It seems that there are certain aspects of human behavior that are familiar to almost everyone- and while Nehemiah was surely associated with a large number of hardworking, God-honoring men and women, he was also acquainted with a few of the more unfortunate characteristics of human nature as well.
For instance, most people probably know what its like to deal with someone who appears to be sincere but really isn’t. Or the person who is polite and respectful in face-to-face conversation with someone but is very different when that person is not around. Or perhaps we can relate to the experience of discovering that someone who claimed to represent God actually held an ulterior motive that was cleverly hidden behind a seemingly well-meaning facade.
While it may be easy to become cynical in the face of such unpleasant realities, we can find a better way to handle these situations when we encounter them by examining Nehemiah’s good example here in Nehemiah chapter six.
This becomes especially important when we stop to remember that the experiences of various Biblical characters (both positive and negative) are recorded specifically to teach us (see Romans 15:4). You see, Biblical chapters such as Nehemiah chapter six were written for our personal benefit to help enable us follow the good examples (and avoid the negative ones) found within them.
As mentioned earlier, Nehemiah faced three primary opponents in his effort to rebuilt Jerusalem’s perimeter wall: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab. When we last left these men in chapter four we were told, “…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).
As we move forward into Nehemiah chapter six, we’ll find that the remaining gaps in the wall have now been secured leaving only the entrance gates left to be finished. So now that this project was nearing completion, these opponents were down to their final opportunity to undermine this work.
The problem was that all previous attempts to derail this project had failed miserably. To have any chance of success, Nehemiah’s adversaries would have to devise an alternative strategy and/or utilize an old tactic deployed in a new way. We’ll examine these final attempts to terminate these rebuilding efforts as we move through the opening verses of Nehemiah chapter six.
“Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, ‘Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono…'” (Nehemiah 6:1-2).
Its been said that news travels quickly and word had reached Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem that work on Jerusalem’s perimeter wall was now nearly complete. The only remaining task involved hanging the doors.
These doors were typically secured with a metal overlay to improve their fire resistance and while it would be no easy task to hang these ten massive gateways, it did mean that the major portion of this rebuilding project had now been completed.
However, this also meant that those who had an interest in preventing this work from being completed were quickly running out of time. If Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem, and others like them were ever going to stop this project from moving forward, they would have to move rapidly to select from among their few remaining options.
You see, these men first attempted to employ a “mockery and ridicule” approach as seen earlier in chapter four: “…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). Unfortunately for them, that plan didn’t work.
Then they tried a more direct (and much more violent) approach: “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work” (Nehemiah 4:11 NIV). That didn’t work either. Now it was time to make one final effort: “Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono'” (NIV).
The plain of Ono was located about 25 miles (65 km) northwest of Jerusalem, a distance that represented a 1-2 day travel distance during that time. While this proposal might have been presented to Nehemiah as an ancient version of a modern-day peace conference, we’re about to find that he had already concluded that the real intent behind this invitation was anything but peaceful.
“So Sanballat and Geshem sent a message asking me to meet them at one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But I realized they were plotting to harm me” (Nehemiah 6:2 NLT).
Why would Nehemiah react so negatively to an opportunity to reconcile with those who were opposed to the Jerusalem rebuilding effort?
Well, there were a few issues involved with accepting such an invitation. First, it would have pulled Nehemiah away from overseeing this work for a minimum of three to five days- and anyone who has experience in project management knows that poor supervision can often lead to big problems.
We should also remember that travel was generally slow and difficult in the ancient world. Roads were often hazardous and travelers of that time had to be alert for the threat of thieves, bad weather, or wild animals along the way. Although Nehemiah probably would have traveled to this meeting with a military attaché, there was always the possibly that his enemies might attempt an ambush if the opportunity presented itself. In fact, the Apostle Paul later found himself in this very situation on more than one occasion (see Acts 23:11-24 and Acts 25:1-3).
Finally, Nehemiah’s absence would provide a convenient opportunity to launch an attack against who were finishing this work while he was away. Since the citizens of that area were already aware of such potential threats (see Nehemiah 4:11-12), this represented a very real concern. If the remaining laborers could be neutralized by the threat of an attack, then the work would be left unfinished. It would also leave the completed portions of the wall more vulnerable to sabotage.
Fortunately, Nehemiah possessed the ability to perceive the real agenda behind this proposal: “This was a trick of theirs to try to harm me” (GNB). This provides us with an opportunity to examine the Biblical idea of “discernment,” or the ability to demonstrate perception, understanding, and/or good judgment in a given situation.
In a spiritual sense, discernment refers to the ability to see things as God sees them and not necessarily how they may appear to be. Such insight is identified as a gift of God in 1 Corinthians 12:10 and as we’re told in the the Old Testament book of Proverbs…
“…the Lord grants wisdom! His every word is a treasure of knowledge and understanding. He grants good sense to the godly-his saints. He is their shield, protecting them and guarding their pathway. He shows how to distinguish right from wrong, how to find the right decision every time” (Proverbs 2:6-9 TLB).
“Sanballat and Geshem sent me a message: ‘Come, let’s meet together in the villages of the Ono Valley.’ But they were planning to harm me” (Nehemiah 6:2 HCSB).
A person who seeks to emulate the kind of discernment that Nehemiah displayed within this passage will find it essential to spend time in God’s Word on a daily basis. The most reliable, accurate, and trustworthy means of receiving God’s wisdom, guidance, and direction can be found in prayerfully reading the Scriptures on a daily basis.
You see, the Bible was written by men who were inspired by the Spirit of God to communicate the Word of God. For instance, the New Testament book of 2 Timothy tells us, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Since the Scriptures are the very Word of God, we have the opportunity to receive God’s wisdom and counsel whenever we read them. In other words, the Scriptures provide us with an opportunity to hear directly from God, for as James 1:5 tells us, “…if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” A good way to obtain this kind of insight and discernment can be found in prayerfully reading and applying the Scriptures on a daily basis.
However, this does not only represent a good idea- the need for God-given discernment is essential in many respects. For instance, one of the most important elements of good character is the ability to discern the potential consequences of one’s actions. Untold numbers of people have been scarred and injured by those who lacked the ability to discern the potential ramifications of their decisions.
Nehemiah’s example demonstrates the value of such discernment and the importance of seeking God to provide us with the ability to demonstrate such perception, understanding, and good judgment in our daily lives. As one commentator points out…
“Without discernment, we can think a dangerous invitation from an enemy is really an offer of reconciliation. We can think presumption is faith. We can think our own noble desires are God’s promises… We can think someone is a great guy or a spiritual leader when they are really doing damage to God’s people. Nehemiah, using discernment will not only escape their trap; he won’t even be distracted from his work.” (1)
(1) Guzik, Dave Nehemiah 6 – The Walls Completed http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/1606.htm
“So I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?'” (Nehemiah 6:3).
Nehemiah’s response to this invitation is reminiscent of Jesus’ message from Luke 9:62: “…Anyone who lets himself be distracted from the work I plan for him is not fit for the Kingdom of God” (TLB). In a similar manner, Nehemiah saw this invitation as an attempt to distract him from the work that God had called him to do. As a commentator quoted earlier goes on to say…
“Discernment gave Nehemiah focus; he knew what God wanted him to be doing and he did it. He wouldn’t be sidetracked by things that sounded good, but weren’t of the Lord for him. Anyone doing a work for God must contend with a hundred different noble causes, and a hundred things that might look good – and be good – but they are not what they are called to do at that time. Discernment gives us focus.” (1)
Of course, it may be easy for someone to consider Nehemiah’s example and think, “I haven’t been called to do anything that resembles a ‘great work.'” However, that attitude misses an important point: any work that God gives us is a great work.
This idea carries important implications for those who desire to make an impact for Christ today. For instance, a person who desires to be used of God should consider the way in which he or she is currently using those skills, talents, and opportunities that God has already provided.
If we are faithful in making good use of the resources that God has already given us, perhaps He will move us on to bigger and better things. As Jesus Himself observed in Luke 16:10, “If you’re faithful in small-scale matters, you’ll be faithful with far bigger responsibilities…” (Voice).
Remember that each day represents an opportunity to do something good for God. A great building never begins as something great but takes shape through the perseverance of those who are dedicated to excellence in performing their assigned tasks, no matter how small or insignificant those tasks may appear to be.
If we are faithful in carrying out the relatively small tasks that God has given us, then perhaps He may assign us to greater responsibilities. But if we have not yet proven ourselves to be faithful managers of the things we already possess, then how can we reasonably expect God to entrust us with anything further?
(1) Guzik, Dave Nehemiah 6 – The Walls Completed http://www.enduringword.com/commentaries/1606.htm
So in response to their request for a meeting, Nehemiah sent emissaries to reply to Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem with the following message: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3 NIV).
Having already ascertained the real intent behind their invitation, Nehemiah subsequently rejected the opportunity to meet with those who had demonstrated their hostility towards the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall.
Although Nehemiah’s straightforward reply may seem to be somewhat discourteous, this response actually reflected a considerable degree of wisdom. You see, there is often a difference between that which we know and that which we can prove.
While Nehemiah was clearly aware of the motive behind this message (“…they were planning to harm me” [Nehemiah 6:2 HCSB]), he had no demonstrable proof that this request was anything other than a friendly invitation.
Therefore, Nehemiah selected an option that would serve to demonstrate the real intent behind this proposition. By declining their proposal and refusing to openly state what he knew to be true, Nehemiah quietly maneuvered these men into a position where their actual purpose would eventually come to light.
This response provides us with an important element to consider when seeking to act with wisdom and discernment in a given situation today. Much like Nehemiah, there may be times when we feel as if we possess a measure of insight into a particular circumstance or situation. However, the fact that we may possess such insight does not necessarily mean that it is always appropriate to share that knowledge with others.
For example, there may be instances when it clearly appears as if God is allowing events to transpire in another person’s life to help build his or her faith, to develop spiritual maturity, to correct an erroneous belief, or for disciplinary purposes. In such instances, it may be advisable to simply stand with that person (as painful and as difficult as it may be) and quietly allow God’s work to progress in his or her life.
Now this does not mean that we are obligated to stand in silence as others continue down a sinful or self-destructive path. However, Nehemiah’s example tells us that it may sometimes be more prudent to quietly allow circumstances to unfold and avoid the temptation to immediately share our interpretation of those circumstances with others.
As we’re reminded in the Old Testament book of Proverbs, “A wise man holds his tongue. Only a fool blurts out everything he knows; that only leads to sorrow and trouble” (Proverbs 10:14 TLB).
Under most circumstances, we might have expected Nehemiah’s rejection of Sanballat’s proposed summit meeting to end any further discussion of the matter. However, these men were not about to be so easily persuaded…
“But they sent me this message four times, and I answered them in the same manner” (Nehemiah 6:4).
While these leaders were certainly persistent, Nehemiah was equally persistent in his refusal to acquiesce to their request. Of course, Nehemiah might have been tempted to take these men up on this offer if only to put an end to these repeated attempts to compel him to attend this proposed meeting. But Nehemiah was convinced that there was another agenda at work behind this proposal, one that represented an attempt to distract or prevent him from completing the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall.
As it turned out, Nehemiah was proven right in his resolve to decline this invitation, for this decision effectively forced these men into revealing their true agenda for this conference…
“Then Sanballat sent his servant to me as before, the fifth time, with an open letter in his hand. In it was written: It is reported among the nations, and Geshem says, that you and the Jews plan to rebel; therefore, according to these rumors, you are rebuilding the wall, that you may be their king. And you have also appointed prophets to proclaim concerning you at Jerusalem, saying, ‘There is a king in Judah!’
Now these matters will be reported to the king. So come, therefore, and let us consult together” (Nehemiah 6:5-7).
If these men were really interested in getting together with Nehemiah, then they might have revised their proposal to accommodate him by offering to move their meeting to a more convenient date, time, or location. After all, these men were surely skilled in the art of political compromise and the ability to get things done- if that’s what they really wanted.
Well, as it turned out, a meeting with Nehemiah was not what they really wanted- this request was simply a means to an end as evidenced by the way in which they delivered their fifth and final message: “Finally, Sanballat sent an official to me with an unsealed letter” (CEV).
So what was the significance of sending Nehemiah an open letter? Well, this delivery method was designed to send a subtle (but clear) message to Nehemiah on a number of different levels- and we’ll examine one of the intended effects behind this delivery option next.
“Sanballat sent me this same message a fifth time by his aide, who had an open letter in his hand. In it was written: It is reported among the nations–and Geshem agrees–that you and the Jews plan to rebel. This is the reason you are building the wall. According to these reports, you are to become their king and have even set up the prophets in Jerusalem to proclaim on your behalf: ‘There is a king in Judah.’
These rumors will be heard by the king. So come, let’s confer together” (Nehemiah 6:5-7 HCSB).
So why would Sanballat send Nehemiah an unsealed letter? Well, one commentator explains the “message behind this message”…
“In ancient Persia, letters that were sent to people of equal or greater rank and importance to the sender were typically flattened and sealed at the edges, as a measure of security and as a symbol of reverence.
Here, Sanballat sends to Nehemiah an open letter, which signified that he viewed Nehemiah to be of lesser import than himself, deliberately displaying contempt for him. Nehemiah, due to his position in the Persian court, was highly familiar with the political traditions of the day and would have understood the meaning of such a gesture.” (1)
Another commentator observes…
“Although official communication was always sealed and secured, Sanballat sent his message unsealed, knowing that it would be ‘accidentally’ read by many during its delivery. What did the letter say? It accused him of rebellion and insurrection against the king who’d appointed him as governor.
It was actually a brilliant plan, for as the content of the letter circulated, there would be two opposite but equally destructive conclusions: Those who believed the things written in the letter were true would turn against Nehemiah, and those who didn’t believe would become frightened at the possibility of these false accusations bringing a military response and would stop working on the wall immediately.” (2)
So the thinly veiled message delivered to Nehemiah was essentially this:“So you want to try and ignore us and tell us that you’re ‘too busy’ to come and speak with us? What do you think about this: We’ve heard that you have undertaken this rebuilding effort in order to revolt against the government and install yourself as king.
In fact, we’ve heard that you have supposedly appointed prophets to announce that you will be the new king in Judah. This is eventually going to get back to Artaxerxes, so we suggest that you get together with us and talk this over.
(1) A Commentary on the Old and New Testaments by Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown, Nehemiah 6:5-9
(2) Daniel, Ron Study Notes: Nehemiah 6:1-19 http://www.rondaniel.com/library/16-Nehemiah/Nehemiah0601.php
“…The word is out among the nations–and Geshem says it’s true–that you and the Jews are planning to rebel. That’s why you are rebuilding the wall.
The word is that you want to be king and that you have appointed prophets to announce in Jerusalem, ‘There’s a king in Judah!’ The king is going to be told all this–don’t you think we should sit down and have a talk?” (Nehemiah 6:6-7 MSG).
While the message contained within this unsealed letter was unmistakably intended to intimidate Nehemiah, this chosen method of delivery was designed to achieve another purpose.
You see, this letter represented a clear attempt to engage in what we might refer to as “character assassination” today. And just as is true in our current day, such efforts often begin with thinly veiled statements like, “There is a rumor going around…” or, “Everyone is talking about…” or, “It has been reported…”
We might also use the word “slander” to characterize this attempt to coerce Nehemiah into leaving the Jerusalem rebuilding effort to attend this proposed meeting. The concept of “slander” refers to an attempt to communicate a false statement that is designed to damage someone’s reputation.
In choosing to deliver the contents of this letter in a way that it could be seen and read by everyone who handled it, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem made a calculated attempt to neutralize Nehemiah by slandering his character. But even if that attempt failed, they would still derive the benefit of establishing a question regarding Nehemiah’s true motive in the minds of all who read this message.
While similar strategies are commonly employed within media reports, press releases, blog posts, business relationships, and the political realm today, one thing has not changed since the days of Nehemiah: a false report is still a false report no matter how many people choose to repeat it. The reality was that these accusations against Nehemiah were false- and even if every surrounding nation repeated this same information, that would still not make it true.
So in taking this approach, Nehemiah’s opponents were effectively returning to a tactic they had previously utilized at the beginning of these rebuilding efforts: “…What is this thing that you are doing? Will you rebel against the king?” (Nehemiah 2:19).
This attempt to slander Nehemiah and launch a “smear campaign” against him reminds us that an enemy (spiritual or otherwise) may continue to utilize the same playbook even if those plays have proven unsuccessful in the past.
“…It has been reported throughout the nations, and Geshem has confirmed it, that you and the Jews are planning to rebel. That’s why you’re rebuilding the wall. According to this report, you want to become their king. You’ve appointed prophets to announce about you in Jerusalem, ‘There’s a king in Judah!’ This report will get back to the king. So let’s talk about this” (Nehemiah 6:6-7 GW).
When confronting a persistent or dangerous animal that has taken up residence in a place where it does not belong, an exterminator may choose to fill that animal’s hiding place with smoke as a tool to force it into an area where it can be captured and safely controlled.
This technique has proven so effective that the concept of “smoking someone out” has worked its way into our modern vocabulary as a means of expressing the idea of forcing someone into a place of vulnerability.
In a sense, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem made a similar attempt to “smoke Nehemiah out” by disseminating a rumor regarding the real motivation behind his efforts to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall.
The idea was that even if Nehemiah had no interest in attending their proposed meeting, he might agree to their request in an attempt to protect his reputation. That choice would effectively place Nehemiah in an area of vulnerability where he might be captured and/or safely controlled.
So with that, let’s consider how Nehemiah might have responded to this message…
- Nehemiah might have attempted to “fight fire with fire” by making a few thinly veiled accusations of his own. Since Sanballat, Geshem, and Tobiah seem to have been fairly well-known public figures, Nehemiah might have pursued a political solution by engaging in “mud-slinging” or political dirty tricks. However, its highly unlikely that a God-honoring man like Nehemiah would have resorted to such underhanded tactics.
- Since Nehemiah was acting on a lawful decree, he might have utilized his authority as governor to detain Sanballat and/or his associates. However, the end of this chapter will demonstrate that there were certain disadvantages associated with such a choice.
- Finally, Nehemiah could have chosen to do nothing in the hope that this problem would go away or fix itself.
So it appeared that Nehemiah was faced with a difficult choice- he could stay and continue the work while his enemies treated him like a public piñata or he could elect to defend himself and face the potential danger associated with that choice. We’ll take a look at Nehemiah’s decision next.
“Then I sent to him, saying, ‘No such things as you say are being done, but you invent them in your own heart'” (Nehemiah 6:8).
Nehemiah was fully aware of the agenda behind the summit meeting proposed by the coalition of leaders who sought to disrupt the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall. Because of this, he also understood that it was useless to attempt to defend himself against the rumors of insurgency that supposedly involved him.
For example, Nehemiah might have elected to accept this invitation and begin collecting evidence to substantiate his innocence. He could have discussed the original report he received concerning the conditions in Jerusalem and his subsequent discussion with the king. He might have mounted an elaborate defense complete with written depositions, character witnesses, and the testimony of those who could vouch for his innocence.
Unfortunately, none of those things would have served to vindicate Nehemiah in the eyes of men like Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. You see, these men were not interested in facts or evidence- their real agenda involved putting a stop to the work that Nehemiah was leading. This alleged rumor was simply a tool to help achieve that purpose.
Centuries later, Jesus faced a similar challenge in responding to another group of men whose real agenda did not include a pursuit of the truth concerning Him: “They said, ‘If You are the Messiah, tell us.’ But (Jesus) said to them, ‘If I do tell you, you will not believe. And if I ask you, you will not answer'” (Luke 22:67-68 HCSB).
So to address these thinly-veiled accusations, Nehemiah chose to respond with a straightforward denial while continuing to move forward with the work that God had given him to do. In considering this response, one commentator provides us with an important piece of practical insight: “We must never omit any known duty for fear it should be misconstrued; but, while we keep a good conscience, let us trust God with our good name.” (1)
Finally, if Nehemiah replied with an open letter of his own then those who read Sanballat’s original message would naturally have an opportunity to see his response. In flatly stating that these rumors were nothing more than “…a figment of your imagination” (NET), Nehemiah’s answer might then have afforded those readers with a good laugh and serve to neutralize any damage that Sanballat’s original letter might have caused.
If that was the case, then it seems that Nehemiah elected to employ a Biblical principle found within the book of Proverbs: “Answer a fool according to his folly, Lest he be wise in his own eyes” (Proverbs 26:5).
(1) Henry, Matthew Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible Nehemiah 6:1-9
“For they all were trying to make us afraid, saying, ‘Their hands will be weakened in the work, and it will not be done.’ Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands” (Nehemiah 6:9).
Nehemiah’s opponents pursued a strategy that sought to instill a sense of fear that would pressure him from moving forward on a project they wanted to eliminate. Their example reminds us of the importance of carefully considering the motives of those who seek to motivate us.
You see, its possible to find ourselves in a situation where we no longer base our decisions on what God has called us to do or even what we’d like to do. Instead, our choices and decisions may be shaped and molded by what others think we should do.
Fortunately, the Scriptures provide us with some checks and balances that can help us make good decisions in situations where we experience such pressures. For example…
- Are we being encouraged to pursue a God-honoring course of action? “Blessed is the man Who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, Nor stands in the path of sinners, Nor sits in the seat of the scornful; But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1-2).
- Is there a person who holds a legitimate position of spiritual authority involved? “Obey those who rule over you, and be submissive, for they watch out for your souls, as those who must give account. Let them do so with joy and not with grief, for that would be unprofitable for you” (Hebrews 13:17).
- Is there a person who holds a legitimate position of civil authority involved? “Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God” (Romans 13:1).
- Do we have enough information to make a wise and informed decision? “Without deliberation, plans go wrong; but with many advisers, they succeed” (Proverbs 15:22 CJB).
- Are we feeling pressured to simply go along with the crowd? “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).
- Is there an attitude of Christ-like love? “For the love of Christ compels us…” (2 Corinthians 5:14).
Remember that Nehemiah sought God for the strength to continue the work he was called to do. A similar response can help us respond appropriately to those who may seek to motivate us to do otherwise.
“Afterward I came to the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was a secret informer; and he said, ‘Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you; indeed, at night they will come to kill you'” (Nehemiah 6:10).
There are a number of ways in which we might identify a person like Shemaiah. For many modern-day readers of this account, the phrase, “a wolf in sheep’s clothing” is one that may come to mind for as we’ll see, Shemaiah was someone who was very different from what he appeared to be.
This incident began with Shemaiah’s disclosure of some seemingly critical information: a group of assassins were planning to execute Nehemiah under the cover of darkness. Since similar threats had already been made against those who were laboring to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall (Nehemiah 4:11-12), this report certainly seemed plausible.
Shemaiah then presented Nehemiah with a proposed solution: “Let us meet together inside the Temple of God and bolt the doors shut” (NLT). This suggestion would allow Nehemiah to utilize the temple as a kind of “safe house” or sanctuary where he might find protection from those who sought to kill him.
While this may sound like a perfectly reasonable suggestion, there were two serious issues involved with this plan. First, it would have set a bad example for those who were still engaged in the remaining work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall. After all, if the project leader sought to hide while everyone else was busy carrying on the work, the remaining laborers might then be tempted to say, “If Nehemiah doesn’t feel safe outside then why should we remain here?”
However, there was a second (and more important) problem with this plan. That issue involved the fact that it was illegal for a person like Nehemiah to enter the Temple. You see, the Scriptures restricted entry to that area to a specific group of people- those men who were explicitly called to be priests. According to the Old Testament book of Numbers, “Anyone else who comes near the sanctuary must be put to death” (Numbers 18:7 NIV).
If Nehemiah had agreed to follow this advice, he would have effectively signed his own death warrant- and to serve as the agent of his own execution was something that would have suited his opposition quite well.
Unfortunately for Shemaiah, it was this very suggestion that ultimately led to his undoing.
“And I said, ‘Should such a man as I flee? And who is there such as I who would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in!'” (Nehemiah 6:11).
Fortunately for Nehemiah. this passage implies that he was someone who recognized the limitations of his authority. When he was presented with an opportunity to act in a manner that was contrary to God’s Word in order to neutralize this supposed attempt on his life, he resolutely refused to act upon it.
Instead, Nehemiah replied, “Should someone in my position run from danger? (NLT). You know that an ordinary man like me cannot go into the Holy Place without being put to death (ERV). I refuse to go in” (CJB). In light of this response, it seems that Nehemiah understood that such an act would be inconsistent with his leadership position as well as the commandments of Scripture.
It was then that Nehemiah came to a critical realization concerning Shemaiah, a man who supposedly served as a representative of God…
“Then I perceived that God had not sent him at all, but that he pronounced this prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. For this reason he was hired, that I should be afraid and act that way and sin, so that they might have cause for an evil report, that they might reproach me” (Nehemiah 6:12-13).
This passage is much more important than it may appear at first glance. On the surface, it may seem as if Shemaiah was little more than a man who was hired to use his influence to derail a project that two political leaders wanted to eliminate. But if we consider this incident more closely, we’ll discover that Shemaiah’s attempt to motivate Nehemiah in this manner provides us with a number of lessons that are highly applicable in our 21st century world.
First, Shemaiah must have been someone who seemed trustworthy (at least at first), for given the opposition Nehemiah was facing, it would have been foolish for him to visit a person of questionable character in his or her own home.
Next, the fact that Shemaiah represented his statement as a prophetic warning implies that he claimed to speak for God in delivering this message concerning these would-be assassins.
In like manner, there are any number of seemingly trustworthy individuals in our present day who claim to be spokespersons for God as well. How can we tell if such people are telling the truth? We’ll consider some possible answers to that question next.
“I recognized the fact that God had not sent him, for he had spoken the prophecy against me as a hired agent of Tobiah and Sanballat. He had been hired to scare me so that I would do this and thereby sin. They would thus bring reproach on me and I would be discredited” (Nehemiah 6:12-13 NET).
A genuine “prophet” can be identified as someone who possesses the ability to provide God’s direction or convey divinely-inspired information regarding a particular situation or future event. However, Nehemiah quickly realized that even though Shemaiah was someone who appeared to speak for God, he really wasn’t what he professed to be.
The trigger that alerted Nehemiah to this reality was the fact that this alleged prophet suggested a course of action that was clearly contrary to the Word of God. In much the same manner, there may be other individuals who also claim to have “messages from God” today- and the way to verify the authenticity of anyone who claims to speak for God remains the same as well.
A message that claims to be prophetic but is contrary to the Scriptures cannot come from God. The New Testament book of 1 John expands on this idea when it tells us…
“Dearly loved friends, don’t always believe everything you hear just because someone says it is a message from God: test it first to see if it really is” (1 John 4:1 TLB).
The real test of any authentic “God-approved” message is that it must agree with the information that God has already given to us in His Word. A genuine message from God will never lead people away from the truth as found within the Scriptures. In like manner, a person who claims to speak for God must deliver a message that agrees with the Scriptures without any deviation.
For instance, if a person who claims to be a prophet delivers a message that is out of alignment with the Scriptures then there is no need to give that message any further thought- it is definitely not of God. God will never give someone a message that deviates from His Word and a person who claims to speak for God must speak with 100% Biblical accuracy (see Deuteronomy 13:1-4).
So while Shemaiah may have had a reputation as a representative of God, the fact that Tobiah and Sanballat bribed him to deliver this message tells us that he was operating from a profit motive instead of a prophet motive.
“When I thought it over, I realized that God had not spoken to Shemaiah, but that Tobiah and Sanballat had bribed him to give me this warning. They hired him to frighten me into sinning, so that they could ruin my reputation and humiliate me” (Nehemiah 6:12-13 GNB).
One way to guard against the kind of spiritual deception that Nehemiah encountered can be found within the New Testament book of 1 Thessalonians where we’re told, “Test all things; hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). This message reminds us of our responsibility to measure the teachings, ideas, and beliefs we encounter against the Scriptures to confirm their truthfulness and accuracy.
This would also include the counsel and guidance offered by those (like Shemaiah) who are said to represent God. Just as Nehemiah was the target of someone who attempted to deceive him, we may also fall victim to spiritual deception if we choose to accept a teaching or spiritual phenomenon as Scriptural truth without first checking the Scriptures to verify if that is actually the case.
However, this general idea does not only apply to so-called “Christian” organizations that hold clearly unscriptural beliefs. You see, the Bible records a few instances where God-ordained ministers went astray in their beliefs as well. One illustration of this unfortunate reality might be found in the examples of Nadab and Abihu, two men who were called of God to serve as spiritual leaders (Exodus 28:1).
The Scriptures tell us that Nadab and Abihu were among a group of men who actually saw God and even enjoyed a meal in His presence (see Exodus 24:9-11). Yet despite their call to spiritual leadership, these men made a decision to act in a manner that was contrary to God’s instruction, a decision that later cost them their lives (Leviticus 10:1-5).
In the New Testament, we have Paul’s report of a confrontation with the Apostle Peter. Even though Peter was one of Jesus’ original disciples and a man whom God used to author a portion of the Scriptures, Paul said nonetheless, “…when Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him in public, because he was clearly wrong” (Galatians 2:11 GNB).
Later on within that same passage, Paul mentioned another early church leader named Barnabas who was carried away by an attitude of hypocrisy that had developed among certain believers of that time (see Galatians 2:12-13). So while God calls individuals to lead His people, its important to recognize that fallible human beings (even those who may be Godly and well-intentioned) are still capable of making serious mistakes.
“…Tobiah and Sanballat had hired (Shemaiah) to prophesy against me. He was hired to intimidate me into doing this so that I would sin. Then they could give me a bad reputation in order to discredit me.
Nehemiah prayed, ‘My God, remember what Tobiah and Sanballat have done…'” (Nehemiah 6:12-14 GW).
Even though Shemaiah seems to have been recognized as an authentic prophet of God, he clearly made a serious error in attempting to influence Nehemiah in this manner. This unfortunate situation should draw our attention to the fact that every position of spiritual authority is held by a fallible human being.
Because of this, we may encounter situations where a person who holds a legitimate spiritual office has made an error, misjudgment, or poor decision (well-intentioned or otherwise). The manner in which we conduct ourselves in such instances will often reveal much about our own spiritual lives- and a look at Nehemiah’s response can help us make good decisions when confronting such situations today.
For instance, we can first say that Nehemiah was realistic about what Shemaiah had done: “He had been hired to intimidate me…” (NIV). In other words, Nehemiah did not try to explain away Shemaiah’s actions or ignore the truth. Instead, he accepted the reality of the situation and turned to God in prayer.
Next, there is no suggestion that Nehemiah sought to retaliate against Shemaiah for his deception and dishonesty. This serves to remind us of our general obligation to demonstrate respect for the ministerial office that a spiritual leader holds even if that leader has utilized the power of that office in an ill-advised manner.
This should not be taken to imply that we are to remain silent in the face of inappropriate behavior. However, we should recognize that a Christian is generally responsible to act in a respectful and courteous manner when interacting with those in positions of spiritual leadership. As we’re reminded in Romans 13:7, “Pay everyone what is owed… respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due” (NET).
Finally, its clear that Shemaiah had not fully considered the consequences associated with the use of his power and influence in this manner. If he had done so, he surely would have made a different decision. This should alert us to the importance of praying for those in positions of spiritual authority and the need to ask God to provide those leaders with the wisdom, perception, and discernment necessary to make good decisions.
“My God, remember Tobiah and Sanballat, according to these their works, and the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who would have made me afraid” (Nehemiah 6:14).
In considering the proper response to those (like the individuals mentioned here in Nehemiah 6:13-14) who have utilized the power of a spiritual office in an ill-advised manner, a look at the example set by Israel’s King David may also prove helpful.
Prior to his ascension to the throne, David was presented with an opportunity to take the life of King Saul, an adversary who had pursued David relentlessly in an attempt to execute him. When David’s followers encouraged him to act upon what seemed to be a “golden opportunity” to eliminate the very man who sought to take his life, David responded in the following manner…
“…he said to his men, ‘The LORD forbid that I should do this thing to my master, the LORD’s anointed, to stretch out my hand against him, seeing he is the anointed of the LORD'” (1 Samuel 24:6).
While this portion of Scripture has undoubtedly been misappropriated by some spiritual leaders as a method of avoiding uncomfortable questions regarding their choices and decisions, we should remember that our context for this passage focuses on the proper way to interact with those who serve in positions of spiritual authority.
Notice that David’s response was built upon a recognition of God’s sovereign role in appointing individual leaders to their areas of responsibility: “I should not do anything against him, because he is the Lord’s appointed king!” (NCV, see also Romans 13:1-7). In a similar manner, Ephesians 4:11 tells us that God has also appointed various individuals to leadership positions within the church as well: “…He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers…”
In light of these Scriptural truths, our words and actions should be tempered by a sense of respect for God’s role in appointing spiritual leaders to their individual positions of authority, especially when confronting questions of possible impropriety, misconduct, or poor judgment. This, coupled with Jesus’ admonition to “Treat others as you want them to treat you…” (Matthew 7:12 CEV) will help ensure that we set the right example in such instances.
Nevertheless, its important to recognize that there are times when it may become necessary to disassociate from a spiritual leader, a church fellowship, or even an entire denomination. We’ll look at some appropriate methods to do so on an individual level next.
“My God, remember Tobiah and Sanballat for what they have done, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the other prophets who wanted to intimidate me” (Nehemiah 6:14 HCSB).
Nehemiah’s experience with these prophets (a group of individuals who seemingly possessed a God-ordained position of authority) provides us with an opportunity to examine the right way to interact with spiritual leaders who may have acted in an ill-advised manner or those with whom we may disagree.
We can begin with the recognition that there may be instances where strong disagreements can develop between individual Christians, even with those who have been called to leadership positions. For instance, the Scriptures record two such incidents involving the Apostle Paul…
“…Paul said to Barnabas, ‘Let us go back and visit the brothers in all the towns where we preached the word of the Lord and see how they are doing.’ Barnabas wanted to take John, also called Mark, with them, but Paul did not think it wise to take him, because he had deserted them in Pamphylia and had not continued with them in the work. They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company…” (Acts 15:36-39 NIV).
“Now concerning our brother Apollos, I strongly urged him to come to you with the brethren, but he was quite unwilling to come at this time; however, he will come when he has a convenient time” (1 Corinthians 16:12).
These Biblical examples demonstrate that there may be times when we find ourselves in disagreement with those who hold positions of spiritual authority. If the disagreement involves a clearly unscriptural teaching or an action that is unquestionably inappropriate for a God-honoring leader, we would do well to follow the pattern established by Jesus in Matthew 18:15-17…
“…if your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault between you and him alone. If he hears you, you have gained your brother. But if he will not hear, take with you one or two more, that ‘by the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established.’ And if he refuses to hear them, tell it to the church. But if he refuses even to hear the church, let him be to you like a heathen and a tax collector.”
If there is a secondary issue that is serious enough to warrant the departure from a church fellowship, it is best to quietly leave in a manner that minimizes the potential for gossip and division. As Jesus Himself reminds us, “I can guarantee that on judgment day people will have to give an account of every careless word they say” (Matthew 12:36 GW).
The fact that Nehemiah was counseled to act in a manner that was contrary to the Scriptures alerted him to the real agenda behind his meeting with Shemaiah, a man who was alleged to be a prophet: “He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me” (Nehemiah 6:13 NIV).
Nehemiah’s familiarity with the Scriptures enabled him to identify the inconsistencies between the counsel he received from Shemaiah and the teachings of God’s Word. Thus, Nehemiah was able to avoid the trap set by his adversaries and gain some important information about a person who appeared to represent God but really didn’t.
This response has led one commentator to observe, “Nothing substitutes for a knowledge of the Word of God. That is how you can detect error and tell what is wrong.” (1) In the words of another source, “Sometimes a knowledge of the Scriptures can save a man’s life.” (2) It undoubtedly did so for Nehemiah in this instance and may also do so for those who choose to follow his good example today.
Nehemiah then followed by offering this prayer…
“My God, remember Tobiah and Sanballat, according to these their works, and the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who would have made me afraid” (Nehemiah 6:14).
So it appears that Shemaiah wasn’t the only so-called prophet working against Nehemiah- it seems that there were a number of others involved in this effort as well. While we don’t know the extent of Noadiah’s involvement in this conspiracy, it seems reasonable to assume that she must have held a fairly prominent role if Nehemiah felt it necessary to mention her by name.
While there may be a tendency to read an appeal for divine punishment into this prayer request, the reality is that Nehemiah simply asked God to remember what these individuals had done. In other words, Nehemiah did not ask God to take a specific course of action but left room for Him to follow with whatever response He deemed appropriate.
In doing so, Nehemiah served as a living embodiment of a principle that would later be taught by the Apostle Paul in his New Testament letter to the church at Rome…
“Never take vengeance into your own hands, my dear friends: stand back and let God punish if he will. For it is written: ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay’” (Romans 12:19 Phillips).
(1) Stedman, Ray Don’t Vacillate — Perpetuate! http://www.raystedman.org/old-testament/nehemiah/dont-vacillate–perpetuate
(2) Bible Study Textbook Series Ezra, Nehemiah And Esther Copyright 1979 College Press pg. 176
“So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of Elul, in fifty-two days” (Nehemiah 6:15).
So this passage brings us to the end of the initial phase of the Jerusalem rebuilding project. The month of Elul corresponds to the August-September period on a modern-day calendar and this has enabled scholars to calculate that the rebuilding work on the wall of Jerusalem was completed sometime between August 1st and September 21st in the year 444 B.C.
This fifty-two day timeline from initiation to completion is truly extraordinary, especially when we stop to consider that the same walls that had been left in ruins for a century had now been restored in less than two months. But how did the work associated with this project progress so rapidly? Well, we find the answer to that question in the following verse…
“And it happened, when all our enemies heard of it, and all the nations around us saw these things, that they were very disheartened in their own eyes; for they perceived that this work was done by our God” (Nehemiah 6:16).
The explanation for the rapid success of this project can be attributed to the fact that “…this work had been accomplished with the help of our God” (ESV). But the work of reconstructing Jerusalem’s wall did not only serve to benefit the people of Jerusalem- it also had an impact on the people of the surrounding areas as well.
You see, the success of this rebuilding effort was so astonishing that even those who were opposed to this work were forced to acknowledge God’s role in enabling its success. Unfortunately, the reality of God’s unseen involvement in the success of this project did not serve to attract these others to the One who was capable of engineering such efforts. Instead, this tremendous achievement actually had the effect of disheartening the people of the surrounding nations.
This response provides us with some insight into the spiritual attitudes of those who saw this event take place- and much as the Apostle Peter will later go on to observe…
“To you who believe and depend on Him, He is precious; but to you who don’t, remember the words of the psalmist: The stone that the builders rejected has been laid as the cornerstone—the very stone that holds together the entire foundation, and of Isaiah: A stone that blocks their way, a rock that trips them. They stumble because they don’t follow the word of God, as they were destined to do” (1 Peter 2:7-8 Voice).
“Then all our enemies heard that we had completed the wall, and all the nations around us saw that it was finished. So they lost their courage, because they understood that this work had been done with the help of our God” (Nehemiah 6:16 ERV).
While this passage provides us with some insight into the spiritual attitudes of those who lived in the surrounding regions, it also reveals something important about Nehemiah as well. You see, Nehemiah declined to take credit for the success of this project. Instead, he made certain to put the credit where it really belonged by acknowledging that the work had been completed “…with the help of our God.”
Yet despite the overwhelming success of this rebuilding effort, Nehemiah chapter six ends in a somewhat unusual manner…
“Also in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and the letters of Tobiah came to them. For many in Judah were pledged to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shechaniah the son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah. Also they reported his good deeds before me, and reported my words to him. Tobiah sent letters to frighten me” (Nehemiah 6:17-19).
This curious ending provides us with an idea of the political intrigue that surrounded these efforts to rebuild Jerusalem’s wall- and even though Nehemiah clearly won the “war” associated with the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall, it appears that the skirmishes involving this project continued even after its completion.
For instance, it seems that Tobiah remained on friendly terms with many of the leading figures in Jerusalem despite his staunch opposition to this work. These influential relationships helped provide him with another weapon to utilize in his ongoing attempt to counter Nehemiah’s efforts.
You see, this passage reveals that Tobiah’s in-laws were members of the Jewish community; in fact, it appears that his father-in-law may have been a fairly prominent individual among the families of that area. In addition, Tobiah’s son Jehohanan had married a woman from a Jewish family as well. So Tobiah clearly possessed a number of important relationships within Jewish society of that time through the extended families of his wife and his daughter-in-law.
These relationships offered an incentive for these family members to protect Tobiah and provide support for his agenda. But there was another not-so-subtle reason that may help explain these acts of loyalty- and we’ll look at that reason next.
“In those days the aristocrats of Judah repeatedly sent letters to Tobiah, and responses from Tobiah were repeatedly coming to them. For many in Judah had sworn allegiance to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah son of Arah. His son Jonathan had married the daughter of Meshullam son of Berechiah” (Nehemiah 6:17-18 NET).
In addition to the incentive furnished by the desire to maintain peace within their respective families, there may be another reason to explain the efforts of these nobles on Tobiah’s behalf: “many in Judah were under oath to him” (NIV) or, “many in Judah were pledged to him” (NKJV).
This statement implies that there were a number of people within the Jewish community who maintained business, personal, and/or financial ties with Tobiah by way of a contract, agreement, or some other sort of binding arrangement. So even though Tobiah had already employed the weapons of threat, mockery, and ridicule in his attempt to end the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall, it appears that he also attempted to leverage his business and financial relationships in an effort to counter Nehemiah’s efforts as well.
Now anyone who has been involved in the bargaining process understands that there is a certain amount of “give and take” that occurs within any negotiation. Therefore, a wise negotiator will enter that process with a clear idea of what he or she is willing to give as well as a list of “non-negotiables.” If one party insists on including one of these “non-negotiables,” the second party must then be willing to decline the opportunity to enter an agreement.
Unfortunately, it appears that the “non-negotiable” list of the people mentioned in this passage did not include support for Nehemiah or his God-ordained initiative. Their response serves to remind us of the negative pressure that our business, financial, and interpersonal relationships may sometimes exert upon our spiritual decisions.
For these people, the drive to protect a business, financial, or interpersonal relationship with Tobiah was apparently more important than support for the God-ordained effort to rebuild the wall that protected their capital city. Thus, they serve to illustrate an important Biblical admonition…
“…people who long to be rich soon begin to do all kinds of wrong things to get money, things that hurt them and make them evil-minded and finally send them to hell itself. For the love of money is the first step toward all kinds of sin. Some people have even turned away from God because of their love for it, and as a result have pierced themselves with many sorrows” (1 Timothy 6:9-10 TLB).
“Also they reported his good deeds before me, and reported my words to him. Tobiah sent letters to frighten me” (Nehemiah 6:19).
It seems that there was a considerable amount of “shuttle diplomacy” that took place between Nehemiah and Tobiah in the period following the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall. But while there may have been a lot of “shuttling” between these parties, there wasn’t very much diplomacy, for those who served as intermediaries between these men held a vested interest in promoting Tobiah’s agenda at Nehemiah’s expense.
You see, those who delivered Tobiah’s messages, “…kept reporting to me his good deeds and then telling him what I said. And Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me” (NIV). This indicates that these individuals served as little more than lobbyists who were engaged in an attempt to “sell” Tobiah’s agenda by emphasizing his various humanitarian efforts.
But while Tobiah may have performed a number of good deeds on behalf of others, that was not the issue- the issue involved his opposition to the God-initiated work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall.
This tactic is commonly recognized today as a variation of the “good cop/bad cop” strategy, an investigatory technique that utilizes one confrontational interrogator and a second, more sympathetic investigator who work together to obtain some needed information. In this instance, Tobiah served as the “bad cop” through his repeated attempts to threaten and intimidate Nehemiah while his representatives played the “good cop” role in reporting his positive characteristics.
Tobiah also seemed to regard these emissaries as members of his own personal intelligence-gathering force for “They… would report back to him anything I would say” (MSG). This tells us these individuals were not acting as intermediaries or peacemakers- they were providing actionable intelligence that Tobiah could use in his efforts to frighten or intimidate Nehemiah.
Those who have experienced the regret of discovering that a piece of confidential information has fallen into the wrong hands can certainly identify with Nehemiah’s experience in this passage. His encounter with these envoys helps to remind us of the need to utilize care in our conversations with others, especially with those who are relatively unknown to us.
So now that the work of rebuilding Jerusalem’s wall has been completed, the focus of this Biblical book will begin to move away from the efforts of those who attempted to counter Nehemiah’s work.
But Tobiah will reappear once more before we reach the end of this Biblical book- and we’ll find that Nehemiah’s response to his reemergence will be considerably less diplomatic.