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Nehemiah 4:1-23

Opposition from the Enemy

 The congregation was not certain that the new pastor could do all that the previous, older pastor had done. The Pastor Search Committee decided to put him to the test. After services, everyone went out to the local lake for a picnic. After loading all of the picnic supplies into a large boat, the congregation climbed aboard and began to cross the lake to an island. Halfway across the lake a member stood up and said, "Oh no, we have forgotten the hot dogs. Someone will have to swim back and get them." Realizing he was being put to the test, the new pastor got out of the boat, walked across the water, and retrieved the hot dogs. Most of the congregation was stunned but one critic said, "See, I told you, they didn't even send us one that could swim."

When Robert Fulton first showed off his new invention, the steamboat skeptics were crowded on the bank yelling, "It'll never start! It'll never start!" It did. It started with a lot of clanking and groaning. As the steamboat made it's way down the river, the skeptics were quiet. For one minute. Then they started shouting, "It'll never stop! It'll never stop!

Have you ever been ridiculed for doing the will of God? I have. It usually comes from the least expected source and designed to catch you off guard.

Every group has its Sanballat and Tobiahs.

There is a high cost for spiritual leadership.

 J. Oswald Sanders observed, “No leader is exempt from criticism, and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts and reacts to it.”

Nehemiah chapter four opens with the walls of Jerusalem being rebuilt, and the opposition gathering its forces. As you study this chapter it is obvious that the enemy’s tactics have not changed since Nehemiah’s day.

This is a good time to remind ourselves who was rebuilding the wall. God was the Architect, and Nehemiah was the contractor. God was at work. It was His will to rebuild the wall and the gates around the city. Anyone in opposition to that goal was in opposition to God.

Nehemiah was determined that no one but God would stop the work. Good spiritual leaders must have thick skin.

If you never get criticized, the chances are you are not doing the will of God. If your critics are listening to the voice of God, then you need to heed what they are saying. But if they are not, you need to stand fast in His will.

OPPOSITION TO GOD’S WILL

Sanballat was desperately angry at the progress on the wall. The circle of enemies of Judah was expanding. Her enemies surrounded Jerusalem.

When the Jerusalem wall was about halfway up all around the city, the enemy began their psychological warfare.

"Now it came about that when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became furious and very angry and mocked the Jews. He spoke in the presence of his brothers and the wealthy men of Samaria and said, ‘What are these feeble Jews doing? Are they going to restore it for themselves? Can they offer sacrifices? Can they finish in a day? Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?’ Now Tobiah the Ammonite was near him and he said, ‘Even what they are building—if a fox should jump on it, he would break their stone wall down!’" (Nehemiah 4:1-3, NASB 1995). 

The first attempt to stop God’s work is to discourage us through ridicule, derision or rejection. You can hear the scorn, contempt and sarcasm in these opening words. Why would the rebuilding of the wall cause such a violent reaction?

It was true the Jews were feeble and their success in the eyes of others did look implausible. However, the walls did go up and we know from archaeological excavations that the quality of these new walls were not of the quality of those their forefathers had built.

Sanballat’s anger demonstrated his fear that the very things he derided as impossible were coming to pass in spite of his hostile efforts.

Progress on the wall brought out the enemy. They became incensed, angry and sarcastic. They felt threatened. They began a campaign of mocking, scoffing, sneering and jeering.

Opposition came because Nehemiah was successful. People will laugh at your failure, and not get to upset about it. But when the enemy of God sees your success, it turns them on and against everyone who is doing His will.

The enemy was threatened by Nehemiah’s success.

The walls were going up and that meant Jerusalem would one day be secure again. The enemies of God did not like that idea. Howard Voss says, “They stand to lose position or power or prestige politically, religiously, or socially.” The enemy is out for number one. Success meant blocking the enemy’s goal of appearance, performance and status. They did not want to see Israel succeed. If Jerusalem were rebuilt, Sanballat and Tobiah would lose valuable trade routes to neighboring provinces.

How does the critic perceive your success? Is it perceived as a threat to his personal goals? Will they lose face, or prestige in the eyes of their followers?

The enemy was jealous.

Some people will criticize and oppose a project because of envy. They are simply jealous of someone else’s success. Watch out for green-eyed ministerial jealousy.

We do not like change.

Some criticize because they do not like change unless they are the ones suggesting the changes. Inflexible people resist change to their walls, their plans, their colors, and their agendas. They fail to realize God might be the one bringing the needed changes. They question the motives of the leaders. “It was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel” (Neh. 2:10). Traditions are hard to change, and the longer the tradition in an organization the more opposition to change. “This is the way we have always done it.”

The opposition has a different agenda.

The critics are not on the same page as the leader. You are not doing what “we” want you to do with your life, or it is not “our” program. You are a little too independent and you need to step in line and follow the crowd. You must do only what we are doing. Only we have the best program. We are the only people God uses. We are the biggest and therefore the best. We do not want religion, i.e. Christianity in the public arena.

Satan is opposed to God.

Ultimately as Howard Voss notes, Satan is opposed to everything and everywhere God is at work. “Satan . . . usually does not need to invent problems. He merely exploits or exacerbates existing conditions.” Satan hates God and His people.

How much time does Satan spend worrying about what you are doing in the kingdom of God? Does Satan think you are worth worrying about? All hell will oppose you if you get serious about God and His will.

Observe the ridicule

Sanballat taunted five rhetorical questions that attacked Nehemiah’s leadership.

1. “What are these feeble Jews doing?” (v. 2)  How could “feeble” people expect to rebuild the walls?

2. “Are they going to restore it for themselves?” (v. 2)  These walls had been in disrepair almost 150 years. The stones needed to repair the wall weighed tons.

3. “Can they offer sacrifices?” (v. 2) The enemy was attacking the faith of the Jewish people. You don’t think God is going to help you, do you?

4. “Can they finish it in a day?” (v.2) How many times had the Jewish people already tried and failed to build the wall in the past century? Do you realize just how big the job is?

5. “Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?” (v. 2) The walls had tumbled down, not crumbled. The gates had been burned, not the stonewalls.

Then to add insult to injury Junior gets into the act. "Now Tobiah the Ammonite was near him and he said, ‘Even what they are building—if a fox should jump on it, he would break their stone wall down!’" (Nehemiah 4:3, NASB 1995).

Had Sanballat and Tobiah failed to consider that just maybe the LORD God was involved in this project? 

RESPONDING TO THE CRITICISM

Every leader must listen to criticism with discernment. Determine the source and the motive of the criticism.

Chuck Swindoll has an excellent suggestion: “If you never get criticized, chances are you aren’t getting anything done. A wise leader will evaluate the opposition in the light of the spirit and attitude in which criticism is given. He will also consider the voice to which the opposition listens. If your critic listens to God’s voice, you had better listen to them” (Hand Me Another Brick, p. 67).

On the other hand, if they are not listening to His voice we need to determine to allow no one but God to stop the work. Learn to keep your eyes focused on the Lord and His will. If you are at the center of the will of God one day at a time, you will always be doing the will of God everyday of your life.

The first response of Nehemiah was to pray (vv. 4-5).

"Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders" (Nehemiah 4:4-5, NASB 1995).

He did not react to criticism with anger. He pro-acted by handing it over to God. Nehemiah did not retaliate. He asked God for help. 

Nehemiah acknowledged his feelings to God. “Hear, Our God, how we are despised!” That hurts. His prayer helped him diffuse his anger and not throw more fuel on the already hot fire.

Prayer would also help Nehemiah to gain new perspective of the reaction of Israel’s enemies. He would gain insight on how to respond to them and how to better lead his people.

Nehemiah had a sense of God’s presence and His sovereignty. As with David before Goliath he could declare, “For the battle is the Lord’s and He will give you into our hands” (1 Sam. 17:47). Most of our skirmishes would fair much better if we had that attitude.

The writer of Proverbs said, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Prov.15:1). Silence stops many an argument. Let the other person run down, and then ask if there is anything else. Then listen some more! If you want to keep the argument going, respond in a harsh tone.

The Lord is always ready to give us wisdom when we need it (James 1:5).

Nehemiah kept silent before his enemies and talked it over with God.

The first response to criticism is prayer.

Pray for your critics and God will use you.

Nehemiah reminds us of Peter’s testimony about Jesus. "While being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously" (1 Peter 2:23, NASB 1995).

How do you answer the critics of Nehemiah’s prayer? It helps to keep in mind Nehemiah is the Governor of Judah, and he is praying about maintaining peace and order in the city and progressing the work God has commissioned. It is a prayer of an authority seeking to deal with a problem of evil. It is not an affront by someone’s personal attack. Justice must prevail in government.

Nehemiah stayed focused (v. 6).

"So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work" (Nehemiah 4:6, NASB 1995).

Nehemiah went on with the work of building the wall.

“The people worked with all their heart” (NIV).

The whole continuous line of wall around the city was completed to half the contemplated height. That is a marvelous achievement.

Ridicule and sarcasm did not destroy the confidence of the workers nor its leadership.

Observe the repeated emphasis on prayer in vv. 4, and 9.  “Hear, O our God . . . . But we prayed to our God . . .”

Alan Redpath writes: “Do you know anything about such a combat in prayer that is utterly, completely exhausting? Do you know what it means to feel that you can scarcely get through to God for the sheer pressure of the power of the enemy? What form does that take? Crowding upon our imagination come unholy thoughts, sensual desires, wrong actions. Pressing upon us are the drudgeries of daily life and the demands of business. Behind all such deadly antagonism to a work of God is Satan himself, using all the force at his command to keep back the building up of the temple of the Holy Spirit” (Victorious Christian Service, p. 98).

REPEATED THREAT OF VIOLENCE (4:7-8)

Opposition gets more intense when the criticism of the enemy results in more progress. They begin to rally their neighbors. The critics came back again with even more threats. “They were very angry. And all of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it” (v. 8).

Now the enemy threatened with physical violence. The war of nerves begins again. Moreover, the people are tired and weary.

The enemy launches another propaganda campaign (vv. 10-12).

"Thus in Judah it was said, ‘The strength of the burden bearers is failing, Yet there is much rubbish; And we ourselves are unable To rebuild the wall.’ Our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.’ When the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times, ‘They will come up against us from every place where you may turn’" (Nehemiah 4:10-12, NASB 1995).

 The people were now exhausted physically. “The strength of the burden bearers is failing . . .” (v. 10). They were “stumbling, tottering, staggering under the load.” They were tired physically and emotionally.

It is easy when tired to see only what needs to be done, and fail to stop and see all that has already been accomplished. One person sees only the half empty glass while another sees the half full glass. We lose our vision and then our confidence and security. A constant dripping of negative criticism will rub off on everyone.

If you are prone toward discouragement, you cannot spend a lot of time around negative people. Some of the Jews lived near the critics (vv. 10-11).

The most critical time on any project is when you are half way through. The tendency is to see only the rubbish.

“I wonder how many Christian people are living dangerously near the enemy. They have no close contact with God’s work, no intimate fellowship with Jesus Christ, no real heart communion with their God. They are very near the enemy. And the symptoms of that are these: you begin to think upon a work of God and you say to yourself, ‘it’s too big. The days are too tough and the circumstances are too hard, and the pressure of evil is too strong. I don’t think we will ever make it.’ And so you begin to spread discouragement in the ranks of God’s people” (Redpath, p. 99-100).

Prayer, Faith and Common Sense (v. 9)

God gave Nehemiah wisdom to restore the confidence and vision of a discouraged people. “But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night” (v. 9).

Nehemiah focused on a common goal (v. 13).

He reorganized the work into family teams working around the common goals of security and self-preservation. They refocused and got families pulling together. "Then I stationed men in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, the exposed places, and I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows" (Nehemiah 4:13, NASB 1995).

Nehemiah focused their attention on the Lord (v. 14).

"When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: ‘Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses’" (Nehemiah 4:14, NASB 1995).

“Remember the Lord.” Call to mind the great attributes of God. Remember what He has said in His Word. Recall the great promises. Meditate on the truths in Isaiah 26:3, 4; 40:28-31; Matt. 6:31; Phil. 4:6-10, 13, 19, etc. Find some quiet time alone and meditate on these verses.

Get into action (vv. 14b-17).

"When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: ‘Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.’ When our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had frustrated their plan, then all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work. From that day on, half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates; and the captains were behind the whole house of Judah. Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon" (Nehemiah 4:14-17, NASB 1995).

Oliver Cromwell shouted, “Put your trust in God, and keep your powder dry!”

 It is time for prayer, faith in God and common sense. It is time to act on the great truth, “God + me = a whole person.” Contend for the faith.

God frustrated the plan of the enemy. Work progressed with the instruments of warfare in hand (vv. 16-21). Guards were posted at night (v. 22) with Nehemiah in battle-dress day and night (v. 23), and the trumpeter at his side (v. 18).

Rally together and fight (vv. 19-21).

The workers and their families were scattered out around the wall working. They were separated on the wall far from one another. They were defenseless separated like that.

Don’t try to fight the enemy alone. We need one another. Come to where the trumpet is. “At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us” (v. 20).

Jerusalem was now an armed camp.

Develop a servant’s attitude (vv. 22-23).

We need each other in the service of the Lord. We can’t do it alone. Get involved in the lives of others, no matter how many times you have been hurt.

What a picture that was. "So we carried on the work with half of them holding spears from dawn until the stars appeared. At that time I also said to the people, ‘Let each man with his servant spend the night within Jerusalem so that they may be a guard for us by night and a laborer by day.’ So neither I, my brothers, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us removed our clothes, each took his weapon even to the water" (Nehemiah 4:21-23, NASB 1995). 

SOME ABIDING PRINCIPLES AND PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

1.  How sad is the day when Satan uses scorn, sarcasm, and discouragement to break down our spiritual walk. Let’s pray that we will be less concerned about the ridicule of men and more about hearing our Savior say, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The apostle Paul had the right balance when he asked: “For am I now seeking the favor of men, or of God? Or am I striving to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a bond-servant of Christ” (Galatians 1:10).

2.  If you have turned loose of the plow, may the Master bring you to the place of repentance, renewal and refocus on the call and service in His plan of the ages. When I try, I fail. When I trust, He succeeds.

3.  “You never test the resources of God until you attempt the impossible,” wrote F. B. Meyer. A student, R. G. Lee, heard those words, and recommitted his life to Christ and became a great preacher. I would rather to have dreamed big and failed than to sit and do nothing. Lord, enable me to attempt the impossible.

4.  Do you need to change sides? Perhaps you have been manipulated onto the wrong team. Are you on the Lord’s side or on Sanballat’s side? It is not too late to change sides.

5.  Do you have a rubbish pile that needs to be cleaned away? “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it” (Psalm 127:1). Everything must be cleared away so that gold, silver and precious stones can rest upon that foundation Jesus Christ has laid (1 Cor. 3:12). Everything else must go, no matter how painful. Are you building on the Rock? “If we are anything it is only by the grace of God, and the power of His blood, and the control of the Spirit,” wrote Alan Redpath.

6.  “The very fact that a work is of God will always arouse the opposition of the enemy,” observes Redpath. Satan will always concentrate all his forces against the work of God.

7.  C. H. Spurgeon reminded his students, “Pray as if everything depended on God, then preach as if everything depended on you.”

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Index to this Series on the Nehemiah.


Title:  Nehemiah 4:1-23 Opposition from the Enemy

Series: Nehemiah: A Leader with a Focused Faith

Message by Wil Pounds (c) 2005. Anyone is free to use this material and distribute it, but it may not be sold under any circumstances whatsoever without the author's written consent. Scripture quotations from the New American Standard Bible (c) 1973, 1995 Update, The Lockman Foundation.

Wil is a graduate of William Carey College, B. A.; New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, Th. M.; and Azusa Pacific University, M. A. He has pastored in Panama, Ecuador and the U. S, and as Field Director for the Honduras Baptist Medical Dental Mission in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, C. A. He had a daily expository Bible teaching ministry head in over 100 countries for ten years. He continues to seek opportunities to be personally involved in world missions. Wil and his wife Ann have three grown daughters. He currently serves as pastor of New Hope Baptist Church, Leakesville, MS, and teaches seminary extension courses in Honduras.

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