Nehemiah 5 Summary

Nehemiah 5 Summary Image

Nehemiah 5 Summary: Today we’ll be studying Nehemiah chapter 5. So let’s briefly survey how we got to this point in the story.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Chapter 1

The book of Nehemiah starts by describing the circumstances that brought Nehemiah to Jerusalem. Chapter 1 starts with Nehemiah discovering that Jerusalem was desolate and that the Jews were greatly distressed. So Nehemiah humbled himself before God and prayed. And we read his prayer. And based on the tone and content of that prayer I have a suspicion that Nehemiah thought that God may have been sending the Jews out of the land once again for their unfaithfulness.

Well maybe you say – how could that be? What did the Jews do that made Nehemiah think that God was sending them out of the land for their sin?? Throughout the the books of Ezra and Nehemiah it seems like the Jews are never far from total apostasy. For example, remember when Ezra came to Jerusalem just a decade or so before Nehemiah arrived? He found that the people had been engaging in sinful inter-marriage with the enemy! We saw the peoples’ propensity to slide back into sin in the time of Zerubbabel and Jeshua. Even at the end of the book of Nehemiah we see that when Nehemiah leaves for a little while the people go right back to their old sinful ways. So, we’re not told exactly what the people did to make Nehemiah think that they were being chastened by God. But given the Jews’ track record, you can imagine why Nehemiah might have feared that this was the case again.

At any rate, Nehemiah formed a plan to return to Jerusalem and to help God’s people. Artaxerxes approved that plan. And Nehemiah was off to Jerusalem!

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Stopping Sin

Now how would you help God’s people to stop slipping into sin if you were Nehemiah? Do you see a pattern to the Jews’ sin? I think we see that often the Jews are influenced to sin by the ungodly pagans around them. They intermarry with the pagans. We’ll see later that some of them have an alliance with an influential pagan. At the end of this book they let one of the pagans back into the city – into the Temple actually. So it seems like the Jews just couldn’t resist forming partnerships with their enemies. And unfortunately when this was happening it wasn’t the Jews who were influencing the pagans. It was the pagans who were influencing the Jews to break God’s law and adopt ungodly practices. Can you see now why the first thing Nehemiah does is to build a wall of separation between the Jews and their enemies? It’s as if he knew that keeping the ungodly influence out was essential if these people were going to have a chance of keeping themselves undefiled and clear of God’s anger and chastisement.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Walls Rebuilt

So Nehemiah started rebuilding the wall around Jerusalem with the Jews’ help. He hoped this would help keep the ungodly enemies out of God’s holy city. Now, how do you think the enemies felt about this? Well we don’t need to guess because we already saw the opposition that immediately met them as they tried to erect a barrier of separation between God’s people and the ungodly world around them.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Enemy Opposition

And the opposition was fierce. You remember all the enemies – Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem, and really all the nations surrounding Jerusalem. They were all ready to attack the poor weak Jews. And at this point the wall is still not fully re-built. So these enemies are still threatening to enter the city. Let’s see their next attempt to attack the Jews. Read 5:1… “And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against SANBALLAT AND TOBIAH… no — their brethren the Jews.”

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Internal Opposition

Whoa, that may have caught us off-guard! I wasn’t expecting this change of conflicts. I’m used to God’s people experiencing conflict with external opponents. But you just don’t expect it from internal folks who should be on the right side. But whether we expect it or not, that’s exactly what we have here – opposition: not from the external enemies but from folks who are among God’s people.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Fear God, Love His People

And so originally I thought that this passage was mainly focused on godly leaders dealing with internal opposition as opposed to what we’ve seen before with godly leaders facing external opposition. But I don’t think that’s the main point of chapter 5. And so I’ll give you the title of today’s message and see if it bears out throughout chapter 5 — Godly leaders fear God and love his people. I think this chapter is yet another opportunity for Nehemiah to showcase his actions as a godly leader. So let’s learn all we can from this godly leader. I think every husband, parent, teacher, and really everyone else who has some sort of influence over others – I think we all have something to learn.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Jew vs. Jew

So Nehemiah the godly leader is faced with internal strife. And this was a big deal. It was a great outcry. The people and their wives took issue with their Jewish brethren. It’s Jew versus Jew. And that’s all we know so far. Well what’s the big cause for the disturbance? Let’s read verse 2.

For there were that said,

We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live.

So here’s some of these people who were crying out.

And they were saying that there was a number of them. There were a good number of Jews in the land at that time. And for the most part it seems that each family had a number of children. So there were a lot of these people.

Well, that’s good. Part of God’s blessings to his people are that they would be abundant. So what’s the problem? The problem comes in the last half of that verse. They indicate that they don’t have anything to eat.

Let me clear up a few translation issues here. First, “corn” is a translation of a Hebrew word that can also mean “grain.” So these people need grain or food of some sort.

The second issue that needs explanation is the phrase “therefore we take up.” In the Hebrew text this verb communicates that these people are saying something like “therefore let us take up or get grain.”

These people are all together confirming the fact that there are many of them and that they are hungry and need some food!

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Why No Food?

Well, I don’t get it! Why don’t these people have food? Are they lazy or something? Let’s read verse 3.

Some also there were that said,

We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth.

So we’re presented two problems that are contributing to the Jews going hungry.

First they’ve mortgaged their property. Here’s what they did. They had a need for food and apparently their last option was to give up the only property they owned as collateral for a loan so they could buy some food.

The second issue brought up is this business about the “dearth.” This of course is a word that simply means a “lack” of something. Lack of what? Well, in the context they’re lacking food. And this is a widespread issue, at least in Jerusalem and the surrounding area. What do we call a widespread lack of food? Yes, a famine.

So we’re getting a more complete picture of what’s going on here. The people lack food because there’s a famine in the land. They don’t have enough money to buy food so they get a loan from their Jewish brethren to buy it.

The only problem is that they need to put their fields and homes up as collateral to get these loans. So they’re just on a downward spiral.

And really, some things are worth getting a loan for – like buying a house maybe or something that may increase in value. But food? Food just gets eaten and then it’s gone. It’s not as if the people who are getting these loans are going to be able to pay these loans off. Especially if they don’t have their fields anymore. How else would they have made money to pay their lenders back if not for their produce?

Do you see the hopeless downward spiral these Jews have descended upon? The situation is bleak. That’s how we ought to feel for these folks. Sympathize with their plight.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Taking Their Children?!

In modern times this would be akin to you having to put your grocery bill on the credit card and never being able to get enough money to pay off your credit card balance. Interest piles up. Bills go unpaid. Collection agencies start calling. Repossessing your stuff. Taking things that are valuable to you – maybe even your own children!

Well but that doesn’t happen in modern-day America!

You’re right. It doesn’t.

But it did in post-exilic Judah. Let’s read verses 4 and 5 for more details.

There were also that said,

We have borrowed money for the king’s tribute, and that upon our lands and vineyards. Yet now our flesh is as the flesh of our brethren, our children as their children: and, lo, we bring into bondage our sons and our daughters to be servants, and some of our daughters are brought unto bondage already: neither is it in our power to redeem them; for other men have our lands and vineyards.

So in addition to the famine that’s causing the Jews to mortgage their fields, there’s also this matter of paying the king’s tax on those fields. And the Jews are finding themselves unable to pay this tax.

So the result of this is not pretty. The Jews are starting to sell their children back into slavery in order to get some money to pay this tax – a tax on land that they don’t even own anymore!

Why don’t they own it? Because other men own that land now.

Well, who owned the land? The poor Jews allude to the answer as did Nehemiah in verse 1 of this chapter. The Jews say that they are just like their brethren and their children are like their children. Except now they are needing to sell their children… to their Jewish brethren.

But why? Because the wealthy Jews are doing something evil that’s leading the poorer Jews to need to start selling their children to them.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Verses 1-5

So here’s a summary of this situation.

Most all of the Jewish families would have owned land at that time. And they would live off the produce of their land typically.

But there’s a famine. And their fields aren’t producing like they usually would.

Add to this that the king is still taxing their land.

And so some of the poorer Jews are borrowing money from richer Jews to get grain and to pay this tax.

But the poorer Jews need to hand over their land as collateral.

And because their land is basically someone else’s they’re starting to resort to selling their own beloved children to try to make ends meet. And in fact some of them have daughters in particular who are already slaves – slaves to their own Jewish countrymen!

Nehemiah 5 Summary – His Reaction

So Nehemiah hears about this. How do you think he reacts? Let’s read verses 6 and 7.

6 ¶ And I was very angry when I heard their cry and these words.

7 Then I consulted with myself, and I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them,

Ye exact usury, every one of his brother.

And I set a great assembly against them.

So Nehemiah was very angry. This is the same word (charah) that’s used of Sanballat’s feelings when he heard the Jews were succeeding in the work. Isn’t that interesting? The enemies are angry when the Jews are succeeding and Nehemiah is angry when the Jews are failing.

Nehemiah then consults with himself. And the picture I initially got of that was Nehemiah muttering to himself like a crazy guy. That’s not the picture we’re to have in our minds. The sort of mechanical way of translating this would be – “my heart took counsel upon me.” His heart counseled him or vice versa. What would that look like? He’s mulling this over. He’s carefully thinking about this situation and what he ought to do.

And he eventually figured out exactly what to do. He rebukes the nobles and rulers. Ah, so there’s the group that’s taking advantage of their poorer Jewish brethren!

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Usury

And what does he accuse these nobles and rulers of? Exacting usury. What is that? Usury is exorbitant interest. Like you see those credit cards out there and if you read the fine print some of these cards charge around 20% interest. This is in my estimation a modern-day example of usury.

Well, what’s the big deal? I mean, business is business, right? The poor Jews didn’t need to go to the rich Jews for loans. Well, maybe they did. But I mean, surely it’s not as if the poor Jews didn’t know the conditions of their loans with the rich Jews. Why is Nehemiah so upset? These poor Jews should just work hard and pay off these loans.

Well, do you remember what I think is Nehemiah’s mindset for coming to Jerusalem in the first place? Remember, the Jews are scattered out of Jerusalem for the most part. And I think Nehemiah is fearing that another exile is coming if these Jews don’t do right.

But by what standard can Nehemiah judge whether they’re “doing right” or not? What was the equivalent of the Jews’ national constitution? The Law of Moses, right? And wouldn’t you know it? The Law has something to say to Jews about charging interest to their Jewish brothers. Let’s turn to Leviticus 25. And we’ll read verses 35 through 38.

And if thy brother be waxen poor, and fallen in decay with thee; then thou shalt relieve him: yea, though he be a stranger, or a sojourner; that he may live with thee. Take thou no usury of him, or increase: but fear thy God; that thy brother may live with thee. Thou shalt not give him thy money upon usury, nor lend him thy victuals for increase. I am the LORD your God, which brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God.

God’s command to Israel was to not lend to their brethren with interest. If a Jewish brother became poor his neighbors needed to help him. They could lend to him. But it would be a 0% APR, Free-Financing type of loan – no interest! His fellow Jews were not to become rich off their brethren.

In fact, if the poor Jew needed food, the rich Jew was commanded to not make a profit off of that. The purpose was so that the poor Jew would be able to regain his bearings financially and move on and keep the land that was allotted to him and his family continually throughout their generations.

What was the rich Jews’ motivation for doing this? He stood to gain nothing. He would have to lend his money and get nothing in return. What would motivate a man to do such a thing?

Look again at verse 36.

Take thou no usury of him or increase but… fear thy God.

That’s the key. And that alone is what would motivate anyone to do right despite financial inconvenience. The fear of God.

Remember that mention here as we move along back into Nehemiah. In fact let’s turn back there to Nehemiah 5:7.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Nehemiah Confronts the Sinners

So now we see why Nehemiah was angry.

The Jews were breaking God’s law. They were putting themselves in the cross hairs of God’s burning anger. The rich Jews were not obeying God and were oppressing the poor Jews. This could very well end in the Jews being deported once more by God.

And Nehemiah stood as the lone voice of reason – the one who would fill in the gap so to speak – and would try to divert God’s anger.

How would he do this? He would need to confront the ones who were doing wrong in a very public and solemn manner. And that’s just what we see at the end of verse 7.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – The Great Assembly

He calls a great assembly against the offenders. Can you imagine that? A GREAT assembly.

I’m not sure how many people we’re talking about attending this assembly. But I’m sure all the nobles and rulers were there. They were probably stationed in the middle where everyone could see them.

Then of course the oppressed poor Jews would have been there. This meeting was of special interest to them. Really, their lives depended on the outcome of this assembly.

Then of course Nehemiah was there serving as the prosecution and judge. And here’s what he says to the nobles and rulers. Verse 8.

8 And I said unto them,

We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heathen;

and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us?

Then held they their peace, and found nothing to answer.

Here’s Nehemiah’s first round of questioning.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Buying Back Slaves

He reminds the nobles and rulers that the Jews by and large had been sold to the nations. After the exile they were scattered and many apparently were sold off as slaves to Gentiles.

And Nehemiah and some of his partners – maybe even including some of these nobles and rulers! –  were active in buying back these Jews from the nations. We wouldn’t have known that unless he had just revealed it here.

Now, I’m sure that wasn’t cheap – buying back a person out of slavery. It’s something that Nehemiah didn’t need to do. No one was forcing him to buy back Jews from slavery. And yet he did it out of love for his fellow-Jews.

So in light of Nehemiah’s generous actions can you imagine how frustrating the actions of the rich Jews must have been. Now it wasn’t the Gentiles who were enslaving the poor Jews. It was the Jews themselves enslaving one another!

And here’s the most frustrating part of all. Nehemiah wouldn’t let this enslaving go on. He and his partners would buy back these Jews. And I’m guessing that some of these Jews Nehemiah had already emancipated from the Gentiles just a little while ago. And here they are again, needing Nehemiah to buy them back once more. Can you envision that? A Jew is bought back from slavery to a Gentile only to become a slave to a fellow Jew only to be bought back by Nehemiah. And the cycle continues. Isn’t that absurd?

Nehemiah 5 Summary – More Questions

How would these rich Jews defend themselves against this charge? Well we saw it already. They couldn’t find a word to say in their defense. They knew they had done wrong.

But that doesn’t stop Nehemiah from stating the obvious in verses 9 through 11.

9 Also I said,

It is not good that ye do: ought ye not to walk in the fear of our God because of the reproach of the heathen our enemies? 10 I likewise, and my brethren, and my servants, might exact of them money and corn: I pray you, let us leave off this usury. 11 Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their oliveyards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the oil, that ye exact of them.

Here’s Nehemiah’s second round of questioning.

He asserts very simply that what they’re doing to their poor brethren is not good. He asks rhetorically whether they ought to walk in the what? The fear of God. That should remind you of the passage we read earlier in Leviticus. You remember that the motivation for the people not exacting usury or interest from their poor brothers was that they should be fearing God.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Why Fear God?

And what’s interesting is that in this passage we see deeper motivation to fear God in the first place. So, why should they not collect interest on their brothers? Because they should fear God. Why should they fear God? Well, in this passage he says the motivation to fear God should come at least from the fact that they have enemies around them that are reproaching them. Not just the poor Jews but also the rich Jews are being subjected to this ridicule and derision from their enemies. It’s like Nehemiah is saying, “Don’t you understand that we as the people of God need to be unified? The enemies know that we’re weak. They’d love to see us fighting among ourselves. And you rich Jews who are claiming to be God-fearers and servants of God – if you oppress your brother, what kind of testimony is that to these unrighteous enemies of ours?”

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Stop the Usury

And the end of verse 10 and into verse 11 is Nehemiah’s plea to the rich Jews – please stop charging interest to your poor brothers. Lend them money without interest. Give them food without making a profit off of them. Restore the land that you took from them. And stop taking the money and food that you are continually charging them.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – The Rich Respond

Now, this is the moment of truth. These rich folks probably held quite a bit of sway in the Jewish community. This series of questions from Nehemiah may have been humiliating to them. They may not have appreciated being the focal point of this great assembly that Nehemiah called against them. How would they respond to this call to action? This is really the most tense part of this scene.

Let’s see how the rich Jews respond in verse 12.

12 Then said they,

We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest.

Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise.

Wow, the nobles and rulers humbled themselves and adopted Nehemiah’s plan. What a relief. Just what the Jews didn’t need was to be fractured any further in the midst of their hostile enemies.

And this shows again what we’ve seen already in this book – this tendency of the Jews after the exile to be pretty malleable when confronted with their wrongdoing.

And I’m sure Nehemiah was pretty relieved to hear their response. But he really wants to make sure they stick to their word. So he calls the priests to take an oath from the nobles and rulers that they would keep their promise.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Object Lesson

Then Nehemiah gives them an object lesson to help them remember to do right. Verse 13.

13 Also I shook my lap, and said,

So God shake out every man from his house, and from his labour, that performeth not this promise, even thus be he shaken out, and emptied. And all the congregation said, Amen, and praised the LORD. And the people did according to this promise.

Nehemiah takes his dusty old robe – a robe that had seen a lot of hard labor on the dirty wall – a robe that had been worn in the dusty, near-desert conditions of Jerusalem, spending numberless hours every day pulling dusty stones out of dusty piles of dusty rubbish.

Nehemiah takes hold of this dusty old robe and he shakes it. He shakes it hard.

I can imagine that when he did this, some dust probably just fell to the ground. The rest probably was launched into the air. Before that, that dust had settled pretty well on Nehemiah’s garment. But when he shook it out, some landed on the ground. The rest flew into the air. But none remained on Nehemiah.

And that was to be a solemn warning to those who would transgress this promise they made to not lend to their brothers with interest. They were settled in the land just like that dust was settled on Nehemiah’s clothes. But God would shake them out of the land if they disobeyed.

I think that got the point across. The people rejoiced that justice had been done. The nobles and rulers did according to their promise. Praise the Lord for a leader like Nehemiah. Godly leaders fear God and love his people. In this situation this godly leader was motivated to fear God even when those he was leading were not.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Love in Two Forms

And his love for God’s people took two forms.

How did he love the oppressed, disadvantaged, and offended among God’s people? He made matters right for them. He saw to it that they were no longer mistreated.

And how did Nehemiah show love to those who were doing the mistreating? He insisted that they stop their injustices against their brothers.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – More Love

And this isn’t the only instance of Nehemiah fearing God and loving God’s people. Let’s read verse 14.

14 ¶ Moreover from the time that I was appointed to be their governor in the land of Judah, from the twentieth year even unto the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that is, twelve years, I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor.

Alright, what do we have here? Nehemiah is refusing himself and his brothers the bread of the governor.

Who was the governor? Well, the beginning of the verse says that Nehemiah himself was the governor.

So what is this “bread of the governor?” Apparently as we learn in the rest of this chapter the governor had a right according to Persian law to eat his food at the expense of those whom he governed.

Nehemiah did not claim any such right. He could have done so lawfully. But he refused.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – A Love That Refuses Luxury

I wonder why. Keep reading – verse 15.

15 But the former governors that had been before me were chargeable unto the people, and had taken of them bread and wine, beside forty shekels of silver; yea, even their servants bare rule over the people:

but so did not I, because of the fear of God.

So we see here that Nehemiah was acting in stark contrast to those who preceded him.

Who were these governors anyway? Well, we don’t know – at least I don’t. The Bible doesn’t say. Nehemiah surely isn’t talking about Zerubbabel. He had been gone for a number of decades by this point.

Well, whoever these former governors were they apparently liked to live at the expense of the destitute Jews. They took from the Jews. They took bread. They took wine. They took silver. And if that wasn’t bad enough even their lowly servants oppressed the Jews.

But Nehemiah was completely different.

And I just asked this before. But why was he so different? Look at the last four words of verse 15. There’s that phrase again! The fear of God. That’s what motivated Nehemiah to do right. This loving reverential fear of displeasing God. And whenever we’re truly fearing displeasing God, we’re bound to do right to his people. And this is what happened with Nehemiah.

Now really Nehemiah was in a pretty comfortable position. He could have just kind of coasted along at the expense of the Jews. But he didn’t. He testifies to that fact in verse 16.

16 Yea, also I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land: and all my servants were gathered thither unto the work.

Do you see the singularity of mind that Nehemiah had? He was missional in his approach to life. He came to Jerusalem to work on that wall. And work on that wall, he did! He didn’t even busy himself with purchasing land.

And his servants? Well, they certainly weren’t slacking either. They were gathered to work right alongside this godly leader who feared God and loved his people.

Nehemiah 5 Summary – More to Love

And if these considerations haven’t made us love and admire Nehemiah enough we have the content of verses 17 and 18.

17 Moreover there were at my table an hundred and fifty of the Jews and rulers, beside those that came unto us from among the heathen that are about us.

18 Now that which was prepared for me daily was one ox and six choice sheep; also fowls were prepared for me, and once in ten days store of all sorts of wine:

yet for all this required not I the bread of the governor, because the bondage was heavy upon this people.

Imagine packing 150 plus people into your house for every meal! And imagine cooking all the things that Nehemiah provided for his scores of guests every day! Oxen, sheep, birds, wine to flavor and disinfect their water. I imagine they also had some vegetables.

This would be costly to Nehemiah. This would require his servants – because I’m gathering that he didn’t have a wife – it would require that his servants clean and prepare for each of these meals. This would be a lot of work and a significant expense.

But you don’t hear a hint of complaint from this godly leader. He says he didn’t take the governor’s food allowance as he mentioned earlier. I mean he had every right to take it. He was feeding a number of his subjects. But he fed them for free. Well, it was free to them. It cost him quite a bit I imagine.

And yet he gladly bore the extra expense. Why? He says at the end of verse 18 – he sympathized with the people. The burden was already very heavy on the people. They were maxed out physically and monetarily. They had nothing else to give.

So Nehemiah, who feared God and loved his people, he took the extra burden upon himself.

Again, I am really put to shame by Nehemiah’s example. What a godly leader. Oh that each of us husbands were this kind of leader to his wife. That us parents were this kind of leader to our children. That we would appreciate our own godly leaders who exemplify for us Nehemiah’s fear of God and love for people. God help us!

Nehemiah 5 Summary – Humility

I want to point out one last thing. Have you noticed who’s been writing this book thus far? You see a lot of 1st person personal pronouns – I, me, my, our, us. Nehemiah is writing this about himself.

Can you imagine being the kind of man that Nehemiah was and writing these glowing things about yourself? I personally do not doubt that I’d be lifted up with pride as I put my quill to parchment trying to describe what I did for God and his people.

But what’s Nehemiah’s attitude? What audience is he appealing to as he writes about these things that God had done through him? Let’s finally read verse 19.

19 Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.

Is Nehemiah recording these things for his own vainglory? No. That’s not what’s in his heart. He’s not doing these things, he’s not writing this book, for the sake of having men praise him.

He’s doing it in God’s sight alone. If others see, that’s fine. But he must have God notice. He wants praise from him alone. That’s his sole focus.

God help each of us who are leaders in any capacity to fear him and love his people just as Nehemiah did.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon

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.

Why?

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.

Why?

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.

Nehemiah 2:10 – 3:32

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.