In our Pastor’s Welcome class I always share my belief that the single greatest outward indicator of your spiritual health is your commitment to the local church. Scripture portrays corporate worship as the primary expression of our faith. If that expression is weak in your life, we can assume it is hiding other, less obvious, struggles. Let me be clear, church attendance doesn’t save you, but not attending church (or frequently switching churches) often reveals growing concerns—whether those concerns are spiritual or moral in nature.
I say that because attending church is one of the first things that we stop doing when we face doubt. A Barna survey found that roughly two-thirds of Christians experience doubt. Out of those who experienced doubt, the most common response was to stop attending church. The lack of fellowship among believers cannot help but have a negative impact upon your faith. On the other hand, those who became more involved in the church, along with reading the Word of God, brought them through their doubts—and, in most cases, they were left with a much stronger faith.
The covenant community has struggled with doubt from the beginning. The prevalence of spiritual warfare exists on several fronts. Temptations arise from the world, the flesh, and the devil. If that represents the greatest threat to our faith, then the stronger they get, the weaker we become. Strengthening opposition inevitably raises doubt in the minds of even the most committed disciples. Overcoming external opposition involves persevering through internal doubts within the context of the covenant community.
Read Nehemiah 4:1-14
I. Seek Divine Justice (1-6)
There is a repeating pattern in this passage that begins with an explanation of what the opposition was up to followed by a combination of prayer and action from Nehemiah and the builders. So this section begins with the jeering and taunting of Sanballat and Tobiah (1-3) followed by Nehemiah’s prayer (4-5) and the commitment to continue building (6).
We noted the beginning of the work in the previous chapter. Now we see the escalation of oppression from their enemies. Sanballat’s displeasure upon Nehemiah’s arrival (2:10) quickly turned into jeering and taunting as the volunteers began to gather (2:19). Now that the building has begun in earnest, he is “greatly enraged” (v.1). His tactics did not change, but he took them to another level, and involved a wider audience (v.2a).
Nehemiah provides several examples of the kinds of things Sanballat said (v.2b). He mocks them for being feeble and incapable of completing such a difficult challenge. He questions their ability and willpower. We can assume these taunts occurred so often that the people did begin to experience some doubts. Later on (v.10) we learn that the people of Judah feared the strength of the builders was failing and the rubble was too much and the work was too great a task for them to complete alone. Those are the doubts that arose after hearing the same taunting questions for several weeks.
Tobiah is like the little scrawny sidekick with a sharp tongue (v.3). You can almost hear his high-pitched voice as he mocks the quality of their work suggesting it will easily topple. The lies of the enemy began to find a foothold. Even though the wall was nine feet wide, they began to doubt its strength. And the support of King Artaxerxes likely minimized any true threat from these local authorities.
Nehemiah prays again (v.4). But this is not simply a prayer for God’s protection as we might expect. He actually prays for God’s just judgment to fall upon their enemies. He is calling upon the Lord to give Sanballat and Tobiah an experience of exile. May their taunts be turned against them. May the very things they mock Israel for become concerns of their own.
His prayer continues and broadens to include their just judgment (v.5). Nehemiah prays that they not experience forgiveness. Some think this is horribly vindictive and misguided. Or maybe this was only acceptable before Jesus taught us to love our enemies and pray for them (Matt. 5:44-45). Modern commentators may sympathize with his anger but they feel the need to correct him. He can be commended for praying rather than taking vengeance into his own hands, but the Christian can never adopt his attitude. Had Nehemiah understood the gospel, he wouldn’t have prayed that way.
Has Nehemiah gone too far in this prayer? We could compare his prayer with the imprecatory psalms. Maybe we shouldn’t sing those psalms (i.e., Ps 137). We sing the psalms in worship, and our Psalter doesn’t skip the difficult ones. Clearly, we are not in agreement with this view.
We believe the psalmists call for justice is perfectly aligned with the new covenant mission as well. To suggest otherwise is to create a massive chasm between the Old and New Testaments. In fact, the cross not only assures believers of their security, it also declares to unbelievers the punishment their sin deserves—and the judgment that awaits those who reject the free offer of the gospel.
That’s not to say we ought to cast off compassion and evangelism and simply pray for the death of the wicked. But we can and should pray that God would put an end to any who stand opposed to the coming of His Kingdom.
Packer The key principle here is stated in Psalm 139:21–22: “Do I not hate those who hate you, O Lord …? I have nothing but hatred for them; I count them my enemies.” The nearer we come to this state of mind, which is a spinoff from the desire that God’s will be done, his kingdom come, and his name be hallowed and glorified, the less problem shall we have with vengeance prayers.
The imprecatory psalms reflect a zeal for God’s will, His holiness, and His glory. To have a problem with Nehemiah’s prayer is to have a problem with a major theme of Scripture—both in the Old and New Testament. The problem is not Nehemiah or Scripture, but the minimization of God’s justice and wrath against sin and wickedness.
In addition to praying, the volunteers continued to build. They focused their attention upon the task and got half of the wall completed. Everyone was working simultaneously and close to the same pace. They received portions of work equal to their capabilities (Ch.3) and enthusiastically set out to accomplish the work.
It is good to seek divine justice as you continue to pursue obedience to your calling. Respond boldly to the injustices committed against you. You do not have to remain passive and calm in the face of persecution. We have already seen Nehemiah’s verbal response to the taunts of his enemies (2:21). We can assume he has not gone silent, but we know that he is praying for their judgment to come. Obviously, there is a time to be silent and a time to speak.
What are the lies that the enemy taunts you with? Where have you been tempted to doubt? When has the work felt overwhelming? Has your ability been called into question or the scope of your mission seemed too great?
Regardless of our outward response, trusting the Lord will always involve prayer. Those prayers may include calls for God’s mercy (Jonah) or they may invoke God’s wrath (Nehemiah). If the Holy Spirit is leading us in prayer, we can be certain to pray in both ways at various times, depending upon God’s will.
Zeal for God’s Kingdom involves the desire for every form of opposition to be removed. In other words, our desire that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven—without hindrance. Opposition to the people of God doing the will of God is opposition to God. And that always results in judgment.
Betts Of course believers should be loving, but we will never love God and others as we should if we do not have a Christlike hatred toward evil.
This passage doesn’t separate the spiritual from the practical. In addition to seeking divine justice Nehemiah also…
II. Set A Guard (7-9)
The enemies multiply as the work proves successful. Enemies were present from the very beginning, but now they are increasing to a concerning level. Sanballat governed Samaria, Tobiah was an Ammonite, Geshem governed the Arabs, and now the Ashdodites enter the alliance. Ashdod was a Philistine city to the west of Jerusalem, which means the Judeans are now completely encircled by opposition. Just as the inhabitants of Jerusalem were beginning to feel a greater sense of security, their enemies grow in number and strength.
Now this coalition of nations begin plotting to fight and confuse the Judeans. They draw up plans to interrupt the work with attacks and threats. They recognize that their taunts are not working. They are going to have to do more.
Nehemiah began praying with others, “We prayed to our God” (9a). We could emphasize the importance of praying corporately, but we should also recognize that prayer did not remove their responsibility to “set a guard”. The blessing of God did not take away from the labor intensive building project they had. Just as their pause in the work did not indicate a lack of trust. They set a guard day and night (9b) in order to protect the work they had already accomplished.
They determine that taking a break from the wall and ensuring no set backs occur is more important than continuing on with the work at that time. We see them resuming the work later in the chapter (v.15), so this 24/7 guard was only temporary based upon the serious level of threat they faced at the time.
Have you heard the story of the man who was stuck on his rooftop during a flood. He continued to pray and trust that God was save him. So he turned down a man in a rowboat. Then he refused the help of a motorboat. Finally, the man refused to grab a rope dangling from a helicopter offering to carry him to safety. After drowning he when to heaven and asked God why he didn’t save him. God said, “I sent you a rowboat a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”
As the opposition was strengthening in number, so were the saints who joined Nehemiah in prayer. This is a sign of a healthy church. It has been said that the family that prays together stays together. The same could be said for the local church.
Pausing work to protect the ground that has been gained is an important aspect of leadership. This was not a pause to rest, although those are important too (2:11), it was a pause to defend. They decided to stand watch. They wanted to be ready for an imminent attack.
Today, this might look like using resources to prepare for potential legal threats. It might look like shifting resources for a time to focus on security rather than renovation. The broader covenant community ought to consider hitting pause on their marketing campaigns in order to strategize our defense. Do we anticipate the challenges we will face in the coming years?
For Nehemiah, his guard was bolstered by shifting people into…
III. Station For Battle (10-14)
The pattern takes a bit of a turn here. We might expect a word about how the coalition of nations responded to Jerusalem’s around-the-clock guard, but instead we gain insight to what the Judeans were thinking. Doubts have crept into their minds (v.10). Their minds are no longer set to the work (v.6), but fear has taken a hold of some as they focus on the enemy.
Maybe this is inevitable. When they were busy, they could tune out the jeers. But now their minds are attentive to the taunts and thinking through the potential threats. Their confidence appears to be waning. It has been said that pessimism in the church is more dangerous than atheism (Brown).
Breneman External pressure amplifies internal weakness.
At the same time, the enemies are ramping up their plan of attack (v.11). Details are coming together and beginning to escape the council. Jews in the area learn of the plans and warn the builders to “return to us” (v.12).
They assume the threat of attack is upon all those who commuted from nearby regions. While the men were standing guard in Jerusalem, the coalition of surrounding nations would attack Jericho or Tekoa. Jerusalem was the most protected, which meant the other regions were vulnerable.
However, Nehemiah counters their threat with a strategic move of his own. He knows that once he sends people home to defend their region, the coalition will attack a weakened Jerusalem. Instead of granting the commuters leave, Nehemiah assigns them to stations of the wall with their weapons in hand (v.13). The 24/7 patrol has escalated to red alert.
At this point Nehemiah gives them another inspiring speech (see 2:17-18). He prepares them to fight. Remember who these men were. They were from various trades and regions. They were not trained for combat anymore than they were trained for construction work. They were ordinary Judeans from different classes, vocations, and regions. This would have been a terrifying situation for most, if not all, of them.
Sanballat was preparing his army in Samaria (v.2). We can assume the rest of the coalition was preparing their army as well. On paper, the situation looks bleak. But, remember, Nehemiah is still the king’s cupbearer. He had authorization from the king to be there. A military attack could have backfired if Artaxerxes was not in support of it. With that in mind, I probably would have dispatched a message to the king seeking military support.
Maybe Nehemiah knew they would not have time to wait for Persian support, so he prepared his team for battle. But notice how he stirs them up to fight. He tells them nothing about the king’s support—just the support of their “great and awesome” Lord. They should remember him and then fight for their family members and homes. Fighting for God and family are great motivators.
A family that is worth dying for is a family that is worth living for. This is true of the gospel as well. Not only did Jesus lay his life down for his sheep (John 10), but he lived a life of perfect obedience on their behalf too (ref?). It is only as we adopt his ongoing mission—in the context of the covenant community—that we begin to overcome internal doubts brought on by external opposition.