Nehemiah 4:1-23.
Overcoming Opposition

American Journal of Biblical Theology,
Copyright © 2015, John W. (Jack) Carter     Scripture quotes from KJV

There is one consistent property of the Christian life that is as reliable as our subjection to death and taxes:  when we attempt to accomplish any significant task that God has led us to do we can expect opposition in a variety of forms from a variety of sources.  This truth is so pervasive that we may apply a counter-corollary that if we are not subject to opposition when performing a task, then it is likely that our effort is not furthering the Kingdom and consequently, is not actually part of a Spirit-led venture.

Why are we subject to opposition when we attempt to do God's work?  Satan is the opponent of God, the dark prince of this world, and his only means for minimizing your effectiveness is to oppose you through the moral choices of others (or yourself) since he cannot destroy you.  What are some of the sources that sometimes serve to oppose faith-based initiatives?  Often conflict may come from non-Christians who do not support faith beliefs, Christians who feel threatened by change or the exposure of their own doubts and insecurities, or people who feel their power or influence is threatened.  Opposition may be realized in ridicule and lies, as well as real or implied threats.  Opposition can sometimes be quite substantive as people may take firm and even violent action to stop that which they disagree with.  According to the writer of the New Testament book of James, people of faith should respond with joy when they encounter opposition when engaged in faithful living.[1]  When opposition is encountered and overcome it can serve to reinforce our confidence that we are doing God's work. Overcoming opposition in a godly manner strengthens our faith and helps us to grow in patience and wisdom.

The following biblical narrative describes the opposition that Nehemiah encountered when rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem following the exile in Babylon.  He came to Jerusalem with the support of King Artexerxes Longimanus who still controlled Judah.  The king commissioned Nehemiah to rebuild the wall, given the resources and some protection with which to do so.  He arrived to find a small remnant of faithful Jews surrounded and interspersed with three distinct cultures:  The Samaritans, the Canaanite tribes, and Syrians who were loyal to the Persian authorities.  They were also met by a High Priest that was a part of the Persian authority, had intermarried with its leaders' families and was supportive of non-Jewish authorities.

Nehemiah 4:1-3.  But it came to pass, that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.

Sanballat the Horonite was a Moabite of Horonaim, a city of Moab.[2] He is named along with Tobiah, the Ammonite slave, and Geshem the Arabian[3] as the leading opponent of the Jews at the time when Nehemiah undertook to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.[4] Sanballat was related by marriage to the son of Eliashib, the high priest at the time of the annulment of the mixed marriages forbidden by the Law.[5]  He is referred to in historical records as the Governor of Samaria under Persian authority.

The opposition to the project came swiftly and from all quarters.  There were actually three distinct sources of opposition including Sanballot, representing Samaria; Tobiah, representing the Canaanite tribes; and Geshem, representing the Persians.  It is interesting to note that even these three were not typically on friendly terms.  However, at this point they came together since they saw the rebuilding of the walls as a threat to their control over the city and the region.

Nehemiah 4:2-3.  And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned? 3Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.

Unable to approach the Jerusalem Jews in direct warfare, they conducted a war of words, bringing harsh ridicule to every facet of the building project that they could.  Like much ridicule, their statements were based upon half-truths, causing those who listen to give their arguments some consideration.  Sanballat saw the Jews as feeble, untrained people who would know nothing of the task they were about to undertake, and made his opinion known to all.  His argument is defended by the repeated failure of the Jews to rebuild the walls in the previous seventy years.  However, Sanballot likely did not consider that Nehemiah had obtained the permission of the king and the resources needed to rebuild.  "Will they offer sacrifices," do they expect God to perform a miracle here?  "Will they finish in a day," He believes that the Jews do not understand the scope of the task before them and lack the resolve to maintain their effort long enough to get the job done.  "Bring stones back to life;"  the resources that the Jews had to work with were meager.  The walls were just rubble and the infrastructure of posts and beams had been burned.  The proper build of a fortified wall requires virgin stones, cut and layed by stonemasons, a task that would require years of work.  Likely, Sanballat saw little potential of a rebuild using the rubble that was strewn all over Jerusalem from previous military defeats.

When we face opposition, often we are faced with ridicule; with criticisms that are, at least in part, based upon half-truths, and supported by well-rationalized arguments.  Often because of that presentation of partial truths, as perverted as they may be, they can be very persuasive, and turn many people to their viewpoint.  People may say, "you can't do this because..." and, though uninformed, their arguments can be very realistic.  Some of the arguments the people use may involve statements such as, “We have never done it that way before; it won't work; what you are trying to do is impossible; people will misunderstand what you are doing,” etc.  When critics believe what they are saying, their arguments can be well-defended and pose a significant barrier to the truth.  One may often respond to such ridicule and criticism by believing the words of the detractors, becoming discouraged, and follow their advice by turning from the work.  It is possible to consider it easier to retreat from continuing to join God in His work than it is to face the opposition.

Sometimes people challenge us with out-and-out ridicule such as Tobiah's statement,  "your wall can be broken down by a climbing fox."  Archaeologists have determined that Nehemiah's walls were about nine feet thick, though at the time of the criticism the walls had been quickly raised to the point of surrounding the city, and they were far from completed.  The success that had already been achieved made Tobiah's statement ridiculous.  However, when faced with such opposition we can often lose sight of our goal and start to believe even the most ridiculous criticism 

How should we respond to such ridicule?  We are often tempted to fall into a debate with those who criticize us, assuming that such dialogue is possible.  However, the ridicule comes from an irrational source that has an investment in their argument, and it is virtually impossible to carry on a rational discussion with one who is irrational.  Arguments typically do not dissuade a critic since it is not the argument that is the point to the critic:  it is the task that the critic wants stopped by any means.  The critic has no interest in ascertaining the truth or listening to reason.  Nehemiah’s response to the criticism is instructive:

Nehemiah 4:4-5.  Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity: 5And cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee: for they have provoked thee to anger before the builders.

Taking on his detractors in a verbal battle would have been fruitless, would have drawn their focus away from their task, and would not contribute anything to the completion of the work.  Nehemiah's response was to turn to God in prayer without any effort toward addressing the criticism of his opponents, leaving them to continue their hateful and ignorant, vitriolic diatribe.  Instead, he turned to the LORD, desiring vindication in the form of revealed truth.  He wanted the errors of their criticism to be exposed by the LORD and turned back against them.  Nehemiah certainly expressed his frustration in his prayer, yet he simply turned over his concerns to the LORD and continued in the work.

Nehemiah 4:6.  So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work.

Nehemiah mobilized most of the Jews of the city and the wall was half-completed in a relatively short period of time.   The initial building of the wall went quickly as the people worked together with all of their heart.  At the current rate of construction, the wall would be completed in a relatively short order.[6]  This would not be taken lightly by their enemies.  One can now speculate that, despite their criticisms, and stating that the Jews could not rebuild, the enemies of Jerusalem fully believed that if the people were not stopped, the walls would indeed be completed.  They themselves did not believe the tenets of their criticism.  They knew their statements were untrue, but had no reason to let that stop them.  They would use every tool available to attack Jerusalem.

Nehemiah 4:7-8.  But it came to pass, that when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth, 8And conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it.

At first, the criticisms were intended to discourage and demoralize the Jews.  Not only were their efforts entirely ineffective but the wall was going up so fast that all of the leaders of the region started to panic.  Now we see the further response of these who were fierce rivals: Samaritans, the Persians, the Arabs, the "men of Ashdod", Sanballot, Tobiah, the influence of the temple, and the high priest all came together to form an alliance against the Jews.  Though they hated each other, they hated the idea of an independent Israel even more.  They were willing to put aside their differences so that they could take a united stand against Jerusalem while the walls were yet incomplete.

However, though they threatened a military invasion of Jerusalem, they could not simply attack the Jews since they were now quite aware that Nehemiah was sent by the King to undertake the project.  To attack Nehemiah directly would be to attack the Persian King who they were subject to, though loosely at best.  Consequently, they only had one other form of attack:  to work together to come up with some form of response that would stir up trouble for those who were rebuilding the wall.

Nehemiah 4:9.  Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.

Nehemiah did two things in response to the pagan leadership that surrounded Jerusalem.  First, he returned to God in prayer.  However, it is evident that he now included those who were with him in that prayer, as the text states “we made our prayer unto God.”  By including them in the prayer, all of those who worked with him were demonstrating submission to the LORD as they prayed, bringing them all under the protecting hand of the LORD. 

Second, Nehemiah selected men to stand watch so that the people of Jerusalem could be warned of any impending attack.  Often we may pray for the LORD to perform some service for us in time of trouble, and then sit back and wait for deliverance when the LORD has already given us the wisdom and the resources to join Him in the work.  God calls us to be faithful, not foolish.  To sit back and expect a "Red-Sea" miracle every time we encounter stress is foolish, and puts God to the test.  Also, by setting up a watch, the confidence of the Jerusalem Jews could be maintained or restored, as they recognize that Nehemiah is proactively engaged in responding to the threat.

However, for reasons already noted, the opposition did not come with military force, but rather through the stirring up of dissention among the people in Jerusalem.  We are rarely opposed by military-style force within the fellowship of the modern Church.  People will usually work to get their own way by stirring up dissention and conflict through words rather than actions.  Those who seek their own agenda will seek out those who they can convince to join them and do everything that they can do to undermine the work they criticize.  Sometimes it may be useful to be reminded of the biblical narratives that refer to those who sew discord among the fellowship of the church.

Proverbs 6:16-19.  These six things doth the Lord hate: Yea, seven are an abomination unto him: 17A proud look, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, 18An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, Feet that be swift in running to mischief, 19A false witness that speaketh lies, And he that soweth discord among brethren.

We will find that this is the approach that was taken by Jerusalem’s pagan neighbors was successful in convincing many Jerusalem Jews.

Nehemiah 4:10-12.  And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall. 11And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease. 12And it came to pass, that when the Jews which dwelt by them came, they said unto us ten times, From all places whence ye shall return unto us they will be upon you.

Hearing the rumors spread by their detractors, the people of Judah, who made up the bulk of the workforce, joined in with complaints, criticism, and ridicule.  They could witness the fatigue of the workers.  They believed the rumors that their work on the wall was about to bring a military response from those who surrounded the city.  Facing overwhelming opposition that brought them fear, those Jews who were not working on the wall enjoined the criticisms, verbally attacking Nehemiah and the workers.  These, many of whom did not want the walls rebuilt, opposed Nehemiah, turned away from the prayers that they lifted up, turned away from the LORD who was leading and protecting them, and accepted and repeated the arguments they were hearing from their pagan neighbors. 

True, the strength of the workers was waning, as they had been working very hard for several days.  True, they were surrounded by rubble, and were building the walls from the stones found in the rubble rather than use the custom-cut stone that would be used if there were more time.  The Jews believed the rumors that they were about to be attacked, and were relentless in their attempts to stop Nehemiah and those who were doing the work.

All three of the arguments arguments that were brought to Nehemiah were based upon rumors that fed their emotions. and not on fact.  They had already completed a sufficient portion of the wall that would serve on their behalf if they were actually attacked.  A watch had been set in place, and there had been no evidence of such an attack.  If the determination of the workers was maintained they would finish the task. 

Then in verse twelve, the Jews join in.  These are different from the people of Judah, in that these were the faithful, the remnant.  They had become caught up in the rumors and came to believe them.  They feared attack.  It is clear that Nehemiah noted that their fears were repeately expressed. 

We may note three communities of people who worked together to oppose Nehemiah, groups that commonly form today to work against the kingdom of God.  First, the core group are those who have the destructive agenda.  It is they who are working to create conflict and dissention.  Then they draw among themselves a second community of those who are not faithful the LORD and can be easily persuded to join them.  Then, once the conflict commences to a climax a third group joins them: people who are numbered among the faithful but through ignorance or misunderstanding, believe the rumors and propaganda and join the opposition.

The conflict that was faced by Nehemiah reached this point.  When churches find themselves in this level of conflict, it is common for many of the less committed members of the fellowship to vote with their feet:  they simply leave.  Others may try to take on the opposion in verbal battle.  Nehemiah chose to continue the work, but did so wisely, recognizing that, because of the complexities of the dynamics now facing them, he did indeed need to place himself and the workers in a defensible posture in the event that things got out of control.  Note that despite all of the objections, Nehemiah still did not confront his detractors with a verbal defense.  He continued to pray, continued to defend the workers against possible military attack, and continued the work.

Nehemiah 4:13-14.  Therefore set I in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places, I even set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, 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. 

Whether heightened security was needed or not, Nehemiah immediately posted additional defenses at the weakest points in the wall.  Furthermore he posted people who had an interest in the areas they were defending.  He drew together the leaders and encouraged them by reminding them that they were doing God's work.  He also organized their defenses to compartmentalize their individual tasks, assigned positions that would serve to defend their own families and homes.  It has been stated that one man defending his home is worth ten in the field.[7] 

Nehemiah 4:15-23.  And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work.  16And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. 17They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. 18For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.  19And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another. 20In what place therefore ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us: our God shall fight for us. 21So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared. 22Likewise at the same time said I unto the people, Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that in the night they may be a guard to us, and labour on the day. 23So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for washing.

Though the threat of violence was the product of rumors and propaganda that was spread by those pagan leaders who surrounded Jerusalem, Nehemiah put together a plan that would both serve to protect them in the event of an attack, would include those around him in that protection, and would serve to encourage the workers to know that they were prepared.  The methodology that Nehemiah used could be summarized in a few steps:


·       Prayer.  Nehemiah never took sole authority over the project, but kept his focus on God.  He understood that this was God's project, and he could not do it without God.

·       Planning.  Nehemiah did not proceed with any action without a clearly laid out plan.

·       Perception.  Nehemiah listened to those around him and responded to their requests without autocracy.  He was perceptive of their spirit and addressed their needs.

·       Preparation.  He took the threats of his opponents seriously.  He posted a guard force that increased to the point of half of the workers.  Each worker had an armed defender.  Furthermore, each worker was provided with weapons with which to defend himself.

·       Perseverance.  Nehemiah did not stop the work on the wall when confronted with opposition.  The work continued as he continued to manage the balance between supporting the building project and supporting the defensive forces.

Whenever we set about a Spirit-led task we can expect opposition.  We must plan to respond to such opposition, not simply react to it.  We will usually be presented with two forms of opposition: verbal ridicule and viable threats.  Ridicule may serve to embarrass and discourage.  However, those who laugh at us cannot harm us.  Yet, many times all it takes is verbal opposition to discourage use and turn us from the work.  Such ridicule can be ignored.  One method to filter the authority of ridicule is to listen closely to those who demonstrate the love of God for us, and ignore those who do not.

However threats and hostility should always be taken seriously.  We can rely on God, search His wisdom, and plan our response to such threats.  As was the case with Nehemiah, though the potential of military attack was unlikely, he still prepared the people, and that preparation alone held it off, and his opponents were completely frustrated.  The work continued.

We should never walk away from a God-given task simply because it incites opposition.  Rather we should see that opposition as evidence of the voracity of God's plan, and the dependence upon Him that is necessary for us to be a part of the work.

[1] James 3:1.

[2] Isaiah 15:5; Jeremiah 48:2,5,34.

[3] Nehemiah 6:1.

[4] Nehemiah 2:10; 4:1; 6:1.

[5] Nehemiah 13:28.

[6] The rebuilding of the wall to the point of usefulness took only a few days.  The completion of the wall took less than three months.  Nehemiah 6:14.

[7] This is from a quote that is attributed to Winston Churchill, but unconfirmed.