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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Nehemiah 4

 

 

Verses 1-6

Sanballat Arouses The Neighbours Of The Jews To Ridicule Their Attempts To Rebuild The Walls, But Without Effect (Nehemiah 4:1-6).

We note here the deepening of the already revealed opposition to the Jews and to the building of the walls. Notice the growth in the antagonistic attitude of those who were opposed to them, each time expressed in accordance with a pattern:

o 2:10 ‘And when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them greatly, in that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel.’

o 2:19 ‘But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, “What is this thing that you do? Will you rebel against the king?”

o 4:1 ‘But it came about that, when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was furious, and took great umbrage, and mocked the Jews, and spoke before his brothers and the army of Samaria.’

o 4:7-8 ‘But it came about 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, that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very angry, and they conspired all of them together to come and fight against Jerusalem, and to cause confusion in it.’

Notice the pattern, ‘and when they/he heard of it’, and the growth in feeling, ‘it grieved them greatly’, ‘they laughed us to scorn, and despised us’, ‘he was furious, and took great umbrage’, ‘they conspired to come and fight against Jerusalem’.

We may also notice the growth in Nehemiah’s response:

o In Nehemiah 2:10 he simply carried on with his purpose.

o In Nehemiah 2:20 he responded by pointing out that the God of Heaven was with them, and that they had no part in it.

o In Nehemiah 4:4-5 he specifically calls on God to deal with them severely.

o In Nehemiah 4:9 he prays to God and sets up a watch against them.

Nehemiah 4:1

‘But it came about that, when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was furious, and took great umbrage, and mocked the Jews.’

In his attempts to thwart the work an angry Sanballat, who was probably already governor of the district of Samaria, turned to insults, mocking the attempts of ‘the Jews’ (the returnees and those who had involved themselves with them in the pure worship of YHWH). The significance of the building of the walls is brought out by his fury. It was no light matter. It represented a new political force arising in the area, and one which was separatist based on its exclusive Temple worship (see Ezra 4:1-6). It thus represented the weakening of his authority, and was an affront to his own particular views. For he saw himself as a Yahwist, and was angry that the Jews would not accept him as such.

There is in fact no more potent weapon than ridicule when used against those who want to be well thought of. It can turn half-hearted people from their purposes, and prevent others from joining them. Many a Christian’s progress has been halted by such methods. But in this case it failed because ‘the people had a mind to work’. They were confident that they were doing the work of God. And it consequently only left the alternative of violence (Nehemiah 4:7). The mockery was indirect (Nehemiah 4:2), although it certainly reached Nehemiah’s ears. The aim was to build up a huge feeling of contempt concerning the activities of the Jews. It was also aimed at bolstering his own self-esteem.

Nehemiah 4:2

‘And he spoke before his allies (brothers) and the army of Samaria, and said, “What are the 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?”

The word ‘brothers’ almost certainly means ‘allies’ (compare Amos 1:9), those in brotherly union with him as adversaries of the Jews. The army of Samaria would be a local military contingent such as a governor would necessarily require as a kind of police force (compare Ezra 4:23). The mention of the latter is significant as preparing for the intended violence that will follow. Sanballat thus makes his views widely known among those who have some authority, and those who will enforce his decisions. He is bolstering them up as well as himself.

His questions are clearly derogatory, based on his contemptuous view of their weakness and feebleness. What did such feeble people really think that they could achieve? As we know they had been constantly struggling against hard times and had been finding life difficult (Nehemiah 1:3), something partly due to Sanballat and his cronies. The question brings home how necessary the powerful leadership of Nehemiah, combined with the strength of his escort, was to the ailing Jews. They provided some kind of backbone.

The first two questions can be seen as referring to their attempts to make themselves secure, ‘will they fortify themselves?’ or ‘depend on themselves?’ (ensuring their own protection)), ‘will they sacrifice?’ (thus ensuring God’s protection). The second set of questions then demonstrates that he saw that as a vain hope based on inadequate foundations. They may be seen as a chiasmus:

A ‘Will they fortify themselves?’ (Or ‘will they leave it to themselves?’).

B ‘Will they sacrifice?’

B ‘Will they make an end (of their problems) in a day?’ (by calling on God).

A ‘Will they make renewed stones out of the heaps of burned rubbish?’

In this case ‘fortifying themselves’ or ‘leaving it to themselves’ is paralleled by ‘making the burned stones live’, in other words relying on themselves and hoping for a miracle as they use inadequate materials for their fortifications. Sacrificing is paralleled with anticipating instantaneous results as a response. In this last there may be an echo of Zechariah 3:9, ‘I will remove the iniquity of that land in one day’. Did they really think that offering sacrifices could remove their sin in one day?

On the other hand we may see them as two couplets:

o ‘Will they leave themselves (in the hands of God), will they sacrifice?’

o ‘Will they make an end (of building) in a day, will they make burned stones live?’

The overall picture is the same. His claim is that they are relying on themselves and on an inadequate God, and are anticipating the achievement of a quick fix while relying on inadequate materials. Among other things he has in mind how long the building of such walls could be expected to take, especially given their lack of expertise, and the uselessness of using burned limestone, which would easily crumble, for building purposes. He considers that they are just not aware of the problems. The writer knows, of course, that his readers are aware that it has meanwhile been accomplished satisfactorily.

The regular meaning of ‘azab is to ‘leave, abandon’. Thus the translation ‘will they (vainly) leave themselves (in the hands of God)?’ (compare Psalms 10:14), or ‘will they leave (it to) themselves?’. This is then followed by ‘will they (vainly) sacrifice?’ But at Ugarit a secondary meaning for ‘azah was found which translates as ‘to build, renovate, restore’. Thus the translation, ‘Will they fortify themselves?’ In other words, ‘will they make a vain attempt to render themselves secure using inadequate materials?’ This latter would then indicate that by ‘will they sacrifice?’ he is also indicating the uselessness of their sacrifices which are also inadequate. He probably saw their version of Yahwism as lacking in depth and quality, with its failure to unite Him with other gods (in contrast with the heretical Jews at Elephantine). Thus overall he is stressing that they are relying on inadequate things: on their own feeble activity, on their equally feeble sacrifices, on their confidence that they could complete the work quickly against all odds, and on their confidence that they could make useless materials useable. They were hoping for the impossible.

Nehemiah 4:3

‘Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, “Even what they are building, if a fox go up, he will break down their stone wall.”

Tobiah, who was standing by him, joined in the derision claiming that if even a fox were to climb on the walls it would cause them to break down. He too has in mind the inadequacy of the materials, the shortage of time and the lack of expertise of the builders. He considers that they are incapable of achieving their purpose.

Nehemiah 4:4-5

“Hear, O our God, for we are despised. And turn back their reproach on their own head, and give them up for a spoil in a land of captivity, and do not cover their iniquity, and do not let their sin be blotted out from before you, for they have provoked (you) to anger before (in front of) the builders.”

Nehemiah’s response emphasises the fact that Sanballat’s questions were intended to be an insult against the God of the Jews, as well as a reproach on His people. He calls on God to hear what has been said. They have despised His people, and have provoked Him to anger in front of His people. Thus he prays that what had previously happened to God’s own people because they had despised God, should now be done to these equally sinful people. Let their sin not be overlooked. Let them too be taken into exile.

Some modern translations have ignored the preposition ‘before’, translating ‘have provoked the builders to anger’. But this is to alter the clear significance of the text. ‘Before’ cannot be ignored, nor can it be taken adverbially. But there are a number of examples where ‘provoke to anger’ refers to God even when He is not mentioned (e.g. 1 Kings 21:22; 2 Kings 21:6; 2 Kings 23:19; 2 Chronicles 33:6; Psalms 106:29; Hosea 12:14).

‘And do not cover their iniquity, and do not let their sin be blotted out from before you.’ Compare Psalms 109:14; Jeremiah 18:23, which demonstrate that his prayer in such circumstances was on a parallel with that of other godly men. For the idea of having iniquity ‘covered’ (casah) see Psalms 85:2. (The word casah means to put a cover over, but it is not the word that usually signifies atonement which is caphar). For to ‘have sins blotted out’ see Psalms 51:1; Psalms 51:9; Isaiah 43:25; Isaiah 44:22. These benefits were the prerogatives of God’s redeemed people when they came to God in God’s way.

But while recognising that Nehemiah falls short of the ideal of Christ’s teaching (‘love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’), we should note in his defence that Nehemiah was not praying that they would never find true forgiveness. He was praying rather that they would receive what their sins deserved while they remained in their present condition. For by their very attitude they were revealing that they had no true knowledge of YHWH (a knowledge that they claimed) and therefore had no rights to the benefits that they claimed through their own sacrificial system. These words are the negative side of ‘turn back their reproach on their own head, and give them up for a spoil in a land of captivity’. He was not seeking to remove their right to forgiveness if they approached God on God’s terms (by renouncing idolatry and truly submitting to YHWH and His covenant), only praying that they would not find ‘easy forgiveness’ through their own ritual. Let them, in their unrepentant state, receive the due reward for their sins (we can compare the cry of the martyred saints in Revelation 6:10).

‘For they have provoked (You) to anger before the builders.’ And his grounds for his prayer were that they had by their behaviour provoked God to anger. Their sin had not been against man, but against God. This need not mean that Sanballat and his cronies had actually openly spoken in front of the builders. Only that what they had been propagating had reached the ears of the builders. The builders had been made aware of the general mockery that accompanied their work, shaming them and thus provoking YHWH to anger because it was His work that they were doing.

Nehemiah 4:6

‘So we built the wall, and all the wall was joined together to half its (height), for the people had a mind to work.’

‘So we built the wall.’ In the face of the opposition, and with confidence in the One to Whom Nehemiah had prayed, the work on the walls continued apace until within a comparatively short time Jerusalem was encircled by a wall which was overall half the height of that finally intended. This would provide some defence in itself. No longer could people creep in anywhere at will. (The full height would be revealed by those parts of the wall which had survived the catastrophe). And this was the result of the exertions of men who were determined to get the job done, and had laboured accordingly.


Verses 1-14

Continual Opposition To The Building Of The Wall And Problems Related To It (Nehemiah 4:1 to Nehemiah 6:14).

Meanwhile the work did not go on unopposed. Powerful men were involved in seeking to ensure that the walls were not rebuilt, and that Jerusalem was not re-established. We have already had three of these described to us in Nehemiah 2:19. They were formidable opponents. We now learn about their activity in more detail.

o Initially they operated by using ridicule and threats (Nehemiah 2:19; Nehemiah 4:1-3). They had grave doubts about whether the objective would be achieved. It was after all a massive operation, and there was no one with the authority to enforce the rebuilding by using slave gangs and taskmasters. That was not within Nehemiah’s remit. It depended on voluntary cooperation and popular enthusiasm. They could not believe that the initial enthusiasm would be maintained. But as things progressed they began to fear that they might be wrong.

o Thus when that failed they turned to the idea of using extreme violence (Nehemiah 4:7-11). But that too failed because of the vigilance of Nehemiah, and the stout-heartedness of God’s people, who worked with their swords in their hands.

o Then they five times (Nehemiah 6:4-5) sought to entice Nehemiah to a place where they would be able to do him mischief (Nehemiah 6:2). But he was no fool and once again they found themselves thwarted.

o As a consequence they resorted to suggestions to Nehemiah that in their view treason was involved in the building of the walls which they intended to report to the king of Persia himself along with a report of the activities of treasonable prophets (Nehemiah 6:6-7). To these suggestions Nehemiah gave short shrift. He was confident that his royal master would rely on his trustworthiness.

o This was followed by an invidious attempt through someone who pretended to be friendly to persuade him to act in a cowardly way in order to protect his own life by taking refuge in the Temple along with him (Nehemiah 6:10). But Nehemiah was no coward and roundly dismissed such an idea.

Combined with these activities was the problem of the extreme poverty that resulted for many due to their dedication to the building of the walls. Many had been living on the breadline for decades, scratching an existence from their limited resources, but now the concentration on the building of the walls had tipped them over the edge. They found themselves hungry, and even enslaved by debt, and that by their fellow Jews (Nehemiah 5:1-6). This too was something that Nehemiah had to remedy (Nehemiah 5:7-13).

Meanwhile the work on the wall progressed until it was finally accomplished. Jerusalem was once more a walled city, with its gates secure.


Verses 7-23

Sanballat And His Allies Determine Violence Against the Builders Of The Walls With The Aim Of Preventing Their Completion Only To Be Thwarted By Nehemiah’s Precautions (Nehemiah 4:7-23).

Their derision having failed in its purpose, and their anger still being aroused, Sanballat and his allies now determined to bring the work to a stop by using violence. To the already formidable opponents were added the Ammonites to the east of Judah (although Tobias was an Ammonite) and the Ashdodites to the west. Ashdod was the name of the overall province that included former Philistine territory. These plotted an incursion into Jerusalem with the hope of causing confusion. Nehemiah responded by praying to God and setting a watch, with half his builders ready at arms, and all his builders armed in case they were needed.

Nehemiah 4:7

‘But it came about 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, that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very angry,’

The frequency with which Jerusalem must have suffered unofficial raids is suggested by the number of adversaries who were angry at the repairing of the breaches in the walls. They realised that any future plans that they might have for unofficial raids were now being thwarted. Furthermore it indicated that Jerusalem was once again becoming a power in the land.

The phrase ‘the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem’ in Hebrew uses the figure of bandaging up a wound. For this metaphor compare 2 Chronicles 24:13; Isaiah 30:26; Jeremiah 8:22; Jeremiah 30:17; Jeremiah 33:6. Its similar use in 2 Chronicles 24:13 may suggest that it was a common phrase, a reminder that YHWH is the One Who heals them (Exodus 15:26)

The fact that Tobias (the Ammonite) is mentioned separately from the Ammonites would appear to be against the suggestion that he was governor over the Ammonites, although he may well have had influence among them. Thus the Ammonites and the Ashdodites were ‘new’ enemies. It is worthwhile considering the strength of the opposition:

o Sanballat, with his deputy Tobias, would appear to have been governor and deputy governor over Samaria, to the north.

o The Arabians, headed by their paramount chieftain Geshem (see on Nehemiah 2:19) would be to the east and south, and would be a formidable foe. They probably included the Idumaeans/Edomites now settled in southern Judah.

o The Ammonites were to the east of Judah. That Tobias, although an Ammonite, was not their governor is suggested by the order given for the adversaries, but he would almost certainly have had influence among them. They were a fierce, only half civilised tribal nation. Members of a Tobiad family (who may not, however, have been related to Tobias) were certainly governors of Ammon in later centuries.

o The Ashdodites represented the peoples to the west, for Ashdod was the name of the Persian province (taken over from the Assyrians) which included the whole of former Philistia.

Nehemiah 4:8

‘And they conspired all of them together to come and fight against Jerusalem, and to cause confusion in it.’

The different groups described conspired together to send bands of armed men against Jerusalem in order to cause confusion among the builders (Nehemiah 4:8), and kill some of them (Nehemiah 4:11), thus hoping to disillusion them and bring about a cessation of their labours. These were apparently to be lightning strikes, totally unexpected by the builders, and taking them by surprise. What was planned was thus not an invasion or war against Judah in the normal sense (something which the Persian overall authorities would not have permitted) but a series of incursions only against Jerusalem, causing destruction and death, something which was intended to prevent the walls being built. That this was so comes out in the fact that Nehemiah’s response in defending Jerusalem succeeded. Judah could hardly have resisted an all out war conducted and coordinated by their neighbours on all sides. The whole emphasis of both sides was on Jerusalem alone.

Even so Sanballat would know that he could be called to account by the Satrap over Beyond the River for his actions. Thus he must have reasoned, 1) that he could suggest that much of it was the work of brigands who were difficult to control, and/or 2) that as regards his own activities he could point to the previous instruction from Artaxerxes calling on him to enforce the cessation of the building of the walls (Ezra 4:22-23), no further decree to allow the building of the walls having been received by him, and that he was thus acting in accordance with instructions, and/or 3) that he could count on the matter not being treated too seriously, being dismissed as simply resulting from local feuds, or indeed a combination of all three. These arguments would depend on the attacks not seeming to be too coordinated or too severe.

On the other hand he would count on the fact that many of the Jews would be aware of what had happened previously when the Persian authorities had come down hard on them for seeking to rebuild the walls (Ezra 4:22-23), and might therefore easily capitulate. And on the fact that they would not want to see extra problems arising for their families as a result of their activities, for the passing through a country of invading bands inevitably left a trail of destruction behind them, especially when their aim was punitive. Indeed had Nehemiah not been there, with his supreme confidence in his own position, their adversaries might well have succeeded. But Nehemiah knew that there were limits on how far their adversaries would dare to go, and was clearly confident therefore that his defensive measures would, with the help of God, succeed.

Nehemiah 4:9

‘But we made our prayer to our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.’

Nehemiah’s response was to pray to God and set a twenty four hour watch. There is the important lesson here that faith and practicality must go hand in hand. In Jesus’ words, we must ‘not put to test the Lord our God’ (Matthew 4:7). Without God’s help the watch may well not have succeeded. But to have relied on God without setting a watch would have been to wrongly put God to the test.


Verses 10-12

Three Attitudes Which Nehemiah Had To Contend With (Nehemiah 4:10-12).

Nehemiah’s firm response is now set against the background of three attitudes which were in danger of halting the work. The first was the growth of discouragement among the builders as they considered the task in hand (and Judah said’ -verse 10); the second was the intention of their adversaries to make a number of surprise murderous attacks on the builders, which no doubt became known to them (‘and our adversaries said’ - Nehemiah 4:11); and the third was the feeding of the discouragement by their fellow-Jews who had not been willing to involve themselves in the work (‘the Jews who dwelt by them came, they said’ - Nehemiah 4:12). They were beset with doubts from all sides.

Nehemiah 4:10

‘And Judah said,

“The strength of the burden-bearers is failing,

And there is much rubble,

In consequence we are not able,

To build the wall.”

That the activities of Sanballat and his allies, together with the difficulties being faced, were undoubtedly beginning to have an effect on the morale of many of the men of Judah comes out in a song that began to be spread among the builders and their families which expressed their feelings. It was a song of hopelessness. Things were getting too much for them. Their strength was failing because of the enormity of the tasks. They were finding things too much for them. The obstacles were enormous. So much rubble still had to be removed. As a consequence they were beginning themselves to doubt their ability to complete the building of the wall.

Nehemiah 4:11

‘And our adversaries said, “They will not know, nor see, till we come into their midst, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.”

Meanwhile their adversaries were planning to increase their discouragement by surprise, unexpected attacks, with murderous bands arriving suddenly among them causing havoc and death. Their whole aim was to make the work to cease in the light of what they had learned concerning the morale of the builders (the song would have become common knowledge).

Nehemiah 4:12

‘And it came about that, when the Jews who dwelt by them came, they said to us ten times from all sides, “You must return to us.”

Meanwhile their fellow-Jews, presumably some who had not been willing to involve themselves in the work, repeatedly (‘ten times’) said to them on all sides, ‘give up and come back to your normal lives among us’. The temptation must have been enormous. There was a clear recognition that any violence would only be carried out against the builders in Jerusalem. Any who disentangled themselves from them would be safe.

‘Said to us ten times.’ Compare a similar use of ‘ten times’ in Genesis 31:41, ‘you have changed my wages ten times’. Compare also Daniel 1:12. It is clear that here it is not intended to be taken literally. It simply means ‘a number of times’.

It is apparent therefore that there was a great danger that the work would grind to halt with the walls still unfinished, and Jerusalem still a prey to marauders. It was then that Nehemiah stepped into the breach and persuaded them to carry on in the face of all the obstacles because God was with them, bolstering his arguments by organising their defences against incursions so that they could see that there was hope even if they remained in Jerusalem in order to complete the work.

It should be noted that Nehemiah 4:12 in the Hebrew is clearly connected with Nehemiah 4:13. Thus Nehemiah’s response is linked with, and contrasted with, the attitude of their fellow-Jews (something which our division of the verses hides). On the one hand their fellow-Jews said, ‘you may as well give up and join us in a place of safety’, and on the other Nehemiah acted vigorously in order to ensure that they were encouraged and did not.


Verses 13-15

Nehemiah’s Takes Precautions And His Response Encourages The Builders And Balks The Enemy (Nehemiah 4:13-15).

Nehemiah’s response demonstrated his leadership abilities, and his firm practicality. He called on the builders to bring with them their weapons and demonstrated how they could set up a solid means of defence against surprise attacks. It was only then that he called them together and reminded them of the greatness of God, and of their responsibilities towards their families. His method clearly worked. The consequence was that when their adversaries realised that their plans were known, and learned that defences had been set up, they backed down from their intentions. It was one thing to carry out spasmodic surprise raids on groups of defenceless builders in Jerusalem which could be explained away. It was quite another to take on Jews who were fully armed, organised and ready to defend themselves, thus turning their raids into direct and deliberate warfare. Furthermore, while no mention is made of them, it is doubtful whether all Nehemiah’s escort had returned to Persia. The king would have expected him to retain a bodyguard. These would now be involved in any fighting, thus making any attack an attack on Persia itself.

Nehemiah 4:13

‘Therefore I stationed (men) in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in the open places. I stationed (there) the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows.’

Here we have Nehemiah’s response to the suggestion that they should give up building the walls and seek safety outside Jerusalem. His wisdom is demonstrated by the fact that before he called the people in order to exhort them, he organised a solid means of defence which would give them something to have confidence in. It was only then that he exhorted them to resist.

His method was simply to demonstrate the possibility of resisting any attack, and to underline the fact that the half-constructed walls already provided a level of defence (‘he set them -- behind the wall’). It need not mean that he organised defence right round the walls. That was not his purpose. His purpose was to demonstrate that if they came together as a unit they were strong enough to resist ‘surprise attacks’, which would no longer be a surprise because they were expected. He would know that messengers would arrive with the news when such attacks were imminent

The transitive verb ‘I stationed’ requires an object to be read in. This is quite a regular feature in the Old Testament. All would know that those whom he stationed were ‘men’, as he then goes on to demonstrate. These were fully armed with swords, spears and bows and stationed in the open spaces where there were no buildings, which would be the parts where the walls were lowest. The very gathering of men fully armed would act as a stimulant to the defenders. It reminded them that they were able to defend themselves, and they would gained courage from each other. They would no longer see themselves as a prey but as an army. Note how he gathered them ‘in their families’. The whole host were divided up into a number of fighting units based on family and tribal connection. It was a ‘gathering of the tribes’ as of old. This idea of ordinary people gathering with weapons in their tribes and sub-tribes in order to fulfil God’s purposes, in other words in preparation for a holy war, is rooted in Israel’s history. It would therefore uniquely arouse their religious zeal and patriotism, and make them one with the glories of their past history.

‘Swords and spears and bows.’ These were the kind of weapons all men would have available to them. In those days all men wore a sword for self-defence when they ventured out, and spears and bows would be used for hunting.

Nehemiah 4:14

‘And I saw, and rose up, and said to the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, “Do not you be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and terrible, and fight for your brothers, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.”

‘And I saw.’ He reviewed the troops which he had arrayed before the people, and in consequence rose up and spoke to the nobles, rulers and people giving them reassuring words. They were not to be afraid of anything that the enemy would try to do. Rather they were to remember Who and What God was, and that He was on their side. For God as great and terrible compare Nehemiah 1:5; Daniel 9:4; Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 7:21; Deuteronomy 10:17.

As a consequence they were to be ready to defend themselves, fighting to establish the future for their loved ones and their possessions. For if Judah was to have any independent future Jerusalem had to be re-established. It was recognition of this fact that made their adversaries so fierce in their opposition. And it was recognition of this fact that should make them strong.

Nehemiah 4:15

‘And it came about, when our enemies heard that it was known to us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one to his work.’

The news of his preparations for the defence of Jerusalem reached the ears of his enemies, and seemingly nipped in the bud their own preparations with the result that no attack ensued. As Nehemiah piously put it, and firmly believed, they were forced to recognise that God had brought their counsel to naught. God had heard the prayers of His people. An the people with him apparently saw it in the same way, for they returned to their working positions on the wall. The work went on unhindered.


Verses 16-23

Nehemiah’s Provision For The Defence Of The Builders (Nehemiah 4:16-23).

Nehemiah now called on his own specialist troops, fully armed with mail and shields, to act as a protective force for Jerusalem. These were probably his escort which he would have retained in Jerusalem for the journey back and may well have included Persians in their number. They would be fully trained troops. Note that he speaks of them as ‘my servants’. Meanwhile the other workers were to carry arms with them as they continued the work, ready to defend themselves, and to respond to any call for assistance.

Nehemiah 4:16

‘And it came about from that time forth, that half of my servants wrought in the work, and half of them held the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the coats of mail, and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah.’

It seems clear that most of Nehemiah’s ‘men’, apart from those who acted as his bodyguard, had previously been helping with the building work, presumably in a supervisory capacity. Now half of them were withdrawn and called on to stand fully armed ready for any emergency. They would bear the initial brunt of any surprise attack. Notice their superior armour which distinguishes them from the Jews. The other half were to continue to help in the work, but with their own armour held ready by the former in case they were called on. Together with his own permanent bodyguard they formed a permanent ‘standing army’. Meanwhile the rulers of the Jews, also presumably acting as supervisors, were supporting ‘the whole house of Judah’, that is, those who were working on the walls. They encouraged them in the work, kept in communication with Nehemiah, and stood ready to act as militia leaders. These formed a secondary force (armed but with no armour) which could be called up if required. For this situation we can compare David and ‘his men’ (2 Samuel 5:6), ‘his servants’ (2 Samuel 11:1; 2 Samuel 15:18), who were a permanent standing army, but could be supplemented by ‘all Israel’ when required (2 Samuel 6:1; 2 Samuel 10:17; 2 Samuel 11:1).

Nehemiah 4:17-18

‘They all built the wall and those who bore burdens loaded themselves, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other held his weapon, and the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so built.

Meanwhile, while his men performed their guard duties, and helped with supervision, the remainder were divided into two groups, those who ‘bore burdens’ (the fetchers and carriers) and those who built. The former bore their burdens with one hand and carried their weapons in the other. The word for weapons indicates some form of missiles, possibly therefore spears, which was why they could not carry them in their belts. The latter continued building and wore their swords in their belts. All were at the ready in case the alarm sounded, indicating an impending attack.

Nehemiah 4:18

-20 ‘And he who sounded the trumpet was by me. And I said to the nobles, and to the rulers and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and large, and we are separated on the wall, one far from another, in whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, resort you to us there. Our God will fight for us.”

The responsibility for sounding the alarm lay in Nehemiah’s hands. Attending him at all times was a trumpeter. And the instructions that he gave to the nobles, and the rulers appointed over the militia, and the people themselves, who were necessarily spread out right round the walls, was that whenever they heard the trumpet sound, there they were to gather, weapons in hand, to assist in driving back the enemy. Nor were they to be afraid, for they were to recognise that ‘our God will fight for us’. In all his preparations Nehemiah in the end totally depended on God. His final confidence was in Him, but we should note that it did not hinder him from detailed planning.

Nehemiah 4:21

‘ So we wrought in the work, and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared.’

The ‘we’ here is probably Nehemiah and his servants as per Nehemiah 4:16, half of whom held spears, shields, bows and coats of mail. He and his servants played their full part in the work, whilst half of them stood at the ready for any surprise attack. And they did this from break of day until dusk. ‘Spears’ is here used to indicate all the weapons that they carried in readiness, being the first in the list in Nehemiah 4:16.

Nehemiah 4:22

‘In the same way at the same time I said to the people, “Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that in the night they may be a guard to us, and may labour in the day.”

In the same way he called on the people to play their full part, lodging with their servants in the city at night, so that they might act as guards during the night (taking their turn on watch), and labouring during the day.

Nehemiah 4:23

‘So neither I, nor my brothers, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us put off our clothes. Every one (went with) his weapon (to) the water.’

Thus all were to be constantly at the ready, he, his brothers (fellow-Jews), his own special fully armed servants, and his own bodyguard. And this they did. None got undressed, but rather slept in readiness for instant action, and even bore their weapons when they went for water.

‘Every one (went with) his weapon (to) the water.’ This is literally, in our Hebrew text (The Masoretic Text), ‘a man his weapon the water.’ But in view of the constant necessity of drawing water for drinking it seems reasonable to see in this a warning against even going for water without being armed. An alternative (but less likely) is to see it as an indication that they were even to carry their weapons when relieving themselves, with ‘water’ being a euphemism for urine (compare 2 Kings 18:27; Isaiah 36:12 - but there it is ‘water of the feet’). The idea is one of constant readiness.

Another possibility is AV’s translation ‘saving that everyone put them off for washing’, follows the Vulgate (Latin) version. This is based on repointing the Hebrew for ‘his weapon’, and turning it into a verb (‘let go, put off’), but even then it is a forced rendering of what is literally ‘a man let go (put off) the water’. This then paraphrased as , ‘a man put off for the water’.

(Some make a slight emendation to the text on the basis that there is a copying error and translate, ‘everyone with his weapon on the right’ (with hemin replacing hamayim (the water), that is, has his weapon within reach of his right hand in readiness for being suddenly awoken and needing it quickly. Another of many suggested alternatives is, ‘each with his weapon all the time’. But all such emendations are necessarily intelligent guesswork and should be avoided where possible).

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Nehemiah 4:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/nehemiah-4.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Thursday, December 12th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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