by Chris Ritter
SCRIPTURE READING: NEHEMIAH 4:1-6
4 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”Nehemiah 4:1-6, New International Version
3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”
4 Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.
6 So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.
Rebuilding is part of life. Because things often fall apart, it seems we are always starting again. Today we confront a simple, universal truth: Rebuilding is hard work. Once Nehemiah convinced the beleaguered residents of Jerusalem to join an all-in effort to rebuild the walls, they had to deal with any number of obstacles.
Have you ever wondered why the Old Testament contains the accounts of so many battles? Conflict and overwhelming odds were an opportunity for God to show Israel what he could do. Battles were lost when God’s people did it their own way. Battles were won when they devoted their faith and trust toward God. While the New Testament calls us away from physical warfare, the lessons are no less applicable in our spiritual battles. We wrestle the darkness of our world with God’s truth and light.
We are sure to meet the same obstacles faced by Nehemiah:
Remember Statler and Waldorf? These were the old heckler that sat up in the balcony during The Muppet Show. They laughed at how bad the performers on stage were doing. Nehemiah’s hecklers were named Tobiah and Sanballat. These were his fellow regional governors who wanted him to fail. Although they were all part of the same Persian Empire, Palestine was part of the “Wild West” that King Artexerxes called The Land Beyond the River (the Euphrates). These governors saw Jersualem’s restoration as a threat to their own power.
Tobiah and Sanballat mocked the Jews as feeble. And there was ample evidence for this claim. They had not had their act together for 150 years. Past attempts at redeveloping Jerusalem has been met with quick failure. The hecklers claimed the wall could not even stop a prowling fox, much less an attacking army. This was psychological warfare intended to demoralize the laborers.
When we are rebuilding, our first attempts are going to be humble and clumsy. That is par for the course. But consistency turns small beginnings into real progress. This is why the prophet Zechariah said, “Do not despise these small beginnings, for the Lord rejoices to see the work begin.” (Zech 4:10)
Maybe you decide to lose weight. No more ice cream before bedtime. Steamed brocolli is back on the menu. You even exercise more than usual. After a week, you jump on the scale and are immediately disappointed. “A half a pound? Are you kidding me?” You could get discouraged and give up. But another possibility is to celebrate that your healthier lifestyle has begun. You are building new habits into your life. Just keep going. The results will follow your determination.
Or maybe you want to rebuild your devotional life. You have an intentional time of prayer two days in a row. Then life happens. You can beat yourself up for missing a day, or you can take the long view. You prayed twice more than the week before. Satan wants to discourage us. God wants to encourage us. Keep building for the glory of God.
Notice how Nehemiah deals with his hecklers. In Nehemiah 4:4 he turns the voice of discouragement into a prayer. He gives them to God to let His deal with it. It turns out that fear and discouragement have a mute button. That mute button is called faith. Turn off the negative voices and give them to God. Listen to the voice of God’s truth instead.
Over and over again, Nehemiah’s account of the work mentions the rubble that made progress torturously slow. Before they could even get to the broken walls, they had to dig out the stones that had been knocked down 150 years earlier. I am sure weeds and tree roots had grown all around them. There had been many shoddy attempts to rebuild the wall and this newer rubble was in the way, too.
Hard work was quickly becoming a “can’t” in the minds of the people:
Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”Nehemiah 4:10
Let’s face it: Rebuilding is more difficult than building. Why? You have to deal with all the junk that came before. So often we have difficulty getting our lives together because of the clutter of our past failures. We are forced to come to terms with the little disasters that led to our current situation.
I remember making my kids clean their rooms after weeks of neglect. It was almost a study in archeology. They would come across the half-eaten peanut butter sandwich that had been bumped under the bed. There was a month’s worth of empty drinking glasses, some with various unidentifiable liquids curing inside. Stray socks, legos, and lost school permission slips all swirled together into a tangle of yuck. Before we could get to clean and tidy, we had to wade through the past.
Some of the “yuck” of our past was certainly the fault of others. We enjoy nursing those grudges because it tends to relieve us of responsibility. But the real power comes when we examine our part in the former disasters. That is the only way we can keep the past from repeating itself.
Think about your own tangle of unnamed responsibility, unforgiven offenses, unresolved resentment, and unprocessed emotions. Removing the rubble is about doing the hard work of sorting through all this wreckage and making good choices about what to keep and what to throw away.
Nehemiah simply tells us “The people had a mind to work.” Determination for a better day was the thing that kept the Jerusalemites motivated.
Nehemiah also was careful to celebrate milestones along the way. He reports to us when the wall reached half its height all the way around. Now, the first half of building a wall is the easiest half. But Nehemiah knew he should celebrate these small victories.
Are you trying to pray every day? Put a star on the calendar when you are successful. Next, see if you can get two stars in a row. This is how habits are built. The old preacher said, “I am not where I want to be, but THANKS BE TO GOD, I am not where I was.”
7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the people of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem’s walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9 But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.Nehemiah 4:7-9
The work in Jerusalem was under constant threat of stealthy units entering the city through the gaps and tearing down what had been done, stealing equipment, and doing violence to the people. The rebuilding work would have been difficult enough without these threats. The pressure from these outside forces made the work all that more difficult.
One of the difficult things about rebuilding is that we do the work amidst all the pressures of life. If you are working on your health, you still have a family to feed, a job to report to, bills to pay, and lawns to mow. You have to carve out time to focus without letting these other things drop. I don’t know about you, but it always seems like all hell breaks loose when I am trying to do something to the glory of God. We are always swimming upstream.
Nehemiah did two things in response to the threats against his work. In verse 9 he says, “we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”
They prayed and set a guard.
The praying part involved trusting God to help them cover the threats they could not foresee. Setting a guard involved putting a system in place to meet the threats about which they were aware. Nehemiah adjusted his plan so that he could accomplish his purpose. Because things sometimes come up that we cannot anticipate, all our plans must be nimble and bathed in prayer. Nehemiah teaches us to make flexible plans around a firm purpose. What he did not do was stop working.
Change, even good and needed change, brings with it opposition. In John 10:10, Jesus tells us that we have an enemy that is out to kill us, steal from us, and destroy us. The danger is real. But he adds this promise: “I have come that you might have life and have it to its full.”
Listen to the threats facing Nehemiah and his people:
11 Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”Nehemiah 4:11, 12 (New International Version)
12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”
Did you notice that? Ten times Nehemiah received reports that people were planning to attack and kill them in an effort to stop their progress. In a large area like Jerusalem, these attacks could come from anywhere. There were even rumors that people living inside the city were allied with Sanballat and his minions. This is quite a leadership challenge for Nehemiah. Here’s how he responded:
13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”Nehemiah 4:10, 11 (New International Version)
Nehemiah posted whole families, fully armed, near the weakest places in the wall. During some of the rebuilding process, Nehemiah tells us that the people held a weapon in one hand and built with the other. He gave each group a trumpet so they could call for help when under attack. Threats of warfare did not stop the work. It just meant they had to assume a posture of readiness. This happens to be the same advice Paul gives to us in the New Testament:
10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God, so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes.Ephesians 6:10, 11 (New International Version)
The full armor of God, Paul says, is the Helmet of Salvation, the Breastplate of Righteousness, feet shod with the preparation of the Gospel, and loins girded up with the truth. He says we are to carry the shield of faith with which we will be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked one. And he tells us to take up the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. Keep your armor on. Nehemiah reports that the people did not undress during the whole rebuilding process. They carried their weapons even when they went to get a drink of water.
Nehemiah also called the people to remember their why: “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” When are you trying to rebuild something important, always keep in mind why it is important to you. Write it down on a card and put it somewhere you can see it every day. Stay focused.
That is exactly what led to Nehemiah’s success. In a space of just 52 days, the people of Jerusalem restored the walls of the city. What needs to be rebuilt in your life? A business, your health, your prayer life, your marriage? You can make a lot of progress in just 52 days. Let the work begin. There will be hardships and setbacks, to be sure. Rebuild anyway.
I invite you join me in rebuilding our church. We can restore so much of what we have lost over the next 52 days. I need you to be very faithful in worship attendance. I need you to continue to give generously and faithfully. What if we all prayed for fresh winds of the Holy Spirit to blow upon our church for the next 52 days? What if we all found a ministry in which to serve? What if we all shared our faith with someone who does not know Jesus?
Obstacles notwithstanding, it is time to rebuild for the glory of God.