Nehemiah 6:1-19; 7:1-6.
Faithfulness in Adversity
American Journal of Biblical Theology,
A study in the book of Nehemiah presents the restoration of Jerusalem after the Babylonian exile from the viewpoint of Nehemiah, the cupbearer to the Persian king, Artaxerxes, who was given permission by the king to go to Jerusalem to rebuild the protective walls that were destroyed by Babylon about seventy years prior. Written in the form of a journal, the text takes us through many of the details of Nehemiah’s experience. Chapters one through five demarcate at least three significant events:
1. With a deep and sincere desire to assist the struggling Jewish community in Jerusalem, Nehemiah approached the king with the request to travel to the city with resources provided by the Persian government, and rebuild the walls. This was quite significant when one considers that the first Persian king, Cyrus, decreed that the walls would not be rebuilt, and King Artaxerxes decreed that the penalty for an unbidden request from him could carry the death penalty.
2. Upon his arrival, Nehemiah succeeded in leading the people of the city, as well as those from surrounding villages, in the rebuilding of the wall. In doing so, Nehemiah established himself among the common people as a resourceful, confident, and godly leader.
3. Once the walls were completed, Nehemiah led the leadership of the city to restore its economic stability by returning to the people the interest and collateral that they had been exacting from them. In this work, Nehemiah established himself among the nobles and officials as a resourceful, confident, and godly leader.
As a result of these three contributions to the city of Jerusalem, King Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah to be governor over the city, where he served in this capacity for twelve years, doing so at his own expense, taking no pay or property from the Jews. Nehemiah gained the respect of the people of the city as well as the respect of the king. Also, given authority over the city in a manner befitting a king, Nehemiah remained humble, acting as a governor only, recognizing Artaxerxes as the king over Judah.
It would seem that any time one is successful in completing, or is in the process of completing a God-ordained task there will be much resistance. Though the only influence that satan has over people is to give them moral choices, they rarely choose godly ones, and like satan, find any godly work to be a threat. Nehemiah experienced resistance from the moment he approached Jerusalem, first from the pagan leaders that surrounded the city, from the commoners in the city, and from the city leadership. Though he had won the respect of the Jews, the same cannot be said for the pagan leadership in the communities surrounding the city, leaders who found the fortified city, led by Nehemiah, to be a threat to their power.
Nehemiah 6:1-2a. Now it came to pass, when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, and the rest of our enemies, heard that I had builded the wall, and that there was no breach left therein; (though at that time I had not set up the doors upon the gates;) 2That Sanballat and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono.
Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem, are representative of the pagan tribes and communities that surrounded the city who were unanimously and extremely opposed to the building of the wall. They remembered the history of this city, how its inhabitants consistently resisted being controlled by any outside authority, and a rebuilt city could become a significant threat to their own power in the region. Though they threatened both military and cultural intervention during the building of the wall, they were unsuccessful on both fronts. Nehemiah was an emissary of the king who came with a contingent of the king’s army, so military intervention was impossible. When Sanballat and his cronies attempted cultural intervention by planting lies among the people, his efforts were largely ignored, shadowed by Nehemiah’s uncompromising integrity and the dramatic success that was taking place in the work of rebuilding both the walls and the city infrastructure.
Now that the walls were virtually complete, and the workers were coming close to the hanging of the gates, Sanballat and his crowd were becoming desperate in their desire to stop the work and restore the city to their control. Unable to get to Nehemiah from outside the walls, Sanballat sent a message to Nehemiah, inviting him to come to the plain of Ono to meet with them.
Nehemiah 6:2b. But they thought to do me mischief.
Nehemiah did not get to this point by being a foolish man. He continually demonstrated wisdom as he encountered many different obstacles along the way. He was not easily fooled, and instantly perceived that this invitation was not quite as friendly as it appeared. He was well-aware that Sanballat has been an enemy of the Judeans, was a nemesis of the Jews prior to the rebuilding of the wall, and knew that the invitation was a plot to lure him out of the city. Furthermore, they were not suggesting a meeting near the city where Nehemiah would be protected, but on the plains of Ono, about thirty miles to the northwest of Jerusalem where he would be entirely surrounded by those who would treat him with hostility. A thirty-mile journey requires one night’s stay on the road, and it would be at that time that Nehemiah would be subject to attack. Nememiah was far too wise to be enticed into such a trap.
Nehemiah 6:3-4. And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you? 4Yet they sent unto me four times after this sort; and I answered them after the same manner.
True to his nature, Nehemiah did not take on an offensive or defensive posture, but simply turned down the “offer,” citing a neutral and reasonable argument for his refusal: he was needed in Jerusalem. The priority of his work would disallow an extended venture outside of the city. Nehemiah did not acknowledge or accuse Sanballat of his evil intentions, leaving Sanballat to think that Nehemiah was unaware of his plan. Consequently, Sanballot was confident in repeating his “invitation.”
Sanballat’s repeated attempts to persuade Nehemiah had no effect. Nehemiah clearly perceived the motives of Sanballat, and wisely had no interest in inciting his enemy to action. Nehemiah’s resolve is instructive. It is not uncommon for a person of faith to be tempted or tested, and be found faithful in the test. However, when the source of the test is persistent, it becomes easier to compromise, and “give in.” Nehemiah did not compromise his resolve despite continued pressure from many different sources to do so. Nehemiah’s continued refusal led Sanballat to up the ante…
Nehemiah 6:5-7. Then sent Sanballat his servant unto me in like manner the fifth time with an open letter in his hand; 6Wherein was written, It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king, according to these words. 7And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem, saying, There is a king in Judah: and now shall it be reported to the king according to these words. Come now therefore, and let us take counsel together.
Unable to convince Nehemiah to leave the city, Sanballat sent a personally written letter, one that carried several threats, each based upon untruths and lies.
1. The Jews are planning a rebellion. It is curious that Sanballat would quote one, Gashmu, representing the accusation as hearsay. Often people hear a lie, assuming it as truth, and then represent it as truth in order to assert their own agenda. The position is defensible given Israel’s history. It is likely that Sanballat heard the rumor, and witnessing the building of the wall, fully believed that this was the true purpose of its erection.
2. That Nehemiah would be the king. Again, Jewish history would bear out Sanballat’s accusation. Most of the kings of Israel and Judah took the position by action rather than by succession, and Nehemiah’s quick rise to influence fit the model.
3. Nehemiah has hired “prophets” to declare that he is the king of Judah. At this point, Sanballat went beyond rumor and came to a conclusion that was simply not true, nor was their any basis for the accusation.
Then Sanballat leveled his threat: if you do not come out and meet with me I will tell the King of all these things.
Had there been any mixture of truth in any of these accusations, Nehemiah would have been faced with a dilemma. However, because of Nehemiah’s humility and uncompromised integrity, nothing that Sanballat describes ever took place. Furthermore, Nehemiah did not need to defend himself. All of Jerusalem knew of Nehemiah’s humility and integrity. The King knew of Nehemiah’s humility and integrity. Had Sanballat actually intended to send such a message to the king, Artaxerxes would have instantly known it to be false. Sanballat’s threat carried no authority because of Nehemiah’s integrity.
If someone were to bring to us some accusation, would it expose some shortcoming in our character and behavior, or would it fall powerless because of our already-established integrity. This is what Paul speaks of when he calls upon the faithful to wear the “breastplate of righteousness,” armor that protects us from “fiery darts,” hurled by those who would seek to discredit our faith and integrity. When one lives a life of uncompromised righteousness there is simply no chink in that armor that can be exploited by the evil one. There was no such chink in Nehemiah’s armor.
Nehemiah 6:8. Then I sent unto him, saying, There are no such things done as thou sayest, but thou feignest them out of thine own heart.
Nehemiah responded to Sanballat’s letter in like form: he wrote a hand-written response. Again, Nehemiah did not accuse Sanballat of trying to lure him out of the city in order to kill him. He simply stayed with the subject at hand, and sent a simple statement: “none of what you have heard is true, and you are coming to your own conclusions.”
Nehemiah had succeeded in disarming Sanballat’s attack without inciting further conflict. Sanballat now knew that he could not use this strategy to lure Nehemiah out of the city where he could capture and kill him. It is likely that Sanballat knew of Nehemiah’s integrity, and knew that his accusations were lies.
Often people will fabricate lies in order to attack those whom they cannot convince to come to their own way of thinking. When criticized for their faithful actions, people of faith are often tempted to focus on the lies of the accusation rather than the agenda that is being exercised through those lies. Nehemiah knew the agenda: Sanballat wanted to kill him. To get into a defensive discussion over the subject of the lies would be fruitless and serve only to distract him from the work that the LORD has called him to. Nehemiah trusted God, and he trusted his own reputation among the people and the king, one that had been formed by his faithfulness and integrity. He felt no need to engage in the accusations other than to speak one simple truth. Sanballat was free to accept or reject Nehemiah’s response. That was not Nehemiah’s concern.
Nehemiah 6:9. For they all made us afraid, saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done. Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands.
The continued harassment from Sanballat and his cronies was not without effect in the city. Though the cultural attack waged by the pagan leaders did produce some fear among the Jews, initially enough to inspire them to arm themselves during the work, the people were not overcome by it. Nehemiah’s response to the conflict was to pray to the LORD asking for strength. This reveals the true humanity of Nehemiah. Though Nehemiah certainly demonstrated a gift of godly wisdom, he was also wise enough to know that he did not have the strength to stand against such forces without the protecting and sustaining hand of God. Through this entire experience we witness Nehemiah’s continual dependence upon God as he stopped to pray at virtually every instance of need.
The fears that were instilled in the people were still a concern in the city…
Nehemiah 6:10. Afterward I came unto the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah the son of Mehetabeel, who was shut up; and he said, Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us shut the doors of the temple: for they will come to slay thee; yea, in the night will they come to slay thee.
It is likely that Nehemiah’s encounter with Sanballat was known throughout the city since messengers were used to pass the communications between them. It is clear that the people also knew of Sanballat’s true agenda: to kill Nehemiah and to regain their power over Jerusalem. Some people will stand firm in their faith and not be dissuaded by the rumors, and others will believe the rumors and respond to them. Shemaiah was considered by the people to be a prophet, yet he hid behind closed doors and would not venture out into the city. As the governor of Jerusalem it was appropriate that Nehemiah go to Shemaiah. Fears and rumors spread, and one like Shemaiah could create tremendous conflict in the city. Consequently, if Shemaiah could be encouraged, have his fears taken away, and be restored to the prophetic ministry, the city could be one step closer to normalcy.
Upon arrival at the house of Shemaiah, Nehemiah heard the details of his host’s belief. Shemaiah held that Nehemiah was about to be killed, and the solution was to retreat to the Temple of God, and close themselves in.
As would be the case for any leader in a time like this, Nehemiah certainly knew that there were those who would seek to kill him. Nehemiah’s response was to be careful, observant of his surroundings, and responsive to situations. There was no need to hide. As the son of Delaiah, Shemaiah would have been a priest with special access to the temple. Shemaiah’s lack of faith is furthermore demonstrated in his intention to use the Temple of God as a fortress shelter. With the walls down, the Temple did serve as a sanctuary, but that is not its purpose. Its purpose is to serve as a place of worship. Nehemiah considered any other use to be inappropriate and sinful.
Nehemiah 6:11. And I said, Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.
When one listens to the counsel of a prophet, his words should be consistent with the Word of God. If his words are contrary to the teachings of scripture (and the clear leading of the Holy Spirit), he is revealed as a fraud, and his advice is not to be followed.
Recognizing Shemaiah as a fraud, Nehemiah was not influenced by his counsel. He first made it clear that it was not in his nature to run away from his responsibility. As the governor of the city, he was responsible for the safety of the people and as he did when the people were threatened during the building of the wall, he would put together a plan to protect them if such a need arose. He also understands that Shemaiah, like Sanballat, is trying to lure him into a trap. If he were to follow Shemaiah, he would be effectively abdicating his position as governor by hiding in the Temple.
Furthermore, Nehemiah points out that he is a faithful and believing Jew, and as such, could not enter the temple for any purpose other than in activities that worship and honor the LORD. To do so was unlawful. Barricading himself in the Temple would also disallow its use as a place of worship for others. Such behavior would compromise everything about what he holds to be true. He simply could not consider such a suggestion.
Nehemiah 6:12-13. And, lo, I perceived that God had not sent him; but that he pronounced this prophecy against me: for Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13Therefore was he hired, that I should be afraid, and do so, and sin, and that they might have matter for an evil report, that they might reproach me.
It did not take long for Nehemiah to listen to the words of Shemaiah to recognize that there was an evil agenda behind his counsel. Nehemiah’s enemies were using every strategy they could devise in order to stop Nehemiah. Not all of the Jerusalem Jews were in favor of rebuilding the wall, and Sanballat took advantage by using them against Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 6:14. My God, think thou upon Tobiah and Sanballat according to these their works, and on the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear.
As Nehemiah did in every encounter with opposition, instead of taking them on in battle, he simply turned them over to the LORD for His judgment. Nehemiah felt no need to accuse or attack Shemaiah since, like all of the other opposition he has encountered, the object of their attack was the LORD, not Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 6:15-16. So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days. 16And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God.
As much as the LORD’s enemies tried to distract Nehemiah and the people from the work, the work continued at an amazing pace. The initial criticisms leveled by their enemies were in part true: they fully believed that the Judeans lacked the resources to rebuild the wall. Yet, they did so in less than two months. When they heard that the walls were completed in such a short period of time the fear that they attempted to instill in the Judeans became their own. The statement, “cast down in their own eyes” is an idiom that refers to the sudden removal of their pride. As much as Sanballot worked to discredit the building of the wall, all of his efforts were eclipsed by the evidence of God’s working through the people of Jerusalem. Faced with the work of God, and the King’s support of Nehemiah’s work, Sanballat, Tobiah, and the rest of Israel’s enemies were defeated.
Nehemiah 6:17-19. Moreover in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters unto Tobiah, and the letters of Tobiah came unto them. 18For there were many in Judah sworn unto him, because he was the son in law of Shechaniah the son of Arah; and his son Johanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah. 19Also they reported his good deeds before me, and uttered my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to put me in fear.
Though much of Nehemiah’s narrative points to Sanballat as the prime antagonist to his work, the efforts of Tobiah could prove far darker. “In those days” is an inference that the narrative to follow describes an on-going problem, not one that arose after the walls were built. When we understand the relationship between Tobiah and the Jewish leadership, we may gain an understanding of how they had, together, abused the Jewish people.
There was a close relationship between Tobiah, the nobles, and Eliashib, the high priest. There had been significant intermarriage between the family of Tobiah and the families of the Jewish nobles. When Nehemiah came to Jerusalem with the task to rebuild the walls, the first assumption that the nobles and officials would make is that Nehemiah is a separatist who is attempting to restore Israel as an independent entity. Even if the nobles and officials, who were Jews, would support such an agenda, they would be placing all of their riches at risk. At a time of change, it is often the rich who resist it the most. The nobles and officials were dependent upon the pagan Tobiah because of the part he played in the maintenance of their lifestyle.
As the work on the wall continued, there was much communication between Tobiah and the Jewish leadership who felt threatened. Though Nehemiah was successful in convincing the leadership to return the interest and collateral they held against the Jewish people, the threat to the remainder of their wealth remained, so they tended to side with Tobiah and work with both Tobiah and Sanballat to frustrate Nehemiah’s work.
Often when the LORD is promoting a significant change in the Christian fellowship, it is the leaders that hold the power who are most resistant to that change. They have maintained their power by keeping things the way they are, and perceive any change as a threat. We can note that the nature of Tobiah and the Jewish nobles were similar in one important way: they were not interested in what the LORD was doing around them. They were only interested in keeping their power and their wealth. Unfortunately, the lordship of Christ can often be overpowered in the fellowship by those who hold that lordship for themselves.
Nehemiah’s response to this situation can be quite instructive.
Though faced with such resistance, he did nothing to aggravate the situation.
Nehemiah maintained an attitude of prayer throughout the experience.
Nehemiah turned the state of his enemies over to the LORD rather than judging them or attempting to change their minds.
Nehemiah defended his work calmly, with confidence in his mission, and confidence in the LORD to protect him in it.
Nehemiah treated all of the constituents in the project with respect, both those who supported the work and those who did not,
Nehemiah maintained a singular focus on the completion of the mission, engaging those who would help, and dismissing those who would not.
Nehemiah 7:1. Now it came to pass, when the wall was built, and I had set up the doors, and the porters and the singers and the Levites were appointed,
The building of the wall was the primary activity taking place in the city of Jerusalem, and now that the wall was completed, it is time to turn attention to the infrastructure of the city, and infrastructure that included the establishment of secular government and sacred worship. Both of these were necessary for the people to start rebuilding their lives and their city. It is likely that the focus of the people had been upon their circumstances, and then on the building of the wall. It was time to return their focus to the LORD. One of the first things that Nehemiah did was to appoint a security force that included the temple guards, temple worship leaders, and the Levites. They normally worked together to provide security, worship, and teaching for the Temple. Nehemiah extended their responsibilities to include the city gates, assigning them as guards when the gates were opened in the middle of the day.
Nehemiah 7:2. That I gave my brother Hanani, and Hananiah the ruler of the palace, charge over Jerusalem: for he was a faithful man, and feared God above many.
Though the grammar of this verse could imply that Hanani and Hananiah are one in the same, other passages reveal that they are two distinct individuals. Hanani was the brother of Nehemiah who originally brought to him the news concerning Jerusalem that inspired his coming to rebuild the wall. Hananiah was the commander of the temple guard. Nehemiah was a governor, not a king. Consequently, instead of ruling over Jerusalem, Nehemiah delegated the tasks of government among to those who were capable and could be trusted.
Nehemiah appointed both Hanani and Hananiah to take responsibility for the security of the city. It is reasonable to assume that Hananiah kept his responsibility for Temple security, and simply added the city gates to his duties. It was also necessary to appoint security within the city, and it is likely that Hanani took responsibility for this. A few statements in the remainder of Nehemiah’s narrative elude to this distribution of responsibility.
Nehemiah 7:3-4. And I said unto them, Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun be hot; and while they stand by, let them shut the doors, and bar them: and appoint watches of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, every one in his watch, and every one to be over against his house. 4Now the city was large and great: but the people were few therein, and the houses were not builded.
Nehemiah then set up a schedule for access to the city. Because of the political intrigue that Jerusalem faced from its neighbors, Nehemiah limited general access to the city to the middle of the day at which time the doors could be opened. However, any time the doors are open, there was to be a security detail assigned to “stand by.” The doors were to be shut and barred at all other times, opening them only when those moving in and out were carefully guarded and controlled.
Nehemiah included many people in the task of security, and in addition to guards at the temple and gates, he appointed guards to serve throughout the city, assigning “patrol duty” to individuals in areas that included their own homes.
With the walls rebuilt, it was now possible to begin working on the rebuilding of the homes and small businesses that were an integral part of the city. By organizing the security of the city, people could now rebuild without fear.
Nehemiah 7:5-6. And my God put into mine heart to gather together the nobles, and the rulers, and the people, that they might be reckoned by genealogy. And I found a register of the genealogy of them which came up at the first, and found written therein, 6These are the children of the province, that went up out of the captivity, of those that had been carried away, whom Nebuchadnezzar the king of Babylon had carried away, and came again to Jerusalem and to Judah, every one unto his city;
Finally, with the infrastructure of the city becoming established, Nehemiah determined to establish the community itself, restoring it to the genealogical character that it had prior to the exile. The Judeans were highly organized when it came to land ownership and use. Consequently, detailed records were available that identified each of the families in the region and where they lived. This little passage in Nehemiah’s journal should not go unnoticed, as what he did was significant. Nehemiah called together the nobles, officials, and anyone else who would come and presented them with those records. By so doing, Nehemiah provided an opportunity for every family to return the home of their roots, particularly those who had lived in Jerusalem. The city had become depopulated during the exile, and Nehemiah’s action would serve to draw people back into the city.
The reminder of the chapter is detailed list of the families that included 42,360 Judeans, 7337 servants, and 245 worship leaders. The list also noted that 736 horses, 245 mules, 435 camels, and 6,720 donkeys had been taken.
It would appear that the infrastructure of the city was being quickly rebuilt. Nehemiah would soon return to Susa to the service of the king. He arrived to a destroyed, depopulated, and insecure city. When he returned to the Persian king, he left behind a rebuilt, restored, and secure city, despite limited resources and resistance from virtually every branch of society.
It is amazing what one faithful person can do when he/she is (1) led by the LORD to do His work, (2) draws wisdom and courage from the LORD, (3) lives a life of uncompromised integrity, and (4) makes use of all of these to complete the work. There is little that can stand in the way of the LORD’s work when He can enlist such people to the task. Nehemiah was such a person.