Learning From—Nehemiah – Ray Stone

Ray Stone

The occasion: Rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem after the destruction of war and a long exile.

Judah, the Southern Kingdom in the days of the split kingdom, had been conquered by the Babylonians and its population exiled in Babylon, 2 Kings 25, around 586 BC. After about 50 years, Babylon herself had been defeated by the Persians, who “inherited” the Jewish expatriates and a few years later allowed them to “repatriate.” 2 Chronicles 36:23 records the proclamation of Cyrus, King of Persia. Ezra 1 gives the subsequent historical return to their homeland. This return consisted of three distinct migrations, each with its respective goal: The first, led by Zerubbabel, rebuilt the Temple and re-established Jewish worship surrounding it (Ezra chapters 2-6). The second, under Ezra, aimed to rebuild the city as well as the peoples’ morality (Ezra chapters 7-10). The third and final migration with Nehemiah at its head took on the project of rebuilding the city walls, necessary to make the city defendable against her enemies.

And enemies she had— an entire Samaritan army (Neh. 4:1) led by two men named Sanballat and Tobiah (Neh. 2:10). They had been taking full advantage of Jerusalem’s helplessness with frequent raids, and didn’t like the idea of a wall which could shut them out. Of course, the real enemy was Satan, being fronted by them. His concern was that if the Jews had the Temple, and the city, and the means to defend them, then God could continue working through them to bring His Savior into the World—the very One of whom it had been prophesied that He would “bruise Satan’s head,” (Gen. 3:15). So the Devil wasted no time marshaling his forces against Nehemiah’s efforts.

Sanballat and Tobiah at first didn’t take the Israelites seriously, and contented themselves with ridicule (Neh. 4:2) They mocked, “what are these feeble Jews doing? Will they fortify themselves? …Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish?” (v. 3) “Even that which they are building, if a fox go up, he shall break down their stone wall.”

Lest you think mockery an ineffective weapon, consider that Satan continued to use it through the ages. Even at the cross, when the Devil had won the battle (“bruised Christ’s heel”, Gen. 3:15) he still threw vicious ridicule at Jesus in Matthew 27:42. “He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe on Him.” Luke 23:35 “The rulers also scoffed at Him, saying, He saved others; let Him save Himself.” On the birthday of the church, when the Apostles received the baptism of the Holy Spirit and began to speak by inspiration, they were confronted first of all with mockery: Acts 2:13 “They’re just filled with new wine!” At Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill in Athens, “some mocked.” Peter assures us “In the last days mockers will come with mockery, saying, where is the promise of His coming…?”

To this very day Satan wields this tool—and most effectively. A “born-again Christian” who believed in modern-day miracles with all its trappings said to me once, “It’s a mighty poor kind of Christianity you follow. Got no Holy Spirit, got no miraculous gifts, got no tongue-speaking, got no direct word from God—what good is it?” Answering that kind of ridicule borders on “casting your pearls before swine,” (Matt. 7:6). And the devil says to us today, through his front-men, “You’re living a pipe-dream—there’s no way you can make even a little dent in false religions, nor stem the tide of evil all around us. You’re like the little boy with his thumb in the dike! Why even bother trying to teach others, or bringing any sort of influence for good? The odds against you are overwhelming; you may as well just give it up.”

Well, Nehemiah shrugged off discouragement, ignored ridicule—and kept working on the wall (Neh. 4:6). “So we built the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto half the height thereof: for the people had a mind to work.” And there’s the key. They had a goal, and the determination to work toward it. As should we: Don’t dwell on the undeniable prevalence of sin in the World, the multiplicity of false religions against which we struggle—don’t be overwhelmed by numbers or odds. God saves people one at a time; remember Nehemiah built that wall one brick at a time! That’s our God-assigned job: work with people one at a time; teach, one at a time. Regardless of appearances, it isn’t hopeless. Matthew 13:33 illustrates God’s way of overcoming the World: Like leaven, spreading through dough one small molecule at a time, unseen, unnoticed, oblivious to opposition, until finally one day the entire lump has been transformed.

Sanballat and Tobiah, realizing ridicule wasn’t getting it done, turned to open opposition (Neh. 4:8). “They conspired all of them together to come and fight against Jerusalem”—rallied locals to openly attack the workers. But it’s important to notice that their intent was not so much annihilation as harassment. Reasonably, they saw more profit in helpless Jews than dead ones! Their attack was “to cause confusion therein”, hoping it would draw their attention and resources away from the wall and to their own self-defense. Nehemiah realized that as well, and took measures to accomplish both: He assigned half his workers to supervise and distribute their weaponry, while the others continued work on the wall. They, too, were set for defense as well as construction: the typical worker “with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other held his weapon,” (Neh. 4:17). They slept fully clothed, keeping their weapons with them even when they went to get a drink of water (v. 23). They were a determined people and it paid off. The threatened attack never came; the wall was built, with “no breach left therein,” (Neh. 6:1). They weren’t done; the gates and doors had yet to be mounted, but their accomplishment to this point was remarkable—and scary, to their enemies without.

Ridicule and physical opposition both are at least overt, open—evidencing a degree of honesty in that there is no effort to conceal or camouflage the intent; but even that was about to change from a “roaring lion,” 1 Pet. 5:8, to a “wolf in sheep’s clothing” (Matt. 7:15). Sanballat sent an invitation to Nehemiah, to come down and discuss the situation with him. The suggested site was a village in the plain of Ono, which also suggests Nehemiah’s answer: “Oh, no.” When an enemy begins acting like a friend for no apparent reason, it’s a red flag. Nehemiah saw that; “They sought to do me mischief,” he said, (Neh. 6:2). So his reply amounted to “There’s nothing to discuss; it would be a waste of time—I have better things to do!” and continued the work.

Sanballat was wily: His next attempt was clever, pretending concern for the welfare of the Israelites. He turned up with a letter in hand, claiming reports from “All the nations around here” that “you’re building the wall so you can rebel against the Persian king, and set up your own little kingdom.” “We don’t believe it ourselves, but this letter is about to be sent to the King,” he said, (Neh. 6:5-7). “We want to help you out; warn you about some nasty rumors going around!” He just neglected to add, he was spreading them himself! The purpose, once again, was to discourage them from finishing the wall, for fear their king back in Persia would get the wrong idea.

But Nehemiah refused to be intimidated, and the work neared completion. Sanballat was getting desperate, and came up with one last scheme designed to discredit Nehemiah in the eyes of his own people: He used a spy in Nehemiah’s camp to deliver a “prophecy” about an assassination attempt coming, that could only be thwarted by hiding in the Temple itself, Neh. 6:10.

Now, only priests were allowed to enter into the Temple proper; it would be a grievous sin for Nehemiah to do so. Nehemiah saw through this ruse as well, realizing “This was to make me sin, so they’d have material for an evil report to reproach me,” (Neh. 6:13) and flatly refused: “I will not go in.” “If I have to sin to be safe, I’d rather stay in danger.” The assassination attempt, of course, failed to materialize; the work continued, and the final touches were put on the wall.

And so closes the account of the building of the walls of Jerusalem. The job was finished in spite of all, complete with defensible gates and doors, chapter 7, finally enabling a modest but important restoration of the nation of Israel and the Law of God.

So what do we learn from Nehemiah?

  1. Satan only attacks those he’s afraid of. When he sends trouble, consider his efforts a back-handed compliment! (cf. Job 1:6-12).

  2. Ridicule will come as surely as God’s work is attempted; count on it, recognize it, and refuse to be discouraged by it—remember, we’re building “one brick at a time”.

  3. There are worse things than ridicule or open animosity. The treachery of one pretending to be a friend is far, far worse: (Psa. 55:12-14).

  4. Be “wise as serpents but harmless as doves,” Matt. 10:16. A wise Arab once said “Trust in Allah, but tie your camel.” Be aware of the potential for evil or discouragement from any quarter: Don’t expect it, don’t look for it, don’t assume it’s there; but be prepared for it.

  5. Sin is never justified: Not for self-protection, not for a desired end, not for anything. If sin or failure are your only alternatives, choose “failure”—and leave it in God’s hands. He can bring good out of it.

Learn from Nehemiah!

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Author: Editor

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