“We Prayed and Set a Guard”
September 20, 2009
When faithfulness leads to discouragement, cry out to God and persevere.
I. External Opposition (Nehemiah 4:1-9)
II. Internal Discouragement (Nehemiah 4:10-14)
III. Adjusting to Persevere (Nehemiah 4:15-23)
Last week we observed the first anniversary of Ike. A few weeks earlier, August 29th, was the fourth anniversary of Katrina, which devastated New Orleans. I’m sure you remember the destruction and despair in the city and among the thousands who sought shelter. But an even greater challenge has been the painful process of rebuilding and repopulating a ruined city.
World magazine did a four year anniversary cover story called “New Faces of New Orleans,” focusing on those working to give the city a life and light it didn’t have before Katrina. One is Guy Williams, president of Gulf Coast Bank and active in New Orleans' First Baptist Church. When Katrina hit, he went out with his son in a pirogue, a flat-bottomed canoe. From dawn to dusk they found stranded people and gave their locations to those with bigger boats.
Then he encountered "Mrs. Liberty, jaundiced as she could be, with pancreatic cancer, and really afraid—she told us, 'I'm dying, but I don't want to die alone in this flood.'" He had to find a way to take her immediately.
The pirogue was too small and unstable, but Mrs. Liberty told Williams that she had a canoe behind the house. "I looked at it. It's full of water, hundreds of pounds. Couldn't budge it. . . I stood on a big air compressor and prayed, 'Lord, you've got to help me.' Somehow, I was able to lift it—and I'm not that strong. . . . Divine intervention? Miracle? You tell me." So they transported Mrs. Liberty in her canoe to safety.
Next Williams re-opened the four branches of his bank that flooded, with tellers in trailers without electricity, doing transactions by hand and taking calls on their personal cell phones. Gulf Coast was quick to make rebuilding loans. Now small businesses are sprouting, and last year the bank was recognized as the top Small Business Administration lender in Louisiana.
Rescuing; protecting; rebuilding. These are themes we’re becoming familiar with in Nehemiah. We’re seeing God at work through faithful people. This week the tension between God doing the rescuing and people doing the work, between God as hero and Nehemiah as hero comes to a head. Like New Orleans, the situation in Jerusalem begins to appear impossible: too much damage, too much work to be done, too much opposition from greedy self-serving politicians. But God uses faithful people to accomplish his goals.
This is where Nehemiah 4 speaks to us today. You and I also face opposition and discouragement as we try to serve God. In twenty years of ministry I’ve seen it so often, in others and in myself. Often this discouragement comes in the middle of a calling: You’ve started enthusiastically but the end is not yet in sight. The voices around say it can’t be done; the voices within echo that.
What do you do when faithfulness in your family seems to make no difference in relationships? When faithfulness at work leads to a lay off? When faithfulness at church seems to garner no appreciation, only a greater workload and greater criticism? What do you do when faithfulness leads to discouragement? I believe Nehemiah 4 is a wonderful example of the balanced Biblical answer: cry out to God and persevere.
I. External Opposition (Nehemiah 4:1-9)
When we try to be faithful, there will be opposition. Nehemiah 4:1-9 When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, 2and 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?" 3Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, "What they are building--if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!"
4Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders. 6So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart. 7But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem's walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. 9But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.
Sanballat, governor of Samaria, wants to protect his power by keeping the Jews from political, economic or social gain. But as Nehemiah’s idea begins to work, Sanaballat moves from casual opposition to true anger. He was greatly incensed because he knew the value of walls, both to the military safety and the morale of the Jews in Judea. So at a gathering of his chief allies and his local militia, he begins to ridicule the Jews. Mockery is powerful, especially when it emboldens your side. In World War II, for the sake of German morale, Hitler mocked his opponents mercilessly and ultimately foolishly.
This is Sanballat’s kind of mockery: "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?" Some of these phrases are hard to translate, but we get the basic idea: the Jews don’t have what it takes to make rebuilding the wall work; their God isn’t really on their side, and the ruins themselves are ruined.
And like any evil sidekick in any formula movie, Tobiah chimes up with mockery of his own. "What they are building--if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!" Tobiah’s a card, but archaeologists from Kathleen Kenyon on have found sections of Nehemiah’s walls, and none of them was less than nine feet thick. That would be quite a fox.
Nehemiah hears about this mockery, possibly because it’s taking place not far outside the city walls, as a show of force by the opponents. And he responds not with return mockery, not even yet with a pep talk to the builders. No he responds with prayer. Verse 4: “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. 5Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.”
We saw in chapter 1 that Nehemiah often prays from Scripture, from his quiet time. His prayer is similar to Hezekiah’s, threatened by the Assyrians some 200 years before: “Give ear, O Lord, and hear; open your eyes, O Lord, and see; listen to the words Sennacherib has sent to insult the living God.”
Then he quotes the prayer of Jeremiah: “Do not forgive their crimes or blot out their sins from your sight. Let them be overthrown before you; deal with them in the time of your anger.” This kind of prayer may be disturbing, but Nehemiah is just asking God to display justice. Only in the full light of Jesus, recognizing his death for all nations, would it be possible to go Nehemiah a bit better and ask God to display not only justice but mercy.
Nehemiah’s anger is justified, not because they are being mocked, but because Sanballat and Tobiah are mocking and despising God. In fact verse 5 would probably be better translated: for they are mocking you in the presence of the workers. Nehemiah is angry that these men would bring reproach on God.
Then, verse 6, “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart. When the opposition mounts, Nehemiah prays, places the things he cannot control into the hands of God, and then keeps working. This is the Biblical formula for needy servants with an omnipotent God: Cry to him, and keep doing his will.
Winston Churchill famously motivated Britain during World War II: ‘Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never--in nothing, great or small, large or petty--never give in, except to convictions of honor and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy.’ It’s good counsel. But the reason we can ‘never give in’ is because our God never gives out. We can cry out to him and persevere.
But don’t expect opposition to just back down. Verse 7: But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem's walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.” They’ve got Jerusalem surrounded: Sanballat from the north, Ammonites from the east, Arabs from the south and now Ashdodites, descendants of the Philistines, from the west.
But the people have caught Nehemiah’s vision: dependence on God who alone can rescue, and perseverance in the work. Verse 9: “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.” It’s a one verse picture of the only thing we can do when faithfulness leads to opposition: cry out to God and persevere in the task, despite troubles. Gail and I attended a conference once where a speaker said something neither of us ever forgot. He said that whether you do the will of God or not you are going to have difficulties – but if you do the will of God you have the right difficulties.
One of the new faces of New Orleans in the World magazine article is Ray Cannata. He came to New Orleans after 14 years at a New Jersey church. He was tired of the superficiality of the suburban church. He agreed to the move shortly after Katrina: "There were no other evangelical churches uptown, and I figured if I didn't come nobody else would."
He drove author Marvin Olasky past neighborhoods like Broadmoor with still visible waterlines on houses. "People said we needed an Oprah church," Cannata recalled: "They said these hurting people need a hug. That's wrong: They need a mission, a purpose to get them out of morbid introspection."
Cannata says his children, a 10-year-old boy, a 6-year-old girl enjoy New Orleans, but crime concerns him: "My son in his playground, uptown, witnessed a machine gun battle." As we drove from the fashionable Garden District to desolate and dangerous streets, and saw churches near strip clubs, Cannata said, "New Orleans is the best picture of heaven I know, and also the best picture of hell. But it's given us a purpose. . . . People know they're not safe. . . . God is near to the broken-hearted, and there's lots of heartbreak here."
II. Internal Discouragement (Nehemiah 4:10-14)
If ‘cry out to God and persevere’ is the right answer to opposition, it is even more the right answer to discouragement. Verses 10 to 14: 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." 11Also 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." 12Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, "Wherever you turn, they will attack us."
13Therefore 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. 14After 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 brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes."
Someone, friend or foe, has begun to circulate a clever, discouraging little ditty. In Hebrew its a two line rhyming couplet in the rhythm of a Psalm of Lament. I racked my brain for a rather poor English equivalent: “Their strength is failing – will they yield? There’s so much stuff they cannot build.”
The vocabulary paints a vivid picture of an exhausted laborer reeling under a heavy load. Under the pressure of external opposition: enthusiasm was starting to wane. As one of the commentaries said ‘It’s always easier to begin a work for God than continue it. Perseverance is a rich and rare quality, especially when we feel physically tired and spent. Anyone seriously committed to the work of Christ can sympathize with these sighing people.”
The opposition had begun a propaganda war, spreading rumors of a surprise attack: “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." At the same time Jews who were not in Jerusalem, including wives and children of the workers, sent delegations, to share what they’d heard: “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”
How does Nehemiah respond to these threats? Verse 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.” He puts people at the vulnerable places, but also places where they’d be visible.
Next he exhorts the rest of the people. Verse 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 brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes."
“Remember the Lord and fight.” Nehemiah is perfectly in the center of the tension that says “God is sovereign and he will not fail in his promises” and “God accomplishes his goals through our obedience.” Do you think our battle in is any less crucial than his? If we don’t show Jesus in our lives, our community and our commitments, the enemy will win not only the wives, sons, daughters and homes of those around us, but maybe our own sons, daughters, homes. This thing of being the faithful in a fallen world, forming a community that shows Christ and shares Christ is not a game: it’s a war, one that can only be won through the grace of God and the love of the saints.
Remember God and fight. J.B. Watkins, 29, moved to New Orleans two years ago with the goal of preaching Christ as the alternative to lives of misery and crime. Watkins, pastor of St. Roch Community Church in the impoverished 8th ward, recalls that "most people were very discouraged. Lots of promises had been made at the federal, state, and local levels" – few kept.
He showed me around the brightly painted yellow and green building that serves as sanctuary and also the site for after-school and summer camp programs: "People were looking for hope. They had learned not to put their faith in federal agencies. . . . They're realizing that they should hope in the gospel. Some are also starting to think not so much 'I need help' but 'I can help.'"
Watkins explained that after Katrina the building, a grocery store, had 4-5 feet of water in it. The church was able to buy it at a low price, clean and repair it with volunteer labor. They now have a community garden, a potluck dinner every Sunday, and financial advisors to help people with banking and taxes.
The big park across the street from St. Roch's was a FEMA trailer park, home to hundreds of people. Now the church uses it for a monthly block party and looks for opportunities to celebrate. But the park also is home to drug deals and shootings. Watkins says, "People are forced to pray here: 'Lord, keep me safe.' I'm forced to internalize my message." The faithful in New Orleans have learned to cry out to God and persevere. Like Nehemiah, they adjust to the situation, model faithfulness.
III. Adjusting to Perservere (Nehemiah 4:15-23)
Verses 15 to 23: When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work. 16From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah 17who were building the wall.
Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, 18and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.
But the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me. 19Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. 20Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!" 21So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out. 22At that time I also said to the people, "Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night, so they can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day." 23Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.
Transforming the people of Jerusalem from a construction crew to a citizen’s army daunted Sanballat and the others. But notice to whom Nehemiah gives credit: ‘God frustrated their plot.’ He doesn’t take credit himself, nor does he even give it to those who followed his instructions. He’s got a Biblical perspective: ‘Yeah, I had a plan, but God is the one who made it work.’
So they go back to building, but not without adjustments. Verse 16: “From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor.” The phrase ‘my men’ is a little obscure. It may refer to the armed guard that came from Persia with Nehemiah. Some of them, along with the people’s army officers, would now be on duty 24/7. In addition verse 17 tells us that while building “those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other.” The weapon in question could be any kind of missile, from a spear to a simple rock.
Verse 18: “Each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked, but the man who sounded the trumpet stayed with me. 19Then I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, "The work is extensive and spread out, and we are widely separated from each other along the wall. 20Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there. Our God will fight for us!"
There it is again: Nehemiah carefully prepares the defense, but he is confident that ‘the battle belongs to the Lord.” He’s thinking of 2 Chronicles 32: Hezekiah “appointed military officers over the people and assembled them before him in the square at the city gate and encouraged them with these words: 7"Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or discouraged because of the king of Assyria and the vast army with him, for there is more with us than with him. 8With him is only the arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God to help us and to fight our battles."
Verse 21: “So we continued the work with half the men holding spears, from the first light of dawn till the stars came out.” They trusted God and persevered in the work he’d given. Verse 22: “At that time I also said to the people, "Have every man and his helper stay inside Jerusalem at night, so they can serve us as guards by night and workmen by day." Nehemiah is pushing hard here: the people work all day and some at least do guard duty at night.
But he doesn’t exempt himself. Verse 23: “Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.” The senior staff was constantly on call. Like the general staff of an army, they were ready at any moment to adjust the plan to the circumstances; they were an example to the people in the trenches.
So what do we learn? When faithfulness leads to discouragement, cry out to God and persevere in what he has called you to do. Marvin Olasky, in World Magazine, wraps up the articles on New Orleans with these paragraphs:
It does all come down to committed people who don't let little things like hurricanes kill their dreams. For example, artist Aaron Collier since Katrina has painted an extraordinary series of paintings based on the Psalms of Ascent, and he maintains a toughness perhaps inherited from his West Virginia coal mining family. He closed on a New Orleans home one day before Katrina, and soon found four feet of water in his new purchase. The re-renovation took time, but "enduring all that deepened our relationships."
Another New Orleans evangelical, Ben McLeish, does community development in one of the two most dangerous neighborhoods of the city. With volunteer help from around the U. S. he is renovating houses in an area where several murders recently occurred. "I felt the call to serve among the poor," he says. "Sometimes it's tough, but people are generous and God's grace is still here."
When faithfulness leads to discouragement, cry out to the God of grace and persevere.