Sticks and Stones
We have all either heard or used the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Is that true? We’ve had kids all over this church who have broken bones in the past year or so. Nathan Mounts broke his elbow. It’s in a cast, but it’ll be all better before long. Amber Lockett broke her ankle—it’s healed. Travis broke his arm—it’s better. Things like that happen. People get hurt. Bones get broken. But that kind of hurt goes away fairly quickly. Yes—sticks and stones can break your bones. But bones heal pretty quickly. A whole lot quicker than the damage that words can cause. I’m sure that just about every one of us can remember something that somebody has said to us that hurt our feelings. If you were ever made fun of, that is a hurt that will stay with you forever. If somebody made fun of your clothes because they were hand-me-downs. Or teased you because your shoes had holes in them, or you didn’t have any shoes at all. Or if you had buck teeth. Or if you were chunky or scrawny. Those hurtful words can stick in your mind forever. Make no mistake about it, words are powerful. What did James say? James 3:3-5 says, “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” In 2007, a brushfire burned nearly 2,300 acres of beautiful land in Maui, Hawaii. Do you know how the fire got started? A hiker was smoking while he was walking along a nature trail and dropped his cigarette. Just like one tiny cigarette butt has the power to start a devastating fire, one tiny word has the power to devastate lives, homes, churches and communities. But just as words have the power to tear down, they also have the power to build up. Which way do you think the Lord would have us to use our words? Words are significant. Words have meaning. Words are powerful. In our passage tonight, we see different ways that words can be used. The first words used, were bad words. Look back at verses 1-3.
Here we are again with Sanballat and Tobiah. Once again, they’re being a burr under Nehemiah’s saddle. They are the opposition that keeps continually popping up. They pop up, Nehemiah and the people resist their opposition, they go away, and then they pop up again. Of course, there is a lesson for us in that. Opposition will never completely go away. Until Jesus calls us to be with Him, we will never be free from opposition. As a matter of fact, the more you accomplish the mission God has called you to, the more opposition you will face. When the remnant was accomplishing nothing, the opposition left them alone. Sanballat and Tobiah had no problem with the Jews when they were floundering in a pile of rubble. But when they started to accomplish the mission God had called them to, they were hit in the face with opposition. I say that they were hit in the face. That might have been easier to deal with. Physical confrontation tends to strengthen resolve. When somebody attacks us physically, we tend to circle the wagons and fight to the death. But Sanballat and Tobiah didn’t attack the remnant physically, did they? They were strong enough to, but they didn’t. Probably because they knew that Nehemiah had the king’s backing. So they didn’t attack them physically. Instead, they attacked them with words. Verse 1 says that Sanballat mocked the Jews. He taunted them. He made fun of them. Verse 2 says that he brought his whole army down, and paraded them in front of Jerusalem. He brought the home crowd with him. He brought his own cheering section. And as he stood there in front of all of his supporting cast, he began to hurl insults at the remnant. He called them feeble. That word pictures a withered, shriveled up vine or a tottering old man who can barely get around. The phrase, “will they fortify themselves,” is difficult to translate. The idea is that Sanballat is sarcastically asking if that feeble remnant will be able to restore the wall by themselves. The reason it’s so difficult to translate is because the word has a double meaning. It can mean “restore” or “rebuild” like we see in the King James as “fortify”. And it can mean “forsake” or “leave”. Sanballat was such a witty guy. Most sarcasm is witty, isn’t it? There is an edginess. Many times, sarcasm is humor that bites. And it bites hard. So hard that it can leave terrible scars. Sanballat was sarcastically saying to the remnant, “What are you going to do? Rebuild or retreat? You haven’t ever finished anything. What makes you think you’re “strong” enough to finish now?” Then he went on to mock their faith. When he said, “will they sacrifice”, he was continuing his biting sarcasm. “You know that you’re too feeble to build this thing yourselves. You know that you’re going to barely get started and then give up. What’s going to happen then? Are you going to get all religious and hope your God finishes it for you? Are you going to offer up a bunch of sacrifices to get your God to come bail you out?” You can almost hear his home crowd roaring in laughter, can’t you? Every time he throws out another flame, his people back him up by throwing fuel on it. “How long is all this going to take you, Nehemiah? A day? A week?” “Since your people are so pitiful and feeble, you might get more help from the stones themselves.” “They show more life than your people do, Nehemiah.” Then Tobiah jumps in with his ridiculous little joke. “Yeah, Nehemiah, even if you do get the wall built, it will be so fragile that it couldn’t even hold the weight of a little fox walking across it.” Tobiah didn’t quite have the art of sarcasm down like Sanballat did. All he had was blunt insult. Now I want you to notice something about the words that Sanballat and Tobiah used. Did they have any basis in fact? Did they spend a lot of time reasoning through their argument? Did they make sure and form a logical basis for what they were saying? No—all of their words were emotion based. All of them were designed to generate emotion and fear. They were angry, indignant, mocking, taunting, argumentative, and inciting. They were useless words that were designed to suck the life out of the remnant. Words can do that can’t they? They can do that intentionally and unintentionally. I know of churches right now where there are active smear campaigns going on to tear down a part of their ministry. People don’t agree with a decision that has been made. So instead of doing something constructive or seeing the benefit of it, they are doing everything they can to undermine it. The phone lines are burning up and the words are flying. Useless words. Destructive words. Words that will do nothing but destroy the display of God’s glory before a watching world. Remember why the Jews were rebuilding Jerusalem in the first place. God wanted the city rebuilt to put His power and glory on display. A rebuilt Jerusalem was a witness of God before a watching world. That is the exact same thing God has called us to be as His church. We are His witness before a watching world. How many people will never darken the door of a church because of the destructive, backbiting words they have heard coming from the church? Last year, I was trying to engage in a Gospel conversation with an unchurched man at Lowes. He used that opportunity to tell me all the gossip and dirt that was going on in another Southern Baptist church in our area. When I asked where he was getting all of his information, since he didn’t go to church there, he told me his friend’s name who was a member there. Sanballat would be proud. And so would Satan. Satan’s proud, because most of the time he didn’t have anything to do with it. Because it’s our words that are so destructive. Our tongues are the spark that start some pretty huge, uncontrollably destructive fires. Are your words sarcastic? Are your words destructive? Are your words going to cause anger or resentment or fear or pain? Are your words designed to tear down or to build up? Even when we don’t intend to, our words can have a negative impact. Are your words about God’s work always gloomy? “Well, there’s no way we’ll ever get that done.” Are your words depressing and downer? Are you always able to find the dark cloud inside every silver lining? Words are powerful. They have meaning. Choose your words carefully. Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Sanballat and Tobiah didn’t know that Proverb. If they did, they certainly didn’t exercise it. But I want you to look at how Nehemiah responded to the bad words they used. Look with me in verses 4-5:
Leadership is a tenuous position. Especially when you’re leading a group of people who don’t have to follow you. Things would have been very different for Nehemiah if the remnant would have been his slaves. But they weren’t. Things would have also been different if there was a decree from the king for them to rebuild the wall. But there wasn’t. The job of rebuilding the wall was not a legal requirement. Nehemiah’s position of leadership was strictly voluntary in the sense that the people didn’t have to follow him. So when the words of opposition came against them, what would have been the easiest thing for them to do? The easiest thing for them to do would have been to quit working and tell Nehemiah to take a hike. “You came in here from out of town with all these big ideas and they didn’t work. Now go back home and leave us alone in our rubble.” The people didn’t say those things, but Nehemiah knew that they could have. And, being a good leader and a wise man, he probably knew exactly how tenuous his leadership position was. So, knowing exactly how fragile things really were, how did Nehemiah react to the destructive words of Sanballat and Tobiah? He defended himself, right? He gave all the reasons how the people were going to accomplish the work, right? He threw a bunch of words right back at them, right? He fired right back with both barrels, right? Wrong. And I tell you, this is a difficult truth of Scripture. It is hard. It is completely contrary to what most of us want to do. Most of us want to defend ourselves against bad words. When we hear of an evil report or gossip about us, what do we want to do? We want to confront those people and set the record straight. I imagine that Nehemiah was no different. I imagine that his first instinct was to stand up and address every sarcastic charge. None of the charges had any substance to them, so he couldn’t have answered with any substance. He could have only responded in kind. Fight fire with fire, right? But that’s not what Nehemiah did. Even though his whole leadership position was hanging in the balance, he refused to respond to Sanballat and Tobiah. He stood there and took their sneers and snide remarks. He stood there and took their scorn and mockery. He refused to respond in kind. I have a sarcastic tongue and battle it all the time. And when I see the opening that Tobiah left with his stupid comment, I would find it hard to resist slamming him. But Nehemiah was above that. Because those kinds of verbal battles don’t accomplish anything. What was Nehemiah’s mission? It was to show God’s glory to a watching world by getting the wall built. How would defending himself against the charges of Sanballat and Tobiah do anything to accomplish his mission? It wouldn’t. It would have only been a distraction. The same way that it would have been a distraction for Jesus to answer the charges of His accusers. But instead, Scripture says that Jesus was silent before them, as a lamb before his shearers is silent. Isaiah 53:7 says, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.” Nehemiah didn’t answer those men in kind. That would have been a waste of time and energy. That would have done nothing to further his mission. So what did he do instead? He left it up to God. He prayed what the scholars call an imprecatory prayer. We see a lot of imprecatory prayers in the Psalms, but Nehemiah prays one here. He basically prays for God to punish his enemies. He did the opposite of Jesus and Stephen. What did they pray for God to do to their enemies? They prayed that God would forgive them. In verse 5, Nehemiah prayed that God do the opposite. He prayed that God NOT cover their iniquity. That their sin NOT be blotted out from before Him. So what are we supposed to do? Are we supposed to pray like Jesus and Stephen or like Nehemiah and David? The answer is yes. I think that there is room for both kinds of prayer. But here’s the point. Neither Jesus, Stephen, David or Nehemiah took things into their own hands. None of them defended themselves against their enemies. Jesus held His tongue. Stephen preached the Gospel. David repented for even cutting the corner off of Saul’s robe. He refused to come against the Lord’s anointed. And Nehemiah didn’t even address Sanballat and Tobiah. He let them fire off their taunts and refused to respond to them. So if somebody is gossiping about you, how should you respond? If somebody is spreading baseless tales about our church, how should we respond? If somebody is taunting you for your faith or bringing down the work of God in this church, how should you respond? Keep your mouth shut and take it to God. Nehemiah refused to listen to their words. And to the credit of the people, they didn’t listen yet either. And because he refused to listen, and he refused to respond to them, he didn’t get discouraged. So many times we get discouraged because we thing we have to answer every charge and defend every action. We don’t. If you are truly pursuing our mission in accordance with God’s Word, then just turn it over to the Lord and let Him defend it. Because, do you know what? There comes a time when you have to quit all the talking and get to work. And that’s what happened in verse 6:
Just picture that scene with me for a minute. Here was this vast army of people standing on the edge of the city. They were hurling insults and making fun of the remnant. The remnant just stood there, staring at them, and took it. Then Nehemiah stood up and prayed. He completely ignored the insults and mean words and prayed. Then as soon as he said “amen”, it was like the sideshow was over. “OK, break’s over, time to get back to work.” Why? Because of what it says at the end of verse 6. “The people had a mind to work.” Sometimes we have a mind to argue, don’t we? Sometimes we have a mind to complain. Sometimes we have a mind to be sensitive. Sometimes we have a mind to be offended. But what kind of a mind are we called to have? We’re called to have a mind to work. Because arguing will do nothing to accomplish our mission. Complaining will do nothing to accomplish our mission. How will we show the love of Christ to others when we spend our time being overly sensitive and getting offended all the time? We won’t. But we will accomplish our mission when we have a mind to work. That ragtag group of feeble Jews quit paying attention to the words of Sanballat and Tobiah for a while. And when they did, they were able to focus on what they were called to do. And when they focused on what they were called to do, they closed all the gaps in the wall.
So, how are you using your words? Are you using good, constructive words? Or are your words destructive like Sanballat and Tobiah’s words were? How have you reacted when people have used destructive words toward you? Has it caused you to pack up your toys and go home? There is a better way. Tonight, here in this place, turn that hurt and pain and defeat over to the Lord. And when you do, get ready to get to work. We’ve got a lot of work to do. There’s a world out there who needs to see God’s glory. Will you have a mind to work?