A person who seeks to honor God and lead the kind of lifestyle that shows genuine respect for Christ can usually count on one thing: there are sure to be some who will not be happy with that decision.
You see, anyone who truly desires to follow Jesus is certain to face some degree of opposition- and that opposition is likely to take two forms. The first form of opposition is external and may feature such tactics as public denunciation, personal intimidation, and even the threat of physical violence in order to neutralize someone’s ability to impact others with the message of the Scriptures. We’ll see a representative sample of these tactics here within Nehemiah chapter four.
The second form of opposition is internal. This generally involves those feelings of doubt, discouragement, and/or pessimism that may accompany a particularly difficult circumstance. We’ll see this second form of opposition demonstrated later within this chapter as well.
Nehemiah chapter four will also feature the return of some familiar adversaries as well as another group of antagonists not previously mentioned. One source comments on this “rouge’s gallery” of opponents in the following manner…
“Nehemiah’s adversaries were a group of Jews from racially mixed backgrounds and Gentiles who had a vested interest in seeing that Jerusalem remained unprotected (Neh. 4:7). During the seventy years of Judah’s exile, they had established dominance over those left behind. Therefore, Nehemiah’s plan to rebuild the walls and revitalize the city threatened to end their monopoly on control.” (1)
Nevertheless, it appears that these detractors may not have been fully prepared for the progress that was being made in rebuilding Jerusalem’s perimeter wall. Since these opponents did not possess the political ability to stop this rebuilding effort, they were forced to resort to a barrage of verbal assaults (as well as the threat of physical attack) in their attempt to undermine this work. As we’ll see, these tactics have changed very little in the centuries that have passed since the events of Nehemiah took place.
The manner in which Nehemiah will respond to these various forms of opposition will help provide us with an example to follow when facing such adverse situations today. As another commentator observes, “The real test of a leader is how he or she faces crises and reacts to opposition. This chapter recounts several forms of opposition and how Nehemiah confronted them. In Nehemiah we have a prime example of a dedicated faithful, wise, and energetic leader.” (2)
(1) Word in life study Bible. (1996). (electronic ed., Ne 4:8). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson.
(2) Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture Mervin Breneman 6. Opposition to Building the Wall (4:1-23)
“But it so happened, when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, that he was furious and very indignant, and mocked the Jews” (Nehemiah 4:1).
Nehemiah chapter four opens with the return of Sanballat, an adversary who was introduced to us earlier in chapter two. When Sanballet first learned of Nehemiah’s arrival, we’re told that he was “…very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites” (Nehemiah 2:10). Here now in chapter four, we find that Sanballet had become considerably more agitated.
You see, another version of this passage tells us, “When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed” (NIV). The Living Bible paraphrase simply describes his response in this manner: “He flew into a rage…”
This reaction may be easier to understand when we stop to remember that Sanballet was a native of Moab. As mentioned previously, the Moabites were long-time adversaries of Israel so it shouldn’t be surprising to find that he was displeased at the prospect of a rebuilt Jewish capital.
But what caused Sanballet to respond with such violent anger when a mere display of annoyance or displeasure might have been more appropriate? After all, Nehemiah and his fellow Jews simply wanted to reclaim their heritage and rebuild the wall that once surrounded their ancient capital city. Why couldn’t Sanballet just ignore their efforts and go about his business?
Well, it helps to remember that ancient documents (1) identify Sanballet as the governor over the region that was just north of that area. If Nehemiah was successful in reestablishing Jerusalem as preeminent city once again, the potential disruption in the trade route through that territory might have been damaging to his political and economic prospects.
So even though a revitalized Jerusalem would serve to benefit the interests of a number of nearby cities, its possible that this may have worked against Sanballat’s personal agenda. It also served to dampen the potential to expand his political power. Each of these things likely combined to produce this furious display of anger.
The biggest obstacle for Sanballat was the fact that Nehemiah had secured the political authorization to engage in this rebuilding effort. As a comparatively low-level authority, Sanballet had no official means to prevent this work from going forward.
This left him with two options: he could use the motivational tools at his disposal to discourage Nehemiah and his volunteer labor force from continuing, or he could attempt to use various “unofficial” means to disrupt this work.
As we’ll see, Sanballat decided to exercise both options.
(1) This document is known as the “Elephantine papyri” and references “…the sons of Sanballat, governor of Samaria.” See Archaeology and Bible History Joseph P. Free p. 211
Although Sanballat chose to employ mockery as a motivational tool in his attempt to derail the Jerusalem rebuilding project, that was not the only weapon at his disposal…
“And he spoke before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they fortify themselves? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they complete it in a day? Will they revive the stones from the heaps of rubbish—stones that are burned?'” (Nehemiah 4:2).
Here we find a few of the most useful, versatile, and effective tools in the de-motivational toolbox: derision, ridicule, and sarcasm. Like most tools, these instruments are most effectively utilized when their object is properly prepared for their use.
Sanballet accomplished this by first establishing an audience: “He ridiculed the Jews …in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria” (NIV). This would help ensure that his message carried the maximum impact, for the bigger the audience, the more effective the tool of ridicule often becomes.
For example, an educator who privately ridicules a student for his or her Christian beliefs may not have much of an impact. But that same educator is sure to find that the tools of sarcasm and derision are much more effective if he or she elects to publicly mock that student in the presence of his or her peers.
This serves to remind us that a person who desires to follow Jesus is effectively singled out from among the vast majority of those who could hardly care less about Him. Much like Nehemiah, such a person may be subject to public ridicule from those who are seeking to pursue some other agenda.
For the person who may be facing this kind of situation, it helps to remember that Jesus was also mocked and ridiculed as well. For instance, Matthew 27:41-43 tells us that during Jesus’ crucifixion, “….the chief priests mocked, with the scribes and elders, saying, He saved others, but he cannot save himself. If he is the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God, let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him. (For He said, I am the Son of God).”
Luke 23:36-37 also tells us, “…the soldiers also mocked Him, and offering Him sour wine, and saying, If You are the king of the Jews, save Yourself.” So those who are scorned and ridiculed for a decision to follow Christ are in good company, for Jesus was treated in a similar manner as well.
“…in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, ‘What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble–burned as they are?'” (Nehemiah 4:2 NIV).
We should pause to take a closer look at Sanballat’s opening statement in this passage, for his attempt at sarcasm is much more instructive than it may initially appear: “What are these feeble Jews doing?” Other Biblical versions use the words weak (ERV), miserable (GNB), or pathetic (HCSB) to describe Sanballat’s opinion of this rebuilding effort.
Its important to notice that Sanballat framed his opinion as if it was a foregone conclusion or an indisputable truth. But while Sanballat certainly had a right to his opinion, he didn’t have the right to make up his own facts.
You see, these volunteers had actually proven to be strong, courageous, and hard-working individuals- the exact opposite of Sanballat’s stated belief. Unfortunately, this reality did not stop Sanballat from attempting to establish his opinion as an undeniable truth.
We have a modern-day word that’s often used to describe what Sanballat was attempting to do in this passage; we call this “spin.” When used in this manner, the word “spin” means, “to cause to have a particular bias; influence in a certain direction.” (1)
For instance, a politician may take certain facts and “spin” them in a manner that puts his or her candidacy in the most favorable light. A sales representative may “spin” the capabilities of his or her product in a similar manner to help entice potential buyers. Or perhaps an educator may choose to emphasize certain portions of a curriculum in order to support a personal bias while de-emphasizing facts that may prove inconvenient to his or her preference.
This is not unlike what Sanballat was seeking to accomplish: he was seeking to establish his opinion as a matter of fact. In other words, he was trying to spin a point of view that served his personal agenda even though his viewpoint had no real means of support.
Its been said that once a lie is repeated often enough, many will eventually begin to accept it as the truth. Sanballat’s example reminds us that its important to listen closely to such statements to determine if they have an actual basis in reality or are merely opinions masquerading as facts in support of some other agenda.
(1) “spin.” Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc. 23 Jan. 2015. <Dictionary.com http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/spin>.
“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?'” (Nehemiah 4:2 ESV).
Since Nehemiah had secured authorization from the Persian government to oversee the Jerusalem rebuilding project, this reference to the “army of Samaria” probably involved some sort of local militia or other group of armed individuals who were loyal to Sanballat. But as we’ll soon see, this was no mere attempt at saber-rattling; Sanballat was prepared to mount a guerilla-style military attack to end this work if necessary.
The statement “Will they finish up in a day?” can probably be interpreted to imply that this project was far too big for these volunteers to handle. This is illustrative of another modern-day ploy that people sometimes use to advance a personal agenda: set an unachievable goal and then attempt to hold others accountable for failing to meet it.
For instance, would it be reasonable to assume that a 1-3 mile (1.6-4.8km) wall could be completely rebuilt in a day, especially considering the fact that the materials that were being used to reconstruct it had been strewn about as wreckage for decades? Such an idea was preposterous, yet Sanballat suggested it anyway.
Why then would he say such a thing? Well, Sanballat was engaging in a effort to de-motivate and discourage these volunteers by seeking to hold them accountable for a goal they could never attain. Once he had established this unrealistic standard, Sanballat could then find fault with those who had failed to live up to it. The implication was this: “If you can’t meet this standard then there must be something wrong with you.”
Sanballat’s ploy illustrates the need to guard against the tendency to allow others (especially those who may not have an interest in the things of God) to set our standards. Remember that criticism is often the price of leadership, and as one commentator observes…
“Like most attacks of discouragement, there is a trace of truth in the words of the enemy. As builders, the Jews were feeble. They would not complete it in a day. They didn’t have the best materials to work with. A lying, discouraging attack will often have some truth in it, but it will neglect the great truth: God was with them and has promised to see them through.” (1)
(1) Guzik, Dave – Nehemiah 4 – Enemies Try to Stop the Work http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/1604.htm
“…’What is this feeble bunch of Jews trying to do? Are they going to rebuild the wall and offer sacrifices all in one day? Do they think they can make something out of this pile of scorched stones?” (Nehemiah 4:2 CEV)
Since the volunteers involved in restoring Jerusalem’s wall had little or no opportunity to secure replacement stonework, these workers were limited to reusing whatever materials they could recover. The first challenge involved hauling any reusable portions of the previous wall back from their decades-old resting places and repositioning them for re-use within the newly reconstructed wall.
The second challenge involved the condition of those materials. Notice that Sanballat made a specific reference to the scorched condition of these stones here in Nehemiah 4:2. One commentator explains why he may have done so…
“The walls of Jerusalem, which were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, were constructed from white limestone. When this material is burned it loses its strength and hardness and turns to powder. Not only were the stones brittle, but they were so large it would be difficult to raise them up the ridge to the desired position. Nebuchadnezzar had burned all the gates and modern supports and pulled the stones down into the valley.” (1)
If those challenges weren’t enough, Sanballat’s associate Tobiah decided that he wanted to join him in ridiculing this work effort as well…
“Now Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, ‘Whatever they build, if even a fox goes up on it, he will break down their stone wall'” (Nehemiah 4:3).
Tobiah’s use of this word-picture was clearly intentional, for foxes and jackals were abundant in that area and were probably known to have made their homes among the very ruins that these volunteers were attempting to rebuild. The implication was that if an animal as small as a fox were to come into contact with the effort put forth by these builders, all of their work in restoring Jerusalem’s wall would immediately collapse.
But Tobiah also made a serious tactical error in making this comment. Notice that he said, “…even if a fox climbed up what they are building, he would break down their stone wall!” (HCSB). This was where Tobiah was greatly mistaken. You see, Jerusalem’s wall did not belong to Nehemiah or anyone else involved in this rebuilding effort. This was a God-initiated project; Nehemiah (as well as his fellow builders) were simply working to fulfill and execute that plan.
We’ll see how Nehemiah responded to these criticisms next.
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, Nehemiah 4 www.freebiblecommentary.org Copyright © 2014 Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/old_testament_studies/VOL08OT/VOL08BOT_04.html
“Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders” (Nehemiah 4:4-5).
It interesting to observe how Nehemiah chose to respond to this display of ridicule, insult, and mockery. For instance, Nehemiah did not react with a similar display of contempt or derision, nor did he respond with an attempt to strike back against those who had chosen to scoff at his efforts. Instead, Nehemiah chose to respond by turning to God in prayer.
For some, prayer represents a kind of last resort, or something to try when everything else has failed. But instead of falling back on prayer as a last resort, Nehemiah has repeatedly demonstrated that the act of prayer should be our first resort. Like Nehemiah, a person whose life is characterized by a reliance upon God expressed through the act of regular communication with Him in prayer is someone who will be well prepared to deal with the challenges of daily life.
Jesus also provided us with a good example to follow in this area as well. Remember that Jesus spent the entire night in prayer before choosing His twelve disciples. He also prayed at the Garden of Gethsemane prior to His crucifixion (Matthew 26:36-44). Jesus prayed before resurrecting a dead man (John 11:41-44) and Luke 5:16 tells us that “…Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed” (NIV).
There are a number of Scriptures that emphasize the importance of prayerful communication with God along with the benefit of seeking His wisdom, insight, and direction…
” …if you call out for insight and cry aloud for understanding, and if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for hidden treasure, then you will understand the fear of the LORD and find the knowledge of God. For the LORD gives wisdom, and from his mouth come knowledge and understanding. (Proverbs 2:3-6 NIV).
“If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him” (James 1:5).
By turning to God in the midst of this difficult situation, Nehemiah provided us with the right example to follow when similar criticisms are leveled against us.
“Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders” (Nehemiah 4:4-5 NIV).
While there are relatively few Christians who would deny the benefit of seeking God in prayer, there are some who may find the content of this prayer to be difficult to understand. For example, consider the elements of Nehemiah’s petition here within this passage…
- “Turn their curses back on them….” (Voice).
- “Let them be robbed of everything they have…” (GNB).
- “Let them be the ones to be dragged away as prisoners of war” (CEV).
- “Don’t ignore their guilt, and don’t let their sins disappear from your records” (GW).
That hardly sounds like the kind of prayer that we might expect to hear from a supposedly God-honoring man like Nehemiah, does it? Well, perhaps not, but Nehemiah’s prayer does provide us with the opportunity to make some important real-life applications.
First, these verses tell us that we can be completely honest with God as we communicate with Him in prayer. In other words, we can be upfront with God about the difficulties we encounter in life and our feelings about those who have hurt us, insulted us, or treated us wrongfully.
For instance, we may sometimes feel a desire to strike back at someone who has injured us in some manner. While we may be outwardly following the Scriptural admonition to “Repay no one evil for evil” (Romans 12:17), there may be times when we internally feel as Nehemiah did: “Turn their insults back on their own heads.” Nehemiah’s example demonstrates that we can be honest and upfront with God about such feelings in prayer.
Remember that Hebrews 4:13 tells us, “Nothing is hidden from God! He sees through everything, and we will have to tell him the truth” (CEV). In light of this, we should recognize that God is already aware of our true feelings whether or not we choose to be honest with Him in prayer.
If we approach God through Jesus with an attitude of humility, respect, and appreciation for His willingness to hear our prayers, Nehemiah’s example demonstrates that we can be honest with Him about the way we truly feel. And if we should find that our internal attitudes are not what they should be, we can then ask for His help in changing us internally as well.
“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” (Nehemiah 4:4-5 ESV).
In His famous Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was quoted as follows…
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matthew 5:43-45).
Its important to measure the aggressiveness of Nehemiah’s prayer in Nehemiah 4:4-5 against the fact that he lived many centuries prior to Jesus’ revolutionary message from the Sermon on the Mount. Nevertheless, there are a few aspects of Nehemiah’s prayer that parallel some other New Testament ideas.
For instance, if Sanballat, Tobiah, and the rest of Nehemiah’s detractors had also experienced the pain of being forcibly relocated to a foreign land, then perhaps they would have been more tolerant of these efforts to restore the Israeli capital. This may help explain why Nehemiah prayed, “…let them be taken as prisoners to a foreign land” (GNB).
Such an experience would provide these men with an opportunity to “see how it feels” and furnish them with an entirely new perspective on these rebuilding efforts. A more positive New Testament analogy to this idea can be found in 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 where we learn that God may allow us to experience trials and difficulties in our lives for the specific purpose of helping others who may be going through similar difficulties.
Another commentator draws a parallel between Nehemiah’s prayer and Jesus Himself…
“Nehemiah regards this attack as an insult against God himself. Note that he does not argue back, nor does he retaliate. He does not blister these men with angry rebuttal. He simply responds by praying. It reminds us of Peter’s words about Jesus: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate. When he suffered, he made no threats,” (1Pe_2:23 NIV). This is a helpful picture of how to handle that kind of attack.” (1)
(1) Don’t Back Down — Build Up Ray C. Stedman http://www.raystedman.org/old-testament/nehemiah/dont-back-down–build-up
“So we built the wall, and the entire wall was joined together up to half its height, for the people had a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:4).
This passage tells us that the Jerusalem rebuilding project had now reached the 50% completion stage. While this suggests that these volunteers were making excellent progress, it also means that they were entering a potentially dangerous phase of this rebuilding effort.
You see, the halfway point of any work effort may be a time when the initial enthusiasm and excitement of a project begins to wane. Despite its importance, the 50% milestone is still a long way from “finished” and may be the point where those involved begin to say, “This is a lot more work than we originally expected.”
Of course, its also possible that the first half of a project has progressed so well that those involved may no longer put forth the same kind of effort that helped bring about their initial success. Much like a team that holds a sizable lead at halftime only to lose a contest in the second half, the halfway point of any work effort should serve to remind us of the importance of finishing well.
In this instance, God blessed Nehemiah with a dedicated, hardworking group of volunteers for we’re told that these laborers served with eagerness (GNB), determination (GW), and enthusiasm (NET). Note that Nehemiah took no credit for these efforts but deferred recognition to those who performed the labor necessary to complete the work.
Yet despite these achievements, the animosity of those who opposed this project did not go away. Instead, Nehemiah’s adversaries simply regrouped to formulate a new strategy. Having failed in their previous attempts to derail this project through mockery, ridicule, and derision, Sanballat and Tobiah decided to try a different approach and enlist the aid of a few reinforcements…
“Now it happened, when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the walls of Jerusalem were being restored and the gaps were beginning to be closed, that they became very angry, and all of them conspired together to come and attack Jerusalem and create confusion” (Nehemiah 4:7-8).
It’s sometimes possible to confirm that we have chosen the proper road simply by observing the conduct of those who would prefer for us to travel in another direction. The fact that these opponents were prepared to “…stir up trouble, and to fight against the people of Jerusalem” (CEV) verifies that they were outside God’s agenda, for no truly God-honoring person would engage in such dishonorable tactics.
“Now it happened, when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the walls of Jerusalem were being restored and the gaps were beginning to be closed, that they became very angry, and all of them conspired together to come and attack Jerusalem and create confusion.” (Nehemiah 4:7-8).
The people of Ashdod were located west of the city of Jerusalem while the Arabs occupied the regions that were south and east. So in looking at the list of adversaries provided for us here in Nehemiah 4:6-7, this effectively meant that Jerusalem had enemies in the east (the Ammonites), west (the Ashdodites) south (the Arabs), and north (led by Sanballat and the Samaritans [Nehemiah 4:1]).
This meant that those who were involved in this rebuilding effort were surrounded by opposition from every direction- and those opponents were “angry” (CEV), “furious” (GW), or “full of wrath” (BBE). In fact, these groups were so enraged that they “…conspired together to move with armed forces against Jerusalem and to create a disturbance in it” (NET).
So in addition to the myriad of other challenges involved with this project, Nehemiah was now faced with an additional obstacle: a conspiracy to attack these volunteers and prevent them from completing the work. These militants were prevented from launching an all-out attack in light of the fact that those who were rebuilding the wall were legally authorized to undertake that work. Nevertheless, this entire project could still be brought to a halt if a few of these workers could be eliminated.
This stark reality tells us that these volunteers were no longer simply working to complete a project- there was a realistic possibility that some of them might actually die for their commitment to this work.
It was at this point that Nehemiah and the members of his work force stepped up with a plan to address this threat: “…we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat” (Nehemiah 4:9 NIV). This response reflected two fundamental beliefs: 1) God’s sovereignty over these circumstances and, 2) their responsibility to address the need at hand.
Notice that Nehemiah said, “…we prayed to our God and stationed a guard to protect against them” (NET, emphasis added). In doing so, Nehemiah and the members of this workforce demonstrated their recognition of God’s sovereignty by putting Him first in prayer. However, they also recognized the fact that God’s authority over these circumstances did not relieve them of the responsibility of taking this common sense precaution.
“They all made plans to come and fight against Jerusalem and throw us into confusion. But we prayed to our God and guarded the city day and night to protect ourselves” (Nehemiah 4:8-9 NLT).
It seems that Nehemiah and these laborers clearly recognized God’s sovereignty over this situation as well as their need to act responsibly in the face of this danger. In commenting on their response, one source offers the following observation:“The Jews did three things. First, they prayed. Second, they worked. Third, they set guards in order to be ready for battle. Praying, working, and readiness are the three requirements for serving God.” (1)
However, there is another consideration related to this passage as well. For instance, some members of this workforce might have objected to this plan on the grounds that the act of posting a guard would demonstrate a lack of faith in God’s ability to protect them. In a similar manner, it is also possible to view a prayerful, practical approach to the problems and issues we encounter in life as somehow lacking in faith as well.
While such a viewpoint might seem to indicate a superior level of faith, Nehemiah’s example demonstrates a more appropriate response: he believed that God would protect the members of this workforce as they prayerfully and faithfully utilized the resources that He had already provided.
This passage illustrates the importance of observing the manner in which God interacts with various Biblical characters and then using those examples to help guide our own decision-making processes (see 1 Corinthians 10:11). Nehemiah’s example tells us that a prayerful dependence upon God coupled with a common sense response should not be viewed as a lack of faith when dealing with the challenges we encounter in life. As another commentator explains…
“(This) prayer was not used in lieu of responsible actions. Nor should prayer ever be used in lieu of responsible actions. God expects us to act responsibly. Some people use prayer as an excuse for their laziness. It should never be… God does expect us to do what is wise and what is prudent though all the while we are trusting in Him.
We know that, “If the Lord doesn’t watch the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Psa 127:1). But the watchman still wakes up… We realize that it is necessary that God watch the city, but we also realize it’s necessary that we take the prudent actions that are required of us.” (2)
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 887). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.
(2) “Chuck Smith Bible Commentary Copyright © 2014, Calvary Chapel of Costa Mesa, Ca.
“Then Judah said, ‘The strength of the laborers is failing, and there is so much rubbish that we are not able to build the wall'” (Nehemiah 4:10).
Another translation of Nehemiah 4:10 tells us, “The work crews are worn out, and there is too much rubble. We can’t continue to rebuild the wall.” (GW). This response becomes easier to understand when we stop to remember that the overturned stones that had previously comprised Jerusalem’s wall had also accumulated decades worth of plant life and various other types of environmental debris.
Of course, its true that clearing out this kind of debris is certainly not glamorous work- and these laborers had already spent weeks doing just that. This, along with the actual work of rebuilding the wall and the additional demands of guarding against an attack had clearly taken a physical and psychological toll on these volunteers. Nevertheless, these challenges were things that had to be overcome.
You see, if these walls were erected without first clearing out this rubble, they would have eventually collapsed again. If that occurred, then Jerusalem (and these volunteers by extension) would have become a target of even greater ridicule and derision. Since a structure is only as good as the foundation it is built upon, this work was an absolute necessity.
But Nehemiah and his fellow workers were dealing with far more than just a difficult and challenging project- they were literally risking their lives to pursue this work. We can say this because the following verse tells us…
“And our adversaries said, ‘They will neither know nor see anything, till we come into their midst and kill them and cause the work to cease'” (Nehemiah 4:11).
This indicates that these opponents were planning a multi-level attack…
- First, it would come without any advance warning: “Before they know it or see us.”
- Second, it would occur at short range: “we will be right there among them.”
- Next, it was designed to permanently end this conflict: “(we) will kill them.”
- Finally, it was intended to achieve the desired end result: “(we will) put an end to the work.”
Much like the adversaries found here in Nehemiah chapter four, there will always be some who are strongly opposed to the advancement of God’s work. And just as we see here within this passage, there may be some who are willing to resort to physical violence if that is what is necessary to follow through on that opposition.
“So it was, when the Jews who dwelt near them came, that they told us ten times, ‘From whatever place you turn, they will be upon us.’ Therefore I positioned men behind the lower parts of the wall, at the openings; and I set the people according to their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows” (Nehemiah 4:12-13).
So it appears that those who opposed the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall were planning to carry out some sort of coordinated attack. However, Nehemiah was alerted to this maneuver, presumably through a network of contacts that he had developed following his arrival in that area.
The idea behind the phrase “…they told us ten times” should not be taken to mean that Nehemiah received the same message on ten different occasions. Instead, this phrase is best understood as a figure of speech to indicate that Nehemiah was regularly advised of this potential threat. Other Biblical versions communicate this idea by translating this passage as, “…they said to us time and again” (HCSB) or, “(they) warned us repeatedly” (NET).
We should also take notice of what Nehemiah didn’t do upon learning of this conspiracy. For instance, Nehemiah didn’t panic nor did he ignore the threat of an attack with the hope that it would simply go away. Instead, Nehemiah chose to place his trust in God and then followed up with some precautionary measures.
Nehemiah began by posting armed guards between these laborers and anyone who might approach them. As mentioned earlier, the individuals who were now guarding these workers had not been professional contractors and it certainly doesn’t appear as if they had any military experience either. Nevertheless, these people were still willing to take on these important responsibilities.
Nehemiah also made certain to station armed guards at the areas of the wall where an attack would be most likely to occur. The presence of these guards helped secure these vulnerable positions but also served to provide a visual warning- it communicated the fact that any attempt at an armed raid would also be met with armed resistance. As one commentary observes, “This pattern of threat and countermeasure recurs throughout the rest of the chapter. As the gravity of the threats increases, so does the intensity of Nehemiah’s response.” (1)
The decision to position various family members together to guard against an attack also provided an additional incentive. While these guards might not be inclined to give their lives for Jerusalem’s perimeter wall, they would certainly be willing to protect their homes and families.
(1) Asbury Bible Commentary – D. Opposition Without (4:1–23) https://www.biblegateway.com/resources/asbury-bible-commentary/Opposition-Without
“And I looked, and arose and said to the nobles, to the leaders, and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, great and awesome, and fight for your brethren, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses.”
And it happened, when our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had brought their plot to nothing, that all of us returned to the wall, everyone to his work” (Nehemiah 4:14-15).
So Nehemiah’s defense effort helped to eliminate the potential for a surprise attack and enabled the members of this labor force to return to work. Yet despite the strategic deployment of these defenses, we should stop to consider the fact that those who sought to oppose these rebuilding efforts really didn’t believe their own propaganda.
You see, one commentator makes the following observation: “The wrath and great indignation of Sanballat prove the insincerity of his taunts. If the Jews were so feeble a folk in his estimation, he would not have sought an alliance (Neh_4:8) to fight against them.” (1)
Its often been said that, “actions speak louder than words,” and this passage serves to remind us that what someone does is often the best indicator of what he or she actually believes. Although Sanballat professed to believe that these workers were weak, feeble, or pathetic (Nehemiah 4:2), he would not have conspired to launch a military attack against them if that had been the actual truth.
We should also pause to observe some of the leadership qualities demonstrated by Nehemiah within this passage…
- First, he stood to address this assembly, an act that symbolized the importance of what he was about to say.
- Next, he spoke to everyone involved in this project, including the leadership as well as the members of the rank and file.
- Finally, he encouraged the members of this workforce to focus on the right priority: “Don’t be afraid of our enemies. Remember how great and awe-inspiring the LORD is” (GW).
This final exhortation brings to mind something that Jesus once said…
“And I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body, and after that have no more that they can do. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear Him who, after He has killed, has power to cast into hell; yes, I say to you, fear Him!” (Luke 12:4-5).
Remember that a person who fears (or respects) God need not fear (or be afraid of) anything else.
(1) Lange’s Commentary on the Holy Scriptures John Peter Lange, Nehemiah 4, Historical And Ethical 1. http://biblehub.com/commentaries/lange/nehemiah/4.htm
“So it was, from that time on, that half of my servants worked at construction, while the other half held the spears, the shields, the bows, and wore armor; and the leaders were behind all the house of Judah” (Nehemiah 4:16).
So fifty percent of those who were involved in this work effort served to guard the other fifty percent who were tasked with the responsibility of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall. So whether the day’s agenda involved serving guard duty or carrying out the work involved in mounting stones and spreading mortar, Nehemiah made sure that those who served under his leadership were ready and prepared.
“Those who built on the wall, and those who carried burdens, loaded themselves so that with one hand they worked at construction, and with the other held a weapon. Every one of the builders had his sword girded at his side as he built. And the one who sounded the trumpet was beside me.
Then I said to the nobles, the rulers, and the rest of the people, ‘The work is great and extensive, and we are separated far from one another on the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us'” (Nehemiah 4:17-20).
While trumpets are widely recognized as musical instruments today, they were primarily utilized as a means of communicating with large groups of people in Nehemiah’s day. You see, a musician knows that a trumpet can be an extremely powerful instrument and as such, it is highly effective for use in signaling people over long distances. But unlike a modern-day brass trumpet, the trumpeter who accompanied Nehemiah would have made use of a hollowed out ram’s horn known as a shofar.
In the Biblical era, trumpets were used to call the people of Israel to assembly, to signal an announcement, to summon military personnel, or to warn of an emergency situation. In this instance, the trumpet referenced here in Nehemiah chapter four served much the same purpose as an emergency siren or an air horn today.
The fact that the person responsible for sounding this alarm was stationed right beside Nehemiah was something that must have provided a sense of security and stability for those who were involved in the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall. This, along with the presence of armed guards and their own personal weaponry helped enable these workers to proceed with a minimum of distraction.
“So we labored in the work, and half of the men held the spears from daybreak until the stars appeared. At the same time I also said to the people, ‘Let each man and his servant stay at night in Jerusalem, that they may be our guard by night and a working party by day.’
So neither I, my brethren, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me took off our clothes, except that everyone took them off for washing” (Nehemiah 4:21-23).
Nehemiah chapter four closes with a reference to the diligence and dedication of those who were laboring to rebuild Jerusalem’s perimeter wall: “…every day, from dawn until the stars came out at night, half of us worked on the wall, while the other half stood guard with spears” (GNB).
This implies a six-day work week of 12-14 hours a day, a great display of dedication for these volunteers. In fact, these workers were so diligent that they agreed to spend every night at the job site in an effort to counter those who sought to prevent these rebuilding efforts from going forward.
Since transportation in the Biblical era was limited to human or animal power, “commuting to work” as we know it today was simply not feasible. As mentioned earlier, this meant that Nehemiah had to arrange temporary housing for these volunteers throughout the life of this project. Since it appears that some of these laborers had quarters outside the city limits, Nehemiah moved those volunteers inside the city as well.
So in addition to this extended workday, these workers elected to spend their off-hours near this construction site in an effort to defend against a potential attack. The need for diligence in protecting the city at night was highlighted by one commentator who related the experience of those who were involved in an earlier effort to reconstruct Jerusalem under Ezra…
“When the Jews came back from exile and tried to rebuild the Temple, the Samaritans who despised the Jews of the restoration, would come and throw the carcasses of pigs in the construction site, requiring… the Jews to stop building for seven days while they went through the process of purification.
(Then) they would resume the construction of the Temple and the Samaritans would sneak there again in the night and throw another pig in the mix (and) stop this construction for another seven days.” (1)
The deployment of these night watchmen would help guard against any further provocations of this nature.
(1) Sproul, R.C. The Gadarene Demoniac (Part 1) March 2015 Message of the Month audio message
“So neither I, my brethren, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me took off our clothes, except that everyone took them off for washing” (Nehemiah 4:23).
The original language used to author the final verse of Nehemiah chapter four is somewhat obscure and has led to a difference of opinion as to what interpretation best fits the meaning of this text. One commentator relates the interpretive challenge associated with this passage in explaining that, “The Hebrew literally is ‘each, his weapon, the waters.‘” (1)
This somewhat ambiguous phrasing presents a difficult task for translators who seek to accurately communicate the meaning behind this verse. While the various English translations of this passage all convey the idea of constant readiness, the manner in which that idea is expressed varies greatly among the individual versions.
For instance, some translations (like the New King James Version [NKJV] seen above) tell us that these workers chose to continue wearing their work clothes (even while sleeping) in order to defend against the possibility of an attack. Unless these laborers were in the act of laundering their clothes, everyone was dressed and ready at all times. This interpretation would be consistent with the approach taken by such Biblical versions as the HCSB, NLV, and KJV.
Other translations interpret this passage to mean that these workers always kept a weapon close by, even when stopping to take a drink of water. This approach is reflected in the ISV, NCV, and NET versions of the Bible. Finally, some Biblical translations simply communicate the idea that each worker had an instrument of self-defense available at all times. We can find this idea expressed in such Biblical versions as the GW, ESV, and GNT.
In light of these differences, its possible to feel some uneasiness about the reliability of this text. However, its important to remember that there is little question as to what the original text actually says- the question revolves around the best way to communicate the meaning of this fifth century B.C. Hebrew text to modern day, twenty-first century English readers.
So whatever the precise meaning of this passage, there is at least one thing that we can understand and apply from this verse today: “The Jews were willing to make temporary sacrifices and endure some discomfort to finish the work God had given them to do (vv. 17-23). In this they are models for all of us who serve God.” (2)
(1) Dr. Bob Utley, Nehemiah 4 [4:23] www.freebiblecommentary.org Copyright © 2014 Bible Lessons International http://www.freebiblecommentary.org/old_testament_studies/VOL08OT/VOL08BOT_04.html
(2) The Expository Notes of Dr. Constable (Dr. Constable’s Bible Study Notes). 2015 Edition by Dr. Thomas L. Constable. All Rights Reserved. pg. 17-18 http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes/pdf/nehemiah.pdf