COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 4:4 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: 5 And 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. 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.” (Neh 4:4-6)
The people are encouraged and determined, and the project is under way. A few months prior to our text, the people were in a state of reproach and discouragement. The broken down walls and the rubble all about them, bore witness to the devastation wrought nearly over 160 years before. You would think that everyone in that vicinity would be glad for the impressive array of builders that were harmoniously and zealously working upon the wall. After all, the restoration of the walls and city of Jerusalem would add value to the area, and court visitors and commerce – at least, that is what one might be tempted to think. Under ordinary circumstances, this might be true. However, when it comes to matters relating to the Living God, the situation is wholly a different one. The enemies of God oppose His work. Those who are alienated from God, are set to oppose the people of God. That is just the nature of things. If ever Christians will put their hand on the working plow of the Kingdom of God, they will experience the resistance of this present evil world! The only exception to this condition is when God Himself gives His people rest from their enemies (Acts 2:47; 9:31). Apart from that circumstance, worldly opposition is the norm. One of the primary reasons for the absence of aggressive opposition from the world is the noticeable absence of a zeal for good works among professed believers (Tit 2:14). The text before will show how Nehemiah faced opposition. He immediately took the matter to his God. He knew full well, “Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Psa 127:1).
HEAR, O OUR GOD, FOR WE ARE DESPISED
“ 4:4 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.” Throughout this remarkable book, Nehemiah is noted for his instant prayers. “Think upon me, my God . . . Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands . . . My God, think thou upon Tobiah and Sanballat . . . Remember me, O my God . . . Remember me, O my God . . . Remember them, O my God . . . Remember me, O my God, for good” (Neh 5:19; 6:9,14; 13:14,22,29,31). The very tone of Nehemiah’s prayer is noticeable. It is not in any sense casual. One senses Nehemiah knows the opposition of Sanballot and Tobiah is most significant if God is not for them. Faith clarifies the vision of those possessing it. It does not move the individual to be naive or unaware of opposition. Our enemies are real, and we do well to so view them.
HEAR, O OUR GOD. Faith does not take the listening ear of God for granted. How often believers called upon God to “hear” them. “Hear me when I call, O God of my righteousness . . . hear me, O LORD my God . . . Hear my prayer, O God . . . Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer . . . Hear my voice, O God, in my prayer” (Psa 4:1; 13:3; 54:2; 61:1; 64:1). Nehemiah, like the Psalmist, did not view prayer as a mere formality. To him, it was not an empty ritual that called for heartless involvement. When Nehemiah first heard of the condition of the holy city and its inhabitants, he pled, “Let thine ear now be attentive, and Thine eyes open, that Thou mayest hear the prayer of Thy servant” (1:6). Now he pleads for the Lord to hear again. He has no reason to believe the Lord will not hear him this time also.
WE ARE DESPISED. What strong words these are: “We are despised!” They are not words of fear, nor are they words of hatred. They are the words of a wounded soul. Paul said the same thing of himself and those laboring with him: “we are despised” (1 Cor 4:10). In a Messianic Psalm that expressed the heart of Jesus, as well as his own, David lamented, “But I am a worm, and no man; a reproach of men, and despised of the people” (Psa 22:6). In firm resolve, the “sweet Psalmist of Israel” confessed “I am small and despised: yet do not I forget thy precepts” (Psa 119:141).
To be “despised” is to be subjected to scorn and ridicule. It is to be demeaned before others, and held in contempt and disdain. Those who are “despised” are separated from the ranks, rejected and spurned because they do not fit in with the multitudes. Do not imagine that being despised has no effect upon the soul. It is like being pummeled within, struck down by words, attitudes, and disdain. Nehemiah would not have prayed so fervently if he could have simply shrugged off the words of Sanballot and Tobiah. There is special strength for those who are “despised,” and it is personally ministered by the Lord Jesus, who Himself was “despised and rejected of men” (Isa 53:3).
TURN THEIR REPROACH. Other versions read, “Return their reproach on their own heads,” NASB “Turn their insults back on their own heads,” NIV and “turn their taunt back on their own heads.” NRSV The idea is, “Let them be despised by their neighbors. Let them experience the reproach they have hurled at us.” It is important to realize this was not a mere personal view. Nehemiah and his workers were not reproached because they were Jews, but because they were builders. It was their work that brought this reproach. Nehemiah prays because he did not want the laborers discouraged. Before he came, the Jews were “in great affliction and reproach” (1:3). That was bad enough, but now the holy work in which they were engaged would not allow for their spirits being cast down. Let their enemies be cast down, discouraged, and discomfited in their opposition.
GIVE THEM FOR PREY. Other versions read, “give them as plunder to a land of captivity!,” NKJV “give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives,” NRSV and “may they themselves become captives in a foreign land!” NLT Here Nehemiah prays their enemies may taste of the bondage they had experienced. This is a prayer for survival, not the expression of hatred or self-retaliation. The man of God does not pray for strength to himself heap reproach upon his enemies. It is the cry of a wounded spirit seeking relief from oppression. Solomon once said, “The spirit of a man will sustain him in sickness, But who can bear a broken spirit?” NKJV (Prov 18:14). Again, I want to emphasize this prayer is for the work. It is not a personal vendetta against Sanballot and Tobiah.
It may appear that these words are in opposition to the solemn injunction of the Savior: “pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you,” (Matt 5:44) and “Bless them that curse you, and pray for them which despitefully use you” (Lk 6:28). Again Paul wrote, “Bless them which persecute you: bless, and curse not” (Rom 12:14). Jesus, as well as Paul, was speaking of personal reproaches, not opposition to the work of the Lord.
PROVOKING GOD TO ANGER
“ 5 And 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.” It is essential that we understand this prayer is in order to the completion of the work. Nehemiah does not push this prayer heavenward because Sanballot and Tobiah were against him. Rather, it is because they were against the work God Himself had moved Nehemiah to manage. That is why he prays with such resolution and firmness. God has never, during any dispensation, instructed His people to ignore or go out of their way to help, those who oppose His work, hate His Son, and despise His Law. You should surely pass over aspersions cast at you personally, but those spoken against God are another matter.
COVER NOT THEIR INIQUITY. To cover iniquity is to forgive it. Thus it is written, “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered” (Rom 4:7). I believe I know Nehemiah well enough to say he would have viewed Sanballot and Tobiah in a wholly different light if they had repented of their words and oppositions. He is praying in perfect accord with the nature of God. According to His own revelation, He “will by no means clear the guilty” (Ex 34:7; Num 14:18). And again, He “will not at all acquit the wicked” (Nahum 1:3). Nehemiah prays God will not ignore what the enemies are doing, but will act toward them in keeping with His own holy and revealed nature.
LET NOT THEIR SIN BE BLOTTED OUT. There are sins that God does blot out. “I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins.” That removal, however, is based upon redemption, not ignoring the sin: “return unto me; for I have redeemed thee” (Isa 44:22). Peter said the blotting out of sin was preceded by repentance and conversion: “Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out” (Acts 3:19). Such wonderful things, however, were little known during the times in which Nehemiah lived. Even so, Nehemiah knew these men had opposed the work of God, and he asks that God not overlook it. If God put it in his heart to do the work, those who oppose it are, by virtue of that opposition, enemies of the Lord.
THEY HAVE PROVOKED THEE TO ANGER. Some versions omit the reference to God. “for they have demoralized the builders,” NASB and “for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.” NIV The NIV footnote reads, “Or have provoked You to anger before.” The idea is that their enemies had provoked God in the presence of all of the builders. They “provoked” Him by opposing the work He had ordained. Nehemiah knew God is not indifferent to such opposition. His prayer is moved by the effect of the enemies upon God Himself.
That God can be provoked is declared repeatedly in Scripture (Deut 9:7; Judges 2:12; 1 Kgs 14:9; 14:15; 15:30; 16:13,26; 21:22; 22:53; 2 Kgs 17:11; 21:15; 22:17; 23:19; 2 Chron 28:25; 34:25; Psa 106:29; Jer 8:19; 11:17; 25:7; 32:29,32; 44:9; Ezek 16:26; Hos 12:14). It seems to me that Nehemiah prayed with these expressions in mind. In Christ Jesus, the wayward Corinthians were told, “Do we provoke the Lord to jealousy? are we stronger than He?” (1 Cor 10:22).
IMPRECATORY PRAYERS. Imprecatory prayers are prayers against people. For some, such a thing is not possible in Christ Jesus. I suggest the matter is not as simple as saying such prayers are always right, or always wrong. There are such expressions in Scripture, uttered against those who misrepresent Christ and oppose His ambassadors. “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8-9). “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be Anathema [accursed]” (1 Cor 16:22). “Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works” (2 Tim 4:14). “Of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). “But Peter said unto him, Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter for thy heart is not right in the sight of God” (Acts 8:20-21). “And said, O full of all subtlety and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season” (Acts 13:10-11). All of these were said with the nature of God in mind. They were not personal vendettas or expressions of carnal hatred. The truth of the matter is that all who oppose the work of God will themselves be opposed by God. Thus Paul said to those who opposed him, “Your blood be upon your own heads; I am clean: from henceforth I will go unto the Gentiles” (Acts 18:6).
THE PEOPLE HAD A MIND TO WORK
“ 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.” Charged with the insightful prayer of Nehemiah, the builders put their hands more determinedly to the work. The opposition had cast their aspersions publically, and Nehemiah had prayed publically. His prayer had more powerful effects than the resistance of their opponents. Oh, that God would grant stable and godly men to rise up among His people to rally them by insightful and powerful public prayers!
SO WE BUILT THE WALL. The idea is, “We still built the wall, even though we were facing opposition.” Again, this was like saying, “Strengthened by Nehemiah’s prayer, and with our vision cleared, we went right on building.” The insults of Sanballot and Tobiah had no lasting effect upon the builders. Nehemiah had “cast” the burden of this “care” upon the Lord, and now the people were strengthened (1 Pet 5:7). They could say with Paul, “The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” (Heb 13:6).
A considerable amount of God’s work must be done while facing opposition. Admittedly, this is calculated to test our faith, but faith can handle the test. Paul once said, “being reviled, we bless; being persecuted, we suffer it: being defamed, we entreat: we are made as the filth of the world, and are the offscouring of all things unto this day” (1 Cor 4:12). He did not engage in an exchange of hateful speech with those who defamed him. At first, it might appear as though there is a great difference between the response of Nehemiah and that of Paul. It is well to remember that Nehemiah spoke to God about his enemies. Nehemiah’s response was not characterized by the insight given to men in Christ Jesus, yet was prayed in the same spirit as the early church when it was threatened by enemies. “Now, Lord, look on their threats, and grant to Your servants that with all boldness they may speak Your word by stretching out Your hand to heal, and that signs and wonders may be done through the name of Your holy Servant Jesus” NKJV (Acts 4:29-30).Because the Gospel brought greater light, prayers were prayed with greater insight. Yet, “look on their threats” correlates perfectly with Nehemiah’s “turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity: and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee.” Both prayers were lifted up in the interest of the Lord’s work. Both were intended to render the enemy powerless in their opposition to the Lord’s work.
THE WALL WAS JOINED. The phrase “unto the half thereof,” refers to the height of the wall. The entire circumference of the wall was joined to half of its total height. Other versions read, “The entire wall was joined together up to half its height,” NKJV and “till all of it reached half its height.” NIV The complete city was now encircled with a wall at half of its intended height. There were no gaps in the wall, no breaches, nor any place providing easy access to the city by its enemies.
The building strategy is remarkable. The project demanded that the city and Temple be quickly protected. Thus, the builders chose to complete the wall in two phases. This strategy tended to emphasize progress rather than appearance. First, the entire city was circled with the wall at half-height. This would serve to do two things. First, it would neutralize the aggression of the enemy. Second, it would bolster the hearts of the builders.
THE PEOPLE HAD A MIND TO WORK. This is an explanation for the rapid and thorough work of the builders. “FOR the people had a mind to work.” Their heart was in their work. The literal translation of this verse reads, “for the people had a heart to work.” This enabled them to go about their work cheerfully and with great zeal. It could be said of them what David set of himself, “I have set my affection on the house of my God” NKJV (1 Chron 29:3). In the reformation of Hezekiah a similar thing occurred. “And Hezekiah rejoiced, and all the people, that God had prepared the people: for the thing was done suddenly” (2 Chron 29:36). If ever the heart of the people can be in their labors for the Lord, much can be accomplished quickly. It is ever true, “because a short work will the Lord make upon the earth” (Rom 9:26). It only requires that the people themselves become absorbed with the work.
The impact of indifference and lukewarmness upon the church cannot be calculated by human reason. Much of the failure of the modern church to accomplish something meaningful for the Lord is the absence of the heart. God will strengthen and uphold those with “a mind to work,” but will not do so for those who, like the Tekoite nobles, do not “put their shoulders to the work of their Lord” NKJV (3:5). If men can ever see they have been called into the fellowship of God’s Son to be “laborers together with God” (1 Cor 1:9; 3:9), they will obtain a heart for the work. Where such a heart is lacking, the work of God will not and cannot be done. Oh, what marvelous things we can learn from Nehemiah’s builders!