COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 4:7 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, 8 And conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it. 9 Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.” (Neh 4:4-6)
The builders have encountered their first aggressive opposition, and Nehemiah has immediately lifted a prayer to God. Emboldened by their faith, the builders rallied to the work, and completed the first phase of the project, joining the wall in the complete circumference of the city, to half of its height. Their work, while satisfying to them, greatly incensed their enemies. Those who were content to let Jerusalem lie waste, and its wall and gates in shambles, were angered at the progress of the builders. I do not know how united these enemies were before Nehemiah and his workers arrived on the scene. However, the presence of these determined builders brought their enemies together like Pilate and Herod, when they were united in their opposition to Jesus (Luke 23:12). The first part of the wall was accomplished without direct opposition. However, that will not be the case with the second phase of the work. Once again it becomes clear that the work of God tends to separate people from the world, and even to incur the indignation of the world against them. The more involved the church is in the good and acceptable and perfect will of God (Rom 12:1-2), the more hatred will be generated in the hearts of the worldly about them. This is because the work of God of necessity brings down the thoughts and power of the world. Truth and error are locked in mortal combat that will not cease in this world.
THE ENEMIES RALLY TO OPPOSE
“ 4:7 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.” As we review this section, you must remember we are beholding a depiction of the conflict between the godly and ungodly, righteousness and unrighteousness, good and evil. There is no neutrality in matters pertaining to life and godliness. Neutrality only exists where nothing is being done for the Lord – where the people do not have a mind to work, and are not “always abounding in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58). As long as God’s people sit about with folded hands, philosophizing about religion, the world will not be too concerned. But let them set their hand to erect, as it were, the walls of salvation that have been knocked down, and restore the temple of truth, and a tidal wave of anger will sweep across the ungodly.
THE ENEMIES. Two individuals and three groups of people are mentioned. SANBALLAT apparently had some military responsibility in Samaria, for he had already spoken to “the army of Samaria” about the wall builders (4:2). From the very moment Nehemiah arrived on the scene, Sanballat was against him (2:10). We learn later that one of the grandsons of Eliashib the priest married Sanballat’s daughter (13:28). He was, therefore, an enemy close at hand, and not afar off.
TOBIAH had joined with Sanballat at the very beginning of the opposition (2:10). We also learn later that Eliashib the priest was “closely associated with Tobiah,” NIV and had prepared for him a “great chamber” where the Levitical provisions had formerly been stored (13:4). Here again, we have an enemy close at hand – like Judas among the twelve, or tares among the wheat. While we should not look on brethren about us with suspicion, we are to be alert lest “false brethren” be brought in “unawares,” creeping in undetected to spy out our liberty in Christ Jesus (Gal 2:4; Jude 1:4). Special care must be taken not to generate a haughty spirit, or hesitancy to love the brethren fervently. We can be alert and loving at the same time, vigilant and gracious simultaneously.
ARABIANS. King Uzziah subdued the Arabians, who were set against the children of Israel (2 Chron 26:7). However, during the Babylonian captivity, they apparently regrouped, spreading over the vicinity formerly occupied by the Jews. Now they rally together with others who oppose the people of God. Once conquered, they had power to surface again when the restraints were removed. There are still people like this. If the people of God drift from the Lord, and are chastened by Him, their enemies gain strength while they are being judged. Too often this aspect of kingdom life is forgotten.
AMMONITES. Tobiah was an Ammonite (2:10). The Ammonites were the descendants of Lot by his younger daughter (Gen 19:38). When Nebuchadnezzar came up against Jerusalem, the Ammonites joined in the assault, exulting in the overthrow of the holy city. God judged them for it. “And say unto the Ammonites, Hear the word of the Lord GOD; Thus saith the Lord GOD; Because thou saidst, Aha, against my sanctuary, when it was profaned; and against the land of Israel, when it was desolate; and against the house of Judah, when they went into captivity . . . Because thou hast clapped thine hands, and stamped with the feet, and rejoiced in heart with all thy despite against the land of Israel” (Ezek 23:3-6). Here, then, were historical enemies, that had sided against Jerusalem years earlier.
ASHDODITES. Ashodites were from Ashdod, a city of the Philistines. Joshua classes the “Ashdodites” among the Philistines, historical enemies of Abraham’s offspring (Josh 13:3). The area of Ashdod was assigned to Judah, to conquer and subdue (Josh 15:47). It appears to have been centuries before this city was finally subdued under Uzziah (2 Chron 26:6). Following that, the children of Israel married some of the Ashdodites, which resulted in their children speaking a corrupt language (Neh 13:23-24). Here were enemies with whom Israel had intermingled, even learning their ways.
WHAT THEY HEARD. The enemies heard “the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, and that the breaches began to be closed.” NASB They heard of progress, advance, and the effective work of the Lord. The reproach of Israel was being taken away, and the people of God were no longer trodden under the feet of their enemies. The conditions that historically accounted for the downfall of these very enemies were being restored.
THEY WERE VERY WROTH. These enemies knew full well that a healthy Israel and a glorious and safe Jerusalem would not allow them to be prominent any longer. Their anger spilled over: “they became very angry.” Their anger was not induced because of the work, for it was a good work. It was because of what that work meant for them!
A WICKED CONSPIRACY
“ 8 And conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it.” Other versions read, “They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it,” NIV “and all of them conspired together to come and attack Jerusalem and create confusion,” NKJV and “And they made designs, all of them together, to come and make an attack on Jerusalem, causing trouble there.” BBE The work was so significant and impressive that the enemies wasted no time in plotting a strategy against it. They sought to do to Jerusalem what God did to Babel – destroy the work by confusion. They thought the work of God could not go on during opposition! They would find how wrong they were in this assessment.
THEY CONSPIRED. I do not know how many people joined in this conspiracy, but it must have been a considerable number. Under the wicked leadership of Sanballat and Tobiah, five groups agreed to join forces against the work: Arabians, Ammonites, and Ashdodites. We do not know how many “children of Israel” were working on the project. We can get a rough estimation of the number from the seventh chapter of Nehemiah. There Nehemiah found a book with a record of those who had come into the vicinity with Zerubbabel and Joshua about ninety years earlier. In the census of that group, a little over 43,000 are counted (7:8-67). While no accurate number can be cited of Nehemiah’s group, we at least can see that we are speaking of a goodly number of Israelites – probably about the population of Joplin Missouri. I mention this because it provides a sort of index to the number of enemies that conspired against them. It was not the manner of the heathen go up against forces smaller than themselves. I conclude, therefore, that, according to appearance, this was an impressive conspiracy.
ALL OF THEM TOGETHER. The enemies were united in their objectives, and there was no dissension among their ranks. Yet, their cause would not prosper, because it was against the work of God. As it is written, “Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not be unpunished: but the seed of the righteous shall be delivered” (Prov 11:21). They were proud in heart, and thus their action was duly noted by the God of heaven. “Every one that is proud in heart is an abomination to the LORD: though hand join in hand, he shall not be unpunished” (Prov 16:5). Unity among the enemies of God is ultimately futile and vain.
I cannot help but think of the conspiracy against our blessed Lord. It is written, “The kings of the earth took their stand, And the rulers were gathered together against the LORD and against His Christ. For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together” NKJV (Acts 4:26-27). Three group gathered against Christ also: rulers, Gentiles, and the people of Israel. And why so? Because Christ was perceived as a threat to them all.
To this very day, the situation has not changed. Wherever a work for God is begun, the enemies of the Lord begin to rally against it. That is precisely why Jesus said, “In the world, you will have tribulation” (John 16:33).
FIGHT AGAINST JERUSALEM. Notice how carefully the Spirit states this case. He does not say the enemies conspired to fight against the Jews, but “against Jerusalem.” This is the heavenly assessment of the situation. There had been others who had fought “against Jerusalem.” Shishak king of Egypt came against Jerusalem and took away the treasures of the house of the Lord “because they had transgressed against the LORD” (1 Kings 14:25). Sennacherib, the king of Assyria, also came “against Jerusalem,” but was overthrown by heaven in his attempt (2 Kings 18:17; 19:35-36). Nebuchadnezzar also came against Jerusalem, successfully overthrowing it because Israel had disobeyed the Lord (2 Kings 24:10). Now we have another assault planned upon the city of God. But this one is not because Israel has sinned. This one is because it is recovering. Therefore, the Lord will side with His people, who are displaying their love for Him and concern for the only city in the history of the world where God placed His name 1 Kings 11:36).
HINDER IT. The enemies determined to “hinder” the city. The idea is that they sought to stop the work from being completed. That would be the same as destroying the work – causing it to stop. They would “prepare ambushes,” DOUAY “cause disturbances,” NAS and “stir up trouble” NIB against the city. They seemed to sense they could not rush the city and devastate it like Nebuchadnezzar once did. They would use tactics that would catch the workers unaware, discourage them, and wear them down. After all, they remembered when some of these very people were “in great trouble and disgrace” NIV (1:3). No doubt these united forces thought they could easily abort the good work. Gathering courage and determination among themselves, they set themselves to bring a halt to this good work.
A GODLY RESPONSE
“ 9 Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.” Those who have no heart for resisting the enemy will not venture much for the Lord. Mind you, it is not that believers enjoy conflict, or take delight in a good skirmish. Faith, however, constrains the individual to be unwilling to forfeit the ground that has been gained, or the mark that has been set before him. Those who throw themselves into the good work, like Nehemiah’s workers, will find themselves becoming more and more unwilling to yield to discouragement and resistance. As the builders continued their work, their hearts became stronger. Their wills became more resolute. Their determination became more firm.
NEVERTHELESS. This is a key word in Scripture. It is a word that speaks of determination. It declares a situation that is the opposite of what appears to be. Sometimes it is for the worse, as when God said to murmuring Israel, “behold, mine Angel shall go before thee: nevertheless in the day when I visit I will visit their sin upon them” (Ex 32:34). It can also be for the good, as when God refused to hearken to the word Balaam. “Nevertheless the LORD thy God would not hearken unto Balaam; but the LORD thy God turned the curse into a blessing unto thee, because the LORD thy God loved thee” (Deut 23:5).
“Nevertheless” stands between appearance and reality. For example, even though Israel presently is in a state of unbelief, “Nevertheless when it shall turn to the Lord, the veil shall be taken away” (2 Cor 13:16). Again, even though Paul said his stay in Macedonia was attended with “no rest, trouble on every side, fightings without, and fears within,” “Nevertheless God, that comforteth those that are cast down, comforted us by the coming of Titus” (2 Cor 7:5-6). Even though “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” (Gal 2:20). In the sense of our text, “nevetheless” goes further than threats and the wrath of the enemy can go. It sees beyond the circumstance, and gathers hope and strength. “Nevertheless” reachers outside the border of sense and time and takes hold of the power of God. In it the spirit of a man moves beyond his immediate surroundings.
WE MADE OUR PRAYER TO GOD. The builders did not react to this conspiracy as the army of Israel did when they heard the thundering voice of Goliath of Gath. Those Israelites “fled from him and were sore afraid” (1 Sam 17:23). But that is not the reaction of those who were restoring the wall. Instead of hearkening to the threats of the enemy, they “made” their prayer to God. They fashioned prayers for the occasion. This was no time to repeat a ritualistic prayer, as some are wont to do. Here, the word “prayer” does not speak of a manner of prayer, such as Jesus referred to when He said “After this manner therefore pray” (Matt 6:9). This is a specific prayer, for a specific occasion, and for a specific need.
There are general prayers, such as “The Lord bless you” (Num 6:24), or “Grace be with thee” (1 Tim 6:21), or “that thou mayest prosper and be in health” (3 John 1:2). However, there are times when prayers must be “made” – fashioned for the occasion. Solomon spoke of “whatever prayer, whatever supplication is made by anyone, or by all Your people Israel” (1 Kings 8:38). When Peter was in prison, “prayer was made without ceasing of the church unto God for him” (Acts 12:5). Making prayer is ordering our cause before the Lord (Job 23:4).
These builders fashioned their prayers for the occasion. We are not told what they prayed, but it was surely appropriate for the occasion. The project loomed before them. The time was short. The enemies were aggressive. Faith, mingled with the knowledge of such things, will fashion comely and effective prayers.
WATCHING DAY AND NIGHT. Other versions read, “set up a guard against them day and night,” NASB and “posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.” NIV As we will find, the work did not cease. The guard was set to ensure the work would not be interrupted. The people knew the enemy had no regard for seasons, so the wall was guarded around the clock. Guards were intended to detect the movement or approach of the enemy BEFORE they were at hand. A watchman was to sound the trumpet when he saw the “sword coming,” advancing toward the city (Ezek 33:6). Thus, with keen eye and alert spirits, they looked for any movement against them. They knew a lack of awareness gives the advantage to the enemy.
After telling the elders of Ephesus that men would arise from themselves, speaking perverse things, Paul said, “Therefore watch!” (Acts 20:31). All believers are told to “watch” while they are standing steadfast (1 Cor 16:13). We also have enemies, and they are infinitely more powerful than those faced by Nehemiah’s builders (Eph 6:12). Day and night we must set a guard against them, being alert in our spirits, with faith strong, and an unwavering commitment to the Lord. The Lord will keep people like that.