Let’s turn to Nehemiah 2. If you would like to follow along, there are notes that have been placed with sanitary care in the back seats, the pockets of the seats. I would highly recommend utilizing those because we are going to cover four and a half chapters. Brace yourselves. Those of you who are at home, if you’re able to print the notes, that’d be great, or you can get them on the app.
One of our country’s greatest educational heroes is Booker T. Washington. He was born a slave in 1856. He did not know his father, but he moved with his mother and stepfather to West Virginia shortly after being emancipated. He worked in the coal mines as a teenager and then in the home of the coal mine owner for $5/month. At the time, he was captivated by a single mission. He writes in his autobiography, “Up from Slavery,”
“I was on fire constantly with one ambition, and that was to go to Hampton. This thought was with me day and night.”
Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute was a school for African Americans where diligent students could work to pay off their tuition. This was the only way Washington could see that he could go to school, because he had no money. He saved every dime he could for a while just to help pay the way to get there. It was a 500 mile trip. At one point he was traveling in an old stagecoach — they didn’t have a train in that section. And the coach stopped late in the evening at a dilapidated hotel. All the other passengers went into the hotel to eat and sleep, but the owner refused to allow Washington food or a room. It was a cold night in the mountains of Virginia, and Washington kept from freezing by just walking briskly around the hotel all night. Now, the thought of this 16-year-old boy freezing, hungry, simply because of the racism of this hotel owner will make your blood boil, your tears flow. This injustice, however, and adversity was only the beginning of the challenges that Washington would face in getting an education and then eventually in building a remarkable educational institution. His response, however, to the racist hotel owner really explains in a sentence why he was so successful. He writes,
“My whole soul was so bent upon reaching Hampton that I did not have time to cherish any bitterness toward the hotel-keeper.” He wrote later, “I would permit no man, no matter what his colour might be, to narrow and degrade my soul by making me hate him.”
He went on to say, with God’s help, he had let go of all bitterness and actually pities the man from the bottom of his heart who damages his own soul through the habit of what Washington called “race prejudice.” He writes,
“In order to be successful in any kind of undertaking, I think the main thing is for one to grow to the point where he completely forgets himself; that is, to lose himself in a great cause. In proportion as one loses himself in the way, in the same degree does he get the highest happiness out of his work.”
“Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
And in the same chapter, he warned his disciples,
“Behold, I am sending you [forth] as sheep [among] wolves, so be wise [as we noted a few weeks ago, be wise] as serpents and innocent as doves.”
He promised his disciples in that chapter that they would be opposed, hated, betrayed, hunted. But he reminded them,
“It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher.”
We can just soak in that. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher. They opposed Jesus. They will oppose you. Some of us believe that if a mission is truly from God, then it will be evidenced by a smooth ride and a lack of opposition. And Jesus is actually saying the opposite, promising the opposite. So, it’s important for us to remember, although the book of Nehemiah does provide a lot of powerful lessons in leadership, that’s not the primary purpose of the book. The book is a picture of one who left his comfort to move toward adversity for the sake of the people of God — a picture that points us to Jesus Christ. Nehemiah is a micro-glimpse of Jesus. And the theme in Nehemiah 2:9 – 6:14 is “Mission Guarantees Opposition.” And by mission, don’t think too formally there — not just mission as missionaries. Any kind of worthy endeavor that God calls you to, will incite opposition. And we’re going to focus in on that today.
God called Nehemiah to travel over a thousand miles with the support of King Artaxerxes in order to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem and regather the people of God. But every step of progression was met with opposition. And this opposition came in what we could call waves, waves of opposition. The waves increased in variety. There are external as well as internal evidences of opposition. This is an important point because I could never count the amount of times I have heard Christians say, “I expected it from unsaved people. I did not expect it from saved.” Right? Nehemiah shows us you’re going to get it from both. They increase in variety in that external, internal, verbal, physical, relational, financial. All kinds of opposition.
Secondly, they increase in severity. The first stage of opposition in 2:10 is a kind of emotional opposition, but then it moves to verbal and physical and lethal. And they increase in quantity, the quantity of those opposing. At first in 2:10 you have Sanballat and Tobiah. And then you have 2:19, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem (the Arab). And then in 4:2, Sanballat, his brothers, the army of Samaria, and Tobiah. And then in 4:7, Sanballat, Tobiah, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, entire people groups/nations opposing. And what’s interesting is if you look at each of these groups, you have Sanballat, who is the governor of Samaria, which is in the north. Tobiah, who is an Ammonite official and representative of the Ammonites mentioned later who are from the east. You have Geshem, who’s an Arab — they’re the southern neighbors. And then you have the Ashdodites who are the western neighbors. And what is being painted is a picture of a people being surrounded. Waves of opposition that increase in quantity. The opposition is like roaches multiplying.
So, as we move briskly through these chapters, we’re going to leave a lot on the table today, because we want to focus in on this theme of “Mission Guarantees Opposition.” So, we’re going to do three things. One, survey. Two, (at the end) identify a few takeaways. And then three, we’re going to come back next week and the following week and dive deeper into the detail on a couple of these chapters.
Seven stages of progression and opposition. And by stages, I don’t mean these are formal stages that would have been recognizable to the people involved. I mean more like broad brush strokes that are painting a powerful picture. Stage 1, inspection. Nehemiah arrived. And in 2:11 he rested three days. He then inspects the condition of the walls, as we just read. And though he hasn’t done anything yet, he is already facing opposition. And the form of this opposition is disappointment. Some express disappointment. In 2:10 when Sanballat and Tobiah heard about their coming “it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people [of God] of Israel.” This is a huge point. No matter how broken something is, if someone comes along to try to fix it, there will be people who will resist because they simply want to maintain status quo. A marriage can be crumbling and one of the spouses hears an ad like we just heard from re-engage and says, “Hey, do you think we could get help for our marriage?” “What, do you think the problems are all me?” All of a sudden a simple question of “Can we move toward help? Can we start picking up the rubble?” Becomes a point of great disappointment. “Dad, I’ve noticed you’ve been drinking more and more. Can we get help?” And the question-asker becomes the enemy because it’s destabilizing the status quo. No matter how much rubble, which Jerusalem was in a state of disrepair, there will be people who are disappointed that something is being done to help.
Stage 2, what we could call initiation. Nehemiah explains to the Jews. He gave them this tour to inspect. And then he explains to them God’s hand upon him and helps the people see (verse 17), helps them see what they had grown accustomed to not seeing. You know how that is? If your room is a mess, after a while you don’t even realize it’s a mess. And somebody comes in and says, “What in the world?” That’s Nehemiah saying, “Do you see the condition of these walls?” And he casts a vision of something very different. And he says (2:18), “Let us rise up and build.” But when Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem heard of the plan, some speak unkind words. That’s a very nice way of saying there’s a lot of verbal manipulation, mockery, disdain. Look at verse 19, chapter 2, “They jeered at us and despised us and said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’” Unkind words.
Stage 3 could be called collaboration. Now, chapter 3 is one of the most boring chapters to read and one of the most beautiful sights to see. Do you know what I mean by that? Why is it boring? Because it’s so repetitious. They built, they repaired, they rebuilt. Those words appear almost 50 times — built, repair, rebuilt. The expressions next to them and after them appear around thirty times. What is boring to read is beautiful to see because it’s an organizational masterpiece. You notice in verse 1, it starts at the sheepgate and then goes all around this long section of Jerusalem and ends (verse 32) at the sheepgate. Forty different teams made up of rich, poor, clergy, laity, women, men, all sorts of people coming together as teams, each bringing their contribution to this whole mission. Have you ever been a part of that? I feel like I’m a part of that every single week at North Hills. It is a beautiful thing to watch people, each person doing their part to make an impossible mission accomplished. And that’s chapter 3. But in the midst of that, some refuse to participate. Chapter 3, verse 5,
“Their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord.”
Some remain detached, aloof. In the midst of this portrait of selfless synergy is a cancer of condescending arrogance. We are too good to serve God. The word stoop there is very interesting. They “would not stoop to serve their Lord.” The Hebrew word is literally neck. And the picture is, they wouldn’t bend their neck down to take on the yoke of service. They felt they were too high for that.
When Booker T. Washington returned to Hampton after his first semester — he had gone home. He came back two weeks early so he could work extra to help pay off his tuition. He worked with a staff member named Miss Mackie. He writes of her,
“She felt that things would not be in condition for the opening of school unless every window-pane was perfectly clean, and she took the greatest satisfaction in helping to clean them herself. The work which I have described she did every year I was at Hampton.”
Now, what was astonishing to Washington about this Miss Mackie was that she was from one of the oldest and most cultured families. She was extremely successful, highly educated, affluent, very wealthy. And he couldn’t figure out why she would want to work doing such a mundane task shoulder-to-shoulder with common students. She worked tirelessly cleaning windows, dusting rooms, putting beds in order. Look what he writes.
“It was hard for me at this time to understand how a woman of her education and social standing could take such delight in performing such service, in order to assist in the elevation of an unfortunate race. Ever since then, I’ve had no patience with any school for my race in the south which did not teach its students the dignity of labour.”
And that’s a message for all of us — the dignity of labor. Some of us really believe that our job in life is to work hard enough so that we never have to work. And what Washington says, “No. No, there is something intrinsically dignified about bending down to take on the yoke of service willingly. We’re not talking about slavery (slave of Christ, willingly). We are never higher than when we stoop low to serve the most high. And these nobles thought they were too good.
Stage 4, continuation. “So we built the wall. Chapter 4, verse 6, “And all the wall was joined together to half its height, for the people had a mind to work.” But Sanballat was “angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews.” So, this kind of opposition comes in the form of predicting failure. Some predict or prophesy failure. Sanballat questions the people’s ability to build a quality product. He is joined by Tobiah, who suggests, “If a fox goes up on it, he will break down their stone wall!” And the prophecy of failure is not just coming from external sources like Tobiah. They come from internal sources over in 4:10. Some of the people from Judah said, “There is too much rubble. We’re never going to be able to finish.” And it doesn’t matter what task you try to accomplish, you will always have voices from within or without who are saying, “You’re not going to make it.” Predicting failure.
Stage 5, expansion. Chapter 4:7, when “the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward, and the breaches were beginning to be closed.” So, they’re making real progress now. Some threaten violence (4:7). At the end, “they were very angry. And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.” So, here the opposition is ratcheting up. The threats are becoming more serious.
Stage 6, there’s a big shift in focus from chapter 4 to chapter 5. Here we have what is called restoration, where there [are] not simply walls being restored, but people being restored. It’s interesting that these events are placed right here so that we would see them in line with various kinds of opposition. Because as 5:8 says, “We, as far as we were able, have brought back our Jewish brothers who have been sold to the nations.” So, we’re not just rebuilding walls, we’re restoring people.
But in the middle of that. Some are taking advantage of the vulnerable. Some take advantage of the vulnerable. Now we’re going to look in more detail at this next week. Let me summarize chapter 5. The wealthy were lending money to the poor. The poor had gone through a famine and some of them were now working on the wall, which means they’re not working where? In the fields. So, some of them are starving. The rich know they’re starving so they lend them money. Well, then they can’t pay their money back. Well according to Persian rules, this is completely legal: they’re requiring them to sell their children to pay off their debts. So, children are being sold into slavery to pay back debts. Here you have rich people, in a moment of crisis, are taking advantage of poor people (exploitation) in order to thicken their wallets. Nehemiah is ticked, and he confronts them, calls them to repent — it’s beautiful — to love God and to love their neighbors. So, we’re going to spend a whole week on this next week. But it’s a different kind of opposition, because it can suck the life out of you when you are laboring, and you turn around and see a person who is vulnerable being taken advantage of by a person who is strong.
And then stage 7, completion. In chapter 6, everybody could see that they “had built the wall … there was no breach left in it,” verse 1, but the attacks keep coming. And here they come in the form of a personal attack. Some attack personally. Now, I know all the attacks in some ways are personal. But here they are headhunting. They are specifically going after Nehemiah because they know the wall can be built. But if they can get rid of the leader, the whole thing will fall apart. So, they target Nehemiah with unusual force, verse 2; threaten physical harm, verse 6; relational harm, trying to undermine him before the king; verse 10, reputational harm. They try to discredit him by using a false prophet to lure him into the temple, either to make him look afraid or to possibly defile himself so that he is discredited. And again, we’ll spend next week looking at the details there. So, we’ve just surveyed chapters 2-6.
Let’s look at a few takeaways. Number 1, prepare for opposition by praying God’s Word. Now, I know many of you did this this week in life groups, and it is super encouraging to hear the stories. And I hope you will continue practicing this. But hear me. Nehemiah’s response in the midst of opposition did not just happen out of thin air. If you read through all of his responses in each one of these stages I’ve just described, he is consistently going to God and some of the language he uses is taken right out of his prayer times. For example, 4:14 he said, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome.” Remember he spent months in chapter 1 praying to the God of heaven, who is the great and awesome God? Why is that significant? Because, brothers and sisters, if in time of peace and somewhat tranquility, we are not immersed in praying God’s Word back to God and letting it work in our hearts so deeply that it creates ruts that in the midst of crisis, in the midst of opposition, when people you trusted stab you in the back, when the floor falls out from underneath you, if we are not grounded in the promises of God, we will react in the flesh. We will not persist. Pray God’s Word back to God way before you need to, because you always need to.
Number 2, be aware of how opposition affects you. As we’ve seen, opposition comes in a variety of forms. And it’s been interesting in this weird season over the past few months to watch friends who are leaders, and even my own heart. There are things that seem really heavy that can hit you, and you respond well, and you go to God, and you process it, and it doesn’t discourage you at all. But then something really stupid … I’ve watched leaders just want to leave the ministry because people are fighting over masks vs. no masks. You know how that kind of thing is so silly … It’s like when you get really big news as a parent and you’re processing that, and then the kids are in the back seat squabbling with one another, and you just want to break something. Yeah. Isn’t it weird how different things affect us in different ways? You can get this huge blow which would devastate anybody, and you’re standing strong in the promises of God. But we have chinks in our armor. And the enemy knows, “Oh, she was ready for that, but not this.” That’s one of the reasons I wanted to survey these waves of opposition in one fell swoop because we begin to learn, “Oh, I do better with this kind. I don’t do so well over here.” And I think it would be extremely fruitful to talk that through with your life group, your accountability brothers and sisters, and to talk about — there are seven listed here (many more). There are some of those you do really well with and there are others, you might be able to pick one where you are most vulnerable. And then ask why? Why does that get to you like nothing else? And then what might you do to prepare yourself so that you’re ready? Because you know the enemy’s coming. He’s going to find a way after that vulnerability. So, learning how to respond and to shore up that area with specific promises of God.
Number 3, travel light. As we saw in the life of Booker T. Washington, when God calls you to a work, you will experience opposition. But if you carry bitterness, hurt, regret, you will not only be miserable, but you will undermine your mission. Two weeks ago, Robert DuBoise was released from prison. What struck me about him is he’s 56. He’s a young lad. I’m 56. He went to prison. Sorry, he didn’t go to prison then, he was arrested when he was 18. He was then charged for a murder and a rape and spent the next 37 years (until two weeks ago), and he’s innocent, for a crime he did not commit. It was just proven a few weeks ago. So, he was released and I’m thinking, “37 years of his life in prison?” He was asked his response, and he said this about being angry, bitter. He said,
“If you keep hatred and bitterness in your heart, you don’t have room for anything else. I’m just very grateful.”
Wow. I’m just very grateful. How do you travel light like that so that the layers of hurt, disappointment (in you or others or God) are not layers of sediment building up and weighing you down? Nehemiah shows us in many places, but one area, if you look at 4:4. It’ll help you remember if you think four responses in Nehemiah 4:4. 4-4-4, 4:4-6. First of all, notice he cried out to God. “Hear, O our God, for we are despised.” And then secondly, he called for justice. “Turn back their taunt on their heads.” What is he doing there? He’s doing Romans 12, “Never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God.” He’s giving it over to God. Now some people think, “Oh, Christians, we’re just about grace. We don’t care about justice.” That’s not true because grace doesn’t mean anything if there is no justice. We are passionate about justice. We are just not going to take it in our own hands to avenge ourselves. We’re going to give it to God. And Nehemiah does that.
Third, notice he rejects injustice, and he prays in what seems to us a rather odd prayer. He said, “Do not cover their guilt.” Now what is he doing there? And he goes on to talk about, do not cover their guilt because these people in opposition to God’s people, this is not a personal thing for Nehemiah. He’s seeing what these people are doing to the name of God and the people of God, and it’s bringing about the anger of God, as all sin does. And he’s pleading with God, “Don’t just blot it out as if it doesn’t mean anything.”
Now, as Christians, we pray that same prayer rejecting injustice differently because we’re looking back on the cross. And we saw that the anger of God was poured out on the son of God. So, we can pray, “Open their eyes to see that you have remained just, and yet you are the justifier; that you are not perpetuating injustice because Jesus has already taken it on himself.” So, you see, he’s given this over to God. Bring justice, rejecting injustice. And then finally (I love this), “So we built the wall.” Get back to work! We’ve got stuff to do. There will always be people who want to distract you and squabble. And as we’re going to see in two weeks, there are always going to be toxic people who just want to suck the life out of you. Get back to work. Hebrews 12:1-3,
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, [travel light] and sin, which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him [consider him] who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary and fainthearted.”
How do you keep going in the face of waves of opposition? You wake up in the morning considering him.
Number 4, practice being ambidextrous. What does that mean? Both hands. In 1865, Charles Spurgeon started what he called a magazine called “The Sword and the Trowel.” And the magazine is still published today. The name of it is based on Nehemiah 4, having a sword in the right hand and a trowel (a tool) in the left. It’s based on Nehemiah 4:17, “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.” A powerful illustration of the fact that we must be both productive and protective. In passages like Acts 20 and the letters to Timothy, we are challenged, leaders are challenged, to know how to both feed and fight — feed the people of God and fight against false teachings. Parents need to know how to do both of those, where we are building up the people of God (feeding) and battling the enemy. We’re not building walls like Nehemiah; we are building people. And the way we learn how to do that is from our Father, the Good Shepherd, who “prepares a table before us in the presence of our enemies.” He is feeding us in the midst of the battle. We’ve got to be ambidextrous. Life is too short. We don’t have time to do one or the other. We have to do both.
And then finally, overcome evil with good. Overcome evil with good. Nehemiah consistently answered his critics with his productivity. He refused to bow to fear or carry bitterness. And that’s the only explanation for the fact that they built the wall in 52 days. 52 days. Now, there’s a lot more I want to say about this, overcome evil with good. Let’s come back next week and pick that up.
Let’s pray. Father, we have moved briskly through a lot of your Word, but we have seen a glimpse of a man named Nehemiah who refused to be discouraged or distracted from the work you called him to. And the people had a mind to work. So, we ask that this morning, as your Spirit continues to speak to us, you would burn away the clutter of hurt and bitterness in our hearts. I’m just imagining you right now, Lord, just washing hearts, scraping off sediment, letting us take pounds of cares and cast them on you because you care for us.
There are many in here who have experienced deep hurt. And if we are faithful in fulfilling the calling you have for our lives, there will be more hurt to come. And we ask that we would be a people who know how, by your power, to take the hurt, to cast it on you, to walk in wisdom as serpent-doves. Please, Lord, fill us with a burning fire to fulfill your calling, so much so that we will not be distracted. And even as as we pray, and as we respond in worship in a few minutes, we remember our brothers and sisters in Nigeria, in Ethiopia, and Syria, and Iraq, and China, and many other countries. Nehemiah 2-6 describes their daily lives. We remember them. We thank you for them, their faithfulness in the midst of great opposition and persecution. May they remember that you call those blessed who are reviled and persecuted and all kinds of evil spoken against them, that they would rejoice and be glad, for their reward is great in heaven. For so persecuted the prophets who were before them. Help us remember that. Prepare us to build and to battle. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.