A lot of people were away last weekend, because of the Bank Holiday; or unable to be here, because of the marathon. And so, in order to let you catch up, I should explain that while Nehemiah 4 was about the trouble Nehemiah faced from outsiders, Nehemiah 5 was about the trouble he faced from his own people. Chapter 5 began with a great outcry: those who were working to rebuild the wall raised a great outcry, because of the dire circumstances they were in. You see, in order to work on the wall, they had neglected their farms and businesses. And now they were struggling to buy food for their families; and they were struggling to pay the king’s tax which went to the Persian Emperor. And to make matters worse, there seems to have been a famine in the land at that time.
Some of them had to borrow money in order to buy food and to pay the tax. But now they couldn’t repay the loans or the interest charged on the loans. And so, they were forced to sell their property and even their children. Meanwhile, the wealthy Jews in Jerusalem, who had provided them with loans, were now benefitting from their hardship, because these wealthy Jews were taking possession of their land and homes.
When Nehemiah heard what was happening, he was very angry. And he called together the nobles and officials — the wealthy Jews — and accused them of disobeying the Lord. They were disobeying the Lord, because hadn’t the Lord forbidden his people in those days from charging interest on such loans? And no doubt Nehemiah was worried that — if they did not turn from their sin in repentance — they would provoke the Lord’s wrath once again. And if they provoked the Lord’s wrath, he might send them into exile once again.
When they heard Nehemiah, the people agreed with him; and they agreed to return what they had taken, including the interest they had charged.
And then, at the end of the chapter, we read about Nehemiah’s own example. You see, since he had been appointed governor in the land, he was entitled to receive a daily food allowance from the people; and he was entitled to tax them. But, because he did not want to burden the people, he did not take the food allowance or the tax. Furthermore he did not acquire any land for himself. And instead of taking food from the people, he provided food for at least 150 Jews and officials and others who dined at his table every day. At his own expense, he fed them richly. You see, he did not come to be served and to make himself rich; he came to serve. As such, he points us to Christ, who did not come to earth to be served, but who came to serve us by giving his life as the ransom to set us free from condemnation.
And not only did he give his life for us, but he gives us the faith we need to believe; and he gives us forgiveness; and he gives us the hope of the resurrection and everlasting life in God’s presence; and he gives us his Spirit to renew us in God’s image so that we’re able more and more to do what he did and to love and serve the people around us. And so, we ought to give thanks to God for Jesus Christ, who loved us and who gave his life for us and for our salvation. And we all ought to trust in him, because he’s the only Saviour of the world, who gave his life, so that — by trusting in him — we might have eternal life And we ought to follow his example, by loving and serving one another out of love and gratitude to our Heavenly Father.
Verses 1 to 9
But let’s move on now to chapter 6, where we read how Nehemiah faced further opposition to the rebuilding of the wall in Jerusalem.
Verse 1 mentions these men — Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab. We’ve come across those names before, back in chapter 4. They were Nehemiah’s enemies and they wanted to prevent Nehemiah from rebuilding the wall. In chapter 4, they tried to discourage the builders by ridiculing their efforts. Then they plotted to attack the builders; and so, Nehemiah had to post guards along the wall; and the builders had to work with swords at the ready in case they were attacked. However, the Lord was with Nehemiah and the builders; and the work continued.
But, according to verses 1 and 2 of chapter 6, Sanballat and the others were ready to try another method to stop the work. Time was running out for them, because it seemed the wall was nearly complete. All the gaps had been filled in and repaired. The only thing left to do was to finish the gates. And so, since time was running out, and they wanted to stop Nehemiah from finishing, Sanballat and the others sent him a message. ‘Come’, they said. ‘Let’s meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.’
The plain of Ono lay between Jerusalem and the land of Samaria. And the invitation to come and meet together seemed to be an invitation to meet together for talks: to put aside their differences and to come to some kind of agreement. Sanballat and the others were presenting themselves as being diplomats who want to make peace. However, while that’s how they presented themselves to Nehemiah, Nehemiah knew better. He understood that they were only plotting to harm him. They wanted to lure him away from Jerusalem to assassinate Nehemiah.
Nevertheless, Nehemiah replied diplomatically, saying to them in verse 3 that he was carrying out a great project in Jerusalem and could not go down to see them. He could not go, because the work was too vital; and he couldn’t not afford the time to stop.
We get a sense of how desperate Sanballat and the others were, because we read in verse 4 that they tried this four times. Four times they sent him the same message. And while many of us would give in because of their persistence, Nehemiah did not weaken his resolve; and each time they sent the same message, he sent back the same reply.
Sanballat tried something else. As before, they sent Nehemiah a message. But this time, the message was written in an unsealed letter. Just as we might seal an envelope to ensure the contents is kept private, so people in those days would normally seal any letters which they sent in order to keep the contents private. So, since this particular letter was unsealed, anyone could read it and find out what Sanballat was saying to Nehemiah. And no doubt Sanballat did this deliberately, because he wanted people to read what he was saying to Nehemiah; and to believe the accusation he was making. In his letter, he wrote that it’s been reported — it’s been said among the nations — that you’re plotting a revolution against the king of Persia. It’s been reported — it’s been said among the nations — that this is why you’re rebuilding the wall. And it’s been reported — it’s been said among the nations — that you’re going to make yourself king; and that you’ve appointed prophets to proclaim, ‘There’s a king in Judah’. This is what people are saying, Sanballat wrote. And look at the end of his message, where he says that this report will get back to the king of Persia. So, come and let’s confer together.
Do you know what he’s saying? He’s saying that unless you come and confer with me, I’ll make sure this message gets back to the king. And if the king hears this and believes it, then you’ll be in big trouble, because he’ll send his armies against you and against Jerusalem to prevent any rebellion from happening.
Instead of being frightening by Sanballat’s accusation, Nehemiah replied very simply and very clearly:
Nothing like what you are saying is happening. What you’re saying is not true. We’re not planning a revolt. I’m not setting myself up as king. Prophets have not been appointed to proclaim it. You are just making it up out of your head.
One of the commentators suggests that Nehemiah is calling Sanballat’s bluff, because he knew Sanballat had no evidence for his accusation; and Nehemiah was confident that the king would not believe what Sanballat was saying. After all, Nehemiah had been the king’s cupbearer, his trusted servant. The king would not believe these accusations about Nehemiah.
And if you look at verse 9, you’ll see that Nehemiah realised exactly what Sanballat was trying to do: Nehemiah knew his enemies were trying to frighten him and the builders into stopping the work. But he would not be taken in by it; and he would not let them distract him from the work he was doing.
Verses 10 to 14
Next we read about this man, Shemaiah. We don’t know anything about this man, apart from what we read here. We’re told in verse 10 that he was shut up in his house, but we don’t know why. In verse 12 Nehemiah refers to him as ‘one who prophesies’. So, he was known for being some kind of prophet. And Nehemiah went to see him in his home. And while he was there, this man suggested to Nehemiah that they should head for the temple, because some men were coming to harm Nehemiah. This prophet was prophesying that men would come by night to kill Nehemiah. He wanted to frighten Nehemiah, so that he would flee to the temple for refuge. But Nehemiah refused to listen to him. He said in verse 11:
Should a man like me run away?
He’s implying that it would be wrong for him — a leader of the people — to flee like this. After all, none of the builders ran away when their lives were threatened; so, it would not be right for him to run away. And then he went on to ask:
Should one like me go into the temple to save his life?
This time he means that he did not have the right to enter the temple. While Jewish men could enter the courtyard of the temple, only the priests and Levites could enter the temple sanctuary itself. So, he would be disobeying the law of the Lord if he went into the temple. Nehemiah loved and feared the Lord so much, that he would not break the law of the Lord even to save his life.
But since this prophet was suggesting that he should do something which was forbidden by God, Nehemiah realised that the Lord had not sent the prophet. You see, the Lord will never ever contradict his word. And so, that’s a test we can apply whenever someone comes to us with an idea or with a suggestion about something we should do, whether in our own personal lives or as part of the life and work of the church. ‘Here’s a good idea’, someone says. ‘We should try this.’ And perhaps everyone nods, because it seems to make sense to them; and perhaps they’ve seen other people do this thing. But if it contradicts what God has revealed in his word, then it must be wrong. Whatever contradicts God’s word cannot be right. And since this prophet was saying something which contradicted God’s word, Nehemiah realised that God had not sent him. God had not sent him; and, in fact, Nehemiah’s enemies had hired him to make him afraid so that he would be tempted to sin against the Lord in order to save his life. And if he had done what they were hoping he would do, can you imagine how Nehemiah’s enemies would use that against him? They would ruin his reputation among the people by telling the people how their trusted leader had deliberately disobeyed the Lord.
Since Sanballat and Tobiah were behind this scheme, Nehemiah prays to the Lord and asks him to remember them and what they had done. Don’t let them get away with it, he’s saying; but hold them accountable for all that they have done. And you’ll see from verse 14 that Shemaiah was not the only prophet who tried to intimidate Nehemiah, because there were others who tried to do the same.
Verses 15 to 19
Despite the accusations and the intimidation and the rumours and the false prophecies, the work continued. And the wall was completed in 52 days. And when all their enemies heard that the work had been finished so quickly, they were afraid, because they realised that the Lord was with Nehemiah and the builders to help them.
Nehemiah remained faithful to the Lord, despite the hatred of his enemies and the temptations to sin. He continued steadfastly to serve the Lord, until the work was finished. He can be contrasted, therefore, with Tobiah, whom we read about in verses 17 to 19. And he’s an interesting man. Elsewhere in this book, we’re told he was an Ammonite and therefore not an Israelite. However, his name means ‘Yahweh is good’ and his son’s name means ‘Yahweh is gracious’. Furthermore, in chapter 13 we’re told that he was related by marriage to one of the priests; and in this chapter, we’re told he was related by marriage to Meshullam, who worked on the wall. However, despite those family connections, he somehow or other ended up on the wrong side. He ended up on the wrong side. Instead of supporting Nehemiah, he joined Sanballat and the others in opposing what Nehemiah was doing for the Lord. Look at the final sentence:
And Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me.
Whereas Nehemiah continued steadfastly to serve the Lord until the work was finished, Tobiah took a wrong turn and ended up on the wrong side.
I’ve said before that — when preachers preach on the book of Nehemiah — they very often hold him up as a great leader; someone we should look to for inspiration to know how best to lead other people.
And Nehemiah was a great leader. His enemies hated him and wanted to harm him; but he did not let them frighten him or distract him from the work. When he was tempted to sin in order to save his own life, he remained obedient to God. And he continued steadfastly to the end, not giving up or giving in until the work was finished. He was a great leader. And no doubt the Jews in Jerusalem were glad to have such a great leader among them.
But we have an even greater leader than Nehemiah, don’t we? And I’m not thinking about anyone in the congregation. I’m thinking about the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the Head and King of the church. And when he was on the earth, the Pharisees and the teachers of the law and the priests hated him. They came to him again and again with their questions and their accusations. Why are you doing this? What are you doing that? Who do you think you are? And when they had had enough of him, they brought him to Pilate and persuaded Pilate to sentence him to death. The Lord was hated by his enemies, but he did not let them frighten him or distract him from his work.
And, of course, when he was on the earth, the Lord Jesus was tempted, wasn’t he? When he was in the wilderness, the Devil came and tempted him. ‘Bow down before me’, the Devil said, ‘and I will give you all the kingdoms of the earth’. And when he was in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was tempted to turn his back on the cross in order to save his own life. And when he was on the cross, the people tempted him to save his own life. They said to him:
Come down from the cross and we’ll believe in you.
Throughout his life, he faced temptation. And he faced especially the temptation to disobey his Father in order to save his own life. But just as Nehemiah refused to sin in order to save his life, so the Lord Jesus refused to sin in order to save his life.
And, of course, like Nehemiah, the Lord Jesus continued steadfastly until the work was done and he was able to cry from the cross, ‘It is finished’. It was finished, because he had completed the work his Father sent him to do, which was to give his life as the ransom to set us free from condemnation; and to shed his blood for our forgiveness.
If he had given in because of the hatred of his enemies, if he had given in to the temptation to save his life, if he had given up the work his Father sent him to do, then we would still be in our sins, still under the wrath and curse of God, awaiting with dread the day of judgment when we would suffer the wrath of God for our disobedience. But because the Lord did not let himself be distracted, and because he resisted every temptation, and because he continued steadfastly to the end and finished the work his Father gave him to do, then you can have forgiveness from God and the free gift of eternal life, if only you will trust in Christ, the Saviour of the world. Believe in him; and God will pardon you for all the ways you have given in to temptation. Believe in him; and God will pardon you for all the ways you have fallen short of doing his will. Believe in him; and you will have eternal life.
Nehemiah was a great leader. He was not distracted from the work he was sent to do. He did not give in to temptation. He continued steadfastly to the end. And the Lord Jesus is our great King. He was not distracted from the work he was sent to do. He did not give in to temptation. He continued steadfastly to the end. And because of what he did, and because of what he suffered, he is able to save whoever comes to him and trusts in him for salvation. So, will you trust in him? Will you ask God to pardon you and to give you the free gift of eternal life for the sake of Christ the King?
But then, those of us who already believe know that an unbelieving world hates us, just as it hated Nehemiah and the Lord Jesus. We see this hatred in the way Christians are persecuted around the world for their faith. And we see it in our own country in the way Christians are mocked and ridiculed and despised for believing in Christ the Saviour. We’re regarded as fools for believing in Christ and for seeking to walk in his ways. Who will help us?
And those of us who already believe are often tempted, aren’t we? We’re tempted to sin against the Lord. And we’re tempted to conform to the ways of an unbelieving world, which puts us under pressure to do what it does and to believe what it believes. And standing up to an unbelieving world and remaining faithful to the Lord is hard. It’s hard. And because it’s hard, we can be tempted to forget what the Bible says and to fit in with the people around us. For the sake of an easy life, we’re tempted to disregard what the Lord has said in his word. In order to save our life, we’re tempted to sin against the Lord. So, who will help us to stand firm?
And, of course, how many who once professed to believe have stumbled along the way and have given up the faith? Instead of continuing steadfastly until the end, they turned away from the Saviour. As time passed, their zeal and enthusiasm and commitment waned; they stopped coming to church regularly; they stopped praying; they stopped thinking about how to please the Lord. It happened slowly, over time. But in the end, they gave up the faith. Is that what happened to Tobiah? Despite his family connections, he somehow went astray. It happens so often and so easily. So, who can help us to remain faithful to the end?
Who can help us? Who can help us to endure the hatred of the world? Who can help us resist temptation? Who can help us to continue steadfastly? Nehemiah can’t help us, because he’s no longer alive. But the Lord Jesus can help us, because though he died, he was raised from the dead to live forever. And he’s able to send us the help we need. And the help he sends us is just right, because he’s already been through everything that we may go through. He’s already been through it; and he’s been through it successfully. So, look to him for the help you need to endure the hatred of an unbelieving world; and to resist every temptation; and to continue steadfastly to the end. Look to him for the help and strength you need each day. And he has promised — hasn’t he? — never to leave you or to forsake you, but to remain with you to the very end.