Date: 08 May 2016
Text: Nehemiah 4
Last week we looked at the actual rebuilding of Jerusalem by the huge workforce that Nehemiah had assembled for the task. Despite their different backgrounds and skills, these workers worked together in a harmonious way and despite the nobles of Tekoa refusing to work under their supervisors, everyone seemed to get on with each other and pull together, there being no reports of dissent or argument. As we also saw last week there were 39 different teams of people working on 41 separate parts of the project; a project that included rebuilding towers, gates, buildings and dwellings. So big was this project that over 42000 people were needed to carry out the work. Rather interestingly we aren’t told that there were any amongst that huge crowd with building knowledge or skills. Instead, we are told that they were a mix of priests, merchants, goldsmiths, a perfume maker and sons and daughters. Despite the size of the project and the apparent lack of the necessary skills, they worked together, with the whole project founded on prayer.
Despite the size of the workforce no one seemed to have ignored Nehemiah or gone against his authority; the collective being more important than the individual, something that we have seen recently in the world of football where the Premier League has been won by Leicester City, a team without mega stars as we understand that term today.
Opposition - 1
Although we didn’t see any dissent or opposition in Nehemiah 3, we did meet some potential opponents in 2:10 and 2:19 when we met Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem. They were very much opposed to what Nehemiah was trying to achieve and as Nehemiah tells us in 2:10, “When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this [that is the rebuilding project], they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.” Later in 2:19 we read that “they mocked and ridiculed us. ‘What is this you are doing?’ they asked, ‘Are you rebelling against the King?’” Notice that at this point the opposition seems to consist not only of mockery and ridicule but also of a suggestion of rebellion against the King. At this stage though there doesn’t seem to be any physical threat.
We meet Sanballat again at the very beginning on Nehemiah 4 and his mood doesn’t seem to have changed; he still hates God and the Jews and is very much against the building up of Jerusalem’s defences. Nehemiah tells us that, “When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews...” (4:1). He may have been angry but for now Sanballat seems to have restricted his opposition and anger to ridicule and nothing else. He did however go on in 4:2 to continue his mocking tone with claims with comments about “feeble Jews”, the offering of sacrifices, finishing the job in a day and bringing life back to the heaps of rubble that they City had become. That comment about sacrifices is interesting since typically major construction projects were dedicated with sacrificial rituals, foundation sacrifices being a well known feature in the ancient Near East. The comment about bringing life to the stones is also important since it infers that Nehemiah intended to re-use stones that had formed parts of the original walls. Sanballat’s comments were based on two factors. Firstly, there was another Near Eastern idea that said stones blackened by fire were cursed and could not be reused as building material. Secondly, because they had been damaged by fire the burnt limestone from the previous walls would have been too unstable and fragile to reuse. Nehemiah and his team were to prove them wrong on all counts. Sanballat’s friend and colleague Tobiah was equally mocking in his assessment of what Nehemiah was trying to achieve. He is reported to have said, “…even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!” (4:3). In such situations we generally remember that old saying, “stick and stones…” and ignore the offending comments. However, constant ridicule can cut deeply and cause discouragement and despair. That is exactly what Sanballat, Tobiah and the others wanted; they wanted to try to dissuade the Jews from re-building Jerusalem’s walls and they were prepared to say anything to achieve that.
Response - 1
It is when we come to 4:5-6 that we see Nehemiah’s initial response. It would have been easy for Nehemiah, and anyone else who heard these mocking comments, to have responded in a similar way, by hurling insults and mocking Sanballat and his friends. However, Nehemiah remained silent, silent that is before men. Instead he immediately turned to prayer and gave the problem to God. Do we do that? Is our instant reaction to criticism and ridicule to fight back verbally, or do we do what Nehemiah did and turn to God in prayer? There is no introduction to this prayer; we read the insults and ridicule in 4:1-3 and then immediately come, perhaps unexpectedly, to this prayer. Let me read it to you since it’s important to see how Nehemiah dealt with this: “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’s wonderful prayer contains similarities with (at least) two other Old Testament prayers. In Psalm 123:3-4 the Psalmist prays “Have mercy on us, Lord, have mercy on us, for we have endured no end of contempt. We have endured no end of ridicule from the arrogant, of contempt from the proud.” In Jeremiah 18:23 the prophet prays in similar fashion “But you, Lord, know all their plots to kill me. Do not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger.” Whilst Nehemiah is taking his problem to God in prayer and seeking His help, it doesn’t seem to be his usual style of prayer. In fact Nehemiah seems angered by this opposition and so, rather than taking that anger out on those around him, he offers a prayer asking God to deal harshly with his enemies. That may seem strange to us to pray an angry prayer but surely it is better to do that than display our anger in any other way. If we follow Nehemiah and take our problems to God then I’m sure that He will deal with the matter in His time and give us peace in our hearts and remove the sort of anger and stress that Sanballat and friends were trying to bring to Nehemiah’s heart.
Having spoken to God in prayer Nehemiah then turned his mind to the task at hand, the rebuilding of the walls. Remember that one of his initial motivations was to provide a defence for the Holy City since without a wall the City was extremely susceptible to attack from people such as Sanballat. Notice though that they didn’t build a full wall in some sections whilst ignoring other sections. They rebuilt it “till all of it reached half in height” (4:6a). In that way the City at least had some defence even if it was only from a half-height wall; Nehemiah no doubt believed that half a wall was better than no wall at all! Not only did they get half a wall built round the entire City but “the people worked with all their hearts” (4:6b). I get the feeling that Sanballat’s insults backfired on him since they may well have motivated the people to work harder and show him just how wrong he was to write them off as “feeble Jews”.
Opposition – 2
Sadly this matter wasn’t settled that easily. The actions of these “feeble Jews” in re-building these half walls simply made “Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod” (4:7) even more angry. So angry did they become that they began to plot to fight against Jerusalem. I have to wonder if Nehemiah expected such opposition or if it came as a surprise. Surprise or not this latest turn of events put a whole different complexion on things. Verbal opposition is one thing, physical threats something on a totally different scale.
Response – 2
Nehemiah met these latest threats in two ways. Firstly, he says, “we prayed to God” and secondly “posted a guard day and night to meet this threat” (4:9). Once again we see Nehemiah’s first response is to talk to God. Again I have to ask, is that what we do? The threat level had gone up considerably and yet Nehemiah didn’t respond with equally violent threats; he turned to prayer. We can surely learn from that example.
It is only now that we begin to see the people getting worried; previously they seemed relatively content to keep on working putting their faith in God and Nehemiah to guide and protect them. Now though the mood seems to have changed and they have grown worried that they could be attacked at any moment, probably at the weakest point in the wall.
Nehemiah obviously made a quick assessment of the situation and arranged to post fully armed guards near each group of workers. Having made provisions for their physical protection he then reminded them of the protection that God provides by making one of those momentous speeches that great leaders make in times of trouble. He told the people "Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes." (4:14). Nehemiah’s speech reminds me of a similar style of speech made by Winston Churchill in the early stages of the Second World War, apart that is, from Churchill making no reference to God,. The then Prime Minister said this “You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be”. In a similar speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940 Churchill also said “We shall not flag or fail”. That was exactly the attitude adopted by Nehemiah except that he knew he had God on his side!
Nehemiah’s words obviously had the desired effect on both the enemies and the people doing the building work. The enemies heard that Nehemiah was aware of what they intended to do and “God had frustrated it” (4:15). Having been very worried the people were reassured and “we all returned to the wall, each to our own work” (4:15b). It doesn’t matter what situation we face, when we take our problems to God in prayer He is faithful and helps us; we have that assurance that comes from faith in God and knowing that He will always be there with us and for us. Nehemiah knew that and was able to pass on his feeling of assurance and peace to the worried workers.
From that point on Nehemiah assigned half of the workforce to building work and the other half to guarding the workers. These guards were equipped with “spears, shields, bows and armour” (4:16); in 4:18 we read that each of the workers “wore his sword at his side” and later in 4:21 we read that half the workers carried their spears with them as they worked. Nehemiah was determined that nothing, absolutely nothing was going to prevent the rebuilding task to be completed. It is easy to think that working in that way would have slowed progress quite considerably. However, when we take a close look at 4:21-22 we get the impression that the adversity that they faced merely spurred them on to work harder. Those doing the work did so from “the first light of dawn till the stars came out” (4:21). In 4:22 the feeling is that they barely managed to get any sleep at all since the people “can serve us as guards by night and as workers by day”. Health & Safety might have something to say about that were we to attempt to work like that in the 21st century!
A very important fact is highlighted in 4:18b and then again in 4:20, regarding security. You see, the workers were well spread out and since an attack could take place at any time and at any point in the wall, it was important that everyone was able to assist with the defence of the City. So, in much the same way that air raid sirens would warn of bombing attacks in World War 2, a trumpeter was assigned to sound the trumpet and summon the people to the area of attack. Nehemiah suggests that this trumpeter was to be with him at all times, something which indicates to me that Nehemiah always positioned himself at the most likely place to be attacked. However, Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian who was active towards the end of the 1st century AD, writes in Antiquities, his great book of Jewish history, that Nehemiah placed trumpeters every 500 yards around the wall. This seems more logical to me since an attack could have come from any point of the wall and despite his best efforts Nehemiah obviously couldn’t cover every inch of it. Whichever is correct Nehemiah obviously felt it important to take that precaution; but, having done that, notice what he says at the end of 4:20 “Our God will fight for us!” He always involved God in this project and the potential threats that they faced no matter where he was or what the situation. That is something else we can learn from Nehemiah; God is for every hour of every day, not just for an hour on a Sunday morning!
In Nehemiah 4 we see Nehemiah and his workforce facing major opposition to their project. This seems to have started as verbal insults and ridicule which then escalated into physical threats. These threats didn’t go away though. In 6:1-3 we see the three main protagonists continuing to scheme against Nehemiah. However, we’ll come to that on another occasion. There may well be times when we too will face opposition and mockery from those who regard us as weird or Victorian or religious extremists. When that happens we need to react in just the way that Paul describes in Ephesians 6. In Ephesians 6:10 the Apostle tells us to “be strong in the Lord and in His mighty power”. He then adds in 6:11 that we should “put on the full armour of God”. That is exactly what Nehemiah did when he turned to prayer. He didn’t rely on his own power or abilities since he knew that he wouldn’t succeed; he needed the power of God behind him hence his constant seeking of God’s help in prayer. Nehemiah remained faithful to God regardless of all that the enemy threw at him and the problems that they created. When the going got tough he turned to prayer and that is something that we should also do. If we follow Nehemiah’s example and pray more then God will help us and be with us in exactly the same way that He was with Nehemiah.