Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern. This week we are studying Nehemiah 4, an extra dramatic passage that is mined more than any other chapter in Nehemiah for application that applies to the lives of believers today.
Last week, chapter 3 gave a dry version of the who, what, and where of the wall project. Chapter 4 is not at all dry but rather layered with suspense. We learn that despite the cooperation of the remnant, outside forces were constantly coming up with new ways to disrupt the building. The two chapters are not in contradiction with each other, but they give two different perspectives.
News of the fortification project provoked a strong reaction in the region, especially with the Samarian governor Sanballat. When Sanballat first appeared in the narrative, he was irritated by Nehemiah’s arrival and ambitions (2:10). By chapter 4, with the wall fortifications in full swing, his irritation bloomed into rage. Sanballat’s first attempt to stop the work on the wall was parading his army past the wall to intimidate the workers. The soldiers provided a taunting crowd to back up all Sanballat’s heckling of the Jewish laborers.
Turning to the crowd of soldiers and his Samarian associates, Sanballat jeered, “What are these feeble Jews doing?” (4:2). In previous chapters, he tried to establish common ground with the remnant as fellow Yahwists. Abandoning the approach of finding common ground, his insults come off like he is a basic antisemite, but this of course was before antisemite was even a label. Sanballat’s accusation that the Jews were feeble demonstrates just how much he did not understand the God of the Jews. The Bible is replete with stories of Yahweh choosing to exhibit his mighty works through the meek and humble. Moses was “slow of speech” (Ex. 4:10) and David was the youngest of Jesse’s sons (1 Sam. 16:11). Yet, they are the two heroic giants of the Hebrew scriptures. Even Jesus, the son of God, was “despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3). Yet, Jesus famously preached “blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). Over and over in the Bible, “God chose what the world considers weak to put what is strong to shame” (1 Cor. 1:27). Charges of feebleness cannot phase the godly who truly understand the ways of God.
Sanballat asked four more mocking questions: “Will they restore it by themselves? Will they offer sacrifice? Will they finish it in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish—burned ones at that?” (4:2). Sanballat and his allies were determined to kill the builders’ morale. Every sarcastic question insulted the capability of the people. The enemies wanted to sow doubt in the remnants’ mind. The enemies wanted the builders to think they were not prepared to accomplish such a significant task. Asking if they “will offer sacrifice” is the most difficult question to interpret. At that point, sacrifices at the Second Temple had been ongoing for decades. Most likely, Sanballat was being facetious, suggesting the builders were putting their confidence in prayer and worship rather than skill and ability.
Clearly, Sanballat was the ringleader and Tobiah was his backup, one insult buoying the next. Tobiah taunted, “that stone wall they are building—any fox going up on it would break it down!” (4:3) In my head, Sanballat and Tobiah are a bit like the Rocky and Bullwinkle duo, with Tobiah being the dim-witted Bullwinkle. Tobiah was either Sanballat’s aid or an official in charge of the Ammonite province. His name was Hebrew in origin but his identity was Ammonite, which is evidence of the widespread syncretism among the peoples of the land (1 Kings 17:27-28).
Unannounced, Nehemiah launched into a prayer. Classic Nehemiah, he recorded his own prayer in his memoir. He called on God to punish their enemies. He prayed, “Turn their taunt back on their own heads, and give them over as plunder in a land of captivity” (4:4). Nehemiah is praying for God to punish their enemies the same way he had chosen to discipline Judah, captivity and exile. The prayer is reminiscent of many of David’s Psalms asking God for vengeance against his persecutors.
Nehemiah 4 gives more insight into the reconstruction methods of the laborers than we were given in the last chapter. They first built the wall to half its original height (4:6) repairing the breaches along the way (4:7). Most importantly, “the people had a mind to work” (4:6). Sanballat and his cronies accused the Judeans of not being up to the task of rebuilding the wall, but they underestimated the Judeans’ will. After introducing the outside opposition to the project, Nehemiah stated, “so we rebuilt the wall” (4:6), indicating the intimidation tactics failed to slow their progress.
Why was Nehemiah’s success so threatening to the other peoples of the land? The significance of the Jerusalem wall went beyond a physical barrier. The surrounding nations recognized that the power structures in the region were about to change and they wanted to resist that change with all their might. Since the Babylonians first brought down Jerusalem’s fortifications, the city and its temple mount were freely accessible to anyone.
The wall would change that dynamic, and certainly box out any syncretistic locals who wanted to worship Yahweh in Jerusalem and their other gods someplace else. Another likelihood is that the local enemies may have believed that Judah would rebel against the empire or stop paying taxes (2:10,19).
Years prior in their letter to King Artaxerxes, that was their exact accusation. Then, they had warned the king, “if this city is rebuilt and the walls finished, they will not pay tribute, custom, or toll, and the royal revenue will be reduced” (4:13). They said Jerusalem had a long history of rebellious kings (4:20). The fear of the locals was that a revolt in Judah could implicate the whole region and bring them all down.
It was not only Sanballat and his Samarians who were offended by Nehemiah’s ambition. An alliance of persecutors surrounded Judah on all sides: Samaria to the north, Ammonites to the east, and Arabs to the south. They were all in agreement that the physical and national restoration of Judah threatened the region. Surrounded by hostility, Judah risked a military attack from every side.
Nehemiah’s letters of approval from the king held back the alliance from launching a full-scale attack on Jerusalem. An attack on Nehemiah’s project could provoke the ire of the imperial army and no one was prepared to take that risk. Verbal harassment and trying to “cause confusion” were their main tactics (4:8). Most likely they would pick off one unsuspecting worker at a time (4:11).
Nehemiah’s approach was a mix of trusting faith and prepared action. He wrote, “we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection” (4:9). Preachers often quote this verse as a faith lesson for how faith and practicality are not mutually exclusive. Nehemiah organized a guard system for the wall while also praying to God for protection.
The enemies seemed ready to resort to violence. Their verbal threats at the start of the chapter turned to physical threats. Nehemiah commanded the people, “Remember the Lord….and fight” (4:14). Time and again, throughout the book, Nehemiah cleverly developed a counterapproach to every obstacle. He also responded spiritually, through prayer and scriptural reminders, to every problem. Nehemiah trusted in God but he was also prudent. Recall that unlike Ezra he took King Artaxerxes up on the offer of an imperial escort.
Nehemiah wrote in his memoir, “Judah said, ‘The strength of the burden bearers is failing, and there is too much rubbish so that we are unable to work on the wall’” (4:10). Commentaries conjecture that Nehemiah was sharing one of the laborers’ songs of lament while they worked. In my imagination, the lament is to the tune of the Christian folk hymn, “Down in the River to Pray.” The verse has a lyrical sound in Hebrew, revealing that their strength was giving way after nonstop work from sunrise to sunset (4:21).
Even at night, when they were most vulnerable, they slept inside the city with their weapons ready (4:22). The remnants’ perseverance is stunning but Nehemiah does not coverup the hardship and the depletion of spirit. The people are strong and willing, but they are weary and Nehemiah gave voice to their troubles.
In case the enemies made good on their threats to “kill them and stop the work,” Nehemiah set up rotating shifts of families serving as armed guards (4:11). The guards stood watch with their weapons on the low places along the wall to spot any advancing enemy launching a surprise attack. The presence of a visible armed guard on the wall was also meant as a deterrence (4:12). The goal was to show their enemies their military preparedness.
With Judah’s small population, everyone had a part in the militia and the labor force (4:17-20). Every community member had a part in both fortifying the walls and soldiering the walls. Builders needed their hands free so they carried swords at their sides. Carriers, armed with spears, shields, and armor—had a weapon in one hand and worked with the other. They needed quick access to their weapons, presumably because they went further from the safety of the wall to gather materials.
They also formed a communication channel to alert workers at any section of the wall if danger approached (4:13-14). The trumpeter stayed close to Nehemiah. As general of his army, he stayed in command and was responsible for making the call. At the sound of the trumpet blast, workers were ready at any moment to convert to troops. Vigilance was critical.
Nehemiah, in another of his inspiring speeches, told the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord who is great and awesome and fight for your kin” (4:14). For Nehemiah, the wellspring of God’s greatness was a source of constant comfort, as it had always been in the story of the children of Abraham. Nehemiah was quoting a speech that Moses gave to the Israelites when they had feared the strength of the Canaanites (Deut. 7:21). Certainly, the context of Moses’ speech had many parallels to the situation Nehemiah’s people faced. There is one notable difference, however, in Nehemiah’s quotation from the original. Nehemiah deliberately avoided using the covenant name, Yahweh, and replaced it with the title Lord, or Adonai.
This verse in Nehemiah is early evidence of a trend that developed slowly in Second Temple Judaism. By the Roman period, Jewish tradition forbid any utterance of the covenant name. The altered quotation in Nehemiah showed the people were already taking certain precautions to guard God’s name. In the coming centuries, the Jewish teachers promoted substitute names—like El, Adonai, or Hashem—as safer options for addressing God. The substitutes protected them from accidentally saying the covenant name in a way that was irreverent.
By the time the Mishnah was codified around the second century BCE, the rabbis warned that anyone who pronounced the ineffable name of God would lose their share in the world to come (Mishnah Sanhedrin 10).
The four consonant name of Yahweh is called the tetragrammaton. Because Jews have not said the name aloud for millennia, and the vowel sounds were not recorded, debate surrounds the pronunciation of the name. However, most Hebrew scholars would agree that it is Yahweh. Our founder, Jim Hutchens, believed strongly that the name of God had power and was holy to be treated with the utmost respect and awe. However, Jim believed with all his heart it was a historic mistake to stop saying the name completely. Influenced by his teaching, I say the Aaronic blessing over my children every night, reverently pronouncing God’s covenant name over the people most sacred to me in this life.
I hope at this point in our Nehemiah reading, we have a new appreciation for Nehemiah’s laborers as overcomers. The peoples of the land mocked and threatened them but the Judeans stayed committed to their purpose. Chapter 3 and 4 work together to commemorate the workers and their leader, Nehemiah. Undergirding their resolve always was the knowledge that God would frustrate the plans of their enemies (4:15) and ultimately God would fight for them (4:20).
As humans, we participate in the will and work of God on earth, even if we know that ultimately God will do what God will do. He has invited us to be part of the kingdom-work of redemption. In his mercy, God has extended himself to humanity but we must choose to reach out to him as well.
I do not say all the references in the podcast but they are all in the transcript.
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