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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.