William Kelly Major Works Commentary
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.Nehemiah Chapter 4
"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" (Nehemiah 4:1). It was bad enough to find the work was begun. It was a great deal worse to find that it was going on, and that Nehemiah was not so easily frightened. Sanballat had threatened to report him as a rebel against the king; but where the heart is simple there is no such reason for alarm, and the more firm Nehemiah was in giving honour to the powers that be, the more he could afford to slight the threats and scorn of Sanballat.
"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?" Now the other man, Tobiah, joined him - "Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall." What does Nehemiah say? At once he turns to the Lord - "Hear, O our God, for we are despised." So it was also in the early days of the church of God. The apostles were beaten, and were threatened, but what did they? They spread it out before the Lord, and the Lord answered. He answers with His own power. The Spirit shakes the building where they are, and, with great power, He gave them to witness for Him.
Yes, but here was a day of weakness, and what I would impress upon your mind and my own is that we are no longer in the day when the Spirit shakes the building. We are no longer in the day of power and glory. We are no longer in the day when signs and wonders are wrought. But are we, therefore, without God? What do we value most? - the powers and wonders God works, or God Himself? This is the great question. Have we confidence in the presence of God with us, and do we value the presence of God above all the powers and miracles that ever were wrought? It is a very simple question: so it was now for Nehemiah. There was no such thing as the Red Sea opened for the people - no such thing as the Jordan crossed. There was no manna that fell down from heaven, but there was the evident word of God accomplished, and the way was open for them. There was an open door, an open door to that place where the Lord's eyes were continually - the land of God for the people of God. They had lost it as a matter of outward power, but not for faith. For they clung to God, even when God could not outwardly own them before all the world. This made it a trial, no doubt, but faith would find the trial most profitable.
And this is what I would further impress - that there is very often in thought, and sometimes in expression, a kind of complaint of the want of power. Now I distrust that. I never came out to power, and I should be sorry for anybody else to do it; but am I come out to the Lord? Am I come out because it is His will? - because it is His word? Let us be ever so weak, there He would have us be. There is nothing so sure as that, and, allow me to say, there is nothing that keeps us so truly and so steady, whereas, on the contrary, we may fall into the snare of clericalism if we are too much occupied with power.
Suppose a meeting, an assembly of God's people, where, by the remarkable gift of one, or two, or three individuals, everything went on with apparent beauty - every prayer thoroughly according to the truth - suppose, too, that everything that was done was done with intelligence: yet if the action and presence of the Spirit of God were ignored - I should feel that this was the most miserable meeting possible. It would be hollow; and we ought not to be deceived. It is not merely two or three persons that hide the shame and the weakness of the assembly altogether. The all-important thing, beloved brethren, is that God's children should be gathered round His name, and that the Spirit of God should be left in freedom to act. Consequently, as sure as we are acting with truth, weakness will appear, neither will the state of the assembly be the same thing from week to week. And it is far more important that we should be in the truth than that there should be a manifestation of power. A manifestation of power might be only a veil thrown over the true state of the assembly, and only the improper and unspiritual activity of two or three men of gift that would falsify the true state of that assembly. Now, I say, it is far better to have all the pains and penalties and sorrows of weakness than a state that is not true in the sight of God; and, of all things, that we ought to be in the truth of our condition. I am persuaded that anything is bad that would cause us to forget that, after all, we are only a remnant; and that the more we enjoy the truth, the more deeply are we called to feel the broken state of the church of God.
Another thing, too. There is often the idea that if we could only get the most spiritual and the most intelligent of all Christians together, what a happy meeting it would be! Yes, but, beloved friends, it would be all wrong, because that is not what we are called to. What warrants us to pick and choose among the people of God? Who gave us the title, even, to wish such a thing? Now, I feel the very contrary, and believe it to be of God, if, indeed, my brethren, you have got the secret of the Lord - if, indeed, you have the Spirit of God left free, I would rather look out for the lame, I would rather look out for the weak. I would rather try and get those that are in want, those that are feeble, those that are in danger. The strong ones, or, at any rate, those that think themselves strong, we must leave in the hands of the Lord; but, surely, the weak ones are those that the true, the real, the Good Shepherd cares for most; and we ought to feel like the Good Shepherd. The theory of gathering together only the best and the most intelligent is, therefore, a false theory. It is utterly contrary to the true principle of grace and truth. No, beloved friends, the only right thing is this: we do not pretend, we do not look for, we do not expect, that God will gather all His saints; but the moment we are in a position that we are not free and open to all the saints of God, we are false. It is not that I look for their coming, but the question is whether my heart is towards them all. If it is not towards them all, then I am a sectarian.
This, beloved friends, is exactly where Nehemiah was. His heart was towards them all, though it was only a poor little remnant. Why, after all, that remnant, when it came out, was only 42,000 and a few odd, and some seven thousand servants, that is, it was under 50,000, counting them all, masters and servants, and this was all the remnant of Israel. Time was when even Judah alone - one tribe - had no less than 450,000 fighting men. I mention this merely to show how great the wreck - how complete the ruin was.
Well now, Nehemiah - the same Nehemiah that loved the people, and whose heart went out to every one that was of Israel, whether they came or not, he whose heart received them in all their weakness, seeking, of course, to strengthen them, seeking to impart the intelligence that God had given his own soul, but not accepting and not receiving them upon any such ground as this, but receiving them because they were the Lord's, receiving them all in the Lord's land, where the Lord will have them be - now spreads out before God the insults and scorn and threats of these enemies of the Lord. This calmed his spirit. He was not uneasy. God listened and heard. "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: and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee: for they have provoked thee to anger before the builders. So built we the wall" (vers. 4- 6).
But it became more serious, so much so that there was a conspiracy among the enemies to come and fight. "Nevertheless, we made our prayer unto our God." One of the most striking features is that it was not merely the people that read the Bible. It was not merely the people that grew in the knowledge of the Scripture. That they did, and we shall find the proof of it. But the first thing that was found in these early days was prayer. There was a spirit of prayerfulness among them. They went to God. They brought everything to God, and, consequently, had the grace of God working in them, and the wisdom of God that was imparted to them. We find, accordingly, that Nehemiah quietly takes measures, and he "set the people after their families with their swords, their spears and their bows. 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."
Well, the same thing has to be done now. I do not mean in the same way now. With the Christian it is not a question of fighting with the sword, but, undoubtedly, we have to fight the good fight of faith. It is not merely that we have to work, but we have to withstand as well as to stand in this evil day; that is, we have to be armed against the wiles of the devil, and not merely to be carrying on the peaceful work of the Lord. So it was then with the remnant of Judah, and he gives them direction, as they were scattered, that the trumpet was to communicate. The trumpet was to give a certain sound - a very important thing for us, too. "In what place, therefore, ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye hither unto us: our God shall fight for us. So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared" (verse 21).
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?
Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.
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:
And cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee: for they have provoked thee to anger before the builders.
So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work.
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,
And conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it.
Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.
And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another.
In what place therefore ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us: our God shall fight for us.
So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared.
Likewise at the same time said I unto the people, Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that in the night they may be a guard to us, and labour on the day.
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.