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NEHEMIAH AND THE SABBATH-BREAKERS OF JUDAH. (NEH. XIII. 15–22.)
JERUSALEM was destroyed, and its citizens taken captive, according to the voice of prophecy, by Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, B.C. 586, and his successors, Evil-Merodach, and Belshazzar, enjoyed his triumphs. The Jews mourned beneath their yoke, but at length the power of the Babylonian monarchy was broken by “ the Mede and the Persian”—Darius and Cyrus—and the dawn of liberty appeared. Cyrus had been mentioned by Isaiah, and his very name foretold as their deliverer more than a century before his birth; Isa. xliv. 28; and when, on the death of Darius, he ruled alone, stirred up by the Lord, he issued this interesting proclamation:-" Thus saith Cyrus, king of Persia, The Lord God of heaven hath given me all the kingdoms of the earth; and he hath charged me to build him an house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Who is there among you of all his people? his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and build the house of the Lord God of Israel, (he is the God,) which is in Jerusalem. And whosoever remaineth in any place where he sojourneth, let the men of his place help him with silver, and with gold, and with goods, and with beasts, beside the free-will offering for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” Ezra i. 2–4. B.C. 536.
Thus favoured by the Persian monarch, Zerubbabel, the grandson of Jehoiachim, one of the last of the Hebrew monarchs, and Jeshua, a grandson of the high priest Jozadak, with ten of the principal elders, prepared themselves for the journey home. They were accompanied by fifty thousand Jews, chiefly of the tribes of Judah, Benjamin, and Levi. They carried with them the sacred vessels of the temple, which had been taken down to Babylon as spoils, together with a large contribution towards the rebuilding of the sacred edifice, made by their brethren who remained behind.
When these Jews arrived in Palestine they dispersed themselves in search of their native cities, and of necessaries for their families. They still, however, kept the burden of the edict of Cyrus, that of rebuilding the temple, in memory. This was proved by their first public act. In the following month after their arrival, they assembled at Jerusalem to celebrate the feast of tabernacles, on which occasion an altar was reared upon the ruins of the temple, and the customary sacrifices were offered, as in the days of yore. This marked the design which they entertained of one day reerecting the sacred edifice, thrown down by the fierce Chaldean. The foundations of the new temple were laid in the second month of the second year after their return, B.C. 535, and the top stone was raised with joy, in the sixth year of Darius, B.C. 516. As the temple appeared when it was completed, in the days of Darius Hystaspes, so it seems to have remained till the reign of Artaxerxes Longimanus, who authorized “Ezra the priest, a scribe of the law of the God of heaven,” to proceed to Jerusalem, B.C. 457, “to beautify the house of Jehovah,” and to establish the ecclesiastical and civil institutions with greater firmness and order than they had yet acquired. Ezra proceeded on his mission, and he was yet labouring to raise the character and improve the condition of the Hebrews, when Nehemiah was appointed civil governor of Judea, in succession to Zerubbabel, who died B.C. 444. The circumstances attending the appointment of Nehemiah to the governorship of Judea are very remarkable. He was cupbearer to Artaxerxes Longimanus, and one day being much depressed in spirits from the consideration that although the temple was rebuilt, yet was it, together with the city and its inhabitants, left defenceless, seeing that its walls were still levelled with the ground, the king demanded the cause of his sadness. It was no ordinary misdemeanour to exhibit a mournful countenance in the presence of the kings of Persia, and alarmed for his safety, Nehemiah replied:—“Let the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?” Neh. ii. 3. Nehemiah found favour in the sight of Artaxerxes Longimanus; he received a commission from him to resort to Jerusalem, and to secure the city from the foes who had long troubled the peace of its inhabitants, by rebuilding its walls and gates. Nehemiah was also directed to build a palace for himself and future governors, and afterwards to re-erect the fallen city. Nehemiah executed his commission with singular zeal, ability, and disinterestedness. Despite the fierce opposition of Sanballat the Samaritan, Tobiah the Ammonite, the Arabians, and the remnant of the Philistines, the wall was finished, with all its towers and gates, in the short space of fifty-two days. When completed, like the temple, they were dedicated with great solemnity and joy.
NEHEMIAH AND THE SABBATH-BREAKERS OF JUDAH.
The zeal of Nehemiah was not confined to the stone and mortar framework of the social system which he desired to establish. History, and past experience, had taught him that walls and bulwarks are vain to defend a people who lightly disregard the commands of Jehovah. Hence, together with Ezra, he convinced the Jews that they had grievously neglected many of the injunctions of the law of Moses, and induced them to enter into a solemn covenant to adhere to them for the future. They pledged themselves to walk in God's law as given to Moses; not to intermarry with the people of the land; to observe the sabbath day; to keep the sabbatical year, and to remit all debts therein; to pay the tax of a third of a shekel yearly for the service of the temple; and to render their first fruits and tithes, as required by the law. Among the Jews, these solemn compacts appear too frequently to have been made only to be broken. While Nehemiah remained at Jerusalem they kept the covenant into which they had entered, but when, at the expiration of his twelfth year of office, B.C. 432, he resumed his station at the Persian court, it was, together with all his salutary regulations, gradually infringed and violated. Thus baffled in his pious designs, Nehemiah obtained permission to return to Judea, B.C. 424, and on his arrival, he applied himself most vigorously to the correction of the evils which had gained ground during his absence. One of these was the profanation of the sabbath. Seeing the people tread the wine-presses on that holy day, and bring in their various burdens from the harvestfield, and the fish-market of Tyre, with all manner of merchandize, he not only testified against them, but commanded the Levites that they should cleanse themselves, “and keep the gates, to sanctify the sabbath day.” It is to this desecration of the sabbath that the annexed engraving has reference. It represents a harvest-scene in the fruitful “divisions” of Judah, in which Jacob, in his dying moments, prophesied of the person of its first founder, with particular reference to his posterity, that he should bind “his foal unto the vine, and his ass's colt unto the choice vine,” and, likewise, “wash his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes.” Gen. xlix. 11. The domain of Judah was celebrated as a vine-clad country, and so it continued through all the desolations of the captivity, for on the return of Nehemiah from the Persian court, he is said to have stood in the midst of Judah while he uttered his lamentation over the profanation of the sabbath, by the treading of wine-presses, bringing in sheaves, loading asses, and other secular employments. The engraving exhibits a fertile vineyard, as to be seen at the present day, near the city of Jerusalem. It also shows the form of the wine-press, such as is trodden alone: in the foreground are the ordinary operations of grape-gathering and loading of sheaves. The engraving below has been designed from a Babylonian seal of the age of Nehemiah, and may serve to illustrate his holy indignation against the violators of the Divine laws. The zeal of Nehemiah effected a complete reformation. By it Divine worship was re-established at Jerusalem, and the sabbath purified from profanations. And well would it be if men of all classes of society would learn from the pious governor of Jerusalem, to love and promote the due observance of the sabbath. Sabbath-breaking is a crying sin in our highly-favoured country. Pleasure and business have greater charms than devotion, and the house of God is deserted. Regardless of precept and example, the sabbath-breaker is seen on every hand during that holy day doing his own will, and walking after the imaginations of his own heart. If such should read these pages, we would warn them that the hour is approaching when these golden seasons will be no more. Their sabbaths will have soon passed away, and, unless they repent, their doom will be irrevocably sealed!