“With the Help of our God”
October 4, 2009
A dependent relationship with God is the only sure answer to the intimidation of the world.
I. The intimidation of the world’s threats. (Nehemiah 6:1-9)
II. The intimidation of the world’s lies. (Nehemiah 6:10-14)
III. The intimidation of the world’s infiltration. (Nehemiah 6:15-19)
What intimidates you? What do you find daunting or discouraging? I asked myself that early this week, and the first answer that popped into my head was ‘too much to do and not enough time to do it.’ For years I’ve been appalled and daunted and often discouraged by the things I ought to do and don’t get to. And it’s not just me. Early this week I got a call from someone who said ‘please pray for me. I’m down and discouraged. I go hard 24/7 and I never get to what I want to do or to the things I know are important.’
What intimidates you? I know that as a parent I’m not alone in being intimidated by the dangers of the world toward my kids – the physical dangers of places we can’t be and situations we can’t control, the moral and emotional dangers of relationships we’re not sure of, the distractions we’re afraid may discourage our kids or draw them away from their walk with God.
What intimidates you? Sometimes it’s the magnitude of the world’s system, the sheer volume of lies that Satan broadcasts through every outlet of a world gone wrong. I went with some families to the Museum of Natural History to see Terra Cotta Warriors, which was good. But I was depressed by how much is spent on a glorious, glitzy display that promotes the lie of evolution and evolutionary philosophy. How do we get heard when the world can buy the hearts and minds and views of nearly everyone around us?
Those things intimidate me. But the Lord is gracious: early this week he allowed me to turn to Nehemiah 6, to see Him at work in the midst of intimidation. God is bigger than the boogy man. He walks with us and strengthens us, helps us and looks out for us. In Nehemiah 6 we see a dependent relationship with God that is the only sure answer to the intimidation of the world.
Nehemiah’s been building this wall. He’s already received all kinds of opposition, from threats and rumors, from weariness and discouragement, from armies camped outside the city, from internal strife and tension. But as the end of the work draws near, his enemies begin to ignore everyone else and to try to intimidate and de-rail Nehemiah himself, first by threats.
I. The intimidation of the world’s threats. (Nehemiah 6:1-9)
Nehemiah 6:1-9 When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it--though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates—2Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: "Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono." But they were scheming to harm me;
3so I sent messengers to them with this reply: "I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?" 4Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer. 5Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter 6in which was written: "It is reported among the nations--and Geshem says it is true--that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king 7and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: 'There is a king in Judah!' Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us confer together."
8I sent him this reply: "Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head." 9They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, "Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed." [But I prayed,] "Now strengthen my hands."
The work is almost finished. The walls are up but the gates have not yet been set in place. And Nehemiah’s enemies have not given up. They say “"Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono." This village was probably on the border of Judah and Samaria, a reasonable place to meet and negotiate. And the request is supposed to appear reasonable, even friendly.
But it’s a threat, and Nehemiah knows it: ‘they were scheming to harm me’. The most likely scenario was that they would kidnap Nehemiah, either to kill him or imprison him away from the work so that it would fail. Nehemiah’s reply is diplomatic: he doesn’t accuse them of evil, he merely asserts that he’s in the middle of a huge project and doesn’t have time to travel to the border.
Sanballat, however, isn’t willing to take no for an answer. After repeating the same basic message four times, it’s clear he can’t lure Nehemiah into danger in secret, or intimidate him by veiled threats. So the fifth time Sanaballat sends his servant with an open letter, to be read and discussed by all in Jerusalem. In this open threat he accuses Nehemiah of trying to lead a revolt, to become a king. Further, he claims this report will soon get back to Artaxerxes, that Nehemiah will be recalled, or worse, and the project shut down. Finally, Sanballat implies he can fix this mess: “so come, let us confer together.”
But Nehemiah isn’t fooled. Verse 8: ‘I sent him this reply: "Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are making it up out of your head." Nehemiah boldly rejects the threat, and correctly accuses Sanballat of creating rumors. He also knows a meeting with Sanballat could be seen as admission of guilt.
Verse 9 gives Nehemiah’s analysis: “They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, "Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed." He’s right. Sanballat wanted to stop the wall. He’d seen how Nehemiah’s leadership was critical to the project, and he knew that if Nehemiah was removed or his reputation slandered, the workers would lose heart.
He’s trying to weaken their hands. So Nehemiah prays “Now strengthen my hands.” This isn’t even called a prayer in the text nor is God mentioned by name. But it’s the kind of spontaneous prayer we expect from Nehemiah; it expresses perfectly Nehemiah’s godly attitude toward intimidation.
First, it assumes that God is present: there is a relationship here that is ongoing and real. Nehemiah doesn’t need to go someplace to pray or wait for some time to pray, he can just pray. Second, it assumes God is powerful; men are trying to make Nehemiah weak, but he knows that God can strengthen him for the intimidation he faces. Finally, it assumes God cares; God will be for the righteous, for his people in a practical way. This kind of real, moment-by-moment dependent relationship on a sovereign powerful God is the answer to a sense of being overwhelmed, discouraged, daunted and intimidated.
What intimidates you? How about unjust criticism? So often when we try to do something we sense criticism from the world or from within the church. If we stand up for the lives of the unborn we are called uncompassionate and sexist. If we stand up for the lives of the elderly we are called cruel or un-realistic. If we defend creation we are called ignorant, if we call homosexual behavior a sin like all other sexual sins we are called bigoted and intolerant.
While outward criticism is intimidating, the more painful jabs seem to come within the body. When we try to do something for Jesus, or even when something happens to us, we sense disapproval. Sometimes what we sense isn’t really there, but especially when it is it intimidates and weakens us and breaks our fellowship. But when we pray Nehemiah’s prayer, a prayer of relationship, the prayer of dependence, we can be strengthened against both the hurt and the response-in-kind that we’re tempted to give.
There is another intimidation implied here. Notice that Nehemiah has to reject the same threat over and over, and even then it intensified. One of the things that intimidates us is when we’ve tried something before, maybe over and over, and it hasn’t worked. We’ve tried to defeat this sin, we’ve tried to develop this discipline, to sustain this relationship, to pursue this goal; we know we ought to try again, but trying again is intimidating. Our only hope is to rely again on God, affirming anew his presence, his power and his love.
II. The intimidation of the world’s lies. (Nehemiah 6:10-14)
In verses 10-14 we see a more subtle form of intimidation. Nehemiah 6:10 One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, "Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you--by night they are coming to kill you." 11But I said, "Should a man like me run away? Or should one like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!" 12I realized that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.
13He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me. 14Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, because of what they have done; remember also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who have been trying to intimidate me.
Nothing is known from Scripture about Shemiah. Nor do we really know why he was shut into his home. He may have been ill or ceremonially unclean. Or maybe he shut himself up and sent messages to Nehemiah to increase his status and mystery when he speaks as a prophet: "Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you--by night they are coming to kill you." This is actually a short poem or Psalm-like lament; it’s probably supposed to sound prophetic.
And at first the idea he proposes may seem reasonable, even Scriptural. There was a provision in the law that if you were an innocent who had been branded an evil-doer, you could seek mercy by fleeing to the place God designated. And several people in Scripture flee to the horns of the altar, outside the Holy Place. But Shemiah is suggesting inside the holy place, and Scripture was clear that if anyone other than a priest went there, the penalty was death.
Nehemiah knew this, and the English Standard version is rightly translates his response “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.” It’s a two sided response – should I let myself be intimidated by a death threat and run away in fear? No. Should I break the law, sin against God by going into the temple? No.
Nehemiah goes on to say “I realized that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him.” How did he know God hadn’t sent Shemiah? Because what he prophesied opposed God’s revealed Word. Nehemiah knew the temple was off limits to him. God said that when someone prophesies or teaches against Scripture, he’s a false prophet. But to know this, you have to know the Scriptures.
Nehemiah understands the motive of this prophet, and of the prophetess Noadiah and others mentioned in verse 15. They’d been hired to intimidate him, so he’d sin and they could discredit him. They couldn’t lay hands on him, but they knew you can destroy a man just as well by destroying his reputation. So Nehemiah prays “Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, because of what they have done.” These prayers of Nehemiah show his resolve to do the right thing and leave the outcome to God. He doesn’t respond by attacking these deceivers, but by asking God to be the righteous judge.
So what do we learn? First, that we recognize the world’s intimidating lies by knowing God’s truth. Unless the precepts and principles of God’s word are known to our hearts and minds, we’ll be like infants, tossed around by every wind of teaching. Nehemiah survives the lie because he knows the truth.
Second, Nehemiah depends on God. He doesn’t try to do God’s part: the judging, the taking of vengeance. Nehemiah never read Romans 12:19, but he was just as capable as Paul of applying Deuteronomy 32 to his circumstances in life: “Beloved, never take revenge, but leave it to the wrath of God.”
The world wants to intimidate and deceive us by lies, especially lies dressed up in religious garb. Religious scholars say “The Bible is just myths, fabricated stories of a Savior.” Scripture says ‘My word is truth’. The world says “Religion and evolution can co-exist.” Scripture says “God created man in his image.” Nice folks at beautiful churches say “People are basically good. We don’t need salvation, we need self esteem.” Scripture says “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God. “ The world says “A loving God would never condemn people, but would save them all.” Scripture says there is no salvation apart from Jesus. Skeptics say “no one can rise from the dead.” Scripture says “He died for our sins and rose again.” Only by clinging to the truth God has given us can we navigate the doubts and the lies.
The most subtle lies call us to seek human solutions rather than depending on God. Nehemiah neither accepted the human solution of hiding behind the temple doors nor the human solution of taking revenge, but depended on God both for his safety and his vindication. But as we think about our loved ones at risk, as we observe the evils at work in the world, we may be tempted to try to craft a place of such safety that the world can’t touch us; or we may go ballistic and try to call down God’s wrath on the evils around us. Neither of these is the solution. We are called instead to daily relational dependence on God, called to realize the dangers, but not to hide away, to see the evil, but to meet it with compassion and good news, leaving judgment to God.
III. The intimidation of the world’s infiltration. (Nehemiah 6:15-19)
Finally, we need to recognize the intimidation of the world’s infiltration. Verses 15 to 19: So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. 16When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God. 17Also, in those days the nobles of Judah were sending many letters to Tobiah, and replies from Tobiah kept coming to them. 18For many in Judah were under oath to him, since he was son-in-law to Shecaniah son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam son of Berekiah. 19Moreover, they kept reporting to me his good deeds and then telling him what I said. And Tobiah sent letters to intimidate me.
Through this whole time the wall was being worked on at a breakneck pace, which shows how undistracted Nehemiah was by these intimidations. After only 52 days Jerusalem had gone from rubble to rebuild. In fact the date, 25 Elul, is roughly October 4th, which means the work started roughly August 13th. That’s fast: it began only ten days before we started this series.
It was an awesome job of rebuilding; even Nehemiah’s enemies were intimidated by it: “When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.” The word ‘afraid’ is the word we’ve been translating ‘intimidated’. And the loss of self confidence is literally ‘they fell in their own eyes’. The enemies themselves were daunted.
And the verse tells us why: ‘they realized the work had been done with the help of our God.’ As Paul will say in Romans 8, ‘if God is for us, who can be against us?’ The only solution to the intimidation of this fallen world is a daily dependant relationship on a God who is greater than this world and who stoops to give us help. We cannot do these things we’re called to do on our own, we cannot help but be intimidated by the horrifying might of evil, but we can depend on the strength and help of God Almighty.
It’s a daily dependant relationship that allows us to receive God’s help even in intimidation. One of the folks I talked to this week, who was discouraged, said praying that God would strengthen his hand made a difference. Another person, struggling with ‘I’ve tried this before and it doesn’t work’ resolved to try again with a more dependent stance before God. That’s the good news. When we’re intimidated, we can expect help from a God who has promised to renew our strength, a God who is near, who is able, who cares about us.
The bad news, which is unfortunately the last word of Nehemiah 6, is that God is not likely to make all our troubles go away. Sanballat has tried his threats and Nehemiah has rebuffed them. He’s tried his paid liars, and Nehemiah has seen through them. But now Tobiah, who is an Amonite with a Jewish name, and who seems to have been dealing for years with the Jewish nobles, says ‘let me try it my way.’ His strategy is to infiltrate Nehemiah’s world, to take advantage by the political and economic and relational alliances he’s built. He wants to subvert the nobles’ support, to win them from Nehemiah.
Verse 18 indicates that because of Tobiah’s strong family ties, many in Judah were under oath to him. This may indicate economic as well as political and social alliances. So all these people, verse 19, “kept reporting to me his good deeds and then telling him what I said.” ‘Oh, Tobiah’s a great guy! He’s one of us, one of the good guys. He’s got the same heart for Judah you do, Nehemiah. You’ve just got a thing against him. Why do you have to be so intolerant?” And one assumes that the letters Tobiah sent to intimidate Nehemiah had the same passive-aggressive tone and were an attempt to ingratiate Tobiah to Nehemiah so Sanballat could ultimately govern Nehemiah’s governance.
Tobiah is attempting intimidation by infiltration of Nehemiah’s inner circle. And Satan still uses this tactic. He wants to intimidate our boldness for Christ by the well-meaning advice of friends or relatives. He wants to intimidate our moral standards by the ‘it’s really not a problem’ attitudes of our peers and the ‘it’ll be great’ lies of the media. He wants to infiltrate our defenses.
I’m afraid what we have to take from this is that the attempts at intimidation aren’t going to go away even if we walk close to God through the current issues. There are some preachers who want to make promises God doesn’t make, who say, ‘everything will be blessing from here on.’ But Nehemiah is careful not to say that. He doesn’t want people to feel they’ve mastered this intimidation thing, but people who cling to God despite intimidation and daunting and doubts and fears. A dependent relationship with God is the only sure answer to the intimidation of the world.