The Expository Files

Continuing The Lord's Work In The Face Of Fear

Nehemiah 4


Nehemiah is an exciting and inspiring book about this man, Nehemiah, and the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah was a contemporary of Ezra and a cupbearer to the king in the Persian palace. He led the third and last return of Jewish captives back to Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile. His faith in God and his love for his people is impressive -- and this, in spite of hardship and opposition. Opposition from outside and discouragement from inside, yet the task of rebuilding was complete in only fifty-two days.

There are some great lessons for us to learn from chapter four, beginning in the first three verses:

Neh. 4:1-3
When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews,and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, "What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble--burned as they are?" Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, "What they are building--if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!"

Here is this man, Sanballat, who heard about this band of Jews rebuilding the walls and he was angry. He ridiculed the Jews. He spoke to his associates and the army of Samaria, no doubt with a tone of ridicule and sarcasm: "What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble...?"

One of Sanballat's associates was this Ammonite, Tobiah. And he agreed: "What they are building - if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones."

Let's learn this: It should never surprise us when we do the Lord's work and some react with anger and ridicule. Jesus - in the sermon on the Mount - said, "Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake," (Matt. 5:10). He said to His disciples: "...if they persecuted Me, they will also persecute you." Paul said, all who live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution (2 Tim. 3:12).

Throughout the Bible history of God's people they were opposed. We ought not to think it will be different today. It may be subtle or it may take the form of open ridicule. Former friends may sever all ties with us when we become the Lord's disciple. There may be social humiliations and a variety of difficulties and pressures when we are openly faithful to God.We can be sure, the more active our faith, the deeper our courage and the bolder our preaching - there will be opposition. The likes of Sanballat and Tobiah are still here on the earth -- and Satan will use them to provoke us and discourage us.

How did Nehemiah respond to this threat? He prayed, and that is the next lesson to learn from this section.

Neh. 4:4,5
Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.

In the Old Testament - especially in the book of Psalms - there are prayers like this which may seem strange to us. We are familiar with the teachings of Christ who said love your enemies and pray for them... not against them (Matt. 5:44-48). Jesus and Stephen exemplify this - by requesting forgiveness for those who killed them (Lk. 23:34 & Acts 7:60).

But in the Old Testament there are these imprecatory prayers, where people of God called upon God to defeat and punish the enemy (Psalms 59 & Psalms 137). Yet in these prayers - of David and Nehemiah - I see no evidence of personal vengeance; but rather - appeals on behalf of righteousness and petitions for the vindication of God's justice.

BUT HERE'S WHAT IS ESPECIALLY IMPORTANT TO OBSERVE - When Nehemiah became aware of this growing opposition; in the face of this fear he prayed. This is what we need to learn, and this is what we need to do - when we face fear; when we become aware of opposition: PRAY!

One good example of this is found in Acts chapter four. Acts 4 opens with the report of Jewish leaders in Jerusalem "greatly disturbed" when they heard the apostles preaching "in Jesus, the resurrection from the dead." Peter and John were taken into custody; Peter gave a bold defense of their work, and verse 13 says: "...when they saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus." A man who had been healed was standing nearby -- evidence of their work. The unbelievers who had taken Peter and John conferred privately and decided to severely threaten them and tell them not to preach the gospel. Peter and John were released after this punishment -- and here's what Luke tells us, beginning with verse 23 of Acts 4.

On their release, Peter and John went back to their own people and reported all that the chief priests and elders had said to them. When they heard this, they raised their voices together in prayer to God. "Sovereign Lord," they said, "you made the heaven and the earth and the sea, and everything in them. You spoke by the Holy Spirit through the mouth of your servant, our father David: "'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.' Indeed Herod and Pontius Pilate met together with the Gentiles and the people of Israel in this city to conspire against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed. They did what your power and will had decided beforehand should happen. Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. Stretch out your hand to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus." After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly.

What should we learn from these examples, of Nehemiah, and these disciples in Acts 4? We learn that regardless of the opposition, even when we are threatened and punished and told not to preach, we get on our knees and pray, then we get right back in the pulpit. We take note of the opposition, talk to God about it -- but we never stop doing what's right.

Now here's where we are: As the people do the Lord's work there is this angry opposition. Nehemiah responds by praying. But notice in verse 6... they didn't stop working!

Neh. 4:6
So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

The temptation is - to become so worried; so terrified by the opposition - that you pray and pray and wring your hands and wait, AND STOP WORKING! This happens to local churches and can become the death of a local church. You experience a few set-backs. The number dwindles, the budget is strained, and people think about the negatives, talk about the grim prospects -- and talk themselves into death, BY CEASING THE WORK OF THE LORD. (Cut-backs in numbers and budgets do not demand cut-backs in obedience or work!)

These people had a "mind to work," in spite of the fear, the opposition and the hard work. Verse 6 says they continued the work and made progress "and the entire wall was joined together up to half!" Let me say, long before Sanballat and Tobiah mounted their campaign of fear, these people had decided to work!

And that's what Christians need to do! When you become a Christian you decide to follow the Lord, do His work, cooperate with others in His work - AND YOU JUST KEEP DOING THAT regardless of how much money you don't have; regardless of how many people and regardless of any opposition. You do the Lord's work because you love Him... not because all the circumstances are favorable! We need the attitude of these good people - which is called "a mind to work."

And one reason this is important is - the opposition may get worse!

Neh. 4:7,8
But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem's walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.

The enemies hear of the progress these Jews are making and they decide to "turn up the heat." In spite of their ridicule the wall was being repaired. The gaps were being closed. They were very angry. They plotted together to fight and stir up trouble and this may happen to us. If we become discouraged -- the devil knows that. Our discouragement will become the devil's opportunity and he will dispatch his ministers to trouble us.

So, we've got to keep our heart focused and our heads up. As soon as we invite everybody to a pity party and start crying around about how hard it is and how bad things are, the devil sees our weakness and takes advantage of us. There was always be opposition to what is good and right and it starts when you obey the gospel.

I heard of an old preacher who would give a little speech to every person he baptized -- after the baptism, and in front of the audience -- he would admonish and warn and encourage the new child of God. And among other things he would say something like this: As soon as the devil finds out you've become a Christian, the armies of hell will be called out against you!

Sanballat, Tobiah, The Arabs and Ammonites; those kind of people are alive today doing the bidding of their father, the devil. As the opposition builds we must continue praying and watching.

Neh. 4:9
But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

Two things here: prayer and watching. Watching without prayer is futile; praying without watching is disobedience and foolish. And this is exactly what the New Testament teaches.

Matt. 26:41
"Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak."

Mark 13:33
"Take heed, watch and pray; for you do not know when the time is.

Luke 21:36
"Watch therefore, and pray always that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man."

So here's what happened: As the Jews under Nehemiah engaged in this good work there was opposition; the opposition grew. Nehemiah prayed; the people kept working; they had a mind to work.

Now the next part of the story may be the saddest part of this chapter. Discouragement came from within the ranks.

Neh. 4:10-12
Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, "The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall." Also our enemies said, "Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work."

Under the threat of enemy attack, fear and discouragement settled in to weak hearts. Now here's what we need to notice about this -- when the people of Judah offered their complaints and murmuring, THEY WERE EXPRESSING THEIR EMOTIONS NOT THEIR FAITH !! When they talked about "giving out," and all the rubble and the power of the enemy, they were telling how they felt. They were not expressing faith; they were expressing their emotions.

And the same kind of thing can happen to local churches. You come for Bible study on Wednesday night and maybe there are like 18 or 20 people, or less. And you begin to express how you feel about that - "I just don't know if we can make it... such a pitiful little bunch... the other churches have so many people... the devil is so powerful." That's not faith talking -- that's the emotion of fear and discouragement.

Faith says: Let's just do what's right. Faith says: let's turn adversity into advantage. Faith says: in spite of the trials, conflicts and circumstances - we are still going to obey God.

Nehemiah -- their godly leader -- responded to this by telling the people: do not be afraid; remember the lord.

Neh. 4:13-14
Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes."

From a human standpoint it might be argued, Nehemiah missed a good place to give up. But he didn't give up against these odds. He stood up and said, "Don't be afraid of these guys... you need to REMEMBER THE LORD. These guys are weaklings ... the Lord is great and awesome and He is on our side."

Verse 15 says they kept working.

Neh. 4:15
When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.

Don't ever stop working! Enemies, problems, discouragement -- DON'T EVER STOP WORKING. Now notice - these people were building and watching.

Neh. 4:16-18
From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me.

Neh. 4:21-23
So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out. At that time I also said to the people, "Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night, so they can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day." Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.

They had to build and fight. The story gives us the vivid picture of these men with a brick in one hand and a sword in the other. And that certainly says something about our work, our function. We must use the Word of God to build ourselves up. But we must also watch and guard and fight. The day we put the Sword down the devil will break through and steal!

Finally would you notice in verses 19 & 20: Our God will fight for us!

Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!"

If we depend upon our own strength, our own methods, our own numbers; we will be soundly defeated. The only way we can be victorious is to depend upon God, and just keeping following His Word, regardless of our numbers ... AND OUR GOD WILL FIGHT FOR US !!

Think about this: Never after any victory in Bible history; never did God appear on the scene after the battle and say to His people: "I have to hand to you. You did it all by yourself; all I did was watch and you overcame the enemy." You will not find such a passage.

Here's what you'll find: David said to God, "for you have armed Me with strength for the battle," {2 Sam. 22:40}. Nehemiah was not acting alone in this work, and in the battle. And we are not "on our own!" When I use the Sword of the Spirit to defeat temptation ... when I use some part of this armor of God to protect myself ... when I struggle against the principalities and powers, and accomplish some victory ... I am not fighting this battle alone! There are ultimate issues involved larger than one person or one little church.

And every time we push the enemy back; every time we stand in the evil day and survive some fresh assault of the Devil, God is with us and we need to know, because of Him, and His resources we are able to stand! I know of nothing more comforting and uplifting, than the daily awareness that WE ARE NOT FIGHTING THE BATTLE ALONE !! "The battle is not yours, but the Lord's!" (2 Chron. 20:15). Now that makes my point! And Nehemiah had this attitude.

Do you see what a great truth this is? The battle is not yours, but the Lord's. We have just got to realize - as we fight the good fight; as we wrestle againstthe principalities and powers and face the threats and assaults of the world, the flesh, and the devil - God is involved with us. Christ is the captain of our salvation. Other faithful soldiers help us.

And there's more!! Think about this. If the battle is the Lord's, WHO DO YOU THINK WILL WIN ultimately ?? God cannot fail; truth and right-eousness cannot be defeated and this is the theme of the last book in the New Testament, Revelation.

And when your mind and heart is bogged down in the thick of the battle, you need to lift your head and call this to mind: GOD CANNOT FAIL! That means as long as I rely upon Him and take my orders from the Captain, and wear the whole armor of God, I'm on the right side and cannot be defeated (even though opposed). Regardless of all the Sanballats and Tobiah's in the world - the battle is the Lord's! Now if I'm not faithful about wearing the armor; If I put down the Sword of the Spirit and become lax about following the Captain's orders, I become vulnerable; it's like - I HANG A TARGET ON MY BACK!!

But we have this assurance: As long as we rely upon God, and take our orders from the Captain, and wear the whole armor of God we are on the right side and cannot be defeated! David knew this, so he said to God, "for you have armed Me with strength for the battle," {2 Sam. 22:40}. Nehemiah knew this when he said, Our God will fight for us!

And perhaps another lesson we need to get from Nehemiah is: the Almighty God has the ability to create great things from small beginnings; nothing - absolutely nothing - escapes God's ability to resurrect, repair and rebuild ... through people who believe in Him. Do you believe this?

By Warren E. Berkley
From Expository Files 6.1; January 1999