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Nehemiah Chapter Two

Riches to Rags

In this chapter, Nehemiah's interaction is split into 2 parts: firstly at the royal court in Babylon, and secondly among the remnant of believers still in Jerusalem. Common to both locations is the opposition personified in Sanballat and Tobiah.

Timing seems interesting here--Nehemiah didn't just jump into the fray without planning or preparing. He was told the plight of the Jews in the month of Kislev (ninth month of the Jewish calendar) but it was in the month of Nisan that he spoke to the King concerning things --- four months later, the first month of a new year. A "New Year's resolution" perhaps?! :-)

Seriously though, the month of Nisan is the month when Jews celebrate the Passover: remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, God's power and His grace in sparing their first born. It foreshadows the coming of Jesus and His work on the cross in many ways. For Nehemiah, it marks the point where the nation of Israel is once again liberated from slavery

  1. as a broken and demoralised nation
  2. from the occupying Babylonian force

through Nehemiah's rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem and also the national identity of the Jews themselves.

God worked wonders through a pagan king by providing all that Nehemiah asked for and more. It says in the New Testament that God will grant us answers to our prayers, giving more than we can even ask for or imagine. It's interesting to note that the plans of God cannot be thwarted even in the face of an apparent lack of godly men or women to bring them about. That is, His perfect plan for us is not as fragile as we so often worry. It also shows that, sometimes, we may be looking in the wrong place for "the answer" when we exclude seemingly "secular" sources.

[quick aside - our culture is grounded very much in Greek thinking. They were the ones to separate out the "sacred" and the "secular". Hebrew thinking is often more "rounded" allowing for God to move through seemingly unusual [secular] agents.]

Once the king had granted Nehemiah's requests, he set of to start the process. His labour of love began, exchanging the riches of the Babylonian court for the rags of the broken city of Jerusalem. From the very start of his activity we see opposition in the form of Sanballat and Tobiah - members of the king's own court, allegedly contemporaries of Nehemiah, yet conspiring against him. As officials of the court, they may have been in any position of authority (it doesn't say specifically) so they may therefore have been anything above or below him in station. We certainly know that they bore ill-will towards the Jewish people though!

Many reasons may have held the remnant back from rebuilding the walls before this point not least of which being the sheer scale of the task. The prospect was a daunting one, yet, given the right catalyst it did begin. They may well have recognised (as did Nehemiah) God's hand at work in the destruction and concluded that to rebuild would have been wrong - "against the wishes of God." That is, to say, "He put us into this state, He must therefore want us to remain here." (while the first statement is true the second doesn't necessarily follow on) The only opposition Nehemiah faced was from outside, implying that the residents of Jerusalem actually welcomed the work. After all, he represented not only a motivating force but also brought tools, equipment and raw material from the king of Babylon to aid the process.

So, where does this aid us in rebuilding hurting people? Well, firstly, let's take a look at the major players: The king was God's instrument of provision for setting the process in motion, providing the resources it would require. As Christians, we very often cut ourselves off from potential sources of healing by ignoring the so called "secular" medical profession. Just as the Babylonian king gave wood, soldiers and letters for foreign governments, so our medical practitioners can provide the diagnosis, counselling and medication to see us pull through.

Now, Nehemiah chose to accept the stigma that was attached to the remnant of Jews living in Jerusalem. He left the palaces of the king at the cost of attack and ridicule from the other palace officials. Dr John Lockley writes:

Being depressed is bad enough in itself, but being a depressed Christian is worse. And being a depressed Christian in a church full of people who don't understand depression is like a little taste of Hell.

"A Practical Workbook for the Depressed Christian" by John Lockley

The painful attacks from other believers can come from any level in the hierarchy, from the lowly pew-warmer through to the local bishop. In the text we see, though, that it is Nehemiah who deals with things and not a member of the Jewish remnant. As carers, it is our responsibility to "be there" for our loved ones as a living shield between them and the painful barbs of other people, wherever possible.

The same is true for attacks that come from non-believers. Strangely enough, in my experience, it's the attacks from non-believers that are the easiest to deal with. Whatever the source, someone pointing fingers and asking inappropriate questions need dealing with lovingly but firmly. As Nehemiah demonstrates, to truly rebuild the walls [our loved ones] we must be willing to be painted with the same brush as they: the time has come to give up the comforts and to "rough it" alongside those who truly hurt, to walk alongside them IN THE THICK OF THINGS.

Sanballat and Tobiah are listed in this chapter as asking two questions:

  1. "What are you doing?"
  2. "Are you rebelling against the King?"

I remember as a child being told off by my parents, many, many times. Why is it, when they've caught you "red-handed" drawing crayon pictures on the living room wallpaper, that they ask, "What are you doing?!" Nehemiah's opposition do the same thing - it's patently obvious WHAT the Israelites are doing so the implication isn't what but why. They seem to be suggesting, subtly, that it is wrong to be rebuilding. The play on words leaves it to the hearer to heap on their own pile of guilt and worry, magnifying the natural doubts of the hearers.

The second question follows in the same vein. Nehemiah had arrived bearing the King's standard, wood, tools and an armed escort. Wasn't it clear that they weren't rebelling, that they were working with the King's blessing?

It goes back to the doubts again - "didn't the king cause this situation in the first place? Isn't it a valid punishment?" etc., etc., ad nauseum. The accusers are stirring up trouble with seemingly innocent questions that bear dangerous double meanings.

I have heard it said, "This [depression, etc.] is a punishment from God," but, this is the same as Sanballat / Tobiah's second accusationary question! That is, our accuser, the devil, plaguing us with barbed double meanings and accusations.

What is to be our response? Jesus came "to bind up the broken hearted" (Luke 4:18-19, quoting from Isaiah 61:1-3) so the process of rebuilding is one that God himself sanctions. He provides us the means through Jesus work on the cross, therapist, medication, etc. So, as believers, we have every right to say to our accuser (the devil) and our human opposition the same as Nehemiah himself said:

Nehemiah 2:20

"The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share [in Jerusalem] or any claim or any historic right."

Or, in the words of Jesus:

Matthew 16:23

"Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; You don't have in mind the things of God, but the things of man."


by Paul Hawke