James Nisbet Commentary - Nehemiah 4:18 - 4:21

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James Nisbet Commentary - Nehemiah 4:18 - 4:21

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‘The builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded.… So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared.’


The restoration of God’s temple by the armed labourers of Nehemiah is a familiar and noble illustration of the restoration of the spiritual temple, ‘which temple are ye,’ says St. Paul. Steadfast labour through trouble and hindrance is the method by which at once God’s high purposes are accomplished and His servants disciplined and perfected. We can labour with but one hand, as it were; the other is on the hilt of our sword the while.

I. If we are temples of the Holy Ghost at all, as St. Paul assures us lovingly that we already are, we know this, that we are not perfect, well-built, undefiled shrines.—Much is lost, but even in our souls there is a remnant left. The foundations of the first building are yet traceable. If the skyward roof is gone, and the tall and shining pillars lie low, we may yet set our feet on the unstirred marbles of the pavement.

II. But this were poor comfort if this were all.—Little would it profit to know how glorious the past had been if we believed that its glory had departed never to return. In the time of Nehemiah it was dawning anew. If the Jews were no more a proud, unbroken race, they were a free people, a ransomed and liberated nation. And to us surely the application is very plain. We too have been set free, not without the strong crying and tears of our Saviour and our Prince, not that we may leisurely enjoy His realm, but be active and able lords of our own, and in His spirit and by our labour restore in ourselves that holiness and glory which we have lost.

III. The rebuilding was a very different scene from the first building.—Of old, in profound peace, in wealth, in joy, the Temple, and the king’s house, and the city walls had risen higher and higher. Now they laboured sore beset, savage, taunting foes about them and among them. It has been, and it is, even so with us; nor can we expect it otherwise. How far off and how fair is the story of the first foundation of this house of ours! How painful do we daily find the process of its rebuilding! Evil men and evil spirits fain would hinder the restoration of our holy city and of the temple that is in our hearts. Therefore there is but one thing for us to do: we must build our walls sword on side.

IV. Lastly, though this our temple be rebuilding at such disadvantage, in a way so different from its first rise, yet the promise is for us good also, as of old, ‘that the glory of the latter house shall exceed the glory of the former.’ That shall be more precious which was restored at the price of such trouble and pains than that which was founded in wealth and ease. Man reformed after his fall shall be greater and holier than unfallen man. Redeemed, he shall stand higher than when untempted.

Archbishop Benson.


‘The actual builders needed both hands, and so they had their “swords girded by their sides.” God’s builders have to fight. Their fighting is to be auxiliary to their building. Our true work is constructive, and when we have to engage in destructive or controversial tasks, we have to take care that we do not lose sight of the real end of all our toils and conflicts—the rearing of the walls of the city of God.’