Nehemiah 4 Sermon

Nehemiah 4 Sermon: Let’s think about what kind of writing the book of Nehemiah is.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Narrative Style

It’s a story or a narrative. And just like a well-written secular narrative, its author – ultimately God – desires to draw us into the story line.

He wants us to identify with the characters. He wants us to hear the sounds and see the sights and smell the scents as if we were actually there.

When someone – even God – writes a story, he wants to share an experience with us. And so let’s review the kind of experience that God through Nehemiah has been sharing with us these last few weeks.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Nehemiah Went to Jerusalem

First, recall how Nehemiah got to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Doing Fine in Persia

He was just going along with his life as an exiled Jew in the kingdom of Persia. He had somehow gotten into a pretty high position – one that required quite a bit of trust from the Persian king Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was his cup-bearer. He would taste his food and drink before it got to the king. That’s why I say that the king must have had quite a bit of trust invested in Nehemiah.

And because of the nearness of these two, Nehemiah very well might have acted as something of an unofficial advisor to Artaxerxes. So he had a privileged position in the greatest kingdom of the world at that time.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Concerned for God’s People

But he still had concern for his people and their holy city. And when his brother and a few of his companions returned from Jerusalem, Nehemiah asked how the Jews and Jerusalem were doing.

He was then shocked to discover that Jerusalem was desolate and its walls had been broken down.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Seeks How to Help

He humbly seeks God for months and devises a plan to return to Jerusalem and help his fellow-Jews turn to God with their whole heart so that God won’t scatter and exile them from their land again.

He approached the king with his request and amazingly Artaxerxes granted him all his desire. So Nehemiah journeys to Jerusalem and makes it there safely.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Opposition

We remember then from last week that he immediately was aware of opposition in the form of two villains by the names of Sanballat and Tobiah.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | So Wicked

I’ve had questions about these two characters from some of you. I think we kind of wonder who these guys are and why they’re so antagonistic. And I’ve considered laying out for us more details about them. But I think I’ll just kind of reveal what the book of Nehemiah reveals when it reveals it.

So we’ll get more information about Sanballat and Tobiah, but I won’t jump ahead of the narrative. If you really want to know anything more, you can read ahead in the story.

But anyway, these two guys are true villains. They’re bad.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | As Bad as Sandy Hook Murderer

I don’t want to minimize the gravity of a situation like the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting of last year in Connecticut. Do you remember that? This was the situation where a very evil young man murdered his mother and then drove to an elementary school full of kindergartners through 4th graders. He then proceeded to murder 6 staff members and 20 helpless, innocent little kids. He then shot himself in the head and – we have a solid basis in asserting – was immediately ushered into his eternal punishment.

But here’s what I intend to say about Sanballat and Tobiah in regard to that situation. They in some ways are just as bad as this Sandy Hook shooter.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Comparison to Sanballat and Tobiah

The elementary kids were helpless. So were these Jews.

The kids had done nothing wrong to this shooter. Neither had the Jews done anything wrong to Sanballat and Tobiah.

Some of us have marveled that Nehemiah doesn’t really tell us why these two are so opposed to the Jews’ well-being. And we might be tempted to find out the reason.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Why the Opposition?

We could guess that maybe these two were making some gain off these weakened Jews and so they stood to lose quite a bit if the Jews were strengthened and allowed to be a sovereign group. You’ll hear later in this message more reason to think this was the case.

Perhaps these two were kind of usurping authority over the Jews since the Jews didn’t have an official governor.

Maybe it’s like the enemies of the Jews today in the Middle East – the enemies simply do not want the Jews back in their home land. And they’re ready to prevent the Jews from living in the land at all costs.

We’re not told for sure why the enemies are so bitterly opposed to the Jews.  So I’m going to suggest that we’re intentionally not given a reason for Sanballat and Tobiah’s animosity.

Why?

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Senseless Opposition

Perhaps simply so that we get a feel for how senseless their hatred of the Jews was.

In other words, there was no explanation to the hatred. And so Nehemiah doesn’t provide us with one.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Building the Wall

Now despite this senseless but fierce opposition, Nehemiah goes ahead and starts building the wall.

I am so encouraged by this man’s boldness and courage to continue doing right in the face of opposition. And we’re going to see a great deal more of this courage in the face of opposition.

Why?

Because this opposition picks right up in chapter 4 verse 1 where we left off. This leads to the title of our message today. How a godly leader responds to opposition. Read Nehemiah 4:1.

We only hear about Sanballat this time. Great, maybe the opposition is waning!

Well, just hold on a minute. Sanballat isn’t by any means alone in opposing God’s work.

So Sanballat the Samaritan hears that the walls are being rebuilt despite his efforts to intimidate the builders. And this fills him with rage.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | The Opposition Mocks

The enemies of God’s people react in a number of different ways when God’s work is going on with power. We’ve seen anger from the opposition. We’ve seen the opposition think little of – or despise – the Jews.

What does the opposition do now?

Sanballat tries his hand at mockery. Let’s see what he says. Read verse 2.

Ah so here’s Sanballat’s audience. His brethren are there. This might be his siblings or simply some of his Samaritan countrymen. And then the army of Samaria is there, as well, to hear his mockery of the Jews.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Aggressive Opposition

The fact that the army is here should give us a clue that there’s some danger here for the Jews. What does an army do except wage war – either in offense or defense? But the Jews are certainly in no position to attack. So I think the mention of this Samaritan army actually forecasts some future aggression.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Mocking Weakness

Now what does Sanballat say to these folks? He highlights the weakness of the Jews.

They’re feeble, he says.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Mocking Questions

He incredulously asks these questions about them – Will they fortify themselves? Like, can they really re-build the wall? The answer Sanballat is expecting? No!

Will they sacrifice, he says? I’m guessing from this question that the Jews were in fact not sacrificing in their Temple at that point. The Temple was there. It was rebuilt. But the desolation of Jerusalem resulted in sacrifices ceasing to be offered in that Temple.

Further, Sanballat asks if the Jews can finish their work in a day. Well, of course they can’t. And he knows it. No one could. But I think by this question he’s intending a little psychological warfare. By bringing up this matter of how long it might take for the Jews to finish their work I think Sanballat hopes they might consider that this rebuilding might take them a long long time to complete.

To add to this wearying question, Sanballat asks if the Jews can revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish that were probably evident all over Jerusalem at that time. The Jews are in for a difficult process of taking all these stones out of these heaps of rubbish and making something of them. And to make matters worse and more humiliating to the Jews, some of the stones they were needing to pull out of the wreckage – they were burned with fire.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Taunting Opposition

Really, what Sanballat is doing here is taunting the Jews and trying to intimidate them by doing this.

And remember Sanballat has an audience – his brothers and the army of Samaria.

How do you think they responded?

“No, please Sanballat. Consider their feelings”?

Or what about “You know, Sanballat, these Jews are claiming to be God’s people. We should probably just leave them alone”?

No. I imagine these rough heartless fiends sitting together in the gate of one of their cities cursing the Jews and their God. I can imagine that Sanballat’s oration may have resulted in a round of applause. Maybe it was met with laughter that was deep, long, loud, and scornful.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Tobiah Takes his Turn

And if Sanballat’s sarcastic comments got a few laughs from this group of God’s enemies then just wait ‘til they hear from Tobiah. Let’s read verse 3.

Maybe Tobiah was encouraged on by Sanballat’s mockery of the Jews. Emboldened to put his evil wit on display, he delivers the one-liner we just read. Tobiah offers that perhaps the quality of the Jews’ work will be so shoddy that if a creature as small as a fox jumps on it, the whole wall will come crashing down.

Foxes typically don’t weigh any more than a two-year-old child. This was a real insult. And I’m sure the result was uproarious and hatred-filled laughter.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | The Real Object of Ridicule

But what were these fiends really laughing about? Whom were they mocking?

These villains were laughing at the Jews. The Jews were God’s people. These Jews were back in the land by God’s appointment. They were doing God’s work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. And they had many obstacles to overcome. They were weakened.

And if Nehemiah wasn’t there, they’d be utterly hopeless and weaker than a new born baby in some ways.

And this is who Sanballat, Tobiah, and their comrades were laughing at. And as I said, I imagine they were all having a lot of fun with this round of mockery over the Jews’ progress.

Nehemiah 4 Sermon | Not Amused

Oh, except there was at least one person who didn’t think this was very funny. Let’s read his reaction to the taunt of the enemy in verses 4 and 5.

Nehemiah starts by invoking God to hear his people and particularly the rest of Nehemiah’s prayer. Why should God hear? Well, certainly the Jews are God’s people. God had made a covenant with them. He loves them. So he would certainly be inclined to hear them based on that fact. But beyond that, Nehemiah gives another reason. Not only do the Jews have a special relationship with God. But they are also despised. The enemies are thinking little of the Jews abilities and strength, yes. But where do those abilities and strengths come from? I think the idea here is that the enemies are ultimately thinking little of God’s power to help his people get his work done. So, Nehemiah is saying, “Please listen to us, our God. The enemies are despising you. Don’t let this stand!”

What does Nehemiah ask that God do in response to this despising of the enemies? He wants God to return the content of their own mockery right back on them. And more specifically he wants God to make them a weak group in a land in which they’re captive. Why? Because that’s exactly what the Jews were and exactly what the enemies wanted them to remain – a small abused oppressed minority in a land in which they weren’t sovereign – they were slaves. So Nehemiah asks that the enemies be put in the situation the Jews were facing. That’s palatable, I think.

But what about verse 5? Nehemiah asks God to – it seems – not forgive the sins of these people. How do we handle a request like this from a man we know to be godly? Is this a character flaw we’re seeing in Nehemiah – that he’s given to emotional rash overstatements? Is this godly man really asking that these enemies be condemned to everlasting torment with no possibility in this life of their sins being forgiven? I don’t think that’s the case. Read this statement in context. Nehemiah tells God that the enemies are thinking little of the Jews. That’s evident from the last few verses we read where they’re mocking the Jews all together. Nehemiah asks that the very belittling comments they made about Jews – that those be enacted not upon the Jews but upon the enemies themselves. Then Nehemiah asks God to not overlook the sin of the enemies – not to cover or blot it out. Well, what sin is he referring to? Every sin that these sinners have sinned their entire sinful life? I think not. I think Nehemiah’s referring to this particular sin they’re committing – despising God’s work through his people. And when Nehemiah asks God to not cover this sin of theirs I think he’s really communicating something like this. I hear of horrendous sin that a certain sinner might commit. Maybe it’s a mass shooting by some young troubled teen. Maybe it’s the repressive actions taken by a country like North Korea against our brethren in that nation. When I hear about these things, my heart cry is that these perpetrators would face justice. And that justice might not come in this life. A political ruler might abuse God’s people for his entire life and die comfortably in wealth. A mass murdered might take his own life before a court can render a just decision. Or he might live and a court might offer an unjust verdict. What I really want is to know that God will make things right. I do not want him to overlook their sin. I want him to take notice of it and not miss it when it comes time to render a verdict. That is the one thing that comforts me when there’s a miscarriage of justice or an egregious violation against innocent people – that God will judge rightly and not miss any evidence. And I think that’s what Nehemiah is crying for here – that God would not simply overlook this sin of theirs.

Finally, let’s notice one last thing about this scene. Why is Nehemiah so insistent on wrongs being righted in this situation? Is it because he was personally slighted and now wants the perpetrators to be punished for his own selfish reasons? No. It’s because the enemies of Judah haven’t simply offended man. They’ve provoked the God of heaven to anger. And yet there is an element of offense toward men as well. The enemies provoked God to anger where? In the sight of the builders. You didn’t know that, did you? The builders actually heard this mocking session that the enemies were having. And this fact is another reason Nehemiah prayed the way he did.

OK, let me state what I think we learn here. We’re learning how a godly leader responds to opposition. Here’s how. Godly leaders can get passionate when confronting the enemies of God’s work. That’s not wrong. But the passion certainly needs to be focused on God’s being offended, not us being personally offended. I think we also learn very basically that there’s a time for confronting ungodly opposition. But there’s also a great need to respond to opposition not directly back to the opposition itself, but to God. He alone can truly put down the opposition, even when we can’t. We need to fly to him when we’re experiencing difficulties and adversity while doing God’s work.

And here’s another lesson we again see from Nehemiah. Godly leaders don’t let opposition sidetrack them. They move forward with God’s work. And this is what we see in verse 6. Let’s read it.

Despite the enemies’ taunts that apparently were uttered within earshot of the Jews, the work continued. And the whole wall was joined together to the half of it. This probably means that the wall was built back up to be about half of its original height. And I think we’re supposed to be kind of awed by the speed with which they got to this point. I think that’s why Nehemiah feels the need to explain with that last statement there. It’s like he says, “Yes, I know this was quick and we did this despite the opposition. But the people really did have a mind to work. They really stuck with it.”

Let me point this out then. A godly leader needs to plan the work and delegate it. But the only way it gets done is when his people put his plan into practice. And the best situation is where the people “have a mind” to do this work.

Does this advance in God’s work thwart the opposition? No. It actually makes them more fiercely opposed! Read verses 7 and 8.

So we need to notice the growing legion of foes. Sanballat, Tobiah, Arabs, Ammonites, and Ashdodites. Sanballat and Tobiah were apparently north of Jerusalem in Samaria. That was their base. The Arabians and the Ammonites were to the east and maybe south of Jerusalem. And Ashdod is on the Mediterranean coast to the west of Jerusalem. The enemies who were surrounding Jerusalem were all in league against the Jews. They heard that the repair went forward and that the holes in the wall started to be repaired. They could see that mere taunting wasn’t working. They needed to take action. So they all conspired to fight against Jerusalem. Their aim was to “hinder it.” What does that mean? Their goal in fighting is not necessarily to destroy the Jews. Isn’t that interesting? These enemies don’t want the Jews to not exist. They simply want the Jews to exist in an extremely weakened and vulnerable form – probably so that the enemies can continue to take advantage of them. This is likely Sanballat and Tobiah’s MO. This is why they’re so opposed to Nehemiah’s action to strengthen the Jews. These enemies are really parasites. They want to prey on their victim host while still keeping it alive enough to live off it. So the enemies just want to create a disturbance. They want to stop the work. Certainly if the Jews had to fend off invaders they’re not going to be involved in building up their walls. So this is the enemies’ plan… How do the Jews respond to it? Read verse 9.

First of all, some way, the Jews hear their enemies’ plot. And how do they respond? They pray to God. And then they set a watch against the legion of enemy forces. And they keep watch 24-hours a day.

But despite praying and setting a watch, the people of Judah are becoming weary. Read verse 10.

How’s this for a national anthem? Or the slogan for your church’s building project? Maybe we should have adopted this feel-good saying for our building renovation. Is it too late? Of course I’m being facetious. No, this is a terrible expression on the Jews’ part. They’re losing the will to continue the fight. Their strength is decaying. They’re looking all around and seeing all the work that’s left to do. And their faithless – though seemingly realistic – assessment is that they are not able to rebuild the wall.

But the Jews aren’t the only ones with something to say about their rebuilding project. Read verse 11.

This is what the enemies were boasting of. Their plan to hinder the work by attacking Jerusalem was sure to succeed. That is, unless the Jews acted quickly. Let’s read verse 12.

So Nehemiah gets word from the Jews who lived near the enemies that they were planning to attack Jerusalem. And apparently they came to Nehemiah 10 times and alerted him of the same danger. How does Nehemiah respond? Let’s read verse 13.

Nehemiah swiftly acts to fortify the most vulnerable places on the wall. Remember, the wall was still not fully rebuilt. And he put the people together with their families and gave them weapons. But even though they had weapons there was still some fear in their hearts. Nehemiah addresses that in verse 14. Read it.

What does this godly leader do for his fearing flock? He tells them to be strong  and not afraid. He tells them to get their minds off what they’re fearing and focus on God. He is great and terrible… And he’s actually on their side! So because of that the Jews could fight the enemies without fear. God was with them. Well, did they ever end up fighting the enemy? Let’s read verse 15 for the answer.

So there’s not fighting – at least not yet. The simple fact that the Jews are fortified and armed and that they heard the enemies’ plan before they were able to hatch it – all of that resulted in the Jews feeling free to return to their work on the wall. But the Jews were far from care-free, moving forward. Let’s read verses 16 through 18.

What’s the point here? Simply that everyone was armed while working. As if it wasn’t enough for the Jews to need to rebuild the walls. Now they needed to act as a standing army as well! But what other choice did they have? And it wasn’t enough that the people were armed. What if the attack came in a remote part of the city where there were only a few people? They needed some strategy as to how all the people might rally to the one place that was being attacked, if such an attack were to occur. Let’s read verses 19 and 20 for that strategy.

Nehemiah plainly says that the chance of attack occurring on some remote part of the wall was likely. So he would be monitoring the situation. If there was an attack he would be there with that trumpet player who was at his side. And the people would come and fight at that place. The story continues in verse 21.

OK, so rising of the morning – that’s morning. The stars appear when? In the evening. So the people were defended from morning until evening. What about the time between evening and morning? Read verse 22.

Apparently the people by and large were not living in Jerusalem. So at night the city was pretty vulnerable to a midnight attack. So Nehemiah has everyone live in Jerusalem for a while. Why? So that there was a night watch to defend the city during the nighttime hours.

And I mean this was pretty intense. We kind of read through the narrative thoughtlessly. But can you imagine the reality that Nehemiah communicates in verse 23?

These people were so consumed with the work of rebuilding the walls as well as defending themselves from these pernicious enemies that they didn’t even have time to change their clothes. Preservation of life came before comfort for these Jews.

So that’s the story. Godly leaders respond to opposition… with prayer and with action. They pray – as one man said – as if it all depended on God. They act as if it all depends on them.

Nehemiah 2:10 – 3:32

We’re going to be studying Nehemiah 2:10 – 3:32. In this section I think we’ll see “How Godly Leaders Get God’s Work Accomplished.” The lessons we’ll learn apply not only to leaders like pastors, deacons, and missionaries. If you’re a Christian parent or a Christian peer with influence over other peers or if you’re involved at any level with leading a ministry of any size, then this has ramifications for you, too. And of course these wonderful lessons are packaged up for us in a story. So let’s try to unpack the story and arrive at the message God has for us today. 

Whenever God’s work is being accomplished you just know there’s going to be opposition. And this is what we see in 2:10. Let’s read it. 

Nehemiah says that these two enemies of God’s people heard “it.” Well, heard what? Remember last week? We studied Nehemiah 1:1-2:9. And in that section we saw “How Nehemiah Got to Jerusalem.” Do you remember some of the details? Remember how Nehemiah asked some Jews who came from Jerusalem how Nehemiah’s people and city were doing? Remember the response that shocked Nehemiah and brought him to his knees? Do you remember how Nehemiah was in prayer and fasting and mourning for maybe something like 4 months? All the while he was planning how he might return to Jerusalem and help his people turn back to God. Do you remember the tense scene in King Artaxerxes’ chamber? Nehemiah made his request to the king with fear and trembling. Do you remember the sense of relief and joy and anticipation as the king granted Nehemiah’s request? And then surely you remember how easily Nehemiah made it to Jerusalem – it only took one verse! And then he brought his letters of authorization from the king to the officials in the area around Jerusalem… 

So let’s return to this question — what did Sanballat and Tobiah hear? They heard at least some of what we’ve just reviewed since they probably were in some position of authority around Jerusalem. They also heard that Nehemiah was in the area. They heard he was there to help the Jews. He was there to rebuild the city and re-inhabit it with Jews. And so how did this make the enemies feel? 

Listen, I think as we read through the book of Nehemiah we sometimes want to be pretty merciful to Sanballat and Tobiah. I think we can read this book and get the idea that these two enemies were somehow the equivalent of the bad guys in one of our VBS skits, right? Like the Sherriff of Not-a-Ham and whoever the other guy was this summer – remember them? They were bad, yes. But they were bumbling and clumsy and … actually, kind of loveable in their own despicable ways. But here’s my question – is this how we’re supposed to think of Sanballat and Tobiah? 

I’m going to suggest that we do all in our power to view these characters as true villains. This narrative gives us no reason whatsoever to see any sort of redeeming quality in them. And here in verse 10 we see the first instance of this purely evil characterization of them. Think about this fact – these two were grieved exceedingly that someone had come to help the Jews. Let’s consider the import of that statement. Think about the Jews in Jerusalem. How were they doing at this time in their history? Were they strong? Were they doing well? What was the condition of their capital city? They were impoverished and extremely weak. Their city was vulnerable to any and all enemy attacks. They were in a pathetic condition. They needed help. And Nehemiah wanted to help them. And how do these two enemies respond? With grief – not joy or sympathy – grief! Sanballat and Tobiah are the kind that would steal candy from a baby. They would kick a man when he’s down. There is nothing in them that should cause us to lend them the slightest shred of sympathy. In fact, the way this story is written, we should actually be cheering for their defeat. Do you think that’s an ungodly thing for me to counsel us – to want these two men to fail? Then just wait until our next lesson where we see Nehemiah’s prayer to God regarding these two. So, these two enemies are to be regarded as pure evil. This is how they’re characterized throughout this book. 

And you know what? Somehow Nehemiah got word that Sanballat and Tobiah were not-too-happy that he was there to help his own people. Have you ever been in a situation where it was clear that you had opposition to what you were trying to accomplish? How do you react when that’s the case? With fear? Do you just pack up and go home? Here’s the first lesson we need to learn about godly leaders that we see in verse 10. Godly leaders take special note of opposition but they don’t let it sidetrack them. Nehemiah knew about the opposition. But he just moves on with his duties. And that’s just what we see happening in the next verse – Nehemiah moving on with God’s work. Let’s read verses 11-16. 

Nehemiah starts by resting in Jerusalem for 3 days after his four month journey from Shushan to Jerusalem. Then he starts his midnight journey. Did you notice the element of secrecy? Verse 12 starts the account by telling us that Nehemiah is under the cover of night. Only a few people are with him. He even limits the number of beasts they used. And then the trip ends with verse 16 reminding us again of how secret this journey was. 

But what are we supposed to do with the verses in between verses 12 and 16? Let’s try to figure out and reconstruct what Nehemiah is doing there. He starts in Jerusalem. We saw that in verse 11. He goes out of a gate called the Valley Gate in verse 13. This gate is on the western side of old Jerusalem. And verse 13 tells us Nehemiah took a turn to the south to the “dung port” or really the Dung (or Refuse) Gate. That was a gate on the south side of Jerusalem. In verse 14 Nehemiah gets to a gate on the southeast side of Jerusalem called the Fountain Gate. And it’s here that the terrain was pretty difficult to get around on. So Nehemiah leaves his beast and maybe the others that came with him and he looks at the wall on the east side of Jerusalem on-foot for a while. Now Nehemiah mentions in verse 15 going up by “the brook.” Which brook is that? Well, if you’re familiar at all with the geography of Jerusalem you know that Jerusalem is slightly elevated. And you would also know that there’s a “mount” on the east side of Jerusalem. What is it called? The Mount of Olives. And between the elevated Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives is a brook – the Kidron. So that’s where Nehemiah was walking to get a view of the wall on the east side of Jerusalem. But then it appears like he’s seen enough and so he returns to his traveling partners. Then they go back down south and then back west and north to enter from the gate that Nehemiah left – the Valley Gate. 

So let me get to the lesson I think we learn from these few verses. We know from our lesson last week that Nehemiah brought his plans to the Lord first of all, right? He didn’t consult anyone before he consulted the Lord. And now he still as of yet hasn’t consulted anyone. But now he’s not simply praying about this idea of his. He’s doing the leg work to see if and how his plan might work. And he’s kept all of this a secret still – remember that emphasis of secrecy? So here’s the lesson I gather from this. Godly leaders bring their plans to the Lord first and then do the necessary research before revealing their plans to men. 

But eventually Godly leaders do need to bring their plans to the people they lead, right? And that’s what we see in verses 17 and 18. Let’s read that. 

To whom is Nehemiah speaking? Verse 17 just says “them.” Who is “them?” It’s just the people mentioned in verse 16 – the Jews, the priests, the nobles, and those who would do the work. So now he’s finally addressing this group of individuals. And what does he tell them? 

First, Nehemiah gives the people an accurate picture of where they currently are. They’re in distress. Their city lies waste. The gates are burned. The wall is broken down. Godly leaders give a realistic picture of their people’s situation to them. They don’t hold back and make the picture rosier than reality. 

But godly leaders aren’t simply prophets of doom and gloom. They give an accurate picture of short-fallings, yes. But it is at this point that they reveal their plans that God has laid on their hearts. This is what Nehemiah does. He says, “let’s rebuild the wall!” What a simple plan! The wall is broken down. Hardly anyone lives in Jerusalem because the walls are down and the city is open for attack from any enemy. Enemies are coming in and influencing us for ungodliness. Let’s rebuild that wall! 

And we see this godly leader giving some hope to these people that this plan is going to work. He first helps them picture how better their lives will be if they follow this plan. At the end of verse 17 he helps them visualize a time when they would no longer be a reproach. They wouldn’t be a laughing stock anymore with their broken-down walls. That definitely would have sounded attractive to these people. And then Nehemiah gives the people reason to think his plan will succeed. He tells them how God had graciously led him thus far in his quest to execute his plan to rebuild the walls. The idea would be – if he’s led me this far, I can’t imagine he’ll let me fail now! And if it wasn’t enough for them to know of God’s support of this plan, Nehemiah can tell them about how even the highest human ruler on the earth at that time supports Nehemiah’s plan. 

So put yourself in the Jews’ place. You have nothing. Your city is ruined. The enemies are around you and you have no defense. You have a godly man come to help you. He’s backed by the God of heaven and the highest ruler of the known world. What would your response be? I think probably pretty similar to what the Jews respond – I can imagine them kind of looking around at each other, wondering if there’s a “catch.” And perceiving no such catch, they exclaim, “Let us rise up and build!” 

So I think what we learn from this section is this. Godly leaders eventually do bring their plans to men. And they give their followers sound reasons to follow their plans. If only everyone were to follow the godly plans of godly leaders. But alas, there are those who will persist in opposing God’s work through such leaders. And those godly leaders need to know how to respond to them rightly. Let’s read verses 19 and 20 for more details. 

So the Jews are trying to piece back together their broken city. They’ve heard Nehemiah’s plan and are ready to take action. But the detractors are right alongside them. And these folks don’t have an alternative plan for the Jews’ success or anything like that. No – they just want to see the Jews fail miserably. And so they hear that the Jews are excited and ready to re-build their city. And what do the enemies do? Well, first of all, recall that the ranks of the enemies are expanding. It used to be just Sanballat and Tobiah. But now they’re joined by another colleague – Geshem, by name and he was an Arab. And these three laugh the Jews to scorn. The enemies think little of the Jews’ efforts and abilities – that’s what it means to despise someone – to think little of them. And then the enemies ask if the Jews plan to rebel against the king. And be sure that these enemies are asking this barbed question to not only Nehemiah the leader. No, when the enemies use that 2nd-person plural personal pronoun, ye, they’re making a statement to the whole group of those who planned to rebuild the walls – laymen as well as leader. How would this insinuation have made the builders feel? The builders had just heard Nehemiah say that the king is with him on this project. Would they trust Nehemiah? Or would doubt creep into their minds as to whether Nehemiah was telling the truth and could be trusted? Well I’m not sure how they felt. But you can be pretty sure how the enemies wanted the people to feel – they wanted the people to loose heart and stop working on the wall. Perhaps in your early days as a Christian you were confronted with some real thorny theological question presented by someone who was opposed to the Gospel whose intention it was to shake your faith. I can imagine that you would have wanted someone who could have given a proper answer to this opponent of yours. Well, this is just the dynamic we have here. And in this case the simple builders don’t have to try to think-up an answer on the fly. They have a godly leader who actually has personal connections with the king. And did you catch his response? He didn’t even say a word about the king. Nehemiah knew the truth regarding the king. He had no need to defend himself against this ridiculous charge. In fact, Nehemiah had letters authorizing him to do what he was doing from that very king. So he immediately dismissed this lame charge of rebellion. So he instead got to the heart of the matter. God was on their side. And because he and his fellow Jews were the Lord’s servants, they were going to arise and do his will and build. But as for the enemies, they had already shown themselves to be completely unworthy of any sympathy. They had a deep-seated hatred for God’s people – and indeed for God himself. And so they have no right or portion or memorial in Jerusalem, God’s holy city. 

So how do you like Nehemiah’s response? As a builder I would have felt very comforted by Nehemiah’s ability to answer our opponents. So here’s what I learn from these verses — Godly leaders are capable of confronting ungodly opposition to their face in an appropriate manner. 

And with the ungodly opposition rebuffed, now the builders are ready to start building. And so in chapter 3 we see who did what on the wall. We’re eventually going to get to some interesting and I hope helpful facts that we see in this chapter. And we’ll get to that. But first I want to address how not to interpret this chapter. 

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard this chapter taught as if somehow the individual gates are all meant to represent some aspect of the Christian life. That teaching is out there. And the method used in that kind of interpretation is called allegory or allegorizing – take a plain passage of Scripture and force it to take on some imported spiritual meaning that is far from its original purpose. And I think this way of interpretation is unhelpful at its best. But don’t take my word for it. Let’s walk through this unusual way of interpreting this chapter and see what you think. 

First, look at verse 1 of chapter 3. You see Eliashib and the priests building what gate? The Sheep Gate. Well of course sheep represent sacrifice and Christ was our ultimate sacrifice. He’s the beginning of the Christian life. That’s why Nehemiah mentions this gate first… OK? Let’s continue. Look at verse 3. What gate are we talking about now? The Fish Gate. Now of course once you come through the Sheep Gate and enter into the Christian life you are called to win others to the Lord… to be fishers of men. Yes, that’s the allegorical spiritualized meaning of the Fish Gate. Alright, what deep truth are we going to discover next? Look at verse 6. What gate do we find there? The Old Gate. One commentator said that he was originally thinking this might signify the Christian putting off the old man and being renewed in the spirit of his mind. But then someone else suggested to him that this signified finding the “old paths” like Jeremiah talks about. So as you’re winning people to Jesus you ought to be continually learning the ways of the Lord – the old paths. Isn’t this deep rich theological truth…? Well maybe you naysayers will be won over by the next allegorization. Let’s look at verse 13. What gate do we have here? The Valley Gate. This spiritually signifies the fact that you may have entered the Christian life and you may be soul-winning and trying to find the old paths, but… you might still experience a long dark “valley” time. You know – a very low point in your Christian life. Verse 14 then speaks of the Dung Gate. That’s supposed to signify the fact that these low points – or valleys – in our life are supposed to get the spiritual garbage out of our life. Then there’s the Fountain Gate, the Water Gate, the Horse Gate, the East Gate, and the Inspection Gate. But I think we’ve heard enough. I’ll only add that the Sheep Gate makes another appearance in verse 32 to end this chapter. And the allegorizers would take this to signify that Christ is the beginning and the end of the Christian life. 

So what do you think about that interpretation? Do you think that’s why this chapter was written in the Bible? Well let me ask – is there some truth to the content of this interpretation? Is Christ the beginning and the end of the Christian life? Do Christians need to be witnessing to the lost? Do we have some spiritually-dark “valley experiences?” Yes. But were these experiences what Nehemiah had in mind to teach us in this chapter? I sure hope not. Because if we’re supposed to allegorize passages like this one, I really do not understand how to interpret my Bible anywhere. How do I know when it’s safe to allegorize and when I should simply read the passage as if it were communicating something meaningful? What if my allegorical interpretation is wrong? How would I even know if it was wrong? What if I disagree with someone else’s allegorical interpretation? What authority could I possibly cite to prove my case? See, what happens when we interpret literal passages allegorically is – at best our hearts might be warmed with a truth that’s actually taught elsewhere in Scripture. At worst, we open ourselves up to being deceived.  

Let’s finish this consideration of how not to interpret Nehemiah 3 with a comment from Martin Luther. Here’s what he thought about allegorizing the Scripture: “But I have often declared that I greatly abhor allegories and condemn the fondness for them. For the examples and the footsteps of the fathers frighten me. By means of their allegories they obscure doctrine and the edification of love, patience, and hope in God when by those speculations of their allegories they divert us from the doctrine and genuine meaning of the words. Jerome and Origen are especially devoted to this. Indeed, Augustine, too, would have been brought to do so had he not been withdrawn from it by his controversies and disputes with the heretics. But because I admired these men as very great theologians, I followed the same course at the outset. When I read the Bible, I did not follow the literal sense; but according to their example, I turned everything into allegories. Accordingly, I urge students of theology to shun this kind of interpretation in the Holy Scriptures. 

So we now know how not to interpret Nehemiah 3. But positively how do we interpret it? What should we gain from this chapter? Several things, really. First, just glance at the chapter. One thing that should immediately strike you is the number and variety of people involved in rebuilding the wall. You have priests. You have lay men. You have goldsmiths. You have apothecaries. It didn’t matter what the occupation was, everyone found something to do on that wall. And you have men from different geographic locations working on the wall – men from Jericho, men from Tekoa, and men from Gibeon. The men from Tekoa build the wall despite opposition from their own nobles. Most of the names here are names of men. But you know, one man actually worked with his daughters on the wall. We have Baruch in verse 20 earnestly or zealously repairing the wall! Can you imagine someone doing this zealously? How would you zealously repair a wall? I can imagine him enthusiastically slathering on some more mortar and then joyfully slapping another brick on top of it. So I think one lesson to glean from this passage is that in God’s work there’s a place for all of his people. We might not all have the same role. We might be on different sections of the wall, so to speak. But we do all have a proper place. 

But now, let’s discuss the real significance of the gates and the order in which they’re mentioned. Do you even think that there’s any significance to the names and order of the gates? There is actually. But it’s pretty mundane as opposed to the fanciful allegory method. Picture Jerusalem as a square. It wasn’t, but let’s just simplify things and imagine that it was. The Sheep Gate which we start out with is on the northeast side of that square. And what you have for the entire chapter is a progression from northeast to northwest to southwest to southeast back up to the northeast corner of Jerusalem. See? It’s simple. But now you actually know why the gates are mentioned in the order they’re mentioned. And I didn’t even need to allegorize anything to get there! I just had to look at a map of Jerusalem. 

Let me ask one more question of this chapter and then we’ll be done. Who’s name do you not see in chapter 3? Now this might be difficult since we didn’t read the whole passage. But the person we don’t see building anything is… Nehemiah. Why is that? Well, I imagine one reason is that he was supervising the work and didn’t want to be tied down to one part of the wall to the detriment of the whole project. But I think beyond that consideration we have one more lesson to learn about godly leaders. The leader’s job is to envision the plan. And to some extent he’s involved in the implementation of that plan. But he also lets the people do the majority of the work. His plan becomes theirs. 

So how do godly leaders get God’s work accomplished? They have a plan. Then they bring their plan to the Lord first and do the necessary research before unveiling it. When they do unveil it to their followers, they give them reasons to adopt the plan. They then let their plan become that of the people. And all the while they have an alert eye on the opposition and are ready to respond appropriately.