COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 4:16 And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. 17 They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon. 18 For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.” (Neh 4:13-15)
The building of the wall around Jerusalem was not a simplistic project, nor was it a work for the timorous and fearful. Not only was the work an aggressive one, to be accomplished in a short time, there was the presence of enemies, weariness, and discouragement. The man of God has effectively addressed all of these liabilities, rallying the people to remember their mighty God, and to fight for their brethren, sons, daughters, wives, and houses. The enemy has thus been frustrated, and the people are back at work. However, the man of God does not consider the enemy to be thoroughly frustrated. He knows their wickedness and determination. He thus directs the building of the wall to continue while they remain in a state of military readiness. They must be versatile in their work, ready to fight on a moments notice. In this account we will behold a dramatic illustration of the good fight of faith, and what is involved in putting your hand to the work of the Lord. Faith does not move people into works of ease and environments of convenience.
UNITED IN DIFFERING RESPONSIBILITIES
“ 4:16 And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah.” Although God had brought the counsel of the enemies “to nought,” Nehemiah and the builders were not naive. They knew the enemy can regroup – that there nature had not changed. Therefore they took appropriate measures to ensure that the building of the wall would continue.
FROM THAT TIME FORTH. Other versions read, “From that day on.” NASB The threat of the enemy did not change the work itself, but it did alter the way in which it was done. An acute awareness of their foes impacted upon the way the builders continued their work. They did not labor as though they were all alone in a wilderness, but maintained a keen sense of lurking enemies.
Here we get a sense of what is involved watchfulness and vigilance. The Lord admonishes us, “Be watchful” (Rev 3:2), “Watch ye” (1 Cor 16:13), and “let us watch and be sober” (1 Thess 5:6). This indispensable watchfulness assumes the continuance of the work, and does not allow for the cessation of our labor in the Lord.
HALF AND HALF. In order to assure the continuance of the work, Nehemiah divided the work force into two groups. Half of them “carried on the work,” NASB while the other half held the weaponry. The latter half not only watched diligently for the enemy, but held the weaponry for the rest of the workers. In the case of an attack, the workers would not have to look for their weapons. The other half was keeping them in a state of readiness for instant access if needed. Should an enemy offensive occur, all of the people would have to fight. Until that time, they were not required to maintain their weapons, lest it detract from the building of the wall. Their brethren kept their weapons for them.
SPEARS, SHIELDS, BOWS, AND HABERGEONS. The array of weaponry is impressive. There were offensive items (spears and bows) and defensive as well (shields and habergeons). There were bows for launching an attack from a distance, and spears for fighting close at hand. Their weaponry was much like that of the saints of God – “the whole armor of God” (Eph 6:11). Full provision was made for defense as well as offense.
“Habergeons” were for defense. They were more personal than a shield, which could be maneuvered to ward off incoming missiles. Other versions read “body-armor,” NRSV “breastplates,” NASB and “coats of mail.” RSV Uzziah armed the people with this apparatus (2 Chron 26:14). Samson wore a similar piece, called a “coat of mail” which weighed about 125 pounds (1 Sam 17:5). They extended from the neck to the torso, and was made of tightly woven cloth and metal, making it virtually impenetrable. We gather from this text that the half who maintained the weaponry wore this coat themselves, and kept the others in readiness for the workers, should an attack be made upon them.
THE RULERS WERE BEHIND THE PEOPLE. The “rulers” were the “leaders” NKJV of the people, Some versions call them “captains,” NASB or “officers.” NIV These are the ones mentioned in the third chapter, who headed up the various work groups. These men”posted themselves behind all the people of Judah.” NIV They intended to direct, encourage, and rally them together and lead them should an attack occur. Thus, the workers could throw themselves into the work without fear of being caught unaware. The “rulers,” like leaders in the household of faith, watched for the souls of the people, having a high regard for their encouragement and protection. It is written of spiritual leaders, "Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you” (Heb 13:17).
OBSERVATIONS. Thus we see with what fervor and alertness the work was accomplished. A keen sense of the necessity of building the wall was maintained, while the people were kept in a full state of military readiness. The builders built while the watchers watched, keeping all of the required weaponry in place. The leaders positioned themselves to encourage and lead the people, whether in building or fighting.
We have in this text an excellent example of how the church is conduct itself. The people are to be built up in the faith, like the walls of Jerusalem were build up. There are to be watchmen to guard the people, ensuring that no attack catches them unawares. Everyone’s weaponry is to be readily available, with no one put at a disadvantage while they are working for the Lord. The leaders are to be close to the people, encouraging, directing, and alerting them to any danger. How appropriate this record is!
A SPECIAL WORK FOR EACH HAND
“ 17 They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.” The encouragement and commitment of the people reveals much about them. Anyone acquainted with the general manner in which people give themselves to the work of the Lord will see a sharp contrast between Nehemiah’s workers and those who claim to be a part of Christ’s body.
THEY WHICH BUILDED ON THE WALL. These were the ones doing the actual building and repairing. These spread the mortar, placed the stones, and positioned the timbers for the gates and walls. Unlike the harsh Egyptian taskmasters, the builders were not required to gather their own materials. It is written, “Ye shall no more give the people straw to make brick, as heretofore: let them go and gather straw for themselves.” But it was not so with this project. Those who were building the wall did not have to gather their own materials, but were able to apply their whole effort to building.
THEM THAT BARE BURDENS. These brought the materials to the builders – the mortar, stones, and timbers. Their work was critical to the completion of the project – getting the appropriate materials to the builders. These workers had to get the materials to the workers in a timely manner, and in appropriate quantities. It would not be proper to bring large quantities of supplies to the wall, which would only clutter the area, creating even more jeopardy. Neither could they be tardy in bringing the materials, which would throw the work behind, and allow for idleness, which also is attended with much jeopardy. In addition, they had to remove massive amounts of rubbish as well.
THOSE THAT LADED. Some versions make the burden bearers a single group:”those who carried burdens,” NASB “those who carried materials,” NIV and “the burden bearers.” NRSV However, there a technicality here that is intended by Nehemiah. “Those that laded” were the ones who placed the burdens on the burden-bearers. The word “laded” means “put the load,” so that these were workers who located the materials, arranged them in an orderly manner, and placed them in a timely and proportionate way on those who carried them. Thus, every person was assigned his own work.
USING BOTH HANDS. The text reads as though both the builders and those bearing and loading burdens worked with one hand, and with the other hand held a weapon. We know from verse eighteen that the builders did not actually hold their weapons while they were working, “For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.”
The meaning of the verse is that everyone was ready to fight as soon as required. The builders labored with both hands while their swords were girded by their sides. The bearers of burdens, as well as those who placed the burdens upon them, were possibly off site, and thus needed to be very alert to the intrusions of the enemy. They carried their burdens with one hand, while the other held their weapons. Thus, other versions read, “Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other.” NIV The NRSV is even more precise in its expression. “Those who carried burdens were laden in such a way that each with one hand labored on the work and with the other held his weapon.” There was, then, a strategy in loading those who carried the burdens. The workers who carried the burdens were able to keep one hand free while they brought them to the builders. The ones who loaded them did so in such a way as to allow this freedom.
OBSERVATIONS. The work of the Lord must be driven by strong faith and hope, and carried out with a sound mind. You can only imagine what would have happened to this project if the people were not united – if the builders did not build, the watchers did not watch, the suppliers did not supply, or the loaders did not load. They all had to work together. They had to mingle wisdom, haste, readiness, and determination.
The work of Christ also provides for various kinds of work. All of them are important. Paul was “a wise masterbuilder” (1 Cor 3:10). Urbane was a “helper in Christ” (Rom 16:9). Epaphroditus brought supplies (Phil 4:18). There are also those who “rule,” who watch for the souls of men (Heb 13:17), “administrations,” NKJV or “governments,” and “helps” (1 Cor 12:28). All are important, and none are unnecessary.
It also ought to be noted that everyone in the Kingdom is employed, being placed in the body “as it hath pleased Him” (1 Cor 12:18). Everyone is not a builder, and everyone is not a helper – but everyone is a worker. Only a modicum of thought will confirm to your heart that we are living in a day when everyone in the church is not working with God.
BUILDING WITH A SWORD ON THEIR SIDE
“ 18 For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.” I cannot help but note that the emphasis is placed upon the wall. Everything centered in the completion of the project God had put upon Nehemiah’s heart. Apart from the wall, none of the people obtained any importance at all. The builders were significant because of the wall. Those who brought materials to them also obtained their importance because of the wall. Even the rulers were occupied with the importance of the wall, standing behind the people to encourage and direct their efforts. The half-part that were armed and kept the weapons of the others in a state of readiness were also important because of the wall. Without this project, the people would have remained “in great affliction and reproach” (1:3).
THE BUILDERS. The builders were occupied with the work of building the wall to its full height. Two things are said of them. First “every one of them had his sword girded by his side.” Other versions read, “each wore his own sword girded at his side while he worked,” NASB and “each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.” NRSV Again, the commitment of the builders is readily apparent. They knew there was danger, yet remained on the job-site, ready for any confrontation that might occur.
Here we have an excellent example of readiness. Sanballot and Tobiah had declared their strategy was to penetrate the ranks of the builders without their knowledge (4:11). Now, the builders eagerly work, at the same time remaining sensitive to any intrusion by the enemy. They also have their weapons with them at all times, ready to instantly engage the adversary. We do well to learn from their conduct.
OBSERVATIONS. Referring to His own imminent return, Jesus said, “Therefore, be ye also ready: for in such an hour as ye think not the Son of man cometh” (Matt 24:44). Paul spoke of readiness in regard to approaching danger. “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor 14:8). It ought to be noted that readiness assumes we are engaged in the work of the Lord, just as surely as Nehemiah’s workers strapped on their swords while they were working. Readiness without work is pointless, and work without readiness is futile.
There is no such thing as vigilance, watchfulness, or readiness, apart from involvement in the good work of the Lord. Without exception, those who do not involve themselves in the work of the kingdom, being faithful in their stewardship, think little or nothing about being spiritually alert. They are not vigilant or watchful, and are consistently caught off guard by the enemy. They are not ready to do battle, and are thus dashed to the ground by the foe again and again. Those who fall from their own steadfastness (2 Pet 3:17) do so because they are not watchful. They are not watchful because they are not working together with God. You will find no exceptions to this rule.
In this case, “singleness of heart” (Col 3:22), having a “single eye” (Matt 6:22), and seeking after “one thing” (Phil 3:13) involves working AND watching, laboring AND being ready, being ready to build AND ready to fight.
HE THAT SOUNDED THE TRUMPET. The one who “sounded the trumpet” rallied the people for battle. No doubt Nehemiah recalled the Lord’s instruction by Moses, “And if ye go to war in your land against the enemy that oppresseth you, then ye shall blow an alarm with the trumpets; and ye shall be remembered before the LORD your God, and ye shall be saved from your enemies” (Num 10:9). The trumpeter could not blow an uncertain sound, but had to be precise so the people would instantly know what to do. Paul alludes to this when pointing out the necessity of edification. “For if the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?” (1 Cor 14:8).
The trumpeter stood by Nehemiah. He did not stand by the builders, or those who carried burdens, or those who placed the burdens. The point is that Nehemiah himself would give the order to sound the trumpet. The trumpeter was not to take it upon himself to sound the battle cry. As the head of the project, Nehemiah was charged with the responsibility of rallying the troops in a timely and effective manner.
OBSERVATION. The ultimate trumpet sound will accompany the return of our blessed Lord. As with Nehemiah, the Lord Jesus Himself will issue the command to blow the trumpet. “And He shall send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other” (Mat 24:31). Until that day, as Nehemiah’s builders, we must work with the “sword of the Spirit” in a state of readiness. As we work, both the sword and the trumpet will become more important.