COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
LESSON NUMBER 33
“ 6:5 Then sent Sanballat his servant unto me in like manner the fifth time with an open letter in his hand; 6 Wherein was written, It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king, according to these words. 7 And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem, saying, There is a king in Judah: and now shall it be reported to the king according to these words. Come now therefore, and let us take counsel together. 8 Then I sent unto him, saying, There are no such things done as thou sayest, but thou feignest them out of thine own heart. 9 For they all made us afraid, saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done. Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands.” (Neh 6:5-9)
Nehemiah has confronted letters from Sanballat four times – letters that asked him to leave the wall and hold a conference with his enemies in the plains of Ono. In holy obstinance, he has refused to yield to the temptations of his foes, knowing they intended to do him harm. However, the enemy does not quit. Relentlessly his adversary presses the battle, seeking to find some weakness in the man of God’s armor. Sanballat resorts to yet another tactic – one that will cause those who trust in the flesh to fear. He will learn, however, that Nehemiah is not easily wearied, nor will he faint in his mind. His faith in God makes him equal to every challenge, making him superior in every way to his enemies. We will find in this lesson food for the soul. The effectiveness of faith will be seen in Nehemiah’s response, and in his instant recourse to the God of all flesh. Because he believes God, nothing will be allowed to stop the work ordained by God.
THE FIRST CHARGE OF SANBALLAT
“ 6:5 Then sent Sanballat his servant unto me in like manner the fifth time with an open letter in his hand; 6 Wherein was written, It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king, according to these words.” You can almost hear Satan lisping in these words, trying to find a weak spot in Nehemiah’s spiritual armor. Do not think for a moment that our adversary the devil is not relentless, or that he is a quitter, or gives up easily. Nor, indeed, should you imagine he will run and cower when you reject his appeals. It is true, the Scripture affirms, “Resist the devil, and he will flee from you” (James 4:7). That is based more on your submission to God than your personal resistence, as the text affirms. Also, the devil will not flee permanently. You will confront him again, as Job did. Remember also that when Jesus repelled the devil with the Word of God, it is written, “And when the devil had ended all the temptation, he departed from him for a season” (Luke 4:13). This text will assist us in rejecting overly-simplistic teaching on this subject.
THE FIFTH TIME. We do not know how long it was between the fourth time and the fifth time. It could not have been long, for we will find the wall was finished in fifty-two days, and our text is in the closing period of that time. This time, the letter comes from Sanballat himself, with no mention of Tobiah or Geshem the Arabian. The many efforts of Sanballat reveals how he and his colleagues were intimidated by the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. It appears that even Nehemiah’s workers were not aware of the extent of the threat their building posed to their enemies.
AN OPEN LETTER. It is as though the letter encouraged the reading of everyone who handled it. It was not sealed, nor was there anything secret about it. Perhaps Sanballat thought the letter could sow fear, discouragement, and anarchy against Nehemiah along the way. He leaves no stone unturned in his diabolical effort to stop the work. Satan loves to make his message public, spreading his poison wherever a curious soul is found.
REPORTED AMONG THE HEATHEN. Sanballat affirms there is much talk among the non-Jews. His words are like saying, “everyone is talking about this.” We are not sure who “Gashmu” is. It is generally thought this was a form of the name Geshem, that Arabian who had joined himself to Sanballat. The use of his name indicates that he was influential, and that his word would be taken quite seriously by those who heard it. He suggests to Nehemiah that the talk was not simply among the lower cast of people, but among the leaders as well. To those without faith, this would be a formidable threat.
THE JEWS THINK TO REBEL. Other versions read, “you and the Jews plan to rebel,” NKJV and “you and the Jews are plotting to revolt.” NIV That is, revolt against the king of Persia. What Sanballat did not realize was that the Jews were in the process of recovering from the Babylonian captivity, which had come to an end. Revealing his total lack of originality, this is the same charge Sanballat made at the beginning (2:19). It is also the same charge leveled against the Jews during Ezra’s expedition to the holy city (Ezra 4:12-13). There was no truth to the charge – but that was not the point. Sanballat’s strategy was to intimidate the Jews with the word that was being circulated about them.
Sanballat charges the reason for building the wall was to prepare them for their rebellion against the king: “for which cause thou buildest the wall.” He could not associate this project with seeking God’s favor, restoring the prominence of worship and service, or promoting the knowledge and fear of the Lord. He did not see Jerusalem as “the city of God” (Psa 46:4), or the place where God had placed His name (1 Kgs 11:36). Because these things were unknown to him, he invented a charge that could only intimidate those who had no faith in, or commitment to, the God of heaven.
THAT NEHEMIAH MIGHT BE THEIR KING. Here the true nature of the flesh is seen. Flesh cannot conceive of a person wholly devoted to the Lord – one who does not seek his own glory, but rather the glory of the Lord. Thus, Nehemiah is being represented as discontent with being the king’s cupbearer (1:11), and even the Governor of Judah (5:14). Even Sanballat knew at the first that Nehemiah had come “to seek the welfare of the children of Judah” (2:10). Flesh, however, cannot perceive that such a thing is possible – that one could be fundamentally interested in helping his brethren and bringing honor to the name of the Lord. As the Lord Himself said, “thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself” (Psa 50:21). What is even more, Sanballat was convinced that the report of such an attitude would strike fear into the heart of Nehemiah and his workers.
THE SECOND CHARGE OF SANBALLAT
“ 7 And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem, saying, There is a king in Judah: and now shall it be reported to the king according to these words. Come now therefore, and let us take counsel together. ” The letter of Sanballat is filled with absurdities – but unbelief will tremble at even absurdities. See how the enemy spares no effort to stop the work on the wall, which work is obviously intimidating to the Jew’s enemies. That wall stood for the recovery of the ancient people, who once dominated that area. It means heathen gods and manners would be threatened, and the name and works of Jehovah would again be prominent. The reproach of both Jerusalem and the Jews would be taken away, and that was anything but good news to their enemies.
APPOINTED PROPHETS. Whether or not this word was actually being circulated at the time is not clear, for it is difficult to conceive of Sanballat saying the truth. However, you may rest assured, this wicked man will see to it that the rumor spreads. Imagine Nehemiah appointing prophets to speak to the people about himself! To us it sounds absurd. To the enemy it is reasonable. Thus, claims Sanballat, the word is circulating among the heathen that Nehemiah is promoting himself, saying through self-appointed prophets that the Jews again have a king. He knows such a report would not be viewed kindly by Artaxerxes, particularly since he has underwritten Nehemiah’s mission. From Satan’s viewpoint, such reports are calculated to stir up fears and imaginations that will cause the people of God to act in a spiritually irrational manner.
Now, Sanballat affirms this very report will be taken to the king – “according to these words.” Another version reads, “Now these matters WILL be reported to the king.” NKJV Of course, he imagines that Nehemiah has more fear of the king than of God. We must learn to reckon on the stupidity of our enemies as well as their persistence.
False reports have consistently been used by Satan to thwart the work of God. The Jews raised false reports against Jesus, who affirmed He had said, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days” (Mat 26:61). Some reported that Paul was preaching “Let us do evil, than good may come” (Rom 3:1). Paul spoke of God’s messengers being subjected to “evil report,” and being represented as “deceivers” (2 Cor 6:8). There was also Joseph, who was reported to have been a seducer, then punished as though it was true (Gen 39:14-18).
All slander is provoked by the devil himself, who is appropriately called “the accuser of the brethren” (Rev 12:10). In fact the word “devil” means “slanderer,” or “false accuser.” Wherever slander arises, Satan has been at work, and the slanderer has been subject to him. Those who raise false reports against the people of God have taken the devil’s own words into their mouths and have spoken them. They are his servants, and by their opposition to the saints of God, have themselves become God’s enemies. They are brothers to Sanballat.
LET US TAKE COUNSEL TOGETHER. Here we see the craftiness of the “old serpent,” working through his slave Sanballat. Other versions read, “So come therefore, and let us consult together,” NKJV and “so come, let us confer together.” NIV The New Living Translation captures the sense of the text: “You can be very sure that this report will get back to the king, so I suggest that you come and talk it over with me.”
It is as though Sanballat said, “I would hate to see all of this happen. Let us talk it over and see if we cannot come up with something that is acceptable to both of us.” But his words are arrows dipped in poison. Nehemiah could say of Sanballat what David said of his enemy, “The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart: his words were softer than oil, yet were they drawn swords” (Psa 55:21).
Every effort of the enemy is to change the hearts and minds of the people of God. They do not intend to change themselves. They mean us no good, anymore than their master the devil intends to bring benefits to us. Can you imagine Jesus holding a caucus with the Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees, and Lawyers in an attempt to arrive at some common ground? Or Peter and the Apostles holding a conference with Caiaphas in order to promote kind relationships? What of Paul speaking with Alexander the coppersmith, or Hymenareus and Philetus in an effort to promote unity? The answer is too obvious.
Righteousness and unrighteousness have no fellowship. Light and darkness have no communion. Christ and Belial are not in accord. A believer and infidel have no part together. The temple of God and idols are not agreed (2 Cor 6:14-16). Neither, indeed, are Nehemiah and Sanballat in any way compatible. Who is able to measure the harm that has been generated by naive disciples sitting with their enemies, supposing good will come.
RESPONSE, FEAR, AND A PRAYER TO GOD
“ 8Then I sent unto him, saying, There are no such things done as thou sayest, but thou feignest them out of thine own heart. 9 For they all made us afraid, saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done. Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands.” Nehemiah will respond in faith. It will be evident that faith is also firm and bold, not shrinking back from telling the truth. Nehemiah does not ignore what Sanballat has said, but replies to it by sending a message to him.
THERE ARE NO SUCH THINGS! Other versions read, “No such things as you say are being done,” NKJV “There is no truth in any part of your story,” NLT and “Nothing like what you are saying is happening.” NIV Godly men have not shrunk back from denying false charges raised against them. Paul said of the things said against him, “And they neither found me in the temple disputing with any man, neither raising up the people, neither in the synagogues, nor in the city: Neither can they prove the things whereof they now accuse me” (Acts 24:12-13; 25:7-10). Nehemiah affirmed there was no scheme to rebel against the king. He was not intending to be the king, and he had not appointed prophets to go throughout the land promoting himself. These were all lies, originated by Satan, and put into the mouths of his servants. God is glorified and Satan demeaned when these things are said.
FEIGNED IN A WICKED HEART. Other versions read, “you invent them in your own heart,” NKJV “you are inventing them in your own mind,” NASB and “you are just making it up out of your head.” NIV Note how the different translations express the place in which Sanballat’s words originated: “heart,” “mind,” and “head.” The word “heart” means inner man, or the very center of a person’s being. The thought being expressed is this: “These lies have been concocted by the real you, and reflect how you really think. They are not a swift thought, but a deliberate plan.” The notion was in the heart, it was developed in the mind, and stored up in the head. But every single word of it was “feigned,” contrived, or invented. They were the product of hatred, and revealed Sanballat was Satan’s vassal. What was found in his heart was not a temptation, but an expression of an already wicked disposition.
Even though Satan himself is the “father” of all lies (John 8:44), those who willingly entertain his thoughts in their minds get the credit for them. Such people are not innocent. They, like Sanballat, have set themselves against the people of God, thus opening their hearts and minds to Satan, who will shape their thoughts for them.
There is a certain power found in affirming the character of the wicked as well as their lying words. This is why Paul spoke so harshly to Elymas the sorcerer. “O full of all subtlety and all mischief, thou child of the devil, thou enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord?” (Acts 13:10). It is why Peter said to Simon, “Thy money perish with thee, because thou hast thought that the gift of God may be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God.”(Acts 8:20-21). It is why the Lord Jesus spoke so pointedly to His critics (Matt 23:13-19).
THEY ALL MADE US AFRAID. The idea here is not that the people feared and quaked when they read or heard Sanballat’s words. Rather, the verse means this was the intention of Sanballat – to promote fear among the people, and thus cause the work to cease. Thus other versions read, “For they all were trying to make us afraid, saying, ‘Their hands will be weakened in the work, and it will not be done,’” NKJV and “They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed’” NIV That is, this is how Sanballat was reasoning. “When the Jews hear this, they will be afraid, and stop working on the wall.”
STRENGTHEN MY HANDS. Nehemiah replies to Sanballat – but that is not all he does. He raises a five-word prayer to the Living God. “O God, strengthen my hands!” The man of God knows what he needs – “STRENGTH.” He pleads for strength immediately – “NOW.” He asks for the ability to finish the work – “MY HANDS.” The New Jerusalem Bible paraphrases this verse, but says it well. “For they were all trying to terrorise us, thinking, 'They will become demoralised over the work and it will not get finished.' But my morale rose even higher.” Thus, rather than the threat jeopardizing the work, or causing it to cease, it contributed even more to its success!
In Nehemiah a Gospel principle was lived out before us. It is as true for us as it was for him. “My grace is sufficient for you, for My strength is made perfect in weakness . . . for when I am weak, then am I strong” (2 Cor 12:9-10). The opposition of the wicked, when seen properly, will prove to be an even stronger reason for leaning on the Lord, trusting in Him with all of our heart. Such a posture will not go unnoticed or unrewarded by God.