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October 19th - Nehemiah 6

This sermon is not available on audio, but here is the complete text as preached by John Dulle. 

 

Nehemiah 6 - Intimidation, threats and deceit

 

I recently watched the Godfather for the first time. There is a scene in the film where Don Vito Corleone, who had basically retired from being the godfather, was giving advice to his son Michael, to whom the mantle of family leadership had passed. The Don was warning his son that the leader of another mob family would try to set up a meeting through someone Michael explicitly trusted, and that the person who agreed to be the intermediary would ultimately be a traitor and would assassinate him.

 

In Scripture we see a similar event in the life of Nehemiah.

 

Back in Nehemiah chapter two we are introduced to Sanballat, a leader of Samaria, Geshem, the leader of his Arab tribe, and Tobiah, who was an official (possibly governor) of Ammon,and they jeered at Nehemiah and the work that would be done. In chapter four we see these men moving from simply jeering to actively opposing and planning to fight against Nehemiah.

 

Distracted to Destruction

 

And now in chapter 6 we read,

 

(Nehemiah 6:1-4 ESV)

Now when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in it (although up to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates), Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.” But they intended to do me harm. And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” And they sent to me four times in this way, and I answered them in the same manner.

 

Nehemiah must have been a very shrewd individual, perhaps a trait he learned while being a cupbearer to King Artaxerses. He knew that this invitation to come and meet was a pretense for something more. At the very least, it was a distraction, and Nehemiah figured it was for his destruction.

 

It is almost always the case, perhaps a spiritual axiom, that any time God's people begin doing God's work, opposition will arise.

 

If you notice from the text, this wasn't a simply one-off distraction. In Middle-eastern and Asian cultures, the first invitation to do something or partake of something should always be rejected out of politeness. The second is often also rejected out of politeness. But after the third rejection the host knows that the person is really saying no and that the matter should be closed. Sanballat goes beyond the third invitation, however, for a fourth.

 

In James, we're told to resist the devil and he will flee from us. But like Sanballat, our enemy is persistent. Repeated temptations and distractions are for the purpose of wearing us down - for taking our eyes off of what it is that God wants us to do. Say for instance you know you need to speak with a friend about Jesus, but every time you get around them you end up talking about the news instead, or you know the Lord wants you to spend more time in His word, but every time you decide to sit and read you instead remember that novel that you've not quite finished that was at a really good part.

 

Distractions. The powers opposed to God's rule need not cause us to commit what we consider to be big sins in order to prevent us from being effective for the Kingdom of God; they merely need to distract us with other things, sometimes good things instead of the truly excellent things of God.

 

Of course, sometimes these distractions can lead to our destruction as well. Too many pastors and other Christian leaders have allowed distractions to destroy their ministries, families, and lives. I'm sure you can think of a number of these cases over the years. Usually they revolve around money, morality, or medication (alcohol or drugs).

But, like Nehemiah, we need to be aware of the distraction and to be shrewd like he was so that we can see and understand that it is destruction that is coming at the hands of our enemy. Instead, we need to keep our focus on the tasks of God. As James says, we are to resist, but it isn't a one-time event; it will almost always be a constant resisting and sometimes the enemy's tactics will change as we now see.

 

Dangerous Declaration

 

So after four attempts Sanballat changes tactics.

 

(Nehemiah 6:5-9 ESV)

In the same way Sanballat for the fifth time sent his servant to me with an open letter in his hand. In it was written, “It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And according to these reports you wish to become their king. And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah.’ And now the king will hear of these reports. So now come and let us take counsel together.” Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.” For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God, strengthen my hands.

 

Now, an open letter meant that anyone and everyone who saw the messenger could read the letter being sent. Perhaps Sanballat wanted rumors to begin spreading amongst the people who read it so that word might get back to the king. Usually all it took was a rumor of insurrection for a ruler to quash any potential uprising. This was a dangerous declaration indeed.

 

“Did you hear that the reason Nehemiah was working so hard to get the wall built was that he wants to rebel against the king?”

“That makes sense. Look at how hard they've worked and in such short a time as well.”

“Maybe the king would give a reward for such information.”

 

There are times when we face the exact same thing as we follow Christ. “The only reason she goes to church and helps out is because she fancies the pastor.”, “You only want me to come to church so that the church can get my money.”, or “Everyone knows that God doesn't exist; you're just deluded and cause more problems with your religion than any good you might think you're accomplishing.”

 

Some of these declarations require a response and sometimes they don't. In the case of Nehemiah, he knew the danger of keeping quiet would be seen as an admission of the case against him. We need to know how best to respond. Often the response can be just as Nehemiah's: simple and straight forward. “You're not telling the truth.”

 

In John 8 Jesus tells us that the devil is the father of lies and that lying is his native language or comes from his very character.

 

Like Nehemiah, we need to know the difference between the truth and a lie, and we need to be aware of the reasons lies come against us. And like Nehemiah did, we need to pray for continued strength for the work God has set us apart to do. “Strengthen my hands, Lord. Give me the strength to do your will and stand firm against your enemies.”

 

 

Deception to Derision

 

Nehemiah was a man of God. And as a man of God, he would have been keen to hear from the priests and prophets. So let's see what his encounter with the prophets foretell...

(Nehemiah 6:10-14 ESV)

Now when I went into the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home, he said, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple. Let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you. They are coming to kill you by night.” But I said, “Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.” And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me. Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.

 

Here we have Nehemiah being given advice by a prophet to go and hide in the temple because people were coming to kill him. Had Nehemiah followed this man's advice, he would have been in violation of God's word. In Numbers 18:7, God says that only the priests may enter the temple and that any outsiders doing so should be killed. Nehemiah was well aware that he was not a priest and refused to go in and thereby sin against God.

 

How do you know if someone speaking on behalf of God is really speaking the words of God? Throughout Scripture we're warned of people saying they're speaking on behalf of God who really aren't; in Matthew 7 Jesus says false prophets will come as wolves in sheep's clothing.

 

Suppose a Christian leader were to say, “Jesus tells us to love each other, because love comes from God and it's how people will know we're his disciples. Now there are lots of ways we can show love to each other, and the act of sex is one of those ways. If you really love the person you are with, it's okay to have sex with them.”

 

This argument seems somewhat plausible, especially if the listener doesn't know what God has already said on the subject. However, I hope almost everyone of us would reject the last statement of this argument because we know it goes against the entire teaching of Scripture regarding the act of sex, which is to be confined within the marriage relationship.

 

So how do we spot the counterfeit? Perhaps the best way is to be so familiar with the genuine article that the counterfeit can be identified easily. Knowing God's word intimately will help us to avoid teachings that could lead us into activities that would displease the Lord. If God has forbidden something and someone (or a whole host of people) come along and say that it's really okay, because God didn't really mean it like His word seems to say, beware – this is the same ploy the serpent used in the Garden of Eden – “Did God actually say...?” Likewise, if we have been given a command to do something, we should beware of those who would dissuade us from being obedient.

 

All we need to do is fall into sin for others to say, “Look, they're no different than us. If they're all doing the same thing we're doing, then what does it matter if we follow God or not.”

 

May we, like Nehemiah, recognize what authoritative people, even people claiming to be of God, are saying and whether or not those things fall into line with what God has said in Scripture.

 

Denouement

 

Verse 15 concludes the building of the wall, rather anti-climatically from what we've seen in the previous sections. We didn't get to a point where all of the enemies of God were defeated just before the last stone was placed or anything. The ground didn't open and swallow Sanballat and fire didn't rain down from heaven on the heathens. Let's look at what happened,

 

(Nehemiah 6:15-16 ESV)

So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.

Actually, what we see is that God received glory. Perhaps more than the people's destruction, God wanted them to recognize him for who he is and to give him the glory due his name. At the heart of God is his desire for all men to be in right relationship with him. Now this passage doesn't say that they worshiped him, but it does indicate that they realized that God was bigger than they had expected. It's a small measure of glory, but it is glory nonetheless.

 

Double Minded or Double Agents

 

It'd be great if this were the end of the story and we could say everyone lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, the story goes in a different direction:

 

(Nehemiah 6:17-19 ESV)

Moreover, in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and Tobiah's letters came to them. For many in Judah were bound by oath to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah: and his son Jehohanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah as his wife. Also they spoke of his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to make me afraid.

 

It would seem the nobles of Judah were double minded or perhaps double agents. They wanted the benefits of both the kingdom of God and the kingdom of the world. See there were many who were somehow indebted to Tobiah, perhaps financially, and they had sworn oaths to him – and they didn't want to give up that relationship. At the same time they had helped rebuild the walls under Nehemiah's leadership, and now that the walls were done, they seemed to be working on undermining him. Maybe they were ready for him to leave and were trying to help him decide to do so, especially after chapter 5 where he cut into their investment portfolios rather deeply.

 

We don't have a record of Nehemiah's response to this new trial or to the nobles, but we'll see later in Chapter 13 that the nobles continued to have problems with wealth and following God's commands, in that instance related to conducting business on the Sabbath.

 

This same double-mindedness can crop up in our own lives as as we seek to live in obedience to God's word. Jesus tells us that we cannot serve two masters because we'll ultimately love one and hate the other. It can start small – for example a single event on a Sunday morning – perhaps a sporting event. And then the event becomes more regular – maybe a couple times a month. And over time the gradual being away from worship with other believers seems to be not so big a deal. And we no longer see the importance of growing up hearing the Word of God and we begin to allow our children to decide whether or not they'll participate, since to do otherwise would be hypocritical. And within time, we've stopped coming altogether and don't really feel the need to come, except perhaps on special occasions, and our children either don't know or simply reject what we once believed to be true.

 

Lord, may you keep us from being double-minded. May we have a single-minded love for you which results in lives that are lived in faithful obedience to your Word, that we may be pleasing to you. May we recognize lies of the enemy and stand firm in your truth, so that those who would speak evil against us would be put to shame. And help us not to become distracted by good things only to neglect excellent ones, but help us to love you more and more each day and to express that love to our neighbors in acts of love and grace. Amen.