Introduction – they didn’t all live happily ever after
Nehemiah 3 ends on a high note. Nehemiah’s heart broke for the people living unprotected in Jerusalem. When he shared his burden with others he found a community ready to serve. His gifted leadership and their willingness to serve accomplished a great work for God. In that chapter Nehemiah showed what a spiritually gifted leader and administrator he was and the effect was catalytic. You would expect everyone would live happily ever after but that is not the case. Nehemiah and the Israelites faced opposition. In fact any time you do something significant for God you will face opposition.
Transition: today we look at the very real fact of opposition. How do we deal with it when it comes?
When the people in the nations around the Jews mocked and opposed them they responded with prayer.
4 [a]When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”
3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”
4 Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of[b] the builders.
6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.
Sanballat was a leader in the kingdom north of Jerusalem. He did not want the city to be rebuilt so he sought to frustrate the work. His first tactic was derision. He mocked them for what they were attempting to do. When we were kids we may have sung “words will never hurt me” but as adults we know that the opposite is true. We heal from sticks and stones, but words leave scars. Mocking comments from the people around us – people at work, in our extended family, in the wider culture – can be very discouraging. Slanderous comments make us angry and we want to defend ourselves. But Nehemiah does not do that at first. Instead he prays.
Nehemiah’s prayer is for vindication and it can seem unduly harsh unless you have faced injustice or slander yourself. If you have his emotions make perfect sense. He is asking God to protect him rather than taking matters into his own hands. This is one of the best things we can do when we face opposition. We ask God to protect us so that we don’t have to.
Prayer is one of the principle ways we deal with opposition. They poured out their complaint to God and kept going.
As the opposition grew, the people were discouraged so they prayed, set a guard and encouraged one another trusting that God would fight for them.
7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
10 Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.” (a lament)
11 Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”
12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”
13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”
15 When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work.
In the midst of opposition we need wisdom and community.
When Sanballat saw that discouragement was not working he moved to armed threats. He had no legal right to attack the Jews, so he was probably hoping to attack them and capture the city quickly before anyone in Babylon heard. They figured that after the Jews were eliminated the king would negotiate with them to keep the peace. With a threat this significant looming Nehemiah continued to pray but he also set a guard. This short statement in verse 9 represents the balance most of us seek when we are praying. We pray about all the things we cannot control. But inevitably we ask ourselves, “is there something I should do to cooperate with you?” In other words, sometimes we not only have to pray, but we have to set a guard. Setting a guard was a wise thing to do. It both encouraged a fearful population and also signaled to enemies that an attack would not be a surprise. It was a wise move and wisdom is important when facing opposition.
Nehemiah also encouraged the people of Jerusalem who were losing hope of ever finishing the wall. They were weary of work and feared attack from enemies. Nehemiah continued to post soldiers for protection, but he also organized the people into groups which caused them to feel allegiance to each other. When he had gathered them together he told them to fight for their families “sons and daughters, wives and homes.” This reminded them that their situation was about more than themselves. They were part of a larger community and their actions affected many.
When we face opposition we need to pray. We also need wisdom and community. Nehemiah was bold. He expected God to come to his rescue. He had some people work and others guard the but always with the assurance that God will fight for them. This is a great way of dealing with opposition but it comes with the caveat that you know you are doing God’s will.
16 From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah 17 who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, 18 and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me.
19 Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. 20 Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!”
Now when we see Nehemiah trusting that God was on his side we can have one of two extreme reactions. The first reaction, usually made by more religious people, is that God is always on my side. I am always the good guy and God protects me. The other extreme, often made by people without a lot of religious history, is to think God is never on your side.
When we look at scripture we see that God is not always on the side of the religious.
It can be tragic to think that God is always on your side. Over a hundred years before Nehemiah came on the scene the city of Jerusalem was under threat. In that day it was a threat from Babylon. Many in the city assumed that a pagan army could never defeat them. God’s temple was in Jerusalem and they were his chosen people. How could he ever let the city fall? But one man knew differently. Jeremiah was a prophet and God had revealed to him the fate of the city.
“I will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins,
a haunt of jackals;
and I will lay waste the towns of Judah
so no one can live there.”
12 Who is wise enough to understand this? Who has been instructed by the Lord and can explain it? Why has the land been ruined and laid waste like a desert that no one can cross?
13 The Lord said, “It is because they have forsaken my law, which I set before them; they have not obeyed me or followed my law. 14 Instead, they have followed the stubbornness of their hearts; they have followed the Baals, as their ancestors taught them.” 15 Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: “See, I will make this people eat bitter food and drink poisoned water. 16 I will scatter them among nations that neither they nor their ancestors have known, and I will pursue them with the sword until I have made an end of them.”
Clearly the city would not be saved. God was not on their side. Though they had kept the outward trappings of religiosity, they hearts were full of rebellion. Now God was going to bring on the Nation of Judah the consequences of their rebellion. They expected God to protect them but instead he was their greatest threat.
The other extreme is to think that God can never be on your side because of all the ways you have fallen short. If we compare our humanness to God’s greatness, power and holiness we could never rationally think that God would care about us. Even if God does exist what would make me think that he would come to my rescue? Fortunately there are two pieces of good news in response to this.
First – you are absolutely right in your figuring. You have fallen short of God’s standard. This is an accurate view of who you are and who God is.
Second – God has made the first step in reconciliation.
Look at Colossians 1
21 Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of[g] your evil behavior. 22 But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— 23 if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.
In this passage we see that the reason Jesus came to us is that whether religious or not we are all enemies of God in our inner hearts. God knows this and has come to us in Christ; he died in our place and now offers us forgiveness. For those who respond to God’s offer of forgiveness in Jesus, God considers them without blemish and free from accusation. In other words in Christ we are forgiven and we go from being God’s enemy to being his friend.
When we are facing tough times it is essential to know if these are because we are following God or because we are opposing God. If we are assured that what we are doing is his will then we can call on God to boldly to protect his work. If we think that the trouble we face is our own fault, we can come to Christ for forgiveness and know that we can trust his guidance and protection.