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A study of Nehemiah: Men of courage

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Nehemiah 4

Every day in America: 40 Americans turn 100; 5,800 become 65; and 8,000 try to forget their 40th birthdays. The U.S. government issues 50 more pages of regulations. 20,000 write letters to the president. 13,000 get married, while 6,300 get divorced. Dogs bite 11,000 people, including 20 mail carriers. We eat 75 acres of pizza, 53 million hot dogs, 3 million gallons of ice cream, and 3,000 tons of candy. We then jog 75 million miles to burn it all off.

So it is in a “normal” day. But these days are anything but normal. Historians are already calling this financial crisis “the Great Recession.” Pre-owned home sales in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area fell 28% from a year ago; Southwest Airlines’ revenues declined in February and are doing the same in March; late mortgage payments are rising in Texas.

Things aren’t much better for pastors: Monday’s Dallas Morning News reported that “authorities charged a South Carolina pastor accused of setting fire to his own church with second-degree arson. Anderson County Fire Chief Billy Gibson said Christopher Daniels, 40, reported a fire at Blue Ridge Baptist Church in Belton when he opened the church for services Sunday morning.” Now it seems that he set the fire himself. Anything to get something moving in the church, I guess.

What makes it hard for you to follow and serve Jesus today? Is it temptation from the enemy? Hardships and fears with regard to the economy and your job? Struggles within your family?

Jesus warned us that in this world we would suffer tribulation (John 16:33). Paul said that we must through much tribulation enter the Kingdom of God (Acts 14:22). Following Jesus is always a matter of courage; taking up our cross, getting out of the boat; standing up to the authorities. If you don’t need courage to serve Jesus today, you’re not serving Jesus fully. Here’s what to do when you need such courage this week.

Expect to be ridiculed (vs. 1-6)

The text begins: “When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble–burned as they are?” (vs. 1-2).

“Sanballat the Horonite” was probably from Beth-Horon, a town 15 miles northeast of Jerusalem. A papyri written in 407 B.C., 37 years after the event, tells us that he was the “governor of Samaria,” the region just to the north. He wanted to consolidate his power, and rightly saw the reestablishment of Jerusalem as a significant threat to his agenda.

He ridiculed the Jews in the most public manner, before his ruling cabinet. He spoke before “the army of Samaria,” marshalling them in military maneuvers as a threat to Jerusalem. He called them “feeble,” a word which means to be “withered” or “miserable.”

He claimed that they would not be able to restore their wall or offer sacrifices. They think they can “finish in a day,” before their enemies attack them. Their stones are “burned” by the Babylonians, thus missing the iron which held them together and significantly weakened in their composition.

In short, their project was doomed before it began.

He was joined by “Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side,” meaning that they were partners in leadership. Tobiah added, “What they are building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!” (v. 3). A fox (more likely a “jackal”) weighs only a few pounds; one was likely to climb up and over any wall built in that part of the world. If even a fox could destroy their protective walls, what might an invading army do?

Nehemiah’s response was exactly the right thing to do: “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders” (v. 4-5).

Go to God, first. Do not try to solve your problem yourself, call on your advisors, or negotiate with your enemy. If he had attacked the Samaritan governor, he would have been in violation of the law and would have brought Persian reprisal.

Tell him your specific problem. Ask him for his specific answers, protection, and help.

With this result: “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart” (v. 6).

Nehemiah later wrote that the entire project was completed in 52 days (eight weeks of six days each); this part probably took four weeks to finish. The people knew that God would be their protector and provider. But only because Nehemiah went to God first.

Ridicule is one of the enemy’s tactics against the people of God. What did Goliath do when David came to fight him? “He looked David over and saw that he was only a boy, ruddy and handsome, and he despised him. He said to David, ‘Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?’ And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. ‘Come here,’ he said, ‘and I’ll give your flesh to the birds of the air and the beasts of the field!'” (1 Samuel 17:42-44).

Jesus fared no better on the cross: “The men who were guarding Jesus began mocking and beating him. They blindfolded him and demanded, ‘Prophesy! Who hit you?’ And they said many other insulting things to him” (Luke 22:63-65).

So it has been for all the heroes of the faith: “Some faced jeers and flogging, while still others were chained and put in prison” (Hebrews 11:36). When we face challenges, it is human nature to wonder if the fault is ours, if we are to blame. “I am not who I think I am, or who you think I am—I am who I think that you think I am.”

Fight for the kingdom (vs. 7-15)

Such rapid response made Jerusalem even more of a threat to their enemies, with this response: “But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it” (vs. 7-8).

Sanballat was from the north in Samaria. Tobiah was from Ammon, to the east. “The Arabs” were from the south. “The men of Ashdod” were Philistines living west of Jerusalem. They were a warlike people, well prepared for such a battle.

And so, the enemies of Jerusalem would have attacked from all sides, leaving the people nowhere to turn or run. This was the gravest threat they had faced since returning to the city 70 years earlier.

What did Nehemiah do? “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat” (v. 9). Pray to God—first. Post a guard—day and night. Sometimes God tells us to get out of the boat, but usually presumption is a sin, like jumping from the Temple heights.

Some threats come from without, others from within: “Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, ‘The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall'” (v. 10). The workers were growing too tired to continue the work. Their circumstances were intolerable as well; “rubbish” translates the Hebrew word for “dust,” the rubble left from the Babylonian destruction in 586 B.C.

Still others are anonymous rather than public: “Also our enemies said, ‘Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.’ Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, ‘Wherever you turn, they will attack us'” (vs. 11-12).

“Enemies” translates the Hebrew word sar, meaning those who cause harm. The enemies of the people not only threatened Nehemiah publicly, they also spread rumors and fear among the people as well. The second strategy would be even more effective than the first.

Nehemiah’s response: “Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes'” (vs. 13-14).

It must have been hard for Nehemiah to put entire families together and at risk. But he knew that the men would not abandon their families to rebuild the walls, so he did whatever was necessary.

All the while, he encouraged them to trust in God and fight for each other. With this result: “When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work” (vs. 15).

Expect to be threatened if you will follow Jesus fully. But know that you fight for all of God’s people, not just yourself. Your witness and service affect the entire Kingdom. You cannot measure the future significance of present obedience.

Prepare for battle daily (vs. 16-23)

Divide the labor and protection: “From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me” (vs. 16-18).

Half protected the other half at any one time. The officers posted themselves as protection, encouraging the workers (as they would be the first to fall in battle). Those bringing bricks and mortar from the stockpiles and quarries brought their sword with them, as they were exposed to danger. The builders worked with two hands, with sword at the side.

Trumpeters stayed with Nehemiah to sound the alarm whenever necessary. Thus each did their part of the work. So it is with the body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12, 14; the vine and branches, John 15).

Stay in communication with each other: “Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!'” (vs. 19-20).

We hang together or we all hang separately. Expect division within the family of God.

Be ready and diligent: “So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out. At that time I also said to the people, “Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night, so they can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day.” Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water” (vs. 21-23).

Those living outside the city, where they would be away from the first attack, moved into Jerusalem. None ever took off their clothes, so they would be ready for battle whenever it came.

Be ready every day for spiritual warfare. God’s word tells us how in Ephesians 6. The full armor of God protests the front, not the back, since we are not to retreat from the enemy.

Thomas Merton: “I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. And I know if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear for you are ever with me and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”