COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 6:1 Now it came to pass, when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, and the rest of our enemies, heard that I had builded the wall, and that there was no breach left therein; (though at that time I had not set up the doors upon the gates;) 2 That Sanballat and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But they thought to do me mischief. 3 And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you? 4 Yet they sent unto me four times after this sort; and I answered them after the same manner.” (Neh 6:1-4)
Wherever there is a work for God, some form of opposition eventually surfaces. It was no different for Nehemiah and his workers. Seasons of peace and progress have been followed by mocking, threats, discouragement, and injustices. From Satan’s view, these were all designed to cause the work to stop. From heaven’s view, these challenges provided an opportunity to exhibit the superiority of faith, and how it triumphs over all adversity. Now, after having corrected the injustices done to the Jews by their own brethren, the work is under way again. However, the enemies who had been soundly defeated five times surface once again. Sanballat and his colleagues were grieved when they heard Nehemiah was coming to help the children of Israel (2:10). They laughed and scorned the workers as they began the noble work (2:19). When they saw progress being made on the wall, they were indignant and mocked them (4:1). They plotted to marshal the enemies and fight against Jerusalem (4:7-8). They also determined to come in among the people undetected and cause the work to cease (4:11). All five attempts were frustrated and the work continued. But the enemies are not too discouraged to quit. They now make another attempt to thwart this noble work. In so doing, their character was more fully unveiled, and Nehemiah will see it.
WORD OF THE WORK SPREADS TO THE ENEMY
“ 6:1 Now it came to pass, when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, and the rest of our enemies, heard that I had builded the wall, and that there was no breach left therein; (though at that time I had not set up the doors upon the gates).” Although they had been repeatedly frustrated in their efforts of opposition, the enemies of the work did not give up. It is the nature of unbelief to render the individual incapable of learning anything from the working of the Lord. Like their father the devil, they cannot draw valid conclusions about the Person or work of the Lord. Sin blinds the eyes and hardens the heart, so that the most simple lessons cannot be learned. Gamaliel, under whose feet Paul learned the Law (Acts 5:39), though not himself a Christian, counseled those opposing the Apostles, “Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God” (Acts 5:38-39). While yet associated with Jesus’ enemies, Nicodemus once reasoned with them about their view of Jesus. “Doth our law judge any man, before it hear him, and know what he doeth?” (John 7:51), However, Nehemiah’s enemies could not even speak on this wise. They saw no connection between the success of the builders and the “God of the Jews.” They could not connect the consistent frustration of their plans with the blessing of God upon Nehemiah and the builders. It is a milestone of spiritual progress when the godly are no longer surprised at the opposition of wicked men.
OUR ENEMIES. The wicked conspiracy against Nehemiah remained the same. None of their enemies withdrew, even though repeatedly frustrated and overthrown in their efforts. Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian remained together from the very beginning (2:19). The other enemies included “the Arabians, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites” (4:7). These enemies were to Nehemiah what the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Lawyers were to Jesus, the elders and Jewish counsel were to the Apostles and Stephen, and Jewish teachers were to Paul. They were consistent foes that had to be faced day in and day out. In a sense, Nehemiah and his associates had to learn to live and work with them around, together with their wicked devices.
THEY HEARD ABOUT THE WALL. They first “heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up” (4:1). Now the enemies again “heard that I had builded the wall” (6:1). God is at work in the book of Nehemiah, and we do well to see it. Not only is He seeing to it that the builders are strengthened, inequities corrected, and discouragement subdued, He is orchestrating the report of the progress on the wall. Even the enemies of the work are hearing about the marvelous work that is being done. Such reports are not coincidence. This is a Divine manner – to do none of His work “in a corner” (Acts 26:26). When Israel came out of Egypt and marched triumphantly to the promised land, their enemies heard about it (Josh 2:10). When Jesus ministered among men, the people “heard” what He was doing (Mk 2:1; 6:5; Matt 20:30; John 12:12). When the Apostles began spreading the Gospel, what they were doing was “heard” (Acts 2:6; 17:6). If men and women will devote themselves to the work of the Lord, He will see to it that people know what they are doing.
THERE WAS NO BREACH LEFT. Other versions read, “no breach remained in it,” NASB and “not a gap was left in it” NIV In the beginning, the project seemed so hopeless, the enemies scoffed the builders (4:2). A short time after that, the builders themselves grew discouraged, saying the burden bearers were growing weak. there was too much rubbish, and they were not able to build wall (4:10). Notwithstanding the miserable condition of things when they started, however, they had already managed to close up every gapping space in the wall. Not a single gap was found in the entire circumference of the wall – no place where the enemy had unhindered access to the holy city. Word got out about this condition, and God saw to it that the enemies heard it.
THE WORK WAS NOT COMPLETE. Earlier, Nehemiah said the complete wall was built to half of its height (4:6). Now, even more progress had been made. The only thing that remained was to hang the doors on the gates, for, Nehemiah said, “at that time I had not set up the doors upon (or in) the gates.” This was the last phase of the work, and therefore depended upon the completion and stability of the wall, together with the installment of beams and bolts. The fact that the gates had not yet been hung, however, did not mean there were breaches, or breaks, in the wall. Everyplace requiring the rebuilding of the wall had been completed, and only the finishing touches remained. Although this must have been encouraging for the builders, it must have utterly frustrated their enemies.
THE ENEMIES MAKE A PROPOSAL
“ 2That Sanballat and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But they thought to do me mischief.” We should not expect our enemies to give up easily. Those who opposed the work of Nehemiah, though thwarted on every hand, regrouped and made another attempt to cause the work to cease, and ultimately to bring it crashing down to the ground. Wicked men always “wax worse and worse” (2 Tim 2:13). They never get better. If they cease to make trouble for the people of God, it is only because God has subdued them, not because their minds have changed.
THE ENEMY SENDS A MESSAGE. Now a message is sent by the enemy to Nehemiah. This time, the message does not come from Sanballat and Tobiah, but from Sanballat and “Geshem the Arabian.” When the enemy begins to speak with us, communicating messages to us, a time of jeopardy has been introduced. When Satan spoke with Eve, trouble was near. It is never safe or right to “walk in the counsel of the ungodly,” and blessed is the person who knows it (Psa 1:1). Because righteousness and unrighteousness cannot fellowship, and light and darkness have no communion, the wicked and the righteous cannot caucus with profit (2 Cor 6:14). This has particular regard to the work of the Lord, which work is always threatened by consulting with the enemy.
LET US MEET TOGETHER. “ Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono.” This might have sounded promising to the unwise. “Ono” was built by the sons of Elpaal of the tribe of Benjamin (1 Chron 8:12). The “plain of Ono” was the area in which it was built. It was an area belonging to Israel. A sizeable number of people came from this area with Zerrubabel when he rebuilt the temple (Ezra 2:33). That certainly might be considered neutral ground, so to speak. Thus these enemies proposed a friendly meeting in a Jewish area, supposedly to work out their differences. Perhaps, it might be surmised, they would also speak of the general attitudes of the people in that area toward the king of Persia, who was sponsoring Nehemiah’s mission.
This band of opponents seemed to sense the futility of open opposition, like standing at the wall site and mocking, or trying to penetrate the camp without being detected. Thus, they resorted to one of Satan’s chief devices – “craftiness.” Throughout history, this has been Satan’s must effective approach – deception. It is how he brought Eve down, and Paul feared he would do the same for certain Christians (2 Cor 11:3). This circumstance demands that those in Christ “arm” themselves with a godly mind (1 Pet 4:1). They must not settle for being ignorant of Satan’s “devices.” Where such ignorance exists, a fall is imminent. As it is written, “Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices” (2 Cor 2:11). Satan has been known to “stand up against” the people of God, provoking to them to act foolishly (1 Chron 21:1). He even stood up against godly Job, but without success (Job 1:11). He was seen standing on the right hand of Joshua the high priest, seeking to “resist him” (Zech 3:1). In all of these cases, he uses craftiness, subtlety, and deception. In our text, he uses this approach on Nehemiah.
Unfortunately, we are living in a time and place where the people of God are too naive – too simple. They flirt with the enemy as though there was no danger in doing so. They make places for Satan, thinking they can quickly recover themselves, and be kept by the power of God, even though they are venturing too close to the flame. Whether it is generally perceived as acceptable or not, the people of God must learn to resist the encroaches of the enemy.
THEY THOUGHT TO DO ME MISCHIEF. Other versions read, “But they were planning to harm me,” NASB and “But I realized they were plotting to harm me.” NLT Nehemiah, by his faith, saw through the approach of Sanballat and Geshem. On a broad principle, he knew that a caucus with a Horonite and Arabian was not apt to produce any good thing. More specifically, he sensed the real intention of these men. They were “scheming to harm” him. NIV Nehemiah was, indeed, “harmless as a dove” in regards to aggression and hostility toward others. However, regarding his surroundings and the intention of his enemies, he was “wise as a serpent” (Matt 10:16).
Many believers, due to their own simplicity, have been snared by the enemy because of their naivety. Solomon well said, “A prudent man foreseeth the evil, and hideth himself: but the simple pass on, and are punished” (Prov 22:3). Suffice it to say, an approach to religion that majors on entertainment, having fun, and scanning truth like a spider walking on water, will not produce wise souls. In fact, it actually sets people up for a fall.
THE RESPONSE OF FAITH AND THE ENEMIES PERSISTENCE
“ 3And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you? 4 Yet they sent unto me four times after this sort; and I answered them after the same manner.” Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Nehemiah does not hesitate to respond to the words of the heathen. There were times when he sought the Lord for wisdom and counsel (1:4; 2:4; 4:9). But there was no need to do so on this occasion. His faith had made him discerning and wise. He knew what to say because he had been living by faith. He also knew the words of these men were “softer than oil,” but “war was in their heart,” and their swords were drawn (Psa 55:21). Faith does sensitize the heart and bring keen perception to the saints. Such is for their protection.
NEHEMIAH RESPONDS. Note, Nehemiah does not personally go to Sanballat and Geshem, just as they did not come personally to him. Rather, he sends messengers to the opposing duo, informing them of his response to their suggestion. He will not dignify their request with his personal presence.
I AM DOING A GREAT WORK. Other versions read, “I am carrying on a great project,” NIV and “I am engaged in a great undertaking.” NJB The word “work” does not mean mere activity, but refers to the project on which he was working – the rebuilding of the wall. The word “great” means large in magnitude and extent. It also carries the idea of importance and significance. He was not engaged in a hobby, or some incidental and inconsequential activity. He had been commissioned by God to do something substantial.
I CANNOT COME DOWN. Other versions read, “it is not possible for me to come down,” BBE and “unable to come down.” NAB Nehemiah is not speaking of a physical impossibility but a logical one. The nature of his work would not permit him to take time out, as it was, to speak with Sanballat and Geshem. His heart and conscience would not allow him to do so. All of this is highlighted by the fact that Ono was about twenty-five or thirty miles from Jerusalem. Nehemiah knew the effort required to meet with this wicked pair would not yield any benefit. In view of that, he simply could not “come down.”
WHY SHOULD THE WORK CEASE? Another version reads, “Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” NASB An arresting question, indeed! What justification can there possibly be for leaving the work to which God has assigned a person to hold a meeting with those opposed to that work? In particular, Nehemiah’s personal work on the project would have to cease while he journeyed to meet with his enemies. In general, the work itself would not continue without the appointed leader, his encouragement, wisdom, and exhortations. There is no valid reason for allowing such a cessation to take place. The appointed work before Nehemiah was demanding – large in scope, and meticulous in detail. For this reason, he would not allow it to be interrupted.
There is a principle to be seen here – one we must be able to perceive. The enemies of the faith always want to talk outside of Jerusalem – away from the convicting presence of holy things and holy work. We dare not consent to such an arrangement. When John the Baptist prepared the way for the Lord, he did not preach outside of the holy land, but baptized in Aenon, near unto Salem, which was in Judea (John 3:23). It is said of the Lord Jesus, “And in the day time He was teaching in the temple; and at night He went out, and abode in the mount that is called the mount of Olives” (Luke 21:37). I realize this can be taken too far, and do not intend to do that. However, there are times when it is wrong to leave godly environments, and times it is wrong to meet with the ungodly apart from places God has blessed. Nehemiah knew how to respond appropriately. We should seek to do the same. Many a work started for the Lord has fallen upon the rocks because the workers left to dialog with their enemies.
THE ENEMY PERSISTED. The answer of Nehemiah did not stop Sanballat and Geshem. They sent the same message to him “four times.” And, “four times” Nehemiah “gave them the same answer.” NIV There was no need for him to construct a different answer each time, or seek to reason with his enemies in a more profound manner. The same question deserves the same answer – particularly when it is a good response.
You can see from this that Nehemiah was determined to finish the work God had given to him. Neither discouragement nor threat could woo him away from the wall. In this, he sets a noble example for us all. What we are doing for God must not be allowed to be interrupted by carnal suggestion, or consultation with the enemies of the faith. Anything that takes us away from the work God has given us to do cannot be right. Those who seek to lure us away need only be told that we will not come down, and it is wrong to do so.