Nehemiah, Or Labour And Conflict

By Edward Dennett

Chapter 4

IN chapter 3 we have a beautiful presentation of the energy of the Spirit of God in the devoted service of His people. But whenever the people of God are active, Satan is aroused, and he seeks by every means in his power to raise up hindrances and obstacles. This is illustrated once more in the opening verses of this chapter, which give us the third form of his opposition to the work of God's builders. In Nehemiah 2: 10, the enemy was "grieved exceedingly." Then he tried mockery and scorn (Neh. 2: 19), and now he assumes the weapons of anger and indignation. "It came to pass," we read, "that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews. And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned? Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall." (vv. 1-3.) The language both of Sanballat and Tobiah was inconsistent with their feelings. It is in verse 1 that we find their real state of mind. Wrath and indignation it was that possessed their souls, for they knew full well the significance of the activity of the children of Israel. But when they spoke they concealed their anger with affected contempt. If however the "feeble Jews" were working in vain, if the wall they were building were of such a contemptible character, wherefore the anger of Sanballat and Tobiah? Happy was it for the builders that their leader was on the watch, and, armed at every point against the devices of Satan, knew how to use the shield of faith wherewith to quench his fiery darts. For what was Nehemiah's resource in the presence of this new form of hostility?

He said, "Hear, O our God; for we are despised." (v. 4.) He simply turned to God in the assurance that He cared for His people, that He would be their defence and their shield, engaged as they were in His own service. And it is ever blessed when we can take all the enemy's revilings to, and leave them with, God. In the energy and impatience of nature we are too apt to attempt to meet the foe in our own strength, and thus we often rush into the conflict only to encounter defeat and disaster. But faith turns the eye upwards, and commits all to the Lord. Hezekiah furnishes us with a beautiful illustration of this when he went up into the house of the Lord, and spread before Him the letter which he had received from Rabshakeh, who commanded the army of Sennacherib. In like manner Nehemiah cried, "Hear, O our God." And mark his plea — "For we are despised." God's people are precious in His sight, and to despise them is to despise Him. Nehemiah had entered into this, and thus made his appeal to the heart of God. Having cast himself in this way upon God, and placed himself and the people (for he fully identifies himself with them) under His protection, he gathers strength to pray against the enemy. "Turn," he says, "their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity; and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee: for they have provoked [thee] to anger before the builders." (vv. 4, 5.) It may surprise the superficial reader that such a prayer could be offered. Two things should be remembered: first, the dispensation under which the people were; and secondly, that the enemies of Israel were the enemies of God. Sanballat and Tobiah were deliberately setting themselves in opposition to the work of the Spirit of God. And all may learn from this prayer, as Saul afterwards had to learn in another way, what a solemn thing it is to persecute God's people, and to hinder His work. Thus the ground on which Nehemiah urges his petition is: "They have provoked thee to anger before the builders." The cause of these despised children of the captivity was the cause of God; and it was in this confidence that Nehemiah found, as all believers who are in fellowship with the mind of God in their labours may find, encouragement to invoke His aid as against their foes.

But if Nehemiah prayed (as we shall see again), it did not interfere with his or the people's labours; we might rather say that his perseverance in his work sprang from his prayers. We say his prayers, for these are his individual cries to God, and his cries in secret to God. We are permitted to view the inner life of this devoted servant as well as his public labours. No ear but God's heard these supplications, though they are recorded to teach us that the secret of all true activity, as well as of courage in the presence of danger, is realized dependence on the Lord. Thus, after Nehemiah. records his prayer, he adds, "So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work." (v. 6.) This is a blessed record, and one which testifies to the energy of the Spirit of God acting through Nehemiah upon the people, and producing unanimity and perseverance. For when it says, "The people had a mind to work," it means that they had God's mind. Sometimes unanimity may be seen, and the fact gloried in, irrespective of the consideration whether it is according to the mind of God. To be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment (1 Cor. 1: 10), when the result of divine power, ensures the successful accomplishment of any service to which God calls His people, because with His Spirit ungrieved He is able to work without let or hindrance in their midst.

This spectacle of united perseverance in the work of God excited the foe to more determined opposition. Having tried many weapons without success to deter the people from building the wall, he now produces another. "It came to pass, that when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth, and conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it." (vv. 7, 8.) Before there were but a few individuals, but now there are numbers. Satan finding that Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem could not succeed by themselves, draws others to their help — the Arabians, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites — these last being entirely new allies. In fact he collects an army, as force is the weapon he is now about to try. But what was it that aroused the enemy anew to attempt to hinder the work? It was the report they had heard, that "the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped." It was now evident that the children of the captivity were in earnest, and that they, under the leadership of Nehemiah, were determined to shut out evil by erecting the wall and stopping the breaches. This never suits Satan, whose desire ever is to break down all distinction between the people of God and the world, and hence it was that he marshalled his forces in order to prevent "these feeble Jews" from accomplishing their purpose.

And what had the children of Israel to meet this array of power on the part of the adversary? They had a leader whose confidence was in God, and who had learnt the lesson Elisha taught his servant, when the king of Syria had sent an army to take him, viz., that "they that be with us are more than they that be with them." Nothing daunted, therefore, by the increasing numbers and rage of the enemy, he says, "Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set our watch against them day and night, because of them." He thus combined dependence on God, in whom alone he knew his strength and defence to be, with unceasing vigilance against the "roaring lion." These are the two invisible weapons which God puts into the hands of His people in the presence of the enemy — weapons which suffice to defeat his most powerful assaults. Hence the Lord, in the prospect of the advancing power of Satan against His disciples, said, "Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation." (Matt. 26: 41.) The apostle likewise writes, "Praying always with all prayer and supplication in the Spirit, and watching thereunto with all perseverance," etc. (Eph. 6: 18); knowing that, unless watchfulness were maintained, Satan would soon decoy the soul into forgetfulness and sloth. Nehemiah, therefore, was divinely instructed in his means of defence, which, indeed, placed a rampart between him and his foes, against which, if they dashed, it would be only to encounter certain destruction. And observe that the watchfulness (day and night) was as unceasing as the prayer. In this sense there is no rest for the Christian. Having done all, he is still to stand; for as the enemy is unresting in his attacks, the believer must be unceasing in the use of his means of defence.

But a new source of danger is now discovered. Without were fightings, and now, alas! within were fears. "And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall." (v. 10.) As long as "the people had a mind to work," the danger from without, met as it was by watchfulness and prayer, mattered but little; but the difficulty was great when the people themselves became fainthearted and weary. The cause of Judah's despondency was twofold. First, "the strength of the burden-bearers is decayed." Judah had forgotten that the Lord was the strength of His people, and that if He places a burden of service upon the shoulders of any of His people, He gives also the needful strength for its execution. Secondly, they said that on account of the quantity of rubbish it was impossible to build the wall. So have many said since Judah's day. The corruptions in the church have been so many — so much "rubbish" has been imported on every side — that, despairing of carrying out separation from evil according to the word of God, souls have often been betrayed into acceptance of the very things they deplore. It is impossible, they say, to conform ourselves now to the word of God, to restore the authority of the Scriptures over the conduct and activities of the church, to give the place of pre-eminence to the Lord in the midst of His gathered people, to draw the line of distinction between those who are His and those who are not; and we must, therefore, accept things as they are. Granted that there is much rubbish, it is yet clear that the word of God never abates its claims upon His people; and 2 Timothy teaches most distinctly that the responsibility of building the wall is as binding upon the saints when the house of God is in ruins, as was that of maintaining the wall when His house was in order. The fact was, the effect of the display of the enemy's power, and the prospect of incessant warfare, had discouraged the heart of Judah; and he sought to find a justification for his state of soul in the condition of the burden-bearers, and in the obstacles to his work. Many of us can understand this; for to labour under constant discouragements, and in the presence of active enemies, is calculated to try the spirit, and to tempt us to abandon our service; especially when we have ceased to derive our strength and our motives to perseverance from communion with the mind of the Lord.

Two other dangers are indicated in verses 11, 12. The adversaries sought to keep the builders in a continual state of alarm by threatening a sudden onslaught, and thus to wear them out, as they had partially done in the case of Judah, by the strain of continual apprehension. The Jews, moreover, that "dwelt by them," those, that is, who were not inhabitants of Jerusalem, but were scattered through the land in the vicinity of their foes, these came, and assured the builders repeatedly — "ten times" — that danger was really impending, that their adversaries would certainly execute their threats. To sight, therefore, there was little, if anything, to encourage; but perils of every kind were hemming them in, threatening both the continuation of their work, and even their own lives.

If, however, the enemy was unwearying in his assaults, Nehemiah was not less untiring in his watchfulness and defence; and the rest of the chapter (vv. 13-23) gives us a most interesting and detailed account of the measures he adopted for the security of the people, for the progress of the work, and of the manner in which they builded. In the first place, he arranged for defence by setting "the people after their families, with their swords, their spears, and their bows, in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places." These were both duly ordered, and fully armed; for when Satan is in question we are powerless unless we are in the right place, and equipped with divine weapons. (cp. (Eph. 6: 10-17.) Thereupon Nehemiah inspirited the nobles, the rulers, and the rest of the people with words of exhortation. He said, "Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses." (v. 14.) The frequency of the exhortation, in the Scriptures, not to be afraid, addressed to God's people, shows how prone we are to yield to fear in the conflicts we are called upon to wage. It is both the first symptom of want of confidence in God, and the sure precursor of defeat if fear continue to possess our souls. Hence, when Israel went forth to battle in olden days, the proclamation had to be made, as in the case of Gideon's army, "What man is there that is fearful and fainthearted? Let him go and return unto his house, lest his brethren's heart faint as well as his heart." (Deut. 20: 8.) While, however, Nehemiah urged them not to fear, he supplied the antidote, "Remember the Lord," he says, "who is great and terrible." For he knew that if they but once apprehended the character and presence of God, if they brought Him in, by the exercise of faith, and measured the foe by what He was, they would  be filled with courage, and be able to say, "If God be for us, who can be against us?" He sought in this way to nerve their arm for the battle; and thus he continued: "But fight for your brethren," etc. If the battle was the Lord's, it was yet for all that was dearest to them in this world that they were to fight.

The effect of Nehemiah's vigilant and energetic activity and preparation for defence was to dishearten the foe. "Resist the devil, and he will flee from you," if but "for a season." The enemy heard that their plans had come to the knowledge of Nehemiah, and that God had thus frustrated their counsel; and they seem to have retreated for the moment, for the Jews were able to return all of them to the wall — every one to his work. In this way God responded to the faith of His devoted servant by baffling the adversary's designs. But Nehemiah was not ignorant of Satan's devices, and did not for a minute believe the danger was over. He knew too well his restless enmity to imagine that he had given up his designs against the Lord's people and the Lord's work; and while, therefore, the builders recommenced their labour, Nehemiah made effectual provision for defence in case of a sudden attack. His own servants, we read, he divided into two companies, the one of which builded, and the other "held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons." Then he placed the rulers behind all the house of Judah — evidently to encourage them to resistance if attacked by the foe. (v. 16.) Combining this with the description of the manner in which they builded — "every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded" — and with the other added details, some most interesting instruction may be gleaned.

First, and foremost, the several classes of labourers may be specified. There were some wholly devoted to the work. There were others who were entirely occupied with the weapons of warfare. (v. 16.) So is it in the church of God. Some of the Lord's servants are called, and specially qualified, for edification. They therefore occupy themselves with souls and with the assembly, labouring to build up themselves and others on their most holy faith, praying in the Holy Ghost, seeking to maintain the truth of the church amongst the saints, and caring for the holiness of the house of God. There are others who are called to conflict, who are quick to discern the assaults of the enemy upon the truth of God, and wise in the power of the Holy Spirit to meet them with the weapons of their warfare, which are not carnal, but mighty through God to the pulling down of strongholds, casting down imaginations and every high thing that exalteth itself against the knowledge of God, and bringing into captivity every thought to the obedience of Christ. (2 Cor. 10: 4, 5.) The builders, the burden-bearers, and those that laded, are also distinguished. (v. 17.) Every one had his appointed work, and all contributed to the same end. Happy is it for the people of God, as may once more be seen, when they perceive the special place for which they are qualified, and occupy it for the Lord. It is the forgetfulness of this truth that has in every age produced confusion in the church, and hence too much stress can never be laid on the importance of filling, and of being satisfied with filling, the place for which we have been divinely qualified. If burden-bearers — burden-bearers for others — let us not seek to be builders; and if builders, let us wait on our building. The Lord and not the servant appoints to the work and qualifies for it.

But whether builders, burden-bearers, or "those that laded," one feature characterized them all alike — "Every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon." This in itself reveals the character of the times in which they laboured. They were in fact perilous times — times, as we have seen, when the power of Satan was increasingly manifested in opposition to the people of God. These times were typical of that in which Jude laboured, especially when he wrote his epistle; for we find the same two things in him — the sword and the trowel. He found it necessary to contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints, and he also exhorted those to whom he wrote to build up themselves on their most holy faith. And this is also the character of the present day — the perilous times in which our lot is cast. We may, therefore, well learn from Nehemiah's builders, that the divine way of being prepared for the assaults of the enemy is, while we have our weapons of defence in one hand, or our swords girded on our thigh, to be diligently occupied in building. The danger is, when controversies arise through Satan's attacks upon the truth, of forgetting the need of souls — of ceasing to build, of being so occupied with the enemy as to overlook the necessity of diligent and persistent ministrations of Christ to sustain and nourish souls, and thus to enable them to repel the enemy's assaults. God's people cannot be fed, built -up, with controversies — a warning word, which cannot be too loudly sounded forth at the present moment. Our positive work, even when expecting and on the outlook for the enemy, is building; and the more earnestly we build, the more secure we shall be when the enemy delivers his assault. The weapons must be ready; but our work is to go on with the wall.

Then there was the trumpeter. "And he," says Nehemiah, "that sounded the trumpet was by me." (v. 18.) The use of the holy trumpets may be gathered from Numbers 10. It was for "the calling of the assembly, and for the journeying of the camps." Moreover, in times of war, "an alarm was to be blown — an alarm which not only assembled the people, but also came up before God, called Him in — so that they might be saved from their enemies. And it was a command, that only the priests should blow with the trumpets — only those who, from their nearness, had intelligence of, were in communion with, the Lord's mind. So here, he who sounded the trumpet was to be with Nehemiah; and, therefore, only to sound it at his master's bidding. It was for Nehemiah to discern the moment to sound, for the trumpeter to catch the first intimation of Nehemiah's mind and will. In like manner now, only those who are living in the enjoyment of their priestly privileges, in nearness to and in communion with the mind of Christ, know how to sound an alarm. To blow at their own will, or on their own apprehensions of danger, would only be to produce confusion, to call the builders away from their labours, and thus to do the work of the enemy. To be able to sound at the right moment, they must be with, and having their eye upon, their Lord.

Nehemiah, in the next place, gave the nobles, the rulers, and the rest of the people, directions concerning what they should do if they heard the sound of the trumpet. (vv. 19, 20.) Scattered, necessarily, in their labours, the moment the trumpet sounded they were to gather together around Nehemiah and the trumpeter. The Lord (if we speak of the spiritual instruction) was with him who had sounded the alarm. He had given the word, and the trumpeter had blown his trumpet; and to the testimony that had gone forth the people must gather. For the moment their labours must be suspended that they might assemble around the Lord and make common cause against the enemy. It would have been unfaithfulness, if the trumpet sounded, to continue in their work; for the Lord's mind for them at that moment would be defence, conflict, and not building. Some of the builders, as often happens, might feel that it was far happier work to build than to fight; but the only question for them would be, Had the trumpet sounded? If it had, it would be for them to obey the summons. This brings out another important feature. In all these arrangements one mind governs all. Nehemiah commands, and the part of the people, whether rulers, nobles, or the rest, was simply obedience. Thus it should ever be. The Lord — by His very title of Lord — claims the subjection of all His servants to His own will as expressed in the written word. Lastly, Nehemiah tells them, "Our God shall fight for us;" falling back, doubtless, in the exercise of faith, upon God's own word, to which we have alluded, in connection with the blowing of an alarm in the time of war, For if God called the people together for the defence of His cause, He would surely deliver them from the power of the foe. And with what courage should the assurance inspire us, that, if by His grace we are associated with God as against the enemy, we may confidently count upon His succour. It is a battle-cry — "Our God shall fight for us" — which will at the same time encourage His servants, and strike dismay into the heart of the adversary.

The chapter then concludes with three additional particulars. "So," that is, in this manner, says Nehemiah, "we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared." (v. 21.) They were thus ever on the alert, ready for the foe, and untiring in their service. They wrought while it was day, from early morning till late at night; for, as we have before seen, they had a mind to work. He also at the same time said unto the people, "Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that in the night they may be a guard to us, and labour on the day." (v. 22.) The day for labour and the night for watchfulness. Satan loves the darkness; it is the element in which he lives and moves, even as his followers love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil. (Eph. 6: 12; John 3: 19.) The servants of the Lord therefore should never cease to be watchful, but must make provision for the night as well as for the day, even as we read in the Canticles of the threescore valiant men who were about the bed, "which is Solomon's. . . . They all hold swords, being expert in war: every man hath his sword upon his thigh because of fear in the night." (Cant. 3: 7, 8.) We learn then, from this instruction of Nehemiah, that the place of safety was "within Jerusalem," behind the walls that were being built; and that those who were found within should labour in the day, and keep watch during the night.

Finally, Nehemiah says, "So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for washing." (v. 23.) This statement, it will be observed, is not made concerning all the people, only concerning Nehemiah, his brethren, and his personal following — servants, and men of the guard. He thus set a blessed example, in the circle of his own responsibility, of personal devotedness. He knew how to refuse himself, his own ease and comfort, in the Lord's service, to endure hardness as a good soldier. (2 Timothy 2: 3.) But he is careful to inform us that they put off their clothes to wash themselves; for those who are engaged in the Lord's work must not neglect personal defilements which would grieve the Holy Spirit, limit His power, and thus mar their usefulness. True it is the Lord's work — Ms blessed work in grace — to wash His people's feet; but self-judgment is the process through which He leads us, through the Spirit, to effect our cleansing; and for this purpose, we must "put off our clothes," everything that might conceal our condition from ourselves, that there may be no hindrance to the washing of water by the word.