THE MIDNIGHT RIDE
NEHEMIAH’S journey up to Jerusalem differed in many respects from Ezra’s great expedition, with a host of emigrants, rich stores, and all the accompaniments of a large caravan. Burdened with none of these encumbrances, the newly appointed governor would be able to travel in comparative ease. Yet while Ezra was "ashamed" to ask for a military escort to protect his defenceless multitude and the treasures which were only too likely to attract the vulture eyes of roving hordes of Bedouin, because, as he tells us, he feared such a request might be taken as a sign of distrust in his God, Nehemiah accepted a troop of cavalry without any hesitation. This difference, however, does not reflect any discredit on the faith of the younger man.
In the first place, his claims on the king were greater than those of Ezra, who would have had to petition for the help of soldiers if he had wanted it, whereas Nehemiah received his bodyguard as a matter of course. Ezra had been a private subject previous to his appointment, and though he had subsequently been endowed with large authority of an indefinite character, that authority was confined to the execution of the Jewish law; it had nothing to do with the general concerns of the Persian government in Syria or Palestine. But Nehemiah came straight from the court, where he had been a favourite servant of the king, and he was now made the official governor of Jerusalem. It was only in accordance with custom that he should have an escort assigned him when he went to take possession of his district. Then, probably to save time, Nehemiah would travel by the perilous desert route through Tadmor, and thus cover the whole journey in about two months-a route which Ezra’s heavy caravan may have avoided. When he reached Syria the fierce animosity which had been excited by Ezra’s domestic reformation-and which therefore had been broken out after Ezra’s expedition-would make it highly dangerous for a Jew who was going to aid the hated citizens of Jerusalem to travel through the mixed population.
Nevertheless, after allowing their full weight to these considerations, may we not still detect an interesting trait of the younger man’s character in Nehemiah’s ready acceptance of the guard with which Ezra had deliberately dispensed? In the eyes of the world the idealist Ezra must have figured as a most unpractical person. But Nehemiah, a courtier by trade, was evidently well accustomed to "affairs." Naturally a cautious man, he was always anxious in his preparations, though no one could blame him for lack of decision or promptness at the moment of action. Now the striking thing about his character in this relation-that which lifts it entirely above the level of purely secular prudence-is the fact that he closely associated his careful habits with. his faith in Providence. He would have regarded the rashness which excuses itself on the plea of faith as culpable presumption. His religion was all the more real and thorough because it did not confine itself to unearthly experiences, or refuse to acknowledge the Divine in any event that was not visibly miraculous. No man was ever more impressed with the great truth that God was with him. It was this truth, deeply rooted in his heart, that gave him the joy which became the strength, the very inspiration of his life. He was sure that his commonest secular concerns were moulded by the hand of his God. Therefore to his mind the detachment of Persian cavalry was as truly assigned to him by God as if it had been a troop of angels sent straight from the hosts of heaven.
The highly dangerous nature of his undertaking and the necessity for exercising the utmost caution were apparent to Nehemiah as soon as he approached Jerusalem. Watchful enemies at once showed themselves annoyed "that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel." [Nehemiah 2:10] It was not any direct injury to themselves, it was the prospect of some favour to the hated Jews that grieved these people, though doubtless their jealousy was in part provoked by dread lest Jerusalem should regain the position of pre-eminence in Palestine which had been enjoyed during her depression by the rival city of Samaria. Under these circumstances Nehemiah followed the tactics which he had doubtless learnt during his life among the treacherous intrigues of an Oriental court. He did not at first reveal his plans. He spent three days quietly in Jerusalem. Then he took his famous ride round the ruins of the city walls. This was as secret as King Alfred’s exploration of the camp of the Danes. Without breathing a word of his intention to the Jews, and taking only a horse or an ass to ride on himself and a small body of trusty attendants on foot, Nehemiah set out on his tour in the dead of night. No doubt the primary purpose of this secrecy was that no suspicion of his design should reach the enemies of the Jews. Had these men suspected it they would have been beforehand with their plans for frustrating it; spies and traitors would have been in the field before Nehemiah was prepared to receive them; emissaries of the enemy would have perverted the minds even of loyal citizens. It would be difficult enough under any circumstances to rouse the dispirited people to undertake a work of great toil and danger. If they were divided in counsel from the first it would be hopeless. Moreover, in order to persuade the Jews to fortify their city, Nehemiah must be prepared with a clear and definite proposal. He must be able to show them that he understands exactly in what condition their ruined fortifications are lying. For his personal satisfaction, too, he must see the ruins with his own eyes. Ever since the travellers from Jerusalem who met him at Susa had shocked him with their evil tidings, a vision of the broken walls and charred gates had been before his imagination. Now he would really see the very ruins themselves, and ascertain whether all was as bad as it had been represented.
The uncertainty which still surrounds much of the topography of Jerusalem, owing to its very foundations having been turned over by the ploughshare of the invader, while some of its sacred sites have been buried under huge mounds of rubbish, renders it impossible to trace Nehemiah’s night ride in all its details. If we are to accept the latest theory, according to which the gorge hitherto regarded as the Tyropaeon is really the ancient Valley of Hinnom, some other sites will need considerable readjustment. The "Gate of the Valley" seems to be one near the head of the Valley of Hinnom; we know nothing of the "Dragon Well": the "Dung Port" would be a gateway through which the city offal was flung out to the fires in the Valley of Hinnom; the "King’s Pool" is very likely that afterwards known as the "Pool of Siloam." The main direction of Nehemiah’s tour of inspection is fairly definite to us. He started at the western exit from the city and passed down to the left, to where the Valley of Hinnom joins the Valley of the Kidron; ascending this valley, he found the masses of stones and heaps of rubbish in such confusion that he was compelled to leave the animal he had been riding hitherto and to clamber over the ruins on foot. Reaching the northeastern corner of the valley of the Kidron, he would turn round by the northern side of the city, where most of the gates had been situated, because there the city, which was difficult of access to the south and the east on account of the encircling ravines, could be easily approached.
And what did he gain by his journey? He gained knowledge. The reformation that is planned by the student at his desk, without any reference to the actual state of affairs, will be, at best, a Utopian dream. But if the dreamer is also a man of resources and opportunities, his impracticable schemes may issue in incalculable mischief. "Nothing is more terrible," says Goethe, "than active ignorance." We can smile at a knight-errant Don Quixote; but a Don Quixote in power would be as dangerous as a Nero. Most schemes of socialism, though they spring from the brains of amiable enthusiasts, break up like empty bubbles on the first contact with the real world. It is especially necessary, too, to know the worst. Optimism is very cheering in idea, but when it is indulged in to the neglect of truth, with an impatient disregard for the shady side of life, it simply leads its devotees into a fools’ paradise. The highest idealist must have something of the realist in him if he would ever have his ideas transformed into facts.
Further, it is to be noted that Nehemiah would gather his information for himself; he could not be content with hearsay evidence. Here again he reveals the practical man. It is not that he distrusts the honesty of any agents he might employ, nor merely that he is aware of the deplorable inaccuracy of observers generally and the inability of nearly all people to give an un-coloured account of what they have seen, but he knows that there is an impression to be obtained by personal observation which the most correct description cannot approach. No map or book will give a man a right idea of a place that he has never visited. If this is true of the external world, much more is it the case with those spiritual realities which the eye hath not seen, and which therefore it has not entered into the heart of man to conceive.. Wordsworth frequently refers to his sensations of surprise and disappointment passing over into a new delight when he first beheld scenes long ago described to him in verse or legend. He finds "Yarrow visited" very unlike "Yarrow unvisited." One commonplace distinction we must all have noticed under similar circumstances-viz., that the imagination is never rich and varied enough to supply us with the complications of the realty. Before we have looked at it our idea of the landscape is too simple, and an invariable impression produced by the actual sight of it is to make us feel how much more elaborate it is. Indeed a personal investigation of most phenomena reveals an amount of complication previously unexpected. Where the investigation is, like Nehemiah’s, concerned with an evil we propose to attack, the result is that we begin to see that the remedy cannot be so simple as we imagined before we knew all the facts.
But the chief effect of Nehemiah’s night ride would be to impress him with an overwhelming sense of the desolation of Jerusalem. We may know much by report, but we feel most keenly that of which we have had personal experience. Thus the news of a gigantic cataclysm in China does not affect us with a hundredth part of the emotion that is excited in us by a simple street accident seen from our own windows. The man whose heart will be moved enough for him to sacrifice himself seriously in relieving misery is he who will first "visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction." [James 1:27] Then the proof that the impression is deep and real, and not a mere idle sentiment, will be seen in the fact that it prompts action. Nehemiah was moved to tears by the report of the ruinous condition of Jerusalem, which reached him in the far-off palace beyond the Euphrates. What the scene meant to him as he slowly picked his way among the huge masses of masonry is seen by his conduct immediately afterwards. It must have stirred him profoundly. The silence of the sleeping city, broken now and again by the dismal howls of packs of dogs scouring the streets, or perhaps by the half-human shrieks of jackals on the deserted hills in the outlying country; the dreary solitude of the interminable heaps of ruins, the mystery of strange objects half-descried in the distance by starlight, or, at best, by moonlight, the mournful discovery, on nearer view, of huge building stones tumbled over and strewn about on mountainous heaps of dust and rubbish, the gloom, the desolation, the terror, -all this was enough to make the heart of a patriot faint with despair. Was it possible to remedy such huge calamities?
Nehemiah does not despair. He has no time to grieve. We hear no more of his weeping and lamentation and fasting. Now he is spurred on to decisive action.
Fortified by the knowledge he has acquired in his adventurous night ride, and urged by the melancholy sights he has witnessed, Nehemiah loses no time in bringing his plans before the oligarchy of nobles who held the rule in Jerusalem previous to his coming, as well as the rest of the Jews. Though he is now the officially appointed governor, he cannot arrange matters with a high hand. He must enlist the sympathy and encourage the faith, both of the leaders and of the people generally.
The following points in his speech to the Jews may be noticed. First, he calls attention to the desolate condition of Jerusalem. [Nehemiah 2:17-18] This is a fact well known. "Ye see the evil case that we are in," he says, "how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire." The danger was that apathy would succeed to despair, for it is possible for people to become accustomed to the most miserable condition. The reformer must infuse a "Divine discontent ," and the preliminary step is to get the evil plight well recognised and heartily disliked. In the second place, Nehemiah exhorts the nobles and people to join him in building the walls.
So now he clearly reveals his plan. The charm in his utterance here is in the use of the first person plural, not the first person singular- he cannot do the work alone, nor does he wish to, not the second person-though he is the authoritative governor, he does not enjoin on others a task the toil and responsibility of which he will not share himself. In the genuine use of this pronoun "we" there lies the secret of all effective exhortation. Next Nehemiah proceeds to adduce reasons for his appeal. He calls out the sense of patriotic pride in the remark, "that we be no more a reproach ," and he goes further, for the Jews are the people of God, and for them to fail is for reproach to be cast on the name of God Himself. Here is the great religious motive for not permitting the city of God to lie in ruins, as it is today the supreme motive for keeping all taint of dishonour from the Church of Christ.
But direct encouragements are needed. A sense of shame may rouse us from our lethargy, and yet in the end it will be depressing if it does not give place to the inspiration of a new hope. Now Nehemiah has two fresh grounds of encouragement. He first names that which he esteems highest - the presence and help of God in his work. "I told them," he says, "of the hand of my God which was good upon me." How could he despair, even at the spectacle of the ruined walls and gateways, with the consciousness of this great and wonderful truth glowing in his heart? Not that he was a mystic weaving fantastic dreams out of the filmy substance of his own vague feelings. It is true he felt impelled by the strong urging of his patriotism, and he knew that God was in that holy passion. Yet his was an objective mind and he recognised the hand of God chiefly in external events-in the Providence that opens doors and indicates paths, that levels mountains of difficulty and fills up impassable chasms, that even bends the wills of great kings to do its bidding. This action of Providence he had himself witnessed; his very presence at Jerusalem was a token of it. He, once a household slave in the jealous seclusion of an Oriental palace, was now the governor of Jerusalem, appointed to his post for the express purpose of restoring the miserable city to strength and safety. In all this Nehemiah felt the hand of God upon him. Then it was a gracious and merciful Providence that had led him. Therefore he could not but own further that the hand of God was "good." He perceived God’s work, and that work was to him most wonderfully full of loving kindness. Here indeed was the greatest of all encouragements to proceed. It was well that Nehemiah had the devout insight to perceive it; a less spiritually minded man might have received the marvellous favour without ever discovering the hand from which it came. Following the example of the miserable, worldly Jacob, some of us wake up in our Bethel to exclaim with surprise, "Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not." [Genesis 28:16] But even that is better than to slumber on in dull indifference, too dead to recognise the Presence that guides and blesses every footstep, provoking the melancholy lamentation: "The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib, but Israel doth not know, My people doth not consider." [Isaiah 1:3]
Lastly, Nehemiah not only perceived the hand of God and took courage from his assurance of the fact, he made this glorious fact known to the nobles of Jerusalem in order to rouse their enthusiasm. He had the simplicity of earnestness, the openness of one who forgets self in advocating a great cause. Is not reticence in religion too often a consequence of the habit of turning one’s thoughts inward? Such a habit will vanish at the touch of a serious purpose. The man who is in dead earnest has no time to be self-conscious, he does not indulge in sickly reflections on the effect of what he says on other people’s opinions about himself, he will not care what they think about him so long as he moves them to do the thing it is laid on his soul to urge upon them. But it is difficult to escape from the selfish subjectivity of modern religion, and recover the grand naturalness of the saints alike of Old and of New Testament times.
After this revelation of the Divine Presence, Nehemiah’s second ground of encouragement is of minor interest, it can be but one link in the chain of providential leading. Yet for a man who had not reached his lofty point of view, it would have filled the whole horizon. The king had given permission to the Jews to rebuild the walls, and he had allowed Nehemiah to visit Jerusalem for the very purpose of carrying out the work. This king, Artaxerxes, whose firman had stopped the earlier attempt and even sanctioned the devastating raid of the enemies of the Jews, was now proving himself the friend and champion of Jerusalem! Here was cheering news!
It is not surprising that such a powerful appeal as this of Nehemiah’s was successful. It was like the magic horn that awoke the inmates of the enchanted castle. The spell was broken. The long, listless torpor of the Jews gave place to hope and energy, and the people braced themselves to commence the work. These Jews who had been so lethargic hitherto were now the very men to undertake it. Nehemiah brought no new laborers, but he brought what was better, the one essential requisite for every great enterprise-an inspiration. He brought what the world most needs in every age. We wait for better men to arise and undertake the tasks that seem to be too great for our strength; we cry for a new race of God-sent heroes to accomplish the Herculean labours before which we faint and fail. But we might ourselves become the better men; nay, assuredly we should become God’s heroes, if we would, but open our hearts to receive the Spirit by the breath of which the weakest are made strong and the most indolent are fired with a Divine energy. Today, as in the time of Nehemiah, the one supreme need is inspiration.