The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace,
Ver. 1. The words of Nehemiah] Or, the deeds, for he was good at both; and so a singular comfort to his countrymen, according to the notation of his name Nehemiah, i.e. The comfort or rest of the Lord. Here hence also some infer, that Nehemiah himself was the penman of this book (and not Ezra, as the vulgar Latin and many ancients would have it), like as Julius Caesar wrote his own acts (so did Alexander Severus and M. Aurelius, emperors), and by a more modest name, called his book Commentaries, and not Histories; yet did it so well, ut praerepta non praebita facultas scriptoribus videatur, said Aulus Hirtius, that historians had their work done to their hands; he wrote with the same spirit he fought, saith Quintilian, Eodem animo dixit, quo bellavit, lib. 10.
And it came to pass] This book then is a continuation of the former; Nehemiah being a third instrument of procuring this people's good, after Zerubbabel and Ezra; and deservedly counted and called a third founder of that commonwealth, after Joshua and David.
In the month Chisleu] In the deep of winter: then it was that Hanani and his brethren undertook their journey into Persia, for the good of the Church.
I was in Shushan the palace] i.e. In the palace of the city Susan; this Susan signifieth a lily, and was so called, likely, for the beauty and delectable site. Now it is called Vahdac of the poverty of the place. Here was Nehemiah waiting upon his office, and promoting the good of his people. Strabo and others say, that the inhabitants of Susia were quiet and peaceable; and were therefore the better beloved by the kings of Persia, Cyrus being the first that made his chief abode there, in winter especially; and that this city was long, and in compass fifteen miles about.
That Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and [certain] men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.
Ver. 2. That Hanani] A gracious man, according to his name (Nomine tu, quin sis natura Gratius, ac te Gratius hoc Christi gratia praestet, Amen), and zealous for his country; which indeed is a man's self; and therefore when our Saviour used that proverb, Physician, heal thyself, the sense is, heal thy country, Luke 4:23 .
One of my brethren] Not by race, perhaps, but surely by grace and place; a Jew, and that inwardly, and therefore intrusted, after this, by Nehemiah with a great charge, Nehemiah 7:2 .
Came, he and certain men of Judah] Upon some great suit, likely, for their country; because they took so long and troublesome a journey in the winter, not without that Roman resolution of Pompey in like case, Necesse est ut eam, non ut vivam. It is necessary that I go not that I live. Whatever their business was, these men had better success than afterwards Philo the Jew and his colleagues had in their embassy to Caligula the emperor; who cast them out with contempt, and would not hear their apology against Appion of Alexandria, their deadly enemy.
And I asked them concerning the Jews] The Church was his care; neither could he enjoy aught so long as it went ill with Zion. He was even sick of the affliction of Joseph; and glad he had got any of whom to inquire; he asked them, not out of an itch after news; but of an earnest desire to know how it fared with God's poor people, that he might cum singulis pectus suum copulate, with singleness of purpose, having bound him, as Cyprian speaketh, rejoice with them that rejoiced, and weep with those that wept, Romans 12:15, a sure sign of a sound member.
Which were left of the captivity] One of whom he well knew to be more worth than a rabble of rebels, a world of wicked persons; as the Jews rise to say of those seventy souls that went down with Jacob into Egypt, that they were better worth than all the seventy nations of the world besides.
And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province [are] in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also [is] broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.
Ver. 3. Are in great affliction and reproach] The Church is heir of the cross, saith Luther, Ecclesia est haeres crucis, and it was ever the portion of God's people to be reproached, as David was by Doeg with devouring words, Psalms 52:1. Their breath as fire shall devour you, Isaiah 33:11 .
The wall of Jerusalem also is broken down] So that thieves and murderers came in, in the night, saith Comestor here, and slew many of them.
And the gates thereof are burnt with fire] They were burnt by the Chaldeans, and never yet repaired. And to keep a continual great watch was too great a charge and trouble.
And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned [certain] days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,
Ver. 4. And it came to pass when I heard] It was not without a special providence that these good men thus met, and by mutual conference kindled one another; and that thereby God provided a remedy. Things fall not out by haphazard, but by God's most wise dispose and appointment.
That I sat down and wept] He was even pressed down with the greatness of his grief, whereto be gave vent by his eyes, Zephaniah 3:17,18, Expletur lachrymis, egeriturque dolor (Ovid) He was filled with tears and grief was shown. God promises much mercy to such to whom the reproach of the solemn assemblies was a burden. Nehemiah cannot stand under it, but sits down and weeps.
And fasted, and prayed] This was a sure course, and never miscarried, as hath been noted, Ezra 9:1,15 .
Before the God of heaven] With face turned toward his holy temple, 1Ki 8:44; 1 Kings 8:48, with heart lifted up to the highest heavens, those hills whence should come his help.
And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments:
Ver. 5. I beseech thee, O Lord] Annah Jehovah; an insinuating preface; whereby he seeketh first to get in with God speaking him fair; as doth likewise David, in a real and heavenly compliment, Psalms 116:16. Obsecro Iehovah, I beseech, O Lord (I am thy servant, I am thy servant, the son of thine handmaid), break thou my bands. So the Church, Isaiah 64:9, "Behold, see, we beseech thee, we are all thy people."
The great and terrible God] A great King above all gods, Exodus 15:11. Aξιωματικωτατς εστιν ο βασιλευς ημων, saith a Greek father: "glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders," saith Moses in one place; as in another, "The Lord our God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, a mighty, and a terrible," Deuteronomy 10:17. Vere verendus et venerandus. Truly reverence and will worship. Thus Nehemiah begins his prayer, and counts it a great mercy that he may creep in at a corner, and present himself before this most majestic Monarch of the world with greatest self-abasement.
That keepeth covenant and mercy] That he may at once both tremble before him and trust upon him; he describeth God by his goodness as well as by greatness, and so helpeth his own faith by contemplating God's faithfulness and lovingkindness. God hath hitherto kept covenant with heaven and earth, with nights and days, Jeremiah 33:20; Jeremiah 33:25, that one shall succeed the other; and shall he break with his people? no, verily. Be sure to keep faith in heart, or you will pray but poorly. And for this, learn in the preface to your prayers to propound God to yourselves in such notions, and under such terms and titles, as may most conduce thereunto, pleading the covenant.
Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father's house have sinned.
Ver. 6. Let thine ears now be attentive, and thine eyes open] Should not God see as well as hear (saith a divine), his children should want many things. We apprehend not all our wants; and so cannot pray for relief of all. He of his own accord, without any monitor, is wont to aid us. "The eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous; and his ears are open to their prayer," Psalms 33:15 .
That thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant] If not secundum voluntatem, yet ad utilitatem (Aug. Confess. 1. 5, c. 8), but usually God answereth his servants' prayers, fitting his mercy ad cardinem desiderii, to a longing heart, as here; and letting it be unto them even as they will.
Which I pray before thee now, day and night] Christ requireth his servants and suppliants to pray and not faint, Luke 18:1. Ordinarily, morning and evening without fail; extraordinarily, oftener. The Jews divide their day into prayer, work, and repast; neither will they omit prayer for their meat or labour. The Mahometans, what occasion soever they have, either by profit or pleasure, to divert them, will pray five times every day; and upon the Friday (which is their sabbath) six times. Vae torpori nostro! woe our numbness, how few and feeble are our prayers for ourselves and for brethren in distress; who have for that cause an unanswerable action against us!
And confess the sins of the children of Israel] This he did more fully and at large than is here set down; and he fitly beginnneth with confession; that having gotten off the guilt of sin, he might with more courage and comfort deprecate wrath, and beg mercy.
Which we have sinned against thee] There lay the pinch of his grief, that they sinned against so good a God.
Both I and my father's house have sinned] Hic igitur Lyra deliravit, Lyra is incorrect when he saith here, that Nehemiah confessed his own sins, but only as a member of the same body, he himself being innocent. Comparatively innocent he was, doubtless; but that he was not without sin, and such sin as he had cause to confess to be God provoking sins, is clear by this very text. He was sensible of his own sins, and of other men's sins too. The sins of our ancestors not bewailed and disclaimed, are set upon our score, Daniel 5:22 .
We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses.
Ver. 7. We have dealt very corruptly] Heb. Corrupting, we have corrupted ourselves against thee. Or, We have bound ourselves unto thee to be punished for our sins. Of confessing with utmost aggravation, and laying load upon ourselves, see the notes on Ezra 9:1,15. See Trapp on " Ezr 9:1 " &c.
And have not kept the commandments, nor statutes, nor judgments] i.e. Neither the laws moral, ceremonial, nor judicial. We have broken all thy bonds, and cast thy cords from us.
Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, [If] ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations:
Ver. 8. Remember, I beseech thee, the word] It befalleth not the Lord to forget or remember (to speak properly), for all things are present with him. Nevertheless metaphorically God is said to do both; as when, being provoked by the horrid sins of the Jews, he so punished them as if he had forgotten that they were his people, or that he had ever made them any promises. And in this case God gives his prophets and praying people leave to be his remembrancers, Isaiah 62:6,7. Ye that are the Lord's remembrancers, keep not silence, and give him no rest till he establish, and till he make Jerusalem a praise in the earth. This Nehemiah doth here most vigorously, and sped accordingly; let us do likewise. Cast the labouring Church into God's everlasting arms, and remind him of his promises burden him with them, as that martyr said; put them into suit, they are nigh the Lord day and night, 1 Kings 8:59. Say, remember thy word unto thy servant, whereupon thou hast caused me to trust, Psalms 119:49. And in the want of other rhetoric urge this, with repetition, Lord, thou hast promised, thou hast promised, &c. He loves to be urged with his word, to be used upon his bond, &c.
The word that thou commandest, &c.] The threatening is also to be acknowledged God's word, as well as the promise; and the uprightness of our hearts is, to be approving by believing the one as well as the other. Sour and sweet make the best sauce; promises and menaces mingled serve to keep the heart in the best temper, as Nehemiah's was.
But [if] ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, [yet] will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.
Ver. 9. But if ye turn unto me] By sin men do wickedly depart from God; as by repentance they return unto him, and close with him.
And keep my commandments] Evangelically keep them; for with a legal obedience none can: our short legs and pursy hearts cannot hold out here.
And do them] Or at least, be doing at them, do them as we can; si praecepta faciamus, etiamsi non perficiamus, sufficit.
Unto the uttermost part of the heaven] That is, of the earth, which seems to our eye terminated with the heaven, and covered as with a half globe. Jews are a dejected people to this present; and a fearful instance of God's heavy indignation against sin. Josephus saith, that in his time they were grown so wicked, that if the Romans had not destroyed and dispersed them, without doubt either the earth would have swallowed them up, or fire from heaven have consumed them.
Yet will I gather them from thence] Else not. God's promises are with a condition, which is as an oar in a boat, and stern of a ship; and turns the promise another way.
Now these [are] thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand.
Ver. 10. Now these are thy servants and thy people] And therefore thou art concerned, in point of honour, to see to them, and to work for them, as every master will do for his servants, and king for his subjects. Otherwise, the neighbouring nations our enemies may possibly say as Aigoland, king of Saragossa, in Aragon, did; of whom it is reported, that he long time made Charlemagne believe that he would be baptized. And when he came for that purpose to the French court, and saw many diseased and poor people expecting alms from the emperor's table, he asking what they were? was answered, that they were the servants and people of God. On these words he speedily returned, desperately protesting that he would not serve that God which could keep his servants no better.
Whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power] And wilt thou part with thy purchase, or obscure the glory of thy conquest over the gods and people of Egypt, by leaving this thy people destitute?
O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king's cupbearer.
Ver. 11. O Lord, I beseech thee] He ends as he began, see Nehemiah 1:5, praying in the Holy Ghost, whose creature prayer is.
And to the prayer of thy servants] Whose necessities prick them on to prayer in all places; and who pray for the peace of Jerusalem incessantly, Psalms 137:1,9 .
Who desire to fear thy name] The whole life of a true Christian is nothing else but sanctum desiderium, saith Austin, a holy desire. "Willing to live honestly," Hebrews 13:18, wishing well to an exact keeping of God's commandments, Psalms 119:4,5, affecting that perfection which yet we cannot effect.
Prosper, I pray thee] Prosperity given in as an answer to prayer is very sweet; as the cipher, when it followeth the figure, adds to the number, though it be nothing in itself.
For I was the king's cupbearer] And so might take mollissima fandi tempora, my fittest opportunity to help my people.