COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 4:1 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. 2 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? 3 Now 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.” (Nehemiah 4:1-3)
All assignments have been made, and the building project is under way. A spirit of unity prevails among the builders, as they work with singleness of heart. Joy and encouragement fill their ranks as they labor side by side, with zeal and godly accord. Those who have been part of a new and godly work know how hearts are exhilarated during such times. Expectations are high, as hope rises to its zenith in the hearts of the people. It could have been no different in Nehemiah’s project. The people who were formerly described as “The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach” (1:3), have rallied. Their spirits have been revived. They have come together from various local areas, with differing skills and occupations. The project itself has revived them! They no longer are thinking of themselves as a reproached people, but have seen a broken wall and burned gates as the reproach. The wall around the city of God is now their focus. We will now see that all of this greatly incenses the enemies of the Jews. While the ancient city and its walls lay in ruins, the enemies were glad. Now, to their consternation, the walls are being rebuilt. They cannot sit idly by, but at once oppose this good work.
SANBALLOT REACTS TO THE BUILDING OF THE WALL
“ 4:1 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.” Just as the Spirit of God moves among the people of God, so Satan and his hosts of darkness move among his children. The very work that brought encouragement to the Jews will cause their enemies to be angry and enraged. Just as surely as the people of God united to work, their enemies unite to oppose. Thus, the work must be done while enduring resistance and confrontation.
SANBALLAT HEARD. When Sanballat first heard of Nehemiah and his fellows, he was grieved exceedingly “that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (2:10). When the people united together with strong determination saying, “Let us rise up and build,” Sanballat laughed and scorned them saying, “What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king?” (2:18-19). However, his grief, laughter, and scorning, has had no effect whatsoever on the work. Now the people are actually repairing and building with remarkable skill and progress. It was the kind of thing that could not be kept quiet. Something was being done in Jerusalem, and it could not be hidden! Sanballat “heard” the people were actually building the wall. The wake of godly progress had rippled into the camp of the enemy, and it had an effect upon them.
One of the marks of godly progress is that the enemies of such work hear about it. Herod heard about wise coming to worship a newborn king in his province (Matt 2:3). The Pharisees heard about Jesus casting out demons (Matt 12:24). Herod the tetrarch heard of “the fame of Jesus” (Matt 14:1). When Jesus cleansed the temple, the scribes and chief priests “heard it” (Mk 11:18). When the Apostles began to fill Jerusalem with the Gospel, working in great power, the Jewish council tried to stop the news from spreading (Acts 4:17). Make no mistake about it, the news of something being done for the glory of God causes great concern among those who have no heart for the work of the Lord.
WE BUILDED THE WALL. Other versions read, “we were building the wall.” The work was noticeably progressing. It now became apparent this was no feeble effort. What once lay in shambles was beginning to take form. The wall was being raised up, the gates repaired, and it was all happening with too much rapidity for wicked Sanballat.
HE WAS WROTH. Other versions read, “he was furious,” NKJV “he became angry,” NIV and “he flew into a rage.” NLT This was not a quiet anger, where one seethes within. The wrath of Sanballat erupted. He could not contain it. The wickedness of his heart spilled out through his countenance and mouth. What had caused faith and hope to rise up in the hearts of the Jews had caused vileness to rise to a peak in Sanballat.
This is a remarkable example of the spiritual principle enunciated in Second Corinthians. “For we are unto God a sweet savor of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: to the one we are the savor of death unto death; and to the other the savor of life unto life” (2:15-16). The same work that caused life in some, wrought death in others. However, in both cases, God was glorified – by tender hearts submitting, and hardened hearts rejoicing. In our text, the response of the Jews, AND of Sanballat as well, proved the work was from the Lord. The work that causes rejoicing among the godly and anger among the ungodly is surely from the Lord, and He is glorified by both responses.
HE TOOK GREAT INDIGNATION. Other versions read “very indignant,” NKJV “very angry,” NIV and “greatly enraged.” NRSV In this expression, our text means Sanballat’s rage was not momentary. Rather, this was extended anger. It continued to wax worse and worse, as wickedness is prone to do (2 Tim 3:13). It is the same type of reaction Satan has had toward the church: “And the dragon was wroth with the woman, and went to make war with the remnant of her seed, which keep the commandments of God, and have the testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev 12:17). Saul of Tarsus had a similar response to the early church: “And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1). This is a wrath that will not naturally subside. It is aggressive, intending to stop the work.
HE MOCKED THE JEWS. The idea is that he “ridiculed the Jews,” NIV railing against them and scoffing at them. This has long been a tactic of the devil. He moves his children to poke fun at the godly, thinking it will cause them to be discouraged. When Jesus was crucified, certain people “mocked Him” (Matt 27:29), pointing to what they believed was mere human weakness. The Athenian philosophers “mocked” Paul when they heard him speak of the resurrection (Acts 17:32). Mocking takes place when the ungodly consider the efforts of the godly to be weak in comparison to the wisdom and power of this world. The work of faith is perceived by the world as anemic, hopeless, and not feasible.
SANBALLOT’S BRETHREN AND THE ARMY OF SAMARIA
“ 2 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?”
HIS BRETHREN. Sanballat now speaks to “his brethren.” These were the people with whom he had aligned himself – his associates. Some of them are Tobiah the Ammonite (2:10) and Geshem the Arabian (2:19). Later, additional colleagues will include “the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites” (4:7). Sanballat’s “brethren” were those united against the project, even as the Jews were united in the project. There was a certain camaraderie among this alliance that drove Sanballat to share his anger with them.
THE ARMY OF SAMARIA. This is the only mention of this army in the Bible. I assume they were from the same group of people described in Ezra 4:9-10. They also opposed the work of the Jews in Ezra’s day. It appears that Sanballat had assembled a large group of sympathizers who shared a common concern about the encouragement of the Jews and the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. Now both were happening, and Sanballat gathers associates together and paints the Jews as incapable of finishing the work.
THESE FEEBLE JEWS. The word “feeble”means weak and helpless – unable to accomplish what they have set out to do. Here Sanballat makes the mistake of assessing the Jews according to their former condition. He looked at them as still “in great trouble and disgrace” (1:3). NIV Sanballat was, however, judging according to appearance. He was not taking into consideration the marvelous effects of faith and hope.
WILL THEY FORTIFY THEMSELVES? Other versions read, “Are they going to restore it for themselves?,” NASB “Will they restore their wall?,” NIV and “Will they restore things?” NRSV The meaning is, “Do they think they can do this great work by themselves?” Or, “With such meager resources, do they think they are able to complete this project?”
It is the manner of the world to imagine the people of God cannot do the work of God without the world’s help. Somehow, this imagination has found its way into the church, moving people to rely upon the wisdom of the world to do the work of the Lord. That is the reasoning of Sanballat, not Nehemiah. Nehemiah may use timbers from the king’s forest, but he will not rely upon the king’s builders, or the wisdom of Babylon.
WILL THEY SACRIFICE? Other versions read, “Will they offer sacrifices?” NKJV/NIV There is a twofold sense in which this text may be understood. First, “Will the Jews call upon their God through sacrifices to assist them?” In this use, Sanballat was actually reproaching the God of the Jews, as though this feeble people also had a feeble God. He thus would be speaking much like Sennacherib of old (2 Chron 32:14). Second, “Do these feeble Jews think they will be able to offer sacrifices of praise at the completion of their hopeless project?” This, in fact, did take place when the wall was finished (Neh 12:43). I do not doubt that both meanings are in the text. Now Sanballot rails upon the Jews, suggesting their God cannot help them, and thus their project will not be completed.
WILL THEY MAKE AN END IN A DAY? Other versions read, “Will they complete it in a day?,” NKJV “Can they finish in a day?,” NASB and “Will they finish up in a day?” NRSV There are two possible meanings here. First, the “end” could refer to the sacrifice previously mentioned. If that was the meaning, the question would be, “Do they imagine they can offer sacrifices and launch this work in a single day?” That meaning seems too far fetched to me. I rather think this was an oratorical question. Seeing the aggressiveness of the Jews, together with their obvious confidence, Sanballat saw the Jews working as though the project would only take a day. They were anticipating its conclusion, although the work was just beginning. The faith of Nehemiah and his workers had thrown Sanballat into a state of confusion. To him, everything about the work was illogical and foolish. Yet, there was enough Jewish commitment evident in the work that he did not laugh, but became angry and begin to mock the Hebrew workers to his cohorts.
WILL THEY REVIVE THE STONES? The NIV reads, “Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble--burned as they are?” The walls had been in a state of disrepair for a long time. What was once a stately wall was now “heaps of rubbish.” His words indicate that valuable stones were mingled in burned trash, and had to be extricated from the rubble and made suitable for the rebuilding of the wall. You can burn gates, but not stones–at least not with natural fire. As in all godly restoration, what is good can be plucked from the fire and made suitable for building. Amidst the spiritual rubble that is all about us, there are still some good stones to be revived. Blessed are those who find them!
TOBIAH JOINS THE OPPOSITION
“ 3 Now 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.” Tobiah joined with Sanballat in the earlier response to the work (2:10,19). Now he stands by Sanballat again, joining his mockery against the people of God. A great deal can be known about an individual by the people who choose to stand by his side.
EVEN THAT WHICH THEY BUILD. When Sanballat and Tobiah first confronted Nehemiah, he was bold to speak of his God to them. When they had laughed the Jews to scorn and despised them, Nehemiah said, “The God of heaven, He will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build” (2:19-20). But neither Sanballat nor Tobiah had any ear for those words. From one point of view, they did not even hear them. Tobiah cannot relate ths project with the God of the Jews. He sees it as something they are doing by themselves: “that which THEY build.” He sees them as a defeated people, and their city as one that has been utterly overthrown. In his estimation their ability is not sufficient for the work, which he sees as simply too large for them. He is ignorant of what is said of those who refuse to walk in the counsel of the ungodly, stand in the way of sinners, or sit in the seat of the scornful. Of such, whose delight is in the Law of the Lord, it is written, “whatsoever he doeth shall prosper” Psa 1:1-3). Again, it is written, “they shall prosper that love thee” [Jerusalem] (Psa 122:6).
Nehemiah said of this project, “God had put in my heart” (2:12). That alone guaranteed its success, for the work God begins He performs until it is brought to completion (Phil 1:6). However, this truth could not be seen by Tobiah. Such things are hidden from those who have no love or appetite for the truth (Matt 11:25). What is most apparent to those who live by faith is totally obscure to those who do not believe. If this were not the case, they would never rise up in opposition to what God has called men to do.
IF A FOX GO UP. Other versions read, “if a fox should jump on it, he would break their stone wall down!,” NASB “if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!” NIV and “any fox going up on it would break it down!” NRSV
First, Tobiah sees the wall as so low and insignificant that a fox, not noted for its leaping ability, could easily get on top of it. Of course, he was viewing only the beginning of the work, and had no idea of the thoroughness of the project God had inspired. He despised the day of “small things” (Zech 4:10), unable to conceive of the conclusion of the work. This, of course, is the root of the criticisms of the ungodly. They are not able to think in terms of the completion of godly endeavors.
Second, he perceives the wall as so weak, that the weight of a fox, a very small animal, would break it down. The light steps of a small creature, he thought, would punch holes in the workmanship of the Jews. He could not see that faith gave wisdom as well as courage, and expertise as well as zeal. The provisions of faith are fully adequate for the work it stimulates. However, this is known only to those who put their trust in God. Too all others, the work of faith and labor of love are nothing more than foolish endeavors. The ungodly see such things as a waste of time and a squandering of human resources.
WHAT WE CAN LEARN. This text is rich with food for the soul. It confirms that good works are opposed by wicked people. It all started with Satan confronting Eve in the garden. As a result those who are of Satan consistently oppose those who are of God. However, their opposition is destined to fail, even though it may appear to flourish for a season – like Jerusalem’s devastation by Nebuchadnezzar, yet being rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah. Opposition is a Divinely appointed means of testing our faith: “In the world ye shall have tribulation” (John 16:33). As with the Thessalonians, “no man should be moved by these afflictions: for yourselves know that we are appointed thereunto” (1 Thess 3:3).
The God who ordained the work and appointed the afflictions will sustain that work and uphold the afflicted. That is involved in the promise, “He which hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6). That performance does not mean the absence of opposition and mocking, but the completion of the work in the presence of such things.
For Nehemiah’s laborers, the work had to continue with Sanballat and Tobiah lurking in the corners, and sometimes dashing into the limelight. God receives no glory for work accomplished in a moral vacuum, with neither challenges nor opponents. Such a theoretical environment would require no Divine support. But for those who are willing to do the work of God in the presence of their enemies, Divine support is certain.