Nehemiah Fights Discouragement
Everyone struggles with discouragement from time to time, and it seems like Christians struggle with it more than others because the Lord uses it to teach us to rely only upon him. Even so, it’s not the easiest thing in the world to live with.
There are many examples of discouragement in the Bible itself. After Elijah defeated the prophets of Baal at Mt. Carmel, he ran more than a hundred miles to Beersheba at the southern tip of Judah. He left his servant there, traveled another fifteen miles or so, sat down under juniper tree and prayed that he might die (I Kgs. 19). Likewise, Numbers 21 records the discouragement of the whole nation of God’s people after their defeat of the Canaanites. The Lord had given them an amazing victory, but as soon as they took their eyes off of him, everything started to look really bad. They even complained about the bread that God gave them. They called it “light bread.” In this case, the Lord punished them by sending them a plague of fiery serpents.
The fact is that discouragement takes no work at all. It comes naturally to each and every one of us, being sinners that we are, the moment that we fail to trust the goodness and wisdom of our God. Fighting discouragement can be at times a full-time job. So, how do we do it?
We have to remember that the Jews in today’s text were just like us. They were discouraged. From a merely human and empirical perspective they had good reason to be. Everything seemed to be against them, and nothing was in their favor. When we are in situations like this, we tend to think that our situation is unique. Even if we don’t say it, we might think to ourselves that no one has ever been in my shoes before. But this really denies that the Bible is sufficient for your life and that it deals with your problems. Remember what Paul wrote to the Corinthians: There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it (I Cor. 10:13).
In his mercy to his people, God gave the Jews of Nehemiah’s day a leader to show them how to overcome their discouragement. We not only have his example before us, but we have even more —a great trailblazer, the author and finisher of our faith, the Lord Jesus Christ. He suffered the entire range of human woes, so that nothing that God brings into our lives can do us any lasting harm.
Four Reasons for Discouragement
Today’s text begins with a list of four reasons for the discouragement of Nehemiah’s contemporaries. Note that these reasons came in rapid-fire succession. One at a time might have been manageable, but coming all at once they were just overwhelming.
The first two reasons for their discouragement, which are both mentioned in verse 10, go together. Even in our English translation we can see that the fact that the Jews recognized their inability to rebuild the wall as the result of failing strength and too much work. But the Hebrew here is even more interesting. Verse 10 takes the form of Hebrew poetry. Some commentators even believe that the workers might have sung it as a lamentation when they were growing weary. If so, they were not only complaining but using this song to increase their unhappiness. It’s a song that really has no hope.
Looking now at the reasons for their discouragement one at a time, we turn to the first one. The people of Judah said that they had too little strength and too much work to do: The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish (v. 10). They were physically and psychologically drained.
This makes sense. We’re not usually frustrated when we go away on vacation. That’s a time to relax and get away from the doldrums of the daily grind. Rather, we become frustrated and discouraged when we work eighty hours a week, our problems pile up one on top of the other, and we still have to go home, cut the grass, clean the gutters, repair the fence, and so on.
In our text, the wall was about half done and the people were getting tired. It’s often true that any given project looks manageable before we start it, and after it’s over we wonder how we finished it so fast, but right in the middle it starts to look impossible. What the project requires probably hasn’t changed that much, but our exhaustion can make it look a lot bigger than it really is. The amount of rubbish had not increased any. The Jews were just tired of dealing with it.
The second reason for the discouragement of the Jews comes at the end of verse 10. They had lost their confidence in the sufficiency of God’s grace and focused instead on their own inability to do the work. They said, We are not able to build the wall.
Recognizing our inability is a good thing. We need to understand that we cannot come to God in our own strength or on our terms. We must confess that we cannot do the work of Christ’s Kingdom by relying on our own might or wisdom. Our success, which is really God’s success working in us, comes only when we beg him in prayer to bless our efforts. Why? Because God has chosen to glorify himself by using means that the world considers foolish and weak. And at the top of this list is the death of Christ. The eternal Son of God humbled himself and died as a condemned felon in order to secure our release from God’s just condemnation. This wonderful truth is completely incompatible with the naturalistic axioms of unbelievers and can only be accepted by faith, which is itself a gift of God.
Recognizing our own inability, therefore, is not an end in itself. Its purpose is to teach us that we must trust the sovereign power and goodness of our God. Otherwise, it leaves us without any place to go for help.
The third source of discouragement that Nehemiah and his contemporaries faced came from their enemies, who were making threats against them under their breath. According to verse 11 they were saying, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.
The purpose of these whispers of secret attack was to dishearten the people, and it worked. It was bad enough that Sanballet, Tobiah and their cronies disapproved of Nehemiah’s desire to rebuild the wall and secure Jerusalem. It was unconscionable that they hated the Jews so much that they laughed and scorned and mocked them. But to spread these insidious rumors that they never acted on, and probably had no real intention of acting on, is beyond belief.
Satan, whose name means “adversary,” is never at rest. He knows how to get around. He sought to destroy the early church by a vicious program of persecution — first using the Jews, then later the Romans. When that started to fail, he stepped up his assault on the doctrines of the gospel: the Trinity, the person work of Christ, the Holy Spirit and Biblical church government. In the Middle Ages he tried to hide the Word of God in monasteries, where few people other than monks had access to it. Today he has convinced a large part of the visible church that the Bible is mostly a human book. It serves a guide to truth, but is not truth itself.
If you think Satan will leave you alone, fellow Christian, wake up! He will whisper things in your ears and you may not know where these thoughts come from. The devil will try to tell you that being faithful to the Lord hurts: it’s not what you really want to do, it takes too much time away from other things, and it just isn’t worth it. His arguments often sound plausible because there is just a little bit of truth in them. But what are your alternatives? Is apostasy a viable option? Should you just give up on daily Bible reading and prayer, public worship or catechizing your children so that you can claim the time as your own? Are you really willing to gain the whole world at the expense of your own soul or the souls of your children?
The fourth reason for discouragement among the workers came from the Jews who lived in the surrounding villages. Believing defeat to be inevitable, they encouraged those who were lived outside Jerusalem to go back to their homes. After all, it really wasn’t possible to complete the work as things stood.
It’s bad enough when one’s enemies threaten the work that we do for the kingdom of God, but it’s even worse when our “friends” pour salt into our irritated wounds. This is exactly what Job’s three so-called friends did, as they pretended to bring him comfort. In John 6, after the multitude that Jesus fed went away and walked no more with him, Jesus turned to the twelve and asked them if they also wanted to abandon him (vv. 66–67). Barnabas left Paul on his second missionary journey, though he did not leave the Lord (Acts 15:39). Demas, who loved this present world, forsook both (II Tim. 4:10).
Each of these situations reminds us that we must never put our trust in men. Psalm 20:7 says, Some trust in chariots, and some and horses. This seems like an especially foolish thing to do. In the exodus God threw the Pharaoh’s horses and chariots into the sea (Exod. 15:19). Psalm 146:3 warns us not to take comfort in the actions of civil leaders: Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help. Why would we, since the princes of the world like to shake their fist at God? The things of this world offer no comfort whatsoever.
The rest of chapter 4 describes what Nehemiah did to combat both the discouragement of the people and its underlying causes. He didn’t lay out a ten “easy step” program such as we might find in the National Inquirer, but what he did is clear. The theme of his response is summarized in what he said at the end of verse 14: Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.
What do we see here? First, Nehemiah commanded the people not to be afraid of their enemies. This seems a bit peculiar. How can you command a person not to fear something? If someone is afraid the dark, can you tell him not to be afraid of the dark and expected his fear will just evaporate into thin air? To most people this probably sounds rather ridiculous, but it should not be. Fear is an intellectual apprehension of a real or a perceived danger. By commanding someone not to fear, we are asking him to consider whether or not what he fears poses any real danger.
In the case before us, there was no danger at all because God sovereignly controls the hearts of his enemies. A good example of this is Exodus 34:24. Three times a year all the adult males were to appear before the Lord. This meant that the entire land was during the feasts. Since wives and children were generally left at home, they were also unprotected. What would prevent the Jews’ enemies from taking advantage of the situation? Only one thing did: God providentially ruling their hearts. Not only did the enemies not take advantage of the situation, but it did not even enter their minds to do so. God said, Neither shall any man desire thy land, when thou shalt go up to appear before the LORD thy God thrice in the year.
Next, Nehemiah instructed to people to remember the Lord, who is great and terrible. In the throes of the discouragement, it’s easy to forget the one we should never forget. We forget that his power and grace and mercy tower far above what any human being could ever do. We shouldn’t need anyone to tell us to remember the Lord, but we do. When God sends someone to you with this message, you should get down on your knees and thank him with all your heart, because the fact that he sent someone to you in your time of need is itself a reminder that he is great and terrible.
And finally, Nehemiah told the people to fight. In addition to fighting for the Lord, they were also fighting for their own families — for their brothers and sons, daughters, wives and homes. They had good reason to engage the enemy. Their lives and the lives of their loved ones had been threatened.
Now let’s look at how this rich theology worked out in practice as Nehemiah led the people of God.
According to verse 13, he first dealt with the immediate threat. Since Sanballet and company were whispering threats against Jerusalem, Nehemiah placed armed guards at strategic points around the wall. The KJV makes it a little hard to figure out exactly what’s going on here. It says that Nehemiah set guards in the lower places and on the higher places. This would seem to imply that the entire wall was protected. But this is not actually the point. The phrase higher places would be more accurately translated as “bare places.” They were openings in the wall where the wall had not been built up as much as in other places. Thus, the guards only stationed at the most critical positions.
Nehemiah’s plan worked. Verse 15 seems to suggest that Nehemiah wanted his enemies to know that he knew what they were up to. Why? Because once they figured out that conquering Jerusalem would be more difficult than what they had planned, they would have to develop a new strategy, which would give the Jews more times to work on the wall. Nehemiah took advantage of the extra time by putting everyone back to work.
On the other hand, Nehemiah knew that this wasn’t the end of the story. This minor victory did not mean that he could put his guard down. That would almost certainly spell defeat. Instead, he chose to work on both fronts at the same time — rebuilding the wall and protecting it.
According to verse 16, he divided his servants into two groups. His servants were probably the attendants who had been sent with him by the Persian king to care for his needs as governor. By putting them to work, he shows that he was more interested in the needs of God’s kingdom than his own personal comfort. In any case, one group of his servants worked on the wall, while the other prepared for battle. Perhaps they switched back and forth between these duties.
Nehemiah also made sure that all the workers were armed. Those whose duties allowed them to work with one hand carried a weapon in the other hand. Others, whose work required the use of both hands, kept a sword on their side, so that they could drop their tools and fight at a moment’s notice.
When you think about it, this is really an excellent illustration of the Christian life. On the one hand, the Lord Jesus requires us to build. Paul wrote, Now if any man build upon this foundation gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble; every man’s work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is (I Cor. 3:12–13). We build in a number of ways, but at the top of the list is evangelism. It doesn’t matter how comfortable we make a person’s life here on earth if we never tell them how to have eternal life. The problem with the social gospel is that it reverses these priorities as a matter of principle. But we must also fight. We fight against our own sinful tendencies. Paul wrote, But I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection: lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway (I Cor. 9:27). And we fight against principalities and powers and the rulers of the darkness of this world. God has given us the armor that we need in the Word of God.
Oddly enough, we also build and fight simultaneously, and here’s a little secret for you: the more you build, the more you will have to fight. Satan will not let you build without trying to tear everything down as you are building it. So, if it is your intention to be faithful, you better expect to be challenged. The challenge could come from almost anywhere.
As the people of God, we must always be prepared for the battle that comes as a result of building. Nehemiah took no chances. Because the people were scattered all over the wall, often with great distances between them, he kept a trumpet-blower next to him at all times. As he traveled from one work area to the next, if he saw any threat of danger, he would have the trumpeter sound a call to summon all the people to that area.
And Nehemiah reminded them that the battle would be the Lord’s. If the enemy would attack, God would fight for his own.
The work on the wall continued to be extremely demanding. In fact, verse 21 says that the people worked from the rising of the sun to starlight. Because of the threats, Nehemiah also instructed the workers who lived outside of Jerusalem to stay in Jerusalem at night until the project was done. Apparently, they had been going home at night. But Nehemiah had two reasons for asking them to stay, which we find at the end of verse 22. First, he wanted them to stay for extra security. It would be disastrous if the enemy attacked at night and half the workforce/militia was somewhere else. Second, the unnecessary travel back and forth to their homes wasted valuable time. The wall had to go up as fast as possible. They could not afford to waste even a minute of precious time, especially so now that the workforce was somewhat divided between building and preparing to fight.
The very last verse of this chapter shows how precious every minute was. The various groups that were helping to rebuild the wall — Nehemiah, his brethren, his servants, and the guards — couldn’t even risk changing their clothes at night. Once in a while they took them off to wash, but that was about it.
Now, here’s the irony of this passage. It starts off telling us how discouraged the people had become. They were tired. The work was too much for them. Plus they had to deal with threats from their enemies and the lack of faith of some of their own brethren.
Not one of these things had changed by the time we come to verse 23. The people were just as tired as they were in verse 10, but their workload had increased. The fact that they prepared for battle only added extra work to their already-burdened lives, but did not really take away the threat. And like their brethren, the possibility that all of this might be for nothing probably crossed their minds more than a time or two.
So, what changed? What made people who were already weary and disheartened want to do that much more?
The answer is not that Nehemiah devised a plan of protection. He had to do that. As God’s people, we are responsible for taking care of what the Lord gives us — whatever it is. But that by itself is not what made a difference. The difference is that Nehemiah reminded the people that they were doing the Lord’s work. In verse 14 he told them to remember the Lord, the great and awesome Jehovah, who has chosen them to be his own. There is, therefore, no reason to fear and every reason to work hard and fight. After the enemy heard that the Jews had taken steps to protect themselves, Nehemiah rejoiced in the fact that God had brought [the enemies’] counsel to nought (v. 15). And in verse 20 he reminded the people that our God shall fight for us.
The enemy is strong, but the Lord is stronger. He gives us a lot of work to do — evangelism, missions, promoting righteousness throughout the land, teaching young people how to serve Christ as automotive mechanics, plumbers and bakers, and so much more. We must not presume that we’ll never have a problem if we do these things. We will. We most assuredly will. But keeping our hope set on the Lord Jesus Christ will make us more than conquerors. Amen.