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Overcoming Difficulties

Nehemiah 4:1-7:3

Sunday 23rd June, 2019


In the first three chapters of the Book of Nehemiah we have seen how God can work through one good leader, but also through many good followers. We have seen significant achievement, but we have also seen great difficulties. So it shouldn’t surprise us that the next stage of this story contains a series of difficulties, as well as the overcoming of these difficulties. Let’s read on in Nehemiah’s story, looking at the next three-and-a-bit chapters as the account of difficulty after difficulty, but also as the account of the overcoming of these difficulties.

Overcoming Ridicule (4:1-6)

The first difficulty faced is ridicule. Some would say that this is not a serious difficulty. They might remind us of the old saying, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” At the level of physical injury this is true, but at an emotional level words can hurt, and they can help. Words of ridicule, in particular, are hurtful, and most of us find them hard to take. I’m sure that the people who had committed themselves to the great task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem found the ridicule of Sanballat and Tobiah, and those with them, hard to take. Read 4:1-3.

“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?’ Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, ‘What they are building – even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!’”

The Jews have come to this great task with high hopes, but Sanballat and Tobiah scorn their hopes and belittle their abilities. And we should note that they have the sticks and stones to back up their words. The army of Samaria stands behind Sanballat and Tobiah, and it constitutes an implied threat to go beyond ridicule. So what do the Jewish people do in response to this ridicule? They pray! And Nehemiah records their prayer – read 4:4-5.

“Hear us, 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.”

This is not the most admirable prayer found in Scripture, but God doesn’t only hear admirable prayers. This is an honest prayer, a prayer which expresses to God their genuine feelings and their genuine desire for God’s help. And this is a prayer of faith, because it assumes that God is able to do something about their situation of weakness. And God does do something. Read 4:6.

“So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.”

God is with them, and they succeed in continuing their task. Indeed, they succeed in making great and measurable progress. They succeed because they have put their faith in a great God, and they succeed because they put their faith into action, because they work with all their heart. The difficulty of ridicule has been overcome, but there are other difficulties to be faced.

Overcoming Plotting and Threats(4:7-23)

Read 4:7-8.

“But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people 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.”

The very fact that God’s people have continued to build the walls, and have made considerable progress, provokes their opponents to anger. And their anger is expressed in plotting, which issues in the threat of hostile military action. The response of the Jews to this threat bears the unmistakable mark of Nehemiah’s leadership – read 4:9.

“But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”

Not prayer without action, nor action without prayer, but both together. But it soon becomes clear that not all the people are reassured by this combination of prayer and action. Read 4:10-12.

“Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, ‘The strength of the labourers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.’ 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.’”

Was Nehemiah upset by these signs of weakening in the face of continuing threats and other difficulties? He probably was, but he doesn’t record this. And certainly he didn’t give up on the people. What he does do is he takes further practical measures to guard against attack, and he reminds the people that they have a great and awesome God. Read 4:13-14.

“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 families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.’”

Nehemiah’s leadership has a good effect – read 4:15.

“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 our work.”

And he has not finished. The remaining verses of this chapter record that Nehemiah took other steps to guard against attack. These included having half his workers stand guard while the other half kept building, with the builders themselves armed ready for an attack. And he arranged that in the event of an attack at any point along the wall, a trumpet would be blown to call for help. The opponents of the building had not given up, as we shall soon see. But they had failed to stop the work. The next difficulty, however, came from a different quarter.

Overcoming Exploitation of the Poor(5:1-19)

The next difficulty came from within. Read 5:1-5.

“Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their fellow Jews. Some were saying, ‘We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.’ Others were saying, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.’ Still others were saying, ‘We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our fellow Jews and though our children are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.’”

This threat could have destroyed the whole project of rebuilding the walls. The excellent organisation described in Chapter Three would have fallen apart if the rich had continued to exploit the poor and unity was lost. What could Nehemiah do now? You probably won’t be surprised to read that his response was strong. Read 5:6-8.

“When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, ‘You are charging your own people interest!’ So I called together a large meeting to deal with them and said: ‘As far as possible, we have bought back our fellow Jews who were sold to the Gentiles. Now you are selling your own people, only for them to be sold back to us!’ They kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.”

Nehemiah isn’t governed by a concern for protecting his own position. He is governed by concern for the poor, by anger against injustice, and by a determination to see brotherly relations preserved in reality, not just in words. And Nehemiah hasn’t finished. Read 5:9-12.

“So I continued, ‘What you are doing is not right. Shouldn’t you walk in the fear of our God to avoid the reproach of our Gentile enemies? I and my brothers and my men are also lending the people money and grain. But let us stop charging interest! Give back to them immediately their fields, vineyards, olive groves and houses, and also the interest you are charging them – one per cent of the money, grain, new wine and olive oil.’ ‘We will give it back,’ they said. ‘And we will not demand anything more from them. We will do as you say.’ Then I summoned the priests and made the nobles and officials take an oath to do what they had promised.”

Nehemiah calls for a radical change in behaviour, a change in line with honouring God, with preserving a good witness to the Gentiles and with the teaching of Scripture against charging excessive interest. The figure of a hundredth part, incidentally, is probably a monthly interest of one per cent, or at least twelve per cent annually. In the remaining verses of this chapter Nehemiah records that the people kept their promise, and records his own behaviour, which was just and even generous. The threat of division had been turned aside by Nehemiah’s strong leadership. And by the people’s right response to his leadership. They could have tried to justify themselves, and turned against him. Think of the way God’s people rejected some of God’s prophets, even acting violently against some of them. But now the opposition from outside reappears, this time in a more cunning form than before.

Overcoming Deception (6:1-14)

Read 6:1-4.

“When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it – though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates – Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.’ But they were scheming to harm me; so I sent messengers to them with this reply: ‘I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?’ Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer. Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his assistant to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written: ‘It is reported among the nations – and Geshem says it is true – that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: “There is a king in Judah!” Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.’ I sent him this reply: ‘Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’ They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.’ But I prayed, ‘Now strengthen my hands.’ One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, ‘Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you – by night they are coming to kill you.’ But I said, ‘Should a man like me run away? Or should someone like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!’ I realised that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me. Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, my God, because of what they have done; remember also the prophet Noadiah and how she and the rest of the prophets have been trying to intimidate me.”

Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem have failed to stop the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem by plotting to attack. So now they have tried to trick Nehemiah, to entice him to come and meet them in a village outside Jerusalem where they will have him in their power. Possibly they intended to kill him, but certainly they intended to harm him. The next ten verses continue along similar lines. Sanballat sends a letter accusing Nehemiah of rebellion against Artaxerxes, and threatening to denounce him to the king if he doesn’t agree to a meeting. But Nehemiah is not deceived. He still refuses to come, and he prays to God for strength. This prompts Nehemiah’s enemies to be even more devious. They bribe one of the leading Jews in Jerusalem to urge Nehemiah to protect himself by shutting himself up inside the temple. But Nehemiah realises that this is a plot to make him act like a coward, and so to undermine his reputation. Nehemiah’s wise behaviour reminds me of what Jesus said to his disciples in Matthew 10:16 – read.

“‘I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.”

In other words, followers of Jesus should never be guilty of trying to deceive other people, but they should also not be naïve when other people try to deceive them. The New Testament also warns us against Satan as the great Deceiver, but assures us that Jesus has overcome Satan, and will protect those who ask him to strengthen them against Satan.

God Gives the Victory (6:15-16)

After all the difficulties, this is how this part of the story ends – read 6:15-16.

“So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realised that this work had been done with the help of our God.”

The work is completed, and completed in the remarkable space of 52 days! How was this achieved? Certainly Nehemiah’s wise and strong leadership played a part. Certainly the persistent hard work of all those who laboured on the walls played a part. But Nehemiah points to the most important truth: “this work had been done with the help of our God.” It would be nice to stop here, but the real division in the text comes with the introduction of the list of those who had been the first to return to Jerusalem at 7:4.

“Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.”

But the War is not Over (6:17-7:3)

The passage actually ends with information about the continuing attempts of Tobiah to undermine Nehemiah, and with a record of Nehemiah’s appointing of guards to protect the city, particularly by guarding the gates. So it is with us as Christians. God has conquered Satan and sin and death through the death and resurrection of his Son Jesus Christ. But Satan has not yet given up the fight and he won’t until Christ returns in triumph. Hence Paul’s words to the Ephesians – read Ephesians 6:10-13.

“Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armour of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

Christians are engaged in spiritual warfare, but our Lord has overcome Satan and will enable us to stand. Serving Christ will require us to overcome difficulties, but he will empower us so that we are able to overcome difficulties and do his good work.