GOOD DEEDS FOR THE HOUSE OF GOD.
BY E. E. BEARDSLEY, D. D.,
NEHEMIAH XIII., 14.
REMEMBER ME, O MY GOD, CONCERNING THIS, AND WIPE NOT OUT MY GOOD DEEDS THAT I HAVE DONE FOR THE HOUSE OF MY GOD, AND FOR THE OFFICES THEREOF.
THE settlement of the Jews in Palestine, after the Royal edict had been issued permitting them to return from Chaldea, was not at once completed. There was something of pause and hesitation in abandoning the country which had become almost theirs by adoption; and when the captives as a body did rise up under the influence of piety and patriotism and seek again the desolate land of their fathers, here and there a man of distinction and devotion lingered behind, though his heart went with his returning countrymen. Of this character was that Nehemiah, who held a high and honorable office in the Persian court,—even the office of a cup-bearer to the king. His position, joined to his integrity, prudence, and piety, fitted him for soliciting favors from Artaxerxes, and thus for accomplishing, in the Providence of God, what no private individual could have accomplished. Upon receiving by Hanani and certain messengers a pitiful and most melancholy account of the state of Jerusalem, with “its walls broken down and the gates thereof burned with fire,” he fortified himself through humiliation and prayer, and then entreated of the king [3/4] permission to be the instrument of restoring the waste places permission to go unto Judah and build up the city of his fathers’ sepulchres.
When, therefore, Nehemiah left the palace of Shushan, it was with authority to rule over Judea and with a special proclamation from the king to remove the rubbish and build again the walls and gates of Jerusalem. He bore with him also, royal letters to all the governors beyond the river Euphrates, directing them to aid him in the noble and patriotic work on which he was sent. It need not be minutely stated how well he executed the king’s commission,—notwithstanding vast discouragements, and strong opposition from within and from without,—and how vigilant he was to promote the welfare of his countrymen in every possible way. Because the rich had taken advantage of the necessities of the poorer sort and exacted of them heavy usury, he convened a general assembly and set forth the nature of their offense, how great a breach it was of the Divine law, and how severe and oppressive a burden upon their brethren. Hence all the lands, vineyards, olive-yards, and houses, which had been mortgaged, were released, and the people were cheered on to further labors and sacrifices.
No sooner had he completed the walls, enclosed the city, and set up the gates thereof, than he adopted suitable measures for the internal regulation and happiness of Jerusalem. He had a higher concern than merely for the civil state. It was his grand object to restore and establish, in their perfection and power, the service and worship of Almighty God. For he was convinced that the state without the supports of religion was like a body without the functions of life in healthful order. He resumed the celebration of the sacred festivals appointed by law, settled the genealogies of the nobles and the rulers and the people, and among other things bound them to take the word of God for their guide and direction,—to renounce all intimate connections with idolatrous neighbors,—-to guard against every profanation of the Sabbath, and to adhere with the greatest care and exactness to all the appointments and services of the temple.
 Having thus brought order out of confusion and established these wholesome regulations, he dedicated to God. with all the solemnities of devotion, the walls of the city, and for this issue of his work “the joy of Jerusalem was heard even afar off.” Then he went back to his office and duties at the Persian court, and it is on the occasion of his second visit to the land of his fathers that we meet with him in the chapter from which the text has been drawn.
It grieved him sorely to find on his return, that during his absence of many years, the very evils and abuses which he so carefully guarded against, had reappeared, and that Eliashib, the chief priest, having the oversight of the chamber of the house of God, had treacherously provided for a bold and presumptuous enemy, large apartments in the buildings of the temple—not only to the utter profanation of the consecrated place, but to the exclusion of the holy vessels and offerings and to the interruption of the sacred solemnities. “What could Nehemiah, with a new commission as governor of Judea, do but set himself immediately to oppose and reform these abuses and corruptions ? He at once cast out Tobiah from his lodgment in the temple, notwithstanding his high family alliance, reprehended the rulers for their desertion of the house of God, and restored the Levites to their employments and their tithes. “While joy and satisfaction filled every pious bosom at such a reformation, and while his own breast was aglow with delight as he surveyed the fruit of his labors, with a complacency which deeds of no other nature could inspire, and with eyes uplifted to the Being in whose presence we must all appear to give account—he exclaimed, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof.”
This appeal to the Most High God seems, upon a slight glance, to be a strange one, and hardly consistent with a spirit of becoming humility. So frail is human nature, and so imperfect are all human performances, that when a man approaches his Maker, instead of asking to be remembered for deeds of righteousness, his prayer should rather be that of the publican [5/6] in the parable, “God be merciful to me a sinner!” But if you look a little deeper into the character of Nehemiah, yon will perceive that he was actuated by no unbecoming pride in this matter. He spoke not with the arrogant expectations of a Pharisee, as if he had any claim upon God for his services, or trusted to them tor his acceptance and salvation. They were done for the religious instruction of the people and the advancement of the worship of God in the unhappy land of his fathers, and knowing that he would receive no proper recompense, no grateful acknowledgment from the men for whose good he had toiled and spent largely of his private fortune, and knowing, too, that many of them misrepresented his motives and his work, he turned with cheerful hope to the Supreme Ruler and Judge, and satisfied if he could obtain the divine approbation, he devoutly prayed, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, and wipe not out my good deeds that I have done for the house of my God, and for the offices thereof.”
He did not forget in all his zealous concern and labors, that he was a sinner, needing the commiseration which other men needed, for we find him in this same chapter,—after having contended with the nobles of Judah and testified against them and the merchants and tradesmen for profaning the Sabbath,—crying out, “Remember me, O my God, concerning this, also, and spare me according to the greatness of thy mercy.’’
All benevolent deeds, my brethren, are well pleasing to God,—but those done to promote the interests of His Church on earth are peculiarly acceptable in His sight, because they carry on his mighty purpose of establishing the knowledge of Himself and of His salvation. This is the FIRST great lesson to be extracted from the text. And the SECOND is, that “good deeds done for the house of our God and for the offices thereof,” must be peculiarly acceptable to Him, because they not only contribute to the security of society and the happiness of our race, but affect the welfare of unborn generations.
I ask you to follow me in my thoughts, while I proceed to unfold these lessons and apply them to the circumstances of the present occasion.
FIRST, good deeds done to promote the interests of His [6/7] Church on earth, are peculiarly acceptable to God, because they help to carry on His mighty purpose of establishing the knowledge of Himself and of His salvation.
In the sixty-third psalm, composed while David was in the wilderness, and therefore far away from the pubic ordinances of religion, it is said, “My soul thirsteth for thee, my flesh longeth for thee in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is; to see thy power and thy glory, so as I have seen Thee in the sanctuary.” A momentous principle is involved in this assertion. Under the Mosaic economy, every divine dealing was closely connected with the temple ; there were the manifestations of Jehovah, the signs and notices of mercies with which future days were charged. There and there only could God be solemnly worshiped; there and there only might expiatory sacrifices be offered and intimations of the Divine will sought and obtained. Hence, under that dispensation, God owned and loved good deeds done for His house as if done for Himself He honored the appropriation by men of a portion of their wealth to preserve a reverent remembrance of His name, and “make His praise glorious,” for He knew that without His temple. He must be forgotten—that without an altar on which the victim could be laid, there would be no sacrifice. He blessed and rewarded Solomon for the house which he had built, and when it was dedicated to His service, He filled it with His sublime presence in the glorious cloud and in His fixed and terrible majesty vouchsafed to dwell there in the Sanctuary upon the mercy seat between the Cherubims.
There is no Shechinah now—no visible manifestation of the Divine presence as in the temple at Jerusalem,—but every Christian edifice raised to the glory of God,—every effort to establish and extend the Church and “the offices thereof” is a cooperation with the Almighty in His plan of recovering the human race from death and restoring to them righteousness and eternal life. It is the happiest application of art to furnish suitable temples for the worship of God. They beautify and adorn the regions where they stand, and present the open gates through which men may enter and find fresh pastures for the soul. Here, in the Sanctuary, they may learn [7/8] the tidings of forgiveness through the blood of Jesus Christ, who offered Himself upon the cross for our redemption. Here they may come and be washed in the laver of regeneration—be baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Here they are invited to “draw near with faith, and
take the holy Sacrament to their comfort,” “not trusting in their own righteousness, but in the manifold and great mercies of God.” The birth, the bridal and the burial, have each a place in the Parish Register, and all orders and degrees of men share alike in the pleasures and advantages of access to the house of God. They share alike, too, in the blessings and benefits of redemption,—in the comforts and privileges of the Church, for, to quote the beautiful lines of one of our own poets,
Our mother, the Church, hath never a child
To honor before the rest.
But she singeth the same for mighty kings
And the veriest babe on her breast;
And the Bishop goes down to his narrow bed
As the ploughman’s child is laid,
And alike she blesseth the dark-browed serf.
And the chief in his robe arrayed.
She sprinkles the drops of the bright new birth
The same on the low and the high.
And christens their bodies with dust to dust.
When earth with its earth must lie;
Oh, the poor man’s friend is the Church of Christ,
From birth to his funeral day;
She makes him the Lord’s, in her surpliced arms.
And singeth his burial lay. [Bishop Coxe.]
Then, who can doubt, my brethren, that we are workers together with God, when we engage in performing “good deeds for His house and for the offices thereof?” It must never be forgotten that He in His sovereignty, His condescension and His benevolence, has determined that His own kingdom, the kingdom of Christ, shall be accomplished by the aid of those who gratefully accept the overtures of [8/9] redemption. He could very easily do without us. He could convert the world without churches, without preachers, without Bibles, without the recurrence of ordinances and sacred days; but God has chosen,—and there is the evidence of sovereignty and omnipotence, as well as of condescension, and privilege, and kindness towards us in the very choice,—God has chosen to effect and fulfill His purposes by the instrumentality of His Church and its members. As the alms-deeds of Cornelius went up for a memorial before Him, so will yours be remembered. “Herein is my Father glorified,” said the Saviour to His disciples, “that ye bear much fruit;” and whatever the shape in which this fruit appears, whether in removing parish debts—in building or enlarging the house of God and providing “for the offices thereof whether in sustaining the ministry, in helping the weak, in comforting the sick, and relieving the needy, in warning the wicked, in bringing back the wandering to the right path, in guiding and encouraging the young to virtue, in the culture of personal piety, and of a spirit of dependence upon Him from whom all things come, and of whose own we give back, if we give at all,—whatever the shape in which you bring forth fruit to the glory of God,—it will be “laying up in store for yourselves a good foundation against the time to come, that ye may hold on eternal life.” It will enrich eternity and make the mansions of heaven more joyful.
But I need not dwell upon this head. I have a right to take for granted, what all your humane and Christian instincts incessantly urge upon you—that we are under obligations, in one way and another, to do good and to labor diligently to save the souls for which Christ died.
About a century ago, a little band of resolute Churchmen—who had attended at Wallingford and shared those bitter persecutions which were the unhappy fault of the times,—erected on this spot, “for their greater convenience in the winter season,” an edifice in which to worship God after the manner of their fathers and in accordance with the Liturgy of the Church of England. The edifice, like the flock, was small, and late in the year 1760, it was opened with religious services and a dedicatory sermon by the Rev. James Scovill, at that [9/10] time the Missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, stationed at Waterbury. A Clerk, Church-wardens and Vestrymen were chosen, and the people thereafter met together on Sundays to hear prayers and sermons read, expecting ere long to be under the ministrations of Mr. Samuel Andrews, a graduate of Yale College and already on the eve of proceeding to England for Holy Orders. Time went on, and the priest whom their hearts desired came among them and the flock grew. Soon the little edifice was displaced by another of larger dimensions, and then, again, after the lapse of a quarter of a century, when the troubles of the revolution had been passed and the first Bishop of Connecticut had succeeded in planting here his Diocesan School, a porch and a steeple were added. These “good deeds done, for the house of God and for the offices thereof,” in a day of small things, will not be wiped out from the Divine remembrance, nor should they be wiped oat from yours, my brethren.
We come now to the SECOND great lesson to be extracted from the text—that such good deeds must be acceptable in the sight of God, since they contribute to the security of society and the happiness of our race, and affect, also, the welfare of unborn generations.
Whatever makes a man better in this life makes him happier. With passions unrestrained, with a sinful nature left to itself, there would be no elevation given to his character, and consequently he would have little respect for the rights and feelings of others. As an individual in a fallen state, what does he not want? He wants instruction for his mind, guidance for his affections, restraint for his vices, animation for his virtues, consolation for his sorrows, a sacrifice for his sins, a foundation for his hopes, and a staff upon which his spirit can lean when he enters the dark “valley of the shadow of death.” And what shall supply all these wants but the religion of Christ, and how shall this religion be presented so well and so universally to the acceptance of men, as in the sanctuary, where God is pleased still as of old to make His way known? In every view which we take of the individual and of society, the comforts and instructions of the Gospel are the [10/11] best benefits to be provided for them, and the best means of preserving and perpetuating the foundations of righteousness. You contribute, therefore, to the happiness and purity and perfection of the social relations, when you perform “good deeds for the house of God and for the offices thereof.” I will not picture what the land would become, if all the Christian temples, where the voice of public prayer is now heard, were leveled with the dust. The process by which communities are made happy, is precisely that by which the souls of individuals are saved. We all know how greatly we are indebted to the benign influences of the Gospel for the wholesome laws under which we live. The buildings which the children of God humbly rear to His name, that in them they may worship Him and learn to do their duty and to “love one another,” fitly symbolize a spirit of reverence for good order and sound morality. They represent a people who do not forget that “in the way of righteousness is life; and in the pathway thereof there is no death.” The towers and spires of such temples shoot upward to the skies and touch the clouds, as if to break and render powerless the thunderbolts of divine vengeance, just ready to fall on deserving heads.
Glory be to God, therefore, when He puts it into the hearts of His accountable creatures, to build, enlarge or beautify the house of prayer. It is an expression of sublime gratitude for blessings and mercies received. It is a recognition of the important fact that righteous men in the midst of a city, are its safety. We should never, my brethren, in our “good deeds,” be reluctant to give to the Lord of the best we possess. We should never richly garnish our own mansions, and leave His in mean attire. It was a grief to David, that while he himself “dwelt in an house of cedar, the ark of God was dwelling within curtains.” The decayed church which served well enough the purpose of generations in an earlier stage of society, needs to have its place occupied by another in “meet accord” with the wealth and culture and improved artistic taste of these times.
More than twenty-five years have passed away since a young deacon of our Communion, at the desire of the members of [11/12] this Parish, entered the village, and, after the example of Paul, preached, “ready to depart on the morrow.” What did he find here in the line of his office to attract him to a locality beautiful by nature, with a picturesque landscape stretching between the Blue Hills on one side, and “the mountain wooded to the peak” on the other? He found indeed eager and earnest souls that welcomed him for the truth’s sake; but the church, associated with the struggles of the past and the memories of good men, was tottering into decay. It towered up and looked in the distance, as you approached it from the north, like a great cathedral; but the enchantment diminished as you drew near, and beheld the rusty clapboards, the broken panes, and, projected from the side windows, the ugly stovepipes with branching elbows. Within, the appearance and the effect were more grateful, and the pious odor of the old sanctuary was refreshing, in spite of its discomforts; but when the roughest blasts of winter beat against it, a creaking went through all the timbers, disconcerting the minister, and now and then sending forth a worshiper irreverently, as if he would escape with his life before the whole had fallen, and become one mass of ruins. The doors of the venerable institution, which the Diocese had planted here, and which had been so prosperous in other days, were shut, as they had been for some time, and the Academy green was as still as midnight. I see this picture before me now, as I saw the reality then, and I discern the change also, which, with the revival and prosperity of the School, spread out through the Parish and resulted in the speedy erection of a new, more commodious and more substantial house of worship. It arose on the same hallowed site selected by the piety of your fathers for the earliest sanctuary, and it is one of the few rural churches in Connecticut which after the lapse of a century still preserves, in its surroundings, the features of an English model, with the burial ground attached. It would seem as if each one of those sagacious and godly men, who thus planned for the future, had it in his mind to say:
 “I would sleep where the Church bells aye ring out;
I would rise by the house of prayer,
And feel me a moment at home, on earth,
For the Christian’s home is there.”
After many years of service in another field of labor, we come back to the scene of our youthful ministry to-day, to witness extensive changes and improvements, and to join in congratulations at your “good deeds done for the house of our God and for the offices thereof.” The added chancel with its complete furniture and its chaste window, making “the light and glory more reverend grow,” the enlarged space, the enriched ceiling, and all these inner adornments and conveniences—what are they but proofs of a willingness to honor God and render more becoming and attractive the place where his people assemble to worship and praise his glorious name? [The window was a memorial gift of a native of Cheshire—George A. Jarvis, Esq., of Brooklyn, N. Y.—and the Communion Table was presented by a few friends of the Parish in New Haven.] The spirit of improvement “is beginning to be visible also outside in the churchyard—for some one has walked among the leaning headstones and the graves of the departed with more than pensive contemplation, giving form and order, as far as they well can be given, to a spot which has too long resembled, in many of its aspects, “ the field of the slothful, and the vineyard of the man void of understanding.” [This improvement is chiefly due to the exertions of one who has a family interest in the ground—WM. R. Hitchcock, Esq., of Waterbury. Besides filling in and regrading the yard, cleaning the stones and restoring them to their proper position, a fund has been created, the interest of which is to be annually applied to keep the whole in good order.] Then, moreover, that time-honored seat of learning—the Diocesan School—under the management of its energetic Principal, has attained to a measure of prosperity so deservedly great, that the pupils with their Teachers are in themselves at this very moment a large congregation.
These various changes—these tokens of life and improvement—are truly gratifying to the Christian heart, and we rejoice, especially, my brethren, that you of the Parish in caring [13/14] for your own comfort, the good of the community and the salvation of souls, are teaching by your example another generation to be mindful of their duties and responsibilities. You thus hand on the inheritance which you received from your fathers, not only unimpaired, but improved. May it be preserved and improved by your children. You will leave them a better legacy than treasures of gold, if you can leave in their hearts a burning love of “good deeds for the house of our God and for the offices thereof.”
In the life of the celebrated George Herbert, it is mentioned, that when he rebuilt, at his own charge, the greatest part of the parsonage at Bemerton, he caused to be engraved upon the mantle of the chimney in the hall, for the benefit of his successor, these significant lines:
“If thou chance for to find
A new house to thy mind,
And built without thy cost.
Be good to the poor,
As God gives thee store.
And then my labor’s not lost.”
I have often thought that some such inscription might well be put up in the vestibule of the neat rural church, not so much as an exhortation to charity, as a warning to the future pastor and his people to maintain with proper watchfulness and care, all the order and neatness and beauty marked out and provided for them by a former generation. While you teach your children, therefore, to reverence the sanctuary, and to “remember and keep holy the Sabbath day” within its consecrated walls, let them understand, at the same time, that, they are coming into an inheritance which must be cared for, and not left like the sluggard’s field, or as Jerusalem was left for many years after the temple had been rebuilt, with much rubbish scattered about, with “the place of the father’s sepulchres lying waste, and the gates of the city consumed with fire.” It is but a little time that you can linger here and hold on to parish responsibilities.
“The woods decay and fall;
The vapors weep their burthen to the ground;”
 and so, one after another droops and disappears from the Pastor’s flock, and leaves the child to occupy his place and represent him in the house of God. I look in vain for the faces of many who were wont to be with you in your worshiping assemblies before our connection was severed, and my ministrations among you were closed. O ye perishing creatures, ye children of the dust, dream of anything rather than of prolonged continuance upon earth! Be thankful that God in His Providence has brought you to this hour, and given you the mind and the means to adore Him for His love, and honor Him with “good deeds done for His house and for the offices thereof.”
I know not that it will be my privilege to speak again to you all in this place, and, therefore, before we separate, I desire to reproduce the truth, incidentally mentioned in a former part of the Discourse, that while, like Nehemiah, you pray to be remembered concerning your beneficent works, you are never to refer to them in a self-righteous spirit, nor in anywise trust to them for final acceptance and salvation. These cannot atone for sin. You must turn to Calvary, if you would find what obedience unto the death of the cross has wrought for your souls. You must look as sinners to the great Mediator between God and man,—the man Christ Jesus,—and then when you lay down in peace to die, life will mirror back the joy and satisfaction of its Christian deeds. The ear of faith will catch the angelic song repeated through the rounding ages of eternity, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain,”—and that triumphant scene will dawn on your vision, when “every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth, and such as are in the sea and all that are in them,” shall unite in the glad ascription, “saying, blessing and honor and glory and power be unto Him that sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb forever and ever.”