In Dark and Evil Times
J. G. Bellett.
Being studies and meditations on the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther.
Judah's Captivity in Babylon.
The Babylonish Captivity, considered as an era in the progress of Divine dispensations, was most important and significant. We may well treat it as a very principal station in our journey along that path of light and wisdom which is cast up in Scripture for God's wayfaring men to tread, and tarry there for a little and look around us.
We may speak of it, generally, as the great conclusive judgment upon the people of Israel in Old Testament times; but it was preceded by a long series of other judgments of an inferior or less weighty character. And it is well to trace them shortly, that we may be moved and humbled by such a sight as they afford us of the incompetence and unfaithfulness of man under every condition of stewardship and responsibility.
These judgments began, I may say, by the retirement of Moses for forty years in the land of Midian. Israel, then in Egypt, lost their deliverer, because they knew not that by his hand God would redeem them, as we read in Acts 7:25.
After they left Egypt, and got into the wilderness on their way to Canaan, they were doomed or judged for another forty years to wander there, because they did not receive the report of the Spies, but disesteemed the Promised Land.
When they have reached Canaan and are settled as a nation there, they are for renewed iniquity chastised again and again by the hand of their neighbours, but at length are more signally judged by being put under the tyranny of King Saul (see Hosea 13:11).
In process of time they flourish into a kingdom: God gives them the choicest of His people, the man after His own heart, to reign over them. This was one of God's gifts; Saul had been one of His judgments. The reigns of David and Solomon were the exhibition of strength and honour in Israel. But, the house of David becoming reprobate, judgment visits it by the revolt of the Ten Tribes.
The kingdom of the Ten Tribes is thus erected — erected as a judgment upon the house of David, as the kingdom of Saul had afore been raised in judgment on the nation of Israel. But that kingdom of the Ten Tribes proving reprobate in that day, judgment visits them (carrying Israel captive) by the king of Assyria.
The house of David, during this time, was borne with. As a dismantled thing, having but two tribes instead of twelve as its inheritance, it still provokes the anger of the Lord; and then judgment visits Judah by the hand of the Chaldean, as before judgment had visited Israel by the hand of the Assyrian. Judah is a captive in Babylon. So this, as I said, was the great conclusive judgment upon the people of God during the times of the Old Testament. The Lord God of Israel had linked His Name and His glory with the house of David, and with the city of Jerusalem; and when that house had fallen and that city was spoiled, judgment in that measure and at that time had completed its work.
Our business from henceforth is with the captives of Judah and Babylon: Israel in Assyria are lost sight of. They are not kept in view by the Spirit of God. They are called "backsliding Israel," as a people whose distinctness, for the present, is lost and gone; but the prophets of God anticipate their future, and we can foresee that they will be manifested, and brought home, and set in their place again in honour and beauty.
Ere looking at the captives of Judah in Babylon, I would consider the new conditions in which all things are set by the captivity itself. The glory (the symbol of the Divine presence), the Gentile, and the Jew, are all affected by it, and at once enter into new conditions.
The glory leaves the earth, and goes to heaven. It had been with Israel from the days of Egypt until now. It had seated itself in the chariot-cloud, and led Israel out of Egypt and through the wilderness; and then it seated itself in the sanctuary between the cherubim. Israel was the place or people of its dwelling upon the earth. But now, as was seen by Ezekiel, it takes its leave of the earth for heaven, or for the mountain (Ezek. 1-11).
The Gentiles become supreme in the time of Judah's captivity. The sword is formally and solemnly put into the hand of the Chaldean by God Himself; and subjection to him, as ordained to be chief in political or imperial authority in the world, is demanded by God for him. But the glory does not accompany the sword. Chaldea is not the seat of theocracy; divine worship is not established there.
The people of Israel become strangers on the earth. "Ichabod," the glory is departed, in a more fearful sense than ever, becomes true of them. They are ruined for the present, as a nation once set in glory, honour, strength, and independency. Judah is a captive and stranger.
Such are the new conditions into which all have now entered — the glory, the Gentiles, and the people of Israel.
But here I must notice — for it is a subject full of interest and value to our souls — that there is character unfolded in each of these, by reason of their new conditions.
The glory shows itself most graciously reluctant to leave its ancient dwelling-place. We learn this from the early chapters of Ezekiel; the glory is there seen in uneasy restless action, as I may say. The time had come for its leaving Jerusalem, and it feels the sorrow of such a moment. It passes and repasses between the threshold of the house, which still connected it with the temple, and the wings of the cherubim, which were waiting to bear it away; and this is a sight of deep mysterious consolation. What a secret does it carry to our hearts! The holiness, which must depart, could not cool the love which would fain, if it could, remain, and what a shadow of the Jesus of the Evangelists this is! Israel could not be the rest of either the glory or Jesus. They were polluted; but the glory will linger on the threshold, and Jesus will weep, as He turns His back on the city. Nor will the glory seek any other place on the earth. It had chosen Zion for its rest; and if its rest there be disturbed, it will leave the earth; it will be faithful to Israel, though Israel grieve it and send it away. These are the perfections that give character to the glory, as I may speak, in this the day of its departure from Jerusalem — the day of Judah's captivity in Babylon.
The Gentiles, in this same day, betray a far different sight. No moral beauty distinguishes them — altogether otherwise. They become proud. Elevation under God's hand lifts them up in their own esteem. They have no care for the sorrows of God's people, but avail themselves of their depression, and rise, all they can, upon their ruins. Ezekiel shows us, as we have already seen, the moral or the character of the departing glory, as Daniel shows us the profane haughtiness of the Gentiles in this same day. It becomes intolerable, as we know, and ends in judgment.
The people of Israel, now humbled, are exercised. Ps. 137 is a breathing which speaks a very gracious state of the soul, in the midst of the captives at the waters of Babylon; and such men as Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, among the returned, and such as Esther and Mordecai, among the dispersion, tell us of a generation or a remnant in character beyond what may have been commonly known in Israel; and thus, as is common with men, prosperity did moral mischief to the Gentile at this time, while depression and trial worked healthfully for the Jew.
This interval of a captivity must, however, come to a close. The rod of the tribe of Judah could not be broken till Shiloh came (Gen. 49). To fulfil this promise, rehearsed in various ways as it was again and again by the prophets, Judah must return out of captivity, and be at home, to receive, if they will, the promised Messiah — the One who, as we see in Ezekiel, had left them, with such reserve and reluctance.
A return is therefore accomplished; and it is marked by much of the fruit of that healthful exercise, which I have already observed as giving character to the captives. There was nothing of the same glory as that which marked their earlier return from the land of Pharaoh. In that respect the exodus from Babylon was a thing very inferior to the exodus from Egypt. There was no rod of power to do its marvels; no mystic cloud-conductor; no mediator standing in intimacy with the Lord for the people; no supplies from the granaries in heaven. But there was the energy of faith on the journey; and spirits awake to the presence of God, His mind, His will, His glory, and His sufficiency for them.
This return, however, was not universal; nor, even as far as it extended, was it simultaneous. There was still the dispersion, as well as the returned captives. The books of the captives — Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, give us something of the story of each. Mordecai was of the dispersion; and of those who returned, some came at an earlier moment, like Zerubbabel; others afterwards, like Ezra at one time, and Nehemiah at another.
But I would inquire, Under what warrant or authority were the captives in Babylon enabled to make a return? It will be said, and justly, that God had so purposed and promised it by the mouth of His servant Jeremiah. He had declared that, when the captivity had numbered seventy years, it should end; and, according to this, Daniel, who lived through the whole age of the captivity, but never returned to Jerusalem, made his supplication for this promised mercy, just as the seventy years were drawing near to their close. The return, we therefore fully own, is to be dated, so to speak, from the sovereignty and counsels of God. The great source of it lies there. But there was a secondary and more immediate warrant for it, the occasion of it, as we speak; and this is, as clearly, seen in the decree of Cyrus, the king of Persia: a decree which he passed in the very first year of his reign, or as soon as God had transferred the sword from the hand of the Chaldean into his hand.
Babylon, which had been the captor, was not given the honour of being the deliverer of Israel. This honour was reserved for another, and such another as was as distinctly named by the prophets of God, as the period of seventy years had been named.
Cyrus is mentioned in Isa. 44 and 45; his own very name appears there, and had been there two or three hundred years ere he was born. And he is mentioned as the one who was to be the builder of the Temple at Jerusalem. We cannot say that it was so, but we may suggest that he heard of this amazing fact from some of the captives; and if he did, was it not the instrument by which the Lord stirred up his spirit? And enough, and more than enough, it was to put him upon that great and generous action which he accomplished, and the record of which closes the Books of Chronicles, and opens the Book of Ezra.*
*It has been reported that Alexander, the Grecian, was shown the prophecy of Daniel, which respected himself. Cyrus, the Persian, may in like manner have been shown this prophecy of Isaiah.
We may rather wonder at his not doing more, if he ever had a sight of those divine oracles, than at his doing so much. We might expect that he would himself have become a proselyte; for Isaiah there lets him know, that it was none other than the God of that people (who were then his subjects, and, as I may say, his captives), who had gone before him to clear his way to conquest and dominion.
But be this so or not, his decree, as we know, was the immediate cause, and the full authority for their return.
Further, however, as to this great event and era, the times of the Gentiles, as the Lord Himself speaks, began with the Babylonish captivity; the Gentiles then became supreme, as we have already said, one kingdom succeeding another. And these times of the Gentiles continue still. The return from Babylon has made no difference as to this; for that event left Gentile supremacy unaffected. But these times will end in the judgment of the Apocalyptic beast, and his confederates (Rev. 19), when the stone cut out without hands smites the image.
And we may further say, as to Israel, that this captivity worked a reformation among them. From that time to the present "the unclean spirit," as the Lord Himself also speaks, has been "out." Idolatry has not been practised since then; but though the Jewish house be thus emptied and swept, it is not furnished with its true wealth and ornament.* Messiah has not been accepted; and, in principle, Israel have returned to Babylon, where they will remain, till the day of redemption and the kingdom under the grace and power and presence of the Lord Jesus.
*By and by, the unclean spirit is to return, and, bringing other unclean spirits with him more wicked than himself, perfect the apostacy of the Jew, and lead him to judgment again.
The Captives Returned to Jerusalem.
Ezra 1 - 4
When we enter the Book of Ezra, we begin the story of the returned captives; we see them in their circumstances, and in their behaviour; and from both one and the other we gather instruction.
In much of their condition we read much of our own: and from their behaviour, we are either taught, or encouraged, or warned. As we trace their story, we may well be struck by the resemblance it has to our own; so that, from moral kindredness in their condition and ours, we may call them our brethren in something of a special sense.
Having accomplished their journey from Babylon to Jerusalem, we find them at once in much moral beauty; they use what they have, they do what they can, but they do not assume or affect what they have not and what they cannot. They have the word, and they use it. They do their best with the genealogies, so as to preserve the purity of the priesthood and the sanctuary; but they do not affect to do what the Urim and the Thummim would enable them to do, for they have it not.
This is beautiful; they do not refuse to do what they can, because they cannot do all that they would. Their measure they will use, and not quarrel with it because it is small. And yet they stretch not themselves beyond it, but wait till another comes with a further and more perfect measure.
They are quick to raise an altar to the God of Israel. They need not build their Temple first. An altar will do for burnt-offerings and for the Feast of Tabernacles; and, as a revived people, as a people consciously standing on holy ground again, on the mystic day, the first day of the seventh month, they raise their altar and begin their worship.
This was very fine. It was as the instinct that prompted Noah, as soon as he got out of the ark, to offer his sacrifices; or, as that of David, as soon as he reached the throne, to look after the ark of God.
Israel raised no altar in Egypt — they must go into the wilderness ere they could offer a sacrifice or keep a feast to the Lord. Egypt was the place of the flesh, and of judgment; and deliverance out of it must be accomplished, ere God could duly receive worship at their hand. And so in Babylon: Israel raised no altar there. One might open his window, and pray towards Jerusalem; three or four might make common prayer for mercy and wisdom; in a day of perplexity, they may all together hang their harps upon willows, refusing to sing the songs of Zion there; but they raised no altar in that land of the uncircumcised. But now again in Jerusalem the altar is built, and sacrifices rendered; worship is restored, as Israel is revived. The two things which God has joined together, the glory of His Name and the blessing of His people, are at once seen in the returned captives.
But, further, as soon as the foundation of the Temple is laid, a strange thing is heard — that which could not but be a discord of harsh sounds in the ear of nature, a harmony of hallowed voices in the ear of God and of faith. There are weepings and cries for sorrow, there are shoutings for joy. But, weighed in the balances, all this was harmony; for all was real, all was "to the Lord."
As some observed a day, and some might once refuse to observe it, and this may appear to be disorder; but each doing what they did "to the Lord," the highest order was maintained (see Rom. 14): the Spirit so esteems it.
There is, however, more than this. There is real confusion, and that in abundance, as well as this apparent occasional discord. The condition of things is incurably intricate and confused. What a godly Jew must have felt, when he found himself again in the land where David had conquered, where Solomon had reigned, where the glory had dwelt, and the priesthood unto Jehovah had waited on its service!
Such an one may, at that moment, have given the first look at himself; and he would have had to recognise in himself a strange sight in the land where he then found himself, the subject of a Gentile power. Next, looking at his brethren, he would have to say, that some of them were with him, but some were still far away among the uncircumcised; and then, taking a wider gaze at the people of the land, he would have to see a seed of corruption, half Jew, half heathen, in the place which had once been shared among the seed of Abraham, and them only!
What sights were these! What needed light and energy to deal with and act upon this strange mass of difficulties and contradictions! But that light and energy are beautifully found amongst them. They who had maintained their Nazariteship in Babylon would keep it, if need be, in Judea; they who would not eat the king's meat there, will not have Samaritan alliance in the building of the Temple here. And they distinguish things that differ; they know the Persian, and they know the Samaritan: bowing to the sword and authority of the one, as set over them by ordination of God; and refusing the proffered aid of the other, as being themselves untrue to the God of their fathers.
This is like an anticipation of the Lord's own judgment to returned captives in His day; "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's." And it reminds me of their fathers in the wilderness, where they knew the Edomite and the Amorite in their different relations to them; as here, their children know the Samaritan and the Persian. They do nothing in a spirit of rebellion. They will be subject to the "powers that be," as knowing them "ordained of God." But religious impurity they repudiate. It is full of instruction, all this, and very pertinent to present conditions among ourselves. These things, or the principles which are found and involved in them, re-appear among the saints of this day.
Faith still recognises that "salvation" is the ground of "worship" (John 4). That is, that while we are in the flesh, God gets nothing from us; that the place of discipline, such as Babylon was to Israel, is to witness only the service and the rendering of harps hung on willow trees.
Faith still uses the written word in all things; it affects nothing beyond its measure; while it does what it can according to its measure. It does not cast away what it has, because it has not more. It does not say, "There is no hope," and sit idle, because power in certain forms of glory does not belong to us; but it will not imitate power, or fashion the image of what is now departed. And it waits for the day when all will be set in eternal order and beauty, by the presence of Him who is the true light and perfection, and who will settle all things in the kingdom according to God.
Faith, likewise, still listens with a different ear from that of nature. As I have already alluded to it, so here again, I may say, that Rom. 14, like Ezra 3, tells us that that which is discordance in the ear of flesh and blood is harmony in the ear of God.
And surely, I may add, faith still recognises confusion. If we see it in Israel in the day of Ezra, we see it among the saints and churches in the day of 2 Tim.; and the day of 2 Tim. was but the beginning of the present long day of Christendom, or of "the great house." Strangely inconsistent elements surround us, as they did the returned captives. Gentile supremacy in the land; the offered aid, and then the bitter enmity, of Samaritans; some of God's Israel still in Babylon, while others have returned to Jerusalem. All this did not afford them stranger, more singular or anomalous materials, to distinguish and act upon, than the present great house of Christendom, with its clean and unclean vessels, some to honour, and some to dishonour, affords to us.
We may, however, be encouraged as well as instructed by these captives. For, while ancient glory and strength are not seen among them, Urim and Thummim lost, ark of covenant gone, the mystic rod and the cloudy pillar no more known and seen; yet was there more energy and light, and a deeper exercise of spirit, in the returned from Babylon, than in the redeemed from Egypt.
Ezra 5 - 6.
This is so, indeed, as we have seen.
We soon find, however, that we have more to say, but if we be instructed and encouraged by the returned captives, so surely may we be warned by them. They need a revival, though now returned to Jerusalem, as they needed it, when they were still in Babylon.
The decree of Artaxerxes had stopped the building of the Temple. Nature, or the flesh, takes advantage of this: and the captives begin to adorn their own houses, as soon as they get leisure, and are free of their labour in building the Lord's house.
What a warning this is! It has been said, that it is easier to gain a victory than to use it. We may conquer in the fight, but be defeated by the victory. The returned Jews had gained a victory, when they refused the offers and the alliance of the Samaritans. They were right to resent any help which would have compromised their holiness. But they now abuse the victory. The Samaritans had got a decree from the Persian king to stop the building of the Temple; and the leisure thus generated becomes a snare to the remnant. They use it in ceiling and adorning their own houses: very natural; but very humbling to think of it. Abraham had done far better than this. With his trained servants he gains the day in his encounter with the confederated kings; but then one victory leads to another, for he refuses the offers of the king of Sodom immediately afterwards. But here leisure conquers those who had but lately conquered the Samaritans. This was more like David, if unlike Abraham. David fought his way nobly from the day of the lion and the bear to the day of the throne; but he betrays relaxation, carelessness of heart, on the very first occasion which occupies him as a king. David puts the ark of God on a new cart drawn by oxen!
"Is it time for you, O ye, to dwell in your ceiled houses, and this house lie waste?" says the convicting, rebuking Spirit by the prophet Haggai.
This is humbling and yet a healthful warning. Our hearts well understand this — how nature takes quick and earnest advantage of these its opportunities. But though the captives be led under Persian rule, yet the Spirit of God is unbound, and can revive His ancient grace in sending His prophets to them. For this was His ancient grace. This had been His well-known way all along, from before the day of king Saul, till after the day of king Zedekiah, i.e., from the first of the kings of Israel to the last, from 1 Sam. 1 to 2 Chr. 36. All along that course of time, generation after generation, prophets had been sent again and again to rebuke, to instruct, or to encourage kings and their people. Samuel, and Nathan, and Gad, Shemaiah, Jahaziah, and Azariah, Elijah and Elisha, with others, had thus ministered while Israel was a nation; and now Haggai and Zechariah are sent, as kindred prophets with them, to the returned captives: the sweet witness that the old form of the grace of God towards His people was still to be in use, that they might know, in every age and in all conditions, that they were not straitened in Him.
God did not come forward to establish them on the original footing. To do so would not have been morally suitable, either with respect to the position in which the people stood with God, or with regard to a power which He had established among the Gentiles, or with a view to the instruction of His own people in all ages, as to the government of God. This is very just. Things are left, as the hand of God in government had put them. The Gentile is still supreme in the earth; nor does the glory return to Israel. The throne of David is not raised up from the dust, nor is Urim and Thummim given again, nor the ark of the covenant; but the Spirit is not gone from His place of service. He raises up prophets, as in other days when the throne of David was in Jerusalem, and the temple and its priesthood in their glory and beauty.
It would be profitable to mark the way in which these prophets conducted their ministry in reviving the returned captives; but this I do not here. The house, however, is again attended to under their word; the zeal of the people revives; their faith and service live again; and in about four years, from the second year of Darius, when Haggai and Zechariah began to prophesy, to the sixth, when the house was finished, they work with renewed earnestness.
The dedication of the house then takes place. And this is a beautiful witness of the moral state of the remnant. It is but little they can do — little indeed — but they do it. Solomon had slain 22,000 oxen and 124,000 sheep at the dedication of the first house, while the returned captives can only render a few hundred bullocks and rams and lambs. But they do what they can; and who will say, that the mite of that earlier widow was not more than all the offerings of their richer forefathers? They did what they could, without blushing for their poverty. "Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee." There is preciousness in such feebleness, something specially acceptable in such sacrifices — when "in a time of affliction, the abundance of joy and deep poverty abound unto the riches of liberality."
And then they keep their passover; they can do this, and they will do it. The house they can dedicate, and the feast they can keep, and they will; and priests and Levites are alike purified now, as they had not been in the royal time of Hezekiah (2 Chr. 29:34; Ezra 6:20). So that indeed we may say, though the want of all manifested glory, such as shone in the days of Solomon, may be marked here, yet is there more attractive moral grace and power; just as the exodus from Babylon, some twenty years before, had been marked in contrast with the exodus from Egypt. There are features in the second exodus and in the dedication, features of personal beauty, which had not so appeared in the brighter, far brighter, days of Egypt and of Solomon.
Ezra 7 - 10.
As we enter these chapters, we have passed an interval of about sixty years, and are in company with a new generation of captives, and are about to witness a second exodus from Babylon.
This portion of the book gives us the story of Ezra himself. It consists of two parts: his journey from Babylon (Ezra 7, 8); his work at Jerusalem (Ezra 9, 10).
We find him, in each of these, eminently a man of God. He is in ordinary circumstances; no miracle distinguishes the action; no display of glory or of power accompanies it; nor have we the inspiration which filled the prophets Haggai and Zechariah on the last revival, as we saw in Ezra 5, 6. All is ordinary: his resources are only what ours in this day are, the word and the presence of God. But he used them, and used them well and faithfully throughout. Ere he began to act, he prepared his heart to seek the Lord; he had meditated on His statutes, till his profiting, as we may surely say, appears to all of us. And as soon as he begins to act, and all through to the very end, we see him in much communion and in secret with the Lord. And he will carry the word of God through every difficulty and hindrance.
He leads home from Babylon to Jerusalem a comparatively small remnant; but he exercises a spirit of faith and obedience in no common measure.
In starting on the journey he is careful to preserve the sanctity of holy things. In such a spirit had Jehoiada the priest acted, as he was bringing back Joash to the kingdom. He would not sacrifice the purity of the house of God to any necessity of the times (2 Chr. 23). And so now, in leading his remnant back to Jerusalem, Ezra will not sacrifice the sanctity of the vessels of the house to any hindrance or difficulty of his day. He will look out for the Levites to bear them home, though this may delay him on the banks of the Ahava for twelve days. He is far above king David in all this. David, in an hour when he might have commanded the resources of a kingdom, did not keep the book of God open before him, but hastily set the ark of God on a new cart. But Ezra is as one who has the word of God ever before him; and, though in the zeal of David takes care against the haste and heedlessness of David (1 Chr. 13).
It is very sweet to see a saint thus in weakness of circumstances, with nothing but ordinary resources, so carrying himself before God, and through his services and duties.
And further, as we next see him, he is one that will not take a backward step. He had boasted of the God of Israel to the king of Persia, and he will not now (beginning a perilous journey) ask help of him, gainsaying in act the confession of his lips. He will get strength from God by fasting, rather than from the king by asking.
There are beautiful combinations in all that we have now traced in this dear man. He used God's word and God's presence; richly instructed as a scribe, he was much in secret with the Lord. He was a diligent, meditative student at home, but he was energetic and practical and self-devoting abroad. He would not go behind his conscience or sacrifice the word of God to any difficulty or hindrance; and if his confession did for a moment go beyond his faith, and he found himself not quite up to the place he had been put in, he will wait on God to have his heart strengthened, and not timidly or idly let his confession be reproached.
And yet all his circumstances were as ordinary as ours of this day. He had God's word and God's presence, as I have said; and so have we. But that was all: he had not even the inspiration of a Haggai or a Zechariah to encourage him. It was simply the grace of God in the power of the Spirit, awakening a saint to fresh service by the word.
If other portions of the story of the returned captives have instructed and encouraged and warned us, surely, we may now say, this may well humble us. In Ezra's condition, how coldly and how feebly are our souls exercised in his spirit of earnest service and secret communion!
The journey was accomplished, the second exodus from Babylon is performed, and Jerusalem is reached by Ezra and his companions without any mischief or loss by the way. The good hand of their God was with them, and proved itself enough without help from the king. The treasures were all delivered in the Temple, as they had been weighed and numbered at the Ahava. All that, in the days of Noah, had gone into the ark came out safe and sound. Not a grain falls to the ground of such treasures at any time; and here all arrive at Jerusalem that had left Chaldea.
In due time Ezra had to look around him in Jerusalem. He meets what he was but little prepared for; and the sight is overwhelming. Decline among the returned captives had set in rapidly, and corruption had worked wonderfully. What a sight for the spirit of such a man! Ezra blessedly illustrates "the godliness of weeping for other men's sins" — a Christ-like affection, indeed; and the sample of it in this man of God may well further humble some of us.
Israel had again married the daughter of a strange god. The holy seed had mingled themselves with the people of the land. The Jew had joined affinity with the Gentile.
To maintain anything of purity in the progress of a dispensation, reviving power has to be put forth again and again; and a fresh separation to God and His truth has to take place under that reviving virtue. So it is now with Ezra at Jerusalem. But we here pause for a moment, to consider some divine principles. When sin entered, and the creature and the creation became defiled, the Lord God had to set up a witness to Himself, that there was now a breach between Himself and that which had been the work of His hands, and the representative of His glories. The ordinance of clean and unclean did this service at the beginning (Gen. 8:20).
In the progress of His ways we find two other operations of His of like character: — I mean, His judgments and His call. He separated defilement from Himself and His creation by judgment in the day of the Flood, about to make the earth the scene of His presence and government in the new or post-diluvian world. But when that world defiled itself like the old world, He distinguished between clean and unclean by calling Abraham to Himself, to the knowledge of Him and a walk with Him apart from the world. And these are samples of what He has ever since been doing, and is doing now, and will do still.
Separation from evil is, in a great sense, the principle of communion with Him. The truth, the knowledge of God, life in Christ, is the positive ground, means, or secret of communion, surely; but separation from evil must accompany that. For if we meet the Blessed One Himself, we must meet Him in conditions suited to His presence.
Ezra soon finds that the returned captives had practically forgotten all this. They had mingled themselves with the people of the land. They were involved again in that evil from which the call of God had separated them. They were defiled. For sanctification is by "the truth;" the washing of water is "by the word;" and, if holiness be not according to God's word, and God's word as He applies it at the time, or dispensationally, it has no divine quality. There is no Nazaritism in it, no separation to God. The children of the captivity had been marrying, and giving in marriage, with the Gentiles. Ezra sets himself to the work of reformation, and does so in the same spirit in which he had set himself to be for God before his journey, and on his journey. And this is what we have very specially to mark in Ezra. He was, personally, so much the saint of God, as well as a vessel gifted and filled. This shows itself in Ezra more than in any who had served among the captives before him. He was a vessel that had, indeed, purged itself for the Master's use; for the reformation in Jerusalem is accomplished in the like zeal as the journey from Babylon; and the blessing of God awaits upon it. There is no miracle; no displayed glory; no mighty energy bespeaking extraordinary divine presence: nothing is seen out of the common measure, or beyond ordinary resources. Service is, if done and rendered according to the written word, for the glory of the God of Israel, and in the spirit of worship and communion. It is but a sample of what service with us at this day might be, and, as we may add, ought to be. Ezra, throughout, does not listen to expediency, or yield to a difficulty, or refuse diligence and toil; he maintains principles, and carries the word of God through every hindrance.
Deeply do I believe, that the saints of God in this our day may read the story of the returned captives, as very good for the use of edifying; and find plenty to instruct, to encourage, to warn, and to humble them.
"How precious is the book divine
By inspiration given!
Bright as a lamp its doctrines shine
To guide us on to heaven."
The Builders of the Wall.
Nehemiah 1 - 6
It is after an interval of twelve years from the time of Ezra's action, that Nehemiah appears. He was a captive still in Babylon (or Persia, the same thing, in principle), while Ezra was doing good service to the Lord at Jerusalem. But, connected as he was with the palace of the Persian king, he may not have been free to take part with the movement or revival in Ezra's day — or, it may be, he was not then quickened by the Spirit, so as to do so.
He represents a fresh revival; and all is in increased weakness. He is not a prince of the house of David, like Zerubbabel, nor a priest of the family of Aaron, like Ezra. He is, as we speak, a layman; cup-bearer to the king.
There is something, however, in all this, that magnifies the grace that was in him. The burdens of his brethren have power to detach him from the Persian palace, as they had once separated Moses from the Egyptian. No miracle distinguishes these days of returned captives, but there are many witnesses of fine moral energy among them.
Ezra had been a scribe, as well as a priest. He was a meditative, worshipping student of God's Word; for he found the springs and the guide of his energy in that word. Nehemiah was not that. He was a practical man, a man in the business of everyday life, amid the circumstances and relations which make up human history. But he was of an earnest spirit, like Ezra, and he took what he heard, as Ezra had taken what he read, and dealt with it in the presence of God.
He had heard of the desolations of Jerusalem, and he weeps over them before God; as Ezra had seen the sins of Jerusalem, and wept over them before God. But here, we may ask, how was it that these desolations had not moved Ezra? He was all this time at Jerusalem, while Nehemiah was in the Persian palace, and could only hear of them by occasional reports. Was it that the energy had declined in Ezra? and that he himself now needed to be revived, though some years since he had been the instrument for reviving others? Such things are, and have been. Peter led his brethren on, in Acts 1:15; but he had need himself to be pulled up, corrected, and led on, in Galatians 2. A younger Paul reanimates his elder brother Peter who had been serving the Lord for years, while he was blaspheming Him. And here, it would seem, a younger Nehemiah, a layman too, has to revive the venerable scribe who had crossed over to Jerusalem to serve God there, years and years before him.
If it were not this, it may show us, that the Lord has one business for one servant, another for another; one purpose by this revival, another by that. Zerubbabel had looked to the Temple, Ezra to the reformation of the religion; and Nehemiah is now raised up to look to the city-walls, and the civil condition of Jerusalem. It may have been thus, for such things, again I say, are and have been. Of old, there was the Gershonite, the Merarite, and the Kohathite service. And it has been surely thus, in a series of revivals, century after century, in the course of Christendom, since the Reformation, which was a kind of return from Babylon.
I say not in which of these ways we are to account for Ezra apparently remaining unmoved, though the ruined walls of the city were before his eyes day after day for years. However, he is honourable, highly so, in the recollections of the people of God, as Nehemiah is.
Nehemiah was a simple man of very earnest affections. His book gives us, I may say, the only piece of autobiography which we get in Scripture. It is this dear man of God writing his own history in the simple style that suits truth-telling. He lets us learn, how he turned to God again and again, in the spirit of a trustful, confiding child, as he went on with his work. His style reminds me of a word which I met, I believe, in some old writer, "let Christ be second to every thought." That is, let the soul quickly turn to the Lord in the midst of occupations, be habitually before Him, not however by effort or watching, but by an easy, happy, natural, exercise of soul.
And, together with this exercise of his spirit towards God, Nehemiah's heart was alive to his brethren. In deep affection, and in that eloquence that comes fresh from the heart and its suggestions, he calls Jerusalem, "the city of his fathers' sepulchres." And all this presents to us a very attractive person. We love him, and do not grudge him his virtues, or envy him because of his excellences. We trace him with affectionate admiration.
The exercise of his spirit, ere he got his royal master's leave to visit Jerusalem, is very beautiful. From the month Chisleu to the month Nisan, that is, from the third to the seventh month, he was mourning before God on account of the city. At length he comes before the king, and leave is given him, and a given time is set him, to take his journey and pay his visit — a captain and horsemen are also appointed to guide and guard him on the road. He had been much alone in all this: revivals commonly begin with some individual; and when he reaches Jerusalem, he is still, at first, alone. By night he inspects the city walls, acquainting himself with the nature of the work that now lay before him. He proves what he is about to publish. Very right — it is the way of Spirit-led servants. "We speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen." Nor is he a patron but yoke-fellow, a fellow-labourer, like Paul, or like Paul's divine Master, Who, while He was Lord of the harvest, served in the harvest-field also.
And, indeed, these are always the forms after which the Spirit prepares the servants of Christ. They prove what they teach, and they labour in the principle of service and not of patronage. They are not lords of the heritage, but ensamples of the flock; they affect no dominion over the faith, but they are helpers of the joy.
Then, as we go on to Nehemiah 3, and look at his companions in the work, we see much to instruct us, and much that tells us of our own day and our own circumstances.
All are a working people together — the nobles and the common folk. The service of God's city had put them all on a level. The rich are made low, the poor are exalted: a beautiful sight in its time and place. Then, some are distinguished: Baruch, the son of Zabbai, works "earnestly" (ver. 20); the "daughters" of Shallum work with their father (ver. 12); some of the priests "sanctified" their work in their part of the city-walls, while others of them worked after a common manner. (vv. 22, 28) And, painful to have to add to all this, the nobles of the Tekoites worked not at all. (ver. 5)
There have always been such distinctions as these, and there are the same abundantly in this our day. In raising the Tabernacle in the wilderness, in fighting the battles of Canaan, in accompanying David in the days of his exile, as here in the building of the wall of Jerusalem, and afterwards among the yoke-fellows of St. Paul, we see these distinctions. And surely, like the daughters of Shallum, or like the wife of Aquila, females in this our day are doing good work in the gospel, and in the service of Jerusalem. But we may remember, and it has its profit to do so, every man shall receive his own reward according to his own work (1 Cor. 3); though we have also to remember, that the Lord weighs the quality as well as the quantity of what is rendered to Him. (Matt. 20:1-16)
Thus we may surely be instructed in the details of this sweet story. As we pass through Nehemiah 4 we find the builders have become fighters as well as builders. Their work is continued in the face of enemies, and in spite of "cruel mockings," as Hebrews 11 speaks. And in this combination of the sword and the trowel, we see the symbols of our own calling. There is that which we have to withstand, and there is that which we have to cultivate. We are to cherish and advance, like builders, what is of the Spirit in us; we are to resist and mortify what is of the flesh. We are builders and fighters.
As to the enemies, they are the same Samaritans as at the first. The Zerubbabel generation of them was represented in Rehum and Shimshai, or in Tatnai, and Shethar-boznai; and now, the generation of them in this day of Nehemiah is represented in Sanballat and Tobiah. They were not heathen men, but a seed of corruption, who might appear to be "the circumcision" in the eyes of flesh and blood. And by this time they seem to have become more corrupt; for Edomites, Arabians, Philistines, and Ammonites appear to be joined with them, or to have become one with them.
And still more serious, and more for our personal, immediate warning, we see a company of Jews dwelling near these Samaritans. And they were in the secrets of the Samaritans (ver. 12) — a bad symptom. They were borderers. They may remind us of Lot in Sodom, and of Obadiah in the house of Ahab. Surely they were not Samaritans; they were Jews, and had some love and care for their serving, toiling brethren in Jerusalem. But they dwelt near the Samaritans, and were in their secrets; again, I say, a bad moral symptom. They were, I presume, some of the old stock, left behind in the land, in the day when Judah was taken captive. They had never shared in the revival virtues of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. Their scent was in them — they had not been emptied from vessel to vessel, as Jeremiah speaks of Moab (Jer. 48).
Different from such, widely different, was the trumpeter, whom Nehemiah here sets close to his own person; for if these Jews were in the secret of the Samaritans, this trumpeter was in the secret of God. This is what the holders and blowers of trumpets always represent — whether we see them as priests, doing their occasional and varied work in Num. 10; or their annual work on the first day of the seventh month, as in Lev. 23; or as gifted ministers in God's assembly, teaching and exhorting, according to 1 Cor. 12:8-9.
Humbling to some of us to trace these beauties in the servants of Christ, in the Nehemiahs, and in the trumpeters on the walls of the city!
There are combinations in Nehemiah which distinguish themselves very strikingly. In Nehemiah 5 we see him in his private virtues; as in preceding chapters we have seen him in public energies. He surrenders his personal rights as governor, that he may be simply and fully the servant of God and His people. This may remind us of Paul in 1 Cor. 9, for there the apostle will not act upon his rights and privileges as an apostle, as here Nehemiah is doing the same as the Tirshatha, or Governor of Judea, under the Persian throne.
This is beautiful. How it shows the kindred operations of the Spirit of God in the elect, though separated so far from each other as Nehemiah and Paul!
We have, however, a warning as well as an example in this chapter.
The Jews, who had now been long in Jerusalem, were oppressing one another. Nehemiah tells them, that their brethren, still away among the Gentiles, were doing far better than this. They were redeeming one another, while here, in the very heart of the land, their own land, they were selling one another.
This is solemn; and we may listen to this, and be warned. It tells us, that those who had taken a right position were behaving worse than those who were still in a wrong one. The Jews at Jerusalem were in a better ecclesiastical condition, while their brethren, still in Babylon, were in a purer moral condition.
Is not this a warning? It is another illustration of what we often see ourselves; but it is a solemn and humbling warning.
Not that we are to go back to Babylon, leaving Jerusalem; but we are surely to learn, that the mere occupation of a right position will not be a security. We may be beguiled into moral relaxation through satisfaction in our ecclesiastical accuracies. This is a very natural deceit. "The temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord are these," may be the language of a people on the very eve of God's judgment. There may be the tithing of mint, and rue, and anise, and withal the forgetting of the weightier matters of righteousness, goodness, and truth.
But this chapter also gives us another of those combinations which shine in the character of Nehemiah. It enables us to say, that while there was beautiful simplicity in him, there was likewise decided independency. His simplicity was such, that like a child he turns back and home to God, while treading one path of service after another; and yet there was that independency and absoluteness about him, that led him to begin always as from himself in the fear and presence of God. As here, he tells us that upon hearing of those oppressions of brethren by brethren, he took counsel with himself ere he acted (ver. 7). And, indeed, all his previous actions bespeak the like independency. He was Christ's freeman, and not the servant of man; simple in God's presence; independent before his fellow-creatures.
These are fine combinations, greatly setting off the character of this dear, honoured, man of God.
In Nehemiah 6, we see him again in conflict, but it is in personal, single-handed fight; not, as in Nehemiah 4, marshalling others, putting the sword in one of their hands, and the trowel in the other, but fighting himself, single-handed and alone, face to face with the wiles of his enemies. In the progress of this chapter he is put though different temptations. Generally we see him a single-hearted man, whose body, therefore, is "full of light." He detects the enemy, and is safe. But besides this, there are certain special securities which it is very profitable to consider for a moment.
1. He pleads the importance of the work he was about (ver. 3).
2. He pleads the dignity of his own person (ver. 11).
These are fine arguments for any saint of God to use in the face of the tempter. I think I see the Lord Himself using them, and teaching us to use them also.
In Mark 3 His mother and His brethren came to Him, and they seem to have a design to withdraw Him from what He is doing to themselves; just as Nehemiah's enemies are seeking to do with him in this chapter. But the Lord pleads the importance of what He was then about, in the face of this attempt, or in answer to the claims which flesh and blood had upon Him. He was teaching His disciples and the multitude, getting the light and word and truth of God into them. And the fruit of such a work as this He solemnly lets us know was far beyond the value of all connections with Him in the flesh; and the claims of God's word, which He was then ministering, far more weighty than those of nature.
And in like manner He teaches His servants to know the dignity of their work. He tells them, while at it, "not to salute any man by the way," nor to stop to bid farewell to them that are at home; nor to tarry even for the burial of a father (Luke 9, 10).
But again in Luke 13, the Pharisees try to bring Him into the fear of man, as Shemaiah seeks to do with Nehemiah in this same chapter (ver. 10). But the Lord at once rises into the sense of His dignity, the dignity of His person, and lets the Pharisees know that He was at His own disposal, could walk as long as He pleased, and end His journey when He pleased; that the purposes of Herod were vain, save as He allowed them to take their way. And so, in John 11, when His disciples would have kept Him from going into Judea, where so lately His life had been in danger, He again rises, in like manner, in the sense of the One that He was, in the consciousness of personal dignity, and answers them as from this elevation (see verses 9-11).
And the Holy Ghost, by the apostle in 1 Cor. 6, would impart courage and strength to the saints, from a like sense of the elevation and honours that belonged to them. "Know ye not," says Paul to the Corinthians, "that we shall judge angels;" and again, "Ye are not your own, ye are bought with a price." "Know ye not that your body is the temple of the Holy Ghost?"
There is something very fine in all this. These are weapons of war indeed, weapons of divine, heavenly metal. To gain victories with such, is Christian conquest indeed; when temptations can be met and withstood by the soul carrying the sense of the importance of the work to which God has set us, and the dignity of the person which God has made us. Would that we could take down and use those weapons, as well as admire them as they thus hang up before us in the armoury of God. It is easy, however, to inspect and justify the fitness of an instrument to do its appointed work, and all the time be feeble and unskilful in using it, and in doing such appointed work by it.*
*Let me add, in further commendation of this servant of God, what another once suggested to me; that though the Book that bears his name was written by himself and is a piece of autobiography, yet he does not acquaint us with himself beyond what necessarily comes out from his connection with the people of God and his service of them. We see nothing of him as at home, or what the circumstances of that home were. We learn not his age, or place of birth. We may say, he did not know himself after the flesh. He presents a simple-hearted, single-eyed sample of that indeed.
Nehemiah 7 - 10.
Here we read, "Now the city was large and great, but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded" (ver. 4). Having therefore built the walls, Nehemiah takes in hand to people the city. For the walls would be nothing, save as the defence of a peopled place within them.
This purpose, therefore, we find in his heart, at the opening of Nehemiah 7 — and accordingly he acquaints himself with the returned captives, and reads the catalogue and the account of them, as they had been in the days of Zerubbabel, which would be a guide to his present object.
Nehemiah 8 - 10.
However, ere he pursue this purpose, and take on him to people the city, he turns aside for a while to consider the people themselves. And this gives us his action in Nehemiah 8 - 10, which may be called a parenthetic action — for in Nehemiah 11 he resumes the purpose which he had conceived in Nehemiah 7: that is, the purpose of peopling the city.
This gives a peculiar character and a special interest to these three chapters, where we find the people put through a moral process of a very striking kind indeed. Nehemiah looks at them personally, looks at their souls, at their moral condition, and would fain quicken or sanctify them, ere he settles them in their places.
This action begins on the first day of the seventh month — a distinguished day in the calendar of Israel, the feast of trumpets, a day of revival after a long season of interruption when all was barren or dead in the land. And this action, thus begun, is continued in successive stages, down to the close of Nehemiah 10; thus, as I observed already, giving Nehemiah 8 — 10 a distinct place in the book of Nehemiah, and the character of a parenthesis.
We must, therefore, look at these chapters a little particularly.
This distinguished day, the first day of the seventh month, demanded, according to the ordinance touching it, a holy convocation and a blowing of trumpets — for it was the symbol, as I have said, of a time of revival after a long season of death and barrenness (see Lev. 23:23-25). This ordinance was observed here in Nehemiah 8. There was a convocation of the people. But there was something additional. The Book of the Law was read in the audience of the people, and explained to them. And at this the people wept — properly so, for this is the business of the application of the law to a sinner, to convict him, and make him cry out, "O wretched man that I am!" But their teachers, on this occasion, at once restrain their tears, because that day was "holy to the Lord." It was a time of joy, such as the blowing of trumpets, and the new moon then beginning again to walk in the light of the sun, would signify. The people were, therefore, told to let the joy of the Lord be their strength, to be merry themselves and to send portions to others.
All this was beautifully in concert with the day, in the ordinances touching it. The thing that was additional, or unprescribed by Lev. 23, that is, the reading of the law, was by all this made to give a richer, fuller tone to the day itself in its proper, prescribed character. The added thing was in no collision whatever with the ordained thing — that which was voluntary was no violation of that which was prescribed.
And here I would say, this is just what we might expect in a day of revival. At such a time, the word of God must be thoroughly honoured. It must be the standard. But there will be, necessarily I would say, such new or added things as the character of the time, under the Spirit of God, would suggest. But these new things, whatever they be, will not offend against the word of God. And such is the scene here.
But the word of God, being opened, is kept open. It was a day, as we speak, of "an open Bible." Precious mercy! And this open Book, having yielded one piece of instruction, telling them of the rights of the first day of the seventh month, now yields them further instruction, telling them about eight other days of that same month, or about the "feast of tabernacles." And the people, already in the spirit of obedient listeners to the word of God, are still kept in it. They learn about that eight-day feast, and they keep it; in such sort, too, as had not been witnessed for centuries.
This was, in like manner, beautiful. But again, we notice something additional.
In Nehemiah 9 we see the congregation of the children of Israel in humiliation, going through a solemn service of confession; and then, in Nehemiah 10, entering into a covenant of obedience to God, and of the observance of His ordinances. But nothing of all this had been prescribed. We find no mention of such a thing in the law of Moses. Lev. 23 had not required this to wait upon or follow the feast of tabernacles.
Here, however, again we have to notice something. This solemnity did not take place till the twenty-fourth day of this month; and then the time of the feast of tabernacles had ended; for that ended on the twenty-third. And this, again I say, was very beautiful. The congregation would not, by their act of humiliation and confession, soil the feast, or prevent its purpose. That feast was the most joyous time in the Jewish year. It celebrated the ingathering, or "harvest-home," as we speak. It was the foreshadowing of the days of glory or of the kingdom. It shall have all its demands answered in full tale and measure. The twenty-third day, the last day, that great day of the feast, shall pass, ere the language of humiliation and the voice of penitential sorrow be heard. But then, the ordinance of God admitting it, the people may hold, as we again speak, a "prayer-meeting."
This was likewise voluntary or additional, as I have said — not appointed by scripture, but suggested under the Spirit of God, by the time and the circumstances which marked this present revival under Nehemiah. Confession was the due language of a people who stood, at that moment, the representative of a long-revolted, disobedient, and guilty nation.
"Ceasing to do evil," however, is to be followed by "learning to do well." It is very right, if we have been doing wrong, to begin with confession of the wrong, ere we set ourselves to do the right. But to do the right thing is a due attendant on the confession of the wrong thing. And all this moral comeliness we see here, as we pass from the ninth to the tenth chapter.
The nobles, and all the people together, meet as "brethren," in separation from the people of the land (see Neh. 10:28), and seal a covenant to keep the laws of God. It is pleasant to see here, as also when they were building the wall in Nehemiah 3, how rank and station lost itself in common brotherhood. "Let the rich rejoice in that he is made low, and the poor in that he is exalted, for the fashion of this world passeth away." And what they now covenant and seek to do, has still something additional or unprescribed in it. They pledge themselves to observe all the commandments of the Lord, His statutes and His judgments; not to make marriages with other people; not to profane the sabbath; to bring in their first-fruits, their first-born, and their firstlings, and the tithes of their ground; and all this is according to the word of the Lord. But they also make ordinances for themselves, to be chargeable yearly in the third part of a shekel for the service of the house of God; and they cast lots to bring wood for the altar of God at appointed seasons.
All this is still in sweet and wondrous harmony with the whole of their actions in this day of happy revival. The word of God is, again and again, and throughout, honoured in all its demands; but added things are seen in their services and activities; such as the fresh energy and grace of the revival-season would suggest, and the Spirit would warrant.
Here this parenthetic action, as I have called it, ends. It is beautiful from first to last. The people are conducted through a gracious process. They are exercised according to truth by the Spirit. They are convicted and then relieved. Then they have a lesson about coming joys in days of glory. And thus instructed as to their rich interest in the grace of God, they can look at themselves, not as in fear and in a spirit of bondage, but for due brokenness of heart and with a purpose to serve God for the future. And all this may call to mind that utterance or experience provided by the Holy Ghost for repentant Israel in the last days: "Surely after that I was turned, I repented, and after that I was instructed, I smote upon my thigh; I was ashamed, yea even confounded, because I did bear the reproach of my youth" (Jer. 31).
Nehemiah 11 — 13.
These chapters witness the people still earnest and obedient. The day of revival continues. The freshness of its morning has, in no measure, faded, though we here reach a later hour of the day.
The eleventh chapter opens with a grievous mark of Jerusalem's degradation. She is a witness against herself, that she is not as the Lord will have her in the days of coming glory. She is not "desired," rather indeed "forsaken." People are not flocking to her. She cannot look round her, as she will in the days of the kingdom, and wonder at the multitude of her children. It is not, as yet, the boast of others, that they have been born in her; nor are they owning that all their fresh springs are in her. She has not as yet to say, that the place is too strait for her, for the multitude of those who fill her. These surely are not her condition here in this chapter. She is debtor to any one who will consent or condescend to dwell in her.
What a witness of degradation! what a sign indeed, that restoration was not glory! Jerusalem is still trodden down; the times of the Gentiles are still unfulfilled. Surely the daughter of Zion has not arisen, and shaken herself from the dust, and put on her strength and her beautiful garments.*
*And what a witness does Christendom yield, that reformation is not glory!
Still, she must be inhabited; she must have her citizens within her. The land must have its people, for Messiah is soon to walk among them; the city must have its inhabitants, for her King is soon to be offered to her. Therefore is the return from Babylon, and therefore is the peopling of Jerusalem.
And again, as we see in Nehemiah 12, she has her wall. Right, that, having a wall, the wall should be dedicated. Public festivity had been often celebrated on such like occasions: at the carriage of the ark in the days of David; at the dedication of the temple in the days of Solomon; at the foundation of the second house in the time of Zerubbabel; and again, when that second house was finished, this was so. And now, in this day, this day of Nehemiah, the people again rejoice at the dedication of the wall which was now finished, and was encompassing the city.
But while this is so, and all is right so far and after this manner, yet what, I ask, is this wall? What, I further ask, but another witness of Jerusalem's degradation? In her coming days of strength and beauty, when she is the city of the Kingdom, the metropolis of the world, the sanctuary and the palace of the great divine King of Israel and of the earth, "salvation" shall be her wall. God will then appoint salvation for walls and bulwarks. The Lord Himself, like her mountains, shall stand round about her. Her walls shall be called Salvation, and her gates Praise. The voice of the Spirit in Zechariah, the echo of which could scarcely at this time have died away, had uttered this fine oracle: "Jerusalem shall be inhabited as towns without walls for the multitude of men and cattle therein. For I, saith the Lord, will be unto her a wall of fire round about, and will be the glory in the midst of her" (Zech. 2:4-5).
How infinite the difference! Jerusalem under the eye of Nehemiah bearing the marks of her shame; Jerusalem, as we read of her in the prophets, the witness of the highest destiny in honour and excellency in the earth! How must such a man have felt, because of all this! And yet he serves earnestly, undauntedly, patiently. Great moral dignity shines in this — a fine spirit of self-devotion expresses itself. He works, and works nobly, though beset with foreign enmities, and encompassed with domestic degradation. Such a servant of Christ, Paul appears to be in 2 Timothy; and such Nehemiah in this book of his.
And this we ought to be ourselves. The Christendom that we see around us is as far from the church that we read of in the Epistles, as the Jerusalem which Nehemiah looked on was unlike the Jerusalem which we read of in the prophets. But he served in the midst of her; and so should we in the face and in the heart of Christendom. For the spirit of service measures not the scene of the service, but the will of the Master.
All this, however, tells the character of the moment. Israel is restored, her land peopled, her city inhabited again; but this is not the kingdom. The children of Israel are to be put to the proving and the clearing of themselves still; and the day of grace, of salvation, and of glory, the promised day of the kingdom, is still distant. But faith has to be exercised, and obedience has to learn and practise its lesson.
Accordingly, on entering Nehemiah 13, we find the Book of God still open among the people. For surely a day of revival is the day of "an open Bible," as we speak. But it is a new lesson they have now to learn. They are growing in knowledge, in acquaintance with divine principles. It is quite another page of the book which they have now turned over. Scripture, as yet, had its "comfort" for them; now it is to have its "patience." As yet it had "piped" to them, now it is about to "mourn" to them. The joy of the feast of trumpets, and the still richer joy of the feast of tabernacles, had been made known to them, and they had obediently responded. They had "danced" to that piping. But now they were to be exercised painfully by the book. They read "that the Moabite and the Ammonite were not to come into the congregation of the Lord for ever."
This was terrible. All, as yet, had been eminently social. Not only in their joy as on the feast-days but in their act of confession, they had been together. "Strangers" had been removed, but "the mixed multitude" do not seem to have been looked after and detected. But now, at the bidding of the word found in Deut. 23, this severe cutting off must be performed; as at the bidding of Lev. 23, the joy of the tabernacles had been already celebrated.
But this was the more fitted to test the spirit of obedience in this good day of revival. And the congregation do stand it, and answer the demand of the word of God very blessedly. For we read, "it came to pass, when they heard the law, that they separated from Israel all the mixed multitude." This was obedience indeed, doing what Scripture prescribed — doing the lessons of the word, teach they what service or duty they may, or call to what sacrifices they may. Iniquity, however, is now found to be in high places, higher, it would seem, than the people could reach. But it must be reached even there; for a day of awakening, and of fresh power from God, must be a day of obedience. All this time an Ammonite had been in the house of the Lord. This exceeded. Not merely was he, like the mixed multitude, in the congregation, but in the house: and that, too, by the practices of the high priest himself.
Nehemiah was not at Jerusalem just at this time. But on his return, he acts on this abomination thus found in the high places, as the people themselves had already acted, in their measure, upon the mixed multitude. For Deut. 23 shall be heard, though the highest functionary in the church will have to be rebuked. Eliashib is nobody to Nehemiah, when Moses speaks; for the one has God's authority with him, the other is to have it over him. A word of admonition to Christendom, if Christendom had ears to hear — that Christendom which has set its own Eliashib above Moses, its own officers above the Scripture. But such an one was not this faithful man. With him "Moses' seat" was supreme. Scripture judges every man, while it itself is to be judged of no man. Neither high priest in Israel, nor assumption of antiquity and succession, nor of any other kind in Christendom, however attractive, is to set aside one jot or tittle of it. The Book, speaking from God, as it does, at all times, and addressing itself to all conditions, must be supreme. "The Scripture cannot be broken" — therefore it is not to be gainsayed. God will fulfil it; we are to observe it.
All this which we thus find in Nehemiah and the congregation, in this closing day of the Old Testament, may well arrest the thoughts of the saints in this day of ours.
In Nehemiah 11 and 12 we have seen marks of degradation in Jerusalem — we see them still in Nehemiah 13. The sabbath was profaned there, and alliances with the daughters of the uncircumcised were still found there. This is more than degradation in circumstances; it is moral degradation, if not abomination. The restoration from captivity, and the re-peopling of the city, have not entitled it to be saluted, as it is to be in coming kingdom days, with that voice which the Spirit has prepared from the lips of an admiring gazing world, "The Lord bless thee, O habitation of justice, and mountain of holiness" (Jer. 31:23).
But in spite of all this, again I say, we see Nehemiah serving. And this is a very fine sight. I need not say how, to perfection, the divine Master of all servants was a pattern of this in His day of service. But there is a great moral dignity in this, let us find samples of it in whom we may.
The congregation, too, keeping the Book still open, is an edifying sight, a sight for us very specially to look at. They were not "partial in the law." They exhibit a people who would fain have no "neglected texts," nor "unturned pages," in the Book of God. Not a sound of it was to be lost upon the ear, as though it was heard in the distance. But who of us, I ask, is up to them in this? How prone we are to choose our lessons, rather than "to live by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God!" Is it not so? I may love the page which reads me a word on the feast of tabernacles in its joy, and delight myself in the sound of the trumpets in the day of the new moon of the seventh month. But the word that would wash me for purification, and separate me from unwarranted alliances, has another relationship to me, and addresses me in other accents. I do not choose that lesson. It is a page of the Book I am not disposed to open. I am tempted to say with the Roman governor, "Go thy way for this time; when I have a convenient season, I will call for thee." The house may be too social, the heart may be too much at ease, to discipline itself by such ordinances as Deut. 23:3.
Indeed, indeed, we may say, all this Scripture, these books of the returned captives, this Ezra and this Nehemiah, are worthy of the deep attention and full admiration of our souls. How did the Spirit of God work in the elect in those days, how does He, by what He has recorded of them, instruct us in these days!
And beside, as we have also seen, those times of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, were times of revival. Such times had been known before in Israel, as with Samuel, David, Jehoshaphat, Hezekiah, and Isaiah. And such have been known, again and again, in the progress of Christendom. And a re-quickening season may take a shape but little expected by us, and perhaps without a perfect precedent. It is the property of life to put on, at times, some exuberant features, to work outside and beyond its ordinary rules and measures. It is more like itself when it acts thus. For life is a thing of freedom, and has inbred force in it. But, at the same time, we are to judge every expression of it by the word of God. "To the law and to the testimony:" if a thing stand not that test, it is not the overflowing of life, however ecstatic or exuberant it may be; it is to be disclaimed with all its fascinations.
"To him that hath shall more be given." Obedience to one lesson is the sure and safe road to the discovery of another. "If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine." There is a temptation to hold back, lest the lessons we have yet to learn shall prove distasteful. "He that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow." There is, therefore, in some of us, a great disposedness or temptation to stop short. But this is disobedience, as well as the breaking of a word read and understood. To shut the book, through fear of what it might teach us, is plainly and surely disobedience.
The Dispersed among the Gentiles.
The Book of Esther.
In the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, on which I have already meditated, we saw the captives brought back to Jerusalem, there to await the coming of the Messiah, that it might be known, whether Israel would accept the Messenger and Saviour whom God would send to them. In this book of Esther we are in a very different scene. The Jews are among the Gentiles still.
We will look at it in its succession of ten chapters; and in the action recorded we shall find —
The Lord God working wondrously, but secretly.
The Jews themselves.
The Gentile, or the power.
The great Adversary.
Esther 1 - 2.
The book opens by presenting to us a sight of the Gentile now in power. It is, however, the Persian and not the Chaldean; "the breast of silver," not "the head of gold," in the great image which Nebuchadnezzar saw. We are here reading rather the 2nd than the 1st chapter in the history of the Gentile's supremacy in the earth. We see him in the progress rather than at the commencement of his career; but morally he is the same. Moab-like, his taste remains in him, his scent is not changed. All the haughtiness that declared itself in Nebuchadnezzar re-appears in Ahasuerus. No spirit or fruit of repentance — no learning of himself — or of what becomes him as a creature, is seen in this man of the earth. The lie of the serpent, which formed man at the beginning, is working as earnestly as ever. The old desire to be as God, utters itself in the Persian now, as it had before in the Chaldean. The one had built his royal city, and looked at it in pride, and said, "Is not this great Babylon that I have built for the house of the kingdom, by the might of my power, and for the honour of my majesty?" The other now makes a feast, and for one hundred and eighty days, shows to the princes and nobles the whole power of his realm, "the riches of his glorious kingdom, and the honour of his excellent majesty."
Nay more; for the Persian exceedeth. There is a bold affecting to be as God in Persia, which we did not see in Babylon. We notice this in three distinguished Persian ordinances.
1. No one was to appear in the royal presence unbidden. In such a case, had this ordinance of the realm been violated, life and death would hang on the pleasure of the king.
2. No one was to be sad before the king; his face or presence was to be accepted of all his people as the spring and power of joy and gladness.
3. No decree of his realm could be cancelled; it stood for ever.
These are assumptions indeed. This exceeds, in the way of man showing himself to be as God; and know we not, that this spirit will work till the Gentile has perfected his iniquity? But the hand of God begins to work its wonders now, in the midst of all the festivity and pride which opens the book. The joy of the royal banquet was interrupted: a stain defaces the fair form of all this magnificence. The Gentile queen refuses to serve the occasion, or be a tributary to this day of public rejoicing; and this leads to the manifesting of the Jew, and of ultimately making that people principal in the action, and eminent in the earth, beyond all thought or calculation.
It was a small beginning, poor and mean in its character and material. Vashti's temper, which goaded her to a course of conduct which jeoparded her life, was the "little fire" which kindled this "how great a matter." It is a miserable, despicable circumstance. What can be meaner? The temper, we may say, of an imperious woman! And yet, God, by it, works results, then known to Himself in counsel, but the accomplishment of which shall be seen in the coming day of Jewish glory.
Vashti is deposed. She is disclaimed as the wife of the Persian; and others more worthy are to be sought for, to take her place.
Now, the question may arise, How far can one of the Jews take advantage of such an occasion? Does holiness avail itself of corruption? Can the people of God forget their Nazaritism, their separation to Him? And yet Esther consents to go before the king at this time, as in company with all the daughters of his uncircumcised subjects!
This may amaze us, if we judge of things by any light less pure and intense than that in which God Himself dwells. The moral sense of mere man — the verdict of legal ordinances — the voice of Mount Sinai itself — will not do at times. We must walk in the light as God is in the light. We must know "the times," like Issachar of old, ere we can rightly say, "what Israel ought to do."
Did not some of Bethlehem-Judah take wives of the daughters of Moab, and that, too, without rebuke? Did not Joseph, in his marriage, deviate from the holiness of Abraham, and Moses from the ordinances of the law? Was not Rahab, though a daughter of the uncircumcised, adopted of Judah, and so conspicuous in the ancestry, after the flesh, of David's Lord? And did not Samson take to wife a woman of Timnath, that belonged to the Philistines?
The people of God were not in due order on the occasions of those strange events; and this is the moral vindication. The light of divine wisdom in divine dispensation becomes the judge, rather than ordinances. The Jews were now in the dispersion. Joseph, if we please so to express it, is in Egypt again, Moses in Midian, and the sons of Bethlehem-Judah in Moab; and Esther is as much unrebuked for going in unto the king of Persia, as Joseph for marrying Asenath, or Moses for marrying Zipporah, or Mahlon for marrying Ruth; and each and all of them stand without reproach or judgment before God in these things, just as David did when he ate the showbread. Nay, these things were of God, as Samson's marriage with a Philistine woman seems distinctly to be so recognized (Judges 14:4).
Divine counsels shall be accomplished; the fruits of grace shall be gathered; and the ordinances of righteousness, and the arrangements which suit us, were we in integrity, and in well-ordered condition, shall not interfere.
The Jew, strange to say it, as we have seen, becomes important to the power, that is, to the Persian. But more so than I have as yet noticed — important to his safety as well as to his enjoyments. For Mordecai becomes his protector, as Esther had become his wife. This we see at the close of Esther 2. The king is debtor to both. In spite of all his greatness, and all the resources for happiness and strength which attached to his greatness, he is debtor to the dispersed of Judah. They are important to him. Both his heart and his head, as I may say, have to own this.
But, if the Jew be thus strangely brought into personal favour and acceptance, with equal strangeness is the Jew's enemy brought into high and honourable elevation, and seated in the very position which capacitated him to gratify all his enmity. An Amalekite sits next in dignity and rule to the king. Above all the princes of the nation, Haman, the Agagite, is preferred; why, we are not told. No public virtue or service is recorded of him. Apparently it is simply the royal pleasure that has done it. A stranger to the nation he was — a distant stranger; one, too, of a race now all but forgotten; we might say, once distinguished in the day of the infancy of nations, but now all but blotted out from the page of history, superseded by others far loftier in their bearing than ever he had been, the Assyrian first, then the Chaldean, and now the Persian. And yet there he now is before us, an Amalekite seated next to Ahasuerus the Persian; in dignity, office, and power, Haman is only second to him.
This is strange indeed, we may say. The great enemy of Israel, when Israel was in the wilderness, re-appears here in the same character in this day of Israel in the dispersion (see Ex. 17). It is strange, an Amalekite found nearest to the throne of Persia! The heart of the great monarch of that day turned towards him, to put him into a condition to act the old Amalekite part of defiance of God, and enmity against His people. We could not have looked for such a thing. This name of Amalek was to be put out from under heaven; and, from the days of David till now, I may say, this people had not been seen. But now they re-appear, we scarcely know how; and that soon in bloom and strength, as in a palmy hour.
This, again, I say, is strange, indeed. It is of one in quasi-resurrection; of one whose deadly wound was healed; of one "who was, and is not, and shall be present."
The Agagite now stands forth as the representative of the great enemy, the proud apostate that withstands God, and His people, and His purposes. There has been such an one in every age; and he is the foreshadowing of that mighty apostate who is to fall in the day of the Lord. Nimrod, in the days of Genesis, represents him; Pharaoh, in Egypt; Amalek, in the wilderness; Abimelech, in the time of the judges; and Absalom, in the time of the kings; Haman, here in the day of the dispersion; and Herod, in the New Testament. Exaltation of self, infidel pride, and the defiance of the fear of God, with rooted enmity to His people, are, some or all, the marks on each of them; as in a full form of daring awful apostasy, such will be displayed in the person of the Beast who, with his confederates, falls in the presence of the Rider on the white horse, in the day of the Lord, or the judgment of the quick. Prophets have told of such as "the king that is to do according to his own will:" as "Lucifer, son of the morning;" as "the prince of Tyrus," we may say; as "the fool that saith in his heart, There is no God;" and variously beside. And the Apocalypse of the apostle shows him to us in the figure of a Beast, who had his image set up for the worship and wonder of the whole world, and his mark as a brand in the forehead of every man; whose deadly wound was healed, who was, and is not, and is to be.
And further, we may notice, that the purpose, as well as the person, of the great adversary, stands forth in this great Haman. He must have the blood of all the Jews; his heart will not be satisfied by the life of the one who had refused to do him reverence. He must have the lives of the whole nation. He breathes the spirit of the enemy of Israel, who by-and-by is to say, "Come and let us cut them off from being a nation, that the name of Israel may be no more in remembrance" (Ps. 83). The Amalekite and his company cast the lot, the Pur, only to determine the day on which this deed of extermination was to be perpetrated. But, as we know, the lot may be "cast into the lap, but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord" (Prov. 16:33). And so was it here. Eleven long months, from the thirteenth day of the first month to the thirteenth day of the twelfth month — that is, from the day when the lot was cast, to the day on which the lot decided that the slaughter of the nation should take place — are given, so that God would ripen His purposes towards both His people and their adversaries.
This has a clear loud voice in our ears. There is no speech or language but the voice is heard. God is not even named; but it is the work of His hand, and the counsel of His bosom.
Haman finds no hindrance from the king his master. He tells the king that there is a people scattered through his dominions whom it is not his profit to let live, for their customs are diverse from all people — the secret of the world's enmity then and still (see Acts 16:20-21). The decree, according to the desire of Haman, goes forth from Shushan the palace; and it spreads its way in all haste to all parts of the world, the domain of the great Persian "breast of silver." The whole nation, as the consequence of this, takes the sentence of death unto themselves. The decree would have reached the returned captives, as well as the dispersion. Judea was but a province of the Persian power in that day. But they are to learn to trust in Him who quickens the dead, Who calls those things that be not, as though they were, Who acts in this world in resurrection-strength. The remnant of Israel must learn to walk in the steps of the faith of their father Abraham. It is faith that must be exercised; for the Lord will not for awhile reveal Himself, though He thinks of them, and shelters them without displaying Himself.
Mordecai now appears, as the representative of this remnant, the possessor of this Abraham-like faith, in this awful hour.
The godliness of this dear and honoured man begins to show itself in his refusal to reverence the Amalekite. The common duty of worshipping only the true God, the God of Israel, would have forbidden this. And shall a Jew bow to one of that race with whom the God of the Jews had already said, that He would have war for ever and ever? — bow to one who, instead of bowing himself to the Lord of heaven and earth, had even come forth to insult His presence and His majesty, yea, and to cut off His people before His face? Mordecai will jeopard his life by this refusal. But be it so. He is in the mind of his brethren Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who can say to an earlier Haman, "We are not careful to answer thee in this matter. If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up."
This is fine in its generation truly; but finer still from its connections. For combination constitutes excellency of character. We are "to quit ourselves like men," and yet "let all our things be done in charity." In Him, who was all moral glory, as we have heard from others, there was "nothing salient" — all so perfectly combined. And in Mordecai we see this. We see "goodness," and, with that, "righteousness." He was gracious, and tender-hearted, bringing up his orphan cousin, as though she had been his own daughter. But now he is faithful and unbending. He will quit himself like a man now, if then he did all things in charity. He will not bow and do reverence at the command of the king, though his life may be the penalty.
Esther 4 - 5.
The various exercises of the soul in these chapters, as we see in Esther and Mordecai, are a matter of great interest. The hand and the Spirit of God work together so wondrously in the story of Israel, as we get it in the Psalms and in the Prophets: His Hand forming their circumstances; the Spirit, their mind. And these two things occupy a very large portion of the prophetic word. And we get living personal illustrations of this here, in the exercise of heart through which these two distinguished saints of God are seen to pass, and the marvellous circumstances through which they are brought.
On the issue of the fatal decree Mordecai fasts and mourns in sackcloth. But all the while he counts upon deliverance. Such a combination is full of moral glory. Elijah gave a sample of it in his day, for he knew the rain was at hand; but he casts himself down on the earth, and puts his face between his knees, as one in "effectual fervent prayer" (1 Kings 18, James 5:16-18). The Lord Himself gives another sample of this. He knows and testifies that He is about to raise Lazarus from sleep, the sleep of death; but He weeps as He approaches the grave. So here with Mordecai. He will not put off his mourning. He refuses to be comforted, while the decree is out against his people, though he reckons, surely reckons, upon their deliverance one way or another. This is another of those combinations which are necessary to character or moral glory; a sample of which I have already noticed in this true Israelite, this "Israelite indeed."
And Esther is as beautiful in her generation, as a weaker vessel. She may have to be strengthened by Mordecai, but she is tenderly, deeply, in sympathy with the burdens of her nation. She sees difficulty, and feels dangers; and she speaks, for a time, from her circumstances. Nothing wrong in this. She tells Mordecai of the hazard she would run if she went into the royal presence unbidden. Nothing wrong, again I say, in thus speaking as from her circumstances, though there may be weakness. But Mordecai counsels her, as a stronger vessel; and he appears as one above both circumstances and affections, in the cause of God and His people. He sends a peremptory message to Esther, though he so loved her; and he is calm and of a firm heart in the midst of these dangers. He sits above water-floods in this way, in the dear might of Him who has trod all waves for us. There is neither leaven nor honey, as I may say, in the offering he is making: he confers not with flesh and blood, nor does he look at the waters swelling. His faith is in victory; and the weaker vessel is strengthened through him. Esther decides on going in unto the king. If she perish, she perishes; but she is edified to hazard all for her people. And yet, while she thus does not "faint" under the trial, neither will she "despise" it: for she will have Mordecai and her brethren wait in a humbled dependent spirit, so that she may receive mercy, and her way to the king's presence be prospered.
Accordingly, at the end of the fast, which they agreed on for three days, she takes her life in her hand, and stands in the inner court of the king's house, while the king was sitting on his royal throne. But kings' hearts are in the hand of the Lord; and so it proves to be here. Esther obtains favour in the sight of Ahasuerus, and he holds out the golden sceptre to her.
This was everything. This told of the issue of the whole matter. All hung upon the motion of the golden sceptre. It was the Spirit of God, the counsel and good-pleasure, the sovereignty and grace of God, that ordered all this. The nation was already saved. The sceptre had decided everything in favour of the Jews and to the confusion of their adversaries, be they as high and mighty, as many and as subtle, as they may. God had taken the matter into His own hand; and if He be for us, who shall be against us? "Thou shalt be far from oppression," the Lord was now saying to His Israel, "for thou shalt not fear; and from terror, for it shall not come nigh thee. Behold, they shall surely gather together, but not by me; whosoever shall gather together against thee shall fall for thy sake. Behold, I have created the smith that bloweth the coals in the fire, and that bringeth forth an instrument for his work; and I have created the water to destroy. No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper, and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn" (Isa. 54:14-17).
Esther drew near and touched the sceptre. She used the grace that had visited her; but used it reverently and the sceptre was true to itself. It awakened no hope that it was not now ready to realize. It had already spoken peace to her; and peace, and far more than peace, shall be made good to her. "What wilt thou, queen Esther?" says Ahasuerus to her, "and what is thy request? It shall be given to thee, even to the half of the kingdom."
Very blessed this is. The sceptre, again let us say, was true to itself. What a truth is conveyed in this! The promise of God, the work of the Lord Jesus, is as this sceptre. These have gone before — pledges under the hand and from the mouth of our God, — and eternity shall be true to them; and endless ages of glory, witnessing salvation, shall make them good. Nothing is too great for the redeeming of such pledges: as here, the half of the king's dominions are laid at the feet and disposal of Esther.
But her dealing with the opportunity, thus put into her possession, is one of the most excellent and wondrous fruits of the light and energy of the Spirit that we see in the midst of the many wonders of this book in all the workmanship of God's great hand.
Instead of asking for the half of the kingdom, instead of desiring at once the head of the great Amalekite, she requests that the king and Haman may come to a banquet of wine which she had prepared for them. Strange, indeed! Who could have counted on such an acceptance of such an unlimited pledge and promise? It brings to mind the answer of the divine Master, of Him who is "the wisdom of God," to the Samaritan woman. She asked for the living water, and He told her to go call her husband! Strange, it would appear, beyond all explanation. But, as we know, it was a ray of the purest light breaking forth from the Fountain of light. And so here. This answer of Esther was strange, indeed. But it will be found to have been nothing less than the witness of the perfect wisdom of the Spirit that was now illuminating and leading her. It was the way of conducting the great adversary onward to the full ripening of his apostacy, to his attaining that mighty elevation in pride and self-satisfaction, from the which the hand of God had prepared from the beginning to cast him down. Esther, under the Spirit, was dealing with Haman, as the hand of God had once dealt with Pharaoh in Egypt. The vessel of wrath had again fitted itself for judgment; and he must fall from a pinnacle up to which his own lusts and the god of this world are urging his steps. Esther is the instrument in God's hands for giving him occasion thus to fill out the full form of his apostacy. Esther shows herself wonderfully in the secret of all this. She bids Haman and the king, the second day, as well as the first, — only these two together; and when this was done, the giddy height was reached from which the apostate is destined to fall.
He cannot stand all this. It is too much for him. His heart is overcharged; gratified pride has satiated it. He cannot contain himself; but corruption drives him in the way of nature — a sad verdict against nature. But so it is. It was natural, that he should expose all his glories to his wife and his friends. Flesh and blood can appreciate it; and pride must have as many courtiers and votaries as it can. And it must have its victims likewise. Mordecai still refuses to bow; and a gallows, fifty cubits high, is raised that he may be hanged thereon.
Esther 6 - 7.
Every secret thing must reach its day of manifestation. The word which Mordecai told the king about Teresh and Bigthana, the chamberlains, though hitherto forgotten or neglected, must now be remembered. The tears and the kisses, and the spikenard of the loving sinner in Luke 7, and the corresponding slights of the Pharisee, are passed in silence for a moment; but they are all brought to light ere the scene closes. For there is nothing hid that shall not come abroad. God lets nothing pass. Mordecai's act shall not always be forgotten. It shall be recognised, and that too in the very face of his great adversary; as the sinner's loving acts were all rehearsed in the hearing of her accusers (Luke 7:36-50).
The night after Queen Esther's first banquet was a sleepless one to Ahasuerus. For, as God gives His beloved sleep, so does He at times hold the eyes waking to them by thoughts of the head upon the bed. By sending instruction through meditations in the night-season, He deals with the hearts of the children of men. So here with the Persian. The sleepless king calls for the records of the kingdom, the depository of the act of Mordecai; and he there reads about the act which had now happened some years before. And as it is true of man, that all that he has he will give for his life, so now the king, on the sudden unexpected discovery of the act of Mordecai, by which his life had been preserved, deems nothing too high or honourable for him.
Here, however, we may pause for a moment, and consider the wonderful interweaving of circumstances which we get in this history. There is plot and underplot, wheel within wheel, as the expression is, circumstance hanging upon circumstance; and each and all formed together to work out the wonderful works of God.
There is in this story the marvellous re-appearance of both the Jew and the Amalekite. Strange phenomena indeed! Who would have thought it, as I have said before? The Jew and the Amalekite reproduced in the distant realms of Persia, and in diverse places of favour and authority round the throne there! Then there is Vashti's temper and Esther's beauty meeting at the same moment. There is the fact of Mordecai being the one to overhear the plot against the life of the king. There is the lot deciding on a day for the slaughter of Israel, eleven months distant, so that there may be time for counsels to ripen, and changes to take place. There is the heart of the king moved to hold out the golden sceptre to Esther. And then we see the king's sleeplessness, and his thoughts guided to the records of the chronicles. And now, again, we see Haman entering the court of the palace at this peculiar juncture.
What threading together of warp and woof in all this! What intertwining of circumstances, and the production of a curious texture of many colours! And yet, as we have seen and said already, God all the while is unseen and unnamed.
Very blessed! Pleased with the work of His own hand, and in the counsels of His own mind, the Lord can be hid for a time, unpublished, uncelebrated. And we are called, in our way, to that which is like this. We are to prove our own work, to have rejoicing in ourselves alone, and not in another, without uttering our secrets, or gathering the regards of our fellows. And truly great this is, to work unseen, to serve unnoticed. Deep counsels of that wisdom which knows the end from the beginning, and wondrous working of that hand which can turn even the hearts of kings as it pleases.
Haman falls. What a day may bring forth, we commonly say, who can tell? We see it to be so in his history. Zeresh and his friends have to receive, ere the second day's banquet begins, a different Haman from him whom they had greeted after the close of the first. Haman falls, and falls indeed. But over this we must tarry for a little, that we may take knowledge of the character of this great fact, so important is it in setting forth the judgment of God:
1. Haman's greatness was allowed so to flourish and ripen, that he might fall in the hour of highest pride and daring.
This is very instructive, for this has been God's way, and is so still. The builders of the tower of Babel were allowed to go on with their work, till they made it a wonder. Nebuchadnezzar was given time to finish his great city. The beast of the Apocalypse will prosper till the whole world wonder after him. So here Haman is borne with, till he sits on the pinnacle. Then, in the moment of proudest elevation, the judgment of God visits all these. Herod, as another such, was smitten of God, and died, as the people were listening to him, and saying, "It is the voice of a god, and not of a man" (see Ps. 37:34-36).
2. He is caught in his own trap. The honour is given to Mordecai which he had prepared for himself; and the gallows which he had prepared for Mordecai, he hangs thereon himself.
This still instructs us; for this has been God's way, and will be so still. Daniel's accusers are cast themselves into the den which they had prepared for him; and the flame of the fire slew those men who took up the children of the captivity to cast them into the furnace. And so it is foretold of the adversaries and apostates of the last days in this world's history. "Their own iniquity shall be brought upon them" (Ps. 7, Ps. 9, Ps. 10, Ps. 35, Ps. 57, Ps. 141, etc.). Satan himself, who has the power of death, is destroyed through death.
3. He falls suddenly.
So with the last great enemy. The judgment of God is to be like a thief in the night, like the lightning that cometh out of the east and shineth to the west. "In one hour," it is said of the Apocalyptic Babylon, "is she made desolate." The judgments on the world before the flood, and on the cities of the plain, were such also; "like figures," with this fall of the Agagite, of a judgment still to be executed.
4. He falls completely: utterly destroyed.
So with the great enemy, and the course of this present world with him.
The children of Judas cut off (Ps. 109), the little ones of Edom dashed against the stones (Ps. 137), Haman's sons, all hanged after himself, — these illustrate for our learning the utter downfall and annihilation of all that now offends; the clearing out of all by the besom of divine judgment. The "millstone" of Rev. 18 tells us this, and prophecy upon prophecy has long ago announced it.
Full of typical significance, in all the features that signalise it, is the fall of the great Amalekite. We live in such an hour of the world's history, as renders it specially significant and instructive to us. We are, day by day, seeing the Lord allowing the purposes of the world to ripen themselves, gradually to unfold their marvellous and varied attractions, and its whole system to make progress, till it again, like the tower of Babel of old, draw down the penal visitation of heaven; and that, too, in a moment, suddenly, to do its work of judgment completely, when (blessed to tell it!) not a trace of man's world shall remain, his pride and wantonness, with all their fruit, shall be withered and gone, and such a world as is fit for the presence of the Lord of glory shall then shine.
Esther 8 - 10.
We close this Book with the deliverance of the Jews in the very moment when destruction was awaiting them, and with their exaltation in the kingdom, and the celebration of their joy.
Mysterious workmanship of the hand of God! The Amalekite, the great adversary, cast down in the moment of his proudest elevation, and utterly cut off; the Jew, his purposed and expected victim, when there was but a step between him and death, delivered, then favoured and honoured, and seated next to the throne in rank and authority!
What a history! True in every circumstance of it, typical in every circumstance of it also; significant of those last days in the history of the Jew and of the earth, of which prophets have spoken again and again, the downfall of the man of the earth, and the exaltation of God's people in His own kingdom!
Mordecai, instead of being any longer at the king's gate, now comes before the king and takes his ring, the seal of office and of authority, from his finger. Thus is the Jew translated at the end. All scripture prepares us for this; and here it is illustrated. Here the historic scriptures of the Old Testament end, and here, as in a type, the history of the earth ends.
I may say, that the leading principal characteristics in the story of Israel are these, as we read it in the prophets:-
1. The present casting off of that nation, and the hiding of the divine countenance from them; and yet, their providential preservation in the midst of the Gentiles.
2. The present election of a remnant among them, and that repentance at the last, which leads them, nationally, to the kingdom.
3. The judgment of their adversaries and oppressors, with the especial downfall of their great infidel enemy.
4. Their deliverance, exaltation, and blessing in kingdom-days, with their leadership of the nations.
These are among the great things of the prophets; and these things are found in this little book of Esther. So that, again, I may say, this last Old Testament historic notice of the people of Israel pledges and typifies their present preservation all through this age of Gentile supremacy, and their glory in the last days, when the judgment of their enemies shall be accomplished.
Certain detached features of the coming millennial kingdom are likewise exhibited here. The fear of the Jews falls on their enemies, on those that were round about them; and they are restrained from all attempts to do them harm. Such had been seen in the palmy days of the nation, and such is promised by the prophets to be their portion again. Shushan, the capital of the Gentile world in that day, rejoices in the exaltation of the Jew; as all Scripture tells us, the whole world will rejoice under the shadow of the throne of Israel in the time of the coming kingdom. Many of the people of the land became Jews, as we read the like thing in the prophets again and again. Thus, for instance, "Many people shall go and say, Come ye and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem." The throne that had exalted the Jew, and put down his oppressor, exercises universal dominion, laying a tribute upon the land, and upon the isles of the sea; as we know that, by and by, the king in Zion "shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth."
And here, let me add, that Ahasuerus represents power, royal authority, in the earth. He then filled the throne that was supreme among the nations. He was "the power," and represents, mystically or in a shadow, the power that will be in a divine head in the day of the kingdom. It is so, I grant, that power in the hand of this Persian is first exercised in evil; serving, as he did, the wicked designs of Haman, though now he is exalting the righteous. Still, he represents power, royal authority in the earth. Just like Solomon in Jerusalem, he did evil personally; he may have repented; but still his personal ways were evil as well as good. Nevertheless, in a general typical way, he represented power, and was the shadow of Christ on the throne of glory, that throne that is to rule the world in righteousness.
Full of mysterious beauty and meaning all this is. Those days of Ahasuerus and of Mordecai were days of Solomon and of prophecy, coming millennial days, days of the kingdom of God in the earth and among the nations. They were as the days of Joseph in Egypt. Mordecai in Persia was as Joseph in Egypt — the first historic book, and the last, in the Old Testament, giving us these varied but kindred notices that will come in upon the close and judgment of the kingdoms of the Gentiles.
The days of Purim celebrate all this. They constitute triumph after the victory, the joy of the kingdom upon the establishment of the kingdom. The Jews took on them, according to the word of Mordecai and Esther, to make the 14th and 15th days of the twelfth month, the month Adar, days of feasting and joy, because they rested therein from their enemies, and their mourning was turned to gladness, and light, and honour. They were a kind of Passover, celebrating deliverance from the land of Persia, as that feast did from the land of Egypt; or, if we would rather have it so, Purim was another song on the Red Sea, or another song of Deborah and Barak on the fall of the Canaanite. And it rehearses the song yet to be sung on the sea of glass in Rev. 15; or again, I say, if we would rather have it so, the joy of Israel in coming kingdom-days, when they shall draw water out of the wells of salvation (Isa. 12). Indeed the Psalm 124 and Psalm 126, prepared as they are for future days of Israel's glory and joy, breathe the very spirit that must have animated Israel in this present day of Mordecai and Esther. It is beautiful to trace all this, to see these rehearsals again and again, as we go on the way, waiting for the full chorus of eternal harmonies in the presence of glory by and by. The infant church in Acts 4, in this spirit, breathes and utters Psalm 2, prepared as that Psalm is for the day when God's king sits upon the hill of Zion, after the enemy has perished, and the kings of the earth have learned to bow before Him. The blessed God is pleased with His own works: "For thy pleasure they are and were created." He, therefore, preserves, the work of His hands as their Creator. He is pleased with the counsels of His grace and wisdom. He has, therefore, preserved to this day the nation or people of the Jews, and will preserve them till the fruit of His counsels displays itself in His kingdom. And His kingdom thus will rise on the ruins and judgment of the nations; and Christ's world, "the world to come," shine in brightness and purity and blessing, after the folding up and passing away of "this present evil world."
The coming kingdom, this millennial world, is spoken of in all forms of speech by the prophets; but it has also been set forth in all forms of samples, and parcels, and specimens of it, in broken pieces of history from the beginning: as here we have seen it showing itself at the end of the Book of Esther. Ordinances, prophecies, and histories, in their several ways, have been doing this service.
Ere the antediluvian saints pass away, the spirit of prophecy speaks through Lamech, and addresses, as to them, a word of promise touching the earth; that therein, in due season, there should be comfort instead of curse (Gen. 5).
In Noah, as in the new world, we see an illustration of this prophecy of Lamech's; for after the judgment of the deluge, the earth rises again as in new or resurrection-form; and a pledge, a foreshadowing, of millennial days is before us.
The land of Egypt, under the government of Joseph, is a "like figure."
Under the law, we have a shadow of the same millennial rest in the weekly sabbath — in the annual feast of tabernacles — in the jubilee every fiftieth year.
For a moment, in the day of Joshua, when the tribes of Israel had entered the land, kept the Passover as a circumcised people, and then ate unleavened cakes of the corn of the land, we see, in another form, the same happy mystery witnessed to us (Joshua 5).
After this, the palmy reign of Solomon in a more extended form, in a full and rich manner, tells us the like secret.
And, indeed, I might have noticed the meeting of Jethro with the ransomed Israel on the mount of God, in wilderness-days, was (though in a different form) the foreshadowing of the same coming day of glory (Ex. 18).
And so now, in dispersion-days, as I may speak, we have the same; as we see at the close of this Book of Esther.
Prophecies upon prophecies accompany these ordinances and these histories; so that, in the mouth not only of many but of various witnesses, the kingdom that is still to be set up, and the glory that is still to be revealed, are verified to us. These are rehearsals of the great, the magnificent, issues of the counsels of God, of that purpose which shall be manifested in "the dispensation of the fulness of times."
The New Testament gives us like illustrations and promises. The transfiguration tells us of it. The regeneration or Palingenesia tells us of it. The action in the Apocalypse first makes way for it; and then, at the end, it shines in our sight, when the holy city descends from heaven bearing the glory of God with it, and when the millennial nations walk in the light of it.
Thus, the close of Esther finds itself in company with things from the very beginning to the very end, and all through the volume, all through the actings and sayings of God in the progress of this world's history. It is wonderful. What a witness of the writings that were to be found in Scripture! What a proof of the breathing of the same Spirit in all the parts of it! How it tells us, that "known unto God are all His works from the beginning of the world!" We fill our own place, and occupy our own moment, in this great plan.
Having read the books of Ezra and Nehemiah by themselves, as the story of the returned captives, and the book of Esther by itself as the story of the dispersed captives, we would now meditate on them together for a few moments. They give us, as we see, two distinct companies of captives, or two sections of the Jews. They illustrate different parts of the divine counsel and wisdom touching that people; and teach us lessons very important for our souls thoroughly to learn.
In each of these scenes, in the midst of each of these sections of the people of God, we have, so to speak, a separate platform erected for the exhibition of several or separate portions of God's ways and dealings with them.
The returned captives are brought home and left in the land, in order that they may be tested again, for to test His people, though in different ways, had been God's way from the beginning. Israel had already been tested by the gift of power. They had received a fat and good land, and been led on as from strength to strength, till they had flourished into a kingdom; a kingdom which had drawn the eyes of the kings of the earth, and was the admiration of the world.
But they had been untrue to their stewardship. They had abused the power entrusted to them, and were rebellious against the supreme rights of Him who had thus set them up, and ordained them as chief and metropolitan in the earth. And accordingly, or consequently, power, supremacy in the earth, or principal authority among the nations, was taken from them and given to the Gentiles.
Now, however, they are at home again. The captivity to which their unfaithfulness had led is over, and there is a section of the people at home in the land of their fathers again. For it is the divine purpose to test them by another test. God is about to send Messiah to them. His mission and ministry is to be in healing mercy, a proposal of the grace that brings salvation, that it may be known, whether they have an answer to the appeals of love, since they have already proved that they had no fidelity to Him who had entrusted them with power.
This is what we read in the fact of Israel's (or Judah's) return from Babylon. They are Jews again in their own land. Accordingly, as soon as they get home again, they behave themselves as Jews. They keep the ordinances — they raise the national altar — they rebuild the temple — they keep themselves apart from the heathen — they read the Scriptures — they observe the way of the God of Israel, as far as subjection to power in the hand of the Gentile will admit it. And the God of Israel owns them. He blesses them. He shelters them. He may exercise them in faith and patience; but still He is with them. As of old, He gives them leaders and deliverers and teachers; sends to them His prophets; and grants them days of revival, days of the new moon in the seventh month.
We know all this, indeed. This was, it is true, a kind of reformation in their religious history. No idolatry is practised by them after this; but other corruptions rapidly set in and worked, as not only the books of Ezra and Nehemiah themselves show us, but more particularly the prophecy of Malachi. And the opening of the New Testament Scriptures confirms this; for the Gospel by Matthew lets us see clearly and fully, that the returned captives were deeply unbelieving; as untrue to the doctrines and proposals of goodness, as their fathers had been to the stewardship of power. "He came to His own, and His own received Him not."*
*Here let me suggest, what I believe to be so, but would not teach it with authority, that among the witnesses of goodness which God left among the returned captives, and which were so many harbingers or pledges of a Messiah coming in grace, the Pool of Bethesda takes its place. It was, indeed, an extraordinary witness of "God the Healer."
This is so, indeed. And as, when they had been untrue to power, power was given over to the Gentiles, so now, since they are untrue to grace, grace is given over to the whole world; for the gospel is preached and the salvation of God is held up in the eyes of the ends of the earth.
And strikingly consistent and beautiful this progress in the ways of divine wisdom, or of God's dispensations. All testing ends in failure, and God must act for us and not with us. This fresh trial, by the ministry of Messiah, only proves, as by the mouth of another witness, that man is incorrigible and incurable. Every effort to make something of him, or to do something with him, leads him but to another exposure of himself, till he is left naked to his shame. The kingdom is not entered by a tested creature, even though grace test him. Judgment as of "reprobate silver" is the result of the process. "The bellows are burnt, the lead is consumed of the fire, the founder melteth in vain."
Yes, indeed, he must be saved by grace, and not merely tested by it. The first advent of Messiah, or the proposal of salvation, did not lead Israel into the kingdom; it has left them a judged people, scattered and peeled, unsaved and unblest, only condemned upon a fuller conviction than ever.
We turn, however, to another scene. We are to consider another section of the people, the dispersed and not the returned. For in them is erected another platform, as I may still speak, for the illustration of God's way. We shall see them as the pledges and witnesses, not of a tested but of a saved people, saved through sovereign grace, and led into the kingdom.
This people had not availed themselves of the opportunity they had of returning home. This is a standing witness against them. They remained among the uncircumcised. They acted the part of the raven in Noah's ark. They seemed to take up with the unclean world. They are as Gentiles, we may say; we see no feasts or ordinances, or word of God among them. But I grant they are Jews still. And grace abounds towards them. In the midst of the Gentiles they are still kept alive — another unconsumed burning bush. Jehovah is not seen to be acknowledging them, as He was acknowledging their brethren who had returned to Jerusalem. Still He had His eye upon them, and they are kept alive; and that, too, till the due time comes for His rising up to deal with them in a way of which all His prophets have spoken.
All this we see in Esther, that wondrous book which closes the historic volume of the Old Testament.
A remnant is seen there. God deals with them marvellously both by His hand and Spirit; but He is unmanifested. We have seen this, when meditating on Esther. And we further traced God's way with Israel in all those eras of their history, when they were in an informal anomalous state; as instanced in the marriage of Joseph with an Egyptian, of Moses with a daughter of Midian, and the like, and Esther's marriage with Ahasuerus the Persian. For this was as the way of God Himself with them: when they were untrue to Him, He went over to others. Power first, as we have seen, and now grace and salvation, have gone over to others, since Israel was disobedient and unwilling. How consistent all this is! What constancy and perfection and unity in the ways of His holy wisdom! His brethren were untrue to Joseph, and cast him out. He married and became important in Egypt. His brethren were untrue to Moses, and forced him away; he married and became happy in Midian. His people were untrue to Jehovah; and He gave power to the Gentiles. His own were untrue to Messiah, rejecting, not receiving Him; and He now dispenses grace and salvation to the whole world.
Surely the Lord knows the end from the beginning. Surely His way is before Him.
"His wisdom ever waketh,
His sight is never dim,
He knows the way He taketh,
And I will walk with Him."
Oh for grace to say this and to do it! And to walk with Him, too, along the path of His wisdom, and the ways of His dispensations, as from glory to glory, to "walk in the light as He is in the light."
And fresh wonders still show themselves to us on these two platforms, in the story of the Returned, and in the story of the Dispersed.
As I have already observed, Malachi begins to intimate what will be the end of the returned or tested captives. All will fail, as all has failed. The New Testament Scriptures affirm the intimation of Malachi. The Evangelists make good the hints and notices of the Prophets. But Esther gives us to know what will be the dispersion, or of that portion which remained among the Gentiles. They will finally be taken up in sovereign grace, carried through "the great tribulation," and by that road into the kingdom. In that story, or on that platform, we see the nation of the Jews brought to the eve and on the brink of utter destruction, rescued by the wonder-working hand of God, and then seated in the high places of honour, of influence, and of authority, by the Power that rules the earth, all their enemies either judged and taken out of the way, or seeking their favour and blessing.*
*The great tribulation, "the time of Jacob's trouble," of which the prophets speak, will find the Jews at home in their own land, though now they are dispersed as in the day of Esther. But that is no matter. As a nation they are to pass into the kingdom through the tribulation.
In these books, or in these two scenes of various action, these are the secrets we are instructed in. Man is tested and fails; the sinner is taken up in grace and saved.
And these are the secrets we have been set down to learn from the beginning; and we are destined, blessedly destined, to celebrate them for ever. Man is exposed, God is displayed. Man is thoroughly made naked to his shame; God is exalted in the highest order of exaltation, and displayed in the brightest light of glory.
It was thus in the story of Adam at the very beginning. He was tested, and under the testing he failed, and destroyed himself; he was then taken up in grace, and saved through the death and resurrection of Christ — by faith in the bruised and bruising Seed of the woman.
It was thus again in Israel. Israel was set under law. But the shadows of good things to come accompanied the law. Under their own covenant, under the law, Israel, like Adam, was ruined. But God acts in the midst of the self-destroyed people, of the self-wrought ruin; and by ordinances and prophecies and pledges of many kinds He has ever been telling them of final grace and salvation.
And now, in like manner, the gospel thoroughly exposes us, but fully, presently, perfectly, eternally, saves us. And through the ages of glory, it will be told out that we are a washed people, a ransomed people, who owe everything to grace and redemption, though glorified for ever.
So that these two platforms, the scene in the midst of the returned captives, and the scene in the midst of the dispersed captives, are in company with all the divine way from the beginning, and with that which is to be had in remembrance and celebrated for ever. Only we marvel afresh at this new witness of the way of God, His necessary perfect way, in a world like this.
How complete all this makes the divine historic volume of the Old Testament! That volume ends here; and we are well satisfied to have it so.
The way of the Lord Himself in this book is specially wonderful. Apparently He is neglectful of His people. He is "silent" towards them. He does not show Himself. There is no miracle. His people, even in all the exercises of their hearts under the most pressing circumstances, never mention Him. Surely this is wonderful. But it is admirable as well as wonderful. It is perfect in its place and season. For during this present Gentile age, God is apart from Israel, like Joseph, in Egypt, or Moses in Midian, apart from their brethren, as I have already noticed; yea, and as many voices of the prophets have anticipated (see Ps. 74; Isa. 8:17; Isa. 18:4, Isa. 45:15; Hosea 5:15, etc.). And the Lord Jesus, speaking as the God of Israel at the close of His ministry, says to them, "Behold your house is left unto you desolate; for I say unto you, Ye shall not see me henceforth, till ye shall say, Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord!" (Matt. 23:38-39)
But He cares for them. Their names are in the palm of His hand. He revokes not the judgment; but He will, in due time, awake for their deliverance. It is Jesus asleep in the boat, winds and waves tossing it. But in the needed time He awoke and rose for the quieting of all that, which, swelling in its anguish, was raging against them.
"Hail to the Lord's anointed,
Great David's greater Son!
When to the time appointed
The rolling years have run,
He comes to break oppression,
To set the captive free,
To take away transgression,
And rule in equity."