The Lord’s Day
November 2, 2008
Dr. Derek W. H.
Please open your Bibles to Nehemiah, chapter six…Ezra,
Nehemiah, Esther, Job, Psalms, Proverbs in our English Bibles. Of course,
Nehemiah occurs historically in the wrong place, and in the Hebrew canon of
course the book of Nehemiah falls where it historically belongs, at the end of
the Old Testament. We’re in roughly 445 or so B.C.
We come tonight to a section in which Nehemiah finds
himself once again in trouble. He is the victim of plots and schemes. He finds
himself in trial and difficulty. Maybe that’s where you are tonight. You’re a
believer, you trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, you try to do His will; and your
life is filled now with trials and difficulties, and they’re not of your own
making. You are conscious of enemies who are plotting against you…whispering,
perhaps, against you. Well, this passage is certainly for you. Let’s meet
Nehemiah. Before we meet him in chapter six, let’s come before God in prayer.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank You again for the Scriptures that
holy men of old wrote as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit. We thank
You that the Bible can teach us and instruct us and guide us and direct us. We
thank You for its comfort. We thank You for its warnings. We thank You for its
examples. We thank You for its precepts. Give us now discernment, that in
reading and studying the Scriptures together we might see something of our Lord
Jesus Christ, and we ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God’s holy and inerrant word:
“Now when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab and the rest of
our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in
it (although up to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates), Sanballat
and Geshem sent to me, saying, ‘Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in
the plain of Ono.’ But they intended to do me harm. And I sent messengers to
them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the
work stop while I leave it and come down to you?’ And they sent to me four times
in this way, and I answered them in the same manner. In the same way Sanballat
for the fifth time sent his servant to me with an open letter in his hand. In it
was written, ‘It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that
you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And
according to these reports you wish to become their king. And you have also set
up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah.’
And now the king will hear of these reports. So now come and let us take counsel
together.’ Then I sent to him, saying, ‘No such things as you say have been
done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.’ For they all wanted to
frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be
done.’ But now, O God, strengthen my hands.
“Now when I went into the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son
of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home, he said, ‘Let us meet together in
the house of God, within the temple. Let us close the doors of the temple, for
they are coming to kill you. They are coming to kill you by night.’ But I said,
‘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.’ And I understood and saw that God had not
sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and
Sanballat had hired him. For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid
and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to
taunt me. Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things
that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who
wanted to make me afraid.”
Well, thus far God’s holy and inerrant word.
Now, we left off a couple of weeks ago in chapter
five of Nehemiah. Nehemiah was in the midst of a financial downturn in the
markets of Jerusalem, and you’ll remember that he introduced a series of
initiatives involving mortgage lending and usury and so on in order to address
this huge problem that was affecting the poor and the weak within Jerusalem,
causing the testimony of the people of God to be in disarray.
Now trouble is never far away (and in Nehemiah it is
never far away!), and having dealt with one series of trials and
difficulties, another now comes immediately on its wake.
Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem–we’ve met them before
in chapter 2. Sanballat is a Babylonian name. He’s from Beth-Horon, a place
maybe 16-17 miles northwest of Jerusalem. His daughter will marry Eliashib the
son of the high priest, and he will have an introduction then into high society
and high priestly society within Jerusalem. Historical records tell us that he
was the governor of Samaria and that his two sons had Jewish names. We infer
that he wasn’t Jewish, but that his wife was probably Jewish. He’s an ambitious
politician. He’s the governor of Samaria to the north of Jerusalem. Like
Nehemiah, he is under the authority of the Persians, but he wants to make a name
for himself. He probably sees Nehemiah, and especially the building of the walls
in Jerusalem, as a threat to his political ambitions.
Tobiah is a Jewish name. His son will also marry a
high society daughter within Jerusalem. And Geshem — Geshem is an Arab. He’s the
governor of Edom and Moab, to the south and to the east of Jerusalem. He also
has power of those regions on the way to Egypt. So we’ve got three would-be
politically ambitious rulers to the north and to the east, and to the south and
to the southwest — surrounding, more or less, Jerusalem. They have nothing in
common except that they don’t like what’s going on in Jerusalem. They do not
like Nehemiah or what they see as Nehemiah’s own political ambitions, and
they’ve come together as a trinity of political expediency for the purposes of
bringing down Nehemiah.
Now, three things are going to happen in this
section that we’re looking at tonight, three strategies that they deploy in
order to bring Nehemiah down. We’re going to watch Nehemiah. We’re going to
see him as a leader, as a great leader, as a man of maturity and courage and
discernment; a man who, in really difficult and tense situations, can keep his
nerve, and can play the man, and can rise up and show nobility and strength, and
a sense of purpose and vision.
I. The attempt to appeal to
The first strategy is an invitation to come to
“talk” in a place called Ono. [Well, you all know the joke! They’re invited
to Ono, and Nehemiah says, “Oh, no!” …Get that one out of the way!] Laughter.
Sanballat and Geshem, they invite Nehemiah to a summit, a mini-summit, a summit
that would produce perhaps some kind of political concordat, a statement…a
statement of joint political ambition…perhaps an agreement, a pact to work
together on areas of mutual concern. It’s a deliberate attempt to try and appeal
to Nehemiah’s vanity, Nehemiah’s sense of pride that he would be there hoi
polloing it with the leaders, Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem. He would be
one of the politically ambitious. But Nehemiah says, “They intended to do me
I suppose we could see that as (from one point of
view) paranoia on Nehemiah’s part. You could perhaps argue, ‘Well, Nehemiah has
good grounds for thinking what he’s thinking and for saying what he’s saying,’
you understand; but you can understand that you could interpret Nehemiah’s
response here as a measure of paranoia–you know, the kind of thing that sees
conspiracy everywhere. You know, black helicopters flying at every point, all
kinds of insinuations of doom and darkness and gloom. He says no. He would have
none of it.
You could accuse him of being imperialist. Didn’t
Winston Churchill say in the midst of the Second World War that “jaw-jaw is
better than war-war”? What would there be to lose, to go to Ono and engage in
talks? Better talk than war. But Nehemiah had sensed a trap. Behind this
invitation there was probably an attempt to kidnap him. There may even be an
attempt, according to some commentators, to kill him. Nehemiah senses that the
letter has already been written:
“We are sorry to inform you,
great peoples of Jerusalem, that your governor Nehemiah, prince among the Jews,
on his way to Ono, his chariot hit a rock and his body was thrown into the air,
and he was greatly hurt. And despite all of our best efforts to save him, he
tragically died. We send to you our deepest sorrow and wish you well.”
And Nehemiah thinks that letter has already been written.
He shows political savvy. He shows discernment. He’s a man of principle. He’s a
man who’s not going to be tempted by a moment’s political glory in the limelight
of a mini-summit with the leaders of that territory.
Four times they ask him. Four times he says to them,
“How can I leave this great work?” Now, folks, he was building a wall. It was at
most one and a half miles long. It was not anything to write home about.
Archeologists will tell us it was built in just over fifty days, and the quality
of workmanship was not great. It was not a “great work” in the eyes of Babylon,
who could boast of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon as one of the great wonders of
the world; and even the winter residence of the prince of Babylon, or the prince
of the Persians, was something to write home about. You see, in Nehemiah’s eyes
the building of this wall, putting one stone upon another, was something that
was being done for God. God was in this work, and he wasn’t about to leave it.
How could he possibly leave this great work and go and meet with these people?
You see, what we have here are two worldviews in
collision, and Nehemiah knows that. Nehemiah is a man of God, and these three
men, Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem, are not. I couldn’t help but think of
something that we cited in our staff meeting, as it fell this year on October
31, the day we commemorate Luther’s great nailing of the 95 Theses to the castle
church door at Wittenberg in 1517. Four years later at the Diet of Worms, he
would say those great words:
“Unless I am convinced by Holy Scripture and by good reason, my conscience is
bound. It isn’t safe or expedient for me to deny my conscience. Here I stand; I
can do no other, so help me God.”
Well, there’s something of that spirit in Nehemiah. He
can’t leave this work, because this is God’s work.
II. The attempt of innuendo.
Well, there’s a second attempt, and it’s an
attempt at innuendo. Nehemiah was right. He sounded hawkish, but he was
right to distrust these men because on the fifth invitation it comes accompanied
by a letter…a letter that says in no uncertain terms that the Jews, led by
Nehemiah, are plotting…they are plotting a coup d’йtat
It’s a fearful thing to be a leader in any
capacity, whether in civilian life or in church life. It’s a fearful thing
these days to be a leader of any description, because folk will tell lies. And
once people hear those lies, some of them will believe it no matter what you
say. No matter how you protest your innocence, somebody is going to believe
those lies. Some, no doubt, believe these lies. Seeds of doubt were being sown
among the people in Jerusalem: what is Nehemiah’s ambition here?
You know the story of Oliver Cromwell, of course, in
the 1640’s. Great leader. One of the greatest of leaders. But in the 1650’s, he
lost his head. He would become king himself. John Owen, the great Puritan and
his personal parson, dissolved his fellowship with Oliver Cromwell. Is that
what’s going on here with Nehemiah? Some folk might even begin to believe that.
What do you do, you see, when you’re the victim of lies?
He prays to God. Did you note that? In verse
9: “But now, O God, strengthen my hands.” Strengthen my hands; come to my aid.
Like so many of the Psalms that speak — Psalm 131, Psalm 109 — the psalmist is
the victim of lies. A whispering campaign. They’re on the telephone and they’re
saying things about you that are just not true. That’s a terrible position to be
in. It’s an awful position to be in. It happens in the church — it does, you
know it does. And sometimes all you can do is say, “Lord, You know my heart.
Strengthen my hands.” He’s a great leader. He was a great leader.
III. The attempt by enemies
Well, there’s a third attempt, and it comes from
within. He’s invited to the house of Shemaiah. Shemaiah apparently is a
prophet of some kind. For some reason he’s confined to his house, and Nehemiah
goes to visit him. And this man Shemaiah says to him, ‘We have to go to the
temple. We’ve got to run there right now. We’ve got to go to the innermost part
of the temple and close the doors because men are coming to kill you, and
they’re coming tonight.’ Imagine! Can you imagine being Nehemiah for a minute?
What do you do? This is a man of God; this is a prophet; this is a spokesman of
God, and he’s saying we’ve got to run to the temple because murderers are coming
to get you, and they’re coming tonight.
There were several things about that that…Nehemiah
smelt a rat. There are some things…I can change the metaphor: there was
something fishy about what he was saying. First of all, how come he’s confined
to his house and he can run to the temple with Nehemiah? Secondly, there’s no
such thing as sanctuary within the temple. Never was. Now we’re familiar with
stories, for example, of our friends in the Roman Catholic Church sometimes
using their building as a sanctuary for illegal aliens in California — for
example. Stories of that nature have occurred in the news and press in recent
months and years. But there was no such doctrine in the Old Testament. It just
wasn’t true. And thirdly, he wasn’t allowed in that part of the temple. Only a
priest could go into that part of the temple. How could he go in there and not
die? There were three things wrong. Three strikes. He will not do it. He cannot
do it. It would be in violation of the Law. It would be in violation of what God
has expressly written in His word, and in any case, what do you think the people
in Jerusalem would say if they saw Nehemiah running through the streets, heading
into the temple and slamming the doors behind him? What kind of leader is he?
He’s a man of courage. He’s a man of extraordinary
courage. He’s being attacked here three times, one after another.
You know, my favorite story about courage is my dear
friend, Sam Patterson, the first president of RTS. I met him in 1976. He was the
main speaker at the Banner of Truth Conference in Leicester, and he had just
been preaching in London. Nineteen-seventy-six was a period of economic
difficulties, and the government at that time had been urging the people to be
courageous, to have hope. And he had noticed in London these huge, huge
billboards that simply said “Take Courage,” and he was encouraged by that, and
told a congregation in London that he was encouraged by it. What a wonderful
thing that was, to be encouraged, and to take courage. And he noticed that
people were giggling, because “Courage” was a beer. And this is one of the great
beer companies advertising “take Courage!”
Nehemiah is a man of great courage as a leader.
This is a story, you understand…this is a story about a leader who is under
attack. That’s why you need to pray for your leaders. You need to pray for
those in leadership in the church every day. You need to covenant to pray for
them, because they’re under attack. Satan would just love to see a leader fall
and collapse. Imagine! If Satan gets a little minnow here to fall and collapse,
what is that? But if he can get a leader to fall, splashed in the banner
headlines of newspapers and on CNN for days interminable — “this great leader
has fallen….” You need to pray for leaders, for their discernment, for their
wisdom, their courage. When you stand against the tide, when you stand against
the culture, when you insist that same-sex marriage is wrong, when you insist
that abortion is wrong, you will be ostracized and vilified, and you’ll be
called a bigot, and unloving and ungracious.
But there’s one more thing. Right at the end, in
“Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they
did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets…”
[there was more than just one in Jerusalem]
“…who wanted to make me afraid.”
What is that? It sounds, doesn’t it, as if it’s
got to him a little. Doesn’t it? It’s got to him a little. It’s got under
his skin a little. Sounds just a little bit irritable, don’t you think?
“Remember these enemies” — and there’s something of an imprecation here. What
he’s saying in effect is ‘Do to them as they deserve. Don’t show them mercy
here. Don’t be nice to them. Don’t be kind to them. Give them what they
Some of you were in my class this morning in
Jeremiah. In chapter 18 we were dealing with a very similar passage. Jeremiah is
calling upon God not to forgive his enemies’ sins. I’m not sure what to make of
it, to be honest. I suspect…I suspect that Nehemiah is showing here something of
his true colors. He’s a sinner like the rest of us. I’m so glad that passages
like this are found in the Bible. You know, even if we say this evening — and
some of us just might say – ‘Nehemiah, you weren’t altogether right in that
prayer. Maybe there should have been just an element of grace in your prayer.’
Perhaps that’s where we are tonight. You know, maybe some of you have no
problems with the prayer at all; that’s fine. That’s fine! But some of you may
just have a little bit of a problem with that prayer, and you say, ‘Well, why
didn’t he ask for the Lord to save them? You know, to bring them to Jesus?’
I’m so glad that prayer is there, because there are
times, dear friends, when I’ve thought exactly like that. You’re the victim of
lies, you’re the victim of innuendo, you’re the victim of personal attacks, and
every instinct within your body wants to say, “Lord, deal with these people, and
don’t show them mercy!” That may be wrong. It may well be wrong. And from a New
Testament perspective, it certainly is wrong. I’m still glad it’s there, because
it says to me I’m not alone, and there are great, great men like Nehemiah and
like Jeremiah who fell in this way, too. And God still owned them, and God still
blessed them, and God still strengthened them.
So pray for your leaders, will you? Before you go to
bed tonight, pray for our leaders in this church tonight before you go to bed.
Pray for leaders — well, we’re just before an election — whoever that leader
may be, but especially in the church…especially in the church, who
are the targets and victims of Satan’s rage and venom, that they might be able
to stand in the evil day, having put on the belt of truth and the breastplate of
righteousness, and their feet ready in preparation for the gospel of peace, and
the shield of faith and the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit,
which is the word of God.
Let’s pray together.
Lord our God, we thank You for Nehemiah. We thank
You for his courage, tenacity, his insight, his wisdom, his discernment, his
unflinching commitment to pursue Your glory no matter what. Lord, we need such
men. We need them right now. We need them today. We need them in the church. We
need them here. We pray for those in leadership in this church; we pray for
Ligon, especially. Lord, keep them from the evil one. Keep them strong, keep
them committed, keep them looking to You. Keep them gospel-focused. Keep them
with that principal aim to do everything for the glory of God. And watch over
us, every single one of us, we pray. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord’s benediction.
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