Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
(1-23) The opposition of the enemies, and Nehemiah’s plans of defence.
But it came to pass, that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.(1) Mocked the Jews.—The mockery comes afterwards. Here, as often in Nehemiah, a general statement is made which is afterwards expanded.
And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?(2) His brethren and the army of Samaria.—The counsellors and body-guard of Sanballat.
Will they fortify themselves?—Rather, will they leave them to themselves? The nations are referred to; but contempt is not scrupulous or precise.
Will they sacrifice?—This is the provocation of God mentioned in Nehemiah 4:5.
Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity:(4) Hear, O our God.—The habit of Nehemiah is to turn everything to devotion as he goes on. This prayer is full of an angry jealousy for the honour of a jealous God.
They have provoked thee.—The tone of its holy revenge pervades the Old Testament, and has not altogether departed in the New.
So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work.(6) Unto the half.—Up to half the height the wall was now continuous.
But it came to pass, that when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth,(7) Were made up.—Arose to the height before mentioned.
Began to be stopped.—The wall, they heard, was continuous. The tribes here enumerated were only small parties under the immediate influence of Sanballat: nothing beyond that would have been likely to occur among subjects in common of Persia.
And conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it.(8) And conspired.—Not fearing the Persian authority, they resolved to attack the city; but it will be seen that they soon abandoned that project.
To hinder it.—Rather, to do it hurt.
Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.(9) Because of them.—Rather, over against them: opposite to each point of their encampment. The setting watch was accompanied by solemn and united prayer.
And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall.(10) And Judah said.—As hereafter, in the case of the complaints of the people (Nehemiah 5), the writer gives a summary of difficulties. The Jews, or “Judah”—a significant term—complained of their growing feebleness, especially as so many were diverted to the watches.
And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.(11) They shall not know.—As to the adversaries, their plan was evidently to watch and surprise, instead of making the threatened attack.
And it came to pass, that when the Jews which dwelt by them came, they said unto us ten times, From all places whence ye shall return unto us they will be upon you.(12) From all places.—The neighbouring Jews in their terror said by repeated messages “from all places ‘Ye shall return to us,’ “: that is, for our protection.
Therefore set I in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places, I even set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows.(13) After their families.—In allusion to the ambushes of Nehemiah 4:11, Nehemiah set families together—besides the appointed guards—“ in the lower places,” where the wall was not raised to the due height, that is, really, “on the higher places,” or rather, the bare places, whence enemies might be better seen. The “lower” were the “bare” places.
And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.(14) And I looked.—It appears that the energetic appeal now described was uttered on the actual approach of an attacking party.
And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work.(15) We returned.—This verse remarkably condenses the frustration of the attempt and the cessation of the special guard.
And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah.(16) My servants.—The building was resumed with special precautions, very minutely described. “Nehemiah’s own servants” are distinguished from “all the house of Judah.” The former were divided into two parties, one of which wrought on the work still unfinished and the other held their weapons.
Habergeons are coats of mail or corselets, thin plates of metal sewn upon leather.
The rulers were behind—Ready to lead the defence, if necessary.
They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.(17) They which builded.—Divided into masons and their burden-bearers. The latter held in one hand a weapon; the former built with both hands, and had their weapons at their side.
So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared.(21) So we laboured.—This is a general recapitulation, with additional note of the length of the day’s work during this pressing season.
So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for washing.(23) Saving that every one put them off for washing.—This rendering is very improbable, as the words are simply: “every man his weapon water.” Some interpret that “each man’s weapon was his water”: evidently too subtle a turn of thought. It is best, on the whole, to supply the ellipsis: “every man went with his weapon to the water.”