Week of August 5, 2018
The Point: Doing God’s work brings out detractors and opposition.
The Servant’s Confidence: Nehemiah 4:1-20.
 Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews.  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?”  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!”  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.  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.  So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.  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.  And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.  And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.  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.”  And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.”  At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.”  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.  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.”  When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.  From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah,  who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.  And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me.  And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another.  In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.” [ESV]
- “Conflict is Inevitable [4:1-3]. As the work gets under way, the leader is bombarded with trouble from different angles. Initially, trouble comes from outside the ranks; that menacing duo, Sanballat and Tobiah, resume their opposition. Their verbal onslaughts [4:1-3] are followed by menacing plots to fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it [4:8]. 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 it displeased them greatly [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 [4:1]. 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 [4:2] marching towards the city was enough to horrify all but the stoutest members of the team. The scorn continued as the enemy belittled their qualities, derided their ambitions, mocked their optimism, lampooned their enthusiasm, undermined their confidence and magnified their problems. Tobiah joins in the ridicule, demeaning their efforts [4:3]. Yet, however intense the opposition, the believer is not without resources, and they are released in reliant prayer.
- Prayer is Crucial [4:4-9]. The next section of the narrative begins with a personal prayer of Nehemiah on behalf of the people [4:4-5], and ends with corporate prayers by the people [4:9]. Nehemiah’s response to the enemy’s assaults is to turn to God. He prayed urgently. 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; heaven’s Lord must be sought for earth’s needs. His God is acknowledged not only as the source of ultimate success but the Giver of immediate help. He prayed honestly. Nehemiah was angry about their ridicule. They had despised the workers and poured insults on their heads. Nehemiah cannot contain his fury and the exasperation spills out in fervent prayer. He prayed passionately. Nehemiah’s prayer is an unbridled expression of turbulent emotions and he cannot conceal his fury. He has been attacked personally and his motives challenged. But more seriously, 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, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight. Nehemiah prayed realistically. It would be a mistake to dismiss his vehement prayer as an expression of uncontrolled human indignation. He regards their insults as an offense against God, which indeed they are. They 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. Nehemiah prayed dependently: Hear, O our God. It 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, for the people had a mind to work [4:6]. 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. Nehemiah’s colleagues also sought God in prayer. They, as well as their dependent leader, had every reason to cry to the Lord: And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night [4:9]. The earnest petition of leader and people continue to teach us about prayer – its necessity, naturalness, partnership and comfort. These people believed in the necessity of prayer. Jerusalem was virtually encircled by vicious enemies, fiercely intent on damaging the cause. There is something here about the naturalness of prayer. Under serious threat and in extreme adversity it was the most logical thing for them to do. There was so much that they were unable to do. They could not forget the ridicule, dismiss the danger, ignore the plots or scatter the soldiers, but they could pray, and pray they did. It was natural for them to do so, for in prayer they were affirming their faith, sharing their anxieties, acknowledging their weakness and confessing their need. This threatened team of builders believed in the partnership of prayer. We prayed to our God – expressing their unity and corporate reliance. Like their building work, their praying was a further corporate activity in which they could help one another. Jerusalem’s builders valued the comfort of prayer. They described their Lord as our God, the God of infinite wisdom, compassionate care, limitless power, and available resources – everything they needed was there for the asking. No wonder they prayed.
- Discouragement is Understandable [4:10-12]. 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 menfolk 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. Meanwhile, the strength of those who bear the burdens is failing [4:10]. The exhausted laborer, reeling under the heavy load he is trying to carry, is giving out. They had been working for several weeks and, under the pressure of external opposition, the initial enthusiasm was beginning to wane. Perseverance is a rich and rare quality, especially when we feel physically tired and spent. 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 [2:14] before they could continue the extensive building operation. The workers were concentrating on their weakness rather than God’s strength. Nehemiah had to persuade his people to focus on God’s power which was available, sufficient and inexhaustible. The people needed to maintain this focus even in the midst of the hostility of their opponents which was directed both at the city’s builders and at their homes in the Judean countryside. First, the builders were demoralized by the treat of a surprise attack as they worked on the walls [4:11]. 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 whilst 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 [4:12], and demanded that their husbands return to them. In the light of all these troubles, fear was a major difficulty. The dedicated leader knew that, in addition to earnest prayer, the situation called for radical action. The crisis underlined the crucial importance of a united team.
- Unity is Essential [4:13-20]. 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. As an emergency measure he stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows [4:13]. 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 in 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 [4:14]. Thirdly, Nehemiah shared his faith. He stood up in a public assembly and urged 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 [4:14]. Their leader knew what it was to be overcome with terror [2:2]. He could enter sympathetically into the fears of his colleagues, but he also believed that fear is conquered by reflection on the sufficiency of God: Remember the Lord. Nehemiah uses the words of his opening prayer [1:5], when he first heard of Jerusalem’s plight. Now that he is leading the venture in the city he reminds himself and his contemporaries 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. Fourthly, Nehemiah announced his plans. The highly visible emergency protection force had alerted the enemy to their efficient organization and military strength. The plot for the surprise attack had been foiled. Nehemiah believed it was now safe for the builders to return to their allocated work-areas on the walls. The leader made sure that, from now on, the entire work force was permanently and efficiently protected so he divided his team into builders and soldiers: From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail [4:16]. Even the laborers who carried rubble away from the city were supplied with armor: each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other [4:17]. To ensure that builders, laborers and residents were aware of approaching danger, their leader devised a temporary warning system. A trumpeter stayed by Nehemiah’s side so that the troops could be quickly gathered together at the place of most urgent need: In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us [4:20]. Nehemiah thought of everything.
- God is Invincible. Leader and people, builders and soldiers, parents and children all knew that, in the face of evident opposition, the success of the enterprise was dependent on the God who inspired its beginning. The narrative of chapter 4, with its recurrent problems and imminent dangers, is deliberately interspersed with affirmations of faith and confidence in the God of heaven. The story of adversity becomes a testimony to the abundant sufficiency of God. Nehemiah renews their confidence in the Lord. Their God, he points out, is unique [4:4,9]. He enjoys a personal relationship with His people. With buoyant confidence they address Him as our God. He is the God who treasures His people because He is bound to them in covenant love. God is attentive. Nehemiah can turn to God in crisis and know that he will be heard [4:4]. Moreover, it was not simply the leader who prayed, but the people as well [4:9]. He is righteous. Those who deliberately maligned God’s people would find that their insults would come back on their own heads for that was exactly what Scripture warned about those who deliberately offended God and His people [Ps. 94; Deut. 32:40-43; Rom. 12:19]. He is powerful. He is the great God [4:14] of the Israelite people who had repeatedly enabled them to achieve humanly impossible things because of His invincible omnipotence. He is holy. Those who hurl their reproaches at God’s people are insulting the truly awesome God [4:14] to whom those people belong. He cherishes them and to hold them in contempt is to revile the God who makes them what they are. He is sovereign. He not only strengthens the Israelite soldiers as they stand poised for action of Jerusalem’s walls but He also works behind the enemy lines. He frustrates the plots of Israel’s enemies [4:15] and reduces their vindictive plans to mere human vaporings. He is unfailing. In time of extreme crisis, Nehemiah can assure his team, Our God will fight for us [4:20]. He is not in the slightest doubt that the Lord he has told them to remember is unchanging and dependable. He cannot disappoint or fail them. With such confidence and commitment, Nehemiah and his colleagues continued to build despite verbal assault, psychological pressure, physical danger, natural discouragement, crippling fear and extreme danger. They were enabled to continue not because they gloried in a robust faith but because they trusted in a reliable God. It is clear from this passage that there were times when the people’s trust and heroism was frail but Nehemiah’s confident words reverberated throughout the entire community, Our God will fight for us. The leader knew that his people must work hard but, in the last analysis, the success would not depend on their sustained exertion but on God’s assured strength. When Nehemiah assured his partners, Our God will fight for us, they knew that, although exertion is necessary, dependence on the Lord is rewarded. The reader of this chapter in Nehemiah’s memoirs cannot fail to be impressed by the transforming effect in society of one committed believer. God uses him not just as a resourceful leader but as salt and light in his community. Without the radical impact of his robust and attractive confidence in God, the enterprise which began so successfully could have ended in crippling disappointment. Seriously undermined by constant ridicule and contempt [4:1-3], then overwhelmed by fear [4:8,14], despondence [4:10] and insecurity [4:11-12], at least some of his contemporaries abandoned work on the wall [4:15]. God turned it all around because He used a dedicated believer who was in the right place at the right time.” [Brown, pp. 71-85].
Questions for Discussion:
- Describe Nehemiah as a leader. How does he handle the problems confronting him in this passage? On whom does Nehemiah focus the people’s attention?
- In this passage, note the importance and value of prayer. Also note the relationship between prayer and work [see especially verse 9]. What is important to note is the almost offhand way that Nehemiah describes the scene in which the people are praying and setting guards to protect them through the day and night shifts. This wonderfully avoids two pitfalls: the excuse that the urgency of their needs makes collective, corporate prayer impossible and the tendency to replace action with prayer alone! If, as the saying goes, we are too busy to pray, then we are too busy. On the other hand, prayer can become a substitute for action and duty. Sensible, wise precautions are needed to guard against vigilante terrorist attacks by night. Pray and work – yes, in that order! Pray first and commit your cause to God, pray first and then take the steps that seem appropriate for the need at hand. Pray first and be sure that the steps you take are ones formed by the guiding hand of God. Pray first and keep from panicking when the smell of battle is upon you. What troubles are you facing? Make sure to heed this lesson of the value of individual and collective prayer to guide you to do the needful things in God-glorifying ways.
- How we handle the difficulties of life is essentially a matter of trust. Will we say, Our God will fight for us  or will we allow difficulties to control us, filling us with worry and discouragement? We learn from Nehemiah that trusting God is developed by the way we live in dependence upon God. What are you doing in order to grow in your trust in God to guide and direct your life?
Ezra, Nehemiah Esther, Mervin Breneman, NAC, B & H Publishing.
The Message of Nehemiah, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.
Ezra & Nehemiah, Derek Thomas, REC, P & R Publishing.