Preparing to Rebuild
This summer I read the fictional account of the Battle of Thermopylae called The Gates of Fire by Steven Pressfield. The battle between the Greeks and Persians lasted three days in September, 480 BC (35 years before Nehemiah). Persia was invading Greece for the second time, ten years after their defeat at Marathon, and King Leonidas of Sparta was leading an alliance of Greek states defending their land.
In one speech Leonidas summarizes his view of leadership:
“A king does not abide within his tent while his men bleed and die upon the field. A king does not dine while his men go hungry, nor sleep when they stand at watch upon the wall. A king does not command his men’s loyalty through fear nor purchase it with gold; he earns their love by the sweat of his own back and the pains he endures for their sake. That which comprises the harshest burden, a king lifts first and sets down last. A king does not require service of those he leads but provides it to them…A king does not expend his substance to enslave men, but by his conduct and example makes them free.”
Although written in modern language, the sentiment accurately represents what Leonidas would have thought about his role. We could turn to similarly inspiring speeches from military commanders throughout history.
Nehemiah is not raising up an army, but as he prepares to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls, he exemplifies the kind of leadership that inspires and recruits people to a difficult task in the face of opposition. As we analyze his godly leadership, it ought to leave us inspired and strengthened for the work God has called us to accomplish. Those who are united to Christ are drawn to emulate Christ-like leadership.
Read Nehemiah 2:9-20
I. Expect to Face Opposition (9-10)
This is the first mention that Nehemiah had a caravan of the king’s army officers and horsemen with him. He wasn’t just given letters of authority but Artaxerxes sent along a personal security team. This ought to raise our awe in God’s provision and protection.
However, right on the heels of Nehemiah’s optimistic entry into Jerusalem, we learn that his opposition was watching. His presence displeased Sanballat and Tobiah. Sanballat was the governor of Samaria, north of Judah. His name means, “The moon god gives life,” but his sons had names that honored “Yahweh.” Sanballat likely had a syncretistic religion with a superficial appreciation for the God of Israel. He was a “Horonite” which could mean that he was from a town in Moab or Beth-Horon (ten miles northwest of Jerusalem). Most scholars prefer the latter, since his being a “Moabite” is not mentioned.
Tobiah was possibly a local servant of King Artaxerxes, a governor of Ammon (like his grandson), or even Sanballat’s deputy. While governor of Ammon makes the most sense to me, it does mean that we must understand “servant” as having a pejorative connotation. His name means “the Lord is good,” which indicates another syncretistic worshipper of Yahweh. His links to several families in Jerusalem gave him an added sense of authority (6:17-19).
Opposition can arise from anywhere. Nehemiah anticipated it, which is why he asked for letters from the king, and now he knows who they are. That is the best kind of enemy, is it not? The enemy you can identify and keep an eye on is much preferred to those who make you think they are on your side. It’s easy to understand why these governors would be concerned with a rebuilt Jerusalem.
Nehemiah moves forward with his plans despite the resistance. He makes adjustments as needed, but continues to pursue his mission. This is just the beginning of the perseverance and fight we will see from Nehemiah. I think we can learn a lot from his confident persistence.
One thing I hear more and more is that California is a lost cause. There is no hope of recovering the ground that has been lost to liberalism. I wonder if that is what the people in Jerusalem thought. The city walls had crumbled and remain in heaps. The king had called for a cease to the rebuilding. Was there any reason to stay in such a vulnerable region? Maybe they should flee to a safer location, with less opposition, and lower taxes? OK, let’s be honest. California is no Jerusalem, and conservatives have no claim to the state as Israel had to the Promised Land—but the same God is sovereign over both areas!
Some see opposition as justification to leave. Seek more peaceful—greener pastures. Others see opposition as an opportunity to resist. Fighting for what is good and right—the mission of the Church—will always face opposition.
There truly is no escaping the chaos. Remember what we saw in Daniel 7 a few weeks ago? The sea represented the chaos and evil. We have to admit that the sea is not contained on the coastlands. It has flooded every region of this globe. Resistance is literally met everywhere the church resides.
Here’s my point. If Israel couldn’t avoid opposition—even in the Promised Land—why do we think we will ever escape opposition?
The unfortunate reality is that discouraging challenges often arise shortly after moving forward in obedience. We can expect trouble and opposition to come in many forms and to various degrees, especially when seeking to accomplish the will of the Lord. The problem is not the opposition we face, but our readiness to face the opposition.
Betts: When the people of God rise up to do the work of God, it will infuriate the enemies of God. Nehemiah knows this truth, and it is for this reason he acquires the king’s help. As Jesus says, “Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; so be shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Matt 10:16).
We can pray and work together to restore and rebuild locally. We can trust God to provide and protect for his people—even those living in the heart of the enemy’s camp. We look out and think we’re outnumbered, and that is oftentimes the case…physically. But God has a spiritual army that is always superior to the earthly forces aligned against him (2 Kings 6:16-19). God prepares a table in the presence of your enemies (Psalm 23:5)! You have absolutely nothing and no one to fear!
People with the fight of Nehemiah are in short supply today. Carrying out your mission, knowing of the difficulties you will face, is never easy. Trusting the Lord to provide when it seems utterly hopeless might look foolish. But we serve a God who holds the hearts of kings in the palm of his hand. He can change a ruthless character into a compassionate servant.
In light of the opposition a leader anticipates facing, they should continue moving forward, starting with…
II. Conduct a Careful Inspection (11-16)
Nehemiah continues on with his plan to inspect the walls in Jerusalem. But before he does so, he takes time to rest. He waited in Jerusalem for three days before beginning his inspection. We will return to that lesson, but notice what is highlighted multiple times, the secrecy of his work.
Nehemiah tells no one as he gathers information and refines the details. This is why he only took a small group of men with him (probably for guidance), was the only one riding a donkey, and went at night.
Although we do not know for certain, the area he inspects appears to be the north and west portion of the wall which no longer exists. The circumference of the city was probably about 1.5 miles at this time. Nehemiah is gathering as much information as he needs to begin the work with efficiency.
Again, as a leader, Nehemiah is exemplary. He knew the goal of his mission and made it a priority as he meticulously observed. He was patient yet bold. He prayed while he prepared. He worked hard and rested well. He did not shrink back from opposition, but moved forward with courage.
Maybe this is an exciting passage for cartographers and civil engineers. Inspecting the walls and making assessments of the need probably excites fewer people than it bores. So why is it here? What does this section have to do with the average church member?
We should all appreciate those among us who are particularly gifted in this way. Several of you in this church have volunteered countless hours to inspect, repair, restore, refurbish, and renovate this building. We are grateful for your service and use of your skill.
Leaders put in a great deal of time gathering resources and stewarding those resources to accomplish the goal. A lot of that work takes place in secret. Strategizing and planning for a future work can be cumbersome and frustrating, but it remains critical.
Gathering information sets up for the crucial component of gathering people. That begins with the ability to…
III. Deliver a Sense of Inspiration (17-20)
Remember, Nehemiah had just arrived. Most of these men were meeting him for the first time. He obviously made a good first impression which reiterates his leadership skills.
Nehemiah points to the ruins and encourages them to rebuild the walls. He appeals to their dignity. He knows that they are tired of living in these conditions under the derision of their enemies. But he also identifies himself with them (ie., “we”). He personally knows their shame and disgrace and desires to join them in the work (“let us rebuild”).
This will not be easy. The calling is sacrificial. Many will take multiple weeks away from their work and hours away from their homes in order to complete the task. If this is merely the self-serving desire of an ambitious leader, the sacrifice is not worth it.
So Nehemiah explains to them how God has already provided resources and protection for them from the hand of the king. He informed them about the letters from the king and timber from his forest. His audience quickly agrees to “rise up and build.” They were mentally strengthened for the good work. This isn’t merely the rousing speech of a good leader, it is abundantly clear that this is God’s will.
Nehemiah’s speech gave them the courage to join him in the work. No one joins a lost cause. But even when immediate defeat is likely, people find genuine value in contributing to a greater cause that lives on beyond their grave. It helps when the leader has a spine and stands firm against the odds.
In the Battle of Thermopylae, the Greek army was vastly outnumbered. Leonidas decided their best bet was to meet the Persians at the narrow pass of Thermopylae in an attempt to block their advance. Historians figure it was 7,000 Greek soldiers against 100,000-300,000 Persian soldiers. That means the Greek army was between 2-7% of the size of the Persian army. When the Persians taunted that their arrows would black out the sun, the brave Spartan warrior, Dienekes, responded, “Good, then we’ll fight you in the shade!”
Before the battle began the Persian King, Xerxes, sent a message telling Leonidas to “hand over your arms.” Leonidas responded, “Come and take them.” Xerxes waited four days and then started the attack, which lasted three days.
When Leonidas realized the Persians had outflanked them, he dismissed all of his soldiers except 300 Spartans and 700 Thespians. Leonidas only chose men who had living sons because he knew all of them would die. Up to another 1,300 soldiers volunteered to remain as well. So the 7,000 figure was whittled down to 2,300 (1-2% of Persian forces). It is reported that roughly 400 of that number eventually surrendered while the rest of the army fought to the death.
Almost 2000 men remained to fight what they knew was a losing battle! Why? Because they fought for the good of the greater Greek kingdom. They sought to weaken the Persian army and delay them long enough to allow the rest of the Greek States to prepare for battle. They weren’t delusional. They were selfless.
The casualties numbered 20,000 Persians and 2,000 Greeks. The average Greek soldier killed ten men before succumbing to his own death. In the end, it is the legacy of the Spartans that lives on and emboldens modern day soldiers. It’s a story of courage that everyone should read, especially when the odds are stacked us.
Joining Sanballat and Tobiah in jeering and despising the Israelites is Geshem, who was king of the region around the southern border of Judah. These three local rulers—who govern regions to the north, east, and south of Judah—question if Nehemiah is leading a rebellion against the king’s earlier edict. This was the very same tactic that worked the last time Artaxerxes put an end to the project (Ezra 4:12-13).
Nehemiah responded to their taunts with confidence that God would cause them to prosper over their enemies who had no claim in Jerusalem. The strength of his defense served to unite them all the more. His confidence gave them courage.
There opposition was not insignificant. Behind their wickedness, lie the taunts of the Accuser—Satan—who prowls about like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. He seeks to magnify the shame and disgrace believers feel. But, when God’s covenant community remembers who they are in Christ, they can live in the assurance of total success.
There are no lost causes when it comes to building the kingdom of God. Christ has assured the final victory and holds claim to every square inch of this planet!