Don’t Despair

Lesson Focus: You will be led to commit yourself to remain steadfast once you step up to serve the Lord, even in the face of opposition.

Maintain Confidence in God: Nehemiah 2:19-20.

[19]  But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, "What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?"  [20]  Then I replied to them, "The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem."   [ESV]

The builders’ opponents have already been identified in verse 10. Now their numbers have increased. These opponents become highly vocal in their enmity towards Nehemiah and his newly recruited associates. First, they derided the efforts of the workers by mocking and ridiculing them. They questioned the workers’ motives. The previous attempt to rebuild had been promptly terminated when Persia’s king heard a similar accusation of political disloyalty. When Nehemiah responded to their derision, two things mattered most: the glory of God and the integrity of his workers. Nehemiah first exalts the God who has called him to the work: The God of heaven will make us prosper. He was undisturbed by their fictitious insinuations but he was concerned that God should be magnified in the project. He declared his firm conviction that anything good which came out of their efforts would be entirely due to the generosity of God. His words resonate with persuasive confidence. Whatever the nature of human opposition, God will bring the work to a successful conclusion but His Name must be magnified from the start. Nehemiah’s other concern was for the integrity of the workers. The team could ignore their taunts because the implied disloyalty was a false charge with no basis in reality. They knew that their consciences were clear before God. From the perspective of the opponents, Nehemiah’s appointment had disrupted the political balance of that region. Sanballat’s administrative responsibilities for Samaria may have included jurisdiction over the greater Jerusalem area. Now, Nehemiah had arrived in the city with the king’s specific authority, and the Samaritan leader was angry that he had been robbed of his former authority over the Israelite people. Tobiah and Geshem joined forces with Sanballat because none of them wanted to see the nation of Israel return to power in the area.

Ask God for Help: Nehemiah 4:1-6.

[4:1]  Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews.  [2]  And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, "What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?"  [3]  Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, "Yes, what they are building–if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!"  [4]  Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives.  [5]  Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.  [6]  So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.  [ESV]

[1-3]  As the work gets under way, the leader is bombarded with trouble from different angles. Initially, trouble comes from outside the ranks. Sanballat, angry and greatly enraged about the excellent start made on Jerusalem’s walls, ridiculed the workers. Before long, his friend Tobiah was at his side with further undermining taunts and destructive derision. The verbal onslaughts are followed by menacing plots to fight against Jerusalem. These men know that if they are to wreck the project, damaging words must be supplemented with dangerous weapons. Then, as if that is not enough, there is trouble from within the ranks. The team is demoralized; the laborers and their families from the surrounding countryside become disheartened in the work and terrorized by the enemy. The opposition of Nehemiah’s enemies intensifies as time goes on. When they first hear why Nehemiah has come to Jerusalem they are greatly displeased [2:10], then mildly amused [2:19] that he has devised such a ridiculously ambitious program. Once they witness his determination, it is no longer a laughing matter. They begin to impute wrong motives and are intent on bringing him down in the king’s eyes [2:19]. Now the initial irritation turns to sustained anger and the enemy is greatly enraged. Sanballat gathers further allies about him and, employing fierce bullying tactics, approaches Jerusalem with a substantial military escort. It is one thing for the builders to hear his taunts but quite another to see his troops. To look up from their work on the walls and see the army of Samaria marching towards the city was enough to horrify all but the stoutest members of the team. Nehemiah was up against formidable antagonism; his enemies were intent on the total ruination of his imaginative and well-organized undertaking. Anyone working for God can anticipate opposition in some form or other. Yet, however intense the opposition, the believer is not without resources, and they are released in reliant prayer.

[4-6]  Nehemiah’s response to the enemy’s assaults is to turn to God. He prayed urgently. He hurried into the audience chamber of God. In the presence of his opponents he had declared his conviction that the God of heaven would give success to the builders [2:20] but that must be more than an inspiring rallying cry. His God is acknowledged not only as the source of ultimate success but the Giver of immediate help. In turning to the Lord, Nehemiah knew that there was nowhere else he could go. He prayed honestly. Nehemiah was angry about their ridicule. They had despised the workers and poured insults on their heads. His exasperation spills out in his fervent prayer. He prayed passionately. His enemies have sinned against God (by opposing his work) and God’s people (by maligning their efforts) and Nehemiah does not want their sin to be overlooked: do not cover their guilt. His enemies have ridiculed a venture which God inspired and planned. They have not merely reviled God’s servants; they have abused God’s Name. In calling upon God so passionately, Nehemiah is asking God not to vindicate the workers but to authenticate His truth in the presence of such irreverent and insulting opponents. When God’s honor is at stake, it is natural that a man as surrendered and devoted as Nehemiah should be incensed. Hear, O our God is the heart cry of a man in desperate need. The project has reached a crucial stage. The wall has been built to half its height and so much dedicated energy has gone into the enterprise. It would be disastrous if, demoralized by Sanballat’s ridicule, discouraged by Tobiah’s taunts and frightened by Samaria’s soldiers, the builders gave up, especially when so much had been accomplished. Only God could save them from discouragement and disaster. That is why Nehemiah prayed. He knew that between his despondent workers and their potential failure were God’s abundant resources; immeasurable supplies are released through dependent prayer.

Take Reasonable Precautions: Nehemiah 4:7-14.

[7]  But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry.  [8]  And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.  [9]  And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.  [10]  In Judah it was said, "The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall."  [11]  And our enemies said, "They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work."  [12]  At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, "You must return to us."  [13]  So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.  [14]  And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, "Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes."  [ESV]

[7-9]  When Sanballat and his friends realized that their ridicule was not successful in stopping the work on the wall, their anger increased, and their plans escalated. Sanballat had succeeded in enlisting others in his alliance. Jerusalem was now surrounded by enemies: the Samaritans on the north, the Ammonites on the east, the Arabians on the south, and the men of Ashdod on the west. Since the time of the Assyrian conquest of Palestine, the Philistine territory had been a separate province and was called Ashdod. How serious Sanballat’s supporters were about actually fighting is not clear. They could have destroyed all the people and sent an excuse to the king that Jerusalem was rebelling. Their only hope was to do something quickly and completely, thus avoiding Persian reprisal. Or they could have influenced the Persian king to make another decree similar to Ezra 4:22. The Jews also remembered that occasion; so the whole plot would have made them think that continuing the building was useless. Nehemiah’s response was clear: prayer and precaution, trust and good management. He trusted God, but he also was aware of the dangers and took the necessary precautions. To be sure, the dangers were real. As the following verses indicate, the enemies could attack at any moment.

[10-12]  Nehemiah describes his five-fold problem at this crucial stage of the project. (1) The extent of the discouragement. Jerusalem’s workers had more than enough to cope with, surrounded by enemies and threatened with disaster, and now there is additional trouble. The people in Judah, men and women from the surrounding towns and villages, came to Nehemiah describing not only the depressing working conditions in the city but grieved also about the dangers to which their families were exposed in the countryside. Jerusalem’s workers are not the only people in danger. The enemies have threatened to attack the homes of those Judeans whose men folk were away from home working on the city walls. Nehemiah’s problems are far from localized; they have spread from the city to the wider life of the Judean community. (2) The exhaustion of the workers. The expression is failing comes from a verb meaning to stumble or totter. It is a vivid picture of an exhausted labor, reeling under the heavy load he is trying to carry. They had been working for several weeks and, under the pressure of external opposition, the initial enthusiasm was beginning to wane. It is always easier to begin a work for God than continue it. Perseverance is a rich and rare quality, especially when we feel physically tired and spent. Depression always distorts reality; it throws everything out of perspective. The Lord knows our needs and does not want us to put excessive pressure on our physical and emotional resources. (3) The immensity of the enterprise. When the laborers began, it seemed such an exciting thing to be doing, but as the weeks went by they became increasingly overwhelmed by the daunting practicalities. Huge stones and a seemingly vast amount of debris had to be cleared away before they could continue the extensive building operation. The Babylonian armies had ruined Jerusalem’s walls and damaged the many houses attached to them. (4) The aggression of the opponents. This was yet another intimidating dimension of their trouble. People in both urban and rural contexts were paralyzed with fear when new threats came from their enemies. The hostility of the opponents was directed both at the city’s builders and at their homes in the Judean countryside. First, the builders were demoralized by the threat of a surprise attack as they worked on the walls [11]. The strenuous effort involved in removing vast piles of rubble and carrying it outside the city was hard and difficult enough. Now they are told that they will be slaughtered while doing it. Secondly, people in other parts of the province were in equal danger. The women of Judah, whose husbands had left home to work on the walls, were terror-stricken. They were pleading for their husbands to return home with them [12]. (5) The fear of the participants. In the light of all these troubles, fear was a major difficulty. The fresh threats and increasing intimidation of the enemies robbed the Jews of peace, and fear spread quickly among the harassed people. Nehemiah knew that, in addition to earnest prayer, the situation called for radical action. The crisis underlined the crucial importance of a united team.

[13-14]  Keenly aware of such intense discouragement, Nehemiah devised a strategy to meet the immediate crisis. First, he mobilized his team by making sure that the most vulnerable parts of the wall were protected by appointed guards consisting of family groups. Members of extended families knew each other well enough to allocate respective duties effectively, and the presence of their women and children close at hand was a constant reminder that they were not simply fighting for the city’s walls but for the family’s and community’s future. Posting these emergency troops at the lowest parts of the wall ensured that the menacing enemy could see that Jerusalem’s militia was a force to be reckoned with. Secondly, Nehemiah considered his options. It was a time for some kind of public assembly but first he looked things over. He was not a man for hasty, ill-considered actions. Before he did anything else he went to see how the emergency troops were getting on. Only after he had looked things over did Nehemiah summon together the nobles and the officials and … the rest of the people. Thirdly, Nehemiah showed his faith. He stood up in a public assembly and urged the people do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord. He knew what it was to be overcome with terror. He could enter sympathetically into the fears of his colleagues, but he also believed that fear is conquered by reflecting on the sufficiency of God.  Nehemiah reminds the people of the uniqueness, power and holiness of God. The Lord had promised to meet the needs of His people, however serious their adversities, and would not go back on His word. Their circumstances had changed, the work was more difficult and the enemy more active, but the Lord was exactly the same. They must remember God.

Questions for Discussion:

1.         In 2:19-20, what accusations did the enemies throw at the Jews? How did Nehemiah respond? What do we learn here about how to handle ridicule and false accusations?

2.         Analyze Nehemiah’s prayer in 4:4-6. What did he pray for? Why did he pray for their sin to not be blotted out from your sight? Can we pray for the salvation of God’s enemies and, at the same time, pray that God will not allow their evil to continue?

3.         What was the five-fold problem Nehemiah faced? How did he confront the problem?


Nehemiah, Mervin Breneman, NAC, Broadman.

The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter-Varsity Press.

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