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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 4

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-23

elete_me Nehemiah 2:19


Nehemiah 2:10; Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 4:1-23

ALL his arrangements for rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem show that Nehemiah was awake to the dangers with which he was surrounded. The secrecy of his night ride was evidently intended to prevent a premature revelation of his plans. The thorough organisation, the mapping out of the whole line of the wall, and the dividing of the building operations among forty-two bands of workpeople secured equal and rapid progress on all sides. Evidently the idea was to "rush" the work, and to have it fairly well advanced, so as to afford a real protection for the citizens, before any successful attempts to frustrate it could be carried out. Even with all these precautions, Nehemiah was harassed and hindered for a time by the malignant devices of his enemies. It was only to be expected that he would meet with opposition. But a few years before all the Syrian colonists had united in extracting an order from Artaxerxes for the arrest of the earlier work of building the walls, because the Jews had made themselves intensely obnoxious to their neighbours by sending back the wives they had married from among the Gentile peoples. The jealousy of Samaria, which had taken the lead in Palestine so long as Jerusalem was in evidence, envenomed this animosity still more. Was it likely then that her watchful foes would hear with equanimity of the revival of the hated city-a city which must have seemed to them the very embodiment of the anti-social spirit?

Now, however, since a favourite servant of the Great King had been appointed governor of Jerusalem, the Satrap of the Syrian provinces could scarcely be expected to interfere. Therefore the initiative fell into the hands of smaller men, who found it necessary to abandon the method of direct hostility, and to proceed by means of intrigues and ambuscades. There were three who made themselves notorious in this undignified course of procedure. Two of them are mentioned in connection with the journey of Nehemiah up to Jerusalem. {Nehemiah 2:10} The first, the head of the whole opposition, is Sanballat, who is called the Horonite, seemingly because he is a native of one of the Beth-horons, and who appears to be the governor of the city of Samaria, although this is not stated. Throughout the history he comes before us repeatedly as the foe of the rival governor of Jerusalem. Next to him comes Tobiah, a chief of the little trans-Jordanic tribe of the Ammonites, some of whom had got into Samaria in the strange mixing up of peoples after the Babylonian conquest. He is called the servant, possibly because he once held some post at court, and if so he may have been personally jealous of Nehemiah’s promotion.

Sanbaltat and his supporter Tobiah were subsequently joined by an Arabian Emir named Geshem. His presence in the group of conspirators would be surprising if we had not been unexpectedly supplied with the means of accounting for it in the recently deciphered inscription which tells how Sargon imported an Arabian colony into Samaria. The Arab would scent prey in the project of a warlike expedition

The opposition proceeded warily. At first we are only told that when Sanballat and his friend Tobiah heard of the coming of Nehemiah, "grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel." {Nehemiah 2:10} In writing these caustic words Nehemiah implies that the jealous men had no occasion to fear that he meant any harm to them, and that they knew this. It seems very hard to him, then, that they should begrudge any alleviation of the misery of the poor citizens of Jerusalem. What was that to them? Jealousy might foresee the possibility of future loss from the recovery of the rival city, and in this they might find the excuse for their action, an excuse for not anticipating which so fervent a patriot as Nehemiah may be forgiven; nevertheless the most greedy sense of self-interest on the part of these men is lost sight of in the virulence of their hatred to the Jews. This is always the case with that cruel infatuation-the Anti-Semitic rage. Here it is that hatred passes beyond mere anger. Hatred is actually pained at the welfare of its object. It suffers from a Satanic misery. The venom which it fails to plant in its victim rankles in its own breast.

At first we only hear of this odious distress of the jealous neighbours. But the prosecutions of Nehemiah’s designs immediately lead to a manifestation of open hostility-verbal in the beginning. No sooner had the Jews made it evident that they were responsive to their leader’s appeal and intended to rise and build, than they were assailed with mockery. The Samaritan and Ammonite leaders were now joined by the Arabian, and together they sent a message of scorn and contempt, asking the handful of poor Jews whether they were fortifying the city in order to rebel against the king. The charge of a similar intention had been the cause of stopping the work on the previous occasion. {Ezra 4:13} Now that Artaxerxes’ favourite cup-bearer was at the head of affairs, any suspicion of treason was absurd, but since hatred is singularly blind-far more blind than love-it is barely possible that the malignant mockers hoped to raise a suspicion. On the other hand, there is no evidence to show that they followed the example of the previous opposition and reported to headquarters. For the present they seem to have contented themselves with bitter raillery. This is a weapon before which weak men too often give way. But Nehemiah was not so foolish as to succumb beneath a shower of poor, ill-natured jokes.

His answer is firm and dignified. {Nehemiah 2:20} It contains three assertions. The first is the most important. Nehemiah is not ashamed to confess the faith which is the source of all his confidence. In the eyes of men the Jews may appear but a feeble folk, quite unequal to the task of holding their ground in the midst of a swarm of angry foes. If Nehemiah had only taken account of the political and military aspects of affairs, he might have shrunk from proceeding. But it is just the mark of his true greatness that he always has his eye fixed on a Higher Power. He knows that God is in the project, and therefore he is sure that it must prosper. When a man can reach this conviction, mockery and insult do not move him. He has climbed to a serene altitude, from which he can look down with equanimity on the boiling clouds that are now far beneath his feet. Having this sublime ground of confidence, Nehemiah is able to proceed to his second point-his assertion of the determination of the Jews to arise and build. This is quite positive and absolute. The brave man states it, too, in the clearest possible language. Now the work is about to begin there is to be no subterfuge or disguise. Nehemiah’s unflinching determination is based on the religious confession that precedes it. The Jews are God’s servants, they are engaged in His work, they know He will prosper them, therefore they most certainly will not stay their hand for all the gibes and taunts of their neighbours. Lastly, Nehemiah contemptuously repudiates the claim of these impertinent intruders to interfere in the work of the Jews, he tells them that they have no excuse for their meddling, for they own no property in Jerusalem, they have no right of citizenship or of control from without, and there are no tombs of their ancestors in the sacred city.

In this message of Nehemiah’s we seem to hear an echo of the old words with which the temple-builders rejected the offer of assistance from the Samaritans, and which were the beginning of the whole course of jealous antagonism on the part of the irritated neighbours. But the circumstances are entirely altered. It is not a friendly offer of co-operation, but its very opposite, a hostile and insulting message designed to hinder the Jews, that is here so proudly resented. In the reply of Nehemiah we hear the church refusing to bend to the will of the world, because the world has no right to trespass on her territory. God’s work is not to be tampered with by insolent meddlers. Jewish exclusiveness is painfully narrow, at least in our estimation of it, when it refuses to welcome strangers or to recognise the good that lies outside the sacred enclosure, but this same characteristic becomes a noble quality, with high ethical and religious aims, when it firmly refuses to surrender its duty to God at the bidding of the outside world. The Christian can scarcely imitate Nehemiah’s tone and temper in this matter, and yet if he is loyal to his God he will feel that he must be equally decided and uncompromising in declining to give up any part of what he believes to be his service of Christ to please men who unhappily as yet have "no part, or right, or memorial" in the New Jerusalem, although, unlike the Jew of old, he will be only too glad that all men should come in and share his privileges.

After receiving an annoying answer it was only natural that the antagonistic neighbours of the Jews should be still more embittered in their animosity. At the first news of his coming to befriend the children of Israel, as Nehemiah says, Sanballat and Tobiah were grieved, but when the building operations were actually in process the Samaritan leader passed from vexation to rage-"he was wroth and took great indignation." {Nehemiah 4:1} This man now assumed the lead in opposition to the Jews. His mockery became more bitter and insulting. In this he was joined by his friend the Ammonite, who declared that if only one of the foxes that prowl on the neighbouring hills were to jump upon the wall the creature would break it down. {Nehemiah 4:3} Perhaps he had received a hint from some of his spies that the new work that had been so hastily pressed forward was not any too solid. The "Palestine Exploration Fund" has brought to light the foundations of what is believed to be a part of Nehemiah’s wall at Ophel, and the base of it is seen to be of rubble, not founded on the rock, but built on the clay above, so that it has been possible to drive a mine under it from one side to the other-a rough piece of work, very different from the beautifully finished temple walls.

Nehemiah met the renewed shower of insults in a startling manner. He cursed his enemies. {Nehemiah 4:4} Deploring before God the contempt that was heaped on the Jews, he prayed that the reproach of the enemies might be turned on their own head, devoted them to the horrors of a new captivity, and even went so far as to beg that no atonement might be found for their iniquity, that their sin might not be blotted out. In a word, instead of himself forgiving his enemies, he besought that they might not be forgiven by God. We shudder as we read his terrible words. This is not the Christ spirit. It is even contrary to the less merciful spirit of the Old Testament. Yet, to be just to Nehemiah, we must consider the whole case. It is most unfair to tear his curse out of the history and gibbet it as a specimen of Jewish piety. Even strong men who will not give way before ridicule may feel its stabs-for strength is not inconsistent with sensitiveness. Evidently Nehemiah was irritated, but then he was much provoked. For the moment he lost his self-possession. We must remember that the strain of his great undertaking was most exhausting, and we must be patient with the utterances of one so sorely tried. If lethargic people criticise adversely the hasty utterances of a more intense nature, they forget that, though they may never lose their self-control, neither do they ever rouse themselves to the daring energy of the man whose failings they blame. Then it was not any personal insults hurled against himself that Nehemiah resented so fiercely. It was his work that the Samaritans were trying to hinder. This he believed to be really God’s work, so that the insults offered to the Jews were also directed against God, who must have been angry also. We cannot justify the curse by the standard of the Christian law, but it is not reasonable to apply that standard to it. We must set it by the side of the Maledictory Psalms. From the standpoint of its author it can be fully accounted for. To say that even in this way it can be defended, however, is to go too far. We have no occasion to persuade ourselves that any of the Old Testament saints were immaculate, even in the light of Judaism. Nehemiah was a great and good man, yet he was not an Old Testament Christ.

But now more serious opposition was to be encountered. Such enemies as those angry men of Samaria were not likely to be content with venting their spleen in idle mockery. When they saw that the keenest shafts of their wit failed to stop the work of the citizens of Jerusalem, Sanballat and his friends found it necessary to proceed to more active measures, and accordingly they entered into a conspiracy for the double purpose of carrying on actual warfare and of intriguing with disaffected citizens of Jerusalem-"to cause confusion therein." {Nehemiah 4:8; Nehemiah 4:11} Nehemiah was too observant and penetrating a statesman not to become aware of what was going on, the knowledge that the plots existed revealed the extent of his danger, and compelled him to make active preparations for thwarting them. We may notice several important points in the process of the defence.

1. Prayer.- This was the first, and in Nehemiah’s mind the most essential defensive measure. We find him resorting to it in every important juncture of his life. It is his sheet-anchor. But now "he uses the plural number. Hitherto we have met only with his private prayers." In the present case he says, "We made our prayer unto our God." {Nehemiah 4:9} Had the infection of his prayerful spirit reached his fellow-citizens, so that they now shared it? Was it that the imminence of fearful danger drove to prayer men who under ordinary circumstances forgot their need of God? Or were both influences at work? However it was brought about, this association in prayer of some of the Jews with their governor must have been the greatest comfort to him, as it was the best ground for the hope that God would not now let them fall into the hands of the enemy. Hitherto there had been a melancholy solitariness about the earnest devotion of Nehemiah. The success of his mission began to show itself when the citizens began to participate in the same spirit of devotion.

2. Watchfulness.- Nehemiah was not the fanatic to blunder into the delusion that prayer was a substitute for duty, instead of being its inspiration. All that followed the prayer was really based upon it. The calmness, hope, and courage won in the high act of communion with God made it possible to take the necessary steps in the outer world. Since the greatest danger was not expected as an open assault, it was most necessary that an unbroken watch should be maintained, day and night. Nehemiah had spies out in the surrounding country, who reported to him every planned attack. So thorough was this system of espionage, that though no less than ten plots were concocted by the enemy, they were all discovered to Nehemiah, and all frustrated by him.

3. Encouragement.- The Jews were losing heart. The men of Judah came to Nehemiah with the complaint that the labourers who were at work on the great heaps of rubbish were suffering from exhaustion. The reduction in the numbers of workmen, owing to the appointment of the guard, would have still further increased the strain of those who were left to toil among the mounds. But it would have been fatal to draw back at this juncture. That would have been to invite the enemy to rush in and complete the discomfiture of the Jews. On Nehemiah came the obligation of cheering the dispirited citizens. Even the leading men who should have rallied the people, like officers at the head of their troops, shared the general depression. Nehemiah was again alone-or at best supported by the silent sympathy of his companions in prayer, There was very nearly a panic, and for one man to stand out under such circumstances as these in solitary courage, not only resisting the strong contagion of fear, but stemming the tide ant counteracting its movement, this would be indeed the sublimity of heroism. It was a severe test for Nehemiah, and he came out of it triumphant. His faith was the inspiration of his own courage, and it became the ground for the encouragement of others. He addressed the people and their nobles in a spirited appeal. First, he exhorted them to banish fear. The very tone of his voice must have been reassuring; the presence of one brave man in a crowd of cowards often shames them out of their weakness. But Nehemiah proceeded to give reasons for his encouragement. Let the men remember their God Jehovah, how great and terrible He is! The cause is His, and His might and terror will defend it. Let them think of their people and their families, and fight for brethren and children, for wives and homes! Cowardice is unbelief and selfishness combined. Trust in God and a sense of duty to others will master the weakness.

4. Arms.- Nehemiah gave the first place to the spiritual and moral defences of Jerusalem. Yet his material defences were none the less thorough on account of his prayers to God or his eloquent exhortation of the people and their leaders. They were most complete.

His arrangements for the military protection of Jerusalem converted the whole city into an armed camp. Half the citizens in turn were to leave their work, and stand at arms with swords and spears and bows. Even in the midst of the building operations the clatter of weapons was heard among the stones, because the masons at work on the walls and the labourers while they poised on their heads baskets full of rubbish from the excavations had swords attached to their sashes. Residents of the suburbs were required to stay in the city instead of returning home for the night, and no man could put off a single article of clothing when he lay down to sleep. Nor was this martial array deemed sufficient without some special provision against a surprise. Nehemiah therefore went about with a trumpeter, ready to summon all hands to any point of danger on the first alarm.

Still, though the Jews were hampered with these preparations for battle, tired with toil and watching, and troubled by dreadful apprehensions, the work went on. This is a great proof of the excellency of Nehemiah’s generalship. He did not sacrifice the building to the fighting. The former was itself designed to produce a permanent defence, while the arms were only for temporary use. When the walls were up the citizens could give the laugh back to their foes. But in itself the very act of working was reassuring. Idleness is a prey to fears which industry has no time to entertain. Every man who tries to do his duty as a servant of God is unconsciously building a wall about himself that will be his shelter in the hour of peril.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 4". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/nehemiah-4.html.
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