of great towns, depleting the rural districts and gorging the
urban, is a source of the greatest anxiety to all who seriously
contemplate the state of modern society; and consequently one of the
most pressing questions of the day is how to scatter the people over
the land. Even in new countries the same serious condition is
experienced--in Australia, for instance, where the crowding of the
people into Melbourne is rapidly piling up the very difficulties
sanguine men hoped the colonies would escape. If we only had these
modern facts to draw upon, we might conclude that a centripetal
movement of population was inevitable. That it is not altogether a
novelty we may learn from the venerable story of the Tower of Babel,
from which we may also gather that it is God's will that men should
spread abroad and replenish the earth.

It is one of the advantages of the study of history that it lifts us
out of our narrow grooves and reveals to us an immense variety of
modes of life, and this is not the least of the many elements of
profit that come to us from the historical embodiment of revelation as
we have it in the Bible. The width of vision that we may thus attain
to will have a double effect. It will save us from being wedded to a
fixed policy under all circumstances; and it will deliver us from the
despair into which we should settle down, if we did not see that what
looks to us like a hopeless and interminable drift in the wrong
direction is not the permanent course of human development. It is
necessary to consider that if the dangers of a growing population are
serious, those of a dwindling population are much more grave.

Nehemiah was in a position to see the positive advantages of city
life, and he regarded it as his business to make the most of them for
the benefit of his fellow-countrymen. We have seen that each of the
three great expeditions from Babylon up to Jerusalem had its separate
and distinctive purpose. The aim of the first, under Zerubbabel and
Jeshua, was the rebuilding of the temple; the object of the second,
under Ezra, was the establishment of The Law; and the end of the
third, under Nehemiah, was the fortification and strengthening of the
city. This end was before the patriotic statesman's mind from the very
first moment when he was startled and grieved at hearing the report of
the ruinous condition of the walls of Jerusalem which his brother
brought to him in the palace at Susa. We may be sure that with so
practical a man it was more than a sentimental reverence for venerated
sites that led Nehemiah to undertake the great work of fortifying the
city of his fathers' sepulchres. He had something else in view than to
construct a huge mausoleum. His aim had too much to do with the living
present to resemble that of Rizpah guarding the corpses of her sons
from the hovering vultures. Nehemiah believed in the future of
Jerusalem, and therefore he would not permit her to remain a city of
ruins, unguarded, and a prey to every chance comer. He saw that she
had a great destiny yet to fulfil, and that she must be made strong if
ever she was to accomplish it. It is to the credit of his keen
discernment that he perceived this essential condition of the firm
establishment of Israel as a distinctive people in the land of
Palestine. Ezra was too literary, too abstract, too much of an
idealist to see it, and therefore he struggled on with his teaching
and exhorting till he was simply silenced by the unlooked-for logic of
facts. Nehemiah perfectly comprehended this logic, and knew how to
turn it to the advantage of his own cause.

The fierce antagonism of the Samaritans is an indirect confirmation of
the wisdom of Nehemiah's plans. Sanballat and his associates saw
clearly enough that, if Jerusalem were to become strong again, the
metropolitan pre-eminence--which had shifted from this city to Samaria
after the Babylonian conquest--would revert to its old seat among the
hills of Judah and Benjamin. Now this pre-eminence was of vital
importance to the destinies of Israel. It was not possible for the
people in those early days to remain separate and compact, and to work
out their own peculiar mission, without a strong and safe centre. We
have seen Judaism blossoming again as a distinctive phenomenon in the
later history of the Jews, after the destruction of Jerusalem by the
Romans. But this most wonderful fact in ethnology is indirectly due to
the work of Ezra and Nehemiah. The readiness to intermarry with
foreigners shown by the contemporaries of the two great reformers
proves conclusively that, unless the most stringent measures had been
taken for the preservation of its distinctive life, Israel would have
melted away into the general mass of amalgamated races that made up
the Chaldæan and Persian empires. The military protection of Jerusalem
enabled her citizens to maintain an independent position in defiance
of the hostile criticism of her neighbours, and the civil importance
of the city helped to give moral weight to her example in the eyes of
the scattered Jewish population outside her walls. Then the worship at
the temple was a vital element in the newly modelled religious
organisation, and it was absolutely essential that this should be
placed beyond the danger of being tampered with by foreign influences,
and at the same time that it should be adequately supported by a
sufficient number of resident Jews. Something like the motive that
induces the Pope to desire the restoration of the temporal power of
the Papacy--perfectly wise and reasonable from his point of
view--would urge the leaders of Judaism to secure as far as possible
the political independence of the centre of their religion.

It is to be observed that Nehemiah desired an increase of the
population for the immediate purpose of strengthening the garrison of
Jerusalem. The city had been little better than "a lodge in a garden
of cucumbers" till her new governor had put forth stupendous efforts
which resulted in converting her into a fortress. Now the fortress
required to be manned. Everything indicates anxiety about the means of
defence. Nehemiah placed two men at the head of this vital
function--his own brother Hanani, whose concern about the city had
been evinced in his report of its condition to Nehemiah at Susa, and
Hananiah the commandant of the citadel. This Hananiah was known to be
"faithful"--a great point while traitors in the highest places were
intriguing with the enemy. He was also exceptionally God-fearing,
described as one who "feared God above many"--another point recognised
by Nehemiah as of supreme importance in a military officer. Here we
have an anticipation of the Puritan spirit which required the
Cromwellian soldiers to be men of sterling religious character.
Nehemiah would have had no hesitation if he had been placed in the
dilemma of the Athenians when they were called to choose between
Aristides the good and Themistocles the clever. With him--much as
brains were needed, and he showed this in his own sleepless
astuteness--integrity and religion were the first requisites for an
office of responsibility.

The danger of the times is further indicated by the new rule with
regard to the opening of the gates. Oriental custom would have
permitted this at dawn. Nehemiah would not allow it before the full
daytime, "until the sun be hot." Levites were to mount guard by
day--an indication of the partially ecclesiastical character of the
civil government. The city was a sort of extended temple, and its
citizens constituted a Church watched over by the clergy. At night the
citizens themselves were to guard the walls, as more watchers would be
needed during the hours of darkness to protect the city against an
assault by surprise. Now these facts point to serious danger and
arduous toil. Naturally many men would shrink from the yoke of
citizenship under such circumstances. It was so much pleasanter, so
much easier, so much quieter for people to live in the outlying towns
and villages, near to their own farms and vineyards. Therefore it was
necessary to take a tenth of the rural population in order to increase
that of the town. The chronicler expressly notes that "the rulers of
the people" were already dwelling in Jerusalem. These men realised
their responsibility. The officers were to the fore; the men who
needed to be urged to their duty were the privates. No doubt there was
more to attract the upper classes to the capital, while their
agricultural occupations would naturally draw many of the poorer
people into the country, and we must not altogether condemn the latter
as less patriotic than the former. We cannot judge the relative merits
of people who act differently till we know their several
circumstances. Still it remains true that it is often the man with the
one talent who buries his charge, because with him the sense of
personal insignificance becomes a temptation to the neglect of duty.
Hence arises one of the most serious dangers to a democracy. When this
danger is not mastered, the management of public affairs falls into
the hands of self-seeking politicians, who are ready to wreck the
state for their private advantage. It is most essential, therefore,
that a public conscience should be aroused and that people should
realise their duty to their community--to the town in which they
live, the country to which they belong.

Nehemiah's simple expedient succeeded, and praise was earned by those
Jews who yielded to the sacred decision of the lot and abandoned their
pleasant rustic retreats to take up the more trying posts of sentinels
in a garrison. According to his custom, the chronicler proceeds to
show us how the people were organised. His many names have long ceased
to convey the living interest that must have clustered round them when
the families they represented were still able to recognise their
ancestors in the roll of honour. But incidentally he imports into his
register a note about the Great King's concern for the temple worship,
from which we learn that Artaxerxes made special provision for the
support of the choristers, and that he entertained a Jewish
representative in his court to keep him informed on the condition of
the distant city. Thus we have another indication of the royal
patronage which was behind the whole movement for the restoration of
the Jews. Nevertheless the piteous plaint of the Jews on their great
fast day shows us that their servitude galled them sorely. Men who
could utter that cry would not be bribed into a state of cheerful
satisfaction by the kindness of their master in subscribing to their
choir fund, although doubtless the contribution was made in a spirit
of well-meaning generosity. The ideal City of God had not yet
appeared, and the hint of the dependence of Jerusalem on royal
patronage is a significant reminder of the sad fact. It never did
appear, even in the brightest days of the earthly Jerusalem. But God
was teaching His people through the history of that unhappy city how
high the true ideal must be, and so preparing them for the heavenly
city, the New Jerusalem.

Now we may take the high ideal that was slowly emerging throughout the
ages, and see how God intends to have it realised in the City of God
which, from the days of Saint Augustine, we have learnt to look for in
the Church of Christ. The two leading thoughts connected with the Holy
City in the phase of her history that is now passing under our notice
are singularly applicable to the Christian community.

First, _the characteristic life of the city_. Enclosed within walls
the city gained a peculiar character and performed a distinctive
mission of her own. Our Lord was not satisfied to rescue stray sheep
on the mountains only to brand them with His mark and then turn them
out again to graze in solitude. He drew them as a flock after Himself,
and His disciples gathered them into the fold of Church fellowship.
This is of as vital importance to the cause of Christianity as the
civic organisation of Jerusalem was to that of Judaism. The Christian
City of God stands out before the world on her lofty foundation, the
Rock of Ages--a beacon of separation from sin, a testimony to the
grace of God, a centre for the confession of faith, a home for social
worship, a rallying point for the forces of holy warfare, a sanctuary
for the helpless and oppressed.

Second, _the public duty of a citizenship_. The reluctance of
Christians to accept the responsibilities of Church membership may be
compared to the backwardness of the Jews to dwell in their metropolis.
Like Jerusalem in the time of Nehemiah, the City of God to-day is an
outpost in the battle-field, a fortress surrounded by the enemy's
territory. It is traitorous to retire to the calm cultivation of one's
private garden-plot in the hour of stress and strain when the citadel
is threatened on all sides. It is the plain duty of the people of God
to mount guard and take their turn as watchmen on the walls of the
Holy City.

May we carry the analogy one step further? The king of Persia, though
his realm stretched from the Tigris to the Ægean, could not give much
effectual help to the true City of God. But the Divine King of kings
sends her constant supplies, and she too, like Jerusalem, has her
Representative at court, One who ever lives to make intercession for
her.



CHAPTER XXIX.

_BEGINNINGS._

NEHEMIAH xii. 27-47.


A curious feature of the history of the restoration of Israel already
met with several times is postponement. Thus in the days of Cyrus
Zerubbabel leads up an expedition for the express purpose of building
the temple at Jerusalem; but the work is not executed until the reign
of Darius. Again, Ezra brings the book of The Law with him when he
comes to the city; yet he does not find an opportunity for publishing
it till some years later. Once more, Nehemiah sets to work on the
fortifications with the promptitude of a practical man and executes
his task with astonishing celerity; still, even in his case the usual
breach of sequence occurs; here, too, we have interruption and the
intrusion of alien matters, so that the crowning act of the dedication
of the walls is delayed.

In this final instance we do not know how long a postponement there
was. Towards the end of his work the chronicler is exceptionally
abrupt and disconnected. In the section xii. 27-43 he gives us an
extract from Nehemiah's memoirs, but without any note of time. The
preservation of another bit of the patriot's original writing is
interesting, not only because of its assured historicity, but further
because exceptional importance is given to the records that have been
judged worthy of being extracted and made portions of permanent
scripture, although other sources are only used by the chronicler as
materials out of which to construct his own narrative in the third
person. While we cannot assign its exact date to the subject of this
important fragment, one thing is clear from its position in the story
of the days of Nehemiah. The reading of The Law, the great fast, the
sealing of the covenant, the census, and the regulations for peopling
Jerusalem, all came between the completion of the fortifications and
the dedication of them. The interruption and the consequent delay were
not without meaning and object. After what had occurred in the
interval, the people were better prepared to enter into the ceremony
of dedication with intelligence and earnestness of purpose. This act,
although it was immediately directed to the wall, was, as a matter of
fact, the re-consecration of the city; because the walls were built in
order to preserve the distinct individuality, unique integrity of what
they included. Now the Jews needed to know The Law in order to
understand the destiny of Jerusalem; they needed to devote themselves
personally to the service of God, so that they might carry out that
destiny; and they needed to recruit the forces of the Holy City, for
the purpose of giving strength and volume to its future. Thus the
postponement of the dedication made that event, when it came about, a
much more real thing than it would have been if it had followed
immediately on the building of the walls. May we not say that in every
similar case the personal consecration must precede the material? The
city is what its citizens make it. They, and not its site or its
buildings, give it its true character. Jerusalem and Babylon, Athens
and Rome, are not to be distinguished in their topography and
architecture in anything approaching the degree in which they are
individualised by the manners and deeds of their respective peoples.
Most assuredly the New Jerusalem will just reflect the characters of
her citizens. This City of God will be fair and spotless only when
they who tread her streets are clad in the beauty of holiness. In
smaller details, too, and in personal matters, we can only dedicate
aright that which we are handling in a spirit of earnest devotion. The
miserable superstition that clouds our ideas of this subject rises out
of the totally erroneous notion that it is possible to have holy
things without holy persons, that a mystical sanctity can attach
itself to any objects apart from an intelligent perception of some
sacred purpose for which they are to be used. This materialistic
notion degrades religion into magic; it is next door to fetichism.

It is important, then, that we should understand what we mean by
dedication. Unfortunately in our English Bible the word "dedicate" is
made to stand for two totally distinct Hebrew terms, one[247] of which
means to "consecrate," to make holy, or set apart for God; while the
other[248] means to "initiate," to mark the beginning of a thing. The
first is used of functions of ritual, priestly and sacrificial; but
the second has a much wider application, one that is not always
directly connected with religion. Thus we meet with this second word
in the regulations of Deuteronomy which lay down the conditions on
which certain persons are to be excused from military service. The man
who has built a new house but who has not "dedicated" it is placed
side by side with one who has planted a vineyard and with a third who
is on the eve of his marriage.[249] Now the first word--that
describing real consecration--is used of the priests' action in regard
to their portion of the wall, and in this place our translators have
rendered it "sanctified."[250] But in the narrative of the general
dedication of the walls the second and more secular word is used. The
same word is used, however, we must notice, in the account of the
dedication of the temple.[251] In both these cases, and in all other
cases of the employment of the word, the chief meaning conveyed by it
is just initiation.[252] It signalises a commencement. Therefore the
ceremony at the new walls was designed in the first instance to direct
attention to the very fact of their newness, and to call up those
thoughts and feelings that are suitable in the consideration of a time
of commencement. We must all acknowledge that such a time is one for
very earnest thought. All our beginnings in life--the birth of a
child, a young man's start in the world, the wedding that founds the
home, the occupation of a new house, the entrance on a fresh line of
business--all such beginnings come to rouse us from the indifference
of routine, to speak to us with the voice of Providence, to bid us
look forward and prepare ourselves for the future. We have rounded a
corner, and a new vista has opened up to our view. As we gaze down the
long aisle we must be heedless indeed if we can contemplate the vision
without a thrill of emotion, without a thought of anticipation. The
new departure in external affairs is an opportunity for a new turn in
our inner life, and it calls for a reconsideration of our resources
and methods.

  [247] קדש Piel of קדש

  [248] חָנַךְ

  [249] Deut. xx. 5-7.

  [250] Neh, iii. 1.

  [251] Ezra vi. 16.

  [252] Still in the earlier scene, the dedication of the temple, the
  sacred use of the building makes the act of initiation to be
  equivalent to consecration. There the connection gives the special
  association.

One of the charms of the Bible is that, like nature, it is full of
fresh starts. Inasmuch as a perennial breath of new life plays among
the pages of these ancient scriptures, we have only to drink it in to
feel what inspiration there is here for every momentous beginning.
Just as the fading, dank autumn gives way to the desolation of winter
in order that in due time the sleeping seeds and buds may burst out in
the birth of spring with the freshness of Eden, God has ordained that
the decaying old things of human life shall fall away and be
forgotten, while He calls us into the heritage of the new--giving a
new covenant, creating a new heart, promising a new heaven and a new
earth. The mistake of our torpor and timidity is that we will cling to
the rags of the past and only patch them with shreds of the later age,
instead of boldly flinging them on to clothe ourselves in the new
garment of praise which is to take the place of the old spirit of
heaviness.

The method in which a new beginning was celebrated by the Jews in
relation to their restored walls is illustrative of the spirit in
which such an event should always be contemplated.

In the first place, as a preparation for the whole of the subsequent
ceremonies, the priests and Levites carried out a great work of
purification. They began with themselves, because the men who are
first in any dealings with religion must be first in purity. Judged by
the highest standard, the only real difference of rank in the Church
is determined by varying degrees of holiness; merely official
distinctions and those that arise from the unequal distribution of
gifts cannot affect anybody's position of honour in the sight of God.
The functions of the recognised ministry, in particular, demand purity
of character for their right discharge. They that bear the vessels of
the Lord must be clean. And not only so in general; especially in the
matter of purification is it necessary that those who carry out the
work should first be pure themselves. What here applied to priests and
Levites ceremonially applies in prosaic earnest to all who feel called
to purge society in the interest of true morality. Who can bring a
clean thing out of an unclean? The leaders of moral reforms must be
themselves morally clean. Only regenerate men and women can regenerate
society. If the salt has lost its savour it will not arrest corruption
in the sacrifice that is salted with it. But the purification does not
cease with the leaders. In ceremonial symbolism all the people and
even the very walls are also cleansed. This is done in view of the new
departure, the fresh beginning. Such an occasion calls for much
heart-searching and spiritual cleansing--a truth which must have been
suggested to the minds of thoughtful people by the Levitical
ceremonies. It is a shame to bring the old stains into the new scenes.
The fresh, clean start calls for a new and better life.

Next, it is to be observed, there was an organised procession round
the walls, a procession that included citizens of every rank--princes,
priests, Levites, and representatives of the general community,
described as "Judah and Benjamin." Starting at the west end of the
city, these people were divided into two sections, one led by Nehemiah
going round by the north, and the other conducted by Ezra proceeding
by the south, so that they met at the eastern side of the city; where
opposite the Mount of Olives and close to the temple, they all united
in an enthusiastic outburst of praise. This arrangement was not
carried out for any of the idle ends of a popular pageant--to glorify
the processionists, or to amuse the spectators. It was to serve an
important practical purpose. By personal participation in the ceremony
of initiation, all sections of the community would be brought to
perceive its real significance. Since the walls were in the keeping of
the citizens, it was necessary that the citizens should acknowledge
their privileges and responsibilities. Men and women need to come
individually and directly face to face with new conditions of life.
Mere dulness of imagination encourages the lazy sense of indifference
with which so many people permit themselves to ignore the claims of
duty, and the same cause accounts for a melancholy failure to
appreciate the new blessings that come from the untiring bounty of
God.

In the third place, the behaviour of the processionists invites our
attention. The whole ceremony was one of praise and gratitude. Levites
were called in from the outlying towns and villages where they had got
themselves homes, and even from that part of the Jordan valley that
lay nearest to Jerusalem. Their principal function was to swell the
chorus of the temple singers. Musical instruments added emphasis to
the shout of human voices; clashing cymbals and finer toned harps
supported the choral song with a rich and powerful orchestral
accompaniment, which was augmented from another quarter by a young
band of trumpeters consisting of some of the priests' sons. The
immediate aim of the music and singing was to show forth the praises
of God. The two great companies were to give thanks while they went
round the walls. Sacrifices of thanksgiving completed the ceremony
when the processions were united and brought to a standstill near the
temple. The thanksgiving would arise out of a grateful acknowledgment
of the goodness of God in leading the work of building the walls
through many perils and disappointments to its present consummation.
Rarely does anything new spring up all of a sudden without some
relation to our own past life and action; but even that which is the
greatest novelty and wonder to us must have a cause somewhere. If we
have done nothing to prepare for the happy surprise, God has done
much. Thus the new start is an occasion for giving thanks to its great
Originator. But the thankfulness also looks forward. The city was now
in a very much more hopeful condition than when Nehemiah took his
lonely night ride among its ghostly ruins. By this time it was a
compact and strongly fortified centre, with solid defences and a good
body of devoted citizens pledged to do their part in pursuing its
unique destiny. The prospect of a happy future which this wonderful
transformation suggested afforded sufficient reasons for the greatest
thankfulness. The spirit of praise thus called forth would be one of
the best guarantees of the fulfilment of the high hopes that it
inspired. There is nothing that so surely foredooms people to failure
as a despairing blindness to any perception of their advantages. The
grateful soul will always have most ground for a renewal of gratitude.
It is only just and reasonable that God should encourage those of His
children who acknowledge His goodness, with fresh acts of favour over
and above what He does for all in making His sun to shine and His rain
to fall on the bad as well as the good. But apart from considerations
of self-interest, the true spirit of praise will delight to pour
itself out in adoration of the great and good Father of all blessings.
It is a sign of sin or selfishness or unbelief when the element of
praise fails in our worship. This is the purest and highest part of a
religious service, and it should take the first place in the
estimation of the worshippers. It will do so directly a right sense of
the goodness of God is attained. Surely the best worship is that in
which man's needs and hopes and fears are all swallowed up in the
vision of God's love and glory, as the fields and woods are lost in a
dim purple haze when the sky is aglow with the rose and saffron of a
brilliant sunset.

Further, it is to be observed that a note of gladness rings through
the whole ceremony. The account of the dedication concludes with the
perfectly jubilant verse, "And they offered great sacrifices that day,
and rejoiced; for God had made them rejoice with great joy; and the
women also and the children rejoiced: so that the joy of Jerusalem was
heard even afar off."[253] The joy would be mingled with the praise,
because when people see the goodness of God enough to praise Him from
their hearts they cannot but rejoice; and then the joy would react on
the praise, because the more blessedness God sends the more heartily
must His grateful children thank Him. Now the outburst of joy was
accompanied with sacrifices. In the deepest sense, a sense almost
unknown till it was revealed by Christ, there is a grand, solemn joy
in sacrifice. But even to those who have only reached the Jewish
standpoint, the self-surrender expressed by a ceremonial sacrifice as
a symbol of glad thankfulness in turn affects the offerer so as to
heighten his gladness. No doubt there were mundane and secular
elements in this joy of a jubilant city. A laborious and dangerous
task had been completed; the city had been fortified and made able to
defend itself against the horrors of an assault; there was a fair
prospect of comfort and perhaps even honour for the oppressed and
despised citizens of Jerusalem. But beyond all this and beneath it,
doubtless many had discovered Nehemiah's great secret for themselves;
they had found their strength in the joy of the Lord. In face of
heathenish pleasures and superstitious terrors it was much to know
that God expected His holy people to be happy, and more, to find that
the direct road to happiness was holiness. This was the best part of
the joy which all the people experienced with more or less thought and
appreciation of its meaning. Joy is contagious. Here was a city full
of gladness. Nehemiah expressly takes note of the fact that the women
and children shared in the universal joy. They must have been among
the most pitiable sufferers in the previous calamities; and they had
taken their place in the great _Ecclesia_ when The Law was read, and
again when the sad confession of the nation's sin was poured forth. It
was well that they should not be left out of the later scene, when joy
and praise filled the stage. For children especially who would not
covet this gladness in religion? It is only a miserable
short-sightedness that allows any one to put before children ideas of
God and spiritual things which must repel, because of their gloom and
sternness. Let us reserve these ideas for the castigation of
Pharisees. A scene of joyous worship is truly typical of the perfect
City of God of which children are the typical citizens--the New
Jerusalem of whose inhabitants it is said, "God shall wipe away all
tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither
sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain; for the
former things are passed away."

  [253] Neh. xii. 43.

Lastly, following his extract from the memoirs of Nehemiah, the
chronicler shows how the glad spirit of this great day of dedication
flowed out and manifested itself in those engagements to which he was
always delighted to turn--the Levitical services. Thus the tithe
gathering and the temple psalmody were helped forward. The gladness of
religion is not confined to set services of public worship; but when
those services are held it must flood them with the music of praise.
It is impossible for the worship of God's house to be limp and
depressed when the souls of His children are joyous and eager. A
half-hearted, melancholy faith may be content with neglected churches
and slovenly services--but not a joyous religion which men and women
love and glory in. While "The joy of the Lord" has many happy effects
on the world, it also crowds churches, fills treasuries, sustains
various ministries, inspires hymns of praise, and brings life and
vigour into all the work of religion.



CHAPTER XXX.

_THE RIGOUR OF THE REFORMER._

NEHEMIAH xiii.


There is no finality in history. The chapter that seems to be rounded
on with a perfect conclusion always leaves room for an appendix, which
in its turn may serve as an introduction to another chapter. Ezra's
and Nehemiah's work seemed to have reached its climax in the happy
scene of the dedication of the walls. All difficulties had vanished;
the new order had been greeted with widespread enthusiasm; the future
promised to be smooth and prosperous. If the chronicler had laid down
his pen at this point, as any dramatist before Ibsen who was not bound
by the exigencies of prosaic facts would have done, his work might
have presented a much more artistic appearance than it now wears. And
yet it would have been artificial, and therefore false to the highest
art of history. In adding a further extract from Nehemiah's memoirs
that discloses a revival of the old troubles, and so shows that the
evils against which the reformers contended had not been stamped out,
the writer mars the literary effect of his record of their triumph;
but, at the same time, he satisfies us that he is in contact with real
life, its imperfections and its disappointments.

It is not easy to settle the time of the incident mentioned in
chapter xiii. 1-3. The phrase "on that day" with which the passage
opens seems to point back to the previous chapter. If so it cannot be
taken literally, because what it describes must be assigned to a later
period than the contents of the paragraph that follows it. It forms an
introduction to the extract from Nehemiah's memoirs, and its
chronological position is even later than the date of the first part
of the extract, because that begins with the words "And before
this,"[254] _i.e._, before the incident that opens the chapter. Now it
is clear that Nehemiah's narrative here refers to a time considerably
after the transactions of the previous chapter, inasmuch as he states
that when the first of the occurrences he now records happened he was
away in the court of Artaxerxes.[255] Still later, then, must that
event be placed _before_ which this new incident occurred. We might
perhaps suppose that the phrase "at that day" is carried over directly
from the chronicler's original source and belongs to its antecedents
in that document; but so clumsy a piece of joinery is scarcely
admissible. It is better to take the phrase quite generally. Whatever
it meant when first penned, it is clear that the events it introduces
belong only indefinitely to the times previously mentioned. We are
really landed by them in a new state of affairs. Here we must notice
that the introductory passage is immediately connected with the
Nehemiah record. It tells how the law from Deuteronomy requiring the
exclusion of the Ammonite and the Moabite was read and acted on. This
is to be remembered when we are studying the subsequent events.

  [254] Neh. xiii. 4.

  [255] Neh. xiii. 6.

When Nehemiah's extended leave of absence had come to an end, or when
perhaps he had been expressly summoned back by Artaxerxes, his return
to Babylon was followed by a melancholy relapse in the reformed city
of Jerusalem. This is not by any means astonishing. Nothing so hinders
and distresses the missionary as the repeated outbreak of their old
heathen vices among his converts. The drunkard cannot be reckoned safe
directly he has signed the pledge. Old habits may be damped down
without being extinguished, and when this is the case they will flame
up again as soon as the repressive influence is removed. In the
present instance there was a distinct party in the city, consisting of
some of the most prominent and influential citizens, which disapproved
of the separatist, puritanical policy of the reformers and advocated a
more liberal course. Some of its members may have been conscientious
men, who honestly deplored what they would regard as the disastrous
state of isolation brought about by the action of Ezra and Nehemiah.
After having been silenced for a time by the powerful presence of the
great reformers, these people would come out and declare themselves
when the restraining influences were removed. Meanwhile we hear no
more of Ezra. Like Zerubbabel in the earlier period, he drops out of
the history without a hint as to his end. He may have returned to
Babylon, thinking his work complete; possibly he had been recalled by
the king.

It is likely that some rumours of the declension of Jerusalem reached
Nehemiah at the Persian court. But he did not discover the whole
extent of this retrograde movement until he was once more in the city,
with a second leave of absence from Artaxerxes. Then there were four
evils that he perceived with great grief.

The first was that Tobiah had got a footing in the city. In the
earlier period this "servant" had been carrying on intrigues with some
members of the aristocracy. The party of opposition had done its best
to represent him in a favourable light to Nehemiah, and all the while
this party had been traitorously keeping Tobiah informed of the state
of affairs in the city. But now a further step was taken. Though one
of the three leading enemies of Nehemiah, the ally and supporter of
the Samaritan governor Sanballat, this man was actually permitted to
have a lodging in the precincts of the temple. The locality was
selected, doubtless, because it was within the immediate jurisdiction
of the priests, among whom the Jewish opponents of Nehemiah were
found. It is as though, in his quarrel with Henry, Thomas à Becket had
lodged a papal envoy in the cathedral close at Canterbury. To a Jew
who did not treat the ordinances of religion with the Sadducean laxity
that was always to be found in some of the leading members of the
priesthood, this was most abhorrent. He saw in it a defilement of the
neighbourhood of the temple, if not of the sacred enclosure itself, as
well as an insult to the former governor of the city. Tobiah may have
used his room for the purpose of entertaining visitors in state; but
it may only have been a warehouse for trade stores, as it had
previously been a place in which the bulky sacrificial gifts were
stowed away. Such a degradation of it, superseding its previous sacred
use, would aggravate the evil in the sight of so strict a man as
Nehemiah.

The outrage was easily accounted for. Tobiah was allied by marriage to
the priest who was the steward of this chamber. Thus we have a clear
case of trouble arising out of the system of foreign marriages which
Ezra had so strenuously opposed. It seems to have opened the eyes of
the younger reformer to the evil of these marriages, for hitherto we
have not found him taking any active part in furthering the action of
Ezra with regard to them. Possibly he had not come across an earlier
instance. But now it was plain enough that the effect was to bring a
pronounced enemy of all he loved and advocated into the heart of the
city, with the rights of a tenant, too, to back him up. If "evil
communications corrupt good manners," this was most injurious to the
cause of the reformation. The time had not arrived when a generous
spirit could dare to welcome all-comers to Jerusalem. The city was
still a fortress in danger of siege. More than that, it was a Church
threatened with dissolution by reason of the admission of unfit
members. Whatever we may say to the social and political aspects of
the case, ecclesiastically regarded, laxity at the present stage would
have been fatal to the future of Judaism, and the mere presence of
such a man as Tobiah, openly sanctioned by a leading priest, was a
glaring instance of laxity; Nehemiah was bound to stop the mischief.

The second evil was the neglect of the payments due to the Levites. It
is to be observed again that the Levites are most closely associated
with the reforming position. Religious laxity and indifference had had
an effect on the treasury for which these men were the collectors. The
financial thermometer is a very rough test of the spiritual condition
of a religious community, and we often read it erroneously, not only
because we cannot gauge the amount of sacrifice made by people in very
different circumstances, nor just because we are unable to discover
the motives that prompt the giving of alms "before men"; but also,
when every allowance is made for these causes of uncertainty, because
the gifts which are usually considered most generous rarely involve
enough strain and effort to bring the deepest springs of life into
play. And yet it must be allowed that a declining subscription list is
usually to be regarded as one sign of waning interest on the part of
the supporters of any public movement. When we consider the matter
from the other side, we must acknowledge that the best way to improve
the pecuniary position of any religious enterprise is not to work the
exhausted pump more vigorously, but to drive the well deeper and tap
the resources of generosity that lie nearer the heart--not to beg
harder, but to awaken a better spirit of devotion.

The third indication of backsliding that vexed the soul of Nehemiah
was Sabbath profanation. He saw labour and commerce both proceeding on
the day of rest--Jews treading the winepress, carrying the sheaves,
lading their asses, and bringing loads of wine, grapes, and figs, and
all sorts of wares, into Jerusalem for sale; and fishmongers and
pedlars from Tyre--not, of course, themselves to be blamed for failing
to respect the festival of a people whose religion they did not
share--pouring into the city, and opening their markets as on any
weekday. Nehemiah was greatly alarmed. He went at once to the nobles,
who seem to have been governing the city, as a sort of oligarchy,
during his absence, and expostulated with them on their danger of
provoking the wrath of God again, urging that Sabbath-breaking had
been one of the offences which had called down the judgment of Heaven
on their fathers. Then he took means to prevent the coming of foreign
traders on the Sabbath, by ordering the gates to be kept closed from
Friday evening till the sacred day was over. Once or twice these
people came up as usual, and camped just outside the city; but as this
was disturbing to the peace of the day, Nehemiah threatened that if
they repeated the annoyance he would lay hands on them. Lastly, he
charged the Levites, first to cleanse themselves that they might be
ready to undertake a work of purification, and then to take charge of
the gates on the Sabbath and see that the day was hallowed in the
cessation of all labour. Thus both by persuasion and by vigorous
active measures Nehemiah put an end to the disorder.

The importance attached to this matter is a sign of the prominence
given to Sabbath-keeping in Judaism. The same thing was seen earlier
in the selection of the law of the Sabbath as one of the two or three
rules to be specially noted, and to which the Jews were to
particularly pledge themselves in the covenant.[256] Reference was
then made to the very act of the Tyrians now complained of, the
offering of wares and food for sale in Jerusalem on the Sabbath day.
Putting these two passages together, we can see where the
Sabbath-breaking came from. It was the invasion of a foreign
custom--like the dreaded introduction of the "Continental Sunday" into
England. Now to Nehemiah the fact of the foreign origin of the custom
would be a heavy condemnation for it. Next to circumcision,
Sabbath-keeping was the principal mark of the Jew. In the days of our
Lord it was the most highly prized feature of the ancient faith. This
was then so obvious that it was laid hold of by Roman satirists, who
knew little about the strange traders in the _Ghetto_ except that
they "sabbatised." Nehemiah saw that if the sacred day of rest were to
be abandoned, one of his bulwarks of separation would be lost. Thus
for him, with his fixed policy, and in view of the dangers of his age,
there was a very urgent reason for maintaining the Sabbath, a reason
which of course does not apply to us in England to-day. We must pass
on to the teaching of Christ to have this question put on a wider and
more permanent basis. With that Divine insight of His which penetrated
to the root of every matter, our Lord saw through the miserable
formalism that made an idol of a day, and in so doing turned a boon
into a burden; at the same time He rescued the sublimely simple truth
which contains both the justification and the limitation of the
Sabbath, when He declared, "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man
for the Sabbath." In resisting the rigour of legal-minded
Sabbatarianism, the modern mind seems to have confined its attention
to the second clause of this great utterance, to the neglect of its
first clause. Is it nothing, then, that Jesus said, "The Sabbath was
made for man"--not for the _Jew_ only, but for _man_? Although we may
feel free from the religion of law in regard to the observance of days
as much as in other external matters, is it not foolish for us to
minimise a blessing that Jesus Christ expressly declared to be for the
good of the human race? If the rest day was needed by the Oriental in
the slow-moving life of antiquity, is it any less requisite for the
Western in the rush of these later times? But if it is necessary to
our welfare, the neglect of it is sinful. Thus not because of the
inherent sanctity of seasons, but on our Lord's own ground of the
highest utilitarianism--a utilitarianism which reaches to other
people, and even to animals, and affects the soul as well as the
body--the reservation of one day in seven for rest is a sacred duty.
"The world is too much with us" for the six days. We can ill afford to
lose the recurrent escape from its blighting companionship originally
provided by the seventh and now enjoyed on our Sunday.

  [256] Neh. x. 31.

Lastly, Nehemiah was confronted by the social effects of foreign
marriage alliances. These alliances had been contracted by Jews
resident in the south-western corner of Judæa, who may not have come
under the influence of Ezra's drastic reformation in Jerusalem, and
who probably were not married till after that event. They afford
another evidence of the counter current that was running so strongly
against the regulations of the party of rigour while Nehemiah was
away. The laxity of the border people may be accounted for without
calling in any subtle motives. But their fault was shared by a member
of the _gens_ of the high-priest, who had actually wedded the daughter
of Nehemiah's arch-enemy Sanballat! Clearly this was a political
alliance, and it indicated a defiant reversal of the policy of the
reformers in the very highest circles. The offender, after being
expelled from Jerusalem, is said to have been the founder of the
Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim.

Then the social mischief of the mixed marriages was showing itself in
the corruption of the Hebrew language. The Philistine language was not
allied to the Egyptian, as some have thought, nor was it
Indo-Germanic, as others have supposed, but it was Semitic, and only a
different dialect from the Hebrew; and yet the difficulty persons from
the south of England feel in understanding the speech of Yorkshiremen
in remote parts of the county will help us to account for a practical
loss of mutual intelligence between people of different dialects,
when these dialects were still more isolated by having grown up in two
separate and hostile nations. For the children of Jewish parents to be
talking with the tones and accents of the hereditary enemies of Israel
was intolerable. When he heard the hated sounds, Nehemiah simply lost
his temper. With a curse on his lips he rushed at the fathers,
striking them and tearing their hair. It was the rage of bitter
disappointment; but behind it lay the grim set purpose in holding to
which with dogged tenacity Ezra and Nehemiah saved Judaism from
extinction. Separatism is never gracious; yet it may be right. The
reformer is not generally of a mild temperament. We may regret his
harshness; but we should remember that the world has only seen one
perfectly meek and yet thoroughly effective Revolutionist, only one
"Lamb of God" who could be also named "the Lion of the tribe of
Judah."

The whole situation was disappointing to Nehemiah, and his memoir ends
in a prayer beneath which we can detect an undertone of melancholy.
Three times during this last section he appeals to God to remember
him--not to wipe out his good deeds,[257] to spare him according to
the greatness of the Divine mercy,[258] and finally to remember him
for good.[259] The memories of the Jerusalem covenanters had been
brief; during the short interval of their leader's absence they had
forgotten his discipline and fallen back into negligent ways. It was
vain to trust to the fickle fancies of men. With a sense of weary
loneliness, taught to feel his own insignificance in that great tide
of human life that flows on in its own course though the most
prominent figures drop out of notice, Nehemiah turned to his God, the
one Friend who never forgets. He was learning the vanity of the
world's fame; yet he shrank from the idea of falling into oblivion.
Therefore it was his prayer that he might abide in the memory of God.
This was by itself a restful thought. It is cheering to think that we
may dwell in the memory of those we love. But to be held in the
thought of God is to have a place in the heart of infinite love. And
yet this was not the conclusion of the whole matter to Nehemiah. It is
really nothing better than a frivolous vanity, that can induce any one
to be willing to sacrifice the prospect of a real eternal life in
exchange for the pallid shadow of immortality ascribed to the "choir
invisible" of those who are only thought of as living in the memory of
the world they have influenced enough to win "a niche in the temple of
fame." What is fame to a dead man mouldering in his coffin? Even the
higher thought of being remembered by God is a poor consolation in
prospect of blank non-existence. Nehemiah expects something better,
for he begs God to remember him in _mercy_ and for _good_. It is a
very narrow, prosaic interpretation of this prayer to say that he only
means that he desires a blessing during the remainder of his life in
the court at Susa. On the other hand, it may be too much to ascribe
the definite hope of a future life to this Old Testament saint. And
yet, vague as his thought may be, it is the utterance of a profound
yearning of the soul that breaks out in moments of disappointment with
an intensity never to be satisfied within the range of our cramped
mortal state. In this utterance of Nehemiah we have, at least, a seed
thought that should germinate into the great hope of immortality. If
God could forget His children, we might expect them to perish, swept
aside like the withered leaves of autumn. But if He continues to
remember them, it is not just to His Fatherhood to charge Him with
permitting such a fate to fall upon His offspring. No human father who
is worthy of the name would willingly let go the children whom he
cherishes in mind and heart. Is it reasonable to suppose that the
perfect Divine Father, who is both almighty and all-loving, would be
less constant? But if He _remembers_ His children, and remembers them
_for good_, He will surely preserve them. If His memory is unfading,
and if His love and power are eternal, those who have a place in His
immortal thought must also have a share in His immortal life.

  [257] Neh. xiii. 14.

  [258] Neh. xiii. 22.

  [259] Neh. xiii. 31.



CHAPTER XXXI.

_THE BOOK OF ESTHER: INTRODUCTORY._


There is a striking contrast between the high estimation in which the
Book of Esther is now cherished among the Jews and the slighting
treatment that is often meted out to it in the Christian Church.
According to the great Maimonides, though the Prophets and the
Hagiographa will pass away when the Messiah comes, this one book will
share with The Law in the honour of being retained. It is known as
"The Roll" _par excellence_, and the Jews have a proverb, "The
Prophets may fail, but not The Roll." The peculiar importance attached
to the book may be explained by its use in the Feast of Purim--the
festival which is supposed to commemorate the deliverance of the Jews
from the murderous designs of Haman, and their triumph over their
Gentile enemies--for it is then read through in the synagogue. On the
other hand, the grave doubts which were once felt by some of the Jews
have been retained and even strengthened in the Christian Church.
Esther was omitted from the Canon by some of the Oriental Fathers.
Luther, with the daring freedom he always manifested in pronouncing
sentence on the books of the Bible, after referring to the Second Book
of Maccabees, says, "I am so hostile to this book and that of Esther,
that I wish they did not exist; they are too Judaising, and contain
many heathenish improprieties." In our own day two classes of
objections have been raised.

The first is historical. By many the Book of Esther is regarded as a
fantastic romance; by some it is even relegated to the category of
astronomical myths; and by others it is considered to be a mystical
allegory. Even the most sober criticism is troubled at its contents.
There can be no question that the Ahasuerus (_Ahashverosh_) of Esther
is the well-known Xerxes of history, the invader of Greece who is
described in the pages of Herodotus. But then, it is asked, what room
have we for the story of Esther in the life of that monarch? His wife
was a cruel and superstitious woman, named Amestris. We cannot
identify her with Esther, because she was the daughter of one of the
Persian generals, and also because she was married to Xerxes many
years before the date of Esther's appearance on the scene. Two of her
sons accompanied the expedition to Greece, which must have preceded
the introduction of Esther to the harem. Moreover, it was contrary to
law for a Persian sovereign to take a wife except from his own family,
or from one of five noble families. Can Amestris be identified with
Vashti? If so, it is certain that she must have been restored to
favour, because Amestris held the queen's place in the later years of
Xerxes, when the uxorious monarch came more and more under her
influence. Esther, it is clear, can only have been a secondary wife in
the eyes of the law, whatever position she may have held for a season
in the court of the king. The predecessors of Xerxes had several
wives; our narrative makes it evident that Ahasuerus followed the
Oriental custom of keeping a large harem. To Esther, at best,
therefore, must be assigned the place of a favourite member of the
seraglio.

Then it is difficult to think that Esther would not have been
recognised as a Jewess by Haman, since the nationality of Mordecai,
whose relationship to her had not been hidden, was known in the city
of Susa. Moreover, the appalling massacre of "their enemies" by the
Jews, carried on in cold blood, and expressly including "women and
children," has been regarded as highly improbable. Finally, the whole
story is so well knit together, its successive incidents arrange
themselves so perfectly and lead up to the conclusion with such neat
precision, that it is not easy to assign it to the normal course of
events. We do not expect to meet with this sort of thing outside the
realm of fairy tales. Putting all these facts together, we must feel
that there is some force in the contention that the book is not
strictly historical.

But there is another side to the question. This book is marvellously
true to Persian manners. It is redolent of the atmosphere of the court
at Susa. Its accuracy in this respect has been traced down to the most
minute details. The character of Ahasuerus is drawn to the life; point
after point in it may be matched in the Xerxes of Herodotus. The
opening sentence of the book shows that it was written some time after
the date of the king in whose reign the story is set, because it
describes him in language only suited to a later period--"this is
Ahasuerus which reigned from India unto Ethiopia," etc. But the writer
could not have been far removed from the Persian period. The book
bears evidence of having been written in the heart of Persia, by a man
who was intimately acquainted with the scenery he described. There
seems to be some reason for believing in the substantial accuracy of
a narrative that is so true to life in these respects.

The simplest way out of the dilemma is to suppose that the story of
Esther stands upon a historical basis of fact, and that it has been
worked up into its present literary form by a Jew of later days who
was living in Persia, and who was perfectly familiar with the records
and traditions of the reign of Xerxes. It is only an unwarrantable, _a
priori_ theory that can be upset by our acceptance of this conclusion.
We have no right to demand that the Bible shall not contain anything
but what is strictly historical. The Book of Job has long been
accepted as a sublime poem, founded on fact perhaps, but owing its
chief value to the divinely inspired thoughts of its author. The Book
of Jonah is regarded by many cautious and devout readers as an
allegory replete with important lessons concerning a very ugly aspect
of Jewish selfishness. These two works are not the less valuable
because men are coming to understand that their places in the library
of the Hebrew Canon are not among the strict records of history. And
the Book of Esther need not be dishonoured when some room is allowed
for the play of the creative imagination of its author. In these days
of the theological novel we are scarcely in a position to object to
what may be thought to partake of the character of a romance, even if
it is found in the Bible. No one asks whether our Lord's parable of
the Prodigal Son was a true story of some Galilean family. The
Pilgrim's Progress has its mission, though it is not to be verified by
any authentic Annals of Elstow. It is rather pleasing than otherwise
to see that the compilers of the Jewish Canon were not prevented by
Providence from including a little anticipation of that work of the
imagination which has blossomed so abundantly in the highest and best
culture of our own day.

A much more serious objection is urged on religious and moral grounds.
It is indisputable that the book is not characterised by the pure and
lofty spirit that gives its stamp to most of the other contents of the
Bible. The absence of the name of God from its pages has been often
commented on. The Jews long ago recognised this fact, and they tried
to discover the sacred name in acrostic form at one or two places
where the initial letters of a group of words were found to spell it.
But quite apart from all such fantastic trifling, it has been
customary to argue that, though unnamed, the presence of God is felt
throughout the story in the wonderful Providence that protects the
Jews and frustrates the designs of their arch-enemy Haman. The
difficulty, however, is wider and deeper. There is no reference to
religion, it is said, even where it is most called for; no reference
to prayer in the hour of danger, when prayer should have been the
first resource of a devout soul; in fact no indication of devoutness
of thought or conduct. Mordecai fasts; we are not told that he prays.
The whole narrative is immersed in a secular atmosphere. The religious
character of apocryphal additions that were inserted by later hands is
a tacit witness to a deficiency felt by pious Jews.

These charges have been met by the hypothesis that the author found it
necessary to disguise his religious beliefs in a work that was to come
under the eyes of heathen readers. Still we cannot imagine that an
Isaiah or an Ezra would have treated his subject in the style of our
author. It must be admitted that we have a composition on a lower
plane than that of the prophetic and priestly histories of Israel. The
theory that all parts of the Bible are inspired with an equal measure
of the Divine Spirit halts at this point. But what was to prevent a
composition analogous to secular literature taking its place in the
Hebrew Scriptures? Have we any evidence that the obscure scribes who
arranged the Canon were infallibly inspired to include only devotional
works? It is plain that the Book of Esther was valued on national
rather than on religious grounds. The Feast of Purim was a social and
national occasion of rejoicing, not a solemn religious ceremony like
the Passover; and this document obtains its place of honour through
its connection with the feast. The book, then, stands to the Hebrew
Psalms somewhat as Macaulay's ballad of the Armada stands to the hymns
of Watts and the Wesleys. It is mainly patriotic rather than
religious; its purpose is to stir the soul of national enthusiasm
through the long ages of the oppression of Israel.

It is not just, however, to assert that there are no evidences of
religious faith in the story of Esther. Mordecai warns his cousin that
if she will not exert herself to defend her people, "then shall there
relief and deliverance arise to the Jews _from another place_."[260]
What can this be but a reserved utterance of a devout man's faith in
that Providence which has always followed the "favoured people"?
Moreover, Mordecai seems to perceive a Divine destiny in the
exaltation of Esther when he asks, "And who knoweth whether thou art
come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"[261] The old
commentators were not wrong when they saw the hand of Providence in
the whole story. If we are to allow some licence to the imagination of
the author in the shaping and arrangement of the narrative, we must
assign to him also a real faith in Providence, for he describes a
wonderful interlinking of events all leading up to the deliverance of
the Jews. Long before Haman has any quarrel with Mordecai, the
disgusting degradation of a drinking bout issues in an insult offered
to a favourite queen. This shameful occurrence is the occasion of the
selection of a Jewess, whose high position at court thus acquired
enables her to save her people. But there is a secondary plot.
Mordecai's discovery of the conspirators who would have assassinated
Ahasuerus gives him a claim on the king's generosity, and so prepares
the way, not only for his escape from the clutches of Haman, but also
for his triumph over his enemy. And this is brought about--as we
should say--"by accident." If Xerxes had not had a sleepless night
just at the right time, if the part of his state records selected for
reading to him in his wakefulness had not been just that which told
the story of Mordecai's great service, the occasion for the turn in
the tide of the fortune of the Jews would not have arisen. But all was
so fitted together as to lead step by step on to the victorious
conclusion. No Jew could have penned such a story as this without
having intended his co-religionists to recognise the unseen presence
of an over-ruling Providence throughout the whole course of events.

  [260] Esther iv. 14.

  [261] _Ibid._

But the gravest charge has yet to be considered. It is urged against
the Book of Esther that the moral tone of it is unworthy of Scripture.
It is dedicated to nothing higher than the exaltation of the Jews.
Other books of the Bible reveal God as the Supreme, and the Jews as
His servants, often His unworthy and unfaithful servants. This book
sets the Jews in the first place; and Providence, even if tacitly
recognised, is quite subservient to their welfare. Israel does not
here appear as living for the glory of God, but all history works for
the glory of Israel. In accordance with the spirit of the story,
everything that opposes the Jews is condemned, everything that favours
them is honoured. Worst of all, this practical deification of Israel
permits a tone of heartless cruelty. The doctrine of separatism is
monstrously exaggerated. The Jews are seen to be surrounded by their
"enemies." Haman, the chief of them, is not only punished as he richly
deserves to be punished, but he is made the recipient of unrestrained
scorn and rage, and his sons are impaled on their father's huge stake.
The Jews defend themselves from threatened massacre by a legalised
slaughter of their "enemies." We cannot imagine a scene more foreign
to the patience and gentleness inculcated by our Lord. Yet we must
remember that the quarrel did not begin with the Jews; or if we must
see the origin of it in the pride of a Jew, we must recollect that his
offence was slight and only the act of one man. As far as the
narrative shows, the Jews were engaged in their peaceable occupations
when they were threatened with extinction by a violent outburst of the
mad _Judenhetze_ that has pursued this unhappy people through all the
centuries of history. In the first instance, their act of vengeance
was a measure of self-defence. If they fell upon their enemies with
fierce anger, it was after an order of extermination had driven them
to bay. If they indulged in a wholesale bloodshed, not even sparing
women or children, exactly the same doom had been hanging over their
own heads, and their own wives and children had been included in its
ferocious sentence. This fact does not excuse the savagery of the
action of the Jews; but it amply accounts for their conduct. They were
wild with terror, and they defended their homes with the fury of
madmen. Their action did not go beyond the prayer of the Psalmist who
wrote, in trim metrical order, concerning the hated Babylon--

  "Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones
  Against the rock."[262]

  [262] Psalm cxxxvii. 9.

It is more difficult to account for the responsible part taken by
Mordecai and Esther in begging permission for this awful massacre. The
last pages of the Book of Esther reek with blood. A whole empire is
converted into shambles for human slaughter. We turn with loathing
from this gigantic horror, glad to take refuge in the hope that the
author has dipped his brush in darker colours than the real events
would warrant. Nevertheless such a massacre as this is unhappily not
at all beyond the known facts of history on other occasions--not in
its extent; the means by which it is here carried out are doubtless
exceptional. Xerxes himself was so heartless and so capricious that
any act of folly or wickedness could be credited of him.

After all that can be said for it, clearly this Book of Esther cannot
claim the veneration that we attach to the more choice utterances of
Old Testament literature. It never lifts us with the inspiration of
prophecy; it never commands the reverence which we feel in studying
the historical books. Yet we must not therefore assume that it has not
its use. It illustrates an important phase in the development of
Jewish life and thought. It also introduces us to characters and
incidents that reveal human nature in very various lights. To
contemplate such a revelation should not be without profit. After the
Bible, what book should we regard as, on the whole, most serviceable
for our enlightenment and nurture? Since next to the knowledge of God
the knowledge of man is most important, might we not assign this
second place of honour to the works of Shakespeare rather than to any
theological treatise? And if so may we not be grateful that something
after the order of a Shakespearian revelation of man is contained even
in one book of the Bible?

It may be best to treat a book of this character in a different manner
from the weighty historical work that precedes it, and, instead of
expounding its chapters seriatim, to gather up its lessons in a series
of brief character studies.



CHAPTER XXXII.

_AHASUERUS AND VASHTI._

ESTHER i.


The character of Ahasuerus illustrates the Nemesis of absolutism, by
showing how unlimited power is crushed and dissolved beneath the
weight of its own immensity. The very vastness of his domains
overwhelms the despot. While he thinks himself free to disport
according to his will, he is in reality the slave of his own machinery
of government. He is so entirely dependent for information on
subordinates, who can deceive him to suit their own private ends, that
he often becomes a mere puppet of the political wire-pullers. In the
fury of his passion he issues his terrible mandates, with the
confidence of a master whose slightest whim is a law to the nations,
and yet that very passion has been cleverly worked up by some of his
servants, who are laughing in their sleeves at the simplicity of their
dupe, even while they are fawning on him with obsequious flattery. In
the story of Esther Ahasuerus is turned about hither and thither by
his courtiers, according as one or another is clever enough to obtain
a temporary hearing. In the opening scene he is the victim of a harem
plot which deprives him of his favourite consort. Subsequently Haman
poisons his mind with calumnies about a loyal, industrious section of
his subjects. He is only undeceived by another movement in the harem.
Even the jealously guarded women of the royal household know more of
the actual state of affairs in the outside world than the bewildered
monarch. The king is so high above his realm that he cannot see what
is going on in it; and all that he can learn about it passes through
such a variety of intermediary agents that it is coloured and
distorted in the process.

But this is not all. The man who is exalted to the pedestal of a god
is made dizzy by his own altitude. Absolutism drove the Roman Emperor
Caligula mad; it punished the Xerxes of Herodotus with childishness.
The silly monarch who would decorate a tree with the jewellery of a
prince in reward for its fruitfulness, and flog and chain the
Hellespont as a punishment for its tempestuousness, is not fit to be
let out of the nursery. Such conduct as his discovers an ineptitude
that is next door to idiocy. When the same man appears on the pages of
Scripture under the name of Ahasuerus, his weakness is despicable. The
most keen-sighted ruler of millions is liable to be misinformed; the
strongest administrator of a gigantic empire is compelled to move with
difficulty in the midst of the elaborate organisation of his
government. But Ahasuerus is neither keen-sighted nor strong. He is a
victim of the last court intrigue, a believer in the idlest gossip;
and he is worse, for even on the suppositions presented to him he
behaves with folly and senseless fury. His conduct to Vashti is first
insulting and then ungrateful; for fidelity to her worthless husband
would prompt her to decline to risk herself among a crew of drunken
revellers. His consent to the diabolical proposal of his grand vizier
for a massacre, without an atom of proof that the victims are guilty,
exhibits a hopeless state of mental feebleness. His equal readiness to
transfer the mandate of wholesale murder to persons described
indefinitely as the "enemies" of these people shows how completely he
is twisted about by the latest breeze. As the palace plots develop we
see this great king in all his pride and majesty tossed to and fro
like a shuttle-cock. And yet he can sting. It is a dangerous game for
the players, and the object of it is to get the deadly venom of the
royal rage to light on the head of the opposite party. We could not
have a more certain proof of the vanity of "ambition that o'erleaps
itself" than this conversion of immeasurable power into helpless
weakness on the part of the Persian sovereign.

We naturally start with this glaring exhibition of the irony of fate
in our study of Ahasuerus, because it is the most pronounced factor in
his character and career. There are other elements of the picture,
however, which are not, like this, confined to the abnormal experience
of solitary rulers. Next to the revenge of absolutism on its
possessor, the more vulgar effects of extravagant luxury and
self-indulgence are to be seen in the degraded Persian court life.
Very likely the writer of our Book of Esther introduces these matters
with the primary object of enhancing the significance of his main
theme by making us feel how great a danger the Jews were in, and how
magnificent a triumph was won for them by the heroic Jewess of the
harem. But the scene that he thus brings before us throws light on the
situation all round. Xerxes' idea of unbridled power is that it admits
of unlimited pleasure. Our author's picture of the splendid palace,
with its richly coloured awnings stretched across from marble pillars
to silver rods over the tesselated pavement, where the most exalted
guests recline in the shade on gold and silver seats, while they feast
hugely and drink heavily day after day, shows us how the provinces
were being drained to enrich the court, and how the royal treasury was
being lavished on idle festivity. That was bad enough, but its effects
were worse. The law was licence. "The drinking was according to the
law," and this law was that there should be no limit to it, everybody
taking just as much wine as he pleased. Naturally such a rule
ostentatiously paraded before a dissolute company led to a scene of
downright bestial debauchery. According to Herodotus, the Persians
were addicted to drunkenness, and the incident described in the first
chapter of Esther is quite in accordance with the Greek historian's
account of the followers of Xerxes.

The worst effect of this vice of drunkenness is its degrading
influence on the conduct and character of men. It robs its victims of
self-respect and manliness, and sends them to wallow in the mire with
swinish obscenity. What they would not dream of stooping to in their
sober moments, they revel in with shameless ostentation when their
brains are clouded with intoxicating drink. Husbands, who are gentle
and considerate at other times, are then transformed into brutes, who
can take pleasure in trampling on their wives. It is no excuse to
plead that the drunkard is a madman unaccountable for his actions; he
is accountable for having put himself in his degraded condition. If he
is temporarily insane, he has poisoned his own intellect by swallowing
a noxious drug with his eyes open. He is responsible for that action,
and therefore he must be held to be responsible for its consequences.
If he had given due consideration to his conduct, he might have
foreseen whither it was tending. The man who has been foolish enough
to launch his boat on the rapids cannot divert its course when he is
startled by the thunder of the falls he is approaching; but he should
have thought of that before leaving the safety of the shore.

The immediate consequence of the disgusting degradation of
drunkenness, in the case of Ahasuerus, is that the monarch grossly
insults his queen. A moment's consideration would have suggested the
danger as well as the scandal of his behaviour. But in his heedless
folly the debauchee hurls himself over the precipice, from the height
of his royal dignity down to the very pit of ignominy, and then he is
only enraged that Vashti refuses to be dragged down with him. It is a
revolting scene, and one to show how the awful vice of drunkenness
levels all distinctions; here it outrages the most sacred rules of
Oriental etiquette. The seclusion of the harem is to be violated for
the amusement of the dissolute king's boon companions.

In the story of Esther poor Vashti's fall is only introduced in order
to make way for her Hebrew rival. But after ages have naturally sided
with the wronged queen. Was it true modesty that prompted her daring
refusal, or the lawful pride of womanhood? If so, all women should
honour Vashti as the vindicator of their dues. Whatever "woman's
rights" may be maintained in the field of politics, the very existence
of the home, the basis of society itself, depends on those more
profound and inalienable rights that touch the character of pure
womanliness. The first of a woman's rights is the right to her own
person. But this right is ignored in Oriental civilisation. The sweet
English word "home" is unknown in the court of such a king as
Ahasuerus. To think of it in this connection is as incongruous as to
imagine a daisy springing up through the boards of a dancing saloon.
The unhappy Vashti had never known this choicest of words; but she may
have had a due conception of a woman's true dignity, as far as the
perverted ideas of the East permitted. And yet even here a painful
suspicion obtrudes itself on our notice. Vashti had been feasting with
the women of the harem when she received the brutal mandate from her
lord. Had she too lost her balance of judgment under the bewitching
influence of the wine-cup? Was she rendered reckless by the excitement
of her festivities? Was her refusal the result of the factitious
courage that springs from an unwholesome excitement or an equally
effective mental stupor? Since one of the commonest results of
intoxication is a quarrelsomeness of temper, it must be admitted that
Vashti's flat refusal to obey may have some connection with her
previous festivities. In that case, of course, something must be
detracted from her glory as the martyr of womanliness. A horrible
picture is this--a drunken king quarrelling with his drunken queen;
these two people, set in the highest places in their vast realm,
descending from the very pinnacle of greatness to grovel in debased
intemperance! It would not be fair to the poor, wronged queen to
assert so much without any clear evidence in support of the darker
view of her conduct. Still it must be admitted that it is difficult
for any of the members of a dissolute society to keep their garments
clean. Unhappily it is only too frequently the case that, even in a
Christian land, womanhood is degraded by becoming the victim of
intemperance. No sight on earth is more sickening. A woman may be
loaded with insults, and yet she may keep her soul white as the soul
of St. Agnes. It is not an outrage on her dignity, offered by the
drunken king to his queen, that really marks her degradation. To all
fair judgments, that only degrades the brute who offers it; but the
white lily is bruised and trampled in the dust when she who wears it
herself consents to fling it away.

The action of Ahasuerus on receipt of his queen's refusal reveals
another trait in his weak character. Jealous eyes--always watching the
favourite of the harem--discover an opportunity for a gleeful triumph.
The advisers of the king are cunning enough to set the action of
Vashti in the light of a public example. If a woman in so exalted a
position is permitted to disobey her husband with impunity, other
wives will appeal to her case and break out of bounds. It is a mean
plea, the plea of weakness on the part of the speaker, Memucan, the
last of the seven princes. Is this man only finding an excuse for the
king? or may it be supposed that his thoughts are travelling away to a
shrew in his own home? The strange thing is that the king is not
content wreaking his vengeance on the proud Vashti. He is persuaded to
utilise the occasion of her act of insubordination in order to issue a
decree commanding the subjection of all wives to their husbands. The
queen's conduct is treated as an instance of a growing spirit of
independence on the part of the women of Persia, which must be crushed
forthwith. One would think that the women were slaves, and that the
princes were acting like the Romans when they issued repressive
measures from dread of a "Servile War."

If such a law as this had ever been passed, we might well understand
the complaint of those who say it is unjust that the function of
legislation should be monopolised by one sex. Even in the West, where
women are comparatively free and are supposed to be treated on an
equality with men, wrong is often done because the laws which concern
them more especially are all made by men. In the East, where they are
regarded as property, like their husbands' camels and oxen, cruel
injustice is inevitable. But this injustice cannot go unpunished. It
must react on its perpetrators, blunting their finer feelings,
lowering their better nature, robbing them of those sacred confidences
of husband and wife which never spring up on the territory of the
slave-driver.

But we have only to consider the domestic edict of Ahasuerus to see
its frothy vanity. When it was issued it must have struck everybody
who had the faintest sense of humour as simply ridiculous. It is not
by the rough instrumentality of the law that difficult questions of
the relations between the sexes can be adjusted. The law can see that
a formal contract is not violated with impunity. The law can protect
the individual parties to the contract from the most brutal forms of
cruelty--though even this is very difficult between husband and wife.
But the law cannot secure real justice in the home. This must be left
to the working of principles of righteousness and to the mutual
considerateness of those who are concerned. Where these elements are
wanting, no legislation on matrimony can restore the peace of a
shattered home.

The order of Ahasuerus, however, was too indefinite to have very
serious results. The tyrannical husband would not have waited for any
such excuse as it might afford him for exacting obedience from his
oppressed household drudge. The strong-minded woman would mock at the
king's order, and have her own way as before who could hinder her?
Certainly not her husband. The yoke of years of meek submission was
not to be broken in a day by a royal proclamation. But wherever the
true idea of marriage was realised--and we must have sufficient faith
in human nature to be assured that this was sometimes the case even in
the realm of Xerxes--the husband and wife who knew themselves to be
one, united by the closest ties of love and sympathy and mutual
confidence, would laugh in their happiness and perhaps spare a thought
of pity for the poor, silly king who was advertising his domestic
troubles to the world, and thereby exhibiting his shallow notions of
wedded life--blind, absolutely blind, to the sweet secret that was
heaven to them.

We may be sure that the singular edict remained a dead letter. But the
king would be master in his own palace. So Vashti fell. We hear no
more of her but we can guess too well what her most probable fate must
have been.[263] The gates of death are never difficult to find in an
Oriental palace; there are always jealous rivals eager to triumph over
the fall of a royal favourite. Still Ahasuerus had been really fond of
the queen who paid so dearly for her one act of independence.
Repenting of his drunken rage, the king let his thoughts revert to his
former favourite, a most dangerous thing for those who had hastened
her removal. The easiest escape for them was to play on his coarse
nature by introducing to his notice a bevy of girls from whom he might
select a new favourite. This was by no means a dignified proceeding
for Esther, the maiden to whom the first prize in the exhibition of
beauty was awarded by the royal fancier. But it gave her the place of
power from which to help her people in their hour of desperate need.
And here we come to some redeeming features in the character of the
king. He is not lacking in generosity; and he owns to a certain sense
of justice. In the crowd of royal cares and pleasures, he has
forgotten how an obscure Jew saved his life by revealing one of the
many plots that make the pleasures of a despot as hollow a mockery as
the feast of Damocles. On the chance discovery of his negligence,
Ahasuerus hastens to atone for it with ostentatious generosity. Again,
no sooner does he find that he has been duped by Haman into an act of
cruel injustice than he tries to counteract the mischief by an equally
savage measure of retaliation. A strange way of administering justice!
Yet it must be admitted that in this the capricious, blundering king
means honestly. The bitter irony of it all is that so awful a power of
life and death should be lodged in the hands of one who is so totally
incapacitated for a wise use of it.

  [263] On the supposition that the writer is not here recording
  historical facts in the life of Amestris, the real queen of Xerxes,
  who we know was not murdered.



CHAPTER XXXIII.

_HAMAN._

ESTHER iii. 1-6; v. 9-14; vii. 5-10.


Haman is the Judas of Israel. Not that his conduct or his place in
history would bring him into comparison with the traitor apostle, for
he was an open foe and a foreigner. But he is treated by popular
Judaism as the Arch-Enemy, just as Judas is treated by popular
Christianity. Like Judas, he has assigned to him a solitary
pre-eminence in wickedness, which is almost inhuman. As in the case of
Judas, there is thought to be no call for charity or mercy in judging
Haman. He shares with Judas the curse of Cain. Boundless execration is
heaped on his head. Horror and hatred have almost transformed him into
Satan. He is called The "Agagite," an obscure title which is best
explained as a later Jewish nickname derived from a reference to the
king of Amalek who was hewn in pieces before the Lord. In the
Septuagint he is surnamed "The Macedonian," because when that version
was made the enemies of Israel were the representatives of the empire
of Alexander and his successors. During the dramatic reading of the
Book of Esther in a Jewish synagogue at the Feast of Purim, the
congregation may be found taking the part of a chorus and exclaiming
at every mention of the name of Haman, "May his name be blotted out,"
"Let the name of the ungodly perish," while boys with mallets will
pound stones and bits of wood on which the odious name is written.
This frantic extravagance would be unaccountable but for the fact that
the people whose "badge is sufferance" has summed up under the name of
the Persian official the malignity of their enemies in all ages. Very
often this name has served to veil a dangerous reference to some
contemporary foe, or to heighten the rage felt against an
exceptionally odious person by its accumulation of traditional hatred,
just as in England on the fifth of November the "Guy" may represent
some unpopular person of the day.

When we turn from this unamiable indulgence of spiteful passion to the
story that lies behind it, we have enough that is odious without the
conception of a sheer monster of wickedness, a very demon. Such a
being would stand outside the range of human motives, and we could
contemplate him with unconcern and detachment of mind, just as we
contemplate the destructive forces of nature. There is a common
temptation to clear ourselves of all semblance to the guilt of very
bad people by making it out to be inhuman. It is more humiliating to
discover that they act from quite human motives--nay, that those very
motives may be detected, though with other bearings, even in our own
conduct. For see what were the influences that stirred in the heart of
Haman. He manifests by his behaviour the intimate connection between
vanity and cruelty.

The first trait in his character to reveal itself is vanity, a most
inordinate vanity. Haman is introduced at the moment when he has been
exalted to the highest position under the king of Persia; he has just
been made grand vizier. The tremendous honour turns his brain. In the
consciousness of it he swells out with vanity. As a necessary
consequence he is bitterly chagrined when a porter does not do homage
to him as to the king. His elation is equally extravagant when he
discovers that he is to be the only subject invited to meet Ahasuerus
at Esther's banquet. When the king inquires how exceptional honour is
to be shown to some one whose name is not yet revealed, this
infatuated man jumps to the conclusion that it can be for nobody but
himself. In all his behaviour we see that he is just possessed by an
absorbing spirit of vanity.

Then at the first check he suffers an annoyance proportionate to the
boundlessness of his previous elation. He cannot endure the sight of
indifference or independence in the meanest subject. The slender fault
of Mordecai is magnified into a capital offence. This again is so huge
that it must be laid to the charge of the whole race to which the
offender belongs. The rage which it excites in Haman is so violent
that it will be satisfied with nothing short of a wholesale massacre
of men, women, and children. "Behold how great a matter a little fire
kindleth"--when it is fanned by the breath of vanity. The cruelty of
the vain man is as limitless as his vanity.

Thus the story of Haman illustrates the close juxtaposition of these
two vices, vanity and cruelty; it helps us to see by a series of lurid
pictures how fearfully provocative the one is of the other. As we
follow the incidents, we can discover the links of connection between
the cause and its dire effects.

In the first place, it is clear that vanity is a form of magnified
egotism. The vain man thinks supremely of himself, not so much in the
way of self-interest, but more especially for the sake of
self-glorification. When he looks out on the world, it is always
through the medium of his own vastly magnified shadow. Like the
Bröcken Ghost, this shadow becomes a haunting presence standing out
before him in huge proportions. He has no other standard of
measurement. Everything must be judged according as it is related to
himself. The good is what gives him pleasure; evil is what is noxious
to him. This self-centred attitude, with the distortion of vision that
it induces, has a double effect, as we may see in the case of Haman.

Egotism utilises the sufferings of others for its own ends. No doubt
cruelty is often a consequence of sheer callousness. The man who has
no perception of the pain he is causing or no sympathy with the
sufferers will trample them under foot on the least provocation. He
feels supremely indifferent to their agonies when they are writhing
beneath him, and therefore he will never consider it incumbent on him
to adjust his conduct with the least reference to the pain he gives.
That is an entirely irrelevant consideration. The least inconvenience
to himself outweighs the greatest distress of other people, for the
simple reason that that distress counts as nothing in his calculation
of motives. In Haman's case, however, we do not meet with this
attitude of simple indifference. The grand vizier is irritated, and he
vents his annoyance in a vast explosion of malignity that must take
account of the agony it produces, for in that agony its own thirst for
vengeance is to be slaked. But this only shows the predominant
selfishness to be all the greater. It is so great that it reverses the
engines that drive society along the line of mutual helpfulness, and
thwarts and frustrates any amount of human life and happiness for the
sole purpose of gratifying its own desires.

Then the selfishness of vanity promotes cruelty still further by
another of its effects. It destroys the sense of proportion. Self is
not only regarded as the centre of the universe; like the sun
surrounded by the planets, it is taken to be the greatest object, and
everything else is insignificant when compared to it. What is the
slaughter of a few thousand Jews to so great a man as Haman, grand
vizier of Persia? It is no more than the destruction of as many flies
in a forest fire that the settler has kindled to clear his ground. The
same self-magnification is visibly presented by the Egyptian
bas-reliefs, on which the victorious Pharaohs appear as tremendous
giants driving back hordes of enemies or dragging pigmy kings by their
heads. It is but a step from this condition to insanity, which is the
apotheosis of vanity. The chief characteristic of insanity is a
diseased enlargement of self. If he is elated the madman regards
himself as a person of supreme importance--as a prince, as a king,
even as God. If he is depressed he thinks that he is the victim of
exceptional malignity. In that case he is beset by watchers of evil
intent; the world is conspiring against him; everything that happens
is part of a plot to do him harm. Hence his suspiciousness; hence his
homicidal proclivities. He is not so mad in his inferences and
conclusions. These may be rational and just, on the ground of his
premisses. It is in the fixed ideas of these premisses that the root
of his insanity may be detected. His awful fate is a warning to all
who venture to indulge in the vice of excessive egotism.

In the second place, vanity leads to cruelty through the entire
dependence of the vain person on the good opinion of others; and this
we may see clearly in the career of Haman. Vanity is differentiated
from pride in one important particular--by its outward reference. The
proud man is satisfied with himself; but the vain man is always
looking outside himself with feverish eagerness to secure all the
honours that the world can bestow upon him. Thus Mordecai may have
been proud in his refusal to bow before the upstart premier: if so his
pride would not need to court admiration; it would be self-contained
and self-sufficient. But Haman was possessed by an insatiable thirst
for homage. If a single obscure individual refused him this honour, a
shadow rested on everything. He could not enjoy the queen's banquet
for the slight offered him by the Jew at the palace gate, so that he
exclaimed, "Yet all this availeth me nothing, so long as I see
Mordecai the Jew sitting at the king's gate."[264] A selfish man in
this condition can have no rest if anything in the world outside him
fails to minister to his honour. While a proud man in an exalted
position scarcely deigns to notice the "dim common people," the vain
man betrays his vulgarity by caring supremely for popular adulation.
Therefore while the haughty person can afford to pass over a slight
with contempt, the vain creature who lives on the breath of applause
is mortally offended by it and roused to avenge the insult with
corresponding rage.

  [264] Esther v. 13.

Selfishness and dependence on the external, these attributes of vanity
inevitably develop into cruelty wherever the aims of vanity are
opposed. And yet the vice that contains so much evil is rarely visited
with a becoming severity of condemnation. Usually it is smiled at as
a trivial frailty. In the case of Haman it threatened the
extermination of a nation, and the reaction from its menace issued in
a terrific slaughter of another section of society. History records
war after war that has been fought on the ground of vanity. In
military affairs this vice wears the name of glory; but its nature is
unaltered. For what is the meaning of a war that is waged for "la
gloire" but one that is designed in order to minister to the vanity of
the people who undertake it? A more fearful wickedness has never
blackened the pages of history. The very frivolity of the occasion
heightens the guilt of those who plunge nations into misery on such a
paltry pretext. It is vanity that urges a savage warrior to collect
skulls to adorn the walls of his hut with the ghastly trophies; it is
vanity that impels a restless conqueror to march to his own triumph
through a sea of blood; it is vanity that rouses a nation to fling
itself on its neighbour in order to exalt its fame by a great victory.
Ambition at its best is fired by the pride of power; but in its meaner
forms ambition is nothing but an uprising of vanity clamouring for
wider recognition. The famous invasion of Greece by Xerxes was
evidently little better than a huge exhibition of regal vanity. The
childish fatuity of the king could seek for no exalted ends. His
assemblage of swarms of men of all races in an ill-disciplined army
too big for practical warfare showed that the thirst for display
occupied the principal place in his mind, to the neglect of the more
sober aims of a really great conqueror. And if the vanity that lives
on the world's admiration is so fruitful in evil when it is allowed to
deploy on a large scale, its essential character will not be improved
by the limitation of its scope in humbler spheres of life. It is
always mean and cruel.

Two other features in the character of Haman may be noticed. First, he
shows energy and determination. He bribes the king to obtain the royal
consent to his deadly design, bribes with an enormous present equal to
the revenue of a kingdom, though Ahasuerus permits him to recoup
himself by seizing the property of the proscribed nation. Then the
murderous mandate goes forth: it is translated into every language of
the subject peoples; it is carried to the remotest parts of the
kingdom by the posts, the excellent organisation of which, under the
Persian government has become famous. Thus far everything is on a
large scale, betokening a mind of resource and daring. But now turn to
the sequel. "And the king and Haman sat down to drink."[265] It is a
horrible picture--the king of Persia and his grand vizier at this
crisis deliberately abandoning themselves to their national vice. The
decree is out; it cannot be recalled--let it go and do its fell work.
As for its authors, they are drowning all thought of its effect on
public opinion in the wine-cup; they are boozing together in a
disgusting companionship of debauchery on the eve of a scene of
wholesale bloodshed. This is what the glory of the Great King has come
to. This is the anti-climax of his minister's vanity at the moment of
supreme success. After such an exhibition we need not be surprised at
the abject humiliation, the terror of cowardice, the frantic effort to
extort pity from a woman of the very race whose extermination he had
plotted, manifested by Haman in the hour of his exposure at Esther's
banquet. Beneath all his braggart energy he is a weak man. In most
cases self-indulgent, vain, and cruel people are essentially weak at
heart.

  [265] Esther iii. 15.

Looking at the story of Haman from another point of view, we see how
well it illustrates the confounding of evil devices and the punishment
of their author in the drama of history. It is one of the most
striking instances of what is called "poetic justice," the justice
depicted by the poets, but not always seen in prosaic lives, the
justice that is itself a poem because it makes a harmony of events.
Haman is the typical example of the schemer who "falls into his own
pit," of the villain who is "hoisted on his own petard." Three times
the same process occurs, to impress its lesson with threefold
emphasis. We have it first in the most moderate form when Haman is
forced to assist in bestowing on Mordecai the honours he has been
coveting for himself, by leading the horse of the hated Jew in his
triumphant procession through the city. The same lesson is impressed
with tragic force when the grand vizier is condemned to be impaled on
the stake erected by him in readiness for the man whom he has been
compelled to honour. Lastly, the design of murdering the whole race to
which Mordecai belongs is frustrated by the slaughter of those who
sympathise with Haman's attitude towards Israel--the "Hamanites," as
they have been called. We rarely meet with such a complete reversal of
fate, such a climax of vengeance. In considering the course of events
here set forth we must distinguish between the old Jewish view of it
and the significance of the process itself.

The Jews were taught to look on all this with fierce, vindictive glee,
and to see in it the prophecy of the like fate that was treasured up
for their enemies in later times. This rage of the oppressed against
their oppressors, this almost fiendish delight in the complete
overthrow of the enemies of Israel, this total extinction of any
sentiment of pity even for the helpless and innocent sufferers who are
to share the fate of their guilty relatives--in a word, this utterly
un-Christlike spirit of revenge, must be odious in our eyes. We cannot
understand how good men could stand by with folded arms while they saw
women and children tossed into the seething cauldron of vengeance;
still less how they could themselves perpetrate the dreadful deed. But
then we cannot understand that tragedy of history, the oppression of
the Jews, and its deteriorating influence on its victims, nor the
hard, cruel spirit of blank indifference to the sufferings of others
that prevailed almost everywhere before Christ came to teach the world
pity.

When we turn to the events themselves, we must take another view of
the situation. Here was a rough and sweeping, but still a complete and
striking punishment of cruel wrong. The Jews expected this too
frequently on earth. We have learnt that it is more often reserved for
another world and a future state of existence. Yet sometimes we are
startled to see how apt it can be even in this present life. The cruel
man breeds foes by his very cruelty; he rouses his own executioners by
the rage that he provokes in them. It is the same with respect to many
other forms of evil. Thus vanity is punished by the humiliation it
receives from those people who are irritated at its pretensions; it is
the last failing that the world will readily forgive, partly perhaps
because it offends the similar failing in other people. Then we see
meanness chastised by the odium it excites, lying by the distrust it
provokes, cowardice by the attacks it invites, coldness of heart by a
corresponding indifference on the side of other people. The result is
not always so neatly effected nor so visibly demonstrated as in the
case of Haman; but the tendency is always present, because there is a
Power that makes for righteousness presiding over society and inherent
in the very constitution of nature.



CHAPTER XXXIV.

_QUEEN ESTHER._

ESTHER iv. 10-v.; vii. 1-4; ix. 12, 13.


The young Jewess who wins the admiration of the Persian king above all
the chosen maidens of his realm, and who then delivers her people in
the crisis of supreme danger at the risk of her own life, is the
central figure in the story of the origin of Purim. It was a just
perception of the situation that led to the choice of her name as the
title of the book that records her famous achievements. Esther first
appears as an obscure orphan who has been brought up in the humble
home of her cousin Mordecai. After her guardian has secured her
admission to the royal harem--a doubtful honour! we might think, but a
very real honour in the eyes of an ancient Oriental--she receives a
year's training with the use of the fragrant unguents that are
esteemed so highly in a voluptuous Eastern court. We should not expect
to see anything better than the charms of physical beauty after such a
process of development, charms not of the highest type--languid,
luscious, sensuous. The new name bestowed on this finished product of
the chief art cultivated in the palace of Ahasuerus points to nothing
higher, for "Esther" (_Istar_) is the name of a Babylonian goddess
equivalent to the Greek "Aphrodite." And yet our Esther is a
heroine--capable, energetic, brave, and patriotic. The splendour of
her career is seen in this very fact, that she does not succumb to the
luxury of her surroundings. The royal harem among the lily-beds of
Shushan is like a palace in the land of the lotus-eaters, "where it is
always afternoon"; and its inmates, in their dreamy indolence, are
tempted to forget all obligations and interests beyond the obligation
to please the king and their own interest in securing every comfort
wealth can lavish on them. We do not look for a Boadicea in such a
hot-house of narcotics. And when we find there a strong, unselfish
woman such as Esther, conquering almost insuperable temptations to a
life of ease, and choosing a course of terrible danger to herself for
the sake of her oppressed people, we can echo the admiration of the
Jews for their national heroine.

It is a woman, then, who plays the leading part in this drama of
Jewish history. From Eve to Mary, women have repeatedly appeared in
the most prominent places on the pages of Scripture. The history of
Israel finds some of its most powerful situations in the exploits of
Deborah, Jael, and Judith. On the side of evil, Delilah, Athaliah, and
Jezebel are not less conspicuous. There was a freedom enjoyed by the
women of Israel that was not allowed in the more elaborate
civilisation of the great empires of the East, and this developed an
independent spirit and a vigour not usually seen in Oriental women. In
the case of Esther these good qualities were able to survive the
external restraints and the internal relaxing atmosphere of her court
life. The scene of her story is laid in the harem. The plots and
intrigues of the harem furnish its principal incidents. Yet if Esther
had been a shepherdess from the mountains of Judah, she could not have
proved herself more energetic. But her court life had taught her
skill in diplomacy, for she had to pick her way among the greatest
dangers like a person walking among concealed knives.

The beauty of Esther's character is this, that she is not spoiled by
her great elevation. To be the one favourite out of all the select
maidens of the kingdom, and to know that she owes her privileged
position solely to the king's fancy for her personal charms, might
have spoilt the grace of a simple Jewess. Haman, we saw, was ruined by
his honours becoming too great for his self-control. But in Esther we
do not light on a trace of the silly vanity that became the most
marked characteristic of the grand vizier. It speaks well for
Mordecai's sound training of the orphan girl that his ward proved to
be of stable character where a weaker person would have been dizzy
with selfish elation.

The unchanged simplicity of Esther's character is first apparent in
her submissive obedience to her guardian even after her high position
has been attained. Though she is treated as his Queen by the Great
King, she does not forget the kind porter who has brought her up from
childhood. In the old days she had been accustomed to obey this grave
Jew, and she has no idea of throwing off the yoke now that he has no
longer any recognised power over her. The habit of obedience persists
in her after the necessity for it has been removed. This would not
have been so remarkable if Esther had been a weak-minded woman,
readily subdued and kept in subjection by a masterful will. But her
energy and courage at a momentous crisis entirely forbid any such
estimate of her character. It must have been genuine humility and
unselfishness that prevented her from rebelling against the old home
authority when a heavy injunction was laid upon her. She undertakes
the dangerous part of the champion of a threatened race solely at the
instance of Mordecai. He urges the duty upon her, and she accepts it
meekly. She is no rough Amazon. With all her greatness and power, she
is still a simple, unassuming woman.

But when Esther has assented to the demands of Mordecai, she appears
in her people's cause with the spirit of true patriotism. She scorns
to forget her humble origin in all the splendour of her later
advancement. She will own her despised and hated people before the
king; she will plead the cause of the oppressed, though at the risk of
her life. She is aware of the danger of her undertaking; but she says,
"If I perish, I perish." The habit of obedience could not have been
strong enough to carry her through the terrible ordeal if Mordecai's
hard requirement had not been seconded by the voice of her own
conscience. She knows that it is right that she should undertake this
difficult and dangerous work. How naturally might she have shrunk back
with regret for the seclusion and obscurity of the old days when her
safety lay in her insignificance? But she saw that her new privileges
involved new responsibilities. A royal harem is the last place in
which we should look for the recognition of this truth. Esther is to
be honoured because even in that palace of idle luxury she could
acknowledge the stern obligation that so many in her position would
never have glanced at. It is always difficult to perceive and act on
the responsibility that certainly accompanies favour and power. This
difficulty is one reason why "it is easier for a camel to go through
the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of
God." For while unusual prosperity brings unusual responsibility,
simply because it affords unusual opportunities for doing good, it
tends to cultivate pride and selfishness, and the miserable worldly
spirit that is fatal to all high endeavour and all real sacrifice. Our
Lord's great principle, "Unto whom much is given, of him shall much be
required," is clear as a mathematical axiom when we look at it in the
abstract; but nothing is harder than for people to apply it to their
own cases. If it were freely admitted, the ambition that grasps at the
first places would be shamed into silence. If it were generally acted
on, the wide social cleft between the fortunate and the miserable
would be speedily bridged over. The total ignoring of this tremendous
principle by the great majority of those who enjoy the privileged
positions in society is undoubtedly one of the chief causes of the
ominous unrest that is growing more and more disturbing in the less
favoured ranks of life. If this supercilious contempt for an
imperative duty continues, what can be the end but an awful
retribution? Was it not the wilful blindness of the dancers in the
Tuileries to the misery of the serfs on the fields that caused
revolutionary France to run red with blood?

Esther was wise in taking the suggestion of her cousin that she had
been raised up for the very purpose of saving her people. Here was a
faith, reserved and reticent, but real and powerful. It was no idle
chance that had tossed her on the crest of the wave while so many of
her sisters were weltering in the dark floods beneath. A clear, high
purpose was leading her on to a strange and mighty destiny, and now
the destiny was appearing, sublime and terrible, like some awful
mountain peak that must be climbed unless the soul that has come thus
far will turn traitor and fall back into failure and ignominy. When
Esther saw this, she acted on it with the promptitude of the founder
of her nation, who esteemed "the reproach of Christ greater riches
than the treasures of Egypt"; but with this difference, that, while
Moses renounced his high rank in Pharaoh's court in order to identify
himself with his people, the Queen of Ahasuerus retained her perilous
position and turned it to good account in her saving mission. Thus
there are two ways in which an exalted person may serve others. He may
come down from his high estate like Moses, like Christ who was rich
and for our sakes became poor; or he may take advantage of his
privileged position to use it for the good of his brethren, regarding
it as a trust to be held for those whom he can benefit, like Joseph,
who was able in this way to save his father and his brothers from
famine, and like Esther in the present case. Circumstances will guide
the willing to a decision as to which of these courses should be
chosen.

We must not turn from this subject without remembering that Mordecai
plied Esther with other considerations besides the thought of her
mysterious destiny. He warned her that she should not escape if she
disowned her people. He expressed his confidence that if she shrank
from her high mission deliverance would "come from another place," to
her eternal shame. Duty is difficult, and there is often a call for
the comparatively lower, because more selfish, considerations that
urge to it. The reluctant horse requires the spur. And yet the noble
courage of Esther could not have come chiefly from fear or any other
selfish motive. It must have been a sense of her high duty and
wonderful destiny that inspired her. There is no inspiration like that
of the belief that we are called to a great mission. This is the
secret of the fanatical heroism of the Madhist dervishes. In a more
holy warfare it makes heroes of the weakest.

Having once accepted her dreadful task, Esther proceeded to carry it
out with courage. It was a daring act for her to enter the presence of
the king unsummoned. Who could tell but that the fickle monarch might
take offence at the presumption of his new favourite, as he had done
in the case of her predecessor? Her lonely position might have made
the strongest of women quail as she stepped forth from her seclusion
and ventured to approach her lord. Her motive might be shamefully
misconstrued by the low-minded monarch. Would the king hold out the
golden sceptre to her? The chances of life and death hung on the
answer to that question. Nehemiah, though a courageous man and a
favourite of his royal master, was filled with apprehension at the
prospect of a far less dangerous interview with a much more reasonable
ruler than the half-mad Xerxes. These Oriental autocrats were shrouded
in the terror of divinities. Their absolute power left the lives of
all who approached them at the mercy of their caprice. Ahasuerus had
just sanctioned a senseless, bloodthirsty decree. Very possibly he had
murdered Vashti, and that on the offence of a moment. Esther was in
favour, but she belonged to the doomed people, and she was committing
an illegal action deliberately in the face of the king. She was Fatima
risking the wrath of Bluebeard. We know how Nehemiah would have acted
at this trying moment. He would have strengthened his heart with one
of those sudden ejaculations of prayer that were always ready to
spring to his lips on any emergency. It is not in accordance with the
secular tone of the story of Esther's great undertaking that any hint
of such an action on her part should have been given. Therefore we
cannot say that she was a woman of no religion, that she was
prayerless, that she launched on this great enterprise entirely
relying on her own strength. We must distinguish between reserve and
coldness in regard to religion. The fire burns while the heart muses,
even though the lips are still. At all events, if it is the intention
of the writer to teach that Esther was mysteriously raised up for the
purpose of saving her people, it is a natural inference to conclude
that she was supported in the execution of it by unseen and silent
aid. Her name does not appear in the honour roll of Hebrews xi. We
cannot assert that she acted in the strength of faith. And yet there
is more evidence of faith, even though it is not professed, in conduct
that is true and loyal, brave and unselfish, than we can find in the
loudest profession of a creed without the confirmation of
corresponding conduct. "I will show my faith by my works," says St.
James, and he may show it without once naming it.

It is to be noted, further, that Esther was a woman of resources. She
did not trust to her courage alone to secure her end. It was not
enough that she owned her people, and was willing to plead their
cause. She had the definite purpose of saving them to effect. She was
not content to be a martyr to patriotism; a sensible, practical woman,
she did her utmost to be successful in effecting the deliverance of
the threatened Jews. With this end in view, it was necessary for her
to proceed warily. Her first step was gained when she had secured an
audience with the king. We may surmise that her beautiful countenance
was lit up with a new, rare radiance when all self-seeking was
banished from her mind and an intense, noble aim fired her soul; and
thus, it may be, her very loftiness of purpose helped to secure its
success. Beauty is a gift, a talent, to be used for good, like any
other Divine endowment; the highest beauty is the splendour of soul
that sometimes irradiates the most commonplace countenance, so that,
like Stephen's, it shines as the face of an angel. Instead of
degrading her beauty with foolish vanity, Esther consecrated it to a
noble service, and thereby it was glorified. This one talent was not
lodged with her useless.

The first point was gained in securing the favour of Ahasuerus. But
all was not yet won. It would have been most unwise for Esther to have
burst out with her daring plea for the condemned people in the moment
of the king's surprised welcome. But she was patient and skilful in
managing her delicate business. She knew the king's weakness for good
living, and she played upon it for her great purpose. Even when she
had got him to a first banquet, she did not venture to bring out her
request. Perhaps her courage failed her at the last moment. Perhaps,
like a keen, observant woman, she perceived that she had not yet
wheedled the king round to the condition in which it would be safe to
approach the dangerous topic. So she postponed her attempt to another
day and a second banquet. Then she seized her opportunity. With great
tact, she began by pleading for her own life. Her piteous entreaty
amazed the dense-minded monarch. At the same time the anger of his
pride was roused. Who would dare to touch his favourite queen? It was
a well-chosen moment to bring such a notion into the mind of a king
who was changeable as a child. We may be sure that Esther had been
doing her very best to please him throughout the two banquets. Then
she had Haman on the spot. He, too, prime minister of Persia as he
was, had to find that for once in his life he had been outwitted by a
woman. Esther meant to strike while the iron was hot. So the
arch-enemy of her people was there, that the king might carry out the
orders to which she was skilfully leading him on without the delay
which would give the party of Haman an opportunity to turn him the
other way. Haman saw it all in a moment. He confessed that the queen
was mistress of the situation by appealing to her for mercy, in the
frenzy of his terror even so far forgetting his place as to fling
himself on her couch. That only aggravated the rage of the jealous
king. Haman's fate was sealed on the spot. Esther was completely
triumphant.

After this it is painful to see how the woman who had saved her people
at the risk of her own life pushed her advantage to the extremity of a
bloodthirsty vengeance. It is all very well to say that, as the laws
of the Medes and Persians could not be altered, there was no
alternative but a defensive slaughter. We may try to shelter Esther
under the customs of the times; we may call to mind the fact that she
was acting on the advice of Mordecai, whom she had been taught to obey
from childhood, so that his was by far the greater weight of
responsibility. Still, as we gaze on the portrait of the strong,
brave, unselfish Jewess, we must confess that beneath all the beauty
and nobility of its expression certain hard lines betray the fact that
Esther is not a Madonna, that the heroine of the Jews does not reach
the Christian ideal of womanhood.



CHAPTER XXXV.

_MORDECAI._

ESTHER ii. 5, 6; iv. 1, 2; vi. 10, 11; ix. 1-4.


The hectic enthusiast who inspires Daniel Deronda with his passionate
ideas is evidently a reflection in modern literature of the Mordecai
of Scripture. It must be admitted that the reflection approaches a
caricature. The dreaminess and morbid excitability of George Eliot's
consumptive hero have no counterpart in the wise, strong Mentor of
Queen Esther; and the English writer's agnosticism has led her to
exclude all the Divine elements of the Jewish faith, so that on her
pages the sole object of Israelite devotion is the race of Israel. But
the very extravagance of the portraiture keenly accentuates what is,
after all, the most remarkable trait in the original Mordecai. We are
not in a position to deny that this man had a living faith in the God
of his fathers; we are simply ignorant as to what his attitude towards
religion was, because the author of the Book of Esther draws a veil
over the religious relations of all his characters. Still the one
thing prominent and pronounced in Mordecai is patriotism, devotion to
Israel, the expenditure of thought and effort on the protection of his
threatened people.

The first mention of the name of Mordecai introduces a hint of his
national connections. We read, "There was a certain Jew in Shushan the
palace, whose name was Mordecai, the son of Jair, the son of Shimei,
the son of Kish, a Benjamite; who had been carried away from Jerusalem
with the captives which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of
Judah, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away."[266]
Curious freaks of exegesis have been displayed in dealing with this
passage. It has been thought that the Kish mentioned in it is no other
than the father of Saul, in which case the ages of the ancestors of
Mordecai must rival those of the antediluvians; and it has been
suggested that Mordecai is here represented as one of the original
captives from Jerusalem in the reign of Jeconiah, so that at the time
of Xerxes he must have been a marvellously old man, tottering on the
brink of the grave. On these grounds the genealogical note has been
treated as a fanciful fiction invented to magnify the importance of
Mordecai. But there is no necessity to take up any such position. It
would be strange to derive Mordecai from the far-off Benjamite farmer
Kish, who shines only in the reflected glory of his son, whereas we
have no mention of Saul himself. There is no reason to say that
another Kish may not have been found among the captives. Then it is
quite possible to dispose of the second difficulty by connecting the
relative clause at the beginning of verse 6--"who had been carried
away"--with the nearest antecedent in the previous sentence--viz.,
"Kish the Benjamite." If we remove the semi-colon from the end of
verse 5, the clauses will run on quite smoothly and there will be no
reason to go back to the name of Mordecai for the antecedent of the
relative; we can read the words thus--"Kish the Benjamite who had been
carried away," etc. In this way all difficulty vanishes. But the
passage still retains a special significance. Mordecai was a true Jew,
of the once royal tribe of Benjamin, a descendant of one of the
captive contemporaries of Jeconiah, and therefore most likely a scion
of a princely house. The preservation of his ancestral record gives us
a hint of the sort of mental pabulum on which the man had been
nurtured. Living in the palace, apparently as a porter, and possibly
as a eunuch of the harem, Mordecai would have been tempted to forget
his people. Nevertheless it is plain that he had cherished traditions
of the sad past, and trained his soul to cling to the story of his
fathers' sufferings in spite of all the distractions and dissipations
of a Persian court life. Though in a humbler sphere, he thus resembled
Artaxerxes' cup-bearer, the great patriot Nehemiah.

  [266] Esther ii. 5, 6.

The peculiarity of Mordecai's part in the story is this, that he is
the moving spirit of all that is done for the deliverance of Israel at
a time of desperate peril without being at first a prominent
character. Thus he first appears as the guardian of his young cousin,
whom he has cherished and trained, and whom he now introduces to the
royal harem where she will play her more conspicuous part. Throughout
the whole course of events Mordecai's voice is repeatedly heard, but
usually as that of Esther's prompter. He haunts the precincts of the
harem, if by chance he may catch a glimpse of his foster child. He is
a lonely man now, for he has parted with the light of his home. He has
done this voluntarily, unselfishly--first, to advance the lovely
creature who has been committed to his charge, and secondly, as it
turns out, for the saving of his people. Even now his chief thought is
not for the cheering of his own solitude. His constant aim is to guide
his young cousin in the difficult path of her new career. Subsequently
he receives the highest honours the king can bestow; but he never
seeks them, and he would be quite content to remain in the background
to the end, if only his eager desire for the good of his people could
be accomplished by the queen who has learnt to lean upon his counsel
from her childhood. Such self-effacement is most rare and beautiful. A
subtle temptation to self-regarding ambition besets the path of every
man who attempts some great public work for the good of others in a
way that necessarily brings him under observation. Even though he
believes himself to be inspired by the purest patriotism, it is
impossible for him not to perceive that he is exposing himself to
admiration by the very disinterestedness of his conduct. The rare
thing is to see the same earnestness on the part of a person in an
obscure place, willing that the whole of his energy should be devoted
to the training and guiding of another, who alone is to become the
visible agent of some great work.

The one action in which Mordecai momentarily takes the first place
throws light on another side of his character. There is a secondary
plot in the story. Mordecai saves the king's life by discovering to
him a conspiracy. The value of this service is strikingly illustrated
by the historical fact that, at a later time, just another such
conspiracy issued in the assassination of Xerxes. In the distractions
of his foreign expeditions and his abandonment to self-indulgence at
home, the king forgets the whole affair, and Mordecai goes on his
quiet way as before, never dreaming of the honour with which it is to
be rewarded. Now this incident seems to be introduced to show how the
intricate wheels of Providence all work on for the ultimate
deliverance of Israel. The accidental discovery of Mordecai's
unrequited service when the king is beguiling the long hours of a
sleepless night by listening to the chronicles of his reign leads to
the recognition of Mordecai and the first humiliation of Haman, and
prepares the king for further measures. But the incident reflects a
side light on Mordecai in another direction. The humble porter is
loyal to the great despot. He is a passionately patriotic Jew; but his
patriotism does not make a rebel of him, nor does it permit him to
stand aside silently and see a villainous intrigue go on unmolested,
even though it is aimed at the monarch who is holding his people in
subjection. Mordecai is the humble friend of the great Persian king in
the moment of danger. This is the more remarkable when we compare it
with his ruthless thirst for vengeance against the known enemies of
Israel. It shows that he does not treat Ahasuerus as an enemy of his
people. No doubt the writer of this narrative wished it to be seen
that the most patriotic Jew could be perfectly loyal to a foreign
government. The shining examples of Joseph and Daniel have set the
same idea before the world for the vindication of a grossly maligned
people, who, like the Christians in the days of Tacitus, have been
most unjustly hated as the enemies of the human race. The capacity to
adapt itself loyally to the service of foreign governments, without
abandoning one iota of its religion or its patriotism, is a unique
trait in the genius of this wonderful race. The Zealot is not the
typical Jew-patriot. He is a secretion of diseased and decayed
patriotism. True patriotism is large enough and patient enough to
recognise the duties that lie outside its immediate aims. Its fine
perfection is attained when it can be flexible without becoming
servile.

We see that in Mordecai the flexibility of Jewish patriotism was
consistent with a proud scorn of the least approach to servility. He
would not kiss the dust at the approach of Haman, grand vizier though
the man was. It may be that he regarded this act of homage as
idolatrous--for it would seem that Persian monarchs were not unwilling
to accept the adulation of Divine honours; and the vain minister was
aping the airs of his royal master. But, perhaps, like those Greeks
who would not humble their pride by prostrating themselves at the
bidding of an Oriental barbarian, Mordecai held himself up from a
sense of self-respect. In either case it must be evident that he
showed a daringly independent spirit. He could not but know that such
an affront as he ventured to offer to Haman would annoy the great man.
But he had not calculated on the unfathomable depths of Haman's
vanity. Nobody who credits his fellows with rational motives would
dream that so simple an offence as this of Mordecai's could provoke so
vast an act of vengeance as the massacre of a nation. When he saw the
outrageous consequences of his mild act of independence, Mordecai must
have felt it doubly incumbent upon him to strain every nerve to save
his people. Their danger was indirectly due to his conduct. Still he
could never have foreseen such a result, and therefore he should not
be held responsible for it. The tremendous disproportion between
motive and action in the behaviour of Haman is like one of those
fantastic freaks that abound in the impossible world of "The Arabian
Nights," but for the occurrence of which we make no provision in real
life, simply because we do not act on the assumption that the universe
is nothing better than a huge lunatic asylum.

The escape from this altogether unexpected danger is due to two
courses of events. One of them--in accordance with the reserved style
of the narrative--appears to be quite accidental. Mordecai got the
reward he never sought in what seems to be the most casual way. He had
no hand in obtaining for himself an honour which looks to us quaintly
childish. For a few brief hours he was paraded through the streets of
the royal city as the man whom the king delighted to honour, with no
less a person than the grand vizier to serve as his groom. It was
Haman's silly vanity that had invented this frivolous proceeding. We
can hardly suppose that Mordecai cared much for it. After the
procession had completed its round, in true Oriental fashion Mordecai
put off his gorgeous robes, like a poor actor returning from the stage
to his garret, and settled down to his lowly office exactly as if
nothing had happened. This must seem to us a foolish business, unless
we can look at it through the magnifying glass of an Oriental
imagination, and even then there is nothing very fascinating in it.
Still it had important consequences. For, in the first place, it
prepared the way for a further recognition of Mordecai in the future.
He was now a marked personage. Ahasuerus knew him, and was gratefully
disposed towards him. The people understood that the king delighted to
honour him. His couch would not be the softer nor his bread the
sweeter; but all sorts of future possibilities lay open before him. To
many men the possibilities of life are more precious than the
actualities. We cannot say, however, that they meant much to
Mordecai, for he was not ambitious, and he had no reason to think that
the kings conscience was not perfectly satisfied with the cheap
settlement of his debt of gratitude. Still the possibilities existed,
and before the end of the tale they had blossomed out to very
brilliant results.

But another consequence of the pageant was that the heart of Haman was
turned to gall. We see him livid with jealousy, inconsolable until his
wife--who evidently knows him well--proposes to satisfy his spite by
another piece of fanciful extravagance. Mordecai shall be impaled on a
mighty stake, so high that all the world shall see the ghastly
spectacle. This may give some comfort to the wounded vanity of the
grand vizier. But consolation to Haman will be death and torment to
Mordecai.

Now we come to the second course of events that issued in the
deliverance and triumph of Israel, and therewith in the escape and
exaltation of Mordecai. Here the watchful porter is at the spring of
all that happens. His fasting, and the earnest counsels he lays upon
Esther, bear witness to the intensity of his nature. Again the
characteristic reserve of the narrative obscures all religious
considerations. But, as we have seen already, Mordecai is persuaded
that deliverance will come to Israel from some quarter, and he
suggests that Esther has been raised to her high position for the
purpose of saving her people. We cannot but feel that these hints veil
a very solid faith in the providence of God with regard to the Jews.
On the surface of them they show faith in the destiny of Israel.
Mordecai not only loves his nation; he believes in it. He is sure it
has a future. It has survived the most awful disasters in the past.
It seems to possess a charmed life. It must emerge safely from the
present crisis. But Mordecai is not a fatalist whose creed paralyses
his energies. He is most distressed and anxious at the prospect of the
great danger that threatens his people. He is most persistent in
pressing for the execution of measures of deliverance. Still in all
this he is buoyed up by a strange faith in his nation's destiny. This
is the faith that the English novelist has transferred to her modern
Mordecai. It cannot be gainsayed that there is much in the marvellous
history of the unique people, whose vitality and energy astonish us
even to-day, to justify the sanguine expectation of prophetic souls
that Israel has yet a great destiny to fulfil in future ages.

The ugly side of Jewish patriotism is also apparent in Mordecai, and
it must not be ignored. The indiscriminate massacre of the "enemies"
of the Jews is a savage act of retaliation that far exceeds the
necessity of self-defence, and Mordecai must bear the chief blame of
this crime. But then the considerations in extenuation of its guilt
which have already come under our notice may be applied to him.[267]
The danger was supreme. The Jews were in a minority. The king was
cruel, fickle, senseless. It was a desperate case. We cannot be
surprised that the remedy was desperate also. There was no moderation
on either side, but then "sweet reasonableness" is the last thing to
be looked for in any of the characters of the Book of Esther. Here
everything is extravagant. The course of events is too grotesque to be
gravely weighed in the scales that are used in the judgment of
average men under average circumstances.

  [267] Page 358.

The Book of Esther closes with an account of the establishment of the
Feast of Purim and the exaltation of Mordecai to the vacant place of
Haman. The Israelite porter becomes grand vizier of Persia! This is
the crowning proof of the triumph of the Jews consequent on their
deliverance. The whole process of events that issues so gloriously is
commemorated in the annual Feast of Purim. It is true that doubts have
been thrown on the historical connection between that festival and the
story of Esther. It has been said that the word "Purim" may represent
the portions assigned by lot, but not the lottery itself; that so
trivial an accident as the method followed by Haman in selecting a day
for his massacre of the Jews could not give its name to the
celebration of their escape from the threatened danger; that the feast
was probably more ancient, and was really the festival of the new moon
for the month in which it occurs. With regard to all of these and any
other objections, there is one remark that may be made here. They are
solely of archæological interest. The character and meaning of the
feast as it is known to have been celebrated in historical times is
not touched by them, because it is beyond doubt that throughout the
ages Purim has been inspired with passionate and almost dramatic
reminiscences of the story of Esther. Thus for all the celebrations of
the feast that come within our ken this is its sole significance.

The worthiness of the festival will vary according to the ideas and
feelings that are encouraged in connection with it. When it has been
used as an opportunity for cultivating pride of race, hatred,
contempt, and gleeful vengeance over humiliated foes, its effect must
have been injurious and degrading. When, however, it has been
celebrated in the midst of grievous oppressions, though it has
embittered the spirit of animosity towards the oppressor--the
Christian Haman in most cases--it has been of real service in cheering
a cruelly afflicted people. Even when it has been carried through with
no seriousness of intention, merely as a holiday devoted to music and
dancing and games and all sorts of merry-making, its social effect in
bringing a gleam of light into lives that were as a rule dismally
sordid may have been decidedly healthy.

But deeper thoughts must be stirred in devout hearts when brooding
over the profound significance of the national festival. It celebrates
a famous deliverance of the Jews from a fearful danger. Now
deliverance is the keynote of Jewish history. This note was sounded as
with a trumpet blast at the very birth of the nation, when, emerging
from Egypt no better than a body of fugitive slaves, Israel was led
through the Red Sea and Pharaoh's hosts with their horses and chariots
were overwhelmed in the flood. The echo of the triumphant burst of
praise that swelled out from the exodus pealed down the ages in the
noblest songs of Hebrew Psalmists. Successive deliverances added
volume to this richest note of Jewish poetry. In all who looked up to
God as the Redeemer of Israel the music was inspired by profound
thankfulness, by true religious adoration. And yet Purim never became
the Eucharist of Israel. It never approached the solemn grandeur of
Passover, that prince of festivals, in which the great primitive
deliverance of Israel was celebrated with all the pomp and awe of its
Divine associations. It was always in the main a secular festival,
relegated to the lower plane of social and domestic entertainments,
like an English bank-holiday. Still even on its own lines it could
serve a serious purpose. When Israel is practically idolised by
Israelites, when the glory of the nation is accepted as the highest
ideal to work up to, the true religion of Israel is missed, because
that is nothing less than the worship of God as He is revealed in
Hebrew history. Nevertheless, in their right place, the privileges of
the nation and its destinies may be made the grounds of very exalted
aspirations. The nation is larger than the individual, larger than the
family. An enthusiastic national spirit must exert an expansive
influence on the narrow, cramped lives of the men and women whom it
delivers from selfish, domestic, and parochial limitations. It was a
liberal education for Jews to be taught to love their race, its
history and its future. If--as seems probable--our Lord honoured the
Feast of Purim by taking part in it,[268] He must have credited the
national life of His people with a worthy mission. Himself the purest
and best fruit of the stock of Israel, on the human side of His being,
He realised in His own great mission of redemption the end for which
God had repeatedly redeemed Israel. Thus He showed that God had saved
His people, not simply for their own selfish satisfaction, but that
through Christ they might carry salvation to the world.

  [268] John v. 1.

Purged from its base associations of blood and cruelty, Purim may
symbolise to us the triumph of the Church of Christ over her fiercest
foes. The spirit of this triumph must be the very opposite of the
spirit of wild vengeance exhibited by Mordecai and his people in
their brief season of unwonted elation. The Israel of God can never
conquer her enemies by force. The victory of the Church must be the
victory of brotherly love, because brotherly love is the note of the
true Church. But this victory Christ is winning throughout the ages,
and the historical realisation of it is to us the Christian
counterpart of the story of Esther.

       *       *       *       *       *

Transcriber's note:

Variations in spelling have been preserved except in obvious cases of
typographical error. Hyphenation is inconsistent.

Page 371: "As in the case of Judas, there is thought to be no call...."
Missing word "is" has been inserted.





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