Pulpit Commentary Homiletics
I. DEVOTION ASSAILED BY DERISION (vers. 1-3). Sanballat and Tobiah were contemptuously angry when they heard that the Jews had actually begun to build: they "took great indignation, and mocked the Jews" (ver. 1). "What do these feeble Jews?" said Sanballat (ver. 2). "If a fox go up, he shall break down their stone wall," said Tobiah (ver. 3), using the strongest language of derision. Here was
(1) misplaced contempt. A very ridiculous thing it must have seemed to Noah's contemporaries for him to be building a great ship so far from the sea; but the hour came when, as the waters rose, the scorners who had laughed at him knew that he was the one wise man, and they the fools. A pitiably ruinous thing the ministers of Pharaoh's court must have thought it in Moses to sacrifice his princely position in Egypt, and choose to "suffer affliction with the people of God" (Hebrews 11:25). We know now how wise he was. Many others beside Festus thought Paul mad to relinquish everything dear to man that he might be a leader of the despised sect, "everywhere spoken against." We understand what he did for the world, and what a "crown of righteousness" he was winning for himself. To the shallow judgment of the Samaritans, Nehemiah and his workmen seemed to be engaged in a work that would come to nought - they would "have their labour for their pains;" but their contempt was wholly misplaced. These men were earnest and devout workmen, guided by a resolute, high-minded leader, who had a plan in his head as well as a hope in his heart; they were to be congratulated, and not despised. So now
(a) fleshly strength, a thing of muscle and nerve, may despise the mind with which it competes; or
(b) material force (money, muskets, arms) the spiritual strength against which it is arrayed; or
(c) mere numbers, without truth and without God, the feeble band which is in a small minority, but which has truth, righteousness, God on its side. Very misplaced contempt, as time will soon show. Sanballat and Tobiah, in their superciliousness, used
(2) an easily-forged weapon - ridicule. Nothing is easier than to turn good things, even the very best things, into ridicule. It is the favourite weapon of wrong in its weakness. When men can do nothing else, they can laugh at goodness and virtue. Any simpleton may make filial piety seem ridiculous by a sneering allusion to a "mother's apron-string." The weakest-minded man can raise a laugh by speaking of death or of devotion in terms of flippancy. There was but the very smallest speck of cleverness in Sanballat's idea of turning ashes into stones (ver. 2), or in Tobiah's reference to the fox breaking down the wall (ver. 3), but it probably excited the derisive laughter of "the brethren and the army of Samaria" (ver. 2). Let those who adopt the role of the mocker remember that it is the weapon of the fool which they are wielding. But though easily forged, this weapon of ridicule is
(3) a blade that cuts deeply. Nehemiah felt it keenly. "Hear, O our God; for we are despised" (ver. 4). And the imprecation (ver. 6) that follows shows very deep and intense feeling. Derision may be easily produced, but it is very hard to bear. It is but a shallow philosophy that says "hard words break no bones:" they do not break bones, but they bruise tender hearts. They crush sensitive spirits, which is more, and worse. "A wounded spirit who can bear?" (Proverbs 18:14). The full force of a human soul's contempt directed against a sensitive spirit, the brutal trampling of heartless malignity on the most sacred and cherished convictions of the soul, this is one of the worst sufferings we can be called to endure. But we have -
II. DEVOTION BETAKING ITSELF TO ITS REFUGE (vers. 4, 5). Nehemiah, as his habit was, betook himself to God. He could not make light of the reproaches, but, smarting under them, he appealed to the Divine Comforter. "Hear, O our God," etc. (ver. 4). In all time of our distress from persecution we should
(1) carry our burden to our God; especially remembering "him who endured such contradiction of sinners" (Hebrews 12:3), and appealing to him who is "touched with the feeling of our infirmities" (Hebrews 4:15), having been himself tried on this point even as we are.
(2) Ask his interposition with our enemies; only, as we have learned of Christ, asking not for retaliation (ver. 5), but for the victory of love, for their conversion to a better mind.
III. DEVOTION DRIVEN TO DO ITS BEST (ver. 6). Under the inspiration of an attack from without, Nehemiah and his brethren went on with their work
(1) with redoubled speed. "So built we the wall unto the half thereof." It grew rapidly under their busy hands, nerved and stimulated as they were to do their best.
(2) With perfect co-operation. "All the wall was joined together." There was no part left undone by any idlers or malcontents: each man did the work appointed him. The reproaches of them that are without knits together as one man those that are within.
(3) With heartiness. "The people had a mind to work." No instru- ments, however cunningly devised and well-made, will do much without the "mind to work;" but with our mind in the work we can do almost anything with such weapons as we have at hand. Pray for, cherish "the willing mind" (2 Corinthians 8:12) in the work of the Lord, and then the busy hand will quickly "build the wall." - C.
I. The weak of the Church.
1. Derided. "And mocked the Jews" (ver. 1).
2. Under-estimated. "These feeble Jews" (ver. 2).
3. Misrepresented. "If a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall" (ver. 3).
4. Prayerful. "Hear, O our God" (ver. 4).
5. Hearty. "For the people had a mind to work" (ver. 6).
6. Advancing. "Heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped" (ver. 7).
II. The WARFARE of the Church.
1. Defensive. "And conspired all of them together to come and fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it" (ver. 8).
2. Watchful. "Set a watch against them day and night" (ver. 9).
3. Judicious. "I even set the people with their families" (ver. 13).
4. Courageous. "Be not ye afraid" (ver. 14).
5. Religious. "Remember the Lord" (ver. 14).
6. Self-denying (ver. 23). - E.
Nehemiah 4:1-23Nehemiah 4:1-23. This description of the building of the wall of Jerusalem may be taken as representing the life of the Church militant. The chief points are these: -
I. THE SPIRIT which pervades and actuates it. "The people had a mind to work." Activity, self-denial, fellowship, and fortitude.
II. THE METHOD. Division and distribution of the work. Builders, fighters, burden-bearers. Some in command, others waiting upon their word. A place for every one in which to work, and every one keeping his place, and doing his utmost in it.
III. THE DIFFICULTY. To do the work surrounded by enemies. Their mockery, their defiance, their active opposition. Every earnest labourer must be prepared to resist. There are special defenders of the faith, champions of truth, those who "hold the spears and the shields and the bows and the corslets, and the captains behind all the house of Judah." But beside these special fighters, the "builders had every one his sword girded by his side, and built." All the people of God should regard the defence of his truth and the protection of the life of his Church as their vocation. We cannot know at what point the attack will be made. Let all put on the armour.
IV. THE GROUND OF CONFIDENCE. "We made our prayer unto our God, and we set a watch against them day and night because of them." Watch and pray. The true dependence is that which looks up to heaven, and at the same time lifts up the hands, ready for activity.
V. THE VICTORY OVER HUMAN INFIRMITY. Some were discouraged. Judah said, The strength faileth, there is much rubbish, we are not able to build. The Jews nearest the danger were afraid. There will always be the discontented and the fearful ones to provoke discouragement. But there are the Nehemiahs, who "look, and rise up, and speak." The true leaders "remember the Lord." They get courage for themselves and for their brethren from the high places of faith and fellowship with God. The Church should keep its eye upon such men, and its ear open to them.
VI. THE TRUMPET-CALL. "In what place ye hear the sound of the trumpet, thither assemble yourselves unto us. Our God will fight for us." There are times and places which rally God's people. They must draw together. They must forsake for a while their special, individual appointment. They must obey the trumpet which summons them to united effort against a desperate assault. This especially true in connection with the attacks of infidelity and superstition.
VII. THE UNIVERSAL REQUIREMENT. Unpausing, unresting toil and vigilance till the work is done. "Night and day." "None of us put off our clothes." The Church must endure hardness if it will accomplish its mission to build the wall of Jerusalem. Special need at times to guard against the growth of the spirit of self-indulgence, sloth, and compromise. Too much of the work is committed to the few willing labourers. All should be doing, and always doing, and doing their all. - R.
I. THE PROGRESS OF SIN IN ITS COURSE (ver. 8). From sneers the enemies of Israel passed on to plots; from taunts to a mischievous conspiracy. They "conspired together to come and fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it." This advance of theirs was brought about by their hearing that the walls of Jerusalem were "made up." The steadfast labour of the good led, incidentally, to the development of evil in the unholy. The relations of David with Saul, and of the Apostle Paul with his unbelieving countrymen, and, indeed, those of our Master himself with the religious leaders of his day, show that speaking the truth or doing the work of God may prove the occasion of the growth and outbreak of sin - the occasion, but not the responsible cause. We must not be deterred from speaking or doing the will and work of God by fear about incidental consequences on the part of the great enemy.
II. THE PERIL TO THE WORK OF THE CHURCH (vers. 10, 11, 12). The good work of Nehemiah was in serious danger from two causes: -
1. The craft and violence of its foes. The enemy said, "They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease" (ver. 11). Here was force combined with subtlety; the enemy would surprise and slay them.
2. The faint-heartedness of its friends. Judah, from whom better things might have been expected, said, "The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed," etc. (ver. 10); and the neighbouring Jews who had come in to help kept saying ("ten times," ver. 12) that they must return, fearing the wrath of the Samaritans. In every work of God there are sure to be some if not "many adversaries" (1 Corinthians 16:9). This we must expect whenever we "put our hand to the plough" in the field of Christian labour. And happy shall we be if we have not to contend with the feebleness and pusillanimity of our friends, fainting long before reaping-time (Galatians 6:9), or even shrinking at the first alarm, and talking about "giving up."
III. THE WISDOM OF THE CHURCH IN THE HOUR OF DANGER. The first thing to do when the work of the Lord is threatened is that which Nehemiah did.
1. Mindfulness of God. "We made our prayer unto our God" (ver. 9). "Remember the Lord, who is great and terrible" (ver. 14). An appeal to him for help, and the recollection of the fact that "greater is he that is for us than all they that can be against us." "Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver thee," etc. (Psalm 50:15).
2. Realisation of the great issues which are at stake (ver. 14). "Fight for your brethren, your sons," etc. When we are working or fighting for the cause of God we are engaged on behalf of the truest, highest, and most enduring interests of those who are dearest to us, and of our own also. The cause of Christ is the cause of ourselves, of our families, of our country, as well as of our race.
3. Defence (vers. 16-18). We must fight as well as pray and work. Nehemiah's servants wrought with their weapon of defence in one hand and their instrument of labour in the other (ver. 17). Or, while one was building, his fellow stood ready behind with a spear to put at once into the labourer's hand. Usually our work is rather to build than to strike, but there are times when we must be ready to fight our foes or aid those who are engaged in conflict. In the wide field of the Church's work there is always some work for the Christian soldier as well as for the Christian labourer. Let the one be the cheerful and appreciative co-operator with the other. The spear and the trowel are both wanted. The apologist and the preacher, the theologian and the evangelist, are both accepted servants of Christ.
4. Vigilance (ver. 9). We "set a watch against them day and night." The Christian motto must ever be the memorable words, "Watch and pray."
5. Industry. Patient (ver. 21): "We laboured in the work... from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared." United (ver. 15): "All of us,... every one to his work." Self-forgetting (ver. 23): "None of us put off our clothes," etc.
6. Order (vers. 13, 19, 20). Everything was done in perfect order. Men were placed where most required (ver. 13); those whose homes were outside came in (ver. 22); arrangements were made to concentrate in case of attack (vers. 19, 20). All must work cordially under the human as well as under the Divine leader. - C.