Who are crying, and what is the cause of their distress? Who are crying? An excited mob of men and women, standing in the streets of Jerusalem. Look at them well, surely we know some of their faces. Is it possible, can it be, that we recognize some of those whom we saw working so happily and cheerfully on the walls? What a change, what a terrible change in their faces!
What is the cause of their distress? What can have happened to move them so deeply? Have the Samaritans returned to attack the city? Are the walls on which they have spent so much labour overturned and laid low in the dust? No, all without is peaceful, there is no sound of war in the streets, and the hills around stand out brightly in the sunshine, and are untrodden by the foot of any foe. The trouble is at home this time, and as poor Nehemiah listens to the dismal noise, and as he tries to still the shrill cries, that his voice may be heard, and as he watches the people rocking to and fro, as Easterns do when moved by sorrow, he may well feel downcast and disappointed, for a city divided against itself cannot stand, and as Nehemiah listens to the cry, he clearly sees that, at that moment, Jerusalem, the city he loves best on earth, is indeed a divided city.
Who then were these citizens of Jerusalem, these men and these women, who raised the great cry? They were the poorer classes of the city; it was a cry of the poor against the rich, a cry like that which was raised all over France at the time of the French Revolution, a cry for bread.
Nehemiah listens carefully to the cry and complaints of the people, and as he does so he feels sure they are not raised without cause. There is undoubtedly great and distressing poverty in the city, and he finds that this may be traced to three principal causes.
(1) The King of Persia had only allowed the returned captives a very small tract of country to live in. The rest of the land was filled up by the Samaritans, the Arabians, the Edomites and other nations who had settled in Palestine whilst the rightful owners were in Babylon. Consequently, as their families increased, the Jews found this narrow strip of country was not sufficient to maintain them, and, as is always the case, over-population and over-crowding was followed by great poverty.
(2) Then there had evidently been a severe famine, which had made matters worse, for there had been numbers of mouths to feed and barely anything to feed them on. No country is more subject to famine than Palestine, for the harvest there is entirely dependent on the rainfall. There are but few springs, there is no river but the Jordan, and that runs in a deep ravine; the whole fertility of the country hangs on the amount of rain that falls in autumn and winter. No rain means no corn, no corn means starvation, and the people know it well. Nowhere on earth are there such fervent prayers for rain, prayers which are offered by Turk, Jew, and Christian alike, as there are in Palestine to this very day, if the rainy season is passing away and a sufficient quantity of rain has not fallen.