06 Neh 4-7 Nehemiah Builds Despite OppositionEzra, Nehemiah, & Esther: Restore, Rebuild, & Redeem
06 Neh 4-7 Nehemiah Builds Despite Opposition
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Once again, I have extensively used and copied from the Truth for Today Commentary on Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, written by my friend and former colleague at Heritage Christian University, Coy D. Roper, Ph.D. I highly recommend it!
Nehemiah 4 – Opposition to Nehemiah from Without
Neh 4:1-6 – The Ridiculing of the Work
— Neh 4:1-3 – The Enemies’ Psychological Warfare
Threatened politically by the Jews’ progress on the wall, Sanballat was enraged. Because he had no legal, logical, or physical way to stop them, he resorted to ridicule. What a powerful tool! He called them feeble. He questioned their ability to do the job. He indicated it would take much longer than they anticipated. He pointed out the lack of proper building materials.
Tobiah joined in the attack. He claimed that, even if they finished the wall, it would be insufficient to defend against even the weakest of enemies.
— Neh 4:4-6 – Nehemiah’s Spiritual Response: Prayer and Work
While Nehemiah’s prayer was strong and called for divine judgment, he had good reason for it. What had they done that deserved such condemnation? They had demoralized the builders. That’s what mockery does. That’s why Nehemiah prayed as fervently as he did that they not be forgiven. He was not taking vengeance himself but rather leaving “room for the wrath of God” (Rom 12:19).
Are people ever past the point at which prayer can benefit them? Yes, in the sense that God will not hear or honor prayers of those who are in rebellion against Him.
Is 59:1 Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short That it cannot save; Nor is His ear so dull That it cannot hear. 2 But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear.
Yahweh even told the prophet Jeremiah twice not to pray for those people in his time who had chosen to defy and disobey Him.
Je 7:16 “As for you, do not pray for this people, and do not lift up cry or prayer for them, and do not intercede with Me; for I do not hear you.
Je 11:14 “Therefore do not pray for this people, nor lift up a cry or prayer for them; for I will not listen when they call to Me because of their disaster.
Of course, at the cross Jesus prayed in Lk 23:34, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” Following his example, as Stephen was being stoned, he prayed (Ac 7:60), “Lord, do not hold this sin against them!” Having said this, he fell asleep. So, in the hopes that others may yet repent, we’ll keep praying for them!
Nehemiah not only prayed; he kept building! The Jews finished the entire wall to half its height. How? Why? “The people had a mind to work.”
In other words, they persevered and refused to quit. Between the ridicule and the resumption of the work was prayer. Prayer put the adversaries back in God’s hands and freed the Jews to pick up their tools and get busy.
Neh 4:7-10 – The Threat of Force
The Arab opposers, presumably led by Geshem, lived south of the Jews’ homeland. Ammon was east of Jerusalem, and Samaria was north of Judah. Ashdod had been one of the Philistines’ major cities, and its name now referred to the entire province on Judah’s western border. In other words, the conspiracy involved enemies on all sides!
Setting the guard did not reflect a lack of faith but rather a sense of responsibility. Just like building the wall itself, taking this precaution was a means of using the practical tools and measures that God Himself provided.
Verse 10 records what may have been a poem or a song. There were two discouraging factors that made it seem that the builders could not get the job done. One was their own weariness and exhaustion; the other was the abundance of rubbish and rubble. Yet, despite these obstacles, they persevered with faith and zeal!
Neh 4:11-15 – Surprise Attack Planned and Thwarted
Though the enemies intended to strike the Jews suddenly and unexpectedly, there were Jewish sympathizers who overheard them and informed Nehemiah and those with him. As a result, Nehemiah took decisive preventive action. He set armed people in all the places that were vulnerable. He saw the widespread fear and responded to it head on with challenging, encouraging words.
“Remember the Lord and fight!” These two elements – trust in God and diligent human effort – were not contradictory. The one enabled the other.
Neh 4:16-23 – Nehemiah’s Plan for the Defense of the Wall
This strategic response to threatened danger rings with practical preparation and determination. “My servants” may refer to a special corps of men under Nehemiah’s command. Half of them would work while the other half held the defensive weapons in case of attack. Regarding each the builders, one hand carried his load and the other carried his weapon. Each wore a sword at his side.
The trumpeter’s role was also vital. In case of an attack, the trumpet sound would rally the people quickly so that they could fight. “Our God will fight for us” obviously did not mean “instead of us,” but “on our behalf as we fight.”
Takeaways from Nehemiah 4
Responding to Ridicule – Insults and mockery are intended to demoralize others and derail their efforts. The anti-Christian elements in our culture today have used such tactics effectively. Yet such words reflect desperation. Those who tried to destroy the cause of Christ through words are actually afraid and threatened, and so they go on the attack. Nehemiah’s two responses are the best: keep on working on our God-given task and keep on praying for God to deal with the opposition.
Plotting in Secret – So often whispered words are overheard and repeated to others who were never intended to know about them! Private criticisms, emails, texts, photos, and meetings do not stay that way. Jesus said, “But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known. Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops” (Lk 12:2-3). That can be a good, even a necessary thing when lives are at stake. At such times we must not, we dare not be silent. However, much harm can result when that is not the case. The best solution is to act and speak in such a way that, if we are overheard and repeated, it will be okay!
Offence and Defense – We often say, “On the one hand … but on the other hand …” Using one hand to build means moving forward, making progress, and accomplishing what has not yet been done. Using the other hand to protect against danger means taking precautions so that we are not attacked from behind. The Christian life is a balance between the two. Though Nehemiah and the others concentrated on completing the task before them, rebuilding the wall, they never left their weapons behind, even when going for water.
Nehemiah 5 – Problems for Nehemiah from Within
Neh 5:1-5 – The Problem: Mistreating Borrowers
As Roper notes, “The rich were taking advantage of the poor by lending them money at high interest rates. They were taking the borrowers’ property, and even their children, when they could not repay their loans.”
The mention of the wives may suggest that the women felt desperate in their desires to feed their children. Therefore, they were emboldened to speak out, as they might not otherwise have done.
There were three groups of those in distress. The first cried out because they lacked grain with which to feed their families. The second group had taken additional steps, mortgaging their property to get grain, since a famine (only mentioned here in Nehemiah) had destroyed their crops. The third group had borrowed money to pay the king’s required taxes.
It was their own flesh – their fellow Israelites – who were forcing them into slavery and bondage. This was in violation of the Law of Moses.
Dt 23:19 “You shall not charge interest to your countrymen: interest on money, food, or anything that may be loaned at interest. 20 “You may charge interest to a foreigner, but to your countrymen you shall not charge interest, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you undertake in the land which you are about to enter to possess.
See Roper’s commentary for an extended discussion of financial regulations described in the law.
Neh 5:6-13 – The Solution: Repentance and Restoration
Nehemiah was enraged, filled with righteous indignation, perhaps similar to Jesus’ anger that led him the cleanse the temple of the moneychangers. Being the great leader that he was, Nehemiah addressed the issue and the people clearly and directly.
His rhetorical question was irrefutable. “How can we redeem our brothers (buy their freedom from slavery) and then turn around and sell them again?” The people had no answer.
Nehemiah went deeper. He accused them of not walking in the fear of God. In other words, if they had truly revered Yahweh, they would not have dared to defy His instructions and prohibitions in this matter. Furthermore, he told them that their disobedience to God would give the nations, their enemies, legitimate reason to reproach them. How could they claim to serve Yahweh before these nations and yet reject His law?
Next, Nehemiah used himself as an example. When he said, “I, my brothers and my servants are lending them money and grain,” he must have meant, “lending without charging interest.” (If he himself had been charging interest, he would not have become enraged to hear that others were doing so.)
He called on them to return all the items they had taken from others, in addition to returning the hundredth part of the money, which was likely the interest they had charged. Roper suggests that this was perhaps 1 percent per month.
When the people agreed, Nehemiah went further. In the presence of the priests, he had all those in the assembly to take a public oath.
Beyond that, he shook out his garment as a visual demonstration. The prophets often used this technique as well. Of course, when a garment was shaken, its contents would fall out. In a similar way, Nehemiah stated that anyone who violated this oath would be shaken and emptied of his possessions.
Neh 5:14-19 – The Example: Following God’s Law
Nehemiah was duly appointed as the governor of Judah, and he served for twelve years in that capacity. However, he was so determined not to take advantage of his role that he and his kinsman refused to use the food allowance that was rightfully his. In this way he was the exact opposite of those who had gone before him. No one could say that Nehemiah was working just to get the benefits that came with the job.
He set another powerful example by working personally on the wall, along with his servants. He would not buy any land, even though the purchase prices for land may have been very low at this time.
On what did he base his decision? First of all, he was moved by the fear of God. Cf. Neh 5:9, which we just considered. Secondly, he was aware that “the servitude was heavy on this people,” and he did not want to put himself above them unnecessarily.
His prayer, asking God to remember him for the good he has done, showed that his purpose in all that he did was to honor Yahweh and receive His commendation.
Takeaways from Nehemiah 5
Learning to Listen – Effective leaders keep their doors, their ears, and their hearts open. Rather than ignoring the people’s outcry, they sympathetically and fairly considering the merits of the complaint. Nehemiah, angry over the reports he heard, consulted with himself (thought it over) and then confronted those at fault and corrected their wrongs. In the New Testament, the apostles heard the concern of the Greek-speaking widows regarding the daily serving of food. They called on the congregation in Jerusalem to choose seven men, whom they placed over this ministry.
Loving Our Neighbors – Rather than sharing their blessings with their impoverished fellow Jews and showing them compassion, the nobles and rulers took advantage of them. God had said clearly in the law, in Lev 19:9-10, “Now when you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very corners of your field, nor shall you gather the gleanings of your harvest. Nor shall you glean your vineyard, nor shall you gather the fallen fruit of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the needy and for the stranger. I am the LORD your God.” Then He added these familiar words, later quoted by Christ as the second great commandment, in Lev 19:18: “… you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am the LORD.”
Making Things Right – When one has done wrong and is confronted, he has two choices. He can either make excuses or make corrections. To be completely free of blame, he may choose as these did, to give back every item and every cent that he has taken. In the New Testament, when Zacchaeus the tax collector met the Lord, he stopped and told him, “Behold, Lord, half of my possessions I will give to the poor, and if I have defrauded anyone of anything, I will give back four times as much” (Lk 19:8). In the next verse Jesus said, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he, too, is a son of Abraham” (Lk 19:9).
Leading by Example – By denying himself the allowance that was genuinely his as the governor, Nehemiah taught through his actions what words alone could not accomplish. When we confirm what we say by what we do, others will witness our sincerity and consistency. Critics cannot fairly accuse us of hypocrisy. In Paul’s final words to the elders from Ephesus, he said, “I have coveted no one’s silver or gold or clothes. You yourselves know that these hands ministered to my own needs and to the men who were with me. In everything I showed you that by working hard in this manner you must help the weak and remember the words of the Lord Jesus, that He Himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive’ ” (Acts 20:33-35).
Nehemiah 6 – Enemies Defeated and the Wall Completed
Neh 6:1-9 – First Plot: “Come Out and Consult!”
Alarmed by the progress on the wall, opponents Sanballat and Geshem requested a meeting with Nehemiah. Their intent was not to investigate or to negotiate but rather to harm Nehemiah. They tried no less than four times to pull Nehemiah away from the work and injure or kill him. After all, if they could take out the prime leader, they could possibly regain political and economic control over all the people of Judah.
Four times they asked the same thing, and four times Nehemiah answered in the same way. “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” The words speak for themselves.
“Chepharim” is translated in some versions as “one of the villages.” Translators must choose in some cases whether to transliterate a Hebrew word with English letters (“Chepharim”) or whether to translate that word into its English meaning (“one of the villages”).
Roper: “The plain of Ono” is thought to have been twenty-five miles northwest of Jerusalem, not far from the border with Samaria and Ashdod.
Nehemiah’s enemies were persistent! As if four attempts were not enough, there was a fifth. Sanballat sent his servant to Nehemiah with a false, threatening letter, claiming that the Jews were building the wall so that they could rebel and so that Nehemiah would be declared king. That would be reported to Artaxerxes, the Persian monarch, who would then likely send his troops to put the rebellion down. Gashmu (an alternate spelling of Geshem) was spreading this lie as well.
Nehemiah could see the motivation behind it all. He responded briefly, confronting the lie, but he did not waste a long time disproving it. Instead of allowing them to intimidate, frighten, and weaken his resolve, Nehemiah asked God to “strengthen my hands.”
Neh 6:10-14 – Second Plot: “Flee and Escape!”
This Shemaiah may have invited Nehemiah to his house, claiming to be ill at home. He falsely claimed that he was trying to save Nehemiah from assassination. He said, “Your enemies will kill you unless you meet with us in the temple and lock the doors!”
Though Nehemiah had used some protective measures, such as setting guards and having the builders wear swords, those measures did not prevent the further construction of the wall. However, he refused to flee from the task just to spare himself. “Such a one as I” may be a reference to his role and example as a leader of the people. How could he, who was to be an example of courage and perseverance, show others that it’s permissible to run and hide?
Apparently Nehemiah had also learned to read people. He realized that God had not sent this man to save him but that instead Tobiah and Sanballat had hired this man to stop him. If Nehemiah had done what he said he would have sinned. He would have given God’s enemies reason to reproach him. They could say, “O that coward Nehemiah! He was so scared that he locked himself in the temple! He must not have faith in his God. His God must not be real!”
Again Nehemiah prayed for God to take note of these enemies and their attempts to frighten him. This is the only biblical reference to Noadiah, a false prophetess named among those who joined in this attempt.
Neh 6:15-16 – The Completion of the Wall
“So the wall was completed.” Think of all that had occurred so that these five significant words could be spoken! “In fifty-two days.” It seemed so much longer because of delays, external opposition, and internal issues that had to be resolved. The date of completion has been identified as October 2, 445 BC.
If Nehemiah had quit, the enemies and the nations would have rejoiced and blamed Yahweh and all the Jews. However, since Nehemiah did not lose his confidence, the enemies ultimately lost theirs when the wall was completed! Through the Jews’ faith and perseverance, those who opposed them recognized the presence and involvement of God Himself.
Neh 6:17-19 – Opposition from Jewish Friends of the Enemy
Tobiah had connections with some of the “higher-ups” in Judah, and he and they continued to correspond with each other. He had married into a prominent Jewish family, and those ties led them to take an oath to support him. They spoke highly about Tobiah to Nehemiah, and then they reported back to Tobiah whatever Nehemiah said in reply. Tobiah used what they told him to write yet more intimidating letters to Nehemiah.
Takeaways from Nehemiah 6
Dealing with Discouragement – There are plenty of naysayers in this world, those whose egos or agendas are threatened by our efforts for good. They know that intimidation, doubt, fear, and ridicule are powerful tools that can disable or derail almost anything. However, courageous leaders see through such tactics and refuse to stop the Lord’s work to respond to such attacks. Instead, they press on and ask God for further strength. When the early followers of Jesus were persecuted in Jerusalem, they prayed, “And now, Lord, take note of their threats, and grant that Your bond-servants may speak Your word with all confidence …” (Acts 4:29).
Refusing to Run – Many of us have heard of the “fight or flight” scenario in which a person must choose one response or the other. In such situations, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going.” They go into the conflict, unwilling to tuck their tales in fear. When Jesus was arrested, all the disciples with Him forsook Him and fled (Mk 14:50). After His resurrection, however, Acts 4:13 reports, “Now as [the Jewish leaders] observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus.” These apostles faced persecution, torture, and death because they would not back down.
Seeing Things Through – Anything that’s worth starting is worth finishing. If something is not important enough to see it through, then what is the value is initiating it? If leaders allow a good work to stall, the participants will be frustrated and demoralized. Procrastination occurs for many reasons. Perhaps we’re concerned about the overall size of the entire project when instead we should simply focus on the next right step. About the importance of counting the cost regarding discipleship Jesus said in Lk 14:28-30, “For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’” Paul urged the Corinthian brethren to follow up on their earlier desire to contribute to help the poor saints in Judea by completing their gift. “But now finish doing it also, so that just as there was the readiness to desire it, so there may be also the completion of it by your ability” (2 Co 8:11).
Nehemiah 7 – The Securing and Repopulating of Jerusalem
Roper: Nehemiah had arrived in Jerusalem in 445 B.C. to help restore the city. After the completion of the rebuilding of the wall, he provided for the city’s security. As the governor in Judah (5:14), he first made sure that Jerusalem was constantly guarded. Second, he determined to have the city populated with faithful Jews. To that end, he took a census of the people. He found a record of the names of those who had traveled from Babylon to Judah with Zerubbabel. This record, which is found in Ezra 2, is included by Nehemiah in this chapter.
Neh 7:1-3 – Provisions Made for Protecting the City
Jerusalem needed more than a wall, doors, and gatekeepers. The city needed responsible leaders to watch over and protect the people. Nehemiah appointed his own brother, Hanani, who first brought him the news of the city’s condition (Neh 1), and Hananiah the faithful commander of the fortress, in charge of the city.
Note these two indispensable traits. “He was faithful, and he feared God more than many.” These are excellent criteria for anyone who would serve God and lead people effectively.
Neh 7:4-5 – A Solution for a Depopulated City
Overcrowding was not an issue in Jerusalem at this time; it was just the opposite. To strengthen the security and livelihood of the city, Nehemiah would have to address the scarcity of people and houses in large, open spaces.
When Nehemiah said again, “My God put it into my heart” (cf. Neh 2:12), he credited the Lord as providing the inspiration for what he was about to do. The assembly that followed, described in Nehemiah 8, resulted in the reading of God’s word, the repentance of the people, and the renewal of the covenant.
Why would Nehemiah enroll the people by genealogies? Why in particular would the genealogy of those who returned with Zerubbabel nearly one hundred years earlier be so vital?
In addition to repopulating Jerusalem, Nehemiah apparently wanted to verify that those who settled there were truly Jews, descendants of those who had returned from Babylon so long ago.
Neh 7:6-73 – Those Who Returned with Zerubbabel
This text records the names and numbers of the returned exiles, along with the gifts the people gave to the temple and the livestock they had brought with them from Babylon. The list is virtually identical with the list in Ezra 2. The Jews kept meticulous archives of their biological roots. Knowing their past lineage defined to some extent their present identity and clarified their future direction.
The seventh month – Roper quotes Schoville as noting: “Tishri (Sept/Oct) was a very significant month for religious activities in Judaism. According to Leviticus 23:24, 26 and 34, events included the Feast of Trumpets on the first day (later identified as Rosh Hashanah, the New Year); the day of Atonement (Yom Kippur) on the tenth; and the Feast of Tabernacles (Succoth, or Booths), beginning on the fifteenth day.”
Takeaways from Nehemiah 7
Faith and Fear – What two traits made Hananiah a worthy commander and overseer? Nehemiah said that “he was a faithful man and feared God more than many.” One who lives by faith in God and the fear of God is able to lead others to develop these very same qualities.
Insights and Impressions – We cannot say today in the same direct way as Nehemiah, “God put this or that into my heart.” We cannot claim inspiration, nor do we hear Him speak to us or see Him in biblical visions. We must be careful not to equate our intuition or inclinations with some miraculous, direct “prompting” from the Holy Spirit. We cannot assume that our own thoughts, impulses, or desires are some divine means by which God tells us whom to marry, which job to take, which house to buy, etc. Instead, we ask God to help us understand the Scriptures and follow their clear commands and principles. We read in Jas 1:5, “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him.” We can pray, as we read in Eph 1:17-18, “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened, so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints …”