COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 4:19 And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another. 20 In what place therefore ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us: our God shall fight for us. 21 So we labored in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared. (Neh 4:19-21)
The project that began in relatively peaceful surroundings must now be completed amidst hostility. Watchmen have been positioned on the wall. Seeing that fear had infiltrated the ranks, Nehemiah challenged the people to “remember the Lord,” how great He was, and to fight for their brethren, their sons, their daughters, their wives, and their houses. Half of the workers have been assigned to watch over the weaponry and be in a state of military readiness. Those who carried the burdens, bringing in supplies and carrying out rubbish, do so with one hand, holding their weapon with the other as they moved two and from the building site. Those who placed the burdens on the burden-bearers did it so they could be carried with one hand. The builders themselves did their work with their swords strapped to their sides. Thus the work to which Nehemiah has been called is anything but simplistic. It requires diligence, vigilance, and boldness. Strength, encouragement, and confidence are also necessary. Those who view their religion as “fun,” casual, or involving little of their persons, do well to consider Nehemiah and his builders.
WHEN WORK IS SIGNIFICANT ENOUGH TO BE CHALLENGING
“ 4:19 And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another.” Having properly apportioned the people, giving advantage to their work, Nehemiah once again addresses the people. As with the Apostles, he spoke to them all, and not merely their leaders. Modern religion, placing an inordinate emphasis upon leaders, often withhold essential information from the people themselves. But this approach has no place in the work of the Lord. Not a single Epistle of New Testament writing is only for leaders. Even those addressed to individuals such as Theophilis (Luke, Acts), Timothy (1 & 2 Timothy), Titus (Titus), Philemon (Philemon), Gaius (3 John), and the elect lady (2 John), have been placed in the Scriptures for the while body of Christ.
Long before the message of the Gospel was made known, Nehemiah followed this same procedure – speaking to everyone involved in the work. He spoke to “the nobles,” or those who were great by character and rank. He included “the rulers,” or officials and magistrates, who had formal responsibilities. He also included “the rest of the people,” so that no one remained in a state of ignorance about the real situation.
Whether we are encouraging, warning, challenging, or edifying, ALL of the saints are to be included. When speaking of the preeminence of prophecy, or speaking “unto edification, exhortation, and comfort” (1 Cor 14:3), Paul wrote the objective was “that all may learn and be comforted” (1 Cor 14:14:31). The reason given for this is obvious: everyone in the body of Christ is involved in the work of the Lord. They have received a measure of faith that is calculated to equip them for some facet of the work (Rom 12:3-6). Even in the spiritually primitive days of Nehemiah, he operated by this principle.
THE WORK IS GREAT. Other versions read, “the work is abundant,” YLT and “extensive.” NIB There was a lot of work to do, and it was challenging under any circumstances, to say nothing of working under the threat of an attack from their enemies. Nehemiah did not withhold this from the people. They were not on a vacation, and had not been called into a casual work. As believers we should reason in this manner: any work that God ordains will be large, and will require His assistance. Apart from this consideration, the phrase “laborers together with God” (1 Cor 3:9), has no significance.
THE WORK IS LARGE. Others read, “extensive,” NKJV “spread out,” NIV “widely spread out.” NRSV “scattered,” NAB “very spread out,” NLT and “widely spaced.” BBE The wall itself is estimated to have been 4.5 miles in circumference. It was significantly high and wide, although we cannot be sure of its dimensions. The above picture provides some perspective of the work. Because of the nature of the work, the builders were spread out – something that would normally make them very vulnerable.
Much of the work of God is accomplished with the workers being spread out – not because of a lack of concern they have for one another, but because of the nature of the work. The purpose of God involves extensive work, and a large area – “all the world.” It is on the part of wisdom for us to frequently remind one another of this. It is not appropriate to confine our communication to matters concerning only our work on the wall.
WE ARE SEPARATED. Other versions read, “we are widely separated from each other along the wall,” NIV and “we are far off from one another on the wall.” BBE Nehemiah does not mean that everyone was isolated from the other builders. The work was largely accomplished by groups, as outlined in the third chapter. However, the groups themselves were separated from each other – sometimes by a significant distance. Under ordinary circumstances, this condition also could cause much danger, creating vulnerability.
The very language of this text puts us in mind of the work of the Lord currently being accomplished by His servants. The builders are far apart, yet are working on the same project! Incidentally, the mega-church movement of our time is noted for nothing more than a conglomeration of people. Actually, little wall building is being done.
RALLY AT THE SOUND OF THE TRUMPET
“ 20 In what place therefore ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us: our God shall fight for us.” The deliberateness with which Nehemiah goes about to rally the workers is noteworthy. There is a sense of urgency in words, yet they are mingled with comfort. He does not hide the greatness of the work from them, but holds their God in a more prominent position than the work itself.
IN WHAT PLACE. This refers to the place in which they were working. The word “place” actually means “standing place” – or in the area where they had been assigned. The words of the leader assume the activity of the workers.
THE SOUND OF THE TRUMPET. The builders worked with their swords strapped to their sides. The burden bearers carried their loads with one hand, holding a weapon with the other. The ones who placed the burdens carefully did their work, also holding a weapon. But that was not enough. They had to be alert, listening for the sound of the trumpet. They could not become so absorbed in their work that they could not instantly hear the trumpet sound. Remember, the trumpeter was with Nehemiah (4:18), who was apparently moving about on the project. He would give the word for the trumpet to be blown – a blast that would summon the people to battle. When the trumpet was blown, it would no doubt be at the point of attack – where the enemy launched his offensive.
This is a graphic picture of the spiritual warnings that are often sounded. Jeremiah spoke of sounding the trumpet to alert the Jews to flee from Jerusalem (Jer 6:1). He also spoke of blowing the trumpet “among the nations,” to prepare them to chasten His people (Jer 51:27). Ezekiel spoke of the watchmen seeing the sword coming and sounding the trumpet to warn the people (Ezek 33:3). Joel wrote of sounding the trumpet to call a solemn assembly (Joel 2:13). There are times when the people must be rallied together – times when unusual danger is approaching, and the saints must come together.
It is the business of God’s people to live in fellowship with God and Christ, so they may detect the warning trumpet, and rally to the aid of their brethren. This is why lukewarmness, spiritual sleep, and indifference are unacceptable in Christ. They cause the people to fail to hear the trumpet of warning.
The ultimate trumpet blast will occur when the Lord comes again (1 Cor 15:52; 1 Thess 4:16). We are to live with sensitive ears, so as to detect that sound and prepare to meet the Lord. It will not go well for those who are caught unawares by that trumpet.
RESORT THITHER. The sounding of the trumpet was the only occasion that justified a cessation of work on the wall. However, when they heard the trumpet blow, they were to energetically and instantly head for the place where it was sounded. That was where they were needed. That was where the enemy would be seeking to gain entrance.
It is essential that God’s people have a sense about where to gather – particularly in times of danger and attack from the enemy. It is also essential that they work heartily with their ears uncircumcised, and able to hear the warning. Many slumbering souls are so riveted to this world and uninvolved with the Lord and His work, they will not be able to detect the trumpet of warning, or the last trump, when the Lord descends with a shout.
GOD SHALL FIGHT FOR US. Here is a most valuable perspective. Nehemiah has already urged the people to personally “fight” for their brethren, sons, daughters, wives, and houses. He has admonished them to work heartily, listening for the trumpet, and to head for the place where the trumpet was sounded as soon as they hear it. Now he tells them, “Our God will fight for us.” NKJV
This may seem to be a contradictory word. If God is going to fight for them, why listen for the trumpet? Why head for the area where the trumpet was sounded? Why should the builders do their work with their swords strapped to their sides, and the burden-bearers carry their loads with one hand, carrying a weapon with the other? Why should people take care of the weaponry, and watchers be stationed along the wall? This does not make sense to the flesh. However, God will fight through His people, empowering them to push back the foe. He will not fight while they sit, but through their sanctified efforts.
It is not unusual in our day to hear of people who imagine God will do everything for them. They live as though fighting was never necessary, and armor was not required. They have a distorted view of the Lord and how He works. God works IN His people, “both to will and to do of His own good pleasure” (Phil 2:13) – including fighting the enemy.
LABORING IN THE WORK ALL DAY LONG
“ 21 So we labored in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared.” Nehemiah’s words of admonition were received by the people. That was because they “had a mind to work,” which condition tended to make their hearts tender and their wills determined. Those who were doing the work did not find Nehemiah’s words too difficult to receive.
LABORED IN THE WORK. The language is significant: “labored in the work.” Other versions read, “carried on the work,” NASB “continued in the work,” NIV and “labored AT the work.” NRSV The idea is that threw themselves into the work, even though they were confronted with a significant threat – one that required their complete dedication and attention. Some people play at the work, sit on the work, and ignore the work. Nehemiah’s builders “labored” in the work. The warning did not cause their labors to diminish.
Sixteen times Nehemiah refers to “the work” (2:16; 3:5; 4:11,16,17,19,21; 5:16; 6:3, 9; 7:70,71; 10:33; 11:12; 13:10). Most of them applied to the wall project. It was the focus of the people of God, and the object of attack by their enemies – “the work!”
God also has a work in our day – it is one He is going to “cut short in righteousness” (Rom 9:28). The saints are enjoined to always abound “in the work of the Lord” (1 Cor 15:58). Timothy distinguished himself as an unusual participant in “the work of the Lord” (1 Cor 16:10). Epaphroditus came close to dying, not regarding his own life, because of “the work of Christ” (Phil 2:30). Such individuals were expending their best energies for God!
And what of you? Are you laboring in the work of the Lord? If you are, it has effected your hearing, made you more alert, and qualified you for comfort.
HALF OF THEM HELD THE SPEARS. Half of the workers were “holding spears” – poised for battle, and ready to quicky distribute the weaponry. Do not forget the promise of Nehemiah – “our God shall fight for us.” That word did not suggest the men ought to put down their weapons. It did mean they were not holding them in vain.
God also gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor 15:57), even causing us to triumph (1 Cor 2:14). Nevertheless, our safety also requires that we put on “the whole armor of God” – which includes a shield and a sword. Both of that apparatuses require the involvement of the soldier. Both the sword and the shield must be taken in hand by the believer, and employed for defense and offense. However, in that activity, it is God Himself who actually fights for us – just as He would for Nehemiah’s builders.
RISING OF THE MORNING UNTIL THE STARS APPEARED. Nehemiah did not call people to a convenient and undemanding work. They did not work part of the day. They did not work only during the cool of the morning, or the refreshing coolness of the evening. They rather bore the heat of the day as well. As soon as the morning dawned, they went to work, for all could be seen. When the stars appeared, they ceased their activity because they could no longer see plainly. Considering an average summer day, the morning would appear around 6:00 AM, while the stars would appear around 8:00 or 9:00 PM. That would make a work day of around fourteen or fifteen hours. During that entire time the workers had to work energetically, expertly, and in a state of readiness and alertness. It should be apparent that God was with them, giving them the physical, mental, and spiritual resources they needed for the work. Those are things men do not receive from the Lord unless they are engaged in the good and acceptable and perfect will of God.
PARALLELS. The remarkable parallels of this account to life in Christ Jesus are most edifying. This is an account that was orchestrated in heaven for the tutelage and encouragement of the saints of God. In it principles may be seen that are involved in what we are doing for the Lord.
The work that confronts us is also great and extensive. It will require all of our energy and resources to get it done. As believers, we are separated from one another, with other members of Christ’s body working on the “wall,” though far from us. However, at the sound of the trumpet, we will come together to the place where the trumpet was blown.
In the meantime, we must work in a state of keen sensitivity. Our vision and our hearing must be good. We must not be slow to perceive or slow to hear. Too, the fact that there is danger does not mean we can neglect the work. It must continue, even if we have to work with a sword strapped on our side, or with one hand.
“The work” of God, when seen properly, will give us a reason to put both of our hands to it. It will also qualify us to receive good and comforting words from those who speak for the Lord. Our involvement is also what qualifies us to have God fight for us.