COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 2:19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king? 20 Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, He will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.” (Nehemiah 2:19-20)
The report of the blessing of God has encouraged the people, and they have responded, “Let us rise and build.” However, as we will see, godly determinations are not left unchallenged. No sooner have the people been encouraged, than those opposing the work rise to the surface. Just as the creation of man and woman was quickly followed by a challenge from the wicked one, so every work of God is eventually challenged by His enemies. There is always a Cain, Ishmael, Esau, or the brothers of Joseph to oppose the good intentions of God’s people. King’s like Pharaoh, Og, Sihon, and Sennacherib opposed the people of God, to say nothing of the warrior Goliath. The noble work of the Apostles was opposed by the chief priests, the council, and Herod. The Lord Jesus Himself daily faced the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and lawyers, who vigorously opposed what He was saying and doing. Where no real work for God is being done, such men rarely make themselves known. But when God-blessed work begins, discouragements and opponents begin to move about, seeking to abort the work. Our text will show us how to answer such antagonists, and the manner in which they are to be viewed. We will see that faith is strong, overcoming all opposition. Faith perceives the blessing of the Lord. It also detects the wickedness of those who oppose His work. Works that are driven by faith have a way of making a sharp division between those who are of God and those who are not.
A TRIO OF SCORNERS CHALLENGE THE WORK
“ 2:19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?” This is the second time we have read of Sanballot and Tobiah. The first thing we knew of them was that “it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (v 10). After this, we will hear of this evil duo four more times (4:7; 6:1,12,14). Sanballat alone will be mentioned four more times (4:1; 6:2,5; 13:28), and Tobiah seven more times (4:3; 6:17,19; 7:62; 13:4,7,8). From the second chapter through the last chapter (13), these men were consistent opponents of the work of God. They never changed.
In this text, they joined forces with another enemy, “Geshem the Arabian.” He will be mentioned two more times, and is classed among “our enemies” (6:1,2). This is the man who joined with Sanballot in a letter requesting that Nehemiah cease the work and meet with them in the “some one of the villages in the plain of Ono.” We are told they meant to harm Nehemiah (6:1-2). People from Arabia included descendants of Cush, son of Ham (Gen 10:7-8), and Joktan, great grandson of Shem (Gen 10:26-30). They also included the sons born to Abraham through Keturah (Gen 25:1-6). Arabians also embraced descendants of Esau (Gen 36). They were consistent opponents of the people of God (2 Chron 21:16; 22:1; 26:7). Isaiah prophesied against Arabia (Isa 21:13) Jeremiah announced judgment upon Dedan, Tema, Buz, Kedar, Razor, and all the kings of Arabia (Jer 25:23-24; 49:28-33). It is no marvel that Nehemiah faced opposition from one of these people.
Thus we have representatives from the Horonites, Ammonites, and Arabians, joining in opposition to the good work of God. Horonites were in league with the Samaritans, and are related in their genealogy to the Moabites. McClintok The Ammonites were descendants of Lot through his youngest daughter, and were cursed by God (Ezek 21:28). Both Moabites and Ammonites were forbidden to enter the congregation of the Lord (Deut. 23:3). Thus, three peoples are represented who could trace their origins back to Abraham and his relative Lot. Yet, there were not in a holy lineage, and thus consistently opposed the people of God.
A LESSON TO BE LEARNED. This is by no means intended to promote the despising of various people groups. The lesson to be learned is declared by Paul, and we must do diligence to grasp it. “But as then he that was born after the flesh (Ishmael) persecuted him that was born after the Spirit (Isaac), even so it is now” (Gal 4:28-30). Throughout Scripture, there is consistent conflict between the children of God and the children of the flesh, or the wicked one. It is seen in Cain and Abel, Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and David and Goliath. This opposition was brought to its apex in Christ Jesus, where it was confirmed that those of the flesh cannot be reconciled to those who are of the Spirit. In our text, that principle again surfaces, and we do well to heed it.
THEY LAUGHED AND SCORNED. Other versions read “mocked us and despised us,” NASB and “mocked and ridiculed us.” NIV To laugh to scorn, or mock, is to deride, scoff, and jeer as though helpless and powerless people had undertaken an impossible task. This is what Ishmael did when he mocked, or scoffed, Isaac, as though he was an inferior son (Gen 21:9). It is what Goliath did when he cried out to young David, “Am I a dog, that you come to me with sticks” (1 Sam 17:43). This is what Sennacherib did in his letters to Hezekiah, when he chided the Jews for having confidence, and daring to resist him (2 Kgs 18:19-25, 29-35). It is what Pilate’s soldiers did to Jesus when they mocked him while smiting Him on the head with a staff, spitting on Him, and bowing their knees to Him (Mark 15:19-20). Laughing and scorning is when the flesh scoffs at the seeming weakness of faith and spiritual determination. In the eyes of these men, the work undertaken by Nehemiah and company was audacious – only a foolish whim. They supposed the work was too large for the Jews, and simply could not be done.
This wicked trio also threatened the people with political reprisals, a tactic that is intimidating to those who have no faith. They viewed the work as rebelling against the king, even though God had raised up kings who supported it (Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes). An earthly kingly, they imagined, could bring an abrupt end to this work.
SOMETHING TO LEARN. What faith grasps is ridiculed by the world. Those who put their confidence in God WILL be opposed by those who do not. Men who are without Christ scorn the idea of Divine intervention and support. They see rubble among holy things as a sign of Divine abandonment. Faith sees it as a time for work to be done.
THE ANSWER OF FAITH
“ 20a Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, He will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build . . . ” Faith is not intimidated by the mocking and chiding of ungodly men! Rather, it is “the victory that overcomes the world” (1 John 5:4). Faith does not retreat when the devil’s crowd mocks and jeers when it undertakes to fulfill Divine commissions. Abel will not become unfaithful because of Cain. David will not run because of Goliath. Shadrach, Meshech, and Abednego will not faint at the decree of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel will not buckle at the edict of Darius. John the Baptist will not cease to speak because of Herod. Stephen will not close his mouth because of the Jewish council. Those who are constrained by faith will face their enemies, anticipating the day when God will cause those enemies to bow before them (Rev 3:9).
I ANSWERED THEM. Rather than being intimidated by these opponents, Nehemiah boldly responds to them. The same faith that moved him to pray, make bold requests of the king, and make the journey to Jerusalem, will enable him to answer his enemies. This is a fact to be grasped by the people of God. The faith that has brought us thus far, will take us all the way! There is no point in living for God at which faith becomes ineffective, or is overwhelmed by the challenges of foes.
There is something else to be seen here. Nehemiah totally ignores the insinuations of his enemies. He does not tell them he had letters from the king – letters to governors and the manager of the king’s forest. He allows them to think the whole work , from an earthly perspective, is unsupported. His answer will express confidence in God, not in letters and support from the king! This is the “spirit of faith,” an attitude of heart that compels the believer to speak: we also believe, and therefore speak” (2 Cor 4:13).
THE GOD OF HEAVEN. Here is a term the heathen never ascribe to their false gods: “the God of heaven.” This is how Cyrus spoke of God when he told of all kingdoms of the world being given to him (2 Chron 36:23; Ezra 1:2). It is how Daniel described God, who would decimate all kingdoms of this world (Dan 2:44). This is an expression equating to saying God is Omnipotent (all powerful), Omniscient (all knowing), and Omnipresent (everywhere). “The heavens to rule” (Dan 4:26) because of the “God of heaven.” He superintends the affairs of the earth, being the “Governor among the nations” (22:28). When the unified “kings of the earth” set themselves against “the God of heaven,” “the Lord shall have them in derision” (Psa 2:4). He will do His will, and none will be able to “stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou?” (Dan 4:35). This is the God with whom Nehemiah identifies, and who are Sanballot, Tobiah, and Geshem before Him!
HE WILL PROSPER US. Other versions read, “He will give us success,” NASB and “help us to succeed.” NLT Here we see the boldness of faith. It dares to speak of the completion of the work, even before it begins! Those who recognize a work that is needed, and know they have been called by God to do that work, will be given faith and confidence to complete it. As I have said before, the religious community sometimes borrows its definitions of Bible words from the world. Thus “prosperity” is often equated with the accumulation of possessions and wealth. God can surely give people wealth, but that is not His focus. In Scripture, one is made to prosper when the work assigned by God is completed to His glory. Thus Nehemiah announces to his critics that the work will be finished because the God of heaven will help them do it. This is the only place in the entire Bible where this expression is used: “He will prosper us,” or “He will give us success.” The spirit of this text, however, is found throughout the Word of God. Abraham told his servant the Lord would “prosper” him in finding a wife for Isaac (Gen 24:40). God made everything Joseph did to “prosper” (Gen 39:3,23). Those who trust in the Lord will “prosper” (Psa 1:3). Everything in the hand of Jesus “will prosper” (Isa 53:10). The Word of God “prospers” in the purpose for which He sends it (Isa 55:11). The point is that every human effort that is in the flow of Divine purpose will succeed! The marvel is that Nehemiah saw this in spiritually primitive times, while many in the church do not.
WE WILL RISE AND BUILD. Just before the work got underway, emissaries from the devil’s camp showed up. But they did not dampen the spirit of the people. Nehemiah knew they were God’s “servants,” therefore they would get up and start building! God supports His servants, and enemies are impotent against them. Nehemiah’s words are a conclusion, not a bald human determination. “THEREFORE,” in view of God’s support and our servanthood to Him, God’s “servants will arise and build.” You cannot talk the people of God into building when they are opposed. But faith will move them to do it.
THE EXCLUSION OF THOSE WHO OPPOSE GOD’S WORK
“ 20b . . . but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.” Nehemiah not only sees the validity of the work and the support of the God of heaven, he also sees the enemies as powerless intruders. Like the tares, they do not belong in the field (Matt 13:27). Like bad fish caught in the net of Divine purpose, they will be cast away (Matt 13:48). Now the man of God will boldly announce the true status of Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.
NO PORTION. Other versions read, “no heritage,” NKJV “no share,” NIV “no stake,” NLT and “no part.” SEPTUAGINT Earlier, when Ezra and company were working in Jerusalem, the Samaritans came, offering their help. “Let us build with you: for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither. But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God; but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us” (Ezra 4:2-3). These people were really adversaries, and had no intention of helping the people of God (Ezra 4:1). It is a principle in the Kingdom of God that His enemies have no genuine interest in His work! It is for that reason, that they have “no portion” in it! Jerusalem was not built to court the heathen, or to form alliances with the Gentiles.
NO RIGHT. Other versions read, “any claim.” NIV They have no right to interfere in any way, because Jerusalem is wholly disassociated from them. Neither their help nor criticism is received, because Jerusalem does not even allow for their influence. Their thoughts and ways are out of place in the holy city, and the benefits it offers are not intended for them. Whereas “no portion” meant no part of the city belonged to them, “no right” meant they had no jurisdiction there. Nehemiah saw this as meaning their words were but puffs of smoke, for they were speaking about something concerning which they had no right to comment. A similar word is said about “vain talkers and deceivers” who were speaking among those in Christ Jesus. Because they had no right to even speak, their mouths “must be stopped” (Tit 1:11). A telling sign of spiritual degeneracy is when the church allows those with no inheritance in it to speak freely among its members.
NO MEMORIAL. Other versions read, “historic right to it,” NIV “remembrance in Jerusalem,” DUOAY The idea is that in all of the history of Jerusalem, no place of prominence had been given to Horonites, Ammonites, or Arabians. They could make no historic claim to the city, citing a time when they were outstanding within it. For that reason, their assessment, whether for good or evil, was wholly out of order. This was not their city, and thus their words were meaningless. The man of God will not listen to the words of those who are themselves alien to the work. They have no right to speak, because they have no genuine interest in the project, either legally, historically or at that moment.
GENERAL OBSERVATIONS. Nehemiah’s words are reminiscent of Peter’s response to Simon the sorcerer, “Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8:21). Here was a man who had believed and been baptized (Acts 8:13), continuing with Philip. Yet when he attempted to buy the ability to confer the Holy Spirit upon others, Peter saw he spoke as an outsider. This is why the fornicator was to be expelled from the Corinthian assembly (1 Cor 5:5). It is why “Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place” (Acts 1:25). There are people who have no place among the godly, no inheritance in heaven, and no access to God. We have no interest in the assessments of such people. What faith moves the saints to do cannot ultimately be impeded by those who have no part in it. If Nehemiah knew this, much more is it to be known among those who have been translated into Christ’s kingdom.
There are people who have no right to be where the work of God is being done! They carry about with them the “works of unrighteousness” with which we have “no fellowship” (Eph 5:11). Today, within the professed Christian community, there are all manner of Sanballats, Tobiahs, and Geshems – people who “have no portion, nor right, nor memorial” among God’s elect. They have introduced their strategies, economic practices, music, and motivational techniques. They have told people how to study the Bible, and what is acceptable and unacceptable within its pages. They have offered agendas that differ from that of God, sharply conflicting with it.
Someone must have the courage to rise up and tell them they are out of place, having “no portion, nor right, nor memorial” among the saints. We have nothing to fear from those who have no place among those who believe God! Their assessments are worthless, and their threats are vain. Blessed is the person who understands these things!