Nehemiah 1
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics

I. PIETY and POSITION. "As I was in Shushan the palace." Piety tends to prosperity; it inculcates habits favourable to advancement; it imparts graces calculated to attract. Goodness is often rewarded; it will dwell in a better palace in the life to come.

II. PIETY and PURITY. Nehemiah was humble amidst the pride of the palace; he was pure amidst the luxury of the palace; he was faithful to his Jewish faith and to his God amidst the heathenism of the palace; he was sympathetic amidst the conventionality of the palace; he was prayerful amidst the levity of the palace; he was pious amidst the anxieties of the palace life.


1. Inquiring. Nehemiah asked concerning the welfare of his brethren; his own comfort did not render him indifferent to the suffering of others.

2. Sorrowful. He wept because the wall of Jerusalem was broken down; his patriotism was manifested in holy grief.

3. Prayerful. See here the prayer of the patriot.

IV. PIETY and PROVIDENCE. Nehemiah in the palace was able to render effective aid to Israel; God places his instruments where they can best serve his purpose. Christ in heaven pleads the cause and helps the service of the good. - E.

It is a fact of no small significance that the Hebrew author of this book was in the palace at Susa. "I was in Shushan (in) the palace" (ver. 1). The Jewish captives in Persia were by no means all in a forlorn or destitute condition. We find them filling honorable offices - Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king - and even attaining to the highest posts in the state, as in the case of Daniel. We are reminded that -

I. WE MAY FIND SOME MITIGATION IN OUR EVIL CONDITION. We have evidences enough, both in the Bible and in secular history, of the evils of absolutism, of intrusting the power of life and death, of prosperity and adversity, to one man; but we have proof that in Persia men of humble station could rise to exalted position. Here was "a career open to ability." Seldom an evil estate without one mitigating feature; seldom a cloudy day without an interval of blue sky; few lives without some sources of happiness. Obscurity, with all its dulness, has freedom from the glare and hatred of public life. Hard work knows, as luxury and indolence cannot, the enjoyment of repose.

"Not always fall of leaf, nor ever spring;
No endless night, nor yet eternal day.
The saddest bird a season finds to sing,
The roughest storm a calm may soon allay.
Thus, with succeeding years, God tempers all,
That man may hope to rise, yet fear to fall."

II. WE SHALL REAP SATISFACTION IF WE SOW PIETY AND VIRTUE. Wherever the Jew has gone, whether forcibly deported or whether he has voluntarily migrated, he has carried with him the virtues of his race. Beyond question the law of Moses trained a people to the practice of a severe morality. Purity, temperance, industry, and frugality have been the characteristics of the race in every land and age. And these have placed them everywhere in positions of honour and of trust. Thus Nehemiah comes from the king's presence to see his countrymen from Jerusalem. Under the righteous government of God we shall find that the same virtues will conduct us to sufficiency, contentment, honour, prosperity.

III. WE HAVE ONE UNFAILING RESOURCE IN TIME OF TROUBLE (vers. 2, 3). Evil tidings come to Nehemiah in his prosperity and cloud his life (vers. 2, 3). Certain of his countrymen bring tidings from Jerusalem which are most distressing to him. The city of God is "in great affliction and reproach" (ver. 3); its "wall is broken down;" its "gates are burned with fire" (ver. 3). There are those who would hardly allow their day's enjoyment to be disturbed if they heard of the most terrible calamities. In nothing is our spirit more clearly shown than in the way in which we receive tidings of the welfare or misfortune of others. Nehemiah was a large-hearted, sympathetic man. He entirely forgot his own comfortable prosperity in the adversity of his race; to him the sufferings of his people were his own misfortunes. Under these circumstances Nehemiah had recourse to

(1) two Oriental sources of relief: he

(a) gave himself up to formal lamentation - he "sat down and wept, and mourned certain days" (ver. 4); and

(b) he fasted (ver. 4). These expressions of grief were national, Oriental; to him they were therefore natural and helpful. We may weep, we may abstain from food because appetite is killed by sorrow; but it is not natural, and therefore not right, for us to affect the tokens of grief which belong to other times or other peoples. But Nehemiah had also recourse to

(2) one universal source of comfort. He "prayed before the God of heaven" (ver. 4). He took his sorrow to the throne of grace, to the "God of all comfort; he presented himself with aching heart to him who alone can "bind up the broken heart." This refuge in time of trouble is not Jewish, nor Oriental; it is human, universal, unfailing. In every clime and every age the stricken spirit can go to God, pour out its woe to heaven, and find calm and comfort in the sympathy of the unchangeable Friend. "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble" (Psalm 46:1). "Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28). - C.

We may notice here four things: - The state of the Jews that had escaped who were left of the captivity. The position and character of Nehemiah. The prayer which was mingled with the lamentation. The practical aim and purpose which followed the prayer. All are based upon the one foundation of the special gracious relation of God to his covenant people. We may therefore distinguish the following practical points in this chapter: -

I. An illustration of THE DIVINE METHOD and character in dealing with those who are the objects of special regard.

1. Faithfulness. The Jews suffered because they rebelled. They suffered still because they still needed discipline. They were "in great affliction and reproach" that they might be taught to seek help of God. They had no walls to their city that they might be labourers together with God in rebuilding them. They were surrounded with opponents that their holiness might be maintained, their zeal and constancy developed and tried, their victory made manifest.

2. Forbearance and compassion. A remnant left. The burning bush unconsumed. The "day of small things" in which the Spirit of God reveals his might, full of promise. Eminent saints are more sought after and more appreciated at such times.

II. A conspicuous example of RELIGIOUS CHARACTER. Nehemiah.

1. Found in a palace, in a heathen palace, in a king's cupbearer. Resistance to temptation. Cultivation of faith in unfavourable circumstances. A friend made of the mammon of unrighteousness. A testimony borne to the superiority of the man of God, as in the case of Daniel and his associates. Mercy granted in the sight of the heathen.

2. Deep feeling of brotherhood with God's people. A tender heart. An inquiring mind. An unselfish regard for the condition of those afar off. Anxious concern that God's glory should be seen in his Church.

3. Strong faith. Keeping hold of Divine promises, looking for their fulfilment, troubled by delay, turning from external facts to God.

4. Prayerfulness and humiliation' before God. "He sat down and,, wept, and mourned for days, and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. There is no emergency in which the man of faith loses sight of his great resource in setting himself and his desires before God. When he does so, he will not be ashamed of his tears. To the true heart the condition of the Church is a personal sorrow or a personal joy.

5. The practical aim mingled with the supplications. The faith which prays is the faith which works. When we ask God for help we should be ready for service. Nehemiah did not satisfy himself with weeping and praying. He said, "Here am I, send me." The true prayer is always consecration.

III. An eminent instance of PRAYER AT A GREAT CRISIS. The characteristics of Nehemiah's prayer were -

1. Adoring faith. He believed that God was God.

2. Remembrance of the word of God, and his gracious revelation of himself in keeping covenant and mercy.

3. Confession of sin and acknowledgment of God's righteousness.

4. Humble boldness in appealing to him who has given his word to fulfil it.

5. Spiritual insight and foresight. Looking on the world and its rulers and all its affairs as in the hand of him whose throne is the throne of grace, to which his people can come at all times. To such a faith the Persian monarch is only "this man," a mere instrument in the hands of God.

6. Identification of the personal life and feelings with the interests and doctrines of God's Church. "Prosper thy servant." Not for his own sake, but for thy people's sake. "I was the king's cupbearer;" but I was the representative of Zion, and the intercessor for Jerusalem.

IV. A GREAT ENTERPRISE undertaken in dependence upon God.

1. The foundation was sure. It was an enterprise on which God's blessing could be sought.

2. The instrument was fit. Nehemiah was conscious both of intense desire and consecration, and of personal quality by which he was adapted to the work.

3. The method was wise. He did not break away from his connection with Persia, but sought to use the earthly power for the heavenly purpose.

4. The spirit was truly religious. "Prosper thy servant this day." Without God nothing is strong. With his help all things are possible. He rules both men and things for his people. - R.

I. The SORROW of prayer (ver. 4). Prayer was designed to be a glad communion with God; but sin has embittered it. Now it is often suffused with tears; but it will soon rejoice in God. Hannah's prayerful sorrow soon became her prophetic song. The sorrows of prayer are more joyous than the rejoicings of sin.

II. The IMPORTUNITY of prayer (ver. 5). Nehemiah besought God to hear his prayer; his whole being was engaged in his devotion. Sorrow makes men earnest; things spiritual must be earnestly sought.

III. The THEOLOGY Of prayer. True prayer has a right conception of the Divine character; it will see in God -

1. The Divine.

2. The exalted.

3. The faithful.

4. The powerful.

All true prayer is based on a right conception of the Deity; the more we know of God, the more true and acceptable will our worship become.

IV. The DURATION of prayer (ver. 6). Nehemiah prayed day and night. We must pray without ceasing. "I will not let thee go, except thou bless me" (Genesis 32:26).

V. The CONFESSIONS Of prayer (vers. 6, 7).

1. Personal.

2. Domestic.

3. National.

4. Unreserved.

VI. The SUPPLICATION of prayer. Prayer generally has some specific request to urge.

1. The Divine promise (vers. 8, 9).

2. The Divine mercy.

3. The Divine aid in the past. - E.

We have many recorded prayers in the sacred Scriptures. They have various characteristics, as we should expect they would have; for our individuality - that in which God has made us to be different from every one else - should appear in prayer as much as in any other act. More rather than less, for if there be one thing more especially in which we should "be ourselves," it is when we approach him who requires "truth in the inward parts." Nevertheless, we shall find in the prayer of Nehemiah those characteristics which we should expect to find in any address to God from a holy man, and which should mark our devotion.

I. REVERENCE. "I beseech thee, O Lord God of heaven, the great and terrible God" (ver. 5). "Let thine ear be attentive, and thine eyes open" (ver. 6). Nehemiah speaks as one who feels that it is an infinite condescension for the Majesty on high to "humble himself to behold the things which are done upon the earth." In our "access with boldness" there is danger lest we run into irreverence. Who can help marking a painful familiarity in the addresses of some men to the Saviour of mankind? If we feel that our Maker is our friend, we must never forget that our friend is our Maker.

II. ADORATION. "Thou keepest covenant and mercy," etc. (ver. 5). Critics who raise an easy sneer about our "telling God the truth concerning himself" must not be allowed to deprive us of the privilege and drive us from the duty of adoration. It is a fitting thing, well sanctioned in Scripture, fruitful of humility and sacred joy, to ascribe in prayer "the greatness, and the power, and the glory, and the victory, and the majesty" to our God (1 Chronicles 29:11; Revelation 4:11, etc.).

III. CONFESSION. "The sins which we have sinned against thee," etc. (vers. 6, 7). Here is confession of national sin. Our consciousness tells us of our own guilt, and should lead us to confess

(a) our transgressions ("we have dealt corruptly") and

(b) our shortcomings ("we have not kept," etc.).

Our confession of sin should be simple and natural, not conventional or ostentatious. The truer, the more acceptable. Beside the acknowledgment of our own personal faultiness, our sympathy with our fellows (of the same family, Church, nation) will lead us to confess our sins as members of a community.

IV. SUPPLICATION, PLEADING (vers. 8, 9, 10). Nehemiah pleads with God his ancient promises, and he reverently affirms that they for whom he is making intercession are such as these promises included. We cannot do better than plead (a) God's word of promise, and (b) his past deliverances (ver. 10): "Thou hast delivered my soul from death: wilt thou not deliver my feet from falling?" (Psalm 56:13).

V. EARNESTNESS. In verse 11 Nehemiah urges his petition: "O Lord, I beseech thee," etc. Earnestness is not content with one clear utterance. It returns and repeats. The language of entreaty is naturally redundant. It does not spare words; it pleads and pleads again.

VI. DEFINITENESS. "Prosper thy servant . . and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cupbearer" (ver. 11). Nehemiah prays not only generally for God's merciful regard to be given to his people, but he asks especially that the mind of the king, Artaxerxes, may be favourably disposed towards himself. We should consider what we urgently require when we draw nigh to God in prayer, and ask him for those special and definite favours which are most calculated to meet the need of our circumstances and life. Only, as here, we must be unselfish and high-minded in the desires we cherish. - C.

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