Coping with Opposition

Such a Man as I!

"And I said, Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in."—Nehemiah 6:11

A verse by verse study in Nehemiah 6

Nehemiah is the last hero of faith mentioned in the Old Testament. Few men can match his nobility. Although appointed governor by King Artaxerxes, he refused to take any salary for his work. Instead he fed over 150 people daily out of his own resources, feeding them bountifully with sheep, oxen, fowls, and wine (5:14-18). Not content to direct others, he worked side by side with his men on rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. Completing the walls in just over seven weeks, Nehemiah proceeded to introduce sweeping reforms, including a return to pure worship and even an attempt to reinstitute the Jubilee (chap. 5).

The Enemies—Verse 1

Now it came to pass, when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, and the rest of our enemies, heard that I had builded the wall, and that there was no breach left therein; (though at that time I had not set up the doors upon the gates;)

Nature abhors a vacuum. With the Israelites exiled from the promised land to Babylon, neighboring tribes from the east began to migrate into Israel. The leadership of these nomadic tribes was usually dominated by either the Ammonites or the Moabites. In the opening verse of this chapter, we find evidence of a confederation of three of these tribes, with Sanballat as the first among equals.

Sanballat is called a Horonite in Nehemiah 2:10, designating him as either from Beth-Horon, some 13 miles northwest of Jerusalem, or, more likely, from Horonaim, a city of Moab mentioned in Isaiah 15:5 and Jeremiah 48:3-5. In papyri found at the Jewish settlement in Elephantine, Egypt, Sanballat is called the governor of Samaria. His daughter was married to the Jewish high priest Eliashib (Neh. 13:28).

Tobiah was an Edomite. He is designated as a servant in 2:10, though some translators use the word "official" instead. The word is the usual designation for a servant and probably indicates that he was Sanballat’s lieutenant and not a full member of the coalition.

Geshem (or Gashmu, 6:6), on the other hand, was undoubtedly a chieftain from the more distant Arabia and a full partner in the league. Their motive was probably jealousy. The Israelites were newcomers to them and potential rivals for grazing land and for the commercial revenue that would come from caravans traveling between Egypt and points east. These neighboring tribes had previously planned to enter the city through the breaches in the walls and attack from within. Nehemiah had received word of this and set careful watches to prevent this infiltration (chap. 4). Now the breaches were all filled and only the doors needed to be installed in the gateways. New tactics were called for, and chapter six details these final attempts of Israel’s foes to stop the building of the city.

The Plot—Verses 2 to 4

That Sanballat and Geshem sent unto me, saying, Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But they thought to do me mischief. And I sent messengers unto them, saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you? Yet they sent unto me four times after this sort; and I answered them after the same manner.

Nehemiah’s enemies proposed a peace conference. The site selected was in the lowland plains around the town of Ono, about six miles from the Mediterranean Sea. The location was nearly a day’s journey, some 27 miles northwest of Jerusalem. The road to Ono led through the narrow valley of the Aijalon river where, it appears, Sanballat and Geshem had planned to ambush Nehemiah and his party. Sensing the trap, Nehemiah demurred, pleading the greatness of the very work his enemies were trying to stop. The wily trio was persistent and extended the invitation four times. Each time, with resolute fortitude, Nehemiah declined.

This carries a lesson for us today. "Just say no" is a popular slogan in our times but temptation does not take rejection easily. If nothing else can be said for our great Adversary, we must admit his persistence. Repetitive temptations often succeed if the first resistance is not strong and steadfast.

The Open Letter—Verses 5 to 9

Then sent Sanballat his servant unto me in like manner the fifth time with an open letter in his hand; Wherein was written, It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel: for which cause thou buildest the wall, that thou mayest be their king, according to these words. And thou hast also appointed prophets to preach of thee at Jerusalem, saying, There is a king in Judah: and now shall it be reported to the king according to these words. Come now therefore, and let us take counsel together. Then I sent unto him, saying, There are no such things done as thou sayest, but thou feignest them out of thine own heart. For they all made us afraid, saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work, that it be not done. Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands.

Evidently the first four invitations had been delivered personally to Nehemiah. Now it was time for the conspirators to make their case public. An open letter to the people of Jerusalem was sent to intimidate them into putting pressure on Nehemiah to come to the conference at Ono.

Two basic charges were being leveled. First, that the people of Jerusalem were planning a rebellion against the Medo-Persian empire and, second, that Nehemiah was trying to set himself up as a rival king to Artaxerxes.

To lend credibility to their charges, they supported them by writing, "and Gashmu saith it." Gashmu is the Geshem of the first verse. He is one of the conspirators. Why should his word lend weight to the charges being made? Evidently Geshem had attained a measure of stature with the Persian monarch. Adding his word to the anonymous reports of the other surrounding gentiles was intended to make the charge more credible.

How often it is true with us that those who would spread rumors seek to make them more believable by attributing the charge to someone in recognized authority. This, in fact, does little to establish credibility of charges. The only one who is in a real position to clarify an unsubstantiated charge is the accused himself. This is one of the main reasons for the counsel given by Jesus in handling disputes (Matt. 18:16-18).

Further support is obtained by quoting certain prophets who had been saying, with Nehemiah’s consent, "There is a king in Judah." It is very probable that these words were often spoken at the time. The lie in the charge was not in the words but in the charge that these words were from "appointed prophets to preach of thee [of Nehemiah] at Jerusalem." Nehemiah was interested in restoring the people to a religious fervor and may well have requested the prophets to assure the people that God was once again with them and that he was their "king in Judah." Today also there are those who would misunderstand our words. We do believe that the present evil systems of the world will be replaced by the kingdom of Christ. Some may misunderstand and think that we are advocating the overthrow of government instead of merely predicting from the Bible what we foresee of the future of the world.

Nehemiah does not take the time to give a point by point rebuttal but rather contents himself with a simple blanket denial, attributing the charges to the imaginations of the writer. Here again is a lesson for the Christian. A follower of Christ could spend all his time defending himself against false charges. Such charges are unimportant. They are diversions, detracting one from the spiritual tasks to which he sets himself. There is only "one that judgeth," even "God, the judge of all" (John 12:48; Heb. 12:23).

Realizing the persistency and cleverness of his foes, Nehemiah takes his case directly to God. He recognizes that the entire thrust of the conspiracy is to stop the work of building the wall. This becomes the burden of his prayer, "Now, therefore, O God, strengthen my hands." The petition is simple. He merely asks for the ability to complete the work he has started for the Lord.

A New Plot—Verses 10 to 14

Afterward I came unto the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah the son of Mehetabeel, who was shut up; and he said, Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us shut the doors of the temple: for they will come to slay thee; yea, in the night will they come to slay thee. And I said, Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in. And, lo, I perceived that God had not sent him; but that he pronounced this prophecy against me: for Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. Therefore was he hired, that I should be afraid, and do so, and sin, and that they might have matter for an evil report, that they might reproach me. My God, think thou upon Tobiah and Sanballat according to these their works, and on the prophetess Noadiah, and the rest of the prophets, that would have put me in fear.

Unable to lure the Israelite governor out of the city, Sanballat and Tobiah sprang a second plot. Their puppet in this ploy was well chosen. Shemaiah was a common name at that time. No less than 12 people by that name are listed in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah alone. However all of them appear to have been either priests, singers in the temple, or other active Levites. Therefore Shemaiah would have been a man of prominence, possibly intermarried with a woman from the area. This would have placed him in a position to both hear of any plots from the conspiracy and yet be in a position to have the ear of Nehemiah.

What is meant by the expression that Shemaiah was "shut up" is unclear. The Hebrew word is open to a wide variety of meanings and could mean that he was confined because of illness or that he was an invalid or that he was under house arrest. Were it the latter, he might have called for Nehemiah to come and offer to exchange some privy information about the conspirators for release or at least leniency in judgment.

In any case his words seemed harmless. He predicted an attempt by night to take Nehemiah’s life. He advised that the two of them spend the night behind locked doors in the temple. This would not need to interrupt the work, for little could be done on building the walls during the darkness of night. What was the danger in following this simple precaution?

At this juncture Nehemiah responds: "Should such a man as I flee? and who is there, that, being as I am, would go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in."

Notice the confidence of the man. Should such a man as I flee? He will not be linked with the easily intimidated ordinary mortal. His is the courage of conviction. What he has set himself to do he will accomplish. He will not be sidetracked. His is the courage of a Joshua, "as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord" (Josh. 24:15). His is the determination of the three young Hebrews who, even if not delivered out of the fiery furnace, proclaimed that they still would not serve Babylon’s gods (Dan. 3:18). His is the resoluteness of a Paul who said "this one thing I do . . . I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling" (Phil. 3:13, 14).

Every Christian needs such steadfastness to fend off temptation. It is not self-confidence; it is rather the confidence of one who can rely on Christ to supply every need: "I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me" (Phil. 4:13). When buffeted by temptations, let the Christian answer with conviction, "shall such a man as I flee?" There is yet a deeper meaning to these words. Nehemiah had journeyed to Jerusalem only to find a complacent and secular people. His job was not merely in engineering and construction but in galvanizing a people grown lax. They had "lost their first love" and their ardor to rebuild a temple and city for their God. He must not only be their cheerleader and prompter but above all he must be their example. That weight of leadership on his shoulders gave added significance to those determined words, "shall such a man as I": I who urge you to build, with trowel in one hand and sword in the other; shall a man possessed with the responsibility of urging you on, shall such as I, show any streak of cowardice in the sight of danger.

This is true, also, at all times of the Christian. As the Apostle Paul says, "we are made a spectacle unto the world, and to angels, and to men" (1 Cor. 4:9). Our life must be lived in a fishbowl. We are the only Bible that many will ever read, and it is only when others "see your good works" that they will "glorify your Father which is in heaven" (Matt. 5:16).

But above all these, there lurks another thought in Nehemiah’s words, a concept suggesting the subtlety of the ruse Sanballat and Tobiah were using. Before convincing Artaxerxes to send him as an envoy to rebuild Jerusalem, Nehemiah had been one of the king’s most trusted servants. He was the cup-bearer to Artaxerxes (1:11). He held the same office that the butler in prison with Joseph had in the court of Pharaoh (Gen. 40:2). The word there translated "officer" in the King James Bible should be more properly translated "eunuch." It was normal for kings to require that those who either kept their harem or were responsible for their food be made eunuchs that they might be free from sexual enticements. These were those who "were made eunuchs of men" (Matt. 19:12). It is likely, therefore, that Nehemiah was a eunuch.

The law strictly forbade eunuchs from entering upon the priesthood (Lev. 21:21). While this did not bar them from the temple precincts, anyone found in the precincts overnight lay open to the charge of violating this command. This seems to have been the plot and it was to ensure that the charge would be made that Shemaiah wanted to spend the night in the temple with Nehemiah.

It is interesting to note in passing that one of the first converts to Christianity was the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:27-39). Just as Peter had been shown, when being sent to the gentiles, that "what God hath cleansed, call not thou common" (Acts 10:15), so the story of the Ethiopian shows that the Gospel is for all—all are cleansed from their blemishes by acceptance of the Redeemer.

Nehemiah’s action was resolute. He discerned that Shemaiah was merely a paid lackey and that the desire for him to claim refuge in the temple was not of God. He rejects it firmly, asking God to make the proper judgments of the perpetrators, including a false prophetess, Noadiah, who must have played some role in the attempted deception.

The Wall Completed—Verses 15 and 16

So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days. And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: for they perceived that this work was wrought of our God.

The wall which had been so derided in its early stages (4:2, 3) was erected in record time. In less than two months the city was secured. The quickness of the work, especially under such adverse conditions, impressed the surrounding heathen. Their inability to stop the project was depressing to them but at the same time it clearly demonstrated that it must have been a work wrought of God.

It is good for Christians at the beginning of each year to start with certain specific spiritual projects in mind. If they apply themselves to them, they will find the Adversary scoffing, trying to divert their attention to other matters, accusing them by rumors and open letters, and luring them to their own destruction. But, using the resoluteness of a Nehemiah, they can accomplish that which they attempt in the fifty two weeks each year allots and be ready for more projects in the years which follow.

The Enemy Never Stops—Verses 17 to 19

Moreover in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters unto Tobiah, and the letters of Tobiah came unto them. For there were many in Judah sworn unto him, because he was the son in law of Shechaniah the son of Arah; and his son ohanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah. Also they reported his good deeds before me, and uttered my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to put me in fear.

The animosity toward Nehemiah does not let up after the completion of the wall. A faithful servant of the Lord, when queried about why he never took a vacation, once said, "I will take a holiday as soon as the devil does."

Sanballat fades to the background and now Tobiah becomes the chief protagonist. As Sanballat’s daughter had married the son of the high priest, so Tobiah’s son was married to the daughter of one of the men who had worked so hard in rebuilding the wall (3:4, 30), and his daughter was married to Shechaniah, who was probably one of the priests (12:3).

Intermarriage has frequently been a ploy of the Adversary. It was true in Israel’s wilderness wanderings (Num. 25:1-9); it brought idolatry into Israel in the days of Solomon and Ahab; and it was a major problem in the days of Ezra. God had chosen Israel, as he now chooses his church, to be a sanctified people. Sanctification, by its very definition, means a people set apart, separated for holy service. Intermarriage is contrary to sanctification.

The in-laws of Tobiah became his public relations team. They reported all the good things about Tobiah to Nehemiah, hoping to win acceptance for their father-in-law. More than that, they were also spies, reporting back to Tobiah all the information they could glean from Nehemiah. Tobiah used this information to carry out continuous psychological warfare, using a repetitious letter writing campaign to keep Nehemiah in fear. It did not work because the man God had chosen for this work was a man of great determination and resolution.

It must be the same for the Christian today. Satan will not stop his attempts to halt the work of the Lord. One defeat will only make him more determined to try and try again. The Christian must be equally resolute and on constant guard remembering to "Just say no." Every time he is invited to compromise by meeting halfway in the plains of spiritual Ono, he must reply, "Oh no! I will not come. I will not be diverted from my God-given task of rebuilding the walls of my spiritual Jerusalem."