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There, and thus, Ezra sits astonished until the evening sacrifice: others resorted to him the while, even all that trembled at the words of the God of Israel ; but to help on his sorrow, not to relieve; neither doth any man wish a mitigation of his own, or others' grief. At last he rises up from his heaviness, and casts himself upon his knees, and spreads out his hands unto the Lord his God. Wherefore was all that pensiveness, fasting, silence, tearing of hair and clothes, but to serve as a meet preface to his prayers ? wherein he so freely pours out his heart, as if it had been all dissolved into devotion; professing his shame to lift up his face towards the throne of God; confessing the iniquities of his people, which were increased over their heads, and grown up unto heaven; fetching their trespass far, and charging them deep ; feelingly acknowledging the just hand that had followed them in all their judgments, and the just confusion wherein they now stand before the face of their God.
Tears and sighs, and grovellings, accompanied his prayers; the example and noise whereof drew Israel into a participation of this public mourning; “ for the people wept very sore.”
How can they choose but think, If he thus lament for us, how should we grieve for ourselves !
All Judah went away merrily with their sin, till this check of Ezra; now they are afflicted. Had not the hands of the peers been in this trespass, the people had not been guilty ; had not the cheeks of Ezra been first drenched with tears, the people had not been penitent. It cannot be spoken what power there is in a great example, whether to evil or good.
Prayers and tears are nothing without endeavours. Shecaniah, the son of Jehiel, puts the first life into this business. Having seconded the complaint of Ezra, he now adds, “Yet there is hope in Israel concerning this thing; now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them : arise, for this matter belongeth to thee, we also will be with thee; be of good courage, and do it.”
When mischief is once done, the chief care is, how to redress it. The best way of redress is the deliberate undoing of that which we have rashly committed. The surest obligation to the undoing of an evil act, is an oath or covenant made with God, for the performance. There is no man so wise, but he may make use of good
counsel ; there is no man so forward, but he may abide incitation. It is no small encouragement, to see an hearty assistance in an envious and difficult service.
" Then arose Ezra, and made the chief priests, the Levites, and all Israel, to swear that they should do according to this word.”
It is half done that is thus assured. There was need of a strong power to dissolve a matrimonial, though inordinate love. Doubtless, these men had married out of affection ; their hearts were no less set upon these wives, though heathenish, than if they had been of their own tribes ; neither were their children, thus begotten, less dear unto them, than if they had lain in Jewish wombs. Nothing less than an oath of God therefore could quiet these passions ; that is both required and taken.
Now begins Ezra to conceive some hope of present redress; the comfort whereof yet cannot turn off his sorrow for the offence passed. He neither eats bread nor drinks water, willingly punishing himself, because Israel bad sinned. Now shall his countrymen easily read in his face their own penance, and just humiliation, and say, This man takes no joy in our sufferings; he would not smart thus for us, if he did not descry more danger towards us than we can apprehend.
Proclaination is made through Judah and Jerusalem, under pain of forfeiture of substance, and excommunication from God's people, that all the children of the captivity should gather themselves together unto Jerusalem. They are met accordingly; the courts of God's house are thronged with penitents; and now, as if the heavens would teach them what to do, the clouds rain down abundance of tears. What with those sad showers, what with their inward remorse, the people sit trembling in the open courts, and humbly wait for the reproof, for the sentence of Ezra. He rises up, and, with a severe countenance, lays before them their sin, their amends; the sin of their strange wives, the amends of their confession, of their separation; not sparing to search their wound, nor neglecting the meet plaister for their cure.
The people, as willing to be healed, yield themselves patiently to that rough hand, not shrinking at the pain, nor favouring the sore; " As thou hast said, so must we do :" ; only craving a fit proportion of time, and a due assistance for the dispatch of so long and important a work. Ezra
gladly hearkens to this, not so inuch request, as counsel of Israel. The charge is divided to men and days ; for two months' space the commissioners sit close, and within that compass finish this business, not more thankless than necessary. Doubtless much variety of passion met with them in this busy service. Here you should have seen an affectionate husband bitterly weeping at the dismission of a loving wife, and drowning his last farewell in sobs. There you might have seen a passionate wife hanging upon the arms of her beloved husband; and on her knees conjuring him by his former vows, and the dear pledges of their loves, and proffering, with many tears, to redeem the loss of her husband with the change of her religion. Here you might have seen the kindred and parents of the dismissed, shutting up their denied suits with rage and threats ; there the abandoned children kneeling to their seeming cruel father, beseeching him not to cast off the fruit of his own loins, and expostulating what they have offended in being his. The resolved Israelites must be deaf, or blind to these moving objects, and so far forget nature, as to put off part of themselves. Personal inconveniences have reason to yield to public mischiefs : long entertainment makes that sin hard to be ejected, whose first motions might have been repelled with ease.
Had not the probibition of these marriages been express, and their danger and mischief palpable, the care of their separation had not bred so much tumult in Israel. He, that ordained matrimony, had upon fearful curses forbidden an unequal yoke with infidels. Besides the marring of the church by the mixture of an unholy seed, religion suffered for the present, and all good hearts with it. Many tears, many sacrifices, need to expiate so foul an offence, and to set Israel straight again.
All this while even these mis-line Jews were yet forward to build the temple. The worst sinners may yield an outward conformity to actions of piety. Ezra hath done more service in pulling down, than the Jews in building; without this act, the temple might have stood, religion must needs have fallen : Babel had been translated to Jerusalem, Jews had turned Gentiles. O happy endeavours of devout and holy Ezra, that hath at once restored Judah to God, and to itself.
Nehemiah building the Walls of Jerusalem. THIRTEEN years were now passed since Ezra's going up to Jerusalem, when Nehemiah, the religious courtier of Artaxerxes, inquires of the estate of his country, and brethren of Judea : he might well find that holy scribe had not been idle. The commission of Artaxerxes had been inproved by him to the utinost. Disorders were reformed, but the walls lay waste: the temple was built, but the city was ruinous; and if some streets were repaired, yet they stood unguarded, open to the mercy of an enemy, to the infestation of ill neighbourhood. Great bodies must have slow motions : as Jerusalem, so the church of God, whose type it was, must be finished by leisure.
Nehemiah sat warm in the court at Shushan, favoured by the great king Artaxerxes; nothing could be wanting to him, whether for pleasure or state : what needed he to trouble his head with thoughts for Jerusalern? what if those remote walls lay on heaps, while himself dwelt fair? what if his far distant countrymen be despised, while himself is honoured by the great monarch of the world?
It is not so easy for gracious dispositions to turn off the public calamnities of God's church: neither can they do other than lose their private felicities, in the common distresses of the universal body. “If I forget thee, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget her cunning: if I do not remember thee, let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth.”
Many Jews went up from Babylon and Shushan to Jerusalem, few ever returned voluntarily from their native home to the region of their captivity. Some occasion drew Hanani, with certain others of Judah, to this voyage. Of them doth Nehemiah carefully inquire tbe present condition of Jerusalem. It was no news that the people were afflicted and reproached, the walls broken down, the gates burnt with fire. Ever since the furious vastation of Nebuzaradan, that city knew not better terms. Seldom doth the spiritual Jerusalem fare otherways, in respect of outward estate. External glory and magnificence is an unsure note of the church.
Well had Nehemiah hoped, that the gracious edict and
beneficence of Darius, and the successive patronage of his lord Artaxerxes, had, by the continuance of twenty years' favour, advanced the strength and glory of Jerusalem : but now, finding the holy city to lie still in the dust of her confusion, neglected of God, despised of men, he sits down and weeps, and mourns, and fasts, and prays to the God of heaven. How many saw those ruins, and were little affected! he hears of them afar off, and is thus passionate. How many were, upon this sight, affected with a fruitless sorrow! his mourning is joined with the endeavours of redress. In vain is that grief, which hath no other end than itself.
Nehemiah is resolved to kneel to the king his master, for the repair of his Jerusalem : he dares not attempt the suit till he have begun with God. This good.courtier knew well, that the hearts of these earthly kings are in the overruling hand of the King of heaven, to incline whether he pleaseth. Our prayers are the only true means to make way for our suc
If in all our occasions we do not begin with the first mover, the course is preposterous, and commonly speeds accordingly.
Who dares censure the piety of courtiers, when he finds Nehemiah standing before Artaxerxes? Even the Persian palace is not incapable of a saint. No man, that waits on the altar at Jerusalem, can compare for zeal with him, that waits on the cup of a pagan monarch. The mercies of God are unlimited to places, to callings.
Thus armed with devotions, doth Nehemiah put himself into the presence of his master Artaxerxes. His face was overclouded with a deep sadness, neither was he willing to clear it. The king easily notes the disparity of the countenance of the bearer, and the wine that he bears; and, in a gracious familiarity, asks the reason of such unwonted change. How well it becomes the great to stoop unto a courteous affability, and to exchange words of respect, even with their humble vassals!
Nebemiah had not been so long in the court, but he knew that princes like no other than cheerful attendants; neither was he wont to bring any other face into that presence, than smooth and smiling.
Greatness uses to be full of suspicion, and, where it sees a dejection and sourness of the brows, is ready to apprehend some sullen thoughts of discontentment, or, at the least,