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Nehemiah’s Commitment to the Work

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After at least six thousand years of human history, one would think that the world would get tired of bothering Christians. Who knows how many world leaders have tried to trample the faith into the dust only to suffer God’s righteous judgment themselves? Satan assumes that, since he got his foot in the door when Adam sinned, that gives him the right to harass the church from then on. Yet, the church continues to advance in its mission of calling men and women to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.

In the book of Nehemiah, Sanballat and Tobiah are the world’s ambassadors of persecution. It is they who, by mockery, threats and building a coalition of the surrounding nations, sought to prevent the Jews from rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem after it had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and had lain in ruins for almost a century and a half.

By the time we come to chapter 6, the wall was almost done. All the breaches had been closed in and secured. The only thing left was to hang the gates. This took a little bit longer than the wall itself because the gates had to be covered with metal to protect them against fire in case of a siege. But the fact that the wall was almost done did not discourage God’s enemies. To the contrary, it encouraged it. Sanballat and Tobiah had made it their business to destroy the wall, and they refused to give up until the rebuilding of the wall stopped completely forever. This time they chose to use new tactics, focusing their animosity more toward Nehemiah than anything else. The had to prevent Nehemiah’s success at all costs.

“Let’s Be Friends”

The first strategy that Sanballat and Geshem employed, which we find in verse 2, was to convince Nehemiah that they were really his friends. They invited him to a truce, claiming that they could leave the past behind and establish a new friendship. They even agreed to meet in one of the villages in the plain of Ono, which was located in Benjamin’s territory just across the border of Samaria. They wanted to show, in other words, that they were willing to meet him part way.

But Sanballat and Geshem were really using one of the oldest tricks in the world. Remember how the serpent deceived Eve in the Garden of Eden? He convinced her that God really wasn’t her friend, since he was supposedly withholding the fact that eating the forbidden fruit would open her eyes so that she would become like God, knowing good and evil. The implication here is that the serpent was her friend since he was cluing her in to God’s little secret. In the New Testament, Jesus also warned his followers about false prophets who would try to deceive the elect with similar assurances (Matt. 24:24), and Paul noted that Satan often transforms himself into an angel of light in order to undermine the preaching of the gospel (II Cor. 11:13–14).

 No less than four times Sanballat and Geshem sent the same message to Nehemiah. Their persistence would be commendable if their goal was to do good, but persistence in evil only compounds one’s culpability. Think, for example, of the persistence of those who sought to turn the godly man aside in Psalm 1. They began by asking him to walk with them in their ungodliness. Had he agreed to this, they would have coaxed him into taking a stand in sin. Then, they would have invited him to sit in the seat of the scornful. Little by little they wanted to pull him away from trusting and serving God. The psalm says that they are like the chaff which the wind driveth away. They cannot stand themselves and will ultimately perish under the just judgment of God. But the godly man chose instead to persist in the law of the Lord, which he made his delight day and night, and he was like a tree planted by the rivers of water.

Today the world will still try to convince you that it wants to be your friend and that it has your best interest at heart. But remember what James wrote, viz., that the friendship of the world is enmity with God (Jas. 4:4). There is no such thing as neutrality and we don’t have the option of playing tiddlywinks with the world when it seems convenient. We must, like the man in Psalm 1, persist in righteousness no matter how much the world persists in inviting us to do evil. Lke Jesus, we must answer its saccharine invitations to friendship but the words of Scripture. Why? Because the way that seems right to man ends in death (Prov. 14:12; 16:25), but the way of the Lord brings life. John wrote, And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever (I John 2:17).

Nehemiah was not deceived by the persistence of his enemies. He knew exactly what they were up to, and he refused even to consider their offer. Sanballat and Geshem wanted Nehemiah to travel a day’s journey from Jerusalem for two reasons. First, the absence of a leader in Jerusalem would delay the completion of the wall at least three days work — a day traveling to Ono, a day or more of meeting with Sanballat and Geshem to work out the details of a truce, and another day traveling back to Jerusalem. With the work on the wall so close to completion, Nehemiah could see no reason for letting this happen. Second, if they were able to get him alone, it isn’t hard to imagine that they would kill him, thus leaving the work without any oversight at all.

Nehemiah knew that Sanballat and Geshem planned mischief because they had made it perfectly clear throughout their contact with him that they stood against the Lord. In fact, in chapter 4 Nehemiah prayed that God would turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity. He asked God not to cover their sin, but to remember it forever.

Thus, each of Sanballat and Geshem’s requests were met with exactly the same answer. This shows that Nehemiah’s priorities were exactly right. He chose to complete the work that God had given him rather than make friends with God’s enemies.

This wasn’t a matter that Nehemiah was willing to debate with them. He didn’t even consider it necessary to defend his decision. He simply declared that he would not meet with them. There is an important lesson here for us: if we admit the possibility that the enemy can improve our ability to serve the Lord, we’ve already taken the first step to defeat. God’s Word alone must rule our life in all things.

Blackmail

When Sanballat and Geshem’s offer of friendship failed, they developed a second strategy. They threatened to report Nehemiah to the Persian king. But wasn’t it the Persian king who had sent Nehemiah on this mission and even provided for his safe travel along the way? Of course it was. But Sanballat and Geshem threatened to accuse Nehemiah of going beyond the original mission. They would charge him with rebelling against Persia, trying to establish his own little kingdom in Jerusalem and hiring prophets to convince the people of Judah to join his rebellion. Sanballat and Geshem knew that the charges were false, but they also knew that they were plausible enough to win a hearing. They threatened to prosecute these charges unless Nehemiah agreed to meet with them to put the rumors to rest. Look at what they’ve done, though. They carefully crafted their blackmail to make it look as though they had Nehemiah’s best interest at heart. They offered to settle the matter before word of it reached the king’s ears.

It isn’t very likely that Sanballat and Geshem really planned to take their false accusations to the king. Considering the speed with which the wall was being built and the fact that so little was left to be done, they must have known that they could not possibly get word to the king before the work was done. Their threat was not meant for the king at all. It was meant for the people that Nehemiah worked with. Note that they sent their threat, according to verse 5, in an open letter, i.e., a letter that was left unsealed for anyone to read. They were counting on rumor and falsehood to win the people. After all, men love to hear and believe bad reports about good people. They were also hoping that the officials of Jerusalem, some of whom had already sided with Tobiah according to verse 17 and 18, would read this letter and remove Nehemiah from his position. By discouraging the people and turning the leaders against Nehemiah, the work on the wall would come to an end. A similar plan had succeeded earlier in the days of Ezra (Ezra 4), so Sanballat and Geshem had every expectation that it would work here as well.

 This tactic is called the ad baculum strategy or the bully approach. A less refined bully would simply say, “Do what I tell you or I’ll beat you up!” Nefarious governments use the same strategy to persecute the church. The Roman government used it in the first century when it said that no man might buy or sell, save he that had the mark, or the name of the beast, or the number of his name (Rev. 13:17). Threats of economic impoverishment are just as bully-ish as are threats of torture and imprisonment. But the book of Revelation shows in two particular cases — pagan Jerusalem and pagan Rome — how God deals with bullies who assault his church. A more contemporary example comes from the 1970s. Christian parents, concerned about the increase in drugs, sex, violence and a pervasive humanistic philosophy in the public schools, established Christian schools to train their children in the admonition of the gospel. But the state of Georgia, for example, informed such parents that their schools were illegal and threatened to take away their children and impose a jail sentence if they did not close them immediately. A few parents were imprisoned before Georgia recognized the right of Christian parents to choose appropriate education for their children.

 But Nehemiah was not deceived. Instead of giving in to Sanballat and Geshem’s attempted blackmail, he faced their charges head-on. First, he flatly denied that there was any truth in them. He said, There are no such things done as thou sayest (v. 8). Second, he said that Sanballat and company just made these things up in their own heads to intimidate him (v. 8). Third, he gathered the people together and explained exactly what was going on. He told them that the open letter that they may have seen or heard of was intended only to inspire fear so that they would stop working. And finally, in the face of man’s threats, Nehemiah turned to the Lord with a short prayer: Now, therefore, O God, strengthen my hands.

In the end, Sanballat’s attempted blackmail accomplished the opposite of what he had hoped for. Instead of turning Nehemiah and the Jews away from the work, it turned them to the one who had given them the work in the first place. Nehemiah asked God to give him strength to finish the work that he had called him to do.

Assassination

Sanballat and Geshem’s second attempt to bring an end to Nehemiah’s project also failed. They then devised a third strategy. This one involved a man named Shemaiah.

We don’t know that much about Shemaiah. The names of his father and grandfather are given in verse 10, which suggest that his family was well known. A priest with the same name as his father is mentioned in I Chronicles 24:18. If the two men were the same, then Shemaiah would have been a priest. This, however, is far from certain. Verse 12 of our text says that Shemaiah pronounced this prophecy, which indicates that he apparently regarded himself as some kind of prophet. He was obviously not a true prophet, since his whole purpose was to murder a man who was doing God’s work. Such false prophets were somewhat common at the time, e.g., verse 14 mentions a false prophetess named Noadiah, as well as a group of false prophets called the rest of the prophets. They apparently participated in Shemaiah’s conspiracy.

Shemaiah’s plan is laid out for us beginning in verse 10. First, he shut himself up in his house in order to lure Nehemiah his way. Most of the commentators, in order to account for the fact that Shemaiah was shut up in his house, speculate that he was either an invalid or ceremonially defiled. But if either of these were true, he would not have been able to meet Nehemiah in the temple. Since he was involved in a rather large-scale deception and was a false prophet, it seems more likely that his being shut up was just part of the deception. It made it look as though his life was also in danger, which he hoped would convince Nehemiah that the two of them were in this together.

In any case, when Nehemiah arrived at Shemaiah’s house, Shemaiah suggested that they meet inside the temple. The seclusion of God’s house would allow him to do divulge the details of a plot against Nehemiah, and the two of them could hide there, a place where the assassins would not likely look for him.

Nehemiah saw through this, too. There were two very serious problems with Shemaiah’s suggestion. First of all, it was just bad advice. It would have been nearly impossible to keep up the morale of the workers if Nehemiah showed himself to be a coward, which is exactly what would have happened if had he not trusted God completely for his protection. But even more importantly, Shemaiah’s advice was sinful, which again demonstrates that he was a false prophet. Only the priests were permitted in the temple. Others who presumed to do so were to be executed (Num. 3:10; 18:7). Many years earlier, Uzziah, a king, went into the temple to burn incense and was stricken with leprosy. If Nehemiah had broken this law, how could he expect the people to respect him? Nehemiah correctly perceived from this that Shemaiah had been hired by Sanballat and Tobiah to kill him.

In some ways, this third tactic to Sanballat and Tobiah had the greatest potential to destroy Nehemiah’s work. Nehemiah could have gone to the plain of Ono and taken his Persian guards with him. In this way, his life would have been safe. If Sanballat and Tobiah had, in fact, passed on their lies to King Artaxerxes, it’s unlikely that the king would have believed them, and those who worked with him certainly knew better. But if Nehemiah himself demonstrated some unfitness for the work — cowardice or a willful disregard for God’s law — so that his fellow workers could not trust him anymore, then it would all be over. But he refused to give in.

Nehemiah concluded his third test with another prayer, but this time he prayed for his enemies. He asked God to remember the works of Tobiah and Sanballat, the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who had tried to make him afraid. This was a prayer of imprecation similar to the one in chapter 4. Nehemiah asked God to put an end to their foolishness.

When we look at history, sometimes it seems that Satan is winning. This is most often true when we consider battles without looking at their outcome. But when we look at the outcome, it soon becomes clear that he never had a chance. And, of course, the greatest victory came in the person of Jesus Christ, who, having offered himself for our sins, died and rose again. He now reigns victoriously at the right hand of his Father in heaven.

Nehemiah and his crew finish the work on the wall of Jerusalem in an amazing fifty-two days. They rebuilt the entire wall and hung the gates. This is amazing not only because of the amount of work involved, but also because of the circumstances in which the work was done — constant threats, rumors, accusations, etc. The men literally worked with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.

The result of their work was that the enemies of God trembled in fear because for the first time they realized that Nehemiah’s work really was the work of God. And this reminds us that the day is coming in which all the enemies of Christ must appear before his judgment seat. If they do not bow there knees to him beforehand, they will find out in that day that our work, however foolish and weak it might have looked to them, was also God’s work.

Brethren, today’s text encourages you to persevere in the work of Christ’s kingdom. And you have Christ’s own promise that he will build his church and even the gates of hell itself cannot stop its advancement. Amen.

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