The king, as we learn from the second chapter, finds Nehemiah's countenance sad, and at once remarks about it. It was not a thing that these kings relished. Humanly speaking, a man coming specially to such a position would seem to have but small respect for the monarch, for, naturally, these great kings cherished the idea that whatever was sorrowful was quite unfit for their presence. Even supposing a man were ever so sad, still, there ought to be sufficient light and glory in their presence to banish all such sad thoughts; but the truth is that had it been merely for outward casualties - for the loss of substance or any natural thing here below - Nehemiah's tears and gloom would have all disappeared in the presence of the Lord, but the presence of the Lord deepened these. The more he went before God and weighed the state of the Jews in Jerusalem, the more grieved he was. It was not that his heart was not lifted up, but for all that the tears would naturally flow the faster. The deep sense of it would be felt just the same, because he felt what a God was theirs, and what they had been to God - what they were now to God! Nehemiah, therefore, was in no way delivered from sadness by his prayer. And this is what I wish to show. There was confidence in going to God, but, at the same time, there was still the deep sense of the ruin.
The king, however, puts the question, and we find that Nehemiah candidly tells us how much afraid he was, for, indeed, it might have cost him his life. The king might have suspected treason - might have suspected that there was some dark plot - and that Nehemiah's conscience was at work. All sorts of things might have entered his mind in accounting for this extraordinary gloom that covered his servant's face. But Nehemiah tells the simple truth to him. "Why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, and the place of my fathers' sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?" (Neh_2:3)
Perhaps it is worth noticing, but I only notice it to shew what a difference there is between the word of God and the word of man. In the book of Maccabees, Nehemiah is said to be a priest, and also, singular to say, of the race of David. Now, whatever may be the case as to the race of David, for that very reason he could not be one of the priests. I mention it that we may see how men, when once they attempt to write upon the things of God, only expose their ignorance. Yet this is a book, as you know, that professes to be inspired - at least, it is accepted by a large portion of Christendom as such. Very possibly Nehemiah did belong to the tribe of Judah. It would seem that if Jerusalem were the place of his fathers' sepulchres, so it would be. It was there that they were buried very generally; but he was not a priest. This is a mistake. He was a civil governor; and this leads me to a very important point, as to this book. The temple is not the point, but the ordinary life of the people of God. And, let me say, beloved brethren, that this is of great moment for you and for me in this our day.
Christianity is not merely a thing of God's worship: Christianity is meant to govern every day. I do not like your Sunday Christians, I do not like men or women who merely just maintain their place by coming to the table of the Lord. This is disgraceful. We are called, assuredly, to recognize His claims for every day, and so much the more because there may be difficulties. In a busy place such as we know is in our immediate neighbourhood, many of us have our duties, though not all the same. Some of us have labours. Some of us may know what it is to labour early and late. Some of us may know what it is to labour by night as well as by day. And this is not confined to men, but applies to women, for there are those who work, and work hard and diligently; and I know not what we are here for except to be diligent in whatever may be before us. But I still say that it is a sorrowful thing to be diligent for the world, and not for the Lord, and that we are bound to take care that our ordinary life of every day be a witness of Christ. I do not say that we are all called to do the same work, but I do say that we are all called to the same Christianity, and we are all called that Christ should be apparent in what we are doing every day, and not merely upon the Lord's day, or the Lord's day morning. No, beloved brethren, this will not do for the Lord, and the failure to be thus witnessing for the Lord Jesus in our ways of every day, and in our ordinary matters, our ordinary life, our social life, our life of labour, of whatever kind it may be, is a blotting-out of the grand object for which we are called by the grace of God.
In short, while Ezra bears upon what is more manifestly the spiritual part - that which pertains to the worship of the Lord and the altar, and while the temple - the house of God - is the grand point there, we have here in Nehemiah the wall of Jerusalem; not the temple, but Jerusalem. Here we have, not the house built, but the wall built. It is the desolation, therefore, of what pertained to the people every day. It is what concerned their ordinary life, and, for this simple reason, that the people of God are always called to what is, if I may say so, extraordinary - at any rate, to what is divine. It may be the commonest thing in the world, but we ought to do no common thing except in a divine way. Whatever we do - whether we eat or drink - we ought to do all in the name of the Lord Jesus, to do all to the glory of God. This is our calling. This is what the Jews had forgotten. They had no thought of it. The consequence was that they sank down; they were lower than the Gentiles. For so far, the Gentiles had something to live for and something to show. What had these poor Jews? They had lost heart, they had lost courage; and (what was the most important of all things) they had lost faith. They had lost practical faith.
Well, but I should like to know, beloved friends, whether there is not this same danger amongst you - whether there is not a danger of that for me, because supposing, now, we come in fresh and happy through the name of the Lord Jesus, yet, we at once find ourselves in by no means smooth waters.
We find there are storms; we find there are rocks and shoals, and we find, also, that our boats are not very strong, and that we are not very skilful either, in managing them, that is, we come into difficulties. Is it not so? And after we have encountered a little rough weather we are apt to get downcast and dispirited. We find fault with this one or that one. Is it not so? Now, I am not the least denying that there are faults, but then let us not forget that we have faults; and, further, that it is not a question of whether I or you have got faults - one or other or both (which is a little nearer the truth), but the great point is this - whether you and I are looking to the Lord or not. This is the thing that makes the heart happy - confidence in looking to the Lord, and also my living in this looking to the Lord, not merely for myself, but for you; for this is the true way to win another, that is, to be looking to the Lord about the other. Supposing there is a person that you have got something against, or that has got something against you; how is it to be met? Not by wit, not by power, not by influence. Not all the brethren can set it to rights, but the Lord can, and the moment that our heart has got perfectly settled in this, it gives quietness and confidence - it gives peace and assurance for ever. The Lord grant that it may be so with us!
But what I press again is this, that the point here is the daily life - the social, civil life of Israel, and not merely that which was manifest by religion, but it is the bringing God into the common matters of life, of every-day life. That was the grand point here, and there it was that Israel failed. No doubt they failed, as we have seen, in the Book of Ezra, because the two things go together, and you will never find that the person who enjoys much in worship fails much in walk; but you will find, on the contrary, that where there is feebleness of faith in the worship of the Lord, there will be feebleness also in the walk. What God looks for is that there should be faith in both, and where there is faith there will be faithfulness. That is the secret of it. It is, after all, a want of being with God touching every matter, whether it is what concerns the worship of the saints or what concerns the walk day by day. There is only one resource for both, and the same for both.
Now this is what filled the heart of Nehemiah. He feels about it. He spreads it out, even when the king was speaking. And here is what I wish to shew, how truly it is a question of faith. "The king said unto me, For what dost thou make request?" What does he do? Does he make a request to the king? No, he makes request to God. "So I prayed to the God of heaven." It is not that he does not tell the king; but, even at that very moment, in the presence of the king himself, his heart was to the Lord. No wonder he got his request. No wonder that God listened and heard, and he could take it as from Him. Why? Because he prayed to the Lord first. It was not that he did not own the king, but the fresh first-fruits, so to speak, surely were due to the Lord.
"And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers' sepulchres, that I may build it. And the king said unto me (the queen also sitting by him), For how long shall thy journey be? and when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time. Moreover, I said unto the king, If it please the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river, that they may convey me over till I come into Judah; and a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me." The letters were granted. The timber and other materials that he lacked were vouchsafed by the king, and he goes up guarded to Jerusalem, and the same thing that filled his heart with joy and thankfulness in the midst of his sorrow grieved the enemies of the people of God.
But there is another thing, too, and that is that we must not be too much occupied with what other people do or say. Mark Nehemiah. Now his heart was with the people of God, but, for all that, he knew what it was to act in dependence upon God; and this comes out most markedly at the very start. You will help the people of God most when you are looking to God most simply. It is not looking to the people and trying to get them up.
No, but I must look to the Lord myself. "So," says he (verse 12), "I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem: neither was there any beast with me, save the beast that I rode upon." It was no matter of pomp or show, or anything that would be usual among men. It was not a question of bringing a number of engineers and other skilled artisans to see what was to be done; but he himself: his heart was in it. He does not wait for all that. He goes about it at once with all simplicity, and he goes about it by night with the express purpose that he might take a view at once without drawing attention - needless attention. It was not that there was anything that he owed to others. Want of candour would be a sad thing amongst the people of God, but it was no question of candour. Here it was wisdom, and the man that does not know when to be silent will hardly know when to speak. It is a great thing to learn that there is a season for both. He went out by night, then, and he saw it all, and saw it in the depth of sadness, and took a full view. "And the rulers knew not whither I went, or what I did; neither had I as yet told it to the Jews, nor to the priests, nor to the rest that did the work." It was between his own soul and God, with the few men that were then with him. "Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste." His soul entered more deeply than ever - realised, as we shall see, the state of things more than ever. "Then I told them of the hand of my God which was upon me." Two things, you observe - sense of ruin, confidence in God, and both found together filling his heart. And look at the effect of it. They said, "Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work." Thus, you see, when a man of faith goes forward he goes forward, not in his own power or wit, but with a broken spirit and in dependence upon God. The hand of the feeble are strengthened for the work. It is God that helps. It is God that has the glory, but God making use of the faith of a man. So he did here.
Nevertheless, the moment that God begins to act, the devil tries to hinder. "But when Sanballat, the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem, the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us" (Neh_2:19). This was the first effort of the enemy. It was to pour contempt upon a work so simple and insignificant; but, further, it was the manifestation of their malice. Nevertheless, God used it for their good. Nehemiah learns more than ever before the adversaries that were there. But this is no reason to be alarmed. As the apostle Paul says, "An effectual door, but many adversaries." So it was with Nehemiah now. There was an effectual door opened. The adversaries in no way frightened him. "Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we, his servants, will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial in Jerusalem."