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Bible Commentaries

Coffman Commentaries on the Bible

Nehemiah 4

Verse 1

BITTER ENEMIES OF ISRAEL OPPOSE REBUILDING THE WALL

Two false interpretations of Nehemiah thus far must be rejected. One we have already noted, namely, the allegation that Nehemiah 3 was not written by Nehemiah and that it was "injected" into Nehemiah's narrative. The other is the inaccurate allegation that Nehemiah 3:3-6 "suggest the completion of the wall."[1] No such suggestion is found in Nehemiah 3. Oh yes, it says various workers "repaired!" this or that section of the wall; but that only designates the different assignments to the forty different companies of workers; and there's not a word in the whole chapter that even hints that the walls were completed. If Nehemiah had intended this third chapter to indicate the completion of the wall, the dedication of it would have followed at once.

This chapter records the hostility and bitterness of Israel's neighbors when they became aware of Nehemiah's rebuilding the city's fortifications. "Sanballat in Samaria on the north, Tobiah and the Ammonites on the east, Geshem and his Arabs to the south, and the Ashdodites and all the Philistines who had hated Israel from the times of Saul and David,"[2] - all of these surrounding neighbors were outraged and disgusted with the prospect of Jerusalem's restoration; and they opposed it in every way possible.

THE ENEMIES BEGIN THEIR ATTACK WITH RIDICULE AND MOCKERY

"But it came to pass that, when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews. And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What are these feeble Jews doing? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, seeing they are burned? Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they are building, if a fox go up, he shall break down their stone wall. Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn back their reproach upon their own head, and give them up for a spoil in a land of captivity; and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee; for they have provoked thee to anger before the builders. So we built the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto half the height thereof: for the people had a mind to work."

This was only the first phase of Sanballat's efforts to stop the fortification of Jerusalem. When this failed, he would try other measures. However, except for the remarkable ability and skill of Nehemiah, this initial opposition of laughter, ridicule and insults might have proved successful. "Nothing makes the enemies of the Lord's work any more indignant than the success of God's people."[3]

The nature of the insults heaped upon the Jews here was calculated to discourage them. They were called, "feeble Jews"; "will they fortify themselves"? was asked in a tone of unbelief. "The very idea that these people would contemplate such a thing." "Will they sacrifice"? was a way of asking, "Do they expect their God to do this for them'? "Will they revive the stones ... seeing they are burned"? "The effect of fire is to crack and weaken stone";[4] and this insult was merely a charge that the Jews did not have the material to rebuild the walls. Insults hurt, even if they are untrue. This one was only true in a very limited frame of reference. The stones from the vast majority of the ruined walls were in excellent condition. Only those ruined by the burned wooden gates would have been affected.

"If a fox go up, he shall break down their stone wall" (Nehemiah 4:3). "Foxes were mentioned, perhaps, from their having been known in large numbers to infest the ruined walls of Jerusalem, as recorded in Lamentations 5:18)."[5] This insult was that of Tobiah.

"Hear, O our God, for we are despised ..." (Nehemiah 4:4,5). This writer agrees with Jamieson that, "This prayer is not marked by hatred, vengeance, nor any other sinful passion, and that it exhibits a pious and patriotic zeal for the glory of God and the success of his cause."[6] As we noted in our discussion of the so-called imprecatory Psalms, many of the things that current scholars are saying about such prayers evidences a claim of superior righteousness that we believe is unjustified.

Rawlinson wrote that, "Before men were taught to love their enemies and to bless them that cursed them (Matthew 5:44), they gave vent to their natural feelings of anger and indignation by the utterance of maledictions in their prayers."[7] "The violence of Nehemiah's imprecations here (Nehemiah 4:4) grates harshly on modern ears; but it should be remembered that such vehemence against enemies appears repeatedly in the Psalms (Psalms 79:4-12; 123:3-4, and Psalms 137:7-9)."[8] (We have discussed this fully under those references in our Commentary on The Psalms.)

Christians should remember that when they pray for God's will to be done, for righteouness and truth to prevail, and for the righteous to be protected and blessed, that there is most certainly a corollary to such a prayer; and that is that falsehood shall be repudiated, the wicked defeated, frustrated, and checkmated, and that the wicked shall indeed be cast into hell. There was nothing in Nehemiah's prayer that is not contained embryonically in every prayer of a Christian today.

"Nehemiah's short prayer here is parenthetical; and such prayers form one of the most striking characteristics of Nehemiah's history. This is the first one, and others are in Nehemiah 5:19; 6:9,14; and Nehemiah 13:14,22,29,31."[9]

"So we built the wall ... unto half the height thereof" (Nehemiah 4:6). "This means that the entire continuous wall had been constructed up to one half the contemplated height."[10] The taunting ridicule and mockery of the neighboring enemies had not succeeded in stopping construction.

Verse 7

SANBALLAT THREATENS VIOLENCE AGAINST THE BUILDERS

"And it came to pass that, when Sanballat and Tobiah, and the Arabians and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem went forward, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth; and they conspired, all of them together, to come and fight against Jerusalem, and to cause confusion therein. But we made our prayer unto God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them. And Judah said, the strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall. And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come into the midst of them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease. And it came to pass that, when the Jews that dwelt by them came, they said unto us ten times from all places, ye must return unto us. Therefore set I in the lowest parts of the space behind the walls, in the open places, I set there the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows. And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not afraid of them: remember the Lord who is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses."

"The Arabians" (Nehemiah 4:7). The identity of these is questionable. "Some believe they were the descendants of one of the racial groups that Sargon planted in Samaria. This is possible, but they might also have been one of the desert tribes of Arabians induced to come forward in the hope of plunder, being influenced by the Ammonites, their neighbors."[11]

Oesterley has a summary of the crisis presented in these verses:

"This was a very critical time. The Jews were getting weary of the ceaseless work; their enemies had planted fear in the workers living beyond the walls by telling them of their plans suddenly to appear and kill the workers; the Jews from the surrounding area appealed to their neighbors at work on the wall to return home, abandoning the work. Nehemiah's presence of mind and firmness alone saved the situation." [12]

Note the manner in which Nehemiah moved to meet this crisis: (1) He prayed to God (Nehemiah 4:9). (2) He set a watch day and night (Nehemiah 4:9). (3) He set armed men at "the lowest parts," places were the walls might be most easily attacked (Nehemiah 4:13). (4) He brought in the Jews with their families from the outlying areas, armed them and kept them overnight in the city. (5) He stationed armed men throughout the city near the construction workers. (6) He kept a close eye himself upon the situation. (7) He kept a trumpeter by his side, so that in case of an attack, he could promptly order all hands to repel it (Nehemiah 4:18). (8) He called the whole assembly together, saying, "Be not afraid of them ... Remember the Lord who is great and terrible" (Nehemiah 4:14). (9) He commanded the people to be ready to fight (Nehemiah 4:14). (10) And he ordered the work to go on full speed ahead! What a leader he proved to be!

"Nehemiah with faith in God, skillfully arming and arranging his men, drove straight ahead with the work; and in spite of all obstacles, the Wall was finished in 52 days; and Jerusalem was again a fortified city, 142 years after its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 B.C."[13]

"We prayed ... and set a watch" (Nehemiah 4:9). Prayer to God does not eliminate the need for Christians to be alert and prepared to face emergencies. The old song from World War II, was, Praise the Lord, and Pass the Ammunition.

"They shall not know, or see, till we come and slay them" (Nehemiah 4:11). Sanballat by these threats was speaking as if he had an army at his disposal; but, "This was probably nothing more than the customary armed guard by which the satraps protected themselves; and Sanballat probably gambled that the king of Persia might overlook a skirmish between such a band and the Jews."[14] As it turned out, his threatening words were only a bluff.

This chapter has some of the text that is corrupted, and "The chronology of the things mentioned here is not fully clear."[15]

"They said unto us ten times ... Ye must return unto us" (Nehemiah 4:12). "Ten Times is the equivalent here of over and over, or repeatedly."[16] The Jews from the surrounding area were being intimidated and frightened by Sanballat. Nehemiah countered this by bringing the people into Jerusalem.

Verse 15

IN SPITE OF THREATENING ENEMIES THE WORK WENT ON

"And it came to pass when our enemies heard that it was known to us, and God brought their counsel to naught, that we returned all of us to the wall every one unto his work. And it came to pass from that time forth, that half of my servants wrought in the work, and half of them held the spears, and the shields, and the bows, and the coats of mail; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. They that builded the wall and they that bare burdens laded themselves; every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with his other held his weapon; and the builders every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me. And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one from another: in what place soever ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us; our God will fight for us."

"God brought their counsel to naught" (Nehemiah 4:15). This simply means that Sanballat, hearing and observing Nehemiah's preparations and determination to fight, backed down from his ugly threats. In his mind, no doubt, was the knowledge that the king of Persia was also behind Nehemiah's fortifying Jerusalem. "That no conflict came about shows that when the enemy approached, and saw from a distance, the whole people awaiting them in perfect order with all equipment and weapons at the ready, they simply lost heart and turned back."[17]

"Half of my servants wrought in the work" (Nehemiah 4:16). These are generally understood to have been "official servants that pertained to Nehemiah";[18] but there remains the possibility that the military escort provided by the king of Persia was yet with Nehemiah, there having been no report of its return to Persia. Therefore there is the possibility that these were meant.

"Every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other held his weapon" (Nehemiah 4:17). This expression is obviously somewhat figurative, as explained by the next clause, "Everyone had his sword girded by his side, and so builded." The great London preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon published a paper called Sword and Trowel, named after what is written here.

"The coats of mail" (Nehemiah 4:16). "Coats of mail were common in Assyria from the 9th century B.C., and even earlier in Egypt; they were made of thin leaves of bronze or iron sewed upon leather or linen and overlapping one another."[19]

"The sound of the trumpet" (Nehemiah 4:20). "When an attack was made, the trumpet sounded at that point; all the workers rallied, and the enemy was either frightened or driven away. Even those who lived beyond the city came into Jerusalem at night to sleep."[20]

Verse 21

WORKED DAY AND NIGHT; EVEN SLEPT IN THEIR CLOTHES

"So we wrought in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared. Likewise at the same time I said unto the people, Let everyone with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that at night they may be a guard to us, and may labor in the day. So neither I nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor my men of the guard that followed me, none of us put off our clothes, everyone went with his weapon to the water."

"Half of them held the spears ... till the stars appeared" (Nehemiah 4:21). "These three verses are a summary of what was said above. Half of the servants and the guard worked in the daytime, and the other half stood guard at night."[21] Note also that the work continued without intermission throughout all the daylight hours.

"Let everyone ... lodge within Jerusalem" (Nehemiah 4:22). "This means let none return to his own village or city at night, but let all take their rest in Jerusalem."[22]

"Everyone went with his weapon to the water" (Nehemiah 4:23). All scholars speak of the damaged text in this verse. "As it stands, it is quite meaningless."[23] The footnote in our version (the ASV) reads, "The text is obscure." "Keil translated it, `Each laid his weapon at the right,' that is, when he slept, his weapon was ready at hand."[24]

Various translations are:

"None of us put off our clothes, saving that everyone put them of for washing" (KJV).

"(We) did not put off our clothes; only every man stripped himself when he was to be washed" (Douay).

"Each kept his weapon in his hand" (Moffatt).

"We all kept our weapons at hand" (Good News Bible).

"Each kept his weapon in his hand" (Revised Standard Version).

"Each kept his weapon in his right hand" (New Revised Standard Version).

Copyright Statement
Coffman Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Nehemiah 4". "Coffman Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/nehemiah-4.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.