Nehemiah 4 The Bitter Half

Questions: Why does doing good create enemies? How should we respond to opposition? What is it that we really need to fear? Why is it important to fight and work together? “Read More” to pursue answers in Nehemiah.

Lord, speak to me through your Spirit and your Word, your Body and your Blood;
that I might know you as you are, and manifest the image of Christ in this world,
and the world to come. Amen.

Nehemiah 4:1-23

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.

I remember realizing a few months that I had gone about as far I could in my career simply by being a nice guy and trying to do the right thing. Which is actually a testament to my employer, than one can survive (and even thrive) for eight years without having to even be aware of politics. But, I realized I need to be and do more: I had to learn to fight — fairly — for what I believed was right.

Which is what I see Nehemiah doing in this chapter. Of course, we knew Sanballat had been upset with Nehemiah from the get go, but now he really lets them have it. What’s interesting is how he choose to launch his attack.

a) He shows off his strength

And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria,

b) He sets up unrealistic expectations, and scorns them for falling short of that

and said, What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned

c) He has a friend mock what they’ve already accomplished

Now Tobiah the Ammonite [was] by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.

Isn’t that just like the adversary? To stand in the apparent superiority of his power, condemn us for failing to fulfill an impossible Law, and then despise us for the “feeble” efforts — that actually terrify him!

Note how much these harsh words wound Nehemiah, who turns to God with his lament:

Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity: And cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee: for they have provoked [thee] to anger before the builders.

This is of a piece with the so-called imprecatory psalms. Even as we commend Nehemiah for his honesty, and his turning to God, there is something uncomfortable about seeing a man of God call down curses upon his enemies. It seems, well, un-Christian.

Which, when you think about it, is only fair, since Nehemiah didn’t know Christ. Not only did he not receive the command to “love our enemies”, but he had never seen the extent God would sacrifice Himself for the redemption of His enemies. And God only judges us by what we know, not for what we don’t know. Heck, even those of us who nominally know better would have a hard time exceeding Nehemiah’s honesty — and faithfulness in adversity:

So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work.

Wow. Despite everything, against all odds, they persevere and finish the foundations of the wall. They’ve won the battle of the mind. However, the battle of arms is just beginning:

But it came to pass, [that] when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, [and] that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth, And conspired all of them together to come [and] to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it.

Spiritual success rarely scares our enemy away. If anything it stirs them up, inspiring them to rally their forces, making us a bigger (albeit better-protected) target. What can we do? Watch and pray:

Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.

Good for them! So, having been faithful to watch and pray, does that mean God’s going to come through and make everything right?

Um, no. In fact, Nehemiah faces three specific sources of discouragement:

a) Tired workers

And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and [there is] much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall.

b) Threatening adversaries

And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.

c) Fearful neighbors

And it came to pass, that when the Jews which dwelt by them came, they said unto us ten times, From all places whence ye shall return unto us [they will be upon you].

Yikes! What more can Nehemiah do? Well, as it turns out, quite a lot.

* Set armed guards (not mere watchmen) behind each family
* Encourage the leaders to fight with the Lord, for their families

And whaddya know, it worked:

And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work.

But, that didn’t make Nehemiah complacent. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance. Nehemiah devotes half his staff to security rather than construction:

from that time forth, [that] the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons

And even the builders bore arms as they worked. Some literally:

those that laded, [every one] with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other [hand] held a weapon.

Others nearly so:

For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and [so] builded

Nehemiah, for his part, wielded the most important weapon of all: the trumpeter.

And he that sounded the trumpet [was] by me… In what place [therefore] ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us: our God shall fight for us.

That, in a nutshell, is the philosophy of Nehemiah: calling the people together to fight, knowing that God will fight for us.


God, I am continually blown away by Nehemiah’s dedication, wisdom, and devotion. Make me a leader like that, a man like that — for whom every attack is merely an opportunity to show his character, and Your strength. Teach me to do earthly work and spiritual battle at the same time, that I might always be ready to answer Your trumpet. For the battle (and the business) is ultimately yours. I ask all this in Jesus name, Amen.

About the Title:

Today’s title, a pun on the matrimonial “better half”, reflects both the bitterness of Sanballat and his cronies, as well as the ‘bitter struggle’ of Nehemiah and the Jews to finish the second-half of the wall. It also reflects that fact that half the job of construction is actually the painful art of war.


As mentioned before, external websites are linked to in order to provide context for a specific topic, and I may (and often do) disagree with other content on those sites (or even in that same article).