“Mockery, Threats and Doubt”
October 25, 2015
Do not be afraid of those who mock and threaten and sow doubt.
I. Mockery (Nehemiah 15:1-5)
II. Threats (Nehemiah 15:6-9)
III. Doubt (Nehemiah 15:10-15)
God’s people have a long history of being mocked and threatened, of having doubts sown among them. This history runs from Genesis to Revelation, from the snake in the garden who ask “did God really say” to the messenger of Sennacherib who mocked king Hezekiah’s God to the Jewish leaders who mocked Jesus on the cross “if you are really the Son of God come down.”
But one of the most revealing examples of mockery and threats against God’s people is found in Nehemiah. When he and those who had returned from exile began to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, local leaders like Sanballat and Tobiah first mocked and then threatened, to sow doubt on God’s plan. I believe that this mocking and threatening continues against God’s people to this day. Only by fixing our eyes on a great and awesome God can we fight the fear these enemies of God wish to sow. Nehemiah says ‘Don’t be afraid of those who mock and threaten and sow doubt because your God is awesome and mighty.’
Let’s remind ourselves what’s going on in Nehemiah. The people of Judah had been in exile in Babylon for seventy years. But a new ruler, Cyrus the Persian had allowed Zerubbabel to return with a first group of the exiles and slowly rebuilt the destroyed temple. A generation or so later Ezra had led a second group of exiles back to Israel, and called the people back to following God. But Jerusalem’s walls were still in ruins, making the city and the people vulnerable to every tribe and clan in the region. So God allowed Nehemiah to lead a third wave of returnees and to rebuild the wall. But there was opposition, especially from a local clan leader named Sanballat the Horonite and from his crony, Tobiah the Ammonite. Nonetheless, Nehemiah trusted in God and organized the people to rebuild the wall. This did not make Sanballat happy.
And that’s where our narrative picks up, in Nehemiah 4:1-5 Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. 2And 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?” 3Tobiah 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!” 4Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. 5Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.
The first form of opposition we want to look at is mockery. Sanballat hears that the Jews are rebuilding the walls and he expresses his anger through mockery. He jeers at the Jews. And he gathers a bunch of his cronies, his minions who he can force to listen to his cleverness. Only in this case his minions include the army of Samaria. It’s a pretty substantial threat, though under Persian hegemony that army would have been necessarily small.
Anyway he gathers his minions and he mocks. “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?” The word feeble there could be translated ‘pathetic.’ Sanballat wants to think that the Jews are too few and the job too big for any hope of success. In particular, he thinks the stones of the previous wall will have cracked in the great fire of its destruction, which is something that can happen to limestone.
His mockery reminds me Veggietales, Josh and the Big Wall, “Keep walking, but you won’t knock down this wall; keep walking, but she isn’t going to fall. It’s plain to see your brains are very small to think walking will be knocking down this wall. You silly little pickle. You silly little peas. You think that walking round will bring this city to its knees? The awesome powers of this wall we’ve clearly demonstrated. But out here in this hot hot sun, perhaps you’re dehydrated.” God’s people doing God’s plan are often mocked.
Tobiah the Ammonite is Sanballat’s ‘yes man,’ Sir Hiss to Sanballat’s Prince John, Le Fou to Sanballat’s Gaston. He says “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!” I’ll take your mockery and make an even bigger mockery. “these guys are incompetent; they are weak; even the light footsteps of a fox will knock down their wall.”
So the first form of fear-mongering from the enemies of God’s people is mockery. Does this happen today? Consider the comments on a Creation Evolution debate posted to YouTube. The “scientific” evolutionists constantly mock the ignorant creationists. Don’t believe me? How about the commenter who said “‘Morons vs Intelligent People’, ‘Lies vs Honesty’, "Fairytales vs Reality’, ‘Rubbish vs Science".... Creationism...what a cruel joke!” That sparked a debate about mockery and the so-called futility of confronting creationists with the facts, and led to the following snippet of conversation: “I’ve tried [explaining science to creationists] and I do occasionally just to amuse myself. But then I feel guilty. Mocking retarded people is morally questionable if not plain wrong.” To which someone replied “I have great compassion for people with mental health problems, but there is a difference between those with mental health issues and the religious. Religious retardation is self inflicted.”
Christians are mocked, not just creationists but all of us, by sneering and innuendo, usually for believing the Bible. Bill Nye, “the Science Guy,” recently made a video supporting abortion. He tries to say that science shows an embryo is not human. He claims it becomes human at implantation, not conception, though no embryology textbook agrees. But it’s us who lack scientific understanding. He says “you literally don’t know what you’re talking about…. When it comes to women’s reproductive rights, I think you should leave it to women…. You have a lot of men of European descent passing laws based on ignorance. Sorry you guys. I know your interpretation of a book written 5,000 years ago, 50 centuries ago, makes you [believe these things. But they are] wrong and to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature.” How stupid can you be to believe an old book instead of ‘smart science,’ he says, though his one “scientific” fact is completely wrong, as is his dating of the Bible.
So Sanballat, Tobiah and these others are typical of the way people mock and belittle God’s people even today. And Nehemiah responds in a way we often don’t. He prays “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. 5Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.”
This is what theologians call an imprecatory prayer, a prayer calling down God’s judgment on people. There are several Psalms like this and they are often quite graphic. We don’t tend to pray this way, and the New Testament authors don’t tend to pray this way. But, in all these cases the person praying has taken up God’s cause because the people he’s praying against are opposing God and his divine purpose. So Nehemiah doesn’t personally take action against his opponents. There is no personal revenge, but he does trust God and call God to take action. And to be honest, as I’ve watched these Planned Parenthood videos over the last months I have, for the second time in recent memory felt moved to pray this way. The first was with ISIS and radical Islam. But this. It drives me crazy. I’ve no idea what laws the protestors have broken. But the cavalier and callous attitude toward thousands of deaths, the joking about intact and sometimes even living babies makes me say “Oh Lord, judge.”
So Sanballat and Tobiah were masters of mockery, and we live in a culture where Christians and moral values are increasingly mocked. But Sanballat did more than that. Verses 6-9 and verse 11: So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work. 7But 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.
8And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. 9And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. And verse 11: And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.”
Notice, first, that in response to the mockery, Nehemiah prayed, verses 4 and 5 and then, verse 6, got back to work, doing what God had called them to do, doing what was opposed, building the wall. That’s not a bad formula for dealing with opposition. Rather than be derailed by mockery, we pray it will not impede God’s work, and then we do the work God has given us. If we pray but don’t do we are de-answering our own prayer. Later Sanballat will try to distract Nehemiah by calling him out “for high level negotiations.” But Nehemiah says “Hey, I’m doing a great work here, I can’t come down.” Often we are called to just keep doing the work God has called us to do.
But if we do, we may run into direct threats. Sanballat and Tobiah and their allies the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites, heard the Jews were repairing the walls, they were angry. They did not want a strong and well protected non-ally in their back yard, especially one in favor with the Persian king. So, “they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.” And they said, verse 11: “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” We know from the surrounding verses that these verses reached the ears of Nehemiah and God’s people.
And notice, verse 9, how Nehemiah responds, again. “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as protection against them day and night.” Pray and do. That’s the practical response to mockery and threats. It’s a practical response to all kinds of fears: pray and do the next thing. Elizabeth Elliot, who went home to the Lord this year, influenced many of us. One of her frequent counsels was ‘do the next thing,’ from an old poem which in part said. “Do it immediately, do it with prayer, do it reliantly, casting all care. Do it with reverence, tracing His hand, who placed it before thee with earnest command. Stayed on omnipotence, safe 'neath His wing, leave all resultings, do the next thing.” Don’t fear the outcome, don’t fear the threats. Just pray and do the next thing.
So are we threatened in our culture? Yeah. Mocked, threatened and showered with seeds of doubt. Sometimes threats are obvious because the danger is real. On a global scale the persecution and martyrdom of Christians is at the highest level ever. And we remember, we need to always remember that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing this suffering. We need to suffer with them in prayer. Just this week I found an article on the execution of Assyrian Christians in ISIS captivity.
When I preached from Isaiah 19 some years ago I learned that a remnant of Assyria had come to faith in Jesus, as prophesied. The Assyrian Christian church has survived for two thousand years. But now ISIS seems to be systematically wiping it out. In this video the three men give their names and identify as Christians and then they are shot. But this video had only 699 views a week after it was posted. Yeah, killing Christians in orange jump suits is old news. Nobody is interested anymore. But we need to be because this threat is real. It’s happening to our brothers and sisters.
In the same way, in our own country, we are subjected to threats. If you are a florist or a baker or own a wedding venue and you believe that marriage is God’s design for one man and one woman, then you will be threatened, and maybe even tested. You may be perfectly willing to provide a cake or a location regardless of sexual orientation for any event that does not portray itself as a Christian marriage. But you don’t feel you can affirm as godly a so-called marriage that goes against God’s design. If you are that person you will receive threats, social shaming, a lawsuit and maybe even an exorbitant fine, like the owners of a bakery in Colorado. Maybe you will have to stop hosting weddings entirely, as a farm in New York did. And like these people you may have to say ‘we’re going to serve God and not man.’ These threats are real.
But there is more to it than that, because to a great extent the purpose of the mockery and threats is to sow doubt among God’s people. Verses 10-15 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.” 11And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” 12At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.”
13So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14And 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.” 15When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.
The impact of mockery and threats is discouragement and doubt. The Jewish people look at their half built wall, at how much work is left to be done, and they are tempted to give up. “Our strength is failing, there is too much rubble. We are going to fail.” It’s at that point that the enemy chimes in with their threats, and the mockery and threats discourage not only the workers, but the population.
Next thing you know, family and friends showing up at the city, reinforcing the doubts and fears: “This is hopeless, this is useless, this is doomed. For your own safety and our peace, give up and come home. Don’t be trapped here when the destruction comes.” And this inevitably multiplies doubt and fear. Notice how Nehemiah says that it’s repeated ten times from all directions.
Do you remember when Hurricane Rita was approaching the Gulf Coast. It was a real threat, 175mph winds, with at one point a forecast that the dirty side would cross Houston. It was also three weeks after Katrina, and though the point of projected impact kept drifting east and the winds dropped, the media kept yelling. Officials expected about a million people in the coastal area to evacuate. Instead, 2.5 million people got in their cars at the same time and chaos ensued. Temperatures were near 100 degrees, fuel was running out, the entire region was gridlocked. Most of you remember it. 125 people died.
That’s the outcome the enemy wants when by mockery and threats he sows doubt and fear among God’s people. In Tales of the Kingdom, by David and Karen Mains, a key refrain of the enemy’s servants is ‘nothing can be done, nothing is being done, nothing will be done.’ That’s what doubt wants us to believe.
The enemy’s current goal in threats and attacks against God’s people isn’t so much to wipe out the church, but to silence, dilute, and disempower the church. I read an article recently in the New York Times, Sunday Edition, an editorial, but purporting to convey the way things really are. It mocked and threatened, to sow doubt and breed cowardice and compromise among God’s people, those who aren’t fully convinced of their commitment to God’s word.
It’s called “Bigotry, the Bible and the Lessons of Indiana. It was written on April 3rd, 2015, when the argument-du-jour was over the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act, regarded by the LGBT community as giving religious bigots the freedom to discriminate. Frank Bruni, who writes for the Times on politics and culture says “The drama in Indiana last week and the larger debate over so-called religious freedom laws in other states portray homosexuality and devout Christianity as forces in collision. They’re not, at least not in several prominent denominations, which have come to a new understanding of what the Bible does and doesn’t decree. Homosexuality and Christianity don’t have to be in conflict in any church anywhere. That many Christians regard them as incompatible is understandable, an example not so much of hatred’s pull as of tradition’s sway. In the end, the continued view of gays, lesbians and bisexuals as sinners is a decision. It’s a choice. It prioritizes scattered passages of ancient texts over all that has been learned since — as if time had stood still, as if the advances of science and knowledge meant nothing.”
Do you hear what he’s doing? He’s mocking the faith, mocking the Scriptures and sneering at anyone who would hold to them in the face of all the knowledge we have gained. The Scriptures “reflect the biases and blind spots of their authors, cultures and eras.” “Interpretation is subjective, debatable.” So religious freedom should “free religions and people from prejudices that they needn’t cling to ... rightly bowing to the enlightenments of modernity.” He then quotes renegade scholars in what were once Christian institutions who say that “Human understanding of what is sinful has changed over time,” that some people have “an evolved sense of right and wrong,” about sexual matters, about gender matters, about things that were “part of the culture and history of the Bible but are not appropriate for us today.” He’s sowing doubt.
Then Bruni begins to threaten. “Indiana demonstrated anew that religion will be the final holdout and most stubborn refuge for homophobia. It will give license to discrimination. It will cause gay and lesbian teenagers in fundamentalist households to agonize needlessly. Conservative Christian religion is the last bulwark against full acceptance of L.G.B.T. people. Most Christians, he says, support marriage equality, especially mainline Protestants and Catholics. Even evangelicals are coming to this position, looking at these ancient texts and understanding them differently. He cites the 2014 book “God and the Gay Christian,” by Matthew Vines as an eloquent take on what the New Testament really communicates. “The New Testament, like the Old, outlines bad and good behaviors that almost everyone deems archaic and irrelevant today. Why deem the descriptions of homosexual behavior any differently?”
Having mocked and threatened and sown doubt, Bruni goes back to threats at the end of his article. He quotes Mitchel Gold, an activist who founded an organization which “aims to mitigate the damage done to LGBT people by “religion-based bigotry.” “Gold told me that church leaders must be made ‘to take homosexuality off the sin list.’ His demand is worthy, and warranted. All of us, no matter our religious traditions, should know better than to tell gay people that they’re an offense. And that’s precisely what the florists and bakers who want to turn them away are saying to them.”
Mockery and doubts and threats. These are the tools the enemy uses to create fear among God’s people. How does Nehemiah respond to it? Verse 13 “So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows.” He sets the people into a defensive position. Verse 14 “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.’ ”
Do not be afraid. We’re not surprised to hear that. And we’ve learned that we want to look not only for a context – the kind of fear we are commanded to avoid, but also for a characteristic of God that makes the fear unnecessary. This fear arises when we are mocked or threatened and doubt is born: Can God really do this? Is it too dangerous? Am I deluded to think this truth worth defending? Isn’t there a less controversial way to cling to the faith? Is it even worth it in the face of overwhelming odds? Threats and mockery lead to doubts and fears.
But God is able. “Do not fear. Remember the Lord who is great and awesome.” In addition to prayer and work, in the direct facing of the fear, Nehemiah says “Remember the Lord.” Call to mind what you know about God, the things that he has promised and especially the things that he has done. If you can’t call those things to mind open His word and find out what he has promised and what he has done. And you’ll find a God who is great and awesome. He is not threatened, he is not mocked and He is not daunted. Nothing is too difficult for God, no power can thwart his plan, no circumstance can derail his victory or modify his purpose of calling to Himself a people for his own possession.
God is great and awesome. Nehemiah is probably quoting Deuteronomy 7: “If you say in your heart, ‘These nations are greater than I. How can I dispossess them?’ 18you shall not be afraid of them but you shall remember what the Lord your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, 19the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs, the wonders, the mighty hand, and the outstretched arm, by which the Lord your God brought you out. So will the Lord your God do to all the peoples of whom you are afraid.... 21You shall not be in dread of them, for the Lord your God is in your midst, a great and awesome God.
It should come as no surprise by now that the word awesome there is fearful, awe-ful. God is great and to be feared, and if we fear God we will not fear man. Psalm 56:11 “in God I trust; I shall not be afraid. What can man do to me?” If I fear God and recognize his greatness, I can not fear the threats and mockery of men. Even threats that are quite real I need not fear. Nehemiah says to pray, to work, and to bring to mind the greatness of God, as we already have in worship this morning, so that you fear him and not men.
Verse 14: “fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” They had armed themselves and would fight if necessary, but in dependence upon a great God. Verse 15: When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.” In the face of threats, mockery and the doubts our culture wants to paralyze us with, we have no choice but to pray and to continue with the work God has called us to, remembering that he is great and awesome.