Nehemiah: So We Built the Wall: Kingdom Work Despite Opposition

Sermon by Billy Dempsey on May 9

Nehemiah 4:1-23

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So glad the lot fell to me, chapter 4 and not chapter 3. I lack rabbi ben Lowry’s linguistic ability to rattle off the Hebrew. Makes it sound like music; makes it sound like music. I can’t do that! I can do other things; I just can’t do that. Let’s go to the Lord in prayer.

Father, thank You for this Your Word. Thank You for this moment as we come to hear from Your Word. We want to hear from You. We want to hear Your Word applied to our hearts. We need to hear the Good Shepherd and be fed by Him now. And so Father, we stand ready. We thank You, in Jesus’ name. And all God’s people said, Amen.

If you’ve read chapter 4 of Nehemiah you recognize that after walking through the process of rebuilding in chapter 3, you realize things are heating up in Jerusalem. As the work progresses, then the opposition becomes more intense. And that’s really what’s happening here in chapter 4 – opposition to the work of Nehemiah and his fellow Jews rebuilding the city, rebuilding the wall so that they can rebuild the city and restore the life of the city. The temple is functioning but nothing else is there functioning and it won’t function until that wall is built.

And so as we walk through this chapter let’s recognize the kinds of things we’ll see. We’ll see angry enemies plot and rage, we’ll seek workmen wear out under the overwhelming scope of the task and the opposition of powerful enemies, and we’ll watch Nehemiah call the people to trust the Lord and work or fight, while he at the same time takes reasonable precautions to ensure their protection and their peace of mind. Nehemiah chapter 4, as we walk through it, will talk to us about how kingdom work advances in times of opposition. Well let’s begin. Let me read. I’m going to read the first six verses and then we’ll walk through the rest of the chapter. I’ll read most of the chapter to us in the course of walking us through it.

But right now, the first six verses of chapter 4:

“Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?’ Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, ‘Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!’ Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.

So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.”

This is God’s Word. We know that He adds His blessing to it as we read it and hear it together.

Angry Men and an Effective Ally

Well let’s talk about what it is that’s happening here. I’ve got a very clumsy outline for you. It’s just not neat and tidy as my colleagues generally give us a neat and tidy outline, certainly our senior minister does. This is a very clumsy outline. I’ll just lay it out for you! We want to walk through this chapter with three points. Angry men and an effective ally, our first point. Our second point, a call to trust the Lord and the exercise of reasonable precautions. See, that’s just kind of clumsy but you see where it’s happening here in this chapter. And then finally, a leader fully engaged.

Well let’s talk about angry men. You see it right here as the report comes to Sanballat and then the report also gets back to Nehemiah. Sanballat’s reaction and Tobiah’s reaction – “They heard we were building the wall. He was angry and enraged and jeered at the Jews.” That word, “jeered,” in Hebrew it really means, “mocked.” And so he’s making a mockery of the Jews. He’s holding up the Jews to derision. He’s laughing at them and he’s calling his people to laugh at them. But catch his use of the word, “restore.” “Will they restore it for themselves?” That’s exactly what they’re doing. It’s good at times to listen to the enemies of God because sometimes they can tell you exactly what’s going on. Yes, they are restoring. They are going to restore the life of this city. They are going to revive its form as well as its function out of the rubble of destruction left by the conquering Babylonians. It’s never a good day for the enemies of God when His people work to restore the city of God, to revive the stones and to bring the life of God to bear on the world. That’s a bad day for God’s enemies and that’s exactly what’s happening here. The Jews rebuilding that wall are bringing the life of God to bear in a part of the world that the enemies have owned, until now.

That’s exactly what Isaiah was referring to, I think, in Isaiah 61. That great, “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor,” passage that Jesus read in His home synagogue at Nazareth. When under the proclamation of good news to the poor and liberty to captives and the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, God’s people build up the ancient ruins and they raise up the ancient devastations. They repair the ruined cities. That’s what’s happening here. The life of God being applied again to the world that’s broken. The presence of others, his brothers, the army of Samaria, and Tobiah the Ammonite, he’s deriding the Jews and the work of rebuilding, restoring the life of Jerusalem. Tobiah adds his little bit of sarcasm. “If a fox goes on it, it will break the wall.” Archeologists have discovered that Nehemiah’s wall was nine feet thick. Tobiah had better have a very big fox.

Sanballat and Tobiah and their ilk aren’t the only angry men in this narrative. Do you see Nehemiah’s burning anger at the enemies of God? And in his anger he turns to God. I read his prayer. His prayer might trouble some people. His prayer might trouble folks who would be asking, “Where is mercy? Where is mercy? Where is the mind of Christ who forgave His Roman crucifiers even as they drove the nails home?” Nehemiah’s prayer is the prayer of a man angry with God’s enemies who would seek to stop the work rather than those men who are acting as unwitting, unknowing accomplices in moving that work forward. Sanballat and his allies will entirely undo the work of God’s people and God Himself if they can. In their hatred, they oppose God and those who belong to Him. Nehemiah knows that. Nehemiah prays a prayer understanding that Sanballat and his allies, their derision for the Jews is really a derision against God. They are holding God up to public shame. They are holding God Himself, who gives them breath, up to public mockery.

And he prays a heated, angry prayer. If you can’t pray angry sometimes, do you really understand prayer? Sometimes we’re angry. Sometimes we don’t want to be cautious with our language. Nehemiah is not cautious with his language. I think he’s thoughtful about his language. I believe he’s very thoughtful about his language but he’s not cautious. He’s not cautious. He’s an angry man, angry for God’s people, angry for God Himself, angry for the work of God when those who would raise themselves up to be superior, even to the Lord Himself.

Nehemiah’s prayer has got precedence. God, in Deuteronomy 32, toward the end of Moses’ time of leadership of God’s people, God is talking to Moses about the enemies of God’s people and He says, “Vengeance is mine and recompense for the time when their foot shall slip for the day of their calamity is at hand.” God’s owning for Himself that right to determine when vengeance shall be paid. And that’s what Nehemiah is asking God to do. He’s not strapping on his sword right now and running down Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab. He’s asking God to take care of his enemies.

Psalm 137, one of the bitterest of all the psalms, yet let’s remember found in the hymnbook of God’s people. Listen to this – also thinking as a precedent for Nehemiah’s prayer. “O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us. Bless shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock.” That’s almost a flavor of Nehemiah’s prayer. It’s grittier and grimmer but he’s praying that God will put them in a place of captivity. He’s praying that God will put them in a place of bondage as his own people have been.

You see, Nehemiah isn’t seeing Sanballat and his allies as one with whom he has a difference of opinion. That’s very important. Sanballat and those with him will bring the good work of God’s people to a halt if they can, even spilling blood if they have to. Nehemiah sees that, he knows that. There’s no politeness here. There’s no gentleman’s disagreement here. It’s war! It’s war! And it’s waged in hard work and earnest prayer and even physical danger. I wonder, do we get that? Do we understand that we live on a beachhead and not a beach? You know there’s a difference between a beachhead and a beach. On a beachhead, you’re not welcome. You’re not supposed to be there. Those who possess it at that moment are trying to kill you because they don’t think you belong there and they don’t intend for you to stay. When we don’t understand that dynamic, we really live as though we’re waiting for the beach attendant to come and adjust our umbrellas so the sun won’t burn our little toesies and hope he’ll drop off another one of those refreshing fizzy drinks with the funny paper decoration out of the top of the glass.

That’s not where Nehemiah is living. That’s not where the people of God are living in Nehemiah chapter 4. Guess what? That’s not where you and I live either. We live in a world opposed to God and opposed to God’s people as though who were building up the ancient ruins. And they say to us, “You’re not welcome here if that’s what you’re up to. And we’ll throw everything we’ve got at you to stop you!” That’s a beachhead. That’s where we live. That’s where we live. It’s not polite sometimes. It’s not pretty often. It’s going to get rougher. As David said this morning, the sun is going to get hotter because we’re in a war. And we have to make responses sometimes very close to Nehemiah’s. He understands he’s in a fight for the life of the work of God right there.

And Sanballat has allies, Tobiah and Geshem, and then the Ashdodites. They show up in verse 7. And if you look at a map, that’s just a perfect ring of enemies around Jerusalem at this time. They all encircled the Jews and they no doubt represented an intimidating array of arms and not a little bit of political power. And before them, surely the Jews really do look like feeble and not capable of much at all, but all Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem and the Ashdodites have is each other. That’s all they’ve got. They’ve got each other. It’s the people of God who have the Lord Himself, the Maker of heaven and earth, Lahai Roi who Hagar says, “the God who really sees me,” the One who keeps Israel and never slumbers nor sleeps. Nehemiah have the effective ally who walks in the camp with the wicked as well as in the camp with the righteous, both weakening and strengthening heart and will according to His intention and purpose.

A Call to Trust the Lord and the Exercise of Reasonable Precautions

“So we built the wall. So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its height for the people had a mind to work.” Where did the mind to work come from? It came from the effective ally who walks among His people and gives grace and gives help and gives power and gives physical stamina and gives ability to get up tomorrow after a hard day today and do it all again. More rock. More rubble. More building. The people have a mind to work because God is bolstering them. God, the effective ally, bolstering them at every turn.

And so, we get to another turn as this progress is more noted. We find ourselves in a position of even more pronounced opposition and so we find ourselves at a call to trust the Lord. We watch the exercise of reasonable precautions. Look at verses 7 and 8 with me:

“But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion.”

You see what they’re doing. The news of progress, the closing of the gaps in the walls, it’s reaching half its height – a sign of God’s help and blessing as the effective ally. You see the blindness of God’s enemies. And you see that in the response of the Jewish leaders to the ministry of Jesus. They’re blind. Why can’t they see? This is extraordinary – the things they hear from Him, the things they see Him doing. These men should be seeing this is an amazing amount of progress considering the people he’s got to work and the amount of destruction and ruin. I wonder if there’s something to this God business? No, that’s not going on at all. They’re unwilling to recognize the work of God. They’re blind. They ought to have been humbled. They ought to have been taken aback. But instead, they raged and they plotted. The enemies of God are planning this physical attack, a destructive whisper campaign, designed to stop the work and break the will of the builders.

And how do we respond? Look at verse 9:

“And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.”

Notice the vertical and the horizontal responses here. The vertical response – “We prayed to our God.” It’s corporate. We are praying to our God. Nehemiah is not the only one praying here. The people of God are fighting in prayer. Nehemiah calls upon his people to trust in their God, the God who has called them, the God who has called them into this work, as a fighting response to the violence threatened against them. He’s weaponizing prayer. You recognize that? He’s weaponizing prayer. Paul weaponizes prayer. That great armor of God section in Ephesians chapter 6. Listen to what Paul says about prayer. After going through all the bits and pieces of the armor of God that we as believers are to employ in our life in this world. “Praying at all times in the Spirit, with all prayer and supplication, to that end keep alert with all perseverance, making supplication for all the saints and also for me that words might be given to me in opening my mouth boldly to proclaim the mysteries of the Gospel for which I am an ambassador in chains.” Paul is weaponizing prayer. “Pray for the saints. Pray for the saints who struggle out there. Pray for the saints who are paying the price to be identified with Christ. Pray for the saints. Pray for me as I preach the Gospel right here in this prison.” Paul is weaponizing prayer. Nehemiah is weaponizing prayer. “We prayed to our God.” There’s our first response.

The second response, the horizontal response – “We set a guard as a protection against them day and night.” The people need to pray, the people need to put their confidence in God, the God who has called them into that work, the God who has sustained them in that work, and to remember the Lord. And they need to see that guard. That’s okay. They need to pray and trust the Lord and they need to see that guard. Nehemiah gives them the opportunity to have confidence, both in the Lord and in the means He will use to protect them. Let’s not fall for a false dichotomy between the spiritual and the practical. Nehemiah didn’t fall for that. I don’t think God calls for that. Prayer and reasonable action are complementary responses. They go together. They go together. Reasonable precautions are not a lack of faith. Nehemiah is calling people to trust the Lord and understanding God is going to use means to accomplish our aid or to come to our aid.

Now I think verses 10 to 22 are really unpacking the summary statement of verse 9. Read verse 9 again – “We prayed to our God and set a guard as protection against them day and night.” I think verses 10 to 22 really kind of tease that out, what’s exactly going on here. Let’s look at some of the pieces here. Verse 10 – the workers are overwhelmed by the scope of the work. “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.” Verse 11, the enemies plan for a surprise attack. It’s being whispered abroad, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” Then the families in verse 12, the families of those men from the surrounding countryside, because they’ve brought in men from the surrounding villages and towns from around Jerusalem and so their families are out living close by these enemies. And the roads go through those towns and those people come and go. And so word travels and so the families of those men who are in Jerusalem rebuilding, they come from the surrounding countryside, they’re frightened for themselves, they’re frightened for their loved ones. Verse 12, “At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, ‘You must return to us.’” They’re frightened, they’re scared to death because of all the rumblings that are happening out there about something bad is going to happen at Jerusalem. The builders are wearing out. The opponents are talking through their game plan. The families of men who are building in Jerusalem are scared out of their minds.

Let’s just understand, always, that kingdom work is an overwhelming work. It challenges us, it shakes us to the very core. Sometimes it scares us. Let’s look at something even like family life – marriage and child rearing. It’s incredibly hard work. It’s incredibly hard work to stay married. It’s incredibly hard work to raise a family from birth till them leaving the nest. It’s overwhelming in its difficulty at times. It’s frightening. And sometimes all we can reckon with and all we can see are the obstacles and the stumbling blocks, the great yawning canyons that separate us from our spouse or separate us from our children. And we say, “There’s just too much wreckage here. There’s just too much broken here. There’s just too much wrong here. We can never pull these pieces back together. There are forces working against us and they are stronger than we are.” If we fret over our children, we’ll be saying things like, “How can we compete with our children’s friends or their music or what their social media crowd is telling them?”

Take stock of what we see here. We see responsible action. “I stationed the people,” verse 13, “by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.” And where did he put them? He put them at the lowest places of the wall. In the lowest parts of the space behind the wall. “In the open places I stationed the people by their clans with their swords, their spears and their bows” – so that they could be seen both by one another and by the bad guys, the opponents out there. A responsible choice of action. And the call to faith – verse 14, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” He’s appealing to them to remember not just that God is there but that God’s character, what God’s character is – His great and awesome character. That’s covenant language. God has made a covenant with you. God has made a promise to you. God is not breaking that promise. Don’t forget. Remember the Lord and fight. Fight for your homes, fight for your families, fight for your wives, fight for your children.  Once again, the great effective ally of His people bears his strong right arm and rolls up his sleeve and bears his strong right arm.

Verse 15, “When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.” The work stopped and then it started again because God won and His people won. Under God’s mighty hand – this is an important point – under God’s mighty hand, their enemies shrink once again to man-sized proportions. Remember David’s response to Goliath as he brought supplies to his brothers who were engaged in the war with the Philistines under Saul’s kingship and Goliath is tramping out twice a day to call for a champion from the Israelite army to fight him; whoever wins, wins the war and will be your servants. “If I kill him, you will be our servants.” And the army, every time, fled in fear. I’m not sure who they feared more – Saul or Goliath. Is Saul going to push one of those guys out there? “Okay, you can go take care of this!” But they fled in fear. And it’s David, not even a soldier in Saul’s army, coming to bring supplies for his brothers from his father, asks the question, “Who is this uncircumcised Philistine to defy the armies of the living God?” To David, Goliath was a man – a big man, but a man. To everyone else apparently in that army, including the king, he was larger than life. But David saw him with the eyes of faith. David remembered the Lord and saw him with eyes of faith and he was a man-sized problem. Here’s the ally of God’s people wading in and protecting them to the point they can go back to their work and they can go back to their work with a sense of confidence. Their enemies have just shrunk down to man-sized proportion.

We pray and we fight and we work – whether the issue is staying married or rearing children or planting churches or building buildings or staying sober or running your business in a godly fashion while you watch your competitors move ahead by lying and shortcuts and immorality. We pray and we fight and we work and we remember the Lord who is great and awesome. And we remember that He fights for us. Whatever our issues are, whatever shakes us to our core, whatever is the wall and the rubble and the great stones we don’t see how we can move and the wreckage we can’t clear away, we pray and we fight and we work because we have an ally who can’t be stopped. We have an ally who’s always going to win. We have an ally who hasn’t given up and He’s not given up on us and He’s not given up on whatever our issues are. He’s at work. He’s at work accomplishing – just as Tony told our children a while ago – “all His holy will.” And we need to be encouraged. We need to stand up straight and say, “I don’t know how this is going to work, but I’m going to keep doing what I can do and let God, my ally, do everything He will do.”

Well you know what Nehemiah does. As they do go back to work, Nehemiah does this business of half his servants working on the construction, half are holding weapons. Rubble and stone haulers are working with one hand while holding a weapon with the other. Each of the builders has his sword strapped to his side. The warning system, the soldier with the trumpet, if anything happens, if anything of an attack nature happens he’ll sound the trumpet. Nehemiah says, “In the place where you hear the sounds of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.” Verse 21, “So we labored at the work, and half of them held the spears from the break of dawn until the stars came out.” They’re working. They’re working. They’re remembering the Lord and they’re working, and if they have to fight they are prepared to fight. They’re not giving up. They’re not backing away. They believe the Lord. They believe the Lord and they recognize they live on a beachhead that they have to take and they have to hold.

A Leader Fully Engaged

One last point and we’ll be quick about it. What Nehemiah shows us, what chapter 4 shows us, is a leader who is fully engaged. Let me look at verse 23:

“So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand.”

Nehemiah shows us a leader who is ready for action, a leader who did not let down, a leader who knew no rest until the work was done. As I was working through this my mind went back to that moment where David decides to build a temple or a house for the Lord because he had the ark of the covenant there in a tent beside his new house of cedar after he’s been made king of all Israel. And the Lord basically says, “I’ve not lived in a house since the day I brought the people of Israel from Egypt till this day. I’ve been moving about in a tent for My dwelling.” And He goes on to say later in that prelude before He makes this covenant promise to David, “I’ll appoint a place for My people that they may dwell in their own place and be disturbed by no one. I will give you” that is all of you, the nation, “rest from all your enemies.” God’s not living, if we can use that word, in a house while His people wander He’s wandering with His people. God’s not perceived to be in a secure place like a temple or a house while His people have enemies that threaten them, while they have no rest. God’s not resting, as it were, until His people can rest securely in the place that He has marked out for them.

That’s what Nehemiah points us to. He points us to a God who doesn’t quit fighting for us and with us, a God who doesn’t quit wandering with us if we feel like wanderers; a God who doesn’t stop watching – not just watching us; watching out for us. A God who doesn’t quit. Nehemiah shows us a leader who doesn’t quit but it points us to the God who doesn’t quit. The God who doesn’t quit – that’s ours, that’s our God! That’s the God who has called us to be salt and light out there in the world. That’s the God who calls us in our homes where it’s hard to be salt and light sometimes, where it’s hard to be gracious and forgiving and loving and patient and self-controlled, that’s the God who calls us to be those things there and helps us to be those things there. That’s the God who never quits in all the times that we feel like quitting, in all the times that we feel like quitting. He’s the God who never quits and gives us grace to do the next thing. He gives us grace for the next thing. That’s how they built the wall. That’s how Nehemiah kept going – because God gave him grace, God gave him strength. God gave him everything he needed for his next thing. Just as He does with you. Just as He does with me.

Nehemiah’s wall won’t give the Jews ultimate rest, will it? No. But God does. God does in the person and work of Christ. And Jesus Himself holds the door open to that city that’s made without hands whose author and builder is God. Jesus holds that door open – open by His own shed blood; open to all those who trust in Him, all those who trust in Him, no matter how worn out by the fight they are and by the work they are. All those who trust in Him as Savior walk through that gate and find rest. That’s what Nehemiah points to.

Let’s pray.

Father, thank You for rest. Nehemiah needed rest. He didn’t have rest in this project. We need rest and we find it in the One that all of this was preparation for – Jesus Himself. Would You help us to know our hearts and to know if we have trust or hope in anyone or anything else besides Him. He opens the door to the city whose walls are never breached, the city whose author and builder is You, Yourself. Thank You, our Father. Hear us as we make our prayer and go with us from here to home into those places You’ve called us to rebuild the ancient devastations, rebuild the ancient cities. Thank You, Father. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

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