Nehemiah 4 Sermon: Let’s think about what kind of writing the book of Nehemiah is.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Narrative Style
It’s a story or a narrative. And just like a well-written secular narrative, its author – ultimately God – desires to draw us into the story line.
He wants us to identify with the characters. He wants us to hear the sounds and see the sights and smell the scents as if we were actually there.
When someone – even God – writes a story, he wants to share an experience with us. And so let’s review the kind of experience that God through Nehemiah has been sharing with us these last few weeks.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Nehemiah Went to Jerusalem
First, recall how Nehemiah got to Jerusalem.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Doing Fine in Persia
He was just going along with his life as an exiled Jew in the kingdom of Persia. He had somehow gotten into a pretty high position – one that required quite a bit of trust from the Persian king Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was his cup-bearer. He would taste his food and drink before it got to the king. That’s why I say that the king must have had quite a bit of trust invested in Nehemiah.
And because of the nearness of these two, Nehemiah very well might have acted as something of an unofficial advisor to Artaxerxes. So he had a privileged position in the greatest kingdom of the world at that time.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Concerned for God’s People
But he still had concern for his people and their holy city. And when his brother and a few of his companions returned from Jerusalem, Nehemiah asked how the Jews and Jerusalem were doing.
He was then shocked to discover that Jerusalem was desolate and its walls had been broken down.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Seeks How to Help
He humbly seeks God for months and devises a plan to return to Jerusalem and help his fellow-Jews turn to God with their whole heart so that God won’t scatter and exile them from their land again.
He approached the king with his request and amazingly Artaxerxes granted him all his desire. So Nehemiah journeys to Jerusalem and makes it there safely.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Opposition
We remember then from last week that he immediately was aware of opposition in the form of two villains by the names of Sanballat and Tobiah.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | So Wicked
I’ve had questions about these two characters from some of you. I think we kind of wonder who these guys are and why they’re so antagonistic. And I’ve considered laying out for us more details about them. But I think I’ll just kind of reveal what the book of Nehemiah reveals when it reveals it.
So we’ll get more information about Sanballat and Tobiah, but I won’t jump ahead of the narrative. If you really want to know anything more, you can read ahead in the story.
But anyway, these two guys are true villains. They’re bad.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | As Bad as Sandy Hook Murderer
I don’t want to minimize the gravity of a situation like the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting of last year in Connecticut. Do you remember that? This was the situation where a very evil young man murdered his mother and then drove to an elementary school full of kindergartners through 4th graders. He then proceeded to murder 6 staff members and 20 helpless, innocent little kids. He then shot himself in the head and – we have a solid basis in asserting – was immediately ushered into his eternal punishment.
But here’s what I intend to say about Sanballat and Tobiah in regard to that situation. They in some ways are just as bad as this Sandy Hook shooter.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Comparison to Sanballat and Tobiah
The elementary kids were helpless. So were these Jews.
The kids had done nothing wrong to this shooter. Neither had the Jews done anything wrong to Sanballat and Tobiah.
Some of us have marveled that Nehemiah doesn’t really tell us why these two are so opposed to the Jews’ well-being. And we might be tempted to find out the reason.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Why the Opposition?
We could guess that maybe these two were making some gain off these weakened Jews and so they stood to lose quite a bit if the Jews were strengthened and allowed to be a sovereign group. You’ll hear later in this message more reason to think this was the case.
Perhaps these two were kind of usurping authority over the Jews since the Jews didn’t have an official governor.
Maybe it’s like the enemies of the Jews today in the Middle East – the enemies simply do not want the Jews back in their home land. And they’re ready to prevent the Jews from living in the land at all costs.
We’re not told for sure why the enemies are so bitterly opposed to the Jews. So I’m going to suggest that we’re intentionally not given a reason for Sanballat and Tobiah’s animosity.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Senseless Opposition
Perhaps simply so that we get a feel for how senseless their hatred of the Jews was.
In other words, there was no explanation to the hatred. And so Nehemiah doesn’t provide us with one.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Building the Wall
Now despite this senseless but fierce opposition, Nehemiah goes ahead and starts building the wall.
I am so encouraged by this man’s boldness and courage to continue doing right in the face of opposition. And we’re going to see a great deal more of this courage in the face of opposition.
Because this opposition picks right up in chapter 4 verse 1 where we left off. This leads to the title of our message today. How a godly leader responds to opposition. Read Nehemiah 4:1.
We only hear about Sanballat this time. Great, maybe the opposition is waning!
Well, just hold on a minute. Sanballat isn’t by any means alone in opposing God’s work.
So Sanballat the Samaritan hears that the walls are being rebuilt despite his efforts to intimidate the builders. And this fills him with rage.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | The Opposition Mocks
The enemies of God’s people react in a number of different ways when God’s work is going on with power. We’ve seen anger from the opposition. We’ve seen the opposition think little of – or despise – the Jews.
What does the opposition do now?
Sanballat tries his hand at mockery. Let’s see what he says. Read verse 2.
Ah so here’s Sanballat’s audience. His brethren are there. This might be his siblings or simply some of his Samaritan countrymen. And then the army of Samaria is there, as well, to hear his mockery of the Jews.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Aggressive Opposition
The fact that the army is here should give us a clue that there’s some danger here for the Jews. What does an army do except wage war – either in offense or defense? But the Jews are certainly in no position to attack. So I think the mention of this Samaritan army actually forecasts some future aggression.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Mocking Weakness
Now what does Sanballat say to these folks? He highlights the weakness of the Jews.
They’re feeble, he says.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Mocking Questions
He incredulously asks these questions about them – Will they fortify themselves? Like, can they really re-build the wall? The answer Sanballat is expecting? No!
Will they sacrifice, he says? I’m guessing from this question that the Jews were in fact not sacrificing in their Temple at that point. The Temple was there. It was rebuilt. But the desolation of Jerusalem resulted in sacrifices ceasing to be offered in that Temple.
Further, Sanballat asks if the Jews can finish their work in a day. Well, of course they can’t. And he knows it. No one could. But I think by this question he’s intending a little psychological warfare. By bringing up this matter of how long it might take for the Jews to finish their work I think Sanballat hopes they might consider that this rebuilding might take them a long long time to complete.
To add to this wearying question, Sanballat asks if the Jews can revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish that were probably evident all over Jerusalem at that time. The Jews are in for a difficult process of taking all these stones out of these heaps of rubbish and making something of them. And to make matters worse and more humiliating to the Jews, some of the stones they were needing to pull out of the wreckage – they were burned with fire.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Taunting Opposition
Really, what Sanballat is doing here is taunting the Jews and trying to intimidate them by doing this.
And remember Sanballat has an audience – his brothers and the army of Samaria.
How do you think they responded?
“No, please Sanballat. Consider their feelings”?
Or what about “You know, Sanballat, these Jews are claiming to be God’s people. We should probably just leave them alone”?
No. I imagine these rough heartless fiends sitting together in the gate of one of their cities cursing the Jews and their God. I can imagine that Sanballat’s oration may have resulted in a round of applause. Maybe it was met with laughter that was deep, long, loud, and scornful.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Tobiah Takes his Turn
And if Sanballat’s sarcastic comments got a few laughs from this group of God’s enemies then just wait ‘til they hear from Tobiah. Let’s read verse 3.
Maybe Tobiah was encouraged on by Sanballat’s mockery of the Jews. Emboldened to put his evil wit on display, he delivers the one-liner we just read. Tobiah offers that perhaps the quality of the Jews’ work will be so shoddy that if a creature as small as a fox jumps on it, the whole wall will come crashing down.
Foxes typically don’t weigh any more than a two-year-old child. This was a real insult. And I’m sure the result was uproarious and hatred-filled laughter.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | The Real Object of Ridicule
But what were these fiends really laughing about? Whom were they mocking?
These villains were laughing at the Jews. The Jews were God’s people. These Jews were back in the land by God’s appointment. They were doing God’s work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. And they had many obstacles to overcome. They were weakened.
And if Nehemiah wasn’t there, they’d be utterly hopeless and weaker than a new born baby in some ways.
And this is who Sanballat, Tobiah, and their comrades were laughing at. And as I said, I imagine they were all having a lot of fun with this round of mockery over the Jews’ progress.
Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Not Amused
Oh, except there was at least one person who didn’t think this was very funny. Let’s read his reaction to the taunt of the enemy in verses 4 and 5.
Nehemiah starts by invoking God to hear his people and particularly the rest of Nehemiah’s prayer. Why should God hear? Well, certainly the Jews are God’s people. God had made a covenant with them. He loves them. So he would certainly be inclined to hear them based on that fact. But beyond that, Nehemiah gives another reason. Not only do the Jews have a special relationship with God. But they are also despised. The enemies are thinking little of the Jews abilities and strength, yes. But where do those abilities and strengths come from? I think the idea here is that the enemies are ultimately thinking little of God’s power to help his people get his work done. So, Nehemiah is saying, “Please listen to us, our God. The enemies are despising you. Don’t let this stand!”
What does Nehemiah ask that God do in response to this despising of the enemies? He wants God to return the content of their own mockery right back on them. And more specifically he wants God to make them a weak group in a land in which they’re captive. Why? Because that’s exactly what the Jews were and exactly what the enemies wanted them to remain – a small abused oppressed minority in a land in which they weren’t sovereign – they were slaves. So Nehemiah asks that the enemies be put in the situation the Jews were facing. That’s palatable, I think.
But what about verse 5? Nehemiah asks God to – it seems – not forgive the sins of these people. How do we handle a request like this from a man we know to be godly? Is this a character flaw we’re seeing in Nehemiah – that he’s given to emotional rash overstatements? Is this godly man really asking that these enemies be condemned to everlasting torment with no possibility in this life of their sins being forgiven? I don’t think that’s the case. Read this statement in context. Nehemiah tells God that the enemies are thinking little of the Jews. That’s evident from the last few verses we read where they’re mocking the Jews all together. Nehemiah asks that the very belittling comments they made about Jews – that those be enacted not upon the Jews but upon the enemies themselves. Then Nehemiah asks God to not overlook the sin of the enemies – not to cover or blot it out. Well, what sin is he referring to? Every sin that these sinners have sinned their entire sinful life? I think not. I think Nehemiah’s referring to this particular sin they’re committing – despising God’s work through his people. And when Nehemiah asks God to not cover this sin of theirs I think he’s really communicating something like this. I hear of horrendous sin that a certain sinner might commit. Maybe it’s a mass shooting by some young troubled teen. Maybe it’s the repressive actions taken by a country like North Korea against our brethren in that nation. When I hear about these things, my heart cry is that these perpetrators would face justice. And that justice might not come in this life. A political ruler might abuse God’s people for his entire life and die comfortably in wealth. A mass murdered might take his own life before a court can render a just decision. Or he might live and a court might offer an unjust verdict. What I really want is to know that God will make things right. I do not want him to overlook their sin. I want him to take notice of it and not miss it when it comes time to render a verdict. That is the one thing that comforts me when there’s a miscarriage of justice or an egregious violation against innocent people – that God will judge rightly and not miss any evidence. And I think that’s what Nehemiah is crying for here – that God would not simply overlook this sin of theirs.
Finally, let’s notice one last thing about this scene. Why is Nehemiah so insistent on wrongs being righted in this situation? Is it because he was personally slighted and now wants the perpetrators to be punished for his own selfish reasons? No. It’s because the enemies of Judah haven’t simply offended man. They’ve provoked the God of heaven to anger. And yet there is an element of offense toward men as well. The enemies provoked God to anger where? In the sight of the builders. You didn’t know that, did you? The builders actually heard this mocking session that the enemies were having. And this fact is another reason Nehemiah prayed the way he did.
OK, let me state what I think we learn here. We’re learning how a godly leader responds to opposition. Here’s how. Godly leaders can get passionate when confronting the enemies of God’s work. That’s not wrong. But the passion certainly needs to be focused on God’s being offended, not us being personally offended. I think we also learn very basically that there’s a time for confronting ungodly opposition. But there’s also a great need to respond to opposition not directly back to the opposition itself, but to God. He alone can truly put down the opposition, even when we can’t. We need to fly to him when we’re experiencing difficulties and adversity while doing God’s work.
And here’s another lesson we again see from Nehemiah. Godly leaders don’t let opposition sidetrack them. They move forward with God’s work. And this is what we see in verse 6. Let’s read it.
Despite the enemies’ taunts that apparently were uttered within earshot of the Jews, the work continued. And the whole wall was joined together to the half of it. This probably means that the wall was built back up to be about half of its original height. And I think we’re supposed to be kind of awed by the speed with which they got to this point. I think that’s why Nehemiah feels the need to explain with that last statement there. It’s like he says, “Yes, I know this was quick and we did this despite the opposition. But the people really did have a mind to work. They really stuck with it.”
Let me point this out then. A godly leader needs to plan the work and delegate it. But the only way it gets done is when his people put his plan into practice. And the best situation is where the people “have a mind” to do this work.
Does this advance in God’s work thwart the opposition? No. It actually makes them more fiercely opposed! Read verses 7 and 8.
So we need to notice the growing legion of foes. Sanballat, Tobiah, Arabs, Ammonites, and Ashdodites. Sanballat and Tobiah were apparently north of Jerusalem in Samaria. That was their base. The Arabians and the Ammonites were to the east and maybe south of Jerusalem. And Ashdod is on the Mediterranean coast to the west of Jerusalem. The enemies who were surrounding Jerusalem were all in league against the Jews. They heard that the repair went forward and that the holes in the wall started to be repaired. They could see that mere taunting wasn’t working. They needed to take action. So they all conspired to fight against Jerusalem. Their aim was to “hinder it.” What does that mean? Their goal in fighting is not necessarily to destroy the Jews. Isn’t that interesting? These enemies don’t want the Jews to not exist. They simply want the Jews to exist in an extremely weakened and vulnerable form – probably so that the enemies can continue to take advantage of them. This is likely Sanballat and Tobiah’s MO. This is why they’re so opposed to Nehemiah’s action to strengthen the Jews. These enemies are really parasites. They want to prey on their victim host while still keeping it alive enough to live off it. So the enemies just want to create a disturbance. They want to stop the work. Certainly if the Jews had to fend off invaders they’re not going to be involved in building up their walls. So this is the enemies’ plan… How do the Jews respond to it? Read verse 9.
First of all, some way, the Jews hear their enemies’ plot. And how do they respond? They pray to God. And then they set a watch against the legion of enemy forces. And they keep watch 24-hours a day.
But despite praying and setting a watch, the people of Judah are becoming weary. Read verse 10.
How’s this for a national anthem? Or the slogan for your church’s building project? Maybe we should have adopted this feel-good saying for our building renovation. Is it too late? Of course I’m being facetious. No, this is a terrible expression on the Jews’ part. They’re losing the will to continue the fight. Their strength is decaying. They’re looking all around and seeing all the work that’s left to do. And their faithless – though seemingly realistic – assessment is that they are not able to rebuild the wall.
But the Jews aren’t the only ones with something to say about their rebuilding project. Read verse 11.
This is what the enemies were boasting of. Their plan to hinder the work by attacking Jerusalem was sure to succeed. That is, unless the Jews acted quickly. Let’s read verse 12.
So Nehemiah gets word from the Jews who lived near the enemies that they were planning to attack Jerusalem. And apparently they came to Nehemiah 10 times and alerted him of the same danger. How does Nehemiah respond? Let’s read verse 13.
Nehemiah swiftly acts to fortify the most vulnerable places on the wall. Remember, the wall was still not fully rebuilt. And he put the people together with their families and gave them weapons. But even though they had weapons there was still some fear in their hearts. Nehemiah addresses that in verse 14. Read it.
What does this godly leader do for his fearing flock? He tells them to be strong and not afraid. He tells them to get their minds off what they’re fearing and focus on God. He is great and terrible… And he’s actually on their side! So because of that the Jews could fight the enemies without fear. God was with them. Well, did they ever end up fighting the enemy? Let’s read verse 15 for the answer.
So there’s not fighting – at least not yet. The simple fact that the Jews are fortified and armed and that they heard the enemies’ plan before they were able to hatch it – all of that resulted in the Jews feeling free to return to their work on the wall. But the Jews were far from care-free, moving forward. Let’s read verses 16 through 18.
What’s the point here? Simply that everyone was armed while working. As if it wasn’t enough for the Jews to need to rebuild the walls. Now they needed to act as a standing army as well! But what other choice did they have? And it wasn’t enough that the people were armed. What if the attack came in a remote part of the city where there were only a few people? They needed some strategy as to how all the people might rally to the one place that was being attacked, if such an attack were to occur. Let’s read verses 19 and 20 for that strategy.
Nehemiah plainly says that the chance of attack occurring on some remote part of the wall was likely. So he would be monitoring the situation. If there was an attack he would be there with that trumpet player who was at his side. And the people would come and fight at that place. The story continues in verse 21.
OK, so rising of the morning – that’s morning. The stars appear when? In the evening. So the people were defended from morning until evening. What about the time between evening and morning? Read verse 22.
Apparently the people by and large were not living in Jerusalem. So at night the city was pretty vulnerable to a midnight attack. So Nehemiah has everyone live in Jerusalem for a while. Why? So that there was a night watch to defend the city during the nighttime hours.
And I mean this was pretty intense. We kind of read through the narrative thoughtlessly. But can you imagine the reality that Nehemiah communicates in verse 23?
These people were so consumed with the work of rebuilding the walls as well as defending themselves from these pernicious enemies that they didn’t even have time to change their clothes. Preservation of life came before comfort for these Jews.
So that’s the story. Godly leaders respond to opposition… with prayer and with action. They pray – as one man said – as if it all depended on God. They act as if it all depends on them.