The start of the autumn can be a daunting time. The summer’s nearly over. There is so much to do. Such is the state of the world we live in that the task of building the church on top of just coping with life looks very tough.
Well the Book of Nehemiah can help. That what’s we’re looking at again this morning. We’ve already been through the fast moving events of chapters 1 to 3. Today we come to chapter 4. Do please have that open in front of you. But let’s remind ourselves of where we’ve go to. This book begins with Jerusalem little more than a Temple surrounded by a sea of rubble and ash. The people were listless, demoralised, doubting. They had little hope and therefore less energy.
By the end of chapter 2 Nehemiah has been sent by the Persian King to this obscure colonial city with a mandate to rebuild it. He’s been given the necessary materials and military protection. He’s assessed the task ahead, formulated his plan, and presented it to the people. His skill as a leader is great. The work of God’s Spirit in the hearts of the people is powerful. So they embrace Nehemiah’s vision as their own, and they set to on the immense task of reconstructing the wall around Jerusalem.
As so often when serious obedience to God’s will begins, the opposition immediately revs into action as well. But that’s not going to stop them.
The people of God are rebuilding the city of God. There’s a clear analogy between what they were doing and what we are doing. Our task is to build up the church together. Theirs was to build up the walls together.
God is the architect of the church. The first thing an architect does is look at the site he’s dealing with. What do you think God sees as he looks around at the church in this country today? Do you think he sees rubble and ash everywhere? There are breaches in the walls all around. For a century or more, people have been haemorrhaging away from the church. And anti-Christian values and doctrine have been washing in like the tide over a sandcastle. Does the Lord look at us and see a church in ruins? No doubt he does. But he sees something else as well.
When an architect looks at his site he doesn’t just see the rubble. He also sees what will be there when the building is complete. So it is with God. And what is more he’s given us a privileged glimpse of what he’s creating. Revelation 21 is just such a glimpse.
“… he [the angel] carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem [that is, the church], coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel… The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.”
So there’s nothing fanciful about the analogy between Nehemiah building the walls of Jerusalem, and the building of the church. Jerusalem under the Old Covenant points forward to the church under the New Covenant. Jerusalem is God’s great visual aid in history. And the walls which this army of people rebuilt were no mere folly. They were to provide the security within which a vibrant city could live in safety.
Do you look at the church with the eyes of God? Do you see the rubble? Do you see the work that lies ahead? And do you see also the glory of the completed plans – even if it’s only a glimpse? There is nothing doubtful, or uncertain, or ramshackle about the ultimate destiny of the church. It will shine with the blazing light of the Lord himself – and in it God’s redeemed people will enjoy his presence and glorify him for ever. Such are the Lord’s plans.
Clearing the rubble and rebuilding the church in this nation is hard work. There is no way round that. But we are not alone. As we saw from chapter 3, there must have been an electric current of encouragement flowing around that wall as people worked. We too have the tremendous encouragement that we can provide each other. Do you take the opportunities you have to appreciate and spur people on as you see them working away for Christ all around you?
The task before us is immense if the church in this nation is to be rebuilt. But it’s not impossible. More than that – God’s plan is on the way to completion. Nothing will stop him. There’s a section of the wall for each one of us to work on. Will we work – with each other, with all our hearts, and with the help of the Lord?
So we come to chapter 4. They’re beginning to make serious progress in the reconstruction of Jerusalem’s wall. And this is where Nehemiah’s building project starts to run into serious road blocks. We’ll look at this in three sections. And there are three lessons for us to learn as we work together under God to build his church in our own day – so I have three main headings, and I’ll give those to you as we go through. The first section is verses 1-6, and my heading is this:
First, OVERCOME RIDICULE WITH CONFIDENT PRAYER AND WHOLEHEARTED WORK
Nehemiah’s rebuilding project was opposed. Nehemiah had enemies because they saw what he was doing as threatening to their power and status. They didn’t want Nehemiah and the Jews to succeed. And they were looking for ways to put a spanner in the works.
We’ve already seen this hostility rear its ugly head back in chapter 2.10 is where we first hear of Sanballat and Tobiah, with this ominous comment:
“When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.”
That immediately exposes the basic motivation of Sanballat and Tobiah. They hate the Israelites. To hate someone is essentially to wish them harm – and that’s how they feel about the Israelites. They can’t stand the thought that Israel should prosper. They want to sabotage Nehemiah’s plan in every possible way. And right from the off, there in chapter 2, their weapon of choice is ridicule. Now here in chapter 4 the depth of their hatred and hostility is clearer still, and their opposition hots up.
Followers of Christ have enemies too – human enemies. But we need to remember that our real enemy is spiritual. As the Apostle Paul puts it in Ephesians 6:
“Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armour of God… ”
Jesus said we are to love our flesh and blood enemies. But that doesn’t mean we don’t have enemies who hate the promotion of the welfare of the church. Quite the opposite – Jesus is crystal clear that if we follow him we will have enemies. We shouldn’t be surprised when they show themselves.
But we need to remember that our implacable enemy, whose destruction we should be praying for and looking forward to, is Satan and all his forces. He is the unseen enemy of the church. He uses all kinds of stratagems in his campaign to destroy the church. He won’t succeed in the long run. In the short term, though, he does do serious damage if we’re not on our guard. Some of his schemes are reflected here in this chapter, and in the bitter hostility of Sanballat and his cronies. Nehemiah chapter 4 verse 1:
“When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed.”
When the gospel goes forward and the church grows and people are turning to Christ, the enemies of Christ don’t like it. They get angry.
“He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, ‘What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble - burned as they are?’
Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, ‘What they are building - if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!’”
So this angry attack has a number of barbs to it. They say that the Jews are feeble; that they won’t succeed in what they’re trying to do; that they won’t reach their goal; that their timescale is ridiculous; and that their wall, even where it is rebuilt, is too weak to stand. The slightest pressure will cause it to come crashing down.
Ridicule is one of Satan’s great weapons against the gospel. And ridicule does hurt us if we don’t know how to deal with it. The danger is that it gets under our skin and demoralises us and sows doubts in our minds. The sowing of doubt has been Satan’s strategy from the Garden of Eden onwards. So for instance the current onslaught against the Christian faith from the likes of Richard Dawkins and his book the God Delusion is meant to work by wrapping Biblical faith up together with religion in general, tarring all of it with the same brush, and labelling it absurd, dangerous and irrational. And if we don’t know how to deal with it when we see these books riding high in the best-seller lists, then we become more vulnerable than we need to be, and the brakes go on in our work to build the church.
How did Nehemiah respond? Verses 4 to 6:
“Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.
So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.”
Like Nehemiah and the Jews, we need to pray and we need to get on with the work of building the church and spreading the gospel, not allowing ourselves to be diverted. In our case we need to see behind the human face of the opposition to the underlying hostility of Satan and we need to pray for his destruction. We need to pray that people will learn to doubt the doubters and see that there is nothing more rational and sensible than to trust in Christ. And we need to keep working.
Well that brings me to my next main heading, and the second lesson for us. The first lesson is that we should overcome ridicule with confident prayer and wholehearted work. Then:
Secondly, OVERCOME THREATS WITH GODLY LEADERSHIP AND UNITED LABOUR
Nehemiah and his team were not diverted from their task – and before long the wall was half finished. But around that half-way point is typically a time of great vulnerability. The effort that’s been expended has been draining, and there is still such a long way to go. That’s what we see in verses 7-15. Sanballat and Tobiah are gathering more allies around them. Every stone that’s added to the wall is like fuel to their growing anger. They redouble their efforts to sabotage the work, and they try a new method: the threat of direct attack. Verses 7 to 8:
“But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem's walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it .”
Nehemiah and his team are alert to this, and their response is twofold:
“But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”
They pray and they act, taking sensible precautions against the threatened attack. And that’s how we’re meant to work in the building of the church. Prayer is vital. But we aren’t meant simply to pray and then passively leave everything to God. We are to pray and act.
But the danger of this threat was amplified by other things that were going on among the Jews. Read on from verse 10:
“Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, ‘The strength of the labourers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.’”
Quite apart from any external attack, they’re just plain weary. They’ve been slogging away. There are still great heaps of rubble and miles of unrestored wall. The goal seems a very long way off, so they don’t have any of the renewed energy that comes from realising that you’re approaching the finishing line. Do you recognise the feeling?
But that wasn’t all. The hostile propaganda became more insidious.
“Also our enemies said, ‘Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.’”
And what makes threats even harder to cope with is when they are believed, picked up and repeated by your friends. That’s what happens here. Verse 12:
“Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, ‘Wherever you turn, they will attack us.’”
It would seem that these Jews were not themselves stuck in to the work of reconstruction. They were back home, close to the enemy and listening attentively to their propaganda. Whether or not that is so, what is clear is that they become a chorus of negativity amongst the Jews themselves. And that’s harder to cope with and more depressing even than an external threatening voice.
We’re not told what Nehemiah’s own private feelings are at this stage. No doubt he too was weary to his bones. Maybe he found the whole situation deeply depressing – not least the readiness of some of his own people to do the propaganda work of their enemies for them. But if he was at a low ebb himself, he didn’t let that get in the way of exercising the leadership that was needed. Verse 13:
“Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows.”
He strengthens the precautionary measures. That serves not only as a real defence but also to boost morale and the sense of security that the people need.
And Nehemiah also talks to his team, and reminds them where their real security lies. It lies in God, who is infinitely more powerful than any array of Sanballats and Tobiahs. Verse 14:
“After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.’”
When we’re feeling discouraged; when the negative voices are loud; when we’re tired and weary; when the problems seem to be mounting – then if we’re in leadership, we need to find strength from God to follow Nehemiah’s example. We need to point people to Christ, who tells us not to be afraid. And whatever our role on the team, we need to remember the Lord, who is great and awesome. We need to remember that we are on the winning side. And we need to knuckle down, and keep going. That’s what the Jews did in response to Nehemiah’s leadership. Verse 15:
“When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.”
When you’re tired, and you’re only half way, and things get difficult, you don’t give up. You remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and you labour on.
So, lesson one: overcome ridicule with confident prayer and wholehearted work. Lesson two: overcome threats with Godly leadership and united labour. And finally:
Thirdly, DEFEND AND BUILD WITH MUTUAL SUPPORT AND CONSISTENT EFFORT
Reading from verse 16:
“From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armour. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked. But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me.”
We have to build, and we have to protect what we have built. That’s the principle of the sword and the trowel. A sword in one hand, a trowel in the other. As JPC’s founders put it, we must both maintain and also promulgate the gospel. We must tell the world about Jesus and also contend for the truth of the gospel in a world that ridicules and denies it. We must defend and build at the same time.
And what is more, we must be ready to help one another out. Verses 19 to 20:
“Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, ‘The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!’”
There is the body of Christ in action. When one part of the body is hurting, we all hurt. When one part is under particular pressure and in need, we all rally round to support and help. That needs to be true of us not just in relation to our individual care for one another. That needs to be true for all our ministries as well. If one ministry team is under particular pressure, then we all need to rally round to help. We need to give mutual support.
But we must never forget that our strength comes from God, and he will see us through until the work that he calls us to is complete. Verses 21 to 23:
“So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out. At that time I also said to the people, ‘Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night, so they can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day.’ Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water”.
Building the church for the glory of Jesus is hard work. There will always be opposition. But the work and the spiritual warfare do come in waves. There are seasons when the pressure is intense. We will need to give consistent effort. Building the church is tough. But God will see us through. As Nehemiah says:
“Our God will fight for us!”
So as this challenging autumn session gets under way, let’s remember those three lessons from Nehemiah. Overcome ridicule with confident prayer and wholehearted work. Overcome threats with Godly leadership and united labour. Defend and build with mutual support and consistent effort.