Without question the book of Nehemiah is one of the suspense thrillers, the “how will this ultimately turn out” dramas, the edge of your seat feature films of the Old Testament. It stars Nehemiah himself as the Braveheart-William-Wallace protagonist, who inspires a rag-tag group of his countrymen to undertake what seemed to be impossible: rebuild the destroyed city of Jerusalem.
(Neh 1:3 ESV) And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalemis broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”
The task itself seemed too daunting. The wall and temple were burned to the ground. Whoever had returned from the Babylonian exile, combined with those who were left behind, were scattered and lacked any real leadership and / or motivation. The glory of David’s Judah of yesteryear had largely faded. In short, “The English are too many.” But that was not the only problem.
Three Strategies of the Opposition
After a period of fasting / prayer / weeping, negotiations with King Artaxerxes for financial and political support, secret night-time inspections of the wall, and initial recruiting, Nehemiah succeeded in getting the great project under way.
(Neh 2:17–18 ESV) Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work.
The Judahites join together under Nehemiah’s leadership and set themselves to the task. In a few weeks, the wall would be rebuilt and all would be well in Jerusalem again. Problem solved. Right? Except one thing.
Enter Sanballat and Tobiah, the two-headed King Edward I “Longshanks” who would be a massive thorn in Nehemiah’s side for quite some time. These local political leaders (possibly Samaritans) were set against the possible rebuilding of Jerusalem walls and the revitalization of the nation of Judah that would follow. The subsequent chapters of Nehemiah document the escalating tensions as Sanballat and Tobiah lead a strong opposition against the work of the people of God.
Importantly, their actions provide insight into the forms of opposition that God’s people face today as they go about building the kingdom of Jesus Christ on earth – which is literally what Nehemiah was doing.
Opposition to God’s work can take multiple forms:
- Schoolyard taunting and mockery. The easiest thing an opponent can do is to launch sarcastic barbs aimed at humiliation. Sanballat and Tobiah basically make fun of Nehemiah and his builders, offering an Ancient Near Eastern version of a “your momma” taunt:
- (Neh 4:1–3 ESV) Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. 2 And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” 3 Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building— if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
- Political, economic, or social threats. A more serious tactic is to make threats of political, economic or social pain that would stop God’s people in their tracks. Sanballat accuses Nehemiah of leading an insurrection against the very king who had financially supported him, which would certainly have ended badly for Nehemiah:
- (Neh 2:19 ESV) But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?”
- Physical violence. A final tactic in the opposition’s toolbox is to make good on their threats and to attack God’s people physically. Today, this can take the form of persecution, imprisonment, picking fights, even vandalizing a Christian pastor’s truck with, well “rubbish” (ESV of Phil 3:8, somewhat euphemizing a more indelicate word).
- Sanballat and Tobiah first threaten to wage war against the city itself. (Neh 4:7–8,11 ESV) But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. 8 And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. … 11 And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.”
- Later, they make an attempt to assassinate Judah’s leader by luring Nehemiah into the temple. (Neh 6:10–12 ESV) Now when I went into the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home, he said, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple. Let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you. They are coming to kill you by night.” 11 But I said, “Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.” 12 And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.
How did Nehemiah’s people hold up in light of this strong opposition? How do WE typically respond in the face of opposition?
The Opposition is Always Right
When faced with strong opposition against the work of God, our initial reaction is to buy into what the opposition is saying. When the task is difficult enough on its own, and when we already feel like we don’t stand a chance to do what God has called us to do, all that is needed is a small dose of opposition to make us question everything. In other words, on the surface, the opposition is always right.
Why is that? Why does an opponent’s criticism always seem right at first?
Simply this: what the opponent would have us do is ALWAYS easier than the work God has placed before us. The opposition will never suggest doing the hard thing, the sacrificial thing, the costly thing. It will always offer up the easier path, the most politically expedient decision, the least personally costly choice, the more popular option. Opponents seem to be right because, on the world’s terms, THEY ARE right.
Let that sink in. By the world’s accounting – on the world’s terms of what matters, how we should live, and what we should prioritize in the here and now – the work of building God’s eternal kingdom never makes sense. Under fleshly thinking, God’s calling is never the optimal political, social, or economic decision. If we think only in terms of life under the sun, detached from any future salvation or eternal inheritance, then what we are called to do as Christians (individually or corporately) will always seem illogical, stupid, and / or foolish in the world’s eyes. And that is exactly how our opposition wants us to think. The taunts, the threats, and the physical violence of the opponents of God’s people are aimed at one thing only: if they can get you to think like they think, then you will stop what you are doing, because it no longer makes any sense at all.
In fact, that is exactly how some of Nehemiah’s followers responded. They basically said, “You know, Sanballat and Tobiah are right. Let’s bag this operation”:
(Neh 4:10,12 ESV) In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.” … 12 At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.”
The opposition is always right. It seems that way, at least.
Build the Wall Anyway
If the task is already hard enough, and if the opposition wants to convince us to think in a worldly way and give up because the cost is too great, then what do we do as God’s people? Let us see how Nehemiah leads his people through this crisis of confidence brought about by opposition.
- Nehemiah’s first response, which we see again and again in the book, is to pray. Pithy but heartfelt prayers to God saturate his every move.
- His second response is to provide inspiration to his people by reminding them of God’s promise to protect them. Though Judah is itself weak, Almighty God will himself prevail against the opposition.
- (Neh 2:20 ESV) Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.”
- (Neh 4:14 ESV) And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to 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 homes.”
- Finally, Nehemiah got to work. He led his people to labor for God’s cause regardless of its seeming irrationality, regardless of the convincing nature of the opposition’s taunts, and regardless of the apparent impossibility of ever finishing. It is one of the best statements in the entire narrative. These four words change everything.
- (Neh 4:6 ESV) So we built the wall.
The account goes on to describe how Nehemiah positioned guards to provide protection at night against surprise attacks. He set up shifts where some men were always on duty. They were so vigilant that “neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand” (Neh 4:23 ESV).
And, thus, they built the wall. In spite of opposition, they built the wall anyway. And that is how we, too, should respond.
So what? Connecting to the pew
I will outline just two ways in which I believe this brief summary of the essential plot line of Nehemiah can be of encouragement in the life of the Christian.
- General encouragement: Build the wall! It is important to remember constantly that, as Christians, we will face opposition. That is admittedly not a profound statement, but we forget this daily. We want things to be easy. We want our jobs, or our ministries, or our family lives to be relatively smooth with only the occasional hiccup. But we are not always called to easy. Building God’s kingdom is not always logical in the world’s eyes – in fact, Jesus himself warned us that the world will not just oppose but actually hate us for following him (John 15:18ff). Opposition will come our way in myriad forms: a snarky guy in the cubicle next to you who has read 2 books by Richard Dawkins and thinks he can blow up the Christian worldview with a few condescending remarks; family members or neighbors or moms-group members who question your biblically-based parenting decisions; or college admissions officers who are biased against graduates of private Christian schools or homeschool scenarios. Whatever the case may be, our opponents will be fierce, and they will be right. Or, so it will seem in the moment. The arguments and mockery of our opposition will always sound convincing in the heat of the moment, because worldly thinking always offers what you (think you) want: your life to be relatively smooth with only the occasional hiccup! God’s calling is always harder. So be encouraged: build the wall.
- Personal encouragement: Build the wall! As my family has geared up to move to the UK to undertake doctoral work, the apparent illogic of our decision has come before in our faces time and time again via various lines of opposition. On worldly terms, leaving a good business job to go to seminary; finishing seminary and doing a PhD in New Testament (of all things); moving to an expensive foreign country; asking my wife to leave her job; leaving behind a comfortable neighborhood, lots of friends, a great church, and proximity to family – all of these aspects of our plan make little sense when I toss and turn at 3 AM. It seems entirely more sane just to bag the whole thing, because that’s exactly what the opposition would have me do, and they seem SO right. But then I try to remember Nehemiah: put on my armor, rally the troops, and build the blasted wall.
Header image of the ancient wall of Jerusalem.
 Robert the Bruce, in my Braveheart analogy?
 This political threat is further elaborated in 6:6ff: In it was written, “It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And according to these reports you wish to become their king. 7 And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah.’ And now the king will hear of these reports. So now come and let us take counsel together.” 8 Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.”
 See, for example, 1:4,11; 2:5; 4:4,7,9; 6;9.
 These are not personal examples, by the way!