4 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and 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?”
3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”
4 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. 5 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.
6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.
7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
10 Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”
11 Also our enemies said, “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.”
12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”
13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of 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.”
(Nehemiah 4:1-14 NIV)
Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem as governor. His presence raised the ire of the neighboring officials.
Nehemiah made a late-night inspection of the city walls and gates to see their damage and status first-hand. He then addressed the Jewish leadership and the people, sharing his rebuilding plan. Nehemiah also reminded them of God’s hand of blessing on this task, as well as the blessing of the king. The people agreed and the work began.
Everyone helped, from the high priest down to the ordinary citizens, even those who lived outside the city walls. Each family took responsibility for a portion of the wall or gate closest to their home.
As we open today’s text, we see that as the rebuilding progressed, so did the opposition and threats against God’s people. Verses 1 – 3 capture the mocking and insults of the neighboring officials, once again led by Sanballat and Tobiah.
Nehemiah’s response was to pray to the Lord, requesting God’s justice. Nehemiah did not ask for vengeance, but for the Lord to deflect the hatred back toward those who generated it. Nehemiah was not giving up, but pressing into God’s covenant relationship with His people, asking the Lord to protect His own and deal with the oppression. Nehemiah’s prayer is similar to other prayers in the Psalms (for example, Psalm 68:1-3). The goal is not hatred, but hopeful repentance for those who say such things against God’s people, because the hatred of the enemies is ultimately against the Lord.
Verse 6 is a progress report, showing that the work is proceeding despite the taunts of the enemies.
In verses 7 – 8, the opposition increases to other neighbors and also intensifies. Nehemiah responds by setting up guards around the clock to protect the people (v. 9).
Verse 10 in the NIV is written as a quote, like a saying. Historians tell us that this is actually a chorus, sung while working. In our more recent history, this chorus would be similar to the “spirituals” that the slaves used to sing to express the difficulty of the work and the endlessness of the task at hand. These choruses were not sung in defeat, but as a way to pass the time and keep them going.
Remember that Jerusalem is built across two hills, and all the stones needed for rebuilding the wall were pushed down into the valleys and ravines by the conquering armies. The stones had to be carried uphill, through the rubble of stones and other broken and burned building materials. Also, remember that in parts of the valley, the rubble was so great that Nehemiah could not find a path through it with his horse (2:14).
Verse 11 tells of the continued conspiracy by the enemies to disrupt the rebuilding efforts. Nehemiah reported that the threats were made known to those Jewish people living near the enemies, then reported up to Nehemiah multiple times. This caused a work slowdown and work stoppage in some cases. Nehemiah did not immediately respond to the rumors but did listen to the recurring themes when he saw the effect on the people and the work.
In response to this threat, Nehemiah empowered the men to defend themselves and their city against the possible attacks. Nehemiah stationed the men in the vulnerable parts of the wall, and put their families behind them. Nehemiah armed them and turned them into citizen-soldiers, fighting for their families, giving them a reason to fight and not surrender.
Nehemiah then spoke to the Jewish leaders and the people, reminding them of God’s sovereignty and exhorting them to fight for their families and their land. While the work may have slowed down or even stopped temporarily, this opposition actually emboldened and strengthened the Jewish people to see God at work and fight for what God had given them.
May we not see opposition as a reason to run away or give up, but rather choose to press into the Lord and develop a deeper dependence and relationship with Him.
May today’s passage remind us of God’s love for us and His sovereignty over the affairs of the world.