COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 4:10 And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall. 11 And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease. 12 And it came to pass, that when the Jews which dwelt by them came, they said unto us ten times, From all places whence ye shall return unto us they will be upon you.” (Neh 4:10-12)
The first phase of the project has been completed with relatively little opposition. There has been mocking, but little straightforward confrontation. This allowed for the full circumference of the wall to be completed to half of its height. It is God’s manner to give us holy beginnings with a smaller degree of opposition. Thus God led Israel out of Egypt, causing them to refrain from passing through the land of the Philistines, to avoid war (Ex 13:17). The church also enjoyed a period of peace during its beginning, “having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:47). In the work of God, however, this is not intended to be a permanent condition. In the beginning, God clears the way for His people, lest they become overly discouraged, thinking themselves unequal to the good work of God. However, as the work progresses, God is more greatly glorified when His work is completed while facing an aggressive enemy. All of this is being lived out in the restoration of the wall of Jerusalem. To this point, the people have been able to work while facing only occasional mocking, laughing, and taunts. However, the remainder of the wall will have to be completed while facing more serious threats by the enemy. In addition, the strength of the burden bearers will begin to dissipate, introducing a new kind of danger within. Now, strength begins to wane and the enemies increase their aggression.
STRENGTH BEGINS TO GIVE OUT
“ 4:10 And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall.”
JUDAH SAID. Other versions read “the people in Judah,” NIV “the Judahites,” NIB and “But in Judah the saying went on.” NJB These were people from Judah, as used in 1:2 (“men of Judah”), 6:18 (“men in Judah”), and 12:44 (“Judah rejoiced”). Thus we will now hear the assessment of the Jews themselves – those involved in the work, and for whom the benefit was being wrought. What has been the effect of all these events upon them?
BEARERS OF BURDENS. Other versions read, “The strength of the laborers is failing,” NKJV and “The strength of the laborers is giving out.” NIV Some of the workers had been appointed as watchmen, established for “day and night” (4:9). That had depleted the work force, increasing the labors of some. All of this was in addition to the already heavy work load created by the magnitude of the project, and the brief time in which it needed to be accomplished. We see from this that the work was not allowed to be reduced when the additional responsibility of watching the enemy was added to the task.
It is the nature of Kingdom to require increased responsibility and strength. If strength is “renewed” (Isa 40:31; 41:1), it is because the scope of the work of the Lord never tends to decrease. The work of the Kingdom is not like worldly employment. With time, responsibilities finally are removed, and the individual can retire – for some, in relative ease and lack of involvement. However, we have been called into an increasing Kingdom. As it is written, “Of the increase of His government and peace there shall be no end” (Isa 9:7). It is this circumstance that occasions the cessation of involvement on the part of many professed believers. They find their strength decreasing, and thus conclude they have no part in the work. Just as surely as Nehemiah’s workers faced this problem, so will every person who puts their hand to the work of the Lord. There will come a time when burdens are seemingly too heavy to bear.
TOO MUCH RUBBISH. Other versions read, “there is so much rubbish,” NKJV “Yet, there is much rubbish,” NASB “there is too much rubbish,” NRSV and “there is no end to the rubbish.” NAB The idea is that as the builders built, massive amounts of rubble had to be removed the site. Even after the whole wall had been built to half-height, mounds of rubble and debris still remained. It all had to be removed, and now, since watchmen were necessary, there were fewer to carry it away. Even the sight of the marvelous work they had already done did not hide the litter, trash, and remnants of ruin that remained. The very sight of such massive heaps of rubbish were proving to be a discouragement to the workers.
As long as the wall of Jerusalem lay in ruins, rubbish accumulated, until there were immense heaps of it all about. As the work on the wall progressed, all of that rubbish had to be removed. The wall and the rubbish could not remain side-by-side. Here is an aspect of spiritual deterioration that is often overlooked. When a life lies in spiritual ruin, a lot of waste and rubbish begin to accumulate – things that will have to be removed if ever the soul comes to its senses. In rebuilding a wasted life, the individual is often forced to look at this accumulated waste that must be removed. Sometimes it seems as though it is too much to take away while building and watching at the same time. But that is a delusion. These three things must continue with us, just as surely as they were required by the builders in Nehemiah: building, watching, and removing. We must grow up into Christ in all things (Eph 4:15), be watchful (Rev 3:2), and put to death the deeds of the body (Col 3:5). Acceptable spiritual growth involves mastering these three necessities.
NOT ABLE TO BUILD. “We are not able to build the wall!” Other versions read, “we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall” – that is, “we need a lot of help!” How discouraged their hearts must have been to say such a thing! Hard work amidst mocking and jeering, a lot remaining to be done, and now they had to watch for the enemy. It just seemed to be more than they could handle. They thought they would not be able to finish the project – and a half-completed project is of no value whatsoever. If their assessment is right, it will not be long until the enemy will mock them saying, “This man began to build, and was not able to finish” (Luke 14:29).
It is good to learn the lesson that our ability to finish the work, or “endure to the end” (Matt 10:22), does not depend upon our assessment of the situation. God had put it into the heart of Nehemiah to begin this project (2:12), and He would supply the workers strength to complete it. However, they will lose their sense of this if they dwell upon their enemies, the largeness of the work, or the massive heaps of rubble all about them.
THE REASONING OF THE ADVERSARIES
“ 11 And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.” It is not clear precisely how Nehemiah knew what their adversaries were saying – whether by inspiration, because their enemies were bold enough to announce their intentions openly, or because this is simply how adversaries reason. However the matter was made known to Nehemiah, it was something with which the people had to contend – sudden and unexpected attacks.
OUR ADVERSARIES. Other versions read, “our enemies.” In terms of language, an “adversary” is an opponent, one who is close at hand, and causes distress, trouble, and tribulation. From the Scriptural viewpoint, “adversaries” are those who are against what is being done. It is not so much a hatred for the individuals that are opposed, as it is for what they are doing, or what they stand for. Where nothing is being done, and people are not in some way threatened by the existence of others, adversaries, in the strict use of the word, cannot exist. It is true, there is a natural enmity that exists between Ishmael and Isaac, Jacob and Esau, the saints and the world, and the believer and the devil. That difference exists because there is a conflict in both their nature and destiny. The adversary senses that fact, is threatened by it, and thus comes against the one who sides with God. In our text, the adversaries were against what was being done, and thus were against those doing it.
NOT KNOWING OR SEEING. Another version reads, “Before they know it or see us.” NIV Their adversaries felt they were more wise than the Jews. They looked upon them as a “feeble people” who were in every way inferior. They would be able to outwit them, carrying out their intentions without the slightest detection by the Jews. Thus they reasoned, “they will not have any idea what we intend to do, and will not be able to tell when we begin to carry it out.” They have, however, woefully underestimated the power of faith, and the effect of vigilance – not to mention God being for those they oppose.
Characteristic of all the adversaries of God’s children, these enemies reasoned as David indicated. “They gather themselves together, they hide themselves, they mark my steps, when they wait for my soul” (Psa 56:6). Motivated by the devil, adversaries count on the people of God not knowing or seeing their intentions and advances. This is the reason for the Spirit’s accent on vigilance. “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour” (1 Pet 5:8). A sleepy spirit, dull ears, and seared conscience always give the advantage to the adversary. If ever a child of God loses his sensitivity about the nearness and intentions of his adversary, he is as good as defeated. Those who lag behind in spiritual alertness will be overthrown, just as the Amalekites “cut off all who were lagging behind” NIV as Israel made their way to Canaan (Deut 25:17). This “lagging” condition is created when one does not grow up into Christ in all things (Eph 4:15). When we do not grow, we become less alert to our enemies.
IN THE MIDST. Another version reads, “Before they know . . . we will be right there among them and will kill them.” NIV The adversaries counted on being able to infiltrate the Israelites’ ranks without them being aware of their presence. From the very beginning, the devil used this tactic. In the Garden, Eve did not look upon the serpent as an adversary, thus gave him her ear and mind. The results were disastrous. Nehemiah’s adversaries knew they could never inflict harm upon the builders if they had no access to them. Before they could hurt the Jews, they had to be among them! It is imperative that we learn from this.
The church is warned about the infiltration of enemies, whose intent is as evil as that of Nehemiah’s enemies. “But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies” (2 Pet 2:1). When Paul detected the presence of such people, he refused to honor them in any way. “And that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour” (Gal 2:4-5). Paul himself did not lack vigilance, but those in that area did, and thus danger was introduced. We must ever remember that a weak and uninformed church enables adversaries to come into the ranks undetected. That is another reason why those who do not “go on to perfection” are destined to fall (Heb 6:1-6). Not only have they failed to appropriate the grace and power reserved for them, they have become insensitive to the intrusions of wicked men and false teachings.
CAUSING THE WORK TO CEASE. Other versions read, “put a stop to the work,” NASB and “put an end to the work.” NIV That was their intent, for strong walls threatened the adversaries. That is the single reason why they wanted the work to stop.
WHEN EVERYTHING IS AGAINST THE BUILDERS
“ 12 And it came to pass, that when the Jews which dwelt by them came, they said unto us ten times, From all places whence ye shall return unto us they will be upon you.” Thus far, Judah has complained that the strength of the burden bearers is waning, and the massive amount of rubbish is too much. The enemies have boasted they can come among the builders undetected and kill them. As if that is not enough, the Jews in the surrounding areas also provide their assessment, and it is not good.
LIVING BY THE ENEMY. These people are described as the Jews “which dwelt by them.” Here, the “them” refers to the adversaries, or enemies, of the Jews. Therefore another version reads, “The Jews who lived near the enemy.” NLT Perhaps these people had overheard the prideful boasts of the adversaries, and had been prompted to give this discouraging word. Their assessment will assume the invincibility of the enemy. I do not doubt that this was because they were living close to their enemies: further from Jerusalem, and closer to the adversary. This circumstance tended to distort their perspective.
There are still those who choose to live closer to the world than to heaven, to the flesh than to the Spirit, and to the lie than to the truth. They are more acquainted with the ways of the world than with the ways of God, even though they are, so to speak, “Jews.” There are groups of believers who have preferences that are closer to the adversary than to the Lord. Whether it is their theology, music, or view of prosperity and health, they are living “near the enemy.” You will find that such people tend to bring discouragement.
SAFETY SEEMS IMPOSSIBLE. The message of these “Jews” was much like that of the ten unbelieving spies, who discouraged the people from going into Canaan (Num 13:31-33). Other versions read, “They will come up against us from every place where you may turn,” NASB and “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.” NIV The idea is that the builders were surrounded by enemies. Sanballot and the Samaritans on the North, the Ammonites on the East, the Arabians on the South, and the Philistines (Ashdodites) on the West. These “Jews” reasoned there was no way to escape. Of course, all of this danger would, they thought, go away if they just quit building. That would, they surmised, placate the enemy.
There still exists among the people of God the “what-is-the-use” attitude. Some see the magnitude of the enemy rather than the greatness of He who is in them (1 John 4:4). They know what is required, but what is against them seems too great. Perhaps if the work of the Lord and devotion to Him were lessened, they would not have so much opposition.
THEY WILL BE UPON YOU. That is, they will attack wherever the Jews turn. If they insist on building the wall, there will be no way to survive – watchmen on the wall or not. There is also another note of alarm here. The builders, by remaining on the wall, had left their homes vulnerable. From every quarter, these Jews reasoned, the adversaries would be able to attack and destroy them – not only on the wall, but among their families as well. Their words were calculated to induce the builders to leave the wall and return to their homes. What good would the wall be, they reasoned, if they had no families?
TEN TIMES. “ . . . they said unto us ten times.” Not content to bring this depressing message once, they continued to repeat it. Whether or not the number “ten” is intended to be precise is not the point of the passage. The idea is that these “Jews” kept coming to Jerusalem, repeatedly delivering these words of unbelief. It is the nature of unbelief to insist on expressing itself over and over. It is not content to simply make a statement and go its way. Unbelief wants to be heard, and will continue to blatantly assert itself. Notwithstanding the repeated message of those living by the enemy, however, the work continued to go on. Faith can outlast all of the discouragements we confront!
SOMETHING TO LEARN. In our text we have seen a picture of the multifaceted attacks of the enemy. Those who put their hearts and minds into the work of the Lord will be mocked by the enemy. They will face those among them who think the burdens are too heavy, and too much is required of us. The mass of spiritual rubbish that has accumulated all about us will seem to prohibit the work. We will hear the boasts of enemies who believe they are stronger, smarter, and capable of infiltrating and destroying us. We will also be subjected to the assessments of people living so close to the world, they think the work of God is actually inferior. They will repeatedly tell us what we are not able to do. In all of these things, our adversary the devil is at work. Do not underestimate the power of his subtleties. Nor, indeed, can you afford to overestimate them. God Himself undergirds those who put their hearts and hands to His work. Without His help, we admit the enemy is too formidable for us. But we are not alone, and the work can go on.