The Sword and Trowel
This passage from Nehemiah is a wonderful example of how the work of the kingdom of God goes forward. Dealing with the nature of the work is one thing, and dealing with those who are hostile to the idea of that work is another, and it is often necessary to have a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other.
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 4:1-23).
The work on the wall began, and as soon as word of that reached Sanballat, he was angry and his response was one of mockery (v. 1). A record of some of his taunts is left for us (v. 2). Tobiah then piled on, and added his little bit (v. 3). Nehemiah turns to God and asks Him to listen to this (v. 4). He goes on to ask God to refuse to forgive their sins (v. 5). The Jews went back to work, and completed the task halfway (v. 6). When word of how the work was pregressing reached Sanballat and the others, they were verey angry (v. 7). The result of their anger was a conspiracy to attack (v. 8). The Jews in response set a watch (v. 9). The rubbish made defense difficult (v. 10), and their adversaries were confident (v. 11). But some Jewish “moles” revealed some of their plans (v. 12), and Nehemiah set guards accordingly (v. 13). Nehemiah then gave a great exhortation to the people (v. 14), and their enemies heard they were discovered and abandoned the assault (v. 15). Nehemiah then divided them into workers and warriors (v. 16), and the workers were armed (vv. 17-18). Nehemiah then set up an early warning system (vv. 18-20). We are then given a good definition of hard work (v. 21). The population was consolidated for a time (v. 22), and they all stayed on high alert (v. 23).
We saw earlier in the book that as soon as it became apparent that Nehemiah had the welfare of the Jews in mind he automatically earned the hostility of certain men. This orientation starts to come to fruition now. As soon as Sanballat heard that work on the wall had begun, he was angry, offended, and began to mock (v. 1). The taunts, as is common with taunts, don’t make consistent sense (vv. 2-3). Then as their mockery proved to be erroneous, and progress on the wall was going forward well, the result was even more anger (v. 7). They were “very wroth.”
One of the tenets of liberal theology that we have to be careful to stay far away from is the idea that all differences can be overcome with constructive dialogue. Some can, and cranky Reformed types could profit by finding a few more opportunities like that. But some differences will never be settled by a negotiated settlement, and this kind of impasse falls in that category. The situation is resolved by pointing to the scoreboard at the end of the game. This is an approach that Christians in another era used to call “winning.”
The People Had A Mind to Work:
Obviously, the work that you do in an ordinary time is not embarrassed by the kind of work you do in extraordinary times. But a hard work ethic ordinarily is capable of rising to the occasion when there is a crisis such as this one. The people “had a mind to work” (v. 6). This is a gift from God. Not only were they willing to perform a hard task, daunting under the best of circumstances, they were willing to do it with half their resources tied up (v. 16). God gave them a very hard task, and as soon as they committed themselves to it, God made the task twice as hard by causing their enemies to beset them. There is an important principle here, and it ought not to affect the basic blessing—the people having a mind to work. Think of the many examples that we see here in our community. And notice the obstacles that these fellow-laborers had to overcome. A hard job to begin with (v. 10). Hostile adversaries (v. 8). Limited resources, with half of them chewed up in senseless expenditures (v. 16). The remaining laborers had to be of two minds (v. 17). And it was all back-breaking work, from sunrise to the time when the stars appeared (v. 21). Now this is the blessing of God.
There are three basic lessons that we may take from Nehemiah’s exhortation, which was addressed to the rulers, nobles, and all the people (v. 14). The first is to have your trust arrangements all worked out. Do not be afraid of them, remember the Lord, who is great and terrible. In that context, with that remembrance, then fight. You don’t just trust the Lord. You trust the Lord and keep your powder dry. You trust the Lord and lock and load. But neither may we rush ahead, trusting in the arm of the flesh to save us (Ps. 20). Trust, then fight. If you just trust, then you have to know that faith without works is dead. If you just fight, you have to know that works without faith is dead.
The second priniciple is that Nehemiah assumes that the men are fighting for one another, their sons, daughters, wives, and houses. Fighting to defend all these is honorable and noble. Note also that the one group they were not charged to “fight for” was their “husbands.” Women are not to be assigned to combat duty. This does not make them inferior. Neither should they be reckoned as china dolls. Women are life-givers, not death-dealers.
The third is that we see here an instance of peace brought about through a preparedness to fight. This is peace through armed strength, peace through superior firepower. We look forward to the postmillennial glory, when men will beat their swords into plowshares. But if we do this prematurely, before the dragon is dead, we will find ourselves fighting the dragon with our plowshares (Ps. 144:1).
Some Contemporary Applications:
We have noted many parallels between this ancient situation and ours. They are impossible to ignore. As we continue to consider them, we want to make sure we prayerfully include the following:
First, notice that while resources can and must be set aside and used to defend the central mission, these people are not distracted from their central mission. They work on the wall, less freely than they would like, but they are constantly working on the wall. They do not turn aside to the right or to the left.
Second, God gave them a mind to work. They had a clear purpose, the blessing of God, courageous leadership in Nehemiah, and they set themselves to it. Working this way bears fruit. The Christian faith is always fruitful, and that fruitfulness cannot be denied.
Third, notice v. 5. Nehemiah asks that God will leave their adversaries unforgiven (vv. 4-5). This is a hard prayer. Turn it back on them, he says. And why does he pray this way? Because the enemies of God provoked God to anger “before the builders.” Sanballat did not just go out into a field and yell insults at heaven. He attacked God by attacking His people. And God identifies with His people. What does the Lord ask Saul on the Damascus road? We pray this way because our adversaries have provoked God to anger in front of us.