Facing the Enemy
All that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (II Tim. 3:12). These are some of the last words Paul wrote during his earthly sojourn. He wrote them to Timothy, his son in the faith, encouraging him to be strong in Christ and not to waver.
Timothy, of course, was not the only one who would suffer persecution. According to the apostle, this is something that everyone who desires to live piously before Christ must face. It applies to you and it applies to me. Paul never said that our lives as Christians would be easy. There will be times when we’re tired or hungry, and other times when frustration nearly overwhelms us. But Paul gave himself as an example of someone who had endured tremendous persecution at Antioch, Iconium and Lystra. He was able to bear up under these trials because the Lord gave him the strength to do so. Paul wrote, Out of them all the Lord delivered me (II Tim. 3:11). We, too, can be assured that the Lord will protect us.
In one sense, we are not in a very good position to face the enemy. Because we serve the Lord Jesus Christ, the world despises us. We are like those whom the writer of Hebrews mentioned in chapter 11. They were tortured, mocked and scorned, stoned, sawn asunder, tempted, slain with the sword, destitute, afflicted and tormented (Heb. 11:35–37). And so are we. The world is not only not inclined to hear us, but disposed to treat us with contempt. Yet, the greater truth is that we are more than ready to face to enemy. Although the world had no great love for us, we are also, like the saints of old, men of whom the world was not worthy (Heb. 11:38). Unlike unbelievers, we are a kingdom of priests before God. This means, among other things, that our service to God will be effective in this world because we have access to the throne room of God in prayer because of the finished work of Jesus Christ. And this is precisely what the world fears.
Nehemiah teaches us what this means.
Sanballat’s Psychological Campaign
Chapter 4 begins by noting once again the opposition under which Nehemiah and his compatriots labored. The names of their adversaries, Sanballat and Tobiah, have already been mentioned several times. The fact that their names appear so frequently in the text means that the Lord wants us to watch out for these guys.
There has also been a very clear progression in Sanballat’s opposition to Nehemiah. The first thing Nehemiah said about him is that it grieved him exceedingly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the Jews (2:10). A few verses later, his perturbation of mind had turned into scorn and hatred. Verse 19 of chapter 2 says that he and his friends laughed us to scorn, and despised us. And now we read that his extreme hatred became intense anger. Verse 1 reports that he was wroth, and took great indignation against Nehemiah and the Jews, and started to mock them.
Sanballat had begun the first part of his campaign against Nehemiah. He engaged in psychological warfare.
Now, we might wonder why Sanballat became so unsettled when he discovered what Nehemiah had come to do. As long the Jews minded their own business, why should he care? How could their little wall construction project harm the Samaritans? What could Sanballat possibly have objected to? It’s clear from the questions he asked in verse 2 that he did not want the city protected or the Jews to offer sacrifices of thanksgiving upon the completion of the wall. But why? What’s the point here?
Remember that Sanballat, although a Horonite by birth, clearly identified himself with the Samaritans. Extra-Biblical evidence says that he had become the governor of Samaria at some point. In fact, there are two hints in our text that he may have already assumed that role. The first is in verse 2: he uttered his mockery in the presence of his brethren and the army of Samaria. He seems to have had a position of leadership over them. The second comes in verse 7, where he assembled a rather significant coalition of nations against Nehemiah (v. 7), a feat he probably would not have accomplished unless he had a fairly high position of authority.
In any case, the fact that Sanballat was a Samaritan meant two things. First, that he had an interest in the religion of Jews. The northern kingdom of Israel had been taken captive by the Assyrians almost four hundred years earlier. When the Assyrians tried to repopulate the land with their own people, the Lord sent lions to devour them. Thinking that the problem was just that the new people didn’t worship the same gods, the Assyrians sent a few Jewish priests back to teach them the right away. However, the resulting religion was syncretistic. The author of II Kings wrote, Howbeit every nation made gods of their own, and put them in the houses of the high places which the Samaritans had made, every nation in their cities wherein they dwelt (ch. 17:29). Sanballat must have known this. If so, then he understood that the religion of his people was not pure. Should the Jews complete the wall and make the appropriate sacrifices of thanksgiving, their success and their sacrifices would expose anew the lies of the Samaritan faith, which would, in turn, undermine the Samaritan way of life. Sanballat could not risk allowing this to happen.
A second reason for Sanballat’s opposition has to do with Samaria’s commercial interests. One of the main roads linking Persia with Egypt ran directly through Jerusalem. As long as Jerusalem lay in ruins, no one wanted to make it a center of commerce. This allowed Samaria to become the leading economic power in the region, and, of course, Sanballat was in control of it all. But if Nehemiah succeeded in rebuilding the wall, Jerusalem would become an ideal hub for international trade. Roads out of Jerusalem literally went in every direction. Sanballat feared that rebuilding the wall would be the downfall of the Samaritan economy.
To counteract this, Sanballat resorted to mockery. He called Nehemiah and the others feeble Jews, thus mocking the workforce. The Jews knew that they were small in number and a reproach among the nations. This was not a secret. He was playing on their self-image. Sanballat also claimed that the Jews thought they could finish the wall in a single day, thus mocking their plans. Of course, there’s no indication that they had ever made such a ridiculous claim. But that, of course, wasn’t Sanballat’s point. He wanted them to look at the pile of rubble, a pile that was so high that Nehemiah’s horse couldn’t get through in some places, and admit that the project was more than they could do. He wanted them to think that it was almost impossible. And finally, Sanballat laughed at the thought of burnt stones offering any real protection to the city, thus mocking their materials. While it is true that limestone becomes weak when exposed to fire, this fact is almost irrelevant since very few stones were actually burned. The gates had been burned, which would have made the stones that were near the gates unusable. But Nebuchadnezzar had not burned the walls. He knocked them down. Further, if Sanballat really believed that the fire had weakened the stones that much, he would have let them build the wall, knowing that it would not be that big of a deal to break through.
A second adversary, Tobiah, joined in the mockery in verse 3. He said that the wall would be so weak that it would collapse under the weight of a small fox. This statement is so utterly silly that one wonders whether Nehemiah recorded it just to demonstrate the absolute folly of those who oppose the glorious reign of Jesus Christ. Archaeologists have found sections of Nehemiah’s wall. Their average thickness is approximately nine feet. This was a formidable wall by any standard.
As the opposition mounted, Nehemiah kept his eyes focused on the work that God had called him to do. For one thing, he did not say a single word to Sanballat or Tobiah or anyone else. He made it clear at the end of chapter 2 that he refused to dialogue with the enemies of the gospel. Dialogue of this kind assumes that both parties are on an equal footing and have something of value to contribute, which simply is not the case. Instead, Nehemiah turned to the Lord in prayer. He was a man who was unusually devoted to prayer, as we’ve seen so many times already. Here he asked God to deliver the Jews by maintaining his own righteous cause.
The content of Nehemiah’s prayer is preserved for us in verses 4 and 5. He began by recognizing the lamentable condition in which he found Jerusalem. He said, We are despised. The Jews were also despised in the days of Moses, and God heard their cries. Exodus 3:7 says, And the LORD said, I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows. Was God any less interested in the groaning of his people a thousand years later, when they purposed in their hearts to rebuild the wall around his beloved city? Is he any less concerned about the church today, which also is often despised by those who hate the gospel? Remember that Psalm 146 says, The Lord loveth the righteous (v. 8).
After this, Nehemiah’s prayer turns into an imprecation. He pleaded with God to turn the reproach of the Jews upon his enemies, to send them into captivity and not to forgive their sins.
Some Christians have a hard time with imprecatory prayers and psalms. They cannot imagine how such things square with what Jesus said when he commanded us to give our enemies a cup of cold water and to pray for them? Can we really follow Christ, who prayed, Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do (Luke 23:34), if we ask God to pour out his judgment on men who oppose our service in Christ’s kingdom? One commentator who should have known better wrote the following:
Nehemiah’s response (4–5) was to commit the problem to God in prayer, which is commendable, for he thereby recognized that the insults were directed as much against God as against himself and that vindication should come from his Lord rather than his own efforts. Nevertheless, the sentiments he expressed have been superseded for the Christian (cf. e.g. Mt. 5:43–48; 18:21–22; Rom. 12:14–21), for whom the work of Christ has provided an assurance of the final victory of love which Nehemiah could not possibly have known.
To the contrary, several considerations demonstrate the appropriateness of Nehemiah’s prayer. First, his enemies had clearly staked out their territory in opposition to God, and they were doing everything they could to undermine the work that God had called Nehemiah to do. Second, God had already made it clear how he would deal with those who oppose his kingdom. He promised Abraham, And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed (Gen. 12:3). So, Nehemiah was asking for nothing more than what God himself had already said he would do. And third, even the gospel recognizes the necessity of imprecation. The Lord Jesus taught us to pray, Thy kingdom come (Matt. 6:10). The kingdom of God comes as God defeats his enemies. The Heidelberg Catechism correctly interprets this petition of the Lord’s Prayer:
Thy kingdom come; that is, so govern us by Thy Word and Spirit, that we submit ourselves to Thee always more and more; preserve and increase Thy Church; destroy the works of the devil, every power that exalts itself against Thee, and all wicked devices formed against Thy Holy Word, until the fullness of Thy kingdom come, wherein Thou shalt be all in all” (Heid. Cat. 123).
Beloved, it is our duty to pray for the complete defeat of Satan and his kingdom of unrighteousness. Don’t ever be sorry for doing so!
So, you see, Nehemiah’s prayer was not motivated by anger or revenge or jealously or any other unholy sentiment. He was moved, rather, by his love for God and his desire for the final victory of God’s kingdom.
Sanballat’s Military Campaign
After Nehemiah prayed, he immediately went back to work (v. 6). His faith, determination and persistence should inspire all of us to greater service in the kingdom of Jesus Christ.
Through prayer and hard work the Jews managed to finish the lower half of the wall in a very short period of time — probably less than a month. Their success was due largely to they were unanimous in purpose: the people had a mind to work (v. 6).
However, their rapid progress only irritated Sanballat and Tobiah that much more. Their psychological approach had failed. It was, therefore, time to let the Jews know what they were really up against. According to verse 7, they began a second phase of their campaign — building a military coalition against Jerusalem.
By this time Sanballat’s anger toward Nehemiah had spread all around the region. It had affected Tobiah, the Arabians, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites. It was like a loathsome, festering and odious sore that kept spreading and spreading, and for which there was no hope of recovery. First, it affected only two men — Sanballat in the north and Tobiah (and the Ammonites) in the east (2:10). Then came a third —Geshem the Arabian from the south (2:19). Now, in addition to these the Ashdodites, one of the Philistine groups to the west of Jerusalem, joined in. Thus, the city was surrounded on all four sides. The bullies were trying to push Nehemiah around.
It’s likely that each of these groups had a different reason for joining in the fight, but they had at least one thing in common —their hatred of God. Isn’t this also how Jesus was treated in the first century? The Pharisees and Sadducees had very little respect for each. One was ultra-conservative; the other ultra-liberal. But they joined forces to conspire against the Lord Jesus Christ. And, again, Jews and Romans had little in common, except that both of them wanted to rid the world of the man who claimed to be the Son of God and the Savior of men.
In any case, the now-enlarged united nations, probably with Sanballet as the secretary general and military leader, decided to fight against Jerusalem. In a sense, that fight continues through most of the book of Revelation. After Satan is released from his thousand years of bondage, he makes one last effort to gather the nations together to fight against the church of Jesus Christ (Rev. 20:8). But this seems to be little more than a skirmish because Revelation says over and over that the nations belong to the King of kings. We should rejoice in this. With the apostle Paul we can say, If God be for us, who can be against us? (Rom. 8:31).
Nehemiah responded to Sanballat’s military threat in two ways. First, he took refuge in prayer once again. But notice this: all of Nehemiah’s prayers thus far seem to have been private. Nehemiah prayed to his God. But this time he didn’t pray alone. Just as Sanballat had aroused the wrath of other nations, Nehemiah led all the people in prayer. Verse 9 says, We made our prayer unto our God. This was a conspiracy, too, but what a sweet and holy conspiracy it was! It’s a conspiracy that we should all engage in.
Second, Nehemiah established a system of round-the-clock watchmen to warn the city of impending danger. The fact that we trust God to protect us doesn’t obviate our own responsibility to protect ourselves. In fact, trust and work are consistently joined together in Nehemiah:
· So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king (2:4–5).
· Hear, O our God .… So built we the wall (4:4–6)
· We made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch (4:9)
· Remember the Lord … and fight for your brethren (4:19)
This is true because God, generally speaking uses means to accomplish his purposes. Even in the Bible, miracles are more the exception than the rule. If we want the Lord to guard us, we have to look for a safe place. If we ask God not to lead us into temptation, we must be willing to walk away from it.
How should we respond to those who oppose our service to Christ? Ask the Lord to give us strength, and keep doing what he told us to do.
Even with the opposition, Nehemiah continued to build the wall. But how was he able to do so much in so little time with such a small workforce?
He didn’t ignore the problem by relying on the false hope that it might go away on its own. Rather, he faced the challenge head-on. But he didn’t deal with his adversaries directly. Instead, he turned to his own commander for help and safety.
Nor did he allow his enemies to get under his skin. It’s so easy to look at the opposition and wonder how we could ever prevail. But Nehemiah just went to work. The Lord didn’t take him to Jerusalem to worry about how to build the wall. He took him there to build the wall. Nehemiah had to concern himself with only one thing: the mission that God had given him. He trusted the Lord to take care of the rest.
And the Lord blessed his labors more than anyone, perhaps even more than he himself, ever thought possible. He was, after all, working for the advancement of the Messiah’s kingdom, preparing for the fullness of the times — that great day when the Messiah would come to take away our sin.
As you labor in the Christ’s kingdom, never forget that you serve the same king. Your refuge is prayer. Your commission is to give yourself entirely to the work that he has called you to do. Your confidence is that God will build his kingdom, and he will use your service to do so. Amen.
 D.A. Carson, New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, Rev. Ed. of: The New Bible Commentary. 3rd Ed. / Edited by D. Guthrie, J.A. Motyer. 1970., 4th ed. (Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill., USA: Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), Neh. 4:1.