Nehemiah Took the Bull by Its Horns
Facing a task as monumental as rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and encouraging the people to do so is daunting in and of itself. Add to this the fact that Nehemiah’s work had to be done in the midst of opposition and it becomes even more so.
Just about everything was against Nehemiah. He had to work with people who had not yet come to grips with the need or the importance of the work; otherwise, they would have done it already. Nehemiah had never been in Jerusalem before as far as we know, which means that he was not familiar with the city — either its topography or culture. He didn’t know what to expect. And he was also not an engineer by trade. His service as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes had not prepared him to build a wall. Therefore, he had to figure out what needed to be done and the best way to do it. He worked through all of these details, as we read in our text, without mentioning them to a single person.
But Nehemiah was not the least bit discouraged or overwhelmed. To the contrary, he showed himself up to the task at every point. And in this his ability to lead the people of God anticipated the leadership of our Lord Jesus Christ. Our great trailblazer, after enduring to cross, despising its shame and taking his seat at the right hand of God the Father, encourages us not to become weary or faint in our minds when we set out to do the work of his kingdom (Heb. 12:2–3).
Nehemiah likewise just did what he had to do and he allowed nothing to stand in his way.
Patience with a Purpose
Verse 11 says that Nehemiah waited for three days after arriving in Jerusalem. Although the reason for this wait is not stated, there are at least three possibilities. He may have waited simply because he and those who were with him were tired and needed to rest. Their trip, after all, covered several hundred miles and took at least two months to complete. Even Jesus encouraged his disciples to rest occasionally so that they might be refreshed for greater service (Mark 6:31). Perhaps Nehemiah also spent the time praying. We have already seen that he frequently devoted himself to prayer. He prayed when his brother brought him word of the condition of Jerusalem, and he prayed when the king asked him the reason for his sadness. Having now seen the devastation of the city with his own eyes, it is very likely that he also called upon God for strength and wisdom to complete the task. James says, If any of you lack wisdom, let him ask of God, that giveth to all men liberally, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him (Jas. 1:5). It’s also possible that Nehemiah used some of this time to meet the leaders of the Jewish community. Knowing that he would have to work closely with them for the next few months, a sense of where they stood theologically and politically would have been extremely helpful.
In any case, Nehemiah’s leave of absence from the king’s service was limited and his mission was urgent. We can be sure that he did not fritter it away, but used it somehow to accomplish his goals.
At the end of the three days, Nehemiah went out to survey the condition of the city. Verse 12 makes it clear that he did not want anyone to know what he was doing. He went out by night, i.e., while just about everyone else was asleep, so that no one would see him. And when he left, he took only a few men with him. These were, no doubt, men whom he could trust, but even they were not privileged to know the reason for his nighttime reconnaissance. Nehemiah also took only one animal with him, perhaps a horse or mule, to aid him in surveying the city. Too many animals would have made a lot of noise and commotion, and would have aroused the curiosity of others.
As Nehemiah recorded his story for us, twice he mentioned the fact that he had not revealed his plan to anyone (vv. 12 and 16). Sometimes letting information too early can be detrimental to one’s purpose. The Lord Jesus also revealed himself little by little. Once he told a leper not to tell anyone that he had healed him (Matt. 8:4). Instead, he was to show himself to the priest and make the appropriate sacrifice. After Peter acknowledged him to be the Messiah, he admonished told all the disciples not to reveal this information to anyone else (Matt. 16:20). This, of course, was only a temporary restriction. Today we are to tell this to as many people as we can find. And after the Transfiguration, Jesus commanded those who had witnessed it that they were not to report what they had seen until after the resurrection (Matt. 17:9).
In Nehemiah’s case, there were at least two reasons for his caution. First, he wanted to make a careful and accurate assessment of the city’s condition and needs before presenting a plan to those who would be working with him. Earlier in the chapter he had been just as careful when he approached the king. The Scriptures exhort us not to be rash in our decision-making. Proverbs 18:13 says, He that answereth a matter before he heareth it, it is folly and shame unto him. And Jesus said that we should first sit down and count the cost before undertaking a project, lest we get part way through it and realized we do not have sufficient funds to complete it (Luke 14:28–32). And second, Nehemiah did not want to arouse any unnecessary opposition at this point. When the Jews had attempted to rebuild the wall earlier, they announced their plan early and the opposition immediately crippled their efforts (Ezra 4:12). To prevent this, Nehemiah chose not to subject his plan to public scrutiny until he was sure of what had to be done.
This was, after all, the Lord’s work, not Nehemiah’s. Nehemiah understood this. Note how clearly he stated his sense of the divine calling in verse 12: what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem.
As Nehemiah investigated the condition of the wall that night, he went past several landmarks that help us trace his path. He mentioned these in verses 13 to 14. He left the city through the Valley Gate, which was the main gate along the western wall. From there he went toward the south, passing by the Dragon Well. Although we do not know what the Dragon Well was, it was apparently not too far from the Valley Gate. It could have been either a well, as the KJV translates it, or perhaps a smaller gate. Here the Hebrew can also be translated as the Dragon’s Eye (עֵין הַתַּנִּין). At the southern edge of the city near the Valley of Hinnom, Nehemiah came upon the Dung Port. This had two uses: Jerusalem’s main sewer line exited the city here, and it was also through this gate that the city’s other refuse was removed and burned. Along the southeastern wall was the Fountain Gate, and a little beyond that was the King’s Pool. Again, we cannot be certain about what the King’s Pool was, but it may have been an overflow reservoir for the Pool of Siloam.
So far, Nehemiah’s journey was fairly straightforward. He left the city on the west side, travel southward and then partway up the east side. At this point he had seen the worst of the destruction— enough to confirm that the city was as bad off as his brother had said. In fact, there was so much debris that in most places Nehemiah could not get through on his animal. In any case, verse 15 suggests that Nehemiah turned around at Brook Kidron and then retraced his steps back to the Valley Gate.
Winning the Hearts of the People
Having conducted his survey of the damage, Nehemiah disclosed his plan to the people. But before doing so, in verse 16 he emphasized a second time that up until then he had kept everything to himself.
What Nehemiah said to the people, as he recorded it for us in verses 17 and 18, is really a masterpiece of Biblical motivation. Everything he said was calculated to bring about the desired result, viz., convincing the people of the need for the work and of their involvement in it. If you look at his speech carefully, you’ll find that he used five specific points to motivate the people.
First, he identified himself with those who would be doing the work. Note the pronouns in verse 17: Ye see the distress that we are in … let us build up the wall of Jerusalem (v. 17). Although he had been in the city only a few days, he made it clear to everyone that they were all in this together, including himself. And this wasn’t just a tactical ploy on his part. In his prayer in chapter 1, he confessed his sins and the sins of his fathers, not just the sins of those who lived in Jerusalem and had not taken the time to reconstruct the wall. Just as the problem included in Nehemiah, so also did the solution. They would build the wall together.
Second, Nehemiah emphasized the serious of the problem: Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire (v. 17). The walls, which symbolized the Lord’s protection of his people, lay in ruins. But note that te mentioned the problem without dwelling on it. In a sense, the problem was self evident, although it had been ignored for several decades. Nor did he cast blame on others. He just said, This is what we need to deal with.
Third, having identified the problem, Nehemiah told the people what needed to be done about it. He said, Come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem (v. 17).
Fourth, Nehemiah explained the theological importance of the work. The sorrowful condition of the city had made the Jews a reproach among the people. Outsiders would wonder how could the Jews could claim that God loved them when they wallowed in such misery and weakness? Not only was this a criticism of the people, it was even more a criticism of God himself. God had failed to provide for his own. He must not be much of a God. This was Nehemiah’s brother complaint at the very beginning of the book (Neh. 1:3). Here we learn that it was Nehemiah’s concern, too (cf. 4:4; 5:9). But rebuilding the wall but take all of this away. The Jews would be no more a reproach (v. 17).
And fifth, Nehemiah outlined his own experiences that had led him to Jerusalem in the first place. He wrote, I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me (v. 18). He told them how he had approached the king and how the king had shown him so much kindness. This assured them that Artaxerxes really had reversed his earlier decree prohibiting the rebuilding of the wall. Nehemiah’s burden for the work and the Lord’s blessing on his effort convinced the people that the time was right.
The Lord used Nehemiah’s words to awaken the Jews, who had grown used to their own misery, to their need, and they responded by committing themselves wholeheartedly to the work. Nehemiah did not have to tell them a second time, nor did he have to plead with them for their cooperation. He just told them where things stood and they pledged themselves to the task. They said, Let us rise up and build (v. 18). But note this: they didn’t just agree to do the work. Nehemiah reports that they strengthened their hands in it. This means that they embraced the work enthusiastically and that they encouraged each other in it.
Now, we all know how people often are when it comes to jobs like this. We make every excuse under the sun why it should not or cannot be done, and why we shouldn’t have to do it. The Jews could have reminded Nehemiah that Zerubbabel’s earlier attempt to do the same thing had failed, but they didn’t. They could have claimed that things were fine just as they were, but this wasn’t their response either. They could have said that they just had too much to do. But instead, they recognize that the work was God’s and it was, therefore, a good work. They wanted to do it.
Nehemiah, being an outsider in a sense, was more effective than a local leader could have been. He had never lived in Jerusalem and was not familiar with the intricacies of its culture and life. But he had a vision for the work and a plan for how to achieve it. In fact, we’re not stretching things when we say that he had a greater vision for the work when he saw it at night than the local residents had had in the broad daylight. And he was able to communicate his vision effectively. If leadership is defined as “the art of getting people to do what they ought to do because they really want to do it,” then Nehemiah was unquestionably a leader! He turned the people’s despair into hope once again.
The last two verses of chapter 2 turn our thoughts again to Nehemiah’s enemies. We were introduced to two of them, Sanballet and Tobiah, in verse 10. Now a third individual comes into the mix, an Arabian named Geshem or Gashmu (as he is called in 6:6), who was probably a powerful chieftain in the desert country to the south of Jerusalem. Although he was just as much under the control of the Persians as his confederates, he governed a large alliance of Arabian tribes between Judah and the Sinai Peninsula. This meant that the Jews were completely surrounded by opposition: Sanballet to the north, Tobiah to the east, and now Geshem to the south.
These men — the united nations, if you will — tried to stop the work by discouraging the builders. Their method was mockery, which some describe as “the weapon of those who have no other.” They even tried to make the argument that the Jews were rebelling against the king. Apparently, they either didn’t know or didn’t care that Nehemiah had come to Jerusalem with the king’s letters.
God’s enemies will always be hostile to the reign of his Son. Psalm 2 says that the kings of the earth conspire together to break his bands and cast away his cords. When they can find nothing else, they often resort to ridicule and misrepresentation. Jesus subjected himself to the same. Isaiah predicted that he would be despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief (Isa. 53:3). It’s a matter of historical record that the priests and soldiers laughed at him, struck him on the face, blindfolded him and spoke every blasphemy against him (Luke 22:63–64; 23:11). And we can expect no less. The apostles were accused of drunkenness, insane babbling and madness (Acts 2:13; 17:18; 26:24). It is our lot as God’s people to be destitute, afflicted, torment, but we must remember the world is not worthy of those who bear their suffering well in the service of Jesus Christ (Heb. 11:37–38).
Nehemiah’s enemies were well informed of the work that he was about to do because they had friends and supporters in Jerusalem who were feeding them information. We discover this later in Nehemiah. In any case, both Sanballet and Tobiah believed that they had a right to participate because they were “followers of Jehovah.” Tobiah’s name, for example, means “Jehovah is good.” The names of Sanballat’s children, which are mentioned in extra-biblical sources, were also compound forms of God’s name. But neither of these men practiced a pure religion. It was a mix of Biblical and pagan elements common to the Samaritans. But Nehemiah refused to accept their concocted religion, insisting instead that God would bless only the labors of his true servants.
Nehemiah’s response is instructive. He could have done any number of things. He could have ignored his adversaries (Prov. 26:4), but he knew that the Jews themselves needed to hear his response. He could have debated the rightness of his actions with them, but this would only have given them another opportunity to speak their minds. No, Nehemiah simply proclaimed the truth to them. He identified the God of heaven, not the king of Persia, as the one authorizing and blessing his work. He informed them that the Jews would continue their work and emphatically asserted that others, no matter how vociferously they claimed to be followers of Jehovah, have no part in it. The fact that they claimed to follow Jehovah didn’t really mean that much since they had forgotten who Jehovah is.
Nehemiah teaches us to be careful yet fearless in the service of Jesus Christ. That’s how Jesus earned your salvation.
Sometimes the work looks too big. Sometimes the opposition seems too great. But are these things really challenges for our God? He simply spoke his word and called all things into existence. Exercising his omnipotent strength, he raised his Son out of death itself and thereby demonstrated that he had conquered all of your sins. Are we to believe, then, that he cannot or does not conquer the challenges that we face day by day? Shame on us if that’s what we think!
God had called Nehemiah to advance the kingdom of his Son. He commands us to do the same. Let’s never be timid about it. Tell your neighbors about the Lord. Fight against the cultural idols of the day — abortion, sodomy, promiscuity, hedonism, etc. — as you have opportunity. Raise your children to engage in the battle with you. Be like Nehemiah in your work — pray, plan and work! Amen.