Today we return to our series on the book of Nehemiah. I ask you to open your Bibles to Nehemiah 6 and follow along.
In chapter 5, you will remember, we saw that a great wrong among God’s people was corrected by Nehemiah—the wrong of wealthy brethren oppressing the poor families of Israel and showing an utter lack of compassion in the love of God. Nehemiah firmly corrected this: “Ought ye not to walk in the fear of God? Ought not the presence of God so work in you that you have compassion towards your brethren?”
Now, as we come to chapter 6, we see that Nehemiah, no sooner than resolving a problem within the walls of Jerusalem, must now turn again and face renewed opposition from those who stood outside of the walls—this time opposition that will be directed against him personally.
We read in verse 1 of chapter 6 that the enemies saw that the wall was being builded and there was no breach left therein. They have come to understand that threats of physical force will no longer be effective and that their slanders and trash-talk before the workers were not working. If the work, therefore, is to cease, they knew that they must act now against Nehemiah. They must get him out of the way, they must undermine him. If the leader topples, if the leader is discredited, the work will have no eyes and the work will have no force.
What is so instructive for us in Scripture is that it tells us plainly that the intention of the enemies was against Nehemiah and that they had this plot against Nehemiah (v. 9) in order that “their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done.” The enemies aimed at creating in the workers an inward weakening of resolve and heart, to wear them down with discouragement.
“Their hands shall be weakened from the work.” This is similar to the apostle’s warning in Galatians 6:9, where he tells us that in the work of the church and kingdom we must not “be weary in well doing,” we must not be gripped by hopelessness. We must not say, “What’s the use? Why are we doing all of this? It’s too much. There’s too much opposition. No one appreciates it. I’m throwing in the towel!” I would define discouragement in the work of the Lord in this way: the plot of the devil and our flesh to use the difficulties of our calling, whether that calling be in marriage, job, home, church, or personal life, to get us to look out at the difficulties and then in at ourselves—but not up. It is the plot to get us to look out at the humanly insurmountable obstacles that are contrary to God’s promises, indeed to have us make a list of these impossibilities and for us to conclude that in the face of such opposition it is simply impossible to continue. Then to have us look inside of ourselves: “I have no more strength. I’m used up. I can’t go on. I can’t put up with this anymore in this marriage, in this church, in this work. I’m done.” To have us sink into self-pity and go off and pout and stew.
In this chapter we will learn that Nehemiah did indeed look out at the problems. He did indeed look inside of himself. But then he looked up. He says, “O God, strengthen my hands.” In terms of the full gospel that Nehemiah at that time did not have but we do, we must have faith in the ascended Lord Jesus Christ, who has the victory and who works through us His work. We must pray, “O God, strengthen my hands.”
In this chapter we read that there were four devious plots hatched by the enemies against Nehemiah.
The first: to kidnap Nehemiah. You will find that in verses 1-4. To remove him permanently. Sanballat and Geshem tried to lure Nehemiah out of the city, as they see that the work on the walls was nearing completion and that the workers were about to hang the doors of the gates. They say to Nehemiah, “Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono.” Ono is the valley of craftsmen. Perhaps they tried to lure Nehemiah there by suggesting that in Ono he could receive some valuable help for the hanging of the gates of the walls of Jerusalem. But the point is, it was outside of the province where Nehemiah had jurisdiction. In Jerusalem Nehemiah was guarded. Men stood before him, his brethren, with swords. His enemies now say to him, “Come, let us counsel together.” They begin to wave an apparent olive-branch. “Let’s talk things over. Let’s discuss our common interests. Let’s try to come to an understanding here.”
But Nehemiah says, “They thought to do me mischief.” His response is in verse 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?”
I love that answer of Nehemiah. We ought to use it often when we are tempted to leave the path of duty and the service of God. Nehemiah is here very discerning, something that God gives through prayer. He understands the intent of their offer.
Do you? Do you, through prayer, understand the intent of the apparently innocent invitations: “You’re attractive. How about dinner Friday night?” “We’re having a party, a little bit of beer. Hey, come on over and we’ll watch some videos.” “Let’s discuss sexual behavior. Let’s discuss abortion. Let’s discuss euthanasia.” Often, under the guise of openness, the devil seeks to lure us away.
Nehemiah responded: “I am doing a great work.” That is what I love about it. “I’m captivated by this work. And my emotions and my love are all channeled into it, so that I don’t have the time of day for such an interruption. It’s a great work. It’s part of God’s work. It is the work for His name, truth, people, and cause. I love that work and it gobbles up anything else in its presence.”
And we read in verse 4, “Yet they sent unto me four times after this sort,” four times they sent this apparently innocent appeal. And four times Nehemiah responds after the same manner: “I’m doing a great work. I do not have time to go to talk to you.”
The second plot was the wicked attempt to slander Nehemiah, verses 5-9, to make him afraid of the gossip and the common opinion of what others would think about him. We read that, in an open letter, Sanballat writes to Nehemiah of the common gossip reported among the heathen, verified by this man called Gashmu, who, Sanballat says, is a reliable source, “that it is the common opinion that what you are doing comes down to sedition—that many people think you are simply rebelling against the king of Persia—that you want to set yourself up as a king and that you have sent out heralds to sway the masses toward you. And what will happen if these reports reach the ears of the king of Persia—that his cupbearer is behaving in such a manner? You know, Nehemiah, you might not think there is much to these rumors, but there’s never smoke without fire. Come now, therefore, let us take counsel together. I’m speaking as your friend, Nehemiah. We had better get together to discuss what we can do about these attempts to ruin your reputation.”
Nehemiah understood that Sanballat said this “to make me afraid.” The tactics were obvious. We have all seen this and we are all susceptible to this. The desire to play on what people think about us—the very tool of the devil: “Do you know what they say? I think you should know what they say. Maybe it will affect your course of action. You and I need to do something to make you more credible, more believable.” The fear of suspicion. The attempt to defend ourselves in the forum of rumor and gossip.
Nehemiah’s response we read in verse 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.” Nehemiah refused to be deflected, to be belittled, to be embittered. He does not say, “All right. Let’s bring everything out into the open. Let’s trace the source of this scandal. Let’s demand that unjust accusations be removed.” But he responds: “It’s not true. You are fabricating it to make me afraid. And it’s not going to work.”
And he prayed, “Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands.” That is instructive. It is not easy to handle unjust accusations. Nehemiah is the object of a smear campaign, of slander. But here Scripture is teaching us several things. First, when you are in such situations, go to God in prayer. Nehemiah sought to maintain integrity there before God. God knows the truth. That is all that matters in the end. Second, he does not descend into the court of rumor. He will not fight fire with fire. He does not seek desperately to clear himself in the court of rumor. If his conscience is clear, he will proceed with his God-given duties. And, thirdly, he knew the motive of all of this: to get the work to stop. What tool is more effective in the arsenal of the devil than this one: rumor? To cause stoppage of the Lord’s work. To cause stoppage through the tongue of gossip and rumor.
The third plot was to discredit him, to get him to disqualify himself by committing a grievous indiscretion. You read of that in verses 10-14. Nehemiah had a friend, Shemaiah, a prophet, who was shut up (that is, confined to his house in meditation). Nehemiah wanted to go to his house. And we can understand why—he was in need of spiritual strengthening. As any other man, Nehemiah sought encouragement. But it soon became plain that Shemaiah the prophet, his friend, had been bought by the enemies Sanballat and Tobiah. They had hired, bribed him. He had his price and they found it, along with most of the rest of the prophets.
We read that Shemaiah the prophet said, “Nehemiah, it’s too dangerous to meet at my house. They will come to slay thee. It’s too private. It’s too exposed. It’s too risky. We need to meet in the temple. We will be safe there to talk. We can shut the doors and they won’t dare to follow you into the temple.”
Now that sounded so plausible. But Nehemiah discerned the falseness. We read in verse 12: “And, lo, I perceived that God had not sent him.” Why? Because only priests were given free access to the temple. For Nehemiah to go into that temple unannounced, unsanctioned, would be for him to commit ritual trespass and therefore to discredit him, to make him guilty of violating something important in the ceremonial law. In the Old Testament you will find that those who were in terror, who were desperate, who were hopeless in fear, ran into the temple thinking that they would find refuge there. It would be, for Nehemiah, to broadcast that he was scared out of his wits and was willing to commit a ritual trespass.
Nehemiah’s answer (v. 11): “Should such a man as I flee? And who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.” He was thinking of his position among the people of God, his responsibility. “Shall I do that? Should I go in and do this? No, I will not.”
The fourth attempt was to undermine him and sway his judgments. We read that in those days (eight weeks of wall-building, that is) the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah. And letters of Tobiah had come to them. During those two months Tobiah, that false religious leader and opponent of the walls, had been busy laying down a network of covert operators to infiltrate the camp of Nehemiah, to learn of Nehemiah’s plans and also to attempt to influence Nehemiah to have his milder views adopted. Tobiah had carried on correspondence with the nobles of Judah, courting their favor, holding out economic gains through alliances, and asking to be kept informed of what Nehemiah was doing. When Tobiah had sought to worm his way in close through marriage to one of these nobles’ daughters, these two (the two married ones) would attempt to soften up Nehemiah. They would say to Nehemiah, “You know, Tobiah is really not such a bad guy.” And they would tell Tobiah everything that Nehemiah was saying.
So, through money, and through marriage, the enemy sought to infiltrate God’s people.
Nehemiah, nevertheless, in the face of all of these plots to ensnare him, stood strong in his faith. He did not sink into despair, but he found grace to continue in the work of the Lord.
As amazing as it sounds, the work continued. We read in verse 15, “So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days.” Nehemiah found strength, not to stop the opposition, but to press on and to continue the work. Where did he receive this strength? He received it in prayer. As we come to know Nehemiah, we expect this of him. He was a man who was much in prayer. “O God,” he prayed, “strengthen my hands.” Persistent, fervent, daily prayer was the way that Nehemiah remained strong and clear-minded and able-hearted to continue in the work of the Lord.
Are you weary? Are you fearful? Are you ready to hang it all up in the work of the Lord, in your marriage, in the church, or wherever your calling is: as a pastor or whatever? Prayer makes hands strong for the labor of the kingdom.
Pray that God strengthen our hands by our laying hold of the righteousness that is in Jesus Christ, of the victory that is ours in Christ, that in Christ we are clear in the court of heaven and that God pronounces us justified. What then of the rumors of men? The victory is ours in Christ. We labor in His name. If through the perfect work of my Lord I am bound eternally to God whose mercies cannot fail, then I can endure the treachery even of supposed friends. If I know that through Christ my soul is secure eternally, do I need to fear men’s plots against me?
Not only was it prayer, but it was also the conviction that God was working in him. I find that in verse 16. There we read, “And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof [namely, that the walls were completed], and that all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God.” That is very important. The heathen picked up on something that Nehemiah knew. They saw clearly that the strength behind this work was God’s. They did not like it. It grieved them. It made them cast down. It made them depressed—because deeply they knew that opposition to this God was futile. They had to recognize that the cause of God’s people is propelled by a power from a different world—from God. That is why the heathen, the world of unbelief, is, at bottom, fatalistic. Oh, yes, they are. The world of unbelief and all the causes of sin and all the causes of this world apart from God, in all their boastful, optimistic desires to advance their kingdom, are at bottom fatalistic. Satan’s kingdom is a fatalistic kingdom. They know that opposition to our God is futile.
But this is the knowledge that invigorates us. This is the knowledge that picks us up. The work is the work of God in us. Great builders in the kingdom of God are conscious of this. The apostle Paul (Col. 1:29): “Whereunto I labor, striving according to his working which worketh in me mightily.” Are you serious about God’s work, about building walls, the walls of truth and righteousness and glory to God in the church and in the home and the marriage and in your own personal life? Do you experience moments when all seems to cave in, when all there is is discouragement? You say, “How in the world can this prosper?” Look up then to God in prayer, to Him who sits upon the throne and see almighty God in Jesus Christ who works and no man shall prevent it. I am strong when I know that God will accomplish His work in me and that nothing can prevent it.
Then let us learn that the enemy of the work of God is subtle. The plots laid down by Sanballat and Tobiah were clever, persistent, and cunning. Behind them stands a far more evil foe, an enemy to whom men like Sanballat and Tobiah are mere pawns in his hands. The devil wages unceasing war to frustrate God’s work, to weaken our hands, to get us to stop the Christian life. This is the way he works—the same way that he worked on Nehemiah—one plot under way and another plot under way and another plot under way—all to bring us down to discouragement, all to have us believe that the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, the cause of the Christian church, the cause of the Christian life are in vain. He seeks to get you down to his ground.
He might say first, “Oh come, let us counsel together. Come out of the church. Come out of your family. Come out of a life of obedience. I’m not so dangerous.” If you withstand him, by the grace of God, you will find him to be persistent.
He will say, “There are some rumors that are going on around you Christians. Do you know that? I’m just telling you this in your best interest,” the devil will say. “It’s been reported to the child-protection agency that you are abusive to your children. It’s been reported that this theology, this Calvinism, is a radical, exclusivistic, hate-centered, bigoted religion. Now, let’s get together,” says the devil, “and let’s talk about this, how we can, perhaps, repackage this doctrine of Calvinism, this glory of God, to make it more palatable in our present situation.”
And if you withstand that, then he will say, “You know, you have been under a lot of stress. It will be OK for you to set aside the law of your God for a little bit. Everybody will understand that Christians too can, under pressure, commit indiscretion.” The devil is a master of manipulation. Let us stand fast. Let us look to the grace of God, which is all-sufficient. Let us believe that our God will be our strength, that the forces against the work of Christ are defeated.
No, we do not underestimate those forces. But they are defeated, for the grace of our God is sufficient. Because the cause that we represent in the church, in the home, in marriage, and in the Christian life is not ours. It is not our cause. It is God’s. And it is about His honor. Therefore He promises that all that comes against you will not destroy you. And you will experience sufficient grace, strength for today, bright hope for tomorrow. And you will see the wall of the kingdom of God built.
Let us pray.
Father, thanks for the Word. Sanctify it to our hearts today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.