Down, But Not Out!
The Word: Nehemiah 4:1-9; 5:1-5; 6:14-16
As Christians, we may meet both internal and external opposition, but with God’s help, we can overcome any obstacle.
· What can you endure for 52 days?
—No running water
—No drinking water
In a “mere” 52 days, the total destruction of the walls all around Jerusalem and its gates had been rebuilt. But those 52 long days had been filled with opposition, threats, and danger. Let’s see how God provided for Nehemiah and his followers.
Nehemiah chapter 3 names various individuals who participated in rebuilding the outer wall around Jerusalem. Each family or group of families worked on the section that was closest to their house, or at least the property where they would eventually live. They were also responsible for repairing any gate located in their section. In addition, individuals from neighboring towns came to help. The extensive nature of the list indicates that Nehemiah kept careful records of the workers and their assignments. It also reveals that this was a community project that required some amount of sacrifice from everyone in order to succeed. The entire description gives us a good understanding of the size and shape of Jerusalem at this period of time. The length of the entire wall must have been approximately two miles.
A. Nehemiah Faces Intense Opposition (Read Nehemiah 4:1-9) The opposition to the project that neighboring governors brought against Nehemiah was intense. Most likely, these groups maintained some influence over Jerusalem, because the city had no official governmental leadership and no wall to protect it. Some of the neighboring countries may even have profited financially by controlling the trade routes to and through Jerusalem. They recognized that if Jerusalem was rebuilt, and Nehemiah installed as the governor, they would lose their power over the city. People in high places sometimes lash out and become abusive when threatened with a loss of power.
The two individuals who were most critical of Nehemiah’s efforts were Sanballat and Tobiah. Sanballat is identified as “the Horonite” (2:10, 19), probably a resident of Beth-horon in Samaria (to the North). Evidence from Egypt indicates he was governor of Samaria. Tobiah is identified (2:10, 19) as “the Ammonite official.” He was governor of Ammon (to the East) under the Persians. Both of these men had positions of power in neighboring territories.
Verses 1-3 describe the steady drumbeat of sarcasm and ridicule that they heaped on the Jews. They criticized the workers, calling them feeble. They pointed out that the project would take a very long time; it could not be finished in a day. They noted that the broken-down stones were nothing more than burned rubble. They predicted that even if the project were finished, it would be so inferior that even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!
What was Nehemiah’s first response to the criticisms? Yes, he prayed. Nehemiah responded to their verbal attack with his own form of verbal weaponry – prayer. Prayer is a spiritual weapon given to us to fight spiritual battles and forces of evil. His prayer began by noting the criticism that was being flung at them: We are despised. Nehemiah then asked God to punish their enemies in the same manner as they were insulting the Jews: “Turn their insults back on their own heads.” He wanted them to experience divine justice for their insults and ridicule.
While Sanballat and Tobiah were physical enemies and eventually enlisted other people groups to fight against Jerusalem’s rebuilding, some would say that discouragement and doubt within the Jewish camp was their biggest enemy.
· How is prayer a formidable force against weapons within our emotions and thought life?
· How do we find the balance between trusting God and taking the necessary precautions against danger? How do we know when it is time to pray, and when is it time to get off our knees and take action?
The remaining verses in chapter 4 reveal how worried Nehemiah was that Jerusalem would be attacked. Read the rest of chapter 4:10-23 to see what Nehemiah and the Jews do.
B. Internal Complaints (Read Nehemiah 5:1-5) Nehemiah is next called upon to deal with an enemy within the camp, Jew against Jew. People were cracking under the pressure of the situation. The stress of trying to feed their families (vv.1-3) and paying taxes (vv. 4-5) was leading people to protest and complain (vv. 1-2), mortgage their property and homes (v. 3), and borrow money and sell family members as slaves (vv. 4-5).
The offenses being committed by wealthy Jews against poor Jews were particularly reprehensible. They were enslaving their own people. They were behaving exactly as the Gentiles had against their people. They were defaming God not only by blatantly breaking His law about usury but, even worse, against their own people. (Usury: the lending of money at an exorbitant rate of interest.)
(Read Nehemiah 5:6-19)
Nehemiah knew that the people would have to make sacrifices in order to complete this enormous building project in a short period of time. However, he never dreamed that some of the wealthier Jews would take advantage of the workers who were now in difficult financial straits. So, he called a public meeting to discuss this crisis (vv. 6-8). He rebuked those who were profiting off the workers, and asked them to return any houses and lands that had been taken and to refund any interest that had been paid (vv. 9-12). He admitted that he, his brothers, and his men had also been loaning money at interest, but he wanted this practice to stop immediately: Let us stop charging interest! (v. 10). To press home his point, he made the lenders take an oath before the priests that they would not do this again and pronounced a curse on anyone who violated his instructions (vv. 12-13). Apparently, they got the message, for there were no further complaints. “Amen” (v. 13) was their verbal agreement with Nehemiah.
Chapter 5 ends with Nehemiah’s account of his own personal practices with regard to governing the people. He never sought to profit off the people. Even though his position as governor entitled him to receive payment and land from the citizens’ taxes, he never asked for it. Instead, he devoted himself entirely “to the work on this wall” (v. 16). He was a leader who knew how to lead.
C. Nehemiah Completes the Wall (Read Nehemiah 6:1-19) As the work on the wall neared completion, Nehemiah was faced with two serious threats. The first was an invitation from the coalition led by Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab to meet for discussion at a town away from Jerusalem. Nehemiah knew their real intent was to do him harm. So he rejected this offer four times (v. 4). The fifth time, they sent a letter accusing Nehemiah of rebellion against the Persian king (vv. 5-7). They claimed he had set himself up as king of Jerusalem by appointing prophets to confirm his status. The coalition threatened to report this to the Persian king. Nehemiah responded by accusing his enemies of lying.
The second threat also came from the coalition (vv. 10-13). They hired a prophet in Jerusalem named Shemaiah, who claimed some men were plotting to assassinate Nehemiah, and his only escape was to hide in the temple. Nehemiah refused to believe him, recognizing that Shemaiah was a false prophet trying to damage his reputation. The Mosaic law stated that only priests could enter the temple, and Nehemiah was not a priest. So he brushed off Shemaiah’s enticement to sin.
Apparently, there were a number of prophets in Jerusalem who were influenced by Tobiah and Sanballat to oppose Nehemiah. Nehemiah asked God to judge these prophets as well as their sponsors for the intimidation and harassment that they were bringing against him.
The mention of the completion of the wall here is one of the highlights in the book. The fact that it was completed in fifty-two days is a testimony to the leadership skills of Nehemiah. Here we see the quality of this gifted leader. He was certainly God’s person for the job.
The completion of the wall immediately changed the political dynamics of the region. Nehemiah was now on a par with his neighboring rivals. He had proved that he was capable of governing a city and standing up to the criticisms of outside groups.
We see in vv. 17-19 that there were still connections between some of the Jerusalem and the outside groups that would continue to cause trouble. Nehemiah had to continually maintain military readiness against the possibility of a surprise attack (7:3). 3 I said to them, “The gates of Jerusalem are not to be opened until the sun is hot. While the gatekeepers are still on duty, have them shut the doors and bar them. Also appoint residents of Jerusalem as guards, some at their posts and some near their own houses.”
Jerusalem was now, for all intents and purposes, a secure city. Most importantly, everyone recognized that it had only been achieved with the help of our God. Yahweh truly wanted His people to prosper, and this brought fear to Judah’s neighbors.
D. Connect to My Life and the World Challenges to the work of God come from both inside and outside the community of faith. If you have clear directives from God about a step of faith you are to take, what source of opposition is the most difficult to handle? Rate the following from 1 – 5, with 1 being the most difficult.
____Members of other faiths or political persuasions
____Nonbeliever family members
____Believer family members
____Church family members
What types of behavior and/or attitudes pop up in our life when we are overstressed? (Critical attitude, worry, short temper, tiredness, insomnia, etc.)
What overwhelming task are you currently facing? What obstacles?
In what ways do you need God’s presence in your life this week?
Close with the prayer of Nehemiah from chapter 6: “Now strengthen my hands” for this task.
What does Nehemiah do when there is a problem? He goes to his friend, God, in prayer. We also have a friend in Jesus that we can go to in prayer. Philippians 4:6 reads: “Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation… present your requests to God.”
Hymn 625 by Joseph M. Scriven
What a Friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear! What a privilege to carry Everything to God in prayer! O what peace we often forfeit, O what needless pain we bear, All because we do not carry Everything to God in prayer! Are we weak and heavy – laden, Cumbered with a load of care? Precious Savior, still our Refuge! Take it to the Lord in prayer. Do thy friends despise, forsake thee? Take it to the Lord in prayer. In His arms He’ll take and shield thee; Thou will find a solace there.
Material for this lesson is found in: Faith Connections Leaders Guide Summer 20 (Jim Edlin lesson writer) Illustrated Bible Life Summer 20 (A. Wendell Bowes lesson writer) Reflecting God Summer 20 Holy Bible (various translations)