Every action has an equal and opposite reaction in the realm of physics. But the same occurs in the spiritual realm as well. When there is movement going forward, there is also friction moving against it. In leadership, any project is bound to undergo opposition before it meets success.
While God’s people are rallying behind Nehemiah in chapter 2 and uniting to build the wall in chapter 3, chapter 4 gives us insight into what their enemies were doing. God was not the only One moving—His enemy was too. A coalition alliance had been forming against Nehemiah’s initiative consisting of Sanballat the governor of Samaria (northern region), Tobiah the Ammonite (an eastern region), Geshem the Arabian king (a southern region), and the Ashdodites (west of Israel). They could not openly war against Jerusalem for Nehemiah was under the protection of the king but they used ridicule (4:1–3), violence (4:7–8), and discouragement (4:11–12).
This week we find the biblical answer to external forms of opposition: prayer. It sounds like a simple answer, but it really is the ultimate means to overcome any challenge. Instead of letting emotion take over, Nehemiah resorted to prayer. He did not repress or express his frustrations to others. Instead, he confessed his heart to the Lord and then re-assessed his situation. This focus allowed the people to have confidence in their leader and to mimic his restraint and resolve.
Why were there opponents to Nehemiah? It happens to be a part of sinful human nature that the promotion and fruition of the other threatens the interests of the self. In Nehemiah’s case, it was simple geo-political economics. Centered between the Tigris-Euphrates river valley city-states and the Nile-centered Egyptian economy, a stable Jerusalem ensured trade potential and secure commercial enterprise. In turn, this would downplay Samaria’s role in the region, having repercussions for her allies as well. Insecurity usually leads to “whatever benefits the other, threatens me” kind of thinking.
Have you met people like this? Or perhaps you have felt this way yourself? Upon hearing about a promotion, an award, or some acknowledgement of another, insecurity can lead to scorn, sarcasm, sneering, and insult. “You know, she only got that award because…” Or, “the position needed to be filled immediately, so they gave it to you temporarily until…” Mixed with passive aggression, jealousy, and/or all sorts of toxic thinking, self seeks to preserve its dignity at the expense of downplaying the other.
Sanballat resorts to ridicule as his first attack. Scripture states, “that he was furious and very indignant, mocking the Jews.” (4:1) Secondly, Sanballat “spoke before his brethren and the army of Samaria” (4:2). Rather than addressing Nehemiah, the teasing takes place outside his hearing range. The established Samaritan army was so anxious about their future that their leaders mocked Jerusalem behind their back. So intense was their mockery that Scripture records the frivolous soundbites of the sidekick, Tobiah, about a fox (4:3).
The insults fall into the following categories:“these feeble Jews” (mocking identity and culture); “will they fortify themselves?” (mocking ability); “will they offer sacrifices?” (mocking religion and conviction); “will they end in a day?" (mocking experience); “will they revive the stones from the heaps of rubbish” (mocking knowledge and education); and “if even a fox goes up on it” (mocking quality).
As it is with the nature of these comments, they manage to spread and eventually migrate to Sanballat’s intended audience. Scripture does not specifically state who is praying, but the context is clear that it is Nehemiah who prayed in 4:4, 5. It is almost as if he was so impatient to pray that he did not even have enough time to write, “and I prayed.” Rather, his reaction was the immediate prayer itself.
Every individual has a set of beliefs about themselves which they hold dear. It is part of the self-identity grounded in a variety of different fields. As mentioned before, Sanballat attacked Nehemiah’s identity/culture, ability, religion/conviction, experience, knowledge/education, and quality of work, hoping to get some reaction out of him. As the anecdote goes, if someone were to stumble into you while you were holding a full mug, what would spill out? This is the ultimate goal of the intimidators—they want to “expose” what they assume will be your negative emotions. Sanballat was so petrified and irate about the wall project and through his attacks, he attempted to push Nehemiah into spilling those same emotions.
But what spills out of Nehemiah? He is not perturbed by the personal attacks. In place of reactionary retaliation, self-justification, or denial, he instead finds a conduit for his emotional response through prayer (4:4, 5). Instead of justifying his years of experience as a courtier or legal documentation, what immediately spills out is his concern for the glory of God.
Imprecatory prayers, those that curse others, can be difficult to explain, especially in the light of Jesus’ teachings. But they are found in Scripture, especially in the writings of David, a man after God’s own heart, (Ps. 5:10; 10:15; 28:4; 31:17, 18; 35:4–6; 40:14, 15; 58:6–11; 69:22–28; 109:6–15; 139:19–22; 140:9, 10). In these passages, the emotion that drives the prayer is not anger and self-justification. Instead, the praying makes the prayer-er so identify with God and His work that they forget themselves. In Nehemiah’s case, the project was so much more than the insults of Sanballat, the walls of Jerusalem, or the geo-political dynamics of that time. There were universal and salvific repercussions to it and Nehemiah knew where he stood in salvation history. In prayer, he was at one with God, seeking to remove any deterrent to the plan of salvation.
Christians fluctuate from being confidently presumptuous in God’s ability, discounting trials and tribulations altogether as petty, to being anxiously nervous, thinking that the entire plan of salvation is dependent on us! Both can appear to be zealous and faithful, but both are selfish and even negate the sacrifice of Christ on the cross! Instead of egotistically weighing our role and the capability of the opposition, it is the simple relationship with the Lord and being in the middle of His will through prayer that enables us to have the victory. When Nehemiah was stumbled into, it was this relationship that was concerned for God’s glory, which spilled out.
The term hippie is derived from a countercultural movement which started in North America in the 1960s and eventually influenced the whole globe. This movement emphasized freedom, open love which fueled the sexual revolution, and an anti-establishment liberality. With slogans like “flower power” and “make love, not war,” its approach to religion was nothing new, but a de-emphasis on particulars, and a stress on all things positive. Contemporary renditions of the movement include the New Age movement, bohemians, and other “spiritual, but not religious” ideologies. They claim to have the innate exegetical ability to distinguish that which is positive and core from that which is negative and superfluous. Many consider Jesus to have taught free love and spiritual freedom from negative “vibes.”
Yes, He had a beard; and the paintings have Him with the iconic long hairstyle and “sash.” But those things do not make Jesus a hippie. We need to view Christ from a biblical lens—from His own teachings. Though Jesus was the embodiment of love and taught all things positive, there are some things that are striking.
For example, John 15:18–25 has our Lord saying some sharp words, “If the world hates you, you know that it hated Me before it hated you…He who hates Me hates My Father also. If I had not done among them the works which no one else did, they would have no sin; but now they have seen and also hated both Me and My Father. But this happened that the word might be fulfilled which is written in their law, ‘They hated Me without a cause’” (NKJV). The passage ends with Christ quoting from an imprecatory prayer from David. It’s not that Jesus is bitter and desiring to curse His enemies. Rather Jesus came and drew sharp lines between the world and heaven (Matt. 10:34). He taught and lived out the principles of the kingdom of heaven fully knowing that many would hate Him and these principles. He had, does, and will have enemies. But it’s clear that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12, NKJV). He is the Victor in a larger spiritual war (Rev. 14:7–12).
It was not holy escapism that Christ taught or superficially saccharine spirituality. Jesus fought and continues to fight as our Warrior-King, pursuing the salvation of souls, and ultimately desirous to eliminate our carnal natures (Rom. 6:4–9) for the conversion of the worldly to the spiritual. This implies passion, zeal, fortitude, passion, and a certain intensity that can only be explained in the context of this sinful world, the holiness of heaven, and the righteousness of Christ.
Those who were restoring the defenses of Jerusalem did not go forward in their work unmolested. Satan was busy in stirring up opposition and creating discouragement. The principal agents in this movement were Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian. These idolaters had exulted in the feeble and defenseless condition of the Jews, and had mocked at their religion, and ridiculed their devastated city. And when the work of rebuilding the wall was entered upon, they, with envenomed zeal, set themselves to hinder the undertaking. To accomplish this, they attempted to cause division among the workmen by suggesting doubts and arousing unbelief as to their success. They also ridiculed the efforts of the builders, declared the enterprise an impossibility, and predicted a disgraceful failure…
The builders on the wall were soon beset by more active opposition. They were compelled to guard continually against the plots of their sleepless adversaries. The emissaries of the enemy endeavored to destroy their courage by the circulation of false reports; conspiracies were formed on various pretexts to draw Nehemiah into their toils; and false-hearted Jews were found ready to aid the treacherous undertaking. Again, the report was spread that Nehemiah was plotting rebellion against the Persian monarch, intending to exalt himself as king over Israel, and that all who aided him were traitors.
Emissaries of the enemy, professing friendliness, mingled with the builders, suggesting changes in the plan, seeking in various ways to divert the attention of the workers, to cause confusion and perplexity, and to arouse distrust and suspicion. And the plans formed for the advancement of the work were reported, by these spies, to the enemy, and thus they were enabled to labor with greater effect to thwart the purpose of the builders…
The experience of Nehemiah is repeated in the history of God’s people in this time. Those who labor in the cause of truth will find that they cannot do this without exciting the anger of its enemies. Though they have been called of God to the work in which they are engaged, and their course is approved of him, they cannot escape reproach and derision. They will be denounced as visionary, unreliable, scheming, hypocritical,—anything, in short, that will suit the purpose of their enemies. The most sacred things will be represented in a ridiculous light to amuse the ungodly. A very small amount of sarcasm and low wit, united with envy, jealousy, impiety, and hatred, is sufficient to excite the mirth of the profane scoffer. And these presumptuous jesters sharpen one another’s ingenuity, and embolden each other in their blasphemous work. Contempt and derision are indeed painful to human nature; but they must be endured by all who are true to God. It is the policy of Satan thus to turn souls from doing the work which the Lord has laid upon them.
Proud scorners are not to be trusted; yet, as Satan found in the heavenly courts a company to sympathize with him, so these find among professed followers of Christ those whom they can influence, who believe them honest, who sympathize with them, plead in their behalf, and become permeated with their spirit.
Lessons from the Life of Nehemiah by Mrs. E. G. White pp. 33–35 (SW April 12, 1904, Art. A)