Nehemiah 4- 2020-07-07
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4:1–3[…] Sanballat’s earlier allegations of rebellion, easily dismissed by Nehemiah (2:19–20), now give way to a vitriolic questioning of the returnees’ ability to complete the job. […] Sanballat scornfully calls into question either their own unrealistic expectations or their ability to expedite matters—or both. Finally, he queries the wisdom of salvaging burnt and thereby weakened stones for the rebuilding. Tobiah’s own contemptuous contribution likewise focuses on the work on the wall itself, by suggesting that its fragility would be exposed by a scampering fox—a creature known to haunt the stones of ruined cities (Lam 5:18), but hardly sizeable enough to dislodge them in normal circumstances.
4:4–5 Unlike Neh 2, this explosion of mockery and criticism is merely reported by Nehemiah rather than addressed to him, so it is perhaps not surprising that his response is not to his enemies (as in Neh 2) but instead to his God. That his prayer lacks any introduction (e.g., “and we said”) strengthens the assumption that it has been inserted into the narrative by Nehemiah himself, but within the narrative as it stands it also contributes to the impression of both extemporaneity and spontaneity. Nehemiah’s awareness that news of their progress had caused their enemies to despise (בזה/bzh) them (2:19) leads naturally now to a plea that God would hear their prayer “for we are despised” (4:3). The plea for God to “hear” is of course common currency in psalmic prayers of petition generally (Ps 27:7; 30:10) while prayers for deliverance from an enemy (Ps 44; 74; 77) and those of an imprecatory spirit (Ps 137; 109:6–19) are also well represented among the Psalms. […]
4:6–9 Nehemiah resumes his account with a progress report on the wall, emphasizing the completion of the circuit (“all the wall”) up to half its projected height. Given that it was the community’s lack of capacity to reconstruct the wall that was the object of their enemies’ mockery, Nehemiah’s progress report here confirms that his prayer that God would turn their enemies’ taunts back on them (4:5) has been answered—thanks in no small part, he notes, to the commitment of the people who “had a mind to work” (4:6). Nehemiah furnishes further evidence that the opposition continues to mount as the wall climbs higher by once again reporting the reaction to the repair of the wall and more specifically to the progressive “closing of the gaps.” […] Here as earlier (4:1) there is great anger, but instead of mockery, Nehemiah now reports a plot to “fight/make war” in or against Jerusalem and cause confusion (4:2). […] As before (4:4–5), the response reported by Nehemiah includes an appeal to “our God” (4:9), and while the prayer itself is not included, it is—as before—offered up by the community (“we prayed”) rather than merely by the leader. Just as Nehemiah himself had combined prayer with practical action in the throne room of Artaxerxes (2:4–5) so here prayer is accompanied by the very pragmatic posting of a protective guard round the clock (4:9).
4:10–13 […] That this campaign of (mis)information threatens to further undermine the builders’ efforts is confirmed by Nehemiah’s report of the reaction of those living in the vicinity of their “enemies” and thus most susceptible to such rumors: “They said to us repeatedly [lit., ‘ten times’] from everywhere [i.e., various outlying regions]: ‘Return to us!’ ” (4:12). With Jerusalem inevitably destined to bear the brunt of any attack, it is only natural that families would want their loved ones home and out of harm’s way. Nehemiah’s response is, however, to rally the people, either in areas that were particularly vulnerable or more likely in a single space that was particularly visible, mobilizing and arming the “people” in their relevant families to literally stand in the breach (4:13).
4:14–15 Nehemiah preserves here only an excerpt from what may well have been a longer speech, clearly designed to bolster sagging spirits. […] Nehemiah does not suggest here that the God they are to remember will fight their battle for them; rather, he encourages the returnees to “fight for” each other—with the mention of brothers, sons, daughters, wives, and houses presumably offering a catalog of things most worth fighting for. […] Nehemiah heeds his own advice, remembering YHWH by attributing the frustration of the enemies’ plot to God himself—though one may doubt whether this particular interpretation of events would have been shared by Sanballat and his allies, as Nehemiah perhaps innocently suggests (4:15). While the success of Nehemiah’s tactic is signaled by the return of the people to their work on the wall (4:15b), he was evidently persuaded that sufficient threat remained to assign half of his own men to an armed security detail to provide reassurance to the workers on one hand and a visible deterrent and capacity for rapid tactical response to any attack on the other.
4:16–20 Whether the rulers of the people had ever been fully engaged in the manual labor on the wall (cf. Neh 3), they are now withdrawn from the front line and positioned “behind” the people doing the work (4:16b–17), in all likelihood to protect the fledgling community’s small corps of leaders. Given that they would form the bulk of any fighting force, even the workers themselves are armed—the basket carriers with a stone or other missile in their free hand (4:17) and the builders with swords on hips (4:18) to keep both hands free. Recognizing that “we are separated far from one another on the wall” (4:19 NRSV), Nehemiah’s plan to muster the people by means of the trumpeter at his side draws on time-honored traditions of Israel’s military history (Judg 3:27; 6:34; 7:18) as does his reassurance that “our God will fight for us” (Neh 4:20; cf. Deut 1:30; Josh 10:14).
4:21–23 […] While a system of rotating watches will have allowed a workforce restricted to Jerusalem to “labor by day” having also stood “guard for us by night” (4:22), the more pertinent purpose of the restriction may well have been to prevent the leading figures and their servants from heeding the cries to “return to us!” (4:12), which may well have continued in outlying areas despite Nehemiah’s efforts to quell them. Acknowledging the importance of setting an example, Nehemiah makes a point of noting the visible vigilance of him and his closest colleagues, with sentiments such as “never took off our clothes” and “weapon in our right hand” (4:23) being roughly equivalent to sleeping with one’s boots on and a pistol under the pillow. 
 Sherpherd, David J. and Christopher J.H. Wright, Ezra and Nehemiah, The Two Horizons Old Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2018) 38-40.
1 Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. 2 And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” 3 Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building—if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!” 4 Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. 5 Do not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from your sight, for they have provoked you to anger in the presence of the builders.
6 So we built the wall. And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.
7 But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. 8 And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. 9 And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.
10 In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.” 11 And our enemies said, “They will not know or see till we come among them and kill them and stop the work.” 12 At that time the Jews who lived near them came from all directions and said to us ten times, “You must return to us.” 13 So in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in open places, I stationed the people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. 14 And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.”
15 When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work. 16 From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah, 17 who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other. 18 And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built. The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me. 19 And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another. 20 In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.”
21 So we labored at the work, and half of them held the spears from the break of dawn until the stars came out. 22 I also said to the people at that time, “Let every man and his servant pass the night within Jerusalem, that they may be a guard for us by night and may labor by day.” 23 So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand.
Questions to help us go deeper
- What does Sanballat’s ridicule reveal about the apparent impossibility of the project to rebuild the wall?
- Reflect on the words: “the people had a mind to work” (the NIV says “the people worked with all their heart”). What lesson does this give regarding how best to respond to scorn and ridicule directed at Christianity?
- What lessons can I learn from how Nehemiah responds to the overwhelming set of circumstances, including external threat and internal loss of strength?
- The people’s view that “there is too much rubble…we will not be able to rebuild the wall” turns out to be an inaccurate reflection of reality. What is God’s message to me from this chapter regarding situations toward which I feel too weary and unable to tackle?