COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 4:13 Therefore set I in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places, I even set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14 And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses. 15 And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work.” (Neh 4:13-15)
In every effort expended for the Lord, there is the jeopardy of opposition. There IS a level of spiritual life when, if a man’s ways please the Lord and the will of the Lord is so, “He maketh even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Prov 16:7). Our heavenly Father can give us “rest round about” (Josh 21:44; 2 Chron 15:15), causing us to enjoy seasons of peace and tranquility. This occurred in the church shortly after the persecution initiated by Saul of Tarsus. “Then the churches rest throughout all Judea, Galilee, and Samaria had peace and were edified. And walking in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, they were multiplied” (Acts 9:31). However, this has proved to be the exception throughout the history of God’s people, and not the rule. It is ever true, “Yea, and all that will live godly in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution” (1 Tim 3:12). Our text will show the value of taking the enemies’ threats seriously, praying to the Lord, then arming ourselves for the conflict. Our deliverance will come more from our preparation than from actual combat.
THE PEOPLE ARE ARMED TO RESIST
“ 4:13 Therefore set I in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places, I even set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows.” Now Nehemiah, having brought the matter before the Lord and set a watch day and night, has heard the threefold discouraging report. It has come from the weary, the enemy, and those who chose to live close to the enemy. From, the text we see that Nehemiah is not intimidated by these reports. Instead, his faith moves him to make preparations for the sneak attacks of the enemy. Their foes have thought to catch them unawares, but Nehemiah will see to it that this does not happen. Already their watchmen have been established, but that is not enough. Everyone must be involved.
THE LOWER PLACES BEHIND THE WALL. These were the lower parts of the wall where they would be more vulnerable. They were naturally weak places, where the builders did not have the advantage of elevation. It is on the part of wisdom to first arm the weaker areas, where the enemy can more easily enter into the city.
How appropriate for those in Christ Jesus to do the same. Let them give attention to the lower part of their lives – where their members are upon the earth – and strengthen them. We are admonished to “Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:5), and “make not provision for the flesh, to fulfil the lusts thereof” (Rom 13:14). These are the “lower places behind the wall,” where a place can more easily be made for the devil (Eph 4:27). The enemy will first attempt to attack believers in their weak areas, for he has been too often defeated in the high ones.
AND ON THE HIGHER PLACES. These are not the high places of the wall itself, but the many towers that were associated with it (3:1,11,25,26,27). These were places where the enemy could be seen from afar, and where more hearty battle could be accomplished. Those areas afforded more protection, giving the greater advantage to the Jews. There was another advantage to occupying the high places. When the enemy attempted to come upon the people, they could also see the Jews waiting for them with eyes open and weapons in their hands. This would at once discourage an attack upon the builders. As a wise leader, Nehemiah knew that the whole wall had to be protected. Whether low or high, no place could be permitted that made it easy for the enemy to enter their ranks undetected.
While the people of God must, indeed, fortify their low places, they must also protect the high places. Many a life is left unguarded because the person does not dwell in the heavenly places, where God has placed them in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:6; 2:6). Because they do not often dwell in high places, they cannot see the enemy approaching, and when they engage in spiritual battle, they do not have the protection afforded them here. The “high places” are a necessity in spiritual life. Thus it is written, “He maketh my feet like hinds' feet, and setteth me upon my high places” (Psa 18:33).It is possible to ride triumphantly on “the high places of the earth,” enjoying the blessing and protection of God while the enemy breathes out threats against us (Isa 58:14). This is part of putting on “the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:10-11)
PEOPLE AFTER THEIR FAMILIES. Nehemiah “set,” or stationed, the people “according to their families,” or in harmony with their natural groupings. The Tekoites (3:5,27), for example, would have been placed together, as well as “priests” (3:1,22,28), “the men of Jericho” (3:2), “the men of Gibeon” (3:7), and others who were working together. Relatives were no doubt included as well, such as the “sons of Hassenaah” (3:3) and the “daughters” of Shallum (3:12). In this arrangement, there would be a sense of fighting for those closest to each other. It would make for more boldness and courage, and provide a stronger incentive to protect the work of the Lord.
SWORDS, SPEARS, AND BOWS. Whether or not the people already had their weapons with them, we do not know. But now it was time to be armed. Weapons for all manners of combat were employed. Bows for long distance warfare. Spears for medium distant aggression. Swords for fighting hand to hand. Each must be devoted to their task. The first aim is to stop the enemy from a distance. The second is to attack while the enemy is advancing. The third is to be able to hand to hand with the enemy. You can see from this strategy that Nehemiah was determined to stop those who opposed the work.
Blessed are the people who prepare to stop the foe from making ungodly intrusions. Whether from the high places, or those that are lower and more vulnerable, let the people of God be able to launch all manner of attacks. The bow of insight, the spear of wisdom, and the sword of the Spirit are to be handled with determination and consistency.
BE NOT AFRAID, BUT FIGHT FOR YOUR BRETHREN
“ 14 And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.” It is not enough to merely position the people, making sure the low and high places are covered, and the people have appropriate weapons. There must be a word of exhortation, a charging of the troops, a stirring of the heart, so to speak.
I LOOKED. These words indicate that Nehemiah surveyed the circumstances and assessed the situation. Other versions read, “When I saw their fear,” NASB “After I looked things over,” NIV and “Aware of their anxiety.” NJB He had already assessed the physical situation, now he reviewed the people. It became apparent to Nehemiah that there was a sense of fear among his brethren. It was, after all, a fearful situation according to the flesh. Sanballot, Tobiah, the Arabians, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites were plotting against them, and aggressively so. From the human point of view, it was no marvel that the people were afraid. Still, the man of God does not let the matter rest there. Flesh is not the only domain. He does not seek for others who are not afraid. Neither, indeed, is he willing to let the work be brought down to the ground, thereby bringing the people into a state of disgrace again, and dishonoring the Lord who had put this project into his heart.
I ROSE UP AND SAID. He got up, prepared to do something about the situation. The words “rose up” speak of determination, faith, and courage. He then prepared to speak to the people – to raise their hearts with words of truth and faith. He does not stand up to beat the people, or to rebuke the people, but to instill in them a sense of the real situation.
BE NOT AFRAID. How often these words are spoken in Scripture! They are always uttered when, according to appearance, the situation seems hopeless. Moses told Israel, “When thou goest out to battle against thine enemies, and seest horses, and chariots, and a people more than thou, be not afraid of them” (Deut 20:1). God told Joshua, “Be strong and of a good courage; be not afraid, neither be thou dismayed” (Josh 1:9). Again, when Joshua faced a great battle, the Lord said, “Be not afraid because of them: for to morrow about this time will I deliver them to be slain before Israel” (Josh 11:6). When hearing the boastful words of king of Assyria, Isaiah was told to tell the people, “Thus saith the LORD, Be not afraid of the words that thou hast heard, wherewith the servants of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me” (Isa 37:6). Throughout the Word of God we find this same word sounded again and again. Seven times Jesus said, “be not afraid” (Matt 14:27; 17:7; 28:10; Mk 5:36; 6:50; Lk 12:4; Jon 5:20). The Lord stood by Paul in the night, when he was facing great danger, and said, “Be not afraid, but speak, and hold not thy peace” (Acts 18:9). When Peter wrote to those who were undergoing persecution, he also sensed the need of this exhortation “be not afraid of their terror, neither be troubled” (1 Pet 3:14). What person is there among us who does not need to hear these words?
REMEMBER THE LORD. Nehemiah does not ask the people to remember their weakness, or the strength of the enemy, or the times they may have failed in the past. He does not ask them to remember how well they may or may not be able to handle a weapon, or if the watchmen will be as alert as they should be. His summons is not to remember how aggressive Sanballot and Tobiah have been, or how numerous the Arabians, Ammonites, and Ashdodites are. All of that would have been judgment according to appearance, which is strictly forbidden for the people of God (John 7:24). Faith soars above appearance!
The man of God calls upon them to “remember the Lord.” Remember that He is “great,” dwarfing all others. Recall how great He was in the deliverance of Noah, the deliverance of Israel, and the treading down of Jericho. Remember that He is “terrible,” or awesome. Remember how the Egyptians quaked in fear when an angel looked at them through the fiery pillar (Ex 14:24). If their enemies get but a brief glimpse of their awesome God, they will run like the Midianites and Philistines did.
FIGHT FOR YOUR BRETHREN. The builders were suddenly converted to warriors with bows, spears, and swords. They were strategically grouped, so as to encourage them in battle. Now Nehemiah tells them to fight for their brethren – those with whom God had placed them. Boldly they were to fight for their sons and daughters, offspring God had given to them. With courage, let them fight for their wives, also gifts from the Lord, and their houses, which they had newly occupied.
It seems to me to be most timely that we also learn to fight confidently for our brethren, sons, daughters, and houses. Let us contend for their welfare and growth.
GOD BROUGHT THE ENEMIES COUNSEL TO NOUGHT
“ 15 And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work.” No record is given of the length of time the builders were poised for battle. However, it is evident that God was at work for them. They themselves had no time to declare abroad their readiness for the would-be intruders. Behind the scenes, however, the God to whom they had prayed, and in whom they were trusting, was at work.
IT CAME TO PASS. This is not the language of happenstance. This is language denoting the execution of Divine purpose and the frustration of evil purposes. Men would say, “In the process of time, this is what happened.” Faith, however, would say it this way, “This is what the Lord caused to happen.” Concerning His purpose the Lord declares, “I will also bring it to pass,” and “I will do it” (Isa 46:11). The purpose of God was the building of the wall around Jerusalem – of which Nehemiah said, “God had put in my heart” (2:12). In bringing this purpose to fulfillment, God would frustrate the enemy.
OUR ENEMIES HEARD. God saw to it that the enemies heard of the readiness of the builders. The language used here is quite arresting. The enemies heard two things. (1) That their plot was “known” to the builders. (2) That “God had frustrated their plan.” God saw to it that the enemy knew the Jews were not as weak and ignorant as they thought. The Lord can cause the enemy to “hear a rumor,” or report, that moves them to fear, and changes their aggressive intentions. He caused the king of Assyria to “hear a rumor” and cease to assault Hezekiah (2 Kgs 19:7; Isa 37:7). God can cause people to hear God fights against the enemies of His people. Thus it was said in Jehosaphat’s day, “And the fear of God was on all the kingdoms of those countries, when they had heard that the LORD fought against the enemies of Israel” (2 Chron 20:29).
It reminds me of the time when a certain man was made aware of Gideon and the Israelites. “And when Gideon was come, behold, there was a man that told a dream unto his fellow, and said, Behold, I dreamed a dream, and, lo, a cake of barley bread tumbled into the host of Midian, and came unto a tent, and smote it that it fell, and overturned it, that the tent lay along. And his fellow answered and said, This is nothing else save the sword of Gideon the son of Joash, a man of Israel: for into his hand hath God delivered Midian, and all the host” (Judges 7:13-14). It was not happenstance that the builder’s enemies heard that their plot was fully known to Israel, and that it had been thwarted by the builder’s readiness.
COUNSEL BROUGHT TO NOUGHT. The Spirit is very deliberate about stating this circumstance. The intentions of the wicked did not simply fall to the ground. Rather, “God had brought their plot to nothing,” NIV and “frustrated their plan.” NASB Here is an aspect of the Divine nature we do well to embrace. God can “appoint” the overthrow of destructive counsel (2 Sam 15:31; 17:14). It is still true, “He frustrates the devices of the crafty, so that their hands cannot carry out their plans” NKJV (Job 5:12). He “maketh the devices of the people of none effect” (Psa 33:10). A sense of the utter futility of their plan settled upon the enemy, and they forthwith abandoned it. All of this was the working of the Lord. That means the encouragement and determination of the builders came from God. The stirring challenge of Nehemiah came from Him as well. The report of what was happening was sent to the enemies by the Lord. These were some of the means He employed to bring the counsel of the confederation of Sanballot and Tobiah to be brought “to nothing.” NKJV
WE RETURNED TO THE WALL AND WORK. Because the main thing was the work, as soon as the threat was neutralized, the builders all returned to the job site, each one resuming the work assigned to him. In a sense, this was a thank offering to the Lord – resuming the work temporarily interrupted by an aggressive enemy.
We are in much the same situation. When Jesus returned to heaven, He dispensed His work to His servants, with the required authority: “and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work” (Mark 13:34). Just as it was at Eden, Sinai, and after the day of Pentecost had fully some, it is not long until the work is opposed. Satan’s aggression seemed effective in Eden, as well as at the foot of Mount Sinai. But it was thoroughly frustrated in the case of the church, which was operating under the power of the enthroned Savior. There are special times of jeopardy, as during the persecution that followed Stephen’s death (Acts 8:1), and the aggression of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:1-2). However, when the enemy was thwarted, the faithful resumed their work for the Lord.
One of the telling marks of faith is its commitment to the Lord’s work. It always gravitates back to laboring with the Lord. It is only unbelief that ceases the “labor of love.”