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Bible Commentaries
Nehemiah 4

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Nehemiah 4:0


The Wall Defended Against EnemiesTroubles For Builders(Nehemiah 4:1-5)Nehemiah Overcomes Opposition to His WorkThe Effects of the Jews' Opponents
3:33-37(follows MT versing)
Nehemiah 4:1-3Nehemiah 4:1-5Nehemiah 4:1-2
Nehemiah 4:3
Nehemiah 4:4-5Nehemiah 4:4-5
Nehemiah 4:6-9Nehemiah 4:6Nehemiah 4:63:38
Nehemiah 4:7-9Nehemiah 4:7-9Nehemiah 4:1-2
Nehemiah 4:10-12Nehemiah 4:10-14Nehemiah 4:10Nehemiah 4:3-5
Nehemiah 4:11-13
Nehemiah 4:13-14Nehemiah 4:6-9
Nehemiah 4:14-15
Nehemiah 4:15-18Nehemiah 4:15-20
Nehemiah 4:16-21Nehemiah 4:10-17
Nehemiah 4:19-20
Nehemiah 4:21-23Nehemiah 4:21-5
Nehemiah 4:22-23

READING CYCLE THREE (from “A Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects. Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired but it is the key to following the original author's intent which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.

Verses 1-3

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 4:1-3 1Now it came about that when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became furious and very angry and mocked the Jews. 2He spoke in the presence of his brothers and the wealthy men of Samaria and said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Are they going to restore it for themselves? Can they offer sacrifices? Can they finish in a day? Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?” 3Now Tobiah the Ammonite was near him and he said, “Even what they are buildingif a fox should jump on it, he would break their stone wall down!”

Nehemiah 4:1 The Masoretic Text continues in Neh. 3:33-35 of chapter 3, while most modern English translation begin Nehemiah 4:1-3 here.

“Sanballat” See note at Nehemiah 2:10.

“he became furious” This VERB (BDB 354, KB 351, Qal IMPERFECT), originally an Aramaic VERB, means “to burn.” It came to be used metaphorically of rage. This same root is translated “zealous” (used in a positive sense) in Nehemiah 3:20.

“very angry” This VERB (BDB 494, KB 491) is another Qal IMPERFECT intensified with a Hiphil INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE (BDB 915 I, KB 1176). Both the TEV and the NJB combine these descriptions of Sanballat into one.

“mocked” This VERB (BDB 541, KB 532 Hiphil IMPERFECT) was also used of Sanballat in Nehemiah 2:19.

“the Jews” This term (BDB 397) originally referred to the tribe of Judah and its territorial allocation (cf. Joshua 15:0) and thereby those who were descendants from Judah, son of Jacob. After the breakup of the United Monarchy (Saul, David, and Solomon) in 922 B.C., it became the designation for the southern kingdom.

Lastly it became a way of referring to all the descendants of the Patriarchs who worship YHWH, especially in Jeremiah (seventh century), Nehemiah, and Esther (post-exilic).

It also became a way of referring to Hebrews (cf. 2 Kings 18:26, 2 Kings 18:28; 2 Chronicles 32:18; Isaiah 36:11, Isaiah 36:13; Nehemiah 13:24).

Nehemiah 4:2

NASB“the wealthy men of Samaria” NKJV, NRSV“the army of Samaria” TEV“the Samaritan troops” NJB“the aristocracy of Samaria”

The Hebrew root (BDB 298) can be understood in two ways:

1. from the phrase “to be strong,” referring to fortifications or military soldiers (#4)

2. from the phrase “to be strong,” used metaphorically of wealth (#3)

What follows in Nehemiah 4:2 in a series of questions meant to ridicule the Jews' rebuilding plans.

NASB, NKJV, NRSV“feeble Jews” TEV“miserable Jews” NJB“pathetic Jews”

This ADJECTIVE (BDB 51) developed from the VERB (BDB 51, KB 63, Pulal), which is used often in the prophets (Puel).

1. loss of fertility, Jeremiah 15:9

2. inhabitants of a defeated land, Isaiah 24:4; Hosea 4:3

3. withered fortifications, Jeremiah 14:2; Lamentations 2:8

4. withered fields or harvests, Isaiah 16:8; Joel 1:10; Nahum 1:4

5. withered land, Isaiah 33:9

NASB“Are they going to restore it for themselves” NKJV“Will they fortify themselves” NRSV“Will they restore things” TEV“Do they intend to rebuild the city” NJB“Are they going to give up”

Some scholars think that “themselves” is a scribal error for “God.” Then the question is “Will God restore?” But no ancient translation has this wording. This suggestion occurs in the notes of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, p. 1435.

As it is the two Hebrew words seem to refer to the Jews who undertook the building project. It implies they overestimated their ability.

“Can they revive the stones from dusty rubble even the burned ones” The term “revive” (BDB 310, KB 309, Peel IMPERFECT) is usually used of living things. Here and in 1 Chronicles 11:8, Jerusalem's fortifications are personified as being brought back to life and health.

The walls of Jerusalem, which were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, were constructed from white limestone. When this material is burned it loses its strength and hardness and turns to powder.

Not only were the stones brittle, but they were so large it would be difficult to raise them up the ridge to the desired position. Nebuchadnezzar had burned all the gates and modern supports and pulled the stones down into the valley.

Nehemiah 4:3 Tobiah (cf. Nehemiah 2:10) continues Sanballat's mockery by the use of an idiom. Foxes and jackals were animals that might jump on top of a wall. He asserts that the Jews' construction was so inferior that even this small weight or pressure would collapse it.

Tobiah may have chosen this idiom because of the connotation of jackals with ruined, cursed cities (cf. Psalms 63:10; Lamentations 5:18; Ezekiel 13:4).

Verses 4-5

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 4:4-5 4 Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. 5Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders.

Nehemiah 4:4 The book of Nehemiah highlights Nehemiah's prayer life. Nehemiah 4:4-5 is his prayer to God to defend His people and judge their enemies. There are three VERBS (IMPERATIVES) used as entreaties to God.

“Hear” The VERB (BDB 1033, KB 1570, Qal IMPERATIVE) means “to hear so as to do.” It is used often in Deuteronomy to encourage the covenant people to covenant faithfulness (cf. Deuteronomy 4:1; Deuteronomy 5:1-7; Deuteronomy 6:4; Deuteronomy 9:1; Deuteronomy 20:3; Deuteronomy 27:9). Here Nehemiah calls on God to be faithful to His covenant promises of protection.

“Return. . .give” The first VERB (BDB 996, KB 1427) is a Hiphil IMPERATIVE. The second (BDB 678, KB 733) is a Qal IMPERATIVE. Both are used as supplications to God.

“despised. . .plunder” There may be a sound word play between these two terms (BDB 100 & 103).

“reproach” The term (BDB 357) means the taunt of an enemy (cf. Nehemiah 5:9). The term is used often in Jeremiah.

Nehemiah asked God to do to them what they want to do to His people (idiom, “on their own heads”). He even asks for their exile!

Nehemiah 4:5

NASB, TEV“forgive” NKJV, NRSV“cover” NJB“pardon”

This negated VERB is literally “to cover” (ksh, BDB 491, KB 487, Peel JUSSIVE). The NOUN was used “to hide” or “to conceal.” It is rarely used in the sense of “forgive,” but usually this is reserved for kpr (BDB 497). In Jeremiah 18:23, to which Nehemiah seems to allude, he substitutes ksh for kpr (see NIDOTTE, vol. 2, p. 692). See Special Topic: Forgiveness in the OT.

“iniquity. . .sin” The first term (BDB 730) means “to bend” or “to twist.” It becomes the metaphor which denotes perversion from God's law (e.g., Genesis 15:16; Exodus 20:5, Exodus 20:6; Leviticus 16:22). The terms “right,” “just,” and “straight” are used to describe God's character and word (see Special Topic below). To deviate from the standard is sin, rebellion.

The second term's (BDB 308) basic meaning is “to miss the mark.” It implies a violation of God's law (e.g., Leviticus 4:2). This is the most common term for sin in the OT.

SPECIAL TOPIC: Righteousness

“be blotted out” Verse Nehemiah 4:5 starts with two NEGATED parallel lines. The term “blotted out” (BDB 562, KB 567, Niphal IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense) is a metaphor for removing something from one's memory (cf. Jeremiah 23:18). Nehemiah asks that God not “forgive” or “blot out” the words of the Jews' enemies.

NASB“for they have demoralized the builders” NKJV“for they have provoked You to anger before the builders” NRSV“for they have hurled insults in the face of the builders” TEV“for they have insulted us who are building” NJB“for they have insulted the builders to their face”

The VERB (BDB 494, KB 491, Hiphil PERFECT) means “to provoke to anger.” It is often used of provoking God (e.g., 2 Chronicles 28:25, cf. NKJV), but the context demands that it refer to the workmanship of the Jewish volunteer (non-professional builders) labor force.

Verse 6

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 4:6 6So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.

Nehemiah 4:6 “to half its height The accusation of Tobiah the Ammonite in Nehemiah 4:3 that the walls were of poor quality has been shown to be inaccurate by Kathleen Kenyon's excavation, which shows Nehemiah's wall to have been nine feet thick. However, this verse is somewhat ambiguous (i.e., “joined together all the wall as far as half”). It (BDB 345) could refer to the (1) height (most English translations); (2) length (cf. Peshitta; Rotherham's Emphasized Bible, p. 482); (3) width; or (4) simply a metaphor for an unfinished work.

“the people had a mind to work” This is literally “a heart.” See Special Topic following.


Verses 7-9

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 4:7-9 7Now when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, and that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry. 8All of them conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it. 9But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night.

Nehemiah 4:7 “Sanballet, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites” It is unusual that Tobiah is listed with Sanballat and not with the Ammonites (cf. Nehemiah 2:10). Geographically Sanballat (governor of Samaria, capital of ancient Israel) is to the north, the Arabs (then nation of Kedar now a Persian province, cf. Nehemiah 2:19) to the south, the Ammonites (a nation, now a Persian province) to the east, and the Ashdodites (an ancient Philistine city) to the west, which shows that the Jews were completely surrounded by enemies.

“the repair of the walls” The term “repair” (BDB 74) is literally “healing.” It is used metaphorically of walls here and of the temple in 2 Chronicles 24:13.

“the breaches began to be closed” The gaps (cf. Nehemiah 6:1) in the wall from previous attacks were beginning to be repaired. This refers to those parts of the wall that were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar or newer walls destroyed earlier by the surrounding enemies (cf. Ezra 4:23-24).

This phrase shows the work was in progress, but not fully completed.

Nehemiah 4:8 The surrounding nations' continued hostility and attempted force of arms violated the edict of Artaxerxes I, given to Nehemiah. For them this was a bold and dangerous political venture.

Nehemiah 4:9 “we prayed. . .we set up a guard” Here is a beautiful balancing of faith and practicality. See Nehemiah 4:14 and Nehemiah 4:20 for the same concept.

Verses 10-14

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 4:10-14 10Thus in Judah it was said, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, Yet there is much rubbish; And we ourselves are unable To rebuild the wall.” 11Our enemies said, “They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.” 12When the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times, “They will come up against us from every place where you may turn,” 13then I stationed men in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, the exposed places, and I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows. 14When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.”

Nehemiah 4:10 This is possibly a song that the laborers sang while doing their work, but it shows the effect that the threats of the surrounding enemies were having on the Jewish laborers.

Nehemiah 4:11 This was the threat of a surprise attack.

Nehemiah 4:12 “told us ten times” This also shows the degree of fear in the Jewish population. The phrase “ten times” seems to be used quite often in the OT for intensity (cf. Genesis 31:7; Numbers 14:22; Job 19:3).

“they will come up against us from every place where you may turn” This may be an allusion to Nehemiah 4:7 in that the enemies listed were from different compass directions (cf. note at Nehemiah 4:7). It implies a coordinated attack by all these groups.

The notes of Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, p. 1436, suggests “every scheme,” which involves a textual emendation. They also suggest that the next to last word of the sentence “you turn” should be emended to “they were plotting” (cf. NET Bible, p. 729).

Nehemiah 4:13

NASB“the exposed places” NKJV“at the openings” NRSV“in open places” TEV“where it was unfinished” NJB“at the point where it was lowest”

The term (BDB 850) is uncertain. The usual meaning is “shining,” “glaring,” “surface,” but here that does not fit, unless one adopts NIDOTTE, vol. 3, p. 796, where it describes this place as barren due to exposure to the sun. Brown, Driver, and Briggs suggest “in glaring, bare places” (cf. JPSOA translation). At times like this we must remember the hermeneutical maxim, “context determines meaning.” Therefore, I think NASB and NJB have the best option. Not openings in the wall, but low places where the enemy could see behind the wall and attempt to ascertain troop strength and location.

Another possibility is that the villagers is that the villagers surrounding Jerusalem had been intimidated (cf. Nehemiah 4:12) so the workers from these areas brought their families into Jerusalem. Nehemiah settled them in the bare areas. If this is true this text does not refer to soldiers attempting to show the strength of their numbers, but the location of the resettled villagers. Nehemiah positioned his troops so that they could be easily seen by the surrounding enemies who were looking from the high points outside the walls.

Nehemiah 4:14 “remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers” Notice the dual (covenant) emphases of trust in God and the preparation for battle! This is exactly the truth also expressed in Nehemiah 4:19 and 20.

This description of God occurs many times in the OT and several times in Nehemiah (cf. Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 4:14; Nehemiah 9:32). See note at Nehemiah 1:5.

“'Do not be afraid of them'“ This VERB (BDB 431, KB 432, Qal IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense) is used often by God or those who speak for Him to reassure His people of His presence and power against their enemies (e.g., Genesis 15:1; Genesis 26:24; Genesis 46:3; Exodus 14:13; Numbers 14:19; Numbers 21:34; Deuteronomy 1:21, Deuteronomy 1:29; Deuteronomy 3:2, Deuteronomy 3:22; Deuteronomy 7:18; Deuteronomy 20:1, Deuteronomy 20:3; Joshua 8:1; Joshua 10:2, Joshua 10:25).

This same root (BDB 431) is used in describing God as “awesome” (cf. Nehemiah 1:5; Nehemiah 4:14; Nehemiah 9:32). Therefore, appropriate fear/respect is due God, but those who serve Him should not have fear or respect for those who attack them and their God.

“remember the Lord” The VERB (BDB 431, KB 422) is a Qal IMPERATIVE.

“fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses” The VERB (BDB 269, KB 269) is a Qal IMPERATIVE. Although God is not specifically mentioned He is surely implied (cf. 2 Samuel 10:12).

Verses 15-20

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 4:15-20 15 When our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had frustrated their plan, then all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work. 16From that day on, half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates; and the captains were behind the whole house of Judah. 17Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon. 18As for the builders, each wore his sword girded at his side as he built, while the trumpeter stood near me. 19I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “The work is great and extensive, and we are separated on the wall far from one another. 20At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.”

Nehemiah 4:15 The battle was God's! He was and is in control. His people must act in faith! As when God defeated the Canaanites, Israel had to prepare for battle, so too, here.

Nehemiah 4:16 “my servants” There has been much discussion by commentators whether this refers to (1) the Jews (cf. Nehemiah 4:21), (2) Nehemiah's special Persian helpers (cf. NJB), or (3) his relatives (cf. Nehemiah 4:21; Nehemiah 5:10, Nehemiah 5:16). It seems that all three are referred to in Nehemiah 4:23.

“the captains were behind the whole house of Judah” The term “captain” (BDB 978) is the general term for “chief,” “official,” “leader,” or “prince.” It is contextually impossible to tell to what group this refers.

The Hebrew Construct can be literalthey stood behind the wall and guarded the workers, or metaphoricalthey supported the effort.

Nehemiah 4:17-18 This shows the labor force's precautions and preparations.

Nehemiah 4:18 “while the trumpeter stood near me” The context (Nehemiah 4:17-20) seems to imply that there was one trumpeter (singular) who followed Nehemiah (cf. TEV, NJB), but the Peshitta and Josephus in his Antiq. 11.5.8 seems to surmise that there were several trumpeters stationed around the circumference of the city, which seems to be more practical.

The trumpet was a shofar or ram's horn (Assyrian origin, wild goat). It was used for military and religious occasions. In later Judaism it had to be the left horn. It was soaked in water and stretched into a long spiral.

Nehemiah 4:20 “Our God will fight for us” This is covenant language (cf. Exodus 14:14; Deuteronomy 1:30; Deuteronomy 3:22; Deuteronomy 20:4; Joshua 10:14, Joshua 10:42). YHWH was on their side. They were His special people.

Verses 21-23

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Nehemiah 4:21-23 21 So we carried on the work with half of them holding spears from dawn until the stars appeared. 22At that time I also said to the people, “Let each man with his servant spend the night within Jerusalem so that they may be a guard for us by night and a laborer by day.” 23So neither I, my brothers, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us removed our clothes, each took his weapon even to the water.

Nehemiah 4:21 “spears” This was a prized weapon during the United Monarchy, but during the Post exilic period it was the standard weapon of choice. It was not used as a thrown (i.e., javelin, which was shorter and lighter) weapon but as a thrusting weapon. It is linked with sword and bow in Nehemiah 4:13, Nehemiah 4:16, but stands alone here as the basic weapon.

Nehemiah 4:22 No one went home. They worked and slept at the wall.

Nehemiah 4:23

NASB“each took his weapon even to the water” NKJV“except that everyone took them off for washing” NRSV“each kept his weapon in his right hand” TEV“we all kept our weapons at hand” NJB“each one kept his spear in his right hand”

The Hebrew literally is “each, his weapon, the waters.” The translations which use “right hand” (NRSV, TEV, NJB) require a textual emendation.


This is a study guide commentary which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

These discussion questions are provided to help you think through the major issues of this section of the book. They are meant to be thought provoking, not definitive.

1. Why were the surrounding Persian governmental entities so against the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem?

2. How are Nehemiah 4:9, Nehemiah 4:14, and 20 to be interpreted, and what does it mean for our walk of faith?

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Nehemiah 4". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/nehemiah-4.html. 2021.
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