They Laughed Us to Scorn
Laughter and mockery are inescapable. It is never a question of whether, but which. In a world where God has established the antithesis between righteousness and unrighteousness, it is never whether something is going to be ridiculous, but rather which thing is going to be ridiculous.
And it came to pass in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes the king, that wine was before him: and I took up the wine, and gave it unto the king. Now I had not been beforetime sad in his presence . . . (Nehemiah 2:1-20).
In the twentieth year of Artaxerxes, Nehemiah was serving him wine (v. 1). The new development was that Nehemiah was visibly sad. The king asked about it. Nehemiah wasn’t sick so it had to be sorrow of heart (v. 2). Nehemiah was very afraid, but answered the king. Why should he not be sad when the city of his fathers was in ruins (v. 3)? The king invited Nehemiah to make a request, and so he did—to God (v. 4). After his “arrow prayer,” Nehemiah asked if he could rebuild Jerusalem (v. 5). The king asked how long it would take, and gave his permission (v. 6). Nehemiah asked for letters of conveyance (v. 7), and a letter granting him timber (v. 8). Nehemiah arrived at the place where the governors were, along with his escort (v. 9). Sanballat and some others were really peeved (v. 10). Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem and was there three days (v. 11). Before anyone knew what his mission there was, he took a secret surveying journey of the walls (vv. 12-15). But nobody knew (v. 16). Then Nehemiah made his proposal (v. 17), and he gave them the reasons why. They responded well (v. 18). But when Sanballat & Co. heard of it, they laughed them to scorn (v. 19). Nehemiah answered in great faith (v. 20).
Prayer to the God of Heaven:
Remember from the first chapter that Nehemiah has already been praying and fasting. The prayer he offers in this situation arises out of that context. There is no indication that Nehemiah was sorrowing in a contrived way, like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time. He was a royal courtier in the company of the emperor so it is unlikely that he was slouching around the place. But the emperor was a discerning man and saw his sorrow. He asked why, and Nehemiah, despite being very afraid, told him. The king, being a man of action (like kings tend to be), said, “Well, what are we going to do about it?” The king said, “Make a request of me.” So instead, Nehemiah made a request of God. He prayed to God about the king before “praying” to the king about God. We see in the course of this chapter (and indeed, the entire book) that God heard this prayer. Let us make a point of noting this—God heard and answered this short prayer. We do remember the context of the first chapter, and the discipline of prayer (Luke 6:12; 1 Thess. 5:17). God is in heaven, we are on earth, and so therefore our words should be few (Ecc. 5:2). We are not to be like pagans, who think that word count is a big deal (Matt. 6:7). We are not to be like those who “for a pretence make a long prayer” (Matt. 23:14). As John Bunyan once put it, it is better that your heart be without words than your words without heart. This was a short prayer, but Nehemiah’s heart was entirely in it.
The Hand of God:
We see here the same acknowledgment of God’s blessing that we saw in Ezra. The king did not give Nehemiah anything autonomously. Notice how it is put. “And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me” (v. 8). Then later, when Nehemiah is persuading the Jewish leaders to begin work on the wall, he points to this again. “Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me” (v. 18). Notice that God uses instruments, but the glory goes to God ultimately. When it is remembered in the heart, this is why “Calvinism” is one of the sweetest doctrines in this Book. “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD, as the rivers of water: he turneth it whithersoever he will” (Prov. 21:1). Who will lay a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies, God who vindicates, God who delivers.
The Law of Charity:
Remember that Ezra had not asked for an escort to accompany them because it would have been (under those circumstances) a bad testimony. But Nehemiah was not in the same situation, and he had an escort. “Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me” (v. 9). We should remember this before we judge our brother hastily. John the Baptist had no wine. Jesus drank wine. Who was right? One man serves God this way, and another in that way. Provided there is no rebellion against the express word of God, how are we to handle this sort of thing? Charitably.
We are introduced to the adversary when Nehemiah arrives. “When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel” (v. 10). What was their response? It says that they were “grieved exceedingly.” And why were they grieved exceedingly? Because God had raised up a man who was going to seek the welfare of the children of Israel. Nehemiah was that man, and as soon as they knew that he was there to benefit the people of God, they knew they were against him. The animus proceeded from identity first, and behavior second.
What Problem People Do:
They were hostile before the work started, but when the work began, and the possibility of progress was apparent, the taunting started. “But when Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, heard it, they laughed us to scorn, and despised us, and said, What is this thing that ye do? will ye rebel against the king? Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build: but ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem” (vv. 19-20).
“They laughed us to scorn, and despised us.” In response, Nehemiah answered with two main points. The first was that God “will prosper us.” The second point was that they had “no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem.” This was not an ecumenical love-fest.
In this place, evil men laugh the godly to scorn. This makes scorn necessarily evil, right? Not a bit of it. The daughter of Zion laughs Sennacherib to scorn (2 Kings 19:21; Is. 37:22). Hezekiah’s messengers calling for repentance were laughed to scorn (2 Chron. 30:10). Wicked men scorn the Messiah (Ps. 22:7) And God pours out scorn from some people as a judgment on others (Ez. 23:32).
Humor, mockery, scorn, and laughter always imply a standard. Everything hinges on what that standard is. The man who does not sit in the seat of the scornful is a blessed man (Ps. 1:1). But in the very next psalm, we discover that there is a different kind of scornful seat, one in the heavenly places (Ps. 2:4). “He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.” There is a difference between murder and war, between love-making and rape, between perjury and deception in war, and between Elijah’s taunting of the priests of Baal and Sanballat’s taunting of Nehemiah. The difference is the God-given standard of right and wrong. We need to stop comparing polemical discourse to a football game, with a level-playing field. What is clipping for one team is clipping for the other. But when Jesus taunted the Pharisees this was a very different thing than the Pharisees taunting Jesus. And why? Because of this thing called a standard of right and wrong. A burglar pointing a pistol at a homeowner is different than a homeowner pointing a pistol at a burglar.