Overcoming Problems in God's Work: The Enemy's Ridicule (Neh. 4:1-6)
We left off last time at Nehemiah 3. The theme of the book is “Building God’s people for God’s work.” The first seven chapters are about God’s work. The last six are about building God’s people. We are now at winding down the first half of the book about doing God’s work. If we are trying to outline these seven chapters, it would be something like this:
Chs 1-2 Preparation of the work
Ch 3 Prospering of the work
Chs 4-7 Problems in the work
So we are going to look at problems in God’s work in our times together for the next few weeks. At first the attack will be external. Then the attack will be internal. Lastly, the attack will be individual, namely, Nehemiah himself.
So let’s start with this:
I. Remember that every advance of God will face a setback from the Enemy (Neh. 4:1)
We have already seen the enemies show up twice already. Once when Nehemiah first showed up and again when Nehemiah was rallying the workers. For us the enemy we face is as Paul said, “not flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
So though we do not see Satan show up here directly, we can as Stephen Davey says, “see the shadow of his scales and smell the fire from his nostrils.” Let me give you a brief overview of Satan. Though we cannot be exhaustive here, I want to try to give you an idea of the Enemy and how he works. Usually when we talk about this, people tend to fall on two sides. One side is where people deny his existence or they are indifferent about it because they may not have seen any tangible activity. Another side is where everything is attributed to Satan. People are rebuking him constantly and trying to cast him out of everything.
The power is in the balance. As C.S. Lewis says, “There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them.” So with that said, I want to quickly say these things about Satan:
|Evil One||Intrinsically evil||John 17:15|
|Great red dragon||Destructive creature||Revelation 12:3, 7, 9|
|Serpent of old||Deceiver in Eden||Revelation 12:9|
|Adversary||Opponent||1 Peter 5:8|
|Beelzebul||Lord of the fly (Baalzebub)||Matthew 12:24|
|Belial||Worthless (Beliar)||2 Corinthians 6:15|
|God of this world||Controls philosophy of world||2 Corinthians 4:4|
|Ruler of this world||Rules in world system||John 12:31|
|Prince of the powerof the air||Control of unbelievers||Ephesians 2:2|
|Tempter||Solicits people to sin||Matthew 4:3|
|Murderer||Leads people to eternaldeath||John 8:44|
|Liar||Perverts the truth||John 8:44|
|Accuser||Opposes believers beforeGod||Revelation 12:10|
Contrary to television or the media, he does not have a pitchfork and a tail or red horns. In fact, Paul calls him “an angel of light” (2 Cor. 11:13-15) masquerading as religious workers of righteousness. He was once an angel, a beautiful one at that, filled with wisdom and beauty and enjoying a high favorable position before God (Ezek. 28:12-15), but he and 1/3 of angels were cast of Heaven due to his pride and wanting to be like God (Ezek. 28:16-17; Is. 14:12-14; Rev. 12:4). He is not omnipresent, omniscient or omnipotent. Thus, he is not the opposite of God. He is a created being and cannot do anything without God’s sovereign approval. He cannot read your thoughts. But he does watch you and when you give into your flesh, which is the enemy on the inside—the part of you that wants to rebel against God---he then moves in to take advantage of your weakness.
But God in fact, guaranteed his destruction in Gen. 3:15. By Jesus’ death on the cross, Satan’s power over believers and death was broken. Eventually, he will be cast into the Lake of Fire for eternity (Rev. 20:7-10). So knowing that his time is short, Satan is working hard doing one thing: destruction. Peter says he is like a lion looking for people to devour (1 Pet. 5:8). He has no other agenda, ever. And he is incredibly patient.
In Nehemiah, we can see him working through Sanballat, Tobiah and his friends. Look at Neh. 4:1. Neh. 3 was a huge advance to the work of God and so Sanballat comes again to try to set them back. If you noticed, he is always mentioned first. He is the instigator. The phrase “were building” indicates that people were busy at work at the wall and things were moving along nicely. You can see the progression of anger building up in this guy from the beginning. He was “displeased” in Neh. 2:10 which led to ridicule and intimidation in Neh. 2:19, but now this guy is ticked off.
With the Jews rebuilding the wall, restoring their identity, bringing worship back to God, they start to become a growing threat to the power and status of Sanballat. How do you think he feels about that? Right, probably not too happy!
Notice this pattern, actually more of a cycle of advance and setback throughout these chapters:
Ch 2: 1-8 Advance 2:9-10 Attempted Setback
2:11-18 Advance 2:19 Attempted Setback
3: Advance 4:1-3: Attempted Setback
4:4-6: Advance 4:7-8: Setback
4:9: Advance 4:10-12: Setback
4:13-23: Advance 5:1-6: Setback
5:7-19: Advance 6:1-14: Attempted setback
6:15-16: Final advance 6:17-19: Attempted setback
And now in Neh. 4, that the work of God is prospering and people are working together in unity, we are going to find yet again that anytime Heaven advances, Hell opposes.
What this shows us is that the life truly lived for God is always one of conflict. Every advance of God faces a setback from the enemy. Satan has no desire for those who play the religious part and has one foot in the world and another in the things of God. He cares about those who want to actually step up to love God and proclaim the name of Jesus in their lives. And God does not remove the opposition. He allows it and uses it to depend on Him more and bear more fruit for His glory (John 15:2). But if we do yield to opposition, it will lead us to mediocrity, discouragement and uselessness. So anytime you try to advance God’s purposes in your life, guess who is going to show up to oppose you? The Enemy! Everytime!
You make an advance to get into the Bible. What happens? Distractions! Baby is crying, there’s a huge test that day, you start thinking about your facebook, etc. You decide you want to work on your marriage and what happens? You get into the biggest fight ever with your spouse. Every Sunday I am very careful because I know what happens up here between me and you is a sacred encounter and all of hell is out to oppose it. I remember when we were first started serving here, Abbie would get sick or would not sleep on Saturday night. It happened too often to be thrown off as coincidence.
Every advance faces a setback. Expect it! And what Satan likes to do is to get us concentrating on the setbacks. And I think what God likes to do is concentrate on the advances. Look at Romans 4:20-21. Who here thinks Paul hasn’t been reading Genesis recently? Abraham never wavered? A friend of mine asked me this week, how can Abraham get so much credit for righteousness when he wavered so much?
The reason is we look at Abraham and see his flaws, God looks at him and sees his faith and trust in God though he fell and wavered so much. I pray that encourages you that though setbacks come, we keep advancing, trusting God that every setback is just a set-up for a comeback!
II. Be ready to detect the lures (Neh. 4:2-3)
In Neh. 4:2-3, we see a series of taunts and insults directed at the Israelites in the form of questions. Apparently now Sanballat has gathered a large group of people, perhaps for future action? We will find out soon. They cannot do anything violently to these people because Nehemiah comes with permission from the King right? But they can try to destroy by ridiculing and taunting them. Psychological warfare can be just as deadly and destructive as physical violence.
Interestingly, these questions and comments made in these two verses also teach us a lot about how our Enemy, Satan works as well. I want to look at each question and try to uncover the layers behind it to help us learn about how the Enemy likes to work in our own lives with similar lies.
When we talk about evangelism, we often use the analogy of fishing. Jesus himself said we should be fishers of men (Matt. 4:19). However, author Patsy Clairmont says that fishing is a good way to understand Satan’s agenda for us. She says:
“I come from a long line of fishermen, the kind who won’t let you move around in the boat lest you disturb the fish. Some of my family have been known to sit in a rickety rowboat 24 hours at a time. They sit and watch for activity in and on the water. When the action is right, they cast out, hoping to snag a whopper. When the fish takes the bait, he’s reeled in and soon becomes dinner. In much the same way, Satan slips his rowboat into the waters of our lives. Then he waits for our moments of weakness, watches for unmet needs, and lurks in the unsettled issues of our lives. He carefully checks his tackle box and selects just the right bait. When he thinks the time is ideal, he casts his line and waits for as long as necessary for us to take the bait. Then he reels us in. Unlike the fishermen I’ve known, Satan never throws any back. In fact, he seems to favor the little ones.”
We need to understand his tactics. This is why Paul says, “Do not let Satan take advantage of you. Don’t be ignorant of his schemes” (2 Cor. 2:11). Actually that word “schemes” is better translated “designs.” In other words, Satan has particular designs he has cleverly crafted to destroy us and the work of God. He lays those traps down with great care and patience. Let’s look at several areas the psychological warfare is launched:
a) Their lack of strength
Let’s look at each of these. Sanballat first asks a question ridiculing and questioning their strength. He calls them “feeble,” a word that means “withering away” like a dying plant. In other words, they are a withering group of people and like a dying plant, useless, weak and taking up space. You are powerless!
Has that thought ever crossed your mind? This is the world’s and Satan’s thinking that being small= being ineffective. I don’t think mosquitoes believe that?! I like what Alan Redpath says, “The world judges everything by size, by headlines, by imposing plans, by vast advertisements, and it pours contempt upon the feeble little flock of the people of God. ‘You, with your feeble prayer meetings. You, with your silly little plan of getting people converted one by one. How can you possibly stand alongside great economic programs in which a whole world can be revolutionized in a few years? You have no intellect, you are out of date, you have no money, you have no status. You feeble little lot!”
You will notice with each of these, the enemies were right. Were the Jews not strong and powerful? No! But it was not them that was getting this wall done. It was done in God’s power and the enemies wanted them to look at themselves instead of at God, who empowers them to do what He has called them to do. Little is much if God is in it amen?
b) Their lack of intelligence
Look at the second question: “Will they restore it for themselves?” In other words, “Do they even have the foggiest idea on how to build a wall? Look over there, isn’t that Hananiah, the perfume maker? What does he know about building a wall? Wait, they have women mixing mortar?! Haha! Fools!”
What? What do you know about doing children’s ministry or junior high/high school ministry? You don’t even have seminary training! What? You can’t share your faith with your friends. You are not smart enough to answer their questions! Listen to what the Word of God says, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…” (1 Cor. 1:27). And why did God do that? “so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:29).
c) Their lack of faith
This next question is hard to interpret: “Will they sacrifice?” One commentator paraphrases this question as, “Are these Jews going to pray their wall up? It’s their only hope!” Don’t you remember the faith of your forefathers wasn’t good enough to keep these walls up? And where is their faith now? Haha, these walls haven’t built for over 100 years! Do you think you have greater faith than they had? Do you actually think you are going to offer sacrifices again and worship like your forefathers? You don’t have any faith to finish anything for God!
d) Their lack of perseverance
They were working so hard, but do they realize how difficult the job is? They should call it quits. Give up! Actually they were going to finish it up in 52 days, a remarkable feat (Neh. 6:15). You are small in number, you don’t have the intelligent skills, weak faith and it’s too difficult, so quit!
e) Their limited resources
Sanballat then asks how they are going to use burned, weakened bricks from heaps of debris. There is a century’s worth of rubble. Look at how bad the destruction is! Look at how overwhelming your situation is and how limited your resources are!
f) Their vulnerability
Critics run with critics don’t they? Sanballat has his little buddy Tobiah join in the ridicule with a snide, sarcastic comment: “If a fox goes up on it, he will break down their stone wall!” Guys, we don’t need an army to bring this wall down, one fox should be able to do the trick! Your wall is so weak, even a small animal can bring it down! This of course was not at all true, for archaeological excavations found Nehemiah’s wall to be about nine feet thick.
This was an attack on their vulnerability. You are so vulnerable! Why build something knowing it not going to last? Why preach, you know people won’t get anything out it anyway? Why practice so hard in worship practice knowing people will not appreciate it anyway? It’s all going to come crumbling down at the end! You are vulnerable.
Have you heard any of these recently? “You don’t have the skill to raise godly children. You don’t have the strength to live for Christ. You don’t have the intelligence to stand up to the wisdom of the world. You don’t have the faith to finish anything for God. You don’t have any ability! You’re incompetent and inadequate. Stop trying! Do you really believe that if you work on your marriage, two months from now it will make any difference? He’ll never change! She’s so stubborn! And your financial problems are so big you will never get your priorities in order. Why try?”
How do you respond to these tactics? Let’s look at Nehemiah:
III. Respond with prayer and perseverance (Neh. 4:4-6)
Whenever you encounter opposition, you have several options. You can run from it; you can try to dodge it or go around it; you can try to work out a compromise; or, you can meet it head on and work through it. I would like to suggest to you that the last option is the only biblical way.
Finish this line: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but...” Right, “words will never hurt me.” That sounds really nice, but it’s wrong. Often words can cause more devastating and long-term results than bruises on an arm or face.
It does not appear that the enemies’ ridicule did not affect Nehemiah. It hurt him. But thankfully he did not retaliate. He could have very well have been like, “Oh yeah Tobiah? A little fox can bring this wall down huh? Why don’t you come over here you little weasel and try to push it down yourself!”
Instead, Nehemiah runs to the feet of his God. This is the third time we find Nehemiah praying (Neh. 1: 4-11 and 2:4 as recorded here), and it will not be the last time. He is a praying man. Remember when in the presence of his opponents, he had declared that God is the source of ultimate success (Neh. 2:20). Now he demonstrates to us that this God is also the giver of immediate help. There are several observations about this prayer here. First it is his priority. Let us make prayer the first resort and not the last. Also it is dependent prayer: “Hear O our God.” So much work had been done already and if the people fall under the enemies’ taunts, it will be devastating.
Also, he prayed honestly and passionately. This is probably not the most model of prayers here, but it is honest. His prayer resembles certain psalms called the imprecatory psalms, which calls God to deal with these enemies. In doing so, Nehemiah understands that when people oppose God’s work and God’s people, they are in fact, opposing God. Nehemiah is angry and honestly voicing his heart before God in prayer instead of at his enemies. Nehemiah is aware God is just and when He was opposed by His own people, He brought judgment. So now he is saying, bring that judgment upon these enemies who are opposing God. Ultimately we pray for God’s justice in this world and Him dealing with His enemies, for vengeance belongs to Him (Rom. 12:19).
So he prayed to the God of the work and then in Neh. 4:6, he stayed on the work of God. They went right back to work! I like what Pastor Stephen Cole says, “Although there was a slight pause while Nehemiah organized the militia, they didn’t abandon the work to chase down the enemy. They didn’t allow the enemy’s threat to get their focus onto other issues. They just kept building the wall, and pretty soon the enemy was outside looking up, instead of looking straight across at them over the wall.” They persevered through the opposition.
They are halfway there. Sometimes new problems arise when we are halfway done with a project. We will explore this next time.
Perhaps you have fallen under a recent setback in your faith. Perhaps Satan has lured you attacking your strength, intelligence, faith, your limited resources or even your vulnerability. These attacks will keep us from serving God here at EFC. But God is not looking at your setbacks, but your advances. The truth is we are weak, but we are strong in Him. We have no wisdom, except the Gospel, which is the foolishness of God. Our faith is small and sometimes non-existent, but it our little faith is in a mighty God. And yes, our resources are limited, but our spiritual resources are endless. It was never by might, nor by power, but by His Spirit (Zech. 4:6). And lastly, Tobiah said it was “their wall.” He was wrong. It is His. Nothing shall break down what God has put up. One of my favorite hymns of all time comes from Martin Luther:
A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing;
Our helper He, amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing:
For still our ancient foe doth seek to work us woe;
His craft and power are great, and, armed with cruel hate, On earth is not his equal.
Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing; Were not the right Man on our side, the Man of God’s own choosing: Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He; Lord Sabaoth, His Name, from age to age the same, And He must win the battle.
And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us, We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us:
The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure, for lo, his doom is sure,
One little word shall fell him.
Some of us are sitting in front of our setbacks today, listening to the Enemy’s ridicule and not advancing anymore. The Lord would come to you with a brick in His hand, not to smash you with it, but to hand it to you to get back rebuilding again.
Robert J. Morgan, Nelson's Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed., 681 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000).
Paul P. Enns, The Moody Handbook of Theology, 293 (Chicago, Ill.: Moody Press, 1997, c1989).
From Under His Wings as quoted in Davey, 81.
F. Charles Fensham, 180.
As quoted in Davey, 83.
Adapted from Davey, 85 and Ingram, 190-191.
 Cole, http://www.fcfonline.org/content/1/sermons/111702M.pdf accessed July 18, 2009.
Like Psalms 69, 79 and Ps. 139:19-22.