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It’s appropriate on October 31st that we’re looking at a passage that has a lot to do with fear, menace, and intimidation. This is our last look at the Nehemiah memoir which ends in chapter 7. Next week we’ll look at how Ezra re-appears in chapter 8. The work is done! The wall is completed (except for the gates which had not yet been hung). Come on everybody, let’s have a party!
But not quite. The thing is in the Christian life, the work is never done. This is why Paul reminds us to press on. Don’t get complacent. Don’t let us rest on our laurels. Don’t let us think as individuals that the things to which we might look for security will bring us security. Don’t let us think as a church that the things we might look to for security (assets, cash what else) will bring us security. Let us continue to press on and work and lookup. The wall is complete, but it was never just about the wall. The wall is not an end in and of itself. It was a necessary defense yes, as someone has said, and represented Israel’s distinctiveness among the surrounding nations. The establishment of a wall is not the thing toward which we are to look for security and peace, as tempting as it might be to believe otherwise.
May God help us from getting complacent. Especially when things are going well. Or when they’re not. Often it’s a mix in our lives isn’t it, or in our church life. God is carrying out wonderful things in and through us. In many ways, we’re disconnected. We’re praying like we never have before. We’re surrounded by question marks about our future. Our future path may not look very clear. We’re coming to know God and God’s love for us in whole new ways. We’re still scattered to some degree. God’s promises are being made known in our lives in ways in which we’ve never experienced.
Be careful in such times dear friends. The opposition is working. The opposition might come from within ourselves. Voices of doubt and maybe even despair. It might come from other people because we’re prone to that kind of thing – harmful words, discouragement, scornful words even, gossip, slander, assigning motivations to others – we fall into those things all too easily. In this world you will have trouble, Christ said, and too often we bring it on each other, or we bring it on ourselves. The opposition might come from the liar himself. The accuser. “Who are you to consider yourself loved and called and set apart for a purpose by God?” sneers the liar.
In the middle of all these things, we have Nehemiah and the people of God around him in Jerusalem. What would we do without the people of God around us? What would we do without people around us to remind us of things like the second half of Jesus’ phrase I quoted earlier – “but take heart, for I have overcome the world.” Take heart. Perfect love casts out fear, and we are in the presence of the one who loves us perfectly. Let us keep our eyes on him, the author and finisher of our faith. Press on. Keep your eyes on him. Take heart. Courage my beloved. You may have heard it said, courage is not the absence of fear, it is acting in the face of fear. Dorothy Bernard has a great line about courage – “Courage is fear that has said its prayers.” Lord knows we need courage in these times. Particularly when attacks get personal. You have this triumvirate of opposition figures reappearing here in ch 6. Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem and the rest of the people’s enemies. They had tried scorn and abuse. I) Remember in chapter 2 – “Are you rebelling against the king?” In chapter 4 they mocked “A fox going up that wall would knock it down. II) They had tried threats. They had plotted armed interference against the people as they built (hence that “So we prayed and set a guard” line from Neh 4:9). It had all come to naught. The people had a mind to pray. The people had a mind to work.
So now we come to Part III of the story of opposition in Nehemiah. If this were a trilogy then part three might be called “Nehemiah’s Struggle” with the tagline “This Time It’s Personal.” It’s hard when attacks get personal, isn’t it? There’s nothing more that Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem can do about the wall. It’s done. Things have gone very well. It’s when things are going well that the opposition tries to take the leader down. If we’re thinking of church, we might think of leaders who act in an official capacity (or unofficial capacity for that matter). It’s a call on all our lives though, as followers of Christ. To be leaders. To be teachers. “Make disciples” (make students or make learners) was not just a call to a limited few. We’re all called to be a leader in the faith to somebody – very often the people who are closest to us. The enemy tries to take the leader out. “Make the leader afraid” is the goal here.
Four times Sanballat and Geshem invite Nehemiah to come talk to them on the plains of Ono (about 25 miles NW of Jerusalem near the Samarian border). Nehemiah is a wise man. He was not born yesterday. He’s no naif. “But they intended to do me harm.” (6:2) “I’m doing a great work here and can’t leave it,” he tells them. Four times the summons comes and Nehemiah answers them all in the same way. Sanballat is no fool either, and there’s no end to his chicanery. The fifth time it’s an open letter, meant to be read along the way (the same way we might post an open letter on social media or in a newspaper) in order to make its message public – in order to cast public doubt on Nehemiah’s character. “It is reported among the nations – and Geshem also says it (a lot of people are saying it) – that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall…” And here’s the pernicious thing about certain lies. They contain an element of truth. “You have set up prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, “There is a king in Judah!” This is the evilly subtle thing about a lot of lies, the element of truth they contain. There were prophets talking about a king, it’s true. Remember that line we always read on Palm Sunday – Look your king is coming, humble and riding on a donkey? That’s from Zechariah. Remember that Zechariah and Haggai were both living and prophesying in Jerusalem over the 100 years that this story of Ezra/Nehemiah takes place. They were telling of a coming king but it wasn’t Nehemiah. We’re going to report this to the king unless you come so we can confer together. What’s wrong with conferring after all? Just a little conference is all we want.
They want Nehemiah to doubt his relationship with the king. There are voices that want us to doubt our relationship with our King. Am I worthy of such love? Am I lovable? Have I not done things that are beyond forgiveness? Who am I that God would use me to teach and lead others in any kind of capacity? More examples here? Sing My Lighthouse this day.
In the middle of all of this, we hear Nehemiah’s answer – “No such things as you say have been done, you are inventing them out of your own mind” – for they all wanted to frighten us thinking “Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done.” Our hands are not going to drop from the work. I know who my King is. My hands are not going to drop from the work! Courage is fear that has said its prayers, and here we have one of Nehemiah’s arrow prayers again – But now, O God, strengthen my hands.
Let’s pray that – “But now, O God, strengthen our hands.” Lord give me strength. Seriously. What a great prayer. I pray it all the time.
The next episode seeks to throw doubt on Nehemiah’s trust in God. Again there is something really pernicious about this attack too. Shemaiah is claiming that the words he speaks come from God. Shemaiah (more like Shamaiah or Scamaiah!) is claiming to bring a word from God here, a word of prophecy. It sounds good at first glance. “Let us seek refuge in the temple together for they are coming to kill you, indeed tonight they are coming to kill you” (you can almost see Shemaiah grabbing Nehemiah by the lapels at this point). You’ve got to protect yourself. You’ve got to look out for yourself. Right?
Look out for false prophets. Look out for people who claim to speak to God but are in it for themselves. Look out for people who speak of what God wills. It doesn’t mean that such people are all bad or wrong, just that spirits need to be tested (1 John 1:4). How does what is spoken of as God’s will line up with loving God with all our heart and soul and mind and strength. How does what is being spoken about as God’s will line up with the command to love our neighbour as ourselves? How does what is spoken of, line up with our loving, gracious, merciful, humble, meek, just Lord? For Nehemiah, what would it look like for the governor to be cowering in the temple? What would that say about his trust in God? Not to forget that as a lay leader, he wasn’t permitted to go into the temple. We need to test spirits, words, and thoughts that come to us. Do they agree with scripture? Are we mainly looking out for our own interests or are we looking out for the interests of our King and the kingdom? Nehemiah perceives that Shemiah has been hired by Tobiah and Sanballat. Beware of people who purport to bring a word from God for their profit, or to advance their own agenda. We have another one of these arrow prayers at the end of the section where Nehemiah prays “Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.” As I said last week, not all of Nehemiah’s actions are necessarily prescriptive (i.e. don’t do these things!) and I wouldn’t necessarily advise bringing down covenantal curses on people. These lines from Nehemiah speak to the seriousness of the offence against God here, and Nehemiah’s willingness to let God handle things when it came to justice for these people who were opposing God’s work.
“So the wall was finished…” In the midst of all this opposition, you can almost hear Nehemiah saying this with a wry smile. And so the work was completed. In the midst of all the opposition and the plotting and the chicanery, the wall was finished. Of course, as I said it was never about the wall at heart. The completion of the wall does not mean that it’s time to get complacent. The enemy is still at work. The liar still goes about like a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. Don’t let us get complacent Lord. (arrow prayer) Someone has said - “The establishment of fortifications does not, in itself, bring security. Opposition and dangers always threaten the community of faith; a people's godly character is its greatest defense.” The call on our lives is to continue to trust God. So we finished the work. Attacks kept coming as nobles in Jerusalem sent letters to Tobiah (Tobiah was connected to them by marriage we find out) and Tobiah continued to talk smack (speak ill if you like) of Nehemiah. Continue to trust God and continue to live in the confidence of our King. Remember the promises of God. I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Fear not I am with thee, O be not dismayed. My peace I give you. If you like you can take a piece of paper and write down something that is causing you to be fearful. Underneath it write down a promise of God that is bigger than that fear. Keep it tucked in your Bible or somewhere you’ll be reminded of it.
In the midst of uncertainty. In the midst of trials. Why did Nehemiah and the people have to endure all these attacks from without and within? We don’t know. Why do we have to go through trials? There’s no easy answer. We know that God uses such times to teach us. To help us learn to trust, to listen, to love. We remember too that we are not called to go through anything on our own. We go through them together brothers and sisters. Brother Hanani comes back into our story at the end of the passage. “I gave my brother Hanani charge over Jerusalem, along with Hananiah, the command of the citadel – for he was a faithful man and feared God more than many.” This is the only fear we’re called to. The fear of our Lord, which is reverence, awe, holy respect for our loving God. For he was a faithful man and feared God more than many. May the same thing be said of us, and may this be true for each and every one.