Labor and Conflict: Exposition on Nehemiah

Nehemiah 6  •  18 min. read  •  grade level: 9
Chapter 6
In this chapter Nehemiah returns to his conflicts with the enemy, brought upon him in connection with building the wall of the city. Chapter 5 is therefore really parenthetical, although, as we have seen, it teaches, in its connection with the 6th, an important truth. In it Nehemiah was engaged in correcting abuses within, and, having been enabled to restore the relationships of the people according to the Word, he resumes his narrative of the activity of the adversary. But though the subject is the same, there is a great difference between chapters 4 and 6. In the former the enemy displayed his opposition; in the latter he practices subtlety, and seeks to decoy under the guise of friendship, rather than to deter by the exhibition of his power. We shall accordingly find traces of his presence within as well as without. If in chapter 4 he appears as a roaring lion, in chapter 6 he seeks to circumvent by his wiles—the two forms in which he ever opposes the people of God. (See Eph. 6:1111Put on the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. (Ephesians 6:11); 1 Pet. 5:8, 98Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour: 9Whom resist stedfast in the faith, knowing that the same afflictions are accomplished in your brethren that are in the world. (1 Peter 5:8‑9).)
The first two verses open out to us the first wile of the adversary. "Now it came to pass, when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, and the rest of our enemies, heard that I had builded the wall, and that there was no breach left therein (though at that time I had not set up the doors upon the gates;) that Sanballat and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of One." The diligence and perseverance of Nehemiah, overcoming, through the blessing of God, all obstacles, had carried on the work almost to completion. "No breach" was left in the wall, and consequently there was now no covert way of entrance. The doors were still unhung, but these were open to observation, and by these only could the enemies of God's people approach. It was time therefore to put forth their final effort, and they accordingly propose a conference, as if they too were interested in the welfare of Israel! But when the servant of the Lord is walking in His presence, and with purpose of heart is pursuing the path of His will, he is never deceived by Satan's artifices. Thus it was with Nehemiah, and hence he adds, "But they thought to do me mischief." He knew that darkness could have no communion with light, that Satan could not contemplate with pleasure the progress of the Lord's work, that hating his Master, he must hate also His servant. Accordingly he penetrated at once to the heart of the object Sanballat and his companions had in view. Still he "sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?" v. 3. When the Lord sent forth His disciples, He charged them to salute no man by the way (Luke 10), that they might learn the absorbing character of His claims, that, when engaged in His service, they had no leisure to turn aside for friendly salutations, but must unwearyingly pursue their mission. Nehemiah had therefore the Lord's mind in the answer he sent, apart from his knowledge of the evil nature of their designs. Doing a great work, it was his business to persevere, even if friends had solicited him to leave it; and to leave it but for a moment would cause it to cease. It was impossible—consistent with the claims of his service—for him to "come down." Many of us might with advantage be instructed by the example of this faithful servant; indeed, it would save us from many a snare. The Lord's work, if it be His work, is not to be taken up and laid down at will; but when He puts it into our hands it claims our first and constant attention, and is worthy of all our energies in its accomplishment. "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do" (if of the Lord), "do it with thy might."
The enemy was not content to let the matter rest. "They sent unto me four times after this sort; and I answered them after the same manner." v. 4. If faithfulness characterized Nehemiah in refusing to go, divine wisdom is equally apparent in the mode of his answer. It was "after the same manner." The circumstances had not changed, and hence his first answer was sufficient. But Satan was practicing upon the weakness of the human heart. He knew that souls are often betrayed by importunity. It was so with Samson. There was as much reason for his refusal to tell his secret at last as at first; but Delilah "pressed him daily with her words, and urged him, so that his soul was vexed unto death; that he told her all his heart." (Judges 16.) It is often so with ourselves, ignorant, as we are to our shame, of Satan's devices.
Failing to seduce Nehemiah by this plan, another artifice is now tried. "Then sent Sanballat his servant unto me in like manner the fifth time with an open letter in his hand; wherein was written, It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel," etc. (vv. 5-7.) Sanballat affects to be careful of Nehemiah's reputation, and to be fearful lest his proceedings should be misinterpreted! It was a most subtle mask which he assumed, for he contrives in his letter to insinuate three distinct charges which, if reported to the king, might well endanger Nehemiah's character if not his life. First, he speaks of rebellion, and even adduces a witness -Gashmu, or Geshem, the Arabian. Then he suggests what might, if indeed the first allegation were true, be connected with it; that is, that Nehemiah's object in building the wall was to make himself king. And, finally, he says that it was reported that he had appointed prophets to preach of him in Jerusalem, saying, "There is a king in Judah." It is more than likely that there was a show of truth in the last statement. A man so interested as Nehemiah was in his nation, would not forget that all their hopes were centered in the promised Messiah; and he may have sought, through the ministry of prophets, to revive the flagging energies of the people by recalling to their minds the glowing descriptions of the future kingdom under the sway of the true David, as recorded, for example, in the writings of Isaiah. A stranger could not enter into this or understand it and might well conclude that Nehemiah was sowing sedition and rebellion. The craft of Satan therefore is plainly distinguished in Sanballat's letter. But he had to do with one whose confidence was in God for wisdom as for strength; and hence it was that this attempt upon Nehemiah, like the former, completely failed. His answer is simplicity itself, a plain denial in a few words of the truth of these alleged reports, while at the same time he traced them back to their true source—Sanballat's own wicked heart. "There are no such things done as thou sayest, but thou feignest them out of thine own heart." v. 8. And this answer teaches us that we should never enter into an argument with the tempter; repel his accusations we may, but if we once begin to reason with him, or even to explain, we shall surely be vanquished. If Nehemiah alone had been concerned, it would have been well; but though the leader, and acting for the people, he could not infuse into them his trust in God, and his courage. This will explain his statement: "For they all made us afraid" (the "us" being really the people, Nehemiah identifying himself with them), "saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done." This was Satan's object, to wear out the people by these continued harassing assaults, raining down fiery darts upon them incessantly—darts which only the shield of faith could intercept and quench, and which without this shield could only produce despondency and fear if not destruction. None knew this better than this faithful and devoted servant, or how to avail himself of the weapons of defense against his artful adversary. Hence, while he maintained untiring vigilance against the enemy. he prayed without ceasing. The enemy had said, "Their hands shall be weakened." Nehemiah prayed, "Now therefore, O God" (these words, "0 God," being rightly inserted), "strengthen my hands." Nothing can be more beautiful than the spectacle of this man of God, pressed on every side, turning to God for the needed strength. What could the enemy do with such a man—a man who leaned upon the Almighty God as his defense and shelter? He was powerless, utterly powerless; and he confessed his defeat by changing his front, and proceeding with another wile.
Sanballat, finding the uselessness of these attacks from without, sought in the next place to conspire against Nehemiah from within. "Afterward," says Nehemiah, "I came unto the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah the son of Mehetabeel, who was shut up; and he said, Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us shut the doors of the temple: for they will come to slay thee." v. 10. Nehemiah, as the reader will perceive, was the one obstacle to the enemy's success, and thus the object of all hatred. For amid general unfaithfulness he was faithful—sustained in his path by the grace of his God. And on this very account it was that he found the path a lonely one. Enemies without, he knew there were; but now he has to discover that professed friends were among his foes. He followed therefore, at however great a distance, in the way trodden by our blessed Lord, whose keen sorrow, on the side of man, was that one of His own disciples betrayed Him. And mark the spiritual subtlety of this last temptation. Nehemiah had paid, it is evident, a visit of sympathy and friendship to Shemaiah, "who was shut up"; and his friend, seeming to be under great concern for Nehemiah's life, proposed that they should meet and shut themselves up in the temple for safety, urging that his enemies would come in the night to slay him. It was an appeal to his fears, and one apparently dictated by love and friendship, and sanctified by the holy place in which he was urged to conceal himself. But the tempter again missed his mark; or rather his darts failed to penetrate the invincible faith of this upright and faithful servant. "Should," he said, "such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in." What is life to a faithful soldier? The place for a soldier to die is in the post of duty. To flee would have been to deny his true character and to have exposed his followers to the victorious power of the enemy. Through grace Nehemiah was not one to turn his back to the foe in the day of battle; and he thus met the solicitations of his "friend" by resolutely declining his proffered advice. (Compare Psa. 55:12-1412For it was not an enemy that reproached me; then I could have borne it: neither was it he that hated me that did magnify himself against me; then I would have hid myself from him: 13But it was thou, a man mine equal, my guide, and mine acquaintance. 14We took sweet counsel together, and walked unto the house of God in company. (Psalm 55:12‑14).)
And it is a remarkable thing, that the moment Nehemiah refused the temptation, he perceived the whole character of the enemy's designs, and, piercing through all his disguises, discovered the evil and hypocrisy that were at work to entrap his feet. It is ever so. We are only blinded as long as the temptation
is unresisted; when it is refused, all concealment is gone, and Satan stands out fully disclosed. Nehemiah thus says, "And lo, I perceived that God had not sent him; but that he pronounced this prophecy against me; for Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. Therefore was he hired, that I should be afraid, and do so, and sin, and that they might have matter for an evil report, that they might reproach me." vv. 12, 13. This then was the secret; the enemy's gold had corrupted the prophets of God who warned Nehemiah in the Lord's name when He had not sent them. They could not serve God and mammon; for the moment they took a bribe from the latter they were bound hand and foot at his service, besides disqualifying themselves as the Lord's messengers. And what grief of heart it must have been to the faithful Nehemiah to detect the corrupting influences of the adversary within the holy circle of God's people, among those who should have been the mouthpiece of God to His servants. What a contrast to what we read in Ezra: "And with them" (Zerubbabel and Jeshua building the house of God) "were the prophets of God helping them." These prophets—those of the time of Nehemiah—were helping the enemy's, not the Lord's work. Alas, how often has it been so since that day, that those who have occupied the place of prophets, those who profess to be the communicators of God's mind to their fellows, have been in the pay and service of Satan. Even today the most subtle opponents of the truth of God and of building the wall of separation, under the plea of the brotherhood of all men, are found in the pulpits of Christendom.
And what was the object of Shemaiah, the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets? To ruin the character of the leader of God's people. They desired to make him afraid by destroying his trust in God, and thus to lead him into sin, "that they might have the matter for an evil report, that they might reproach me." This one faithful man, as we have before remarked, was the object of all the assaults and artifices of Satan; around his feet the most subtle snares were spread, because if he could but be worsted and overcome, the victory was assured. At this moment, as far as is revealed, the cause of God in Jerusalem depended upon the courage and fidelity of Nehemiah; and hence it was that Satan sought to circumvent him in every possible way. But though wave after wave dashed against him, he stood, by the grace of God, like a rock; and, unmoved by open opposition, his feet were also kept, although pitfalls were dug for him on every hand. God sustained His servant through that uprightness, integrity, and perseverance which are produced alone by a single eye, and by the maintenance of conscious dependence upon divine power. Once again therefore the plot failed.
The secret of Nehemiah's strength is shown in the next verse (14). Having unfolded the aims of the prophets, who had been hired by the enemy, he looks upward, and says: "My God, think Thou upon Tobiah and Sanballat according to these their works, and on the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear." Avoiding all open conflict as useless, he commits the matter to God, like Paul, who says, "Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works." 2 Tim. 4:1414Alexander the coppersmith did me much evil: the Lord reward him according to his works: (2 Timothy 4:14). It would be well for us to pay especial attention to these examples. There are many forms of evil which cannot be openly assailed without damage to ourselves and to others, and many evil workers in the Church of God that must be left alone. To attack them would only be to serve the cause of the enemy; but our resource in such circumstances is to cry to God against them. So also we read in Jude that "Michael the archangel, when contending with the devil he disputed about the body of Moses, durst not bring against him a railing accusation, but said, The Lord rebuke thee." v. 9. May the Lord give us more discernment that we may know how to "behave" ourselves wisely in our spiritual conflicts.
The reader will remark that, though this chapter is devoted to the exposure of the enemy's stratagems, the work of building the wall was in nowise hindered. The faith and courage of Nehemiah never faltered; and though he had been led to give, for our instruction, a detailed account of the wiles of Satan, we now find that the building must have been pressed forward with undiminished zeal; for he says, "So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days." "So" is a remarkable word in this connection. It might mean "in this manner," or "notwithstanding," or "in spite of," according as we take it in its literal or spiritual sense. The rapidity of the execution of the work is a testimony to the energy of the workmen under the guidance of Nehemiah; for "the city was large and great," and to surround it with a wall in fifty-two days was no mean accomplishment, though easily understood when it is remembered that the work was of God, and for God, and that He wrought with the builders. Even the adversaries of Israel were compelled to own this to themselves; for Nehemiah tells us: "And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God." v. 16. They had been so far utterly discomfited, and now, as they "heard" and "saw" that the wall was completed, their hopes were dashed to the ground; for this wall—the safety and security of God's people as long as they maintained it in holiness—was an invincible barrier to the foe. This they knew, and hence "they were much cast down in their own eyes." Surely this description is a shadow of the time of which the psalmist speaks: "Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. God is known in her palaces for a refuge. For, lo, the kings were assembled, they passed by together. They saw it, and so they marveled; they were troubled, and hosted away. Fear took hold upon them there, and pain, as of a woman in travail." Psalm 48:2-62Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King. 3God is known in her palaces for a refuge. 4For, lo, the kings were assembled, they passed by together. 5They saw it, and so they marvelled; they were troubled, and hasted away. 6Fear took hold upon them there, and pain, as of a woman in travail. (Psalm 48:2‑6).
The last three verses of the chapter are taken up with a description of another form of evil, with which Nehemiah had to contend, in the midst of God's people. Now the action proceeded not from Tobiah, but from the nobles of Judah. Evil, shut out by the completion of the wall, now springs up within and seeks to link itself with the evil without. The nobles of Judah entered into correspondence with Tobiah; and indeed they were "sworn unto him," for he was connected with them by a double tie. "He was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah; and his son Johanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah." v. 18. They had therefore allied themselves with an Ammonite, upon whom the curse of God rested (chap. 13:1), in direct disobedience to the word of God (Deut. 7:33Neither shalt thou make marriages with them; thy daughter thou shalt not give unto his son, nor his daughter shalt thou take unto thy son. (Deuteronomy 7:3)), whereby they also denied the truth of the special place they occupied as the people He had chosen for and separated unto Himself. This had been the continual source of weakness and corruption among the people of God; for the moment any, like these nobles, enter into relationships with the world, they must be opposed to the ground of separation on which they have been set. Nay, more; for James says: "Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God." Jas. 4:44Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God. (James 4:4). Solemn but true words. These nobles of Judah were thus the enemies of God, as are all such who desire to be the friends of the world. And mark how they immediately lost all sense of the distinction between God's people and His enemies; for we read that "they reported his" (Tobiah's) "good deeds before" Nehemiah, and he says they "uttered my words to him." As if good deeds could be done by an enemy of the people of God! They were seeking to prove, as so many do in the present day, that there is no difference after all between saints and the men of the world—that the actions of both are alike good. But what did they thereby prove? That they themselves had no conception of what was suited to a holy God, and that they in their own souls were on the ground of those who knew Him not. What wonder was it that, with such confederates inside the city, Tobiah renewed his attempts upon Nehemiah—sent letters to put him in fear?
We thus see that this devoted man of God had no rest, that he had to wage perpetual warfare against foes within and foes without; but singlehanded as he was, strengthened by his faith in God, he was superior to all the power of the foe. It is a wonderful record, and one that abundantly proves the all-sufficiency of God to sustain His servants, whatever their difficulties or perils in any service to which He calls them. To Him alone be all the praise!