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.