We’re going to be studying Nehemiah 2:10 – 3:32. In this section I think we’ll see “How Godly Leaders Get God’s Work Accomplished.” The lessons we’ll learn apply not only to leaders like pastors, deacons, and missionaries. If you’re a Christian parent or a Christian peer with influence over other peers or if you’re involved at any level with leading a ministry of any size, then this has ramifications for you, too. And of course these wonderful lessons are packaged up for us in a story. So let’s try to unpack the story and arrive at the message God has for us today.
Whenever God’s work is being accomplished you just know there’s going to be opposition. And this is what we see in 2:10. Let’s read it.
Nehemiah says that these two enemies of God’s people heard “it.” Well, heard what? Remember last week? We studied Nehemiah 1:1-2:9. And in that section we saw “How Nehemiah Got to Jerusalem.” Do you remember some of the details? Remember how Nehemiah asked some Jews who came from Jerusalem how Nehemiah’s people and city were doing? Remember the response that shocked Nehemiah and brought him to his knees? Do you remember how Nehemiah was in prayer and fasting and mourning for maybe something like 4 months? All the while he was planning how he might return to Jerusalem and help his people turn back to God. Do you remember the tense scene in King Artaxerxes’ chamber? Nehemiah made his request to the king with fear and trembling. Do you remember the sense of relief and joy and anticipation as the king granted Nehemiah’s request? And then surely you remember how easily Nehemiah made it to Jerusalem – it only took one verse! And then he brought his letters of authorization from the king to the officials in the area around Jerusalem…
So let’s return to this question — what did Sanballat and Tobiah hear? They heard at least some of what we’ve just reviewed since they probably were in some position of authority around Jerusalem. They also heard that Nehemiah was in the area. They heard he was there to help the Jews. He was there to rebuild the city and re-inhabit it with Jews. And so how did this make the enemies feel?
Listen, I think as we read through the book of Nehemiah we sometimes want to be pretty merciful to Sanballat and Tobiah. I think we can read this book and get the idea that these two enemies were somehow the equivalent of the bad guys in one of our VBS skits, right? Like the Sherriff of Not-a-Ham and whoever the other guy was this summer – remember them? They were bad, yes. But they were bumbling and clumsy and … actually, kind of loveable in their own despicable ways. But here’s my question – is this how we’re supposed to think of Sanballat and Tobiah?
I’m going to suggest that we do all in our power to view these characters as true villains. This narrative gives us no reason whatsoever to see any sort of redeeming quality in them. And here in verse 10 we see the first instance of this purely evil characterization of them. Think about this fact – these two were grieved exceedingly that someone had come to help the Jews. Let’s consider the import of that statement. Think about the Jews in Jerusalem. How were they doing at this time in their history? Were they strong? Were they doing well? What was the condition of their capital city? They were impoverished and extremely weak. Their city was vulnerable to any and all enemy attacks. They were in a pathetic condition. They needed help. And Nehemiah wanted to help them. And how do these two enemies respond? With grief – not joy or sympathy – grief! Sanballat and Tobiah are the kind that would steal candy from a baby. They would kick a man when he’s down. There is nothing in them that should cause us to lend them the slightest shred of sympathy. In fact, the way this story is written, we should actually be cheering for their defeat. Do you think that’s an ungodly thing for me to counsel us – to want these two men to fail? Then just wait until our next lesson where we see Nehemiah’s prayer to God regarding these two. So, these two enemies are to be regarded as pure evil. This is how they’re characterized throughout this book.
And you know what? Somehow Nehemiah got word that Sanballat and Tobiah were not-too-happy that he was there to help his own people. Have you ever been in a situation where it was clear that you had opposition to what you were trying to accomplish? How do you react when that’s the case? With fear? Do you just pack up and go home? Here’s the first lesson we need to learn about godly leaders that we see in verse 10. Godly leaders take special note of opposition but they don’t let it sidetrack them. Nehemiah knew about the opposition. But he just moves on with his duties. And that’s just what we see happening in the next verse – Nehemiah moving on with God’s work. Let’s read verses 11-16.
Nehemiah starts by resting in Jerusalem for 3 days after his four month journey from Shushan to Jerusalem. Then he starts his midnight journey. Did you notice the element of secrecy? Verse 12 starts the account by telling us that Nehemiah is under the cover of night. Only a few people are with him. He even limits the number of beasts they used. And then the trip ends with verse 16 reminding us again of how secret this journey was.
But what are we supposed to do with the verses in between verses 12 and 16? Let’s try to figure out and reconstruct what Nehemiah is doing there. He starts in Jerusalem. We saw that in verse 11. He goes out of a gate called the Valley Gate in verse 13. This gate is on the western side of old Jerusalem. And verse 13 tells us Nehemiah took a turn to the south to the “dung port” or really the Dung (or Refuse) Gate. That was a gate on the south side of Jerusalem. In verse 14 Nehemiah gets to a gate on the southeast side of Jerusalem called the Fountain Gate. And it’s here that the terrain was pretty difficult to get around on. So Nehemiah leaves his beast and maybe the others that came with him and he looks at the wall on the east side of Jerusalem on-foot for a while. Now Nehemiah mentions in verse 15 going up by “the brook.” Which brook is that? Well, if you’re familiar at all with the geography of Jerusalem you know that Jerusalem is slightly elevated. And you would also know that there’s a “mount” on the east side of Jerusalem. What is it called? The Mount of Olives. And between the elevated Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives is a brook – the Kidron. So that’s where Nehemiah was walking to get a view of the wall on the east side of Jerusalem. But then it appears like he’s seen enough and so he returns to his traveling partners. Then they go back down south and then back west and north to enter from the gate that Nehemiah left – the Valley Gate.
So let me get to the lesson I think we learn from these few verses. We know from our lesson last week that Nehemiah brought his plans to the Lord first of all, right? He didn’t consult anyone before he consulted the Lord. And now he still as of yet hasn’t consulted anyone. But now he’s not simply praying about this idea of his. He’s doing the leg work to see if and how his plan might work. And he’s kept all of this a secret still – remember that emphasis of secrecy? So here’s the lesson I gather from this. Godly leaders bring their plans to the Lord first and then do the necessary research before revealing their plans to men.
But eventually Godly leaders do need to bring their plans to the people they lead, right? And that’s what we see in verses 17 and 18. Let’s read that.
To whom is Nehemiah speaking? Verse 17 just says “them.” Who is “them?” It’s just the people mentioned in verse 16 – the Jews, the priests, the nobles, and those who would do the work. So now he’s finally addressing this group of individuals. And what does he tell them?
First, Nehemiah gives the people an accurate picture of where they currently are. They’re in distress. Their city lies waste. The gates are burned. The wall is broken down. Godly leaders give a realistic picture of their people’s situation to them. They don’t hold back and make the picture rosier than reality.
But godly leaders aren’t simply prophets of doom and gloom. They give an accurate picture of short-fallings, yes. But it is at this point that they reveal their plans that God has laid on their hearts. This is what Nehemiah does. He says, “let’s rebuild the wall!” What a simple plan! The wall is broken down. Hardly anyone lives in Jerusalem because the walls are down and the city is open for attack from any enemy. Enemies are coming in and influencing us for ungodliness. Let’s rebuild that wall!
And we see this godly leader giving some hope to these people that this plan is going to work. He first helps them picture how better their lives will be if they follow this plan. At the end of verse 17 he helps them visualize a time when they would no longer be a reproach. They wouldn’t be a laughing stock anymore with their broken-down walls. That definitely would have sounded attractive to these people. And then Nehemiah gives the people reason to think his plan will succeed. He tells them how God had graciously led him thus far in his quest to execute his plan to rebuild the walls. The idea would be – if he’s led me this far, I can’t imagine he’ll let me fail now! And if it wasn’t enough for them to know of God’s support of this plan, Nehemiah can tell them about how even the highest human ruler on the earth at that time supports Nehemiah’s plan.
So put yourself in the Jews’ place. You have nothing. Your city is ruined. The enemies are around you and you have no defense. You have a godly man come to help you. He’s backed by the God of heaven and the highest ruler of the known world. What would your response be? I think probably pretty similar to what the Jews respond – I can imagine them kind of looking around at each other, wondering if there’s a “catch.” And perceiving no such catch, they exclaim, “Let us rise up and build!”
So I think what we learn from this section is this. Godly leaders eventually do bring their plans to men. And they give their followers sound reasons to follow their plans. If only everyone were to follow the godly plans of godly leaders. But alas, there are those who will persist in opposing God’s work through such leaders. And those godly leaders need to know how to respond to them rightly. Let’s read verses 19 and 20 for more details.
So the Jews are trying to piece back together their broken city. They’ve heard Nehemiah’s plan and are ready to take action. But the detractors are right alongside them. And these folks don’t have an alternative plan for the Jews’ success or anything like that. No – they just want to see the Jews fail miserably. And so they hear that the Jews are excited and ready to re-build their city. And what do the enemies do? Well, first of all, recall that the ranks of the enemies are expanding. It used to be just Sanballat and Tobiah. But now they’re joined by another colleague – Geshem, by name and he was an Arab. And these three laugh the Jews to scorn. The enemies think little of the Jews’ efforts and abilities – that’s what it means to despise someone – to think little of them. And then the enemies ask if the Jews plan to rebel against the king. And be sure that these enemies are asking this barbed question to not only Nehemiah the leader. No, when the enemies use that 2nd-person plural personal pronoun, ye, they’re making a statement to the whole group of those who planned to rebuild the walls – laymen as well as leader. How would this insinuation have made the builders feel? The builders had just heard Nehemiah say that the king is with him on this project. Would they trust Nehemiah? Or would doubt creep into their minds as to whether Nehemiah was telling the truth and could be trusted? Well I’m not sure how they felt. But you can be pretty sure how the enemies wanted the people to feel – they wanted the people to loose heart and stop working on the wall. Perhaps in your early days as a Christian you were confronted with some real thorny theological question presented by someone who was opposed to the Gospel whose intention it was to shake your faith. I can imagine that you would have wanted someone who could have given a proper answer to this opponent of yours. Well, this is just the dynamic we have here. And in this case the simple builders don’t have to try to think-up an answer on the fly. They have a godly leader who actually has personal connections with the king. And did you catch his response? He didn’t even say a word about the king. Nehemiah knew the truth regarding the king. He had no need to defend himself against this ridiculous charge. In fact, Nehemiah had letters authorizing him to do what he was doing from that very king. So he immediately dismissed this lame charge of rebellion. So he instead got to the heart of the matter. God was on their side. And because he and his fellow Jews were the Lord’s servants, they were going to arise and do his will and build. But as for the enemies, they had already shown themselves to be completely unworthy of any sympathy. They had a deep-seated hatred for God’s people – and indeed for God himself. And so they have no right or portion or memorial in Jerusalem, God’s holy city.
So how do you like Nehemiah’s response? As a builder I would have felt very comforted by Nehemiah’s ability to answer our opponents. So here’s what I learn from these verses — Godly leaders are capable of confronting ungodly opposition to their face in an appropriate manner.
And with the ungodly opposition rebuffed, now the builders are ready to start building. And so in chapter 3 we see who did what on the wall. We’re eventually going to get to some interesting and I hope helpful facts that we see in this chapter. And we’ll get to that. But first I want to address how not to interpret this chapter.
I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this chapter taught as if somehow the individual gates are all meant to represent some aspect of the Christian life. That teaching is out there. And the method used in that kind of interpretation is called allegory or allegorizing – take a plain passage of Scripture and force it to take on some imported spiritual meaning that is far from its original purpose. And I think this way of interpretation is unhelpful at its best. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s walk through this unusual way of interpreting this chapter and see what you think.
First, look at verse 1 of chapter 3. You see Eliashib and the priests building what gate? The Sheep Gate. Well of course sheep represent sacrifice and Christ was our ultimate sacrifice. He’s the beginning of the Christian life. That’s why Nehemiah mentions this gate first… OK? Let’s continue. Look at verse 3. What gate are we talking about now? The Fish Gate. Now of course once you come through the Sheep Gate and enter into the Christian life you are called to win others to the Lord… to be fishers of men. Yes, that’s the allegorical spiritualized meaning of the Fish Gate. Alright, what deep truth are we going to discover next? Look at verse 6. What gate do we find there? The Old Gate. One commentator said that he was originally thinking this might signify the Christian putting off the old man and being renewed in the spirit of his mind. But then someone else suggested to him that this signified finding the “old paths” like Jeremiah talks about. So as you’re winning people to Jesus you ought to be continually learning the ways of the Lord – the old paths. Isn’t this deep rich theological truth…? Well maybe you naysayers will be won over by the next allegorization. Let’s look at verse 13. What gate do we have here? The Valley Gate. This spiritually signifies the fact that you may have entered the Christian life and you may be soul-winning and trying to find the old paths, but… you might still experience a long dark “valley” time. You know – a very low point in your Christian life. Verse 14 then speaks of the Dung Gate. That’s supposed to signify the fact that these low points – or valleys – in our life are supposed to get the spiritual garbage out of our life. Then there’s the Fountain Gate, the Water Gate, the Horse Gate, the East Gate, and the Inspection Gate. But I think we’ve heard enough. I’ll only add that the Sheep Gate makes another appearance in verse 32 to end this chapter. And the allegorizers would take this to signify that Christ is the beginning and the end of the Christian life.
So what do you think about that interpretation? Do you think that’s why this chapter was written in the Bible? Well let me ask – is there some truth to the content of this interpretation? Is Christ the beginning and the end of the Christian life? Do Christians need to be witnessing to the lost? Do we have some spiritually-dark “valley experiences?” Yes. But were these experiences what Nehemiah had in mind to teach us in this chapter? I sure hope not. Because if we’re supposed to allegorize passages like this one, I really do not understand how to interpret my Bible anywhere. How do I know when it’s safe to allegorize and when I should simply read the passage as if it were communicating something meaningful? What if my allegorical interpretation is wrong? How would I even know if it was wrong? What if I disagree with someone else’s allegorical interpretation? What authority could I possibly cite to prove my case? See, what happens when we interpret literal passages allegorically is – at best our hearts might be warmed with a truth that’s actually taught elsewhere in Scripture. At worst, we open ourselves up to being deceived.
Let’s finish this consideration of how not to interpret Nehemiah 3 with a comment from Martin Luther. Here’s what he thought about allegorizing the Scripture: “But I have often declared that I greatly abhor allegories and condemn the fondness for them. For the examples and the footsteps of the fathers frighten me. By means of their allegories they obscure doctrine and the edification of love, patience, and hope in God when by those speculations of their allegories they divert us from the doctrine and genuine meaning of the words. Jerome and Origen are especially devoted to this. Indeed, Augustine, too, would have been brought to do so had he not been withdrawn from it by his controversies and disputes with the heretics. But because I admired these men as very great theologians, I followed the same course at the outset. When I read the Bible, I did not follow the literal sense; but according to their example, I turned everything into allegories. Accordingly, I urge students of theology to shun this kind of interpretation in the Holy Scriptures.”
So we now know how not to interpret Nehemiah 3. But positively how do we interpret it? What should we gain from this chapter? Several things, really. First, just glance at the chapter. One thing that should immediately strike you is the number and variety of people involved in rebuilding the wall. You have priests. You have lay men. You have goldsmiths. You have apothecaries. It didn’t matter what the occupation was, everyone found something to do on that wall. And you have men from different geographic locations working on the wall – men from Jericho, men from Tekoa, and men from Gibeon. The men from Tekoa build the wall despite opposition from their own nobles. Most of the names here are names of men. But you know, one man actually worked with his daughters on the wall. We have Baruch in verse 20 earnestly or zealously repairing the wall! Can you imagine someone doing this zealously? How would you zealously repair a wall? I can imagine him enthusiastically slathering on some more mortar and then joyfully slapping another brick on top of it. So I think one lesson to glean from this passage is that in God’s work there’s a place for all of his people. We might not all have the same role. We might be on different sections of the wall, so to speak. But we do all have a proper place.
But now, let’s discuss the real significance of the gates and the order in which they’re mentioned. Do you even think that there’s any significance to the names and order of the gates? There is actually. But it’s pretty mundane as opposed to the fanciful allegory method. Picture Jerusalem as a square. It wasn’t, but let’s just simplify things and imagine that it was. The Sheep Gate which we start out with is on the northeast side of that square. And what you have for the entire chapter is a progression from northeast to northwest to southwest to southeast back up to the northeast corner of Jerusalem. See? It’s simple. But now you actually know why the gates are mentioned in the order they’re mentioned. And I didn’t even need to allegorize anything to get there! I just had to look at a map of Jerusalem.
Let me ask one more question of this chapter and then we’ll be done. Who’s name do you not see in chapter 3? Now this might be difficult since we didn’t read the whole passage. But the person we don’t see building anything is… Nehemiah. Why is that? Well, I imagine one reason is that he was supervising the work and didn’t want to be tied down to one part of the wall to the detriment of the whole project. But I think beyond that consideration we have one more lesson to learn about godly leaders. The leader’s job is to envision the plan. And to some extent he’s involved in the implementation of that plan. But he also lets the people do the majority of the work. His plan becomes theirs.
So how do godly leaders get God’s work accomplished? They have a plan. Then they bring their plan to the Lord first and do the necessary research before unveiling it. When they do unveil it to their followers, they give them reasons to adopt the plan. They then let their plan become that of the people. And all the while they have an alert eye on the opposition and are ready to respond appropriately.