Nehemiah 2 – Nehemiah’s Commission
A. Nehemiah the cupbearer.
1. (1-2) Nehemiah stands before the king.
And it came to pass in the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, that I took the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had never been sad in his presence before. Therefore the king said to me, “Why is your face sad, since you are not sick? This is nothing but sorrow of heart.” So I became dreadfully afraid,
a. I took the wine and gave it to the king: The last verse of Nehemiah 1 told us that Nehemiah was the king’s cupbearer – a significant position in any ancient royal court. The cupbearer was a personal bodyguard to the king, being the one who tasted wine and food before the king did – making certain no one could poison the king.
i. “The cupbearer was a high official in the royal household, whose basic duty of choosing and tasting the wine to demonstrate that it was not poisoned, and of presenting it to the king, gave him frequent access to the king’s presence and made him potentially a man of influence.” (Kidner)
ii. The king, therefore, had to have a tremendous amount of trust in his cupbearer, who had to be a man of faithful and impressive character. If the cupbearer could be turned against the king, assassination would be easy.
iii. The cupbearer also was a servant to the king; he was responsible for choosing most of the foods and wines the king and the court would enjoy.
iv. The cupbearer was also a trusted advisor to the king; since he was constantly in the king’s presence, and greatly trusted, and a man of character, it was natural the cupbearer would often be asked his opinion on different matters coming before the king.
b. In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes: As Nehemiah gave wine to the king, care was given to note the specific day the events in Nehemiah 2 began.
i. Why was it so important for God to tell the date these things happened? First, to show that Nehemiah prayed and waited for four months with the kind of heart described previously in Nehemiah 1. During those four month, Nehemiah’s prayer was likely “Lord, either take this burden from my heart or show me how to be the man to answer this burden.”
ii. The date is also important, because it establishes the date given to restore Jerusalem and its walls. Daniel 9:25 says that exactly 173,880 days from this day – which was March 14, 445 b.c. – Messiah the prince would be presented to Israel. Sir Robert Anderson, the eminent British astronomer and mathematician, makes a strong case that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy exactly, to the day, entering Jerusalem on April 6, 32 a.d., precisely 173,880 days from Nehemiah 2:1.
c. I had never been sad in his presence before: On that particular day, Nehemiah noted that he had never been sad or depressed in the presence of the king, and on this day when the king took notice, Nehemiah became dreadfully afraid. As was true in the courts of many ancient kings, it was forbidden to be sad in the presence of the king. The idea was that the king was such a wonderful person that merely being in his presence was supposed to make you forget all of your problems. When Nehemiah looked sad, it could have been taken as a terrible insult to the king.
i. When the king said “This is nothing but sorrow of heart,” Nehemiah knew the king had noticed his sadness, and that the king took it seriously. Nehemiah must have wondered if the next words from the king would be, “Off with his head!”
ii. Nehemiah was also afraid because he knew that he was going to the king for something very important. There was a lot riding on what was going to happen in response to this question.
iii. Nehemiah understood it was not his place to change the king’s heart. He prayed and left it up to the Lord, instead of dropping hints and trying to manipulate the situation. Then one day, four months later, the king’s heart was different. Are we making the mistake of trying to change someone else’s heart, instead of leaving it up to the Lord to do it?
2. (3) Nehemiah’s response.
And said to the king, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?”
a. May the king live forever! Nehemiah had probably said this many times before. This was probably almost a motto among professional cupbearers; since they tasted the wine and food before the king did, they naturally wished the king a good long life.
b. The city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire: With this, Nehemiah explained why he was sad. Jerusalem was a destroyed, disgraced city.
i. No one had to tell the king this was a disgraceful state of affairs; he would immediate sympathize with Nehemiah’s concern for the dignity, safety, and well-being of his people.
ii. We see also Nehemiah’s great tact and wisdom, because he tells of his concern without specifically mentioning the name of the city. The king would naturally have a bad association with the name “Jerusalem,” knowing from history it was a city rebellious against the Persians and resistant to their rule. Nehemiah gets the sympathy of the king on his side before he reveals the city!
c. Why should my face not be sad: Nehemiah’s answer was not only wise, it was honest. Often, when are we visibly depressed or troubled, and when someone asks us about it, we simply reply “Nothing’s wrong!” or “Oh, I’m O.K.” At those times, we aren’t honest.
i. Many people are troubled by this dilemma. No one wants to be a whiner, boring others with our problems when the other person may only be asking out of common courtesy. On the other hand, we know the tremendous value there can be in sharing our concerns with someone else who can pray with us and perhaps share some wisdom from the Bible.
ii. One way to live in this kind of honesty is to seek out others whom we know and trust, and sharing with them our struggles and needs. But if we don’t know a person well enough to feel confident sharing our personal life, we can still ask them to pray for us in general. They don’t need to know all the details to pray, because God knows all the details. Also, when someone asks if we are troubled, we can be open to the idea that this person is a special gift to us at this time.
iii. However, we must avoid two traps. First, we must avoid “shopping” for advice – asking many people, telling all of them our problems until we find the advice we want. Second, we must be especially careful of talking to others in a way that puts the problem on other people – people who aren’t there to give their side of the story. Nehemiah didn’t say to the king, “I’m sad because those incompetents in Jerusalem have had 100 years to build the walls and they haven’t done anything. They are a bunch of hardened, uncaring, worthless people.” He described the problem without putting anyone else to blame. When we fail to do this, there’s a word for it: gossip.
iv. When we are the person whom others ask for prayer or whom others come to for help, it is helpful to guard against the temptation to know every detail of the problem. Of course it is interesting to hear the details of others problems, but we do not need to know all the fine points. Our prayer is still valuable if we don’t know all the details. We are not less able to lead them to Jesus for His loving care. Some things need to be talked out more than others, but sometimes we want the other person to talk it out more for us than for them.
3. (4-8) Nehemiah’s request.
Then the king said to me, “What do you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor in your sight, I ask that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” Then the king said to me (the queen also sitting beside him), “How long will your journey be? And when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time. Furthermore I said to the king, “If it pleases the king, let letters be given to me for the governors of the region beyond the River, that they must permit me to pass through till I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he must give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel which pertains to the temple, for the city wall, and for the house that I will occupy.” And the king granted them to me according to the good hand of my God upon me.
a. What do you request? Right away, Nehemiah knew God gave him favor with the king. His response wasn’t “Off with his head!” but “What can I do to help?” Nehemiah knew that four months of prayer were answered.
b. So I prayed to the God of heaven: Knowing his prayer had been answered, Nehemiah prayed again. This was not a long, extended prayer (he could have said, “Well king, let me pray about it for a few days and then I’ll get back to you”). Instead, this was an immediate, silent, “Help me Lord!” prayer. Nehemiah knew this was an incredible opportunity, and he did not want to miss the chance.
i. It is wonderful to labor long in prayer; but prayer does not have to be long to be effective. This is especially true when the situation will not allow a long prayer.
c. I ask that you send me to Judah: Nehemiah again showed great wisdom as he respectfully asked for a leave of absence and to be sent (you send me) by the king. He asked the king to share his concern for Jerusalem and to become a partner in getting the city and its people back where they should be.
i. Nehemiah’s vision was also revealed: that I may rebuild it. That was a huge job and a big goal. Nehemiah isn’t going on a mere fact-finding expedition, or to tell the leaders of Jerusalem what a bad job they were doing. He goes to get the work done, trusting in God all the way!
ii. Again, Nehemiah shows wisdom by referring to Jerusalem without specifically mentioning the city (send me to Judah, to the city of my father’s tombs). Although, we can also say that Nehemiah is not being deceptive. Though Jerusalem might have historically been a rebellious city to Persia, it isn’t any longer – and will not be.
d. It pleased the king to send me: Nehemiah’s sympathetic heart, his months of prayer, his moment of prayer, his great faith, his big vision, and his wise responses were all answered positively. The king was enthusiastic about supporting Nehemiah in this venture.
e. I set him a time: As a capable leader, Nehemiah clearly had a plan. The four months in prayer were not only spent in talking to God, but also in listening to Him and in working out a Spirit-led plan for what to do when God did open the door.
i. Nehemiah knew how long he would need to be gone (I set him a time). He knew he would need letters of safe passage from the king (let letters be given to me). He knew what kind of materials would be needed (timber). He knew what work needed to be done (the gates of the citadel . . . the city wall . . . the house I will occupy). Nehemiah knew all of this without ever having seen for himself the condition of Jerusalem before! Nehemiah knew the needs by carefully and patiently seeking God.
ii. Nehemiah had a plan, and God always works through a plan. The Lord our God is a planning God: The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the plans of His heart to all generations. (Psalm 33:11). From the beginning of the plan of salvation in eternity past, God has a plan and is working it out.
iii. Sometimes it may seem that God blesses a lack of planning, and sometimes it seems God does a blessed work completely different from what we have planned. But in every case, God works through planning – if not our planning, then His planning. But as a general principle, God wants to train us up into the work of being planners, just as He is a planner.
iv. The plans of the diligent lead surely to plenty, but those of everyone who is hasty, surely to poverty. (Proverbs 21:5) Faith is no substitute for planning. We aren’t more spiritual for failing to plan and for shooting from the hip. There may be sometimes when we simply can’t plan, but we should never reject planning.
f. He must give me timber: Nehemiah was also a bold man, not afraid to ask others to help when he knew they had the resources to help. Once the king was willing to be a part of Nehemiah’s goal (it pleased the king to send me), he went right on to ask for an official seal of approval on the project (letters . . . for the governors) and for the king to finance the project (that he must give me timber).
i. Nehemiah didn’t ask because he wanted to take advantage of the king. Instead, he showed honor and respect to the king by inviting him to participate in a worthy work. He knew the king was able to provide these things; he sensed the king’s heart was willing, and so he shows the king how he can do what his willing heart wants to do!
g. And the king granted them to me according to the good hand of my God upon me: Though this was a pagan king, Nehemiah still understood that God could work through him in a mighty way. God can provide for our needs in totally unexpected or unlikely ways.
B. Nehemiah comes to Jerusalem.
1. (9-10) Arrival and opposition.
Then I went to the governors in the region beyond the River, and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me. When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard of it, they were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel.
a. Then I went: This is another example of Nehemiah’s godly leadership. He actually went – he traveled the 800 miles from Persia to Jerusalem to do the work of rebuilding the walls and the people.
i. Many people have a heart touched like Nehemiah’s. They may also have the heart for prayer, the wisdom, the vision, the plan and the faith of a Nehemiah – but they stop short of actually going out and doing what needs to be done for the goal to become a reality.
ii. Sometimes we substitute talking about something for actually doing it. It is one thing to stand around with other believers and talk about doing some evangelism; praying about it, planning it, talking about it – it is another thing to actually go out and do it. God is in the doing of the thing.
iii. Our spiritual enemies don’t mind as long as all we do is plan and pray and talk; but when God’s people start doing something, they take notice.
b. Beyond the River: This means “beyond the Euphrates River,” an important landmark that separated one region from another. Once a traveler crossed the river, they were on the road to the region of Judea and the city of Jerusalem. At this point Nehemiah spoke to the governors of this region who ruled under the Persians.
c. Gave them the king’s letters: Nehemiah came prepared. He had letters showing he was truly sent by the king. He had captains of the army and horsemen with him. He also had substantial supplies of lumber from the king’s forest. Truly, the king of Persia had responded to Nehemiah’s invitation to become a partner in the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.
d. Sanballat the Horonite . . . Tobiah the Ammonite: At the governor’s station, Nehemiah met these two enemies of Jerusalem and anyone who cared for the welfare of the city. They were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel.
i. These two cared nothing as long as Jerusalem was weak and vulnerable; even though the temple was there, and worship conducted, that was fine – as long as the people of God were not strong, secure, and free from stress.
ii. Notice when this opposition came: not at the heart stage, not at the vision stage, not at the prayer stage, not at the planning stage, but when progress came in doing something.
iii. Some people fear ever stepping out for the Lord, because they know opposition will come. They somehow think their life will be better or easier if they stay in their low, mediocre state before God. What deception! A better life from holding back for Jesus Christ? Tough times are going to come anyway; but when we are growing and stepping forth in the Lord, we are far more equipped to deal with them.
2. (11-16) Nehemiah makes a secret tour of Jerusalem and her walls.
So I came to Jerusalem and was there three days. Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me; I told no one what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem; nor was there any animal with me, except the one on which I rode. And I went out by night through the Valley Gate to the Serpent Well and the Refuse Gate, and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were burned with fire. Then I went on to the Fountain Gate and to the King’s Pool, but there was no room for the animal under me to pass. So I went up in the night by the valley, and viewed the wall; then I turned back and entered by the Valley Gate, and so returned. And the officials did not know where I had gone or what I had done; I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, or the others who did the work.
a. So I came to Jerusalem: After being in Jerusalem three days, Nehemiah still did not tell anyone why he is there and what God has put on his heart: I told no one what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem.
i. When Nehemiah entered Jerusalem with a military escort and lumber from the king of Persia’s forest, people would notice him – but he didn’t say anything about his mission until the time was right. Good leaders learn a sense of God’s timing.
ii. Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, full of heart, full of prayer, full of faith, full of wisdom, full of a big vision, full of support from the king, and finally gets to his destination – and he did nothing for three days.
iii. I told no one: “It is good to have Christian friends, but it is dangerous to wear your heart on your sleeve. Have a secret place somewhere which nobody knows anything about but you and God.” (Redpath).
iv. “You will often find it best not to commit your plans to others. If you want to serve God, go and do it, and then let other people find it out afterwards. You have no need to tell what you are going to do, and, I may add, there is no need for you retelling what you have done, for very, very frequently God withdraws himself when we boast of what is being done.” (Spurgeon).
b. I went out by night through the Valley Gate: It seems that Nehemiah set out from the west side of the city, and turned left towards the south, continuing counter-clockwise around the rubble of the city walls, until coming back to his starting point.
c. And viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were burned with fire: Nehemiah wasn’t just sightseeing. Instead, he carefully studied the broken down walls and the burned gates. The word viewed in Nehemiah 2:13 and 2:15 is a medical term for “probing a wound to see the extent of its damage.”
i. For the first time, Nehemiah saw with his eyes what had been reported to him, and what God had called him to repair. There is no way he could have made this tour with a dry eye, knowing the extent of the damage and the fear, poverty, and insecurity the broken walls meant in the lives of the people.
d. The walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were burned with fire: Nehemiah knew the job of rebuilding the walls couldn’t go forth unless he saw exactly how bad the situation was.
i. Nehemiah could have focused on all that was right with Jerusalem. They were back in Judah and, the forced exile was over. The temple was built. Sacrifice and worship were conducted. Progress was being made, slow as it was. There was much to be thankful for in Jerusalem – but sometimes, one must look at what is wrong, and that is what Nehemiah did.
ii. We deceive ourselves if we only look to what is good. Some have no trouble with this; they always find it easy to see what is wrong. They are full of criticism. They believe they have the unique spiritual gift of pointing out what is wrong. But Nehemiah teaches us by example – we must look at the broken down towers, and carefully study what is wrong – but only if we have the heart, the prayer, the vision, the passion to be used of God to set it right. There is little use in the Kingdom of God for sideline critics, back seat drivers, and Monday morning quarterbacks.
iii. But with the right hearts – hearts ready to act – we have to take an honest look. “It is utter folly to refuse to believe that things are as bad as they really are. It is vital in any undertaking for God to know the worst, for whenever there is to be a wonderful movement of the Holy Spirit, it begins with someone like Nehemiah who was bold enough to look at facts, to diagnose them, and then to rise to the task.” (Redpath)
iv. When we look at other Christians around us, we see that many are strong, joyful, growing, in their relationship with Jesus Christ. Many have victory over sin and we are thankful for that. But you can also see the figurative walls in their life and see some broken down portions. Some among us are desperately hurting or are trapped in a cycle of sin and want to get out, but don’t know how to ask for help. Some feel like they are on the outside looking in. Some respect God, but haven’t yet given their lives to Jesus Christ. God can, and will, build up all the broken down portions of these figurative walls.
v. When we take a look at our children, we know that we love them and we care for them. But when we look at them honestly we see their weaknesses of character and the areas where they fall short. We soberly consider what will become of them if those weaknesses dominate their entire personality. We consider what will happen if they grow up rejecting Jesus, and of their future ruin unless God uses us to train and nurture their character.
vi. In the same way, when we look at our business, our relationships, our friendships, we should take an honest look, and not only look at what is pretty.
vii. When we look at the church, we love the church and are thankful for what God does here. But when we look honestly, we are probably not satisfied with the impact we have made on this community. We cannot say that it is enough or that there should not be far more. We think of the financial support and the outreach and the spread of the Word of God through the church, and yet know that it could be more and that the ministry could go out further and broader.
viii. If someone took a tour of your life the same way Nehemiah took a tour of Jerusalem they might notice many broken down portions in the figurative walls of your life. Proverbs 25:28 says: Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls. Many lives are like a city with broken walls – living with a constant sense of fear, poverty, and insecurity. We should not hide our eyes from these broken down places; God wants to change them, and make the first steps of change right away.
e. The walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which were burned with fire: As much as anything, Nehemiah took time to count the cost before starting the work. He has a heart, he has faith, he has a vision – but before that vision can become a reality, he has to see exactly what has to be done, and what it will cost – in terms of time, effort, money, and leadership.
3. (17-18) Nehemiah meets with the leaders of Jerusalem.
Then I said to them, “You see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire. Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer be a reproach.” And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me, and also of the king’s words that he had spoken to me. So they said, “Let us rise up and build.” Then they set their hands to this good work.
a. You see the distress that we are in: The citizens and leaders of Jerusalem were not sitting around waiting for a superman to come along and rebuild their walls. In all probability, they had come to accept that it was an impossible job. It seemed that no one could fix a 100 year-old problem. Years ago, when someone tried, enemies simply stopped them. So they lived with it.
b. Then I said to them: Now, when Nehemiah came and explained his vision for the rebuilding of the walls to the leaders of the city, there was a tremendous amount of importance attached to the meeting. Nehemiah could not do the job by himself, and he was in a lot of trouble if leaders didn’t support him.
i. No doubt this was something Nehemiah prayed about a lot. He might have prayed something like this, “O Lord, prepare the hearts of the leaders of Jerusalem to support this work You have called me to. Let them see I do not come condemning or criticizing them, only to help. Give me the right words to say, and speak to them ahead of time about this work You have called me to.”
c. The distress that we are in: Nehemiah wisely approached the leaders of Jerusalem. He had to. In the accomplishment of any vision or goal – or at least of a God-sized vision or goal, there will be certain people essential to accomplishing the goal – you must have their help. Nehemiah’s wise approach gives us an example to follow.
· Wisely, Nehemiah asked them to notice the obvious: You see the distress; sometimes, the obvious is the hardest to see.
· Wisely, Nehemiah did not come as if he was there to fix their problem: the distress that we are in. Nehemiah owned the problem as his also, even though he might not have. Nehemiah didn’t play the blame game. He didn’t criticize the leaders of Jerusalem. He simply identified right along with them regarding the problem.
· Wisely, Nehemiah asked for their partnership: Come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem. Nehemiah figured if God could move upon the heart of a pagan king to partner in this work, He certainly could move upon the hearts of His own people to join in! Nehemiah wasn’t there to do it for them, but to partner with them in the job of restoring Jerusalem and its people.
· Wisely, Nehemiah pointed them to the result: that we may no longer be a reproach. This wasn’t really about bricks and mortar; it was about removing a condition of shame, fear, poverty, and insecurity among God’s people. The hard work involving bricks and mortar would be worth it, because it would have real spiritual impact in both individuals and the community. When David saw Goliath and was outraged that this monster was casting disgrace on the people of God, he simply said, “Is there not a cause?” (1 Samuel 17:29). Everyone else was self-focused and figuring the odds, and David said, “let’s get the job done. I’m willing for God to use me to do it.”
· Wisely, Nehemiah encouraged them in the Lord: I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me. Nehemiah assured the leaders this wasn’t his project, it was God’s project. If people sense your vision is really all about you, and raising you up, and making you great, they will rightly be hesitant. But if it is from God, and they can see it, they will be thrilled to partner with you.
· Wisely, Nehemiah gave them confidence by telling of what God had already done: I told them . . . of the king’s words that he had spoken to me. Nehemiah could say, “Look, you can know this is of God; the heart of the king of Persia has been touched by the Lord to support this project!” If something has God’s fingerprints on it, people will want to support it; if it has only man’s fingerprints on it, they will rightly hesitate.
d. And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me: We also notice what Nehemiah didn’t do; he didn’t beg or make deals. Nehemiah had a high calling from God, and asked others to be part of that vision, but he never stopped treating it like a high calling. He wasn’t going to be a carnival barker trying to manipulate people into knocking over milk bottles even when they really didn’t want to do it.
i. Nehemiah didn’t offer rewards, incentives, or vacations out at the Sea of Galilee for the ones who got the job done. Those are all external motivations, and aren’t God’s highest calling. Nehemiah simply said, “Let’s stop kidding around. We know there’s a job to be done, and God is leading us to get it done now.” He relied on the Lord and the leaders to create a true inward motivation. External motivation – manipulation, guilt, pressure, carnal rewards can work for a while, but are never a part of God’s vision for getting things done.
e. Let us rise up and build: This response of the leaders of Jerusalem was of God. They said, “Yes, Nehemiah, we’re with you!” This was all the more remarkable considering the ways they might have responded – ways we might respond when we are challenged to partner in a work.
· They might have denied the need for the walls. “You know, we have gotten along without those walls for a hundred years now! After all, we already have the temple!” But we want to do far more than simply “get along.” God has more for us, and now is the time to enter in.
· They might have seen the project as too much work. “Well Nehemiah, it’s a fine work, and we hope it goes well for you. Don’t think we can help you now.” But we are willing to pay the price for something that is truly of God.
· They might have seen the opposition as too strong. “Nehemiah, why even start? We tried before and our enemies stopped us. It will just happen again.” But we have more faith than that.
f. Then they set their hands to do this good work: This shows God’s hand at work here. Nehemiah’s heart, his prayer, his boldness, his big vision, his action, and his wisdom, were all rewarded. This was a God-inspired thing; God moved the hearts of the leaders to do this.
i. We know that Nehemiah was a great leader because people followed him. The people he was meant to lead were genuinely influenced by his leadership.
4. (19) The opposition rises in response to the work of God.
But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they laughed at us and despised us, and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Will you rebel against the king?”
a. But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard of it: Things had been going extraordinarily well, so we are not surprised that opposition came up again. Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official both came to oppose the work.
i. Spiritual opposition to the work God wants to accomplish is a reality many Christians fail to take account of, and are thus defeated in what God would what them to do.
ii. The Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, took on humanity to experience spiritual warfare even as you do; He knows what it is to be under attack, how to break through to victory, and so He knows how to lead His people to victory.
b. Sanballat . . . Tobiah: These two first surfaced in Nehemiah 2:10; they were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel. They had previously made their opinion known; now they will seek to do something about the progress Nehemiah is making.
i. Tobiah (a Jewish name) was a man of influence, being associated with the high priest’s family, and getting help from the priests (Nehemiah 13:4). “Tobiah” was a prominent name in priestly families for generations to come. The name “Tobiah” means “Yahweh is good” – a strange name for a man who was an opponent of the work of God.
ii. Sanballat was connected by marriage to priestly families (Nehemiah 13:28). An ancient document from this period refers to Sanballat as “governor of Samaria.” (Kidner)
iii. These men were Jews – were fellow brothers – of Nehemiah and the citizens of Jerusalem. We might have thought they would have supported his work, but they do not. Opposition is always difficult; but when it comes from brothers, it is then mixed with the pain of betrayal as well.
iv. The Bible makes it clear we have enemies and opponents also, but chiefly they are spiritual enemies: For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against . . . spiritual armies of wickedness in heavenly places (Ephesians 6:12). However, we also realize that attacks from spiritual enemies can come through flesh-and-blood people (Matthew 16:23). We can experience spiritual attack on a direct inward level from spiritual enemies, or through people who are, wittingly or unwittingly, being used as tools by our spiritual enemies.
c. They laughed us to scorn: Sanballat and Tobiah used scorn in their attack. They wanted Nehemiah to feel mocked, stupid, and foolish. They laughed us to scorn shows that they showed their spite (and despised us) with a humorous edge.
i. This scorn may come to us in an inward feeling (“Who am I trying to kid? I must be some kind of fool!”). Or it may come through the words of those who, if they know it or not, are being used by our spiritual enemies.
ii. Many are turned away from God’s will because they experience or fear scorn. Men who were not afraid of death have been manipulated because they did not want to be laughed at. It seems that sooner or later, God will allow every Christian to be tested at this point; as to whom they regard more, man or God. We must never be more concerned about what people may say about us than what God requires of us.
iii. The way that Sanballat and Tobiah used laughter and scorn as weapons against the work of God should also make us reflect on our own use of humor. Some Christians who are otherwise well-meaning are tools of the enemy, all for the sake of a few laughs.
d. Will you rebel against the king? This shows that Sanballat and Tobiah had a low view of God’s authority. Their question showed that they figured the king of Persia was the highest authority in the land.
i. First, they were completely ignorant. They didn’t know what they spoke about. The king had given permission, even if they didn’t know it. The king was partner in the work. Many times, those who are being used by our spiritual enemies against us simply don’t know what they are talking about.
ii. Second, they were not concerned with God’s authority. Really, it did not matter if the King of Persia was against this work, if the God of heaven and earth was for it. One with God makes a majority. Nehemiah could have turned the question back on them: Will you rebel against the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?
5. (20) Nehemiah’s answer to his opponents.
So I answered them, and said to them, “The God of heaven Himself will prosper us; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem.”
a. So I answered them: Nehemiah ignored their scorn. His bold, straightforward words showed he had not been put on the defensive by their mocking, scornful attack.
i. When faced with the choice of pleasing man or pleasing God, Nehemiah knew exactly what he would do. Let them mock – he would serve the Lord.
b. And said to them: Nehemiah did not give a point-by-point reply. He did not show the document proving the king’s support of the project. If he did, Sanballat and Tobiah would have just claimed it was a forgery, or would have come up with another objection. Nehemiah knew that hearts that refuse to be convinced will never be convinced.
c. The God of heaven Himself will prosper us: Nehemiah instead proclaimed his confidence in God. “It doesn’t matter if you are against us. God’s work will succeed.”
i. Nehemiah didn’t put the work on hold while a crisis response team figured out the best way to answer Sanballat and Tobiah. He wasn’t going to let them sidetrack him. He had a work to do and he was going to do it. If you allow your enemies to get you to stop what you should be doing and give all your attention to them, then your enemies have won.
ii. There is a touch of holy boldness in Nehemiah’s response. “Go ahead and take your best shot. It won’t work. God is with us. He isn’t with you. You will fail. We will prosper under the hand of the God of heaven!”
d. We His servants . . . will arise and build: Nehemiah proclaimed who he was and what he would do.
i. Nehemiah and his followers were servants of God. Sanballat and Tobiah felt confident because they were servants of the king; but Nehemiah is a servant of God.
ii. Nehemiah and his followers had a job to do. Not for a moment did he say, “Gee, maybe this isn’t God’s will!” They had agreed to rise up and build (Nehemiah 2:18), and they will do it.
iii. In facing our enemies, we must always keep focus on who we are and what we should do. Failure to see these will always lead to defeat. These are exactly the things our spiritual enemies want us to forget! And sometimes, you just have to proclaim it!
e. You have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem: Nehemiah proclaimed the truth about his enemies. They may have been Jews by birth; they may have been legal citizens of Jerusalem; they may have owned property in the city. But their hearts showed they had no heritage or right or memorial in God’s city.
i. Nehemiah sized these two up more quickly than we often do. He knew they weren’t for him or for Jerusalem, or for God at all – though they may have claimed to be. It was as if Nehemiah said, “You don’t belong here. God’s doing a great work here, and you don’t want to be part of it. Just move on.”
ii. We can say the same to our spiritual enemies: “You have no heritage or right or memorial in me. I belong to Jesus Christ. You don’t belong here. You may as well move on because I’m not going anywhere.”
iii. This opposition did not immediately melt away. We often wish that if we did everything right as Nehemiah did here, then the opposition would just go away. But it didn’t. These two opposed the work all they way until it was finished. But they didn’t stop it. God’s work got done, and they were proved completely wrong.
© 2006 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission