Introduction: After months of prayer, Nehemiah approached King Artaxerxes Longimanus I for permission to help the Jews. From Nehemiah’s faith and his example, God reveals seven lessons on Spirit-led leadership. Spirit-led leaders should have: (1) courage of faith, (2) constant prayer, (3) sacrificial service, (4) vigilance, (5) planning, (6) encouragement, and (7) perseverance.
First, despite risking death in doing so, Nehemiah approached the Persian king without advance permission to plead for the Jews. Through Nehemiah’s example, God reveals that Spirit-led leaders should act with the courage of faith. Second, after praying for four months, Nehemiah prayed again when God influenced the Persian King’s heart to receive his message. Through Nehemiah’s example, God reveals that Spirit-led leaders should act through continual prayer. Third, Nehemiah asked for permission to leave his life of privilege in the royal court to serve the Jews. Through Nehemiah’s example, God reveals that Spirit-led leaders should be willing to sacrifice to serve Him. Fourth, Nehemiah faced opposition the moment he arrived. But Nehemiah prepared for the opposition he would face. Through his example, God reveals that Spirit-led leaders should be vigilant by preparing for the enemy. Fifth, upon arriving, Nehemiah scouted out the areas in need of rebuilding and prepared his plans. From his example, God reveals that Spirit-led leaders act prudently through careful planning that God will confirm. Sixth, through his personal testimony about God’s faithfulness, Nehemiah encouraged the people to have faith. This in turn inspired the elders to have faith and act. For this example, God reveals that Spirit-led leaders should encourage others to have faith. You can do this by sharing God’s Word and your personal testimony. Finally, before the work began, the Jews’ opponents immediately mocked them. In the face of these attacks, Nehemiah persevered in his faith. From his faithful example, God reveals that Spirit-led leaders should also persevere when attacked.
Nehemiah risked his life and his job to help the Jews. After praying for four months, Nehemiah approached the King of Persia to petition for God’s people: “1 And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I picked up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. 2 So the king said to me, ‘Why is your face sad, though you are not ill? This is nothing but sadness of heart.’ Then I was very much afraid.” (Neh. 2:1-2). Artaxerxes Longimanus I was King of Persia from 464 to 424 B.C. He had previously halted the rebuilding of both the Temple and the walls in Jerusalem after opponents complained that the Jews would rebel against the Persians after they rebuilt the city (Ezra 4:7-23). Despite being a Jew, Nehemiah was privileged to be “the cupbearer to the king.” (Neh. 1:11). He not only tasted the foods for poison, he also had the confidence of the king.
Nehemiah risked death by petitioning the king without prior authorization. As he approached the king, Nehemiah was “very much afraid” (Neh. 1:2). Under Persian law, the king had the right to execute anyone who petitioned him without prior authorization. Even as a queen, Esther faced death when she tried to petition the prior Persian king to spare the Jews: “All the king’s servants and the people of the king’s provinces know that for any man or woman who comes to the king to the inner court who is not summoned, he has but one law, that he be put to death, unless the king holds out to him the golden scepter so that he may live.” (Esther 4:11). He was further asking the king to reverse his prior decree to stop the building (Ezra 4:21). Moreover, the Persian kings were allegedly supposed to bring joy to their subjects. Thus, it was deemed an insult to approach a king in sadness (cf. Esther 4:2). Like Esther, God had placed Nehemiah in a position of influence to help his people, even if he risked his own death (Esther 4:12-14). Like Esther, Nehemiah was willing to sacrifice both his life and his position of influence to serve God’s people.
Nehemiah petitions King Artaxerxes1
You never need to fear when you are doing God’s will. Nehemiah knew that he could petition the king because he had the faith to know that God was with him: “The LORD is for me; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Ps. 118:6). “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Ro. 8:31). “'Do not fear, for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will help you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand.” (Is. 41:10). “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7). If you are doing God’s will, you never need to fear.
Nehemiah prayed a final time before speaking. After God’s softened the king’s heart to hear Nehemiah’s request, Nehemiah put the matter in God’s hands with a final quick prayer: “3 And I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the site of my fathers’ tombs, is desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?’ 4 Then the king said to me, ‘What would you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven.” (Neh. 2:3-4). As the cupbearer, it was Nehemiah’s job to make sure the king was never poisoned. Thus, he would have regularly proclaimed his desire for the king to live after tasting each drink or meal. It was also common for others to proclaim their desire for the king to have a long life (e.g., Dan. 2:4). To avoid being executed, it is safe to assume that this was the first time Nehemiah had ever appeared with a sad demeanor before the king. Nehemiah then explained that his people remained in disgrace with Jerusalem still in ruins since the time the Babylonians destroyed it 150 years earlier. The gates of a city symbolized its protection and its order. At the gates, the judges decided disputes. Thus, a city without gates was the equivalent of a society without a court system to resolve disputes. The walls also gave protection and order. Thus, a city without walls had no way to protect itself or create order: “Like a city that is broken into and without walls Is a man who has no control over his spirit.” (Prov. 25:28). Nehemiah spoke truthfully about the Jews’ dishonor. Yet, he also recognized God’s favor by the king’s inquiry. He then gave the matter back to God in a final prayer.
Nehemiah prayed continually as an intercessory prayer warrior. Nehemiah prayed continually for God to hear the prayers of His sinful people (Neh. 1:6). The dates provided in chapters 1 and 2 establish that he had prayed for four months before he approached the king. He prayed for God’s mercy before the king: ‘“11 . . . please make Your servant successful today and grant him mercy before this man.’” (Neh. 1:11). His final quick prayer showed that he never stopped praying. He gave every dilemma to God. One commentator calls Nehemiah’s final prayer: “the most beautiful example of spontaneous prayer in the Scriptures. . . Despite his trepidation Nehemiah knew that he stood not only in the presence of an earthly monarch but before the King of the heavens. One of the most striking characteristics of Nehemiah was his recourse of prayer (cf. 4:4, 9; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 13:14). Those who are the boldest for God have the greatest need to be in prayer.” (Frank Gaebelein, The Expositors Bible Commentary, Vol. 4, 1, 2 Kings, 1, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Zondervan Publishing House 1988) p. 685).
The effective fervent prayer of the righteous can accomplish great things. God wants you to pray fervently and in faith: “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much.” (Ja. 5:16). Nehemiah followed a long line of great intercessory prayer warriors in the Bible. These included: Abraham (Gen. 18:23), Moses (Ex. 32:11-14; Nu. 14:18-22; 16:21-24), Samuel (1 Sam. 12:23), David (2 Sam. 24:17), Elijah (1 Kgs. 17:21-22), Elisha (2 Kgs. 6:17), Hezekiah (2 Kgs. 19:15), Josiah (2 Chr. 34:21), Jonah (Jo. 1:12), and Ezra (Ezra 9:6-13). The apostles also continually prayed for others (2 Tim. 1:3; Col. 1:9; Eph. 1:16). “as we night and day keep praying most earnestly that we may see your face, . . .” (1 Thess. 3:10). You are part of Jesus’ holy priesthood (1 Pet. 2:5, 9; Rev. 1:6). As His appointed priest, you too have the power of intercessory prayer. Yet, it doesn’t work if you lack faith. “But he must ask in faith without any doubting, . . .” (Jam. 1:6). Are you praying as an intercessor for those whose in need?
Nehemiah petitioned the king to let him serve the Jews. Nehemiah asked the king to let him use his God-given gifts of wisdom, administration, and leadership to serve his people: “5 Then I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, I request that you send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.’ 6 Then the king said to me, with the queen sitting beside him, ‘How long will your journey be, and when will you return?’ So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time. 7 And I said to the king, ‘If it pleases the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, so that they will allow me to pass through until I come to Judah, 8 and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, so that he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel which is by the temple, for the wall of the city, and for the house to which I will go.’ And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.” (Neh. 2:5-8). During his four months of prayer, Nehemiah carefully thought out everything that he would need to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. Knowing the conflict that the Jews had faced in rebuilding and because this same king had previously stopped all construction work (Ezra 4:7-22), he asked for a royal decree. He also requested the right to obtain the timber needed from the king’s forests, located in either Israel or Lebanon. Either Queen Damaspia or one of the king’s concubines was also present (Neh. 2:6). Although this was not Esther, she had laid the groundwork to bring favor to the Jews. She was Artaxerxes’s stepmother, and the queen for the prior King Ahasuerus (Xerxes, circa 486 – 464 B.C.). Esther’s life provides an example of how a faithful life can benefit others long after we are gone.
Nehemiah again showed courage. Nehemiah was bold in his requests. When the king asked how long he would be gone, Nehemiah was ready and “gave him a definite time.” (Neh. 2:6). Nehemiah would be gone 12 years (Neh. 5:14). He laid out the official decree and timber that he would need (Neh. 2:8). This also was a direct reversal of the king’s prior decree to stop the building work (Ezra 4:21). God again has given you a spirit of courage (2 Tim. 1:7). Are you acting with courage to fulfill God’s plans?
God showed His sovereignty over the king by granting Nehemiah’s requests. Some historians believe that Artaxerxes initially stopped the rebuilding, as recorded in Ezra 4:7-23, because of a rebellion in Egypt. By 445 B.C., the Egyptian revolt had been put down. (E.M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible, Grand Rapids: Baker 1990, p. 251). The Persians had generally tolerated local religions. In their time of external threats from Greece, the Persian king might have been interested in obtaining the support of the Jews. Yet, it was God who caused the king to see the Jews as potential allies and not as the source of the next rebellion against his rule. Nehemiah understood this. He succeeded not because of politics or his oratory skills. Instead, he succeeded because God was with Him: “And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.” (Neh. 2:8). God can control the heart of any leader to fulfill His plans: “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes.” (Prov. 21:1) Ezra also understood this. Thus, he repeatedly gave God the credit for his successes. When King Artaxerxes I also granted his requests, he confessed that he succeeded only “because the hand of the Lord his God was upon him.” (Ezra 7:6, 10). Ezra also proclaimed that he was strengthened because “the hand of the Lord my God upon me.” (Ezra 7:27-28). Before he led a group of returning exiles to Jerusalem, Ezra again proclaimed that ‘“The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all those who seek Him, . . ..”’ (Ezra 8:22). After they arrived, he acknowledged that “the hand of our God was over us” (Ezra 8:31). When you are successful, do you give God the glory?
To find your life, you must be willing to lose it. If the king did not kill him, Nehemiah was ready to give up his life of privilege to serve the Jews. Moses also gave up his life of privilege in Pharaoh’s house to serve the Jews. Paul gave up his privilege and influence to serve Jesus. Jesus also put aside His grandeur to die a humble servant to save mankind: “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2:6-7). You must also be willing to lose your worldly life to find Jesus: “Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it.” (Matt. 10:39; 16:25). “‘If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.’” (Lk. 9:23; Mk. 8:34). Paul later realized that his prior accomplishments were nothing compared to the value of his relationship with Christ: “But whatever things were gain to me, those things I have counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (Phil. 3:7; same, Heb. 13:13). Do you value the things of God more than your wealth and worldly accomplishments?
Use your talents for His glory, not your own. Like Nehemiah, every good and perfect gift in your life is from above. “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” (Jam. 1:7). “From everyone who has been given much, much will be required; and to whom they entrusted much, of him they will ask all the more.” (Luke 12:48). Are you using the education, abilities, and wealth that God has given you for His glory? Or, are you using God’s gifts to hoard your own treasures?
Nehemiah’s rebuilding of the walls helped to fulfill a prophecy leading to the Messiah. The prophet Daniel revealed that the Messiah would come 70 weeks after Jerusalem had been restored: “So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress.” (Dan 9:25). “The date is also important, because it establishes the date given to restore Jerusalem and its walls. Daniel 9:25 says that exactly 173,880 days from this day - which was March 14, 445 B.C. - Messiah the prince would be presented to Israel. Sir Robert Anderson, the eminent British astronomer and mathematician, makes a strong case that Jesus fulfilled this prophecy exactly, to the day, entering Jerusalem on April 6, 32 A.D., precisely 173,880 days from Nehemiah 2:1.” (David Guzik on Neh. 2).2
Nehemiah encounters resistance upon arriving. Just as the first wave of returning Jews faced opposition upon arrival, so did Nehemiah: “9 Then I came to the governors of the provinces beyond the Euphrates River and gave them the king’s letters. Now the king had sent with me officers of the army and horsemen. 10 And when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about it, it was very displeasing to them that someone had come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel.” (Neh. 2:9-10). Ezra led a wave of immigrants over the same 800-mile trek, lasting three to four months, without asking for any Persian soldiers to protect them (Ezra 8:22). In contrast, Nehemiah accepted a royal army escort (Neh. 2:9). This did not reflect a lack of faith. Instead, he was coming to serve as a Persian governor and representative of the king. At that time, it was normal for the Persians to protect their high-ranking officials from attack. Two officials, Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite, were believed to be governors in Samaria (northern Israel) and Moab (southern Jordan). Upon learning of Nehemiah’s appointment, they became upset (Neh. 2:10). They had previously been successful in stopping the Jews rebuilding plans. They did not like the idea that a Jew had reversed their efforts and was now in charge of the process. Nehemiah’s actions also showed that he learned from the enemy’s prior attacks. He came with royal authority, royal guards, and royal timber. He effectively made the Persians partners in the process.
Nehemiah led an exodus of faithful pilgrims to return to Jerusalem3
Nehemiah prepared for the enemy’s attacks. The Jews faced opposition when they tried to rebuild the Temple (Ezra 4:7-23). Sanballat and Tobiah most likely played important roles in delaying that work. Under Nehemiah, the Jews again faced opposition. When you step forward to serve Jesus, you should also expect the enemy to attack you.
Be vigilant in preparing for the enemy’s attacks. The enemy seeks to bring you down when you become complacent. Thus, you must remain vigilant: “Be of sober spirit, be on the alert. Your adversary, the devil, prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8). Your faith in Jesus should also cause you to run the race and persevere in both good and bad times: “Therefore, . . . let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith . . .” (Heb. 12:1-2). “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 3:14). “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith;” (2 Tim. 4:7). The kind of perseverance is spiritual and not physical: “for bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it holds promise for the present life and also for the life to come (1 Tim. 4:8). Are you taking steps to guard your heart and prepare at all times to be attacked?
God will bless those who persevere for Him. As you can persevere through your trials, God will bless you: “Blessed is a man who perseveres under trial; for once he has been approved, he will receive the crown of life which the Lord has promised to those who love Him.” (Jam. 1:12). Have you given Jesus a reason to bless you in this area?
Nehemiah inspects Jerusalem’s walls. To avoid alerting the opposition, Nehemiah inspected the walls under both the cover of darkness and without escorts or advisors: “11 So I came to Jerusalem and was there for three days. 12 And I got up in the night, I and a few men with me. I did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem, and there was no animal with me except the animal on which I was riding. 13 So I went out at night by the Valley Gate in the direction of the Dragon’s Spring and on to the Dung Gate, and I was inspecting the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down and its gates which had been consumed by fire. 14 Then I passed on to the Fountain Gate and the King’s Pool, but there was no place for my mount to pass. 15 So I was going up at night by the ravine and inspecting the wall. Then I entered the Valley Gate again and returned. 16 However, the officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing; nor had I as yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, or the rest who were doing the work.” (Neh. 2:11-16). Both Ezra and Nehemiah rested upon arriving in Jerusalem before doing any work (Ezra 8:32; Neh. 2:11). Rest is important for any leader to be effective (e.g., Mk. 6:31). During his three days of rest after arriving, Nehemiah “did not tell anyone what my God was putting into my mind to do for Jerusalem” (Neh. 2:12). Having learned how the Jews’ opponents mobilized in the past to stop the Temple rebuilding (Ezra 4:12), Nehemiah made sure that his plans would not get out. To avoid arousing suspicions, he further inspected the destroyed walls during the evening. He left through the “Valley Gate” on the west side. He then went south and followed the walls in a counter-clockwise direction. During this time, he carefully surveyed the broken walls and the foundations to verify which walls could be rebuilt on the same foundations and which walls required digging for new foundations.
Gustave Dore (1832-1883) “Nehemiah Inspects Jerusalem’s Walls” (engraving 1865)4
Prayer and planning work together to identify and then confirm God’s will. It was not a lack of faith for Nehemiah to plan. Instead, he showed faith by letting God reveal His plan during Nehemiah’s four months of prayer. After inspecting the walls and carefully planning, prayer served an important role in confirming God’s plans: ‘“Prayer is where planning starts.’ Nehemiah modeled good leadership; he prayed, planned, and acted in dependence on God and submission to his guidance. Neither is research contrary to dependence on God.” (Mervin Breneman, The New American Commentary, Vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (B&H Publishing Group 1993) p. 177 (citations omitted)).
God wants you to prepare and carefully count the costs when you serve Him. If you are about to begin a work for God, He also wants you to pray for His plans: ‘“For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.”’’ (Lk. 14:28-30). Solomon also revealed that a wise leader plans: “The plans of the diligent lead surely to advantage, but everyone who is hasty comes surely to poverty.” (Prov. 21:5). “The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the soul of the diligent is made fat.” (Prov. 13:4). “Poor is he who works with a negligent hand, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.” (Prov. 10:4). If God has called you to serve, are you carefully praying and planning before executing God’s will?
Nehemiah assembles the elders together to encourage them to have faith. Nehemiah used his personal testimony as to how God had moved the king’s heart, to inspire the elders to have faith and rebuild the walls: “17 Then I said to them, ‘You see the bad situation we are in, that Jerusalem is desolate and its gates have been burned by fire. Come, let’s rebuild the wall of Jerusalem so that we will no longer be a disgrace.’ 18 And I told them how the hand of my God had been favorable to me and also about the king’s words which he had spoken to me. Then they said, ‘Let’s arise and build.’ So they put their hands to the good work.” (Neh. 2:17-18). Before Nehemiah arrived, the people had simply given up. The walls had sat in ruins for approximately 150 years since Nebuchadnezzar destroyed them. Thus, the people felt “disgrace.” (Neh. 2:17). The people had tried before to rebuild the walls, and the same Persian king had shut down their efforts. God had shown Nehemiah that He was with the Jews. But God did not perform a visible miracle, like the parting of the Red Sea. Instead, God wanted Nehemiah to inspire the people to have faith and carry out the rebuilding. Nehemiah could not rebuild the walls without help, and he could not do it if the Jewish elders were divided. He needed the leaders to embrace the vision and allow work to be delegated to people who could be trusted. Nehemiah inspired the people with his own testimony, his compassion, and a shared sense of purpose. This inspired the people to have faith and to fulfill God’s plans.
A Spirit-led leader encourages others by sharing God’s vision and being selfless. One of the keys to Nehemiah’s success was that this project was for God’s glory, not his: “- Wisely, Nehemiah encouraged them in the LORD: I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me. Nehemiah assured the leaders this wasn't his project, it was God's project. If people sense your vision is really all about you, and raising you up, and making you great, they will rightly be hesitant. But if it is from God, and they can see it, they will be thrilled to partner with you. - Wisely, Nehemiah gave them confidence by telling of what God had already done: I told them … of the king's words that he had spoken to me. Nehemiah could say, ‘Look, you can know this is of God; the heart of the king of Persia has been touched by the Lord to support this project!’ If something has God's fingerprints on it, people will want to support it; if it has only man's fingerprints on it, they will rightly hesitate. And I told them of the hand of my God which had been good upon me: We also notice what Nehemiah didn't do; he didn't beg or make deals. Nehemiah had a high calling from God, and asked others to be part of that vision, but he never stopped treating it like a high calling. He wasn't going to be a carnival barker trying to manipulate people into knocking over milk bottles even when they really didn't want to do it. Nehemiah didn't offer rewards, incentives, or vacations out at the Sea of Galilee for the ones who got the job done. Those are all external motivations, and aren't God's highest calling. Nehemiah simply said, ‘Let's stop kidding around. We know there's a job to be done, and God is leading us to get it done now.’ He relied on the LORD and the leaders to create a true inward motivation. External motivation - manipulation, guilt, pressure, carnal rewards can work for a while, but are never a part of God's vision for getting things done. . . Nehemiah's heart, his prayer, his boldness, his big vision, his action, and his wisdom, were all rewarded. This was a God-inspired thing; God moved the hearts of the leaders to do this.” (David Guzik on Nehemiah 2) (italics in original).5
Nehemiah encouraged the elders to finish rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem6
Encourage one another daily. Like Nehemiah, Jesus wants you to encourage others who feel defeated. “But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb. 3:13). “But I urge you, brethren, bear with this word of exhortation, for I have written to you briefly.” (Heb. 13:22). “Be on the alert, stand firm in the faith, act like men, be strong.” (1 Cor. 16:13). “Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who hope in the LORD.” (Ps. 31:24). “Be strong and courageous, do not be afraid or tremble at them, for the LORD your God is the one who goes with you. He will not fail you or forsake you.” (Dt. 31:6). Are you encouraging others to have faith in the face of fear?
Be encouraged and strengthened by the Spirit. God also knows when your faith is weak. When you let His Spirit lead you, He will encourage and strengthen you: “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might.” (Eph. 6:10). “On the day I called, You answered me; You made me bold with strength in my soul.” (Ps. 138:3). “He said, ‘O man of high esteem, do not be afraid. Peace be with you; take courage and be courageous!’ Now as soon as he spoke to me, I received strength and said, ‘May my lord speak, for you have strengthened me.”’ (Dan. 10:19). “For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God.” (Ro. 8:14). If you are feeling weak or depressed, are you praying in faith for Him to strengthen and encourage you?
The Jew’s opponents try to mock and discourage them. Because Nehemiah had an official decree, Sanballat and Tobiah resorted to mocking and seeking to discourage the Jews: “19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked us and despised us, and said, ‘What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’ 20 So I answered them and said to them, ‘The God of heaven will make us successful; therefore we His servants will arise and build, but you have no part, right, or memorial in Jerusalem.’” (Neh. 2:19-20). Sanballat and Tobiah were Jewish names. But they were not Jewish in their faith. They embraced an idolatrous mix of Judaism with pagan beliefs. They viewed a resurgent Jewish orthodox faith as a threat to their religion. Thus, they used fear and intimidation to try to stop the Jews. Nehemiah showed great faith in response to these attacks.
Satan uses discouragement and fear to try to stop your work for Jesus. Satan has always used discouragement and fear to try to silence God’s people. God’s prophet Micaiah was beaten when he spoke out against the King Ahab: “Then Zedekiah the son of Chenaanah came near and struck Micaiah on the cheek and said, ‘How did the Spirit of the LORD pass from me to speak to you?”’ (2 Chr. 18:23). During the reign of Cyrus II, the Temple opponents acting under Satan’s influence caused the Jews to become “discouraged” “and frightened.” (Ezra 4:4). The opponents also bribed officials to thwart their efforts (Ezra 4:5). During the reign of King Ahasuerus, aka Xerxes I, they made accusations against the Jews (Ezra 4:6). During the reign of Artaxerxes I, they united in a conspiracy against the Jews (Ezra 4:7-10). As part of their conspiracy, they used lies and half-truths to convince King Artaxerxes I to stop the Temple rebuilding (Ezra 4:11-16). King Artaxerxes I believed these lies and responded by issuing his first decree to stop all Temple work (Ezra 4:17-22). With his decree, the opponents then used Persian soldiers to stop all rebuilding work (Ezra 4:23-24). Thus, from at least 536 B.C. until 520 B.C., all work on the Temple ceased. God then sent the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to urge the Jews and their leaders Zerubbabel and Jeshua, to “take courage” and finish God’s calling to rebuild the Temple (Hag. 2:4). Nehemiah learned from these attacks. He studied history to learn why the Jews had previously failed. He also learned the importance of perseverance in the face of evil and the enemy’s attacks.
Sanballat and Tobiah mocked the Jews7
Satan is the ruler of the world and will make your work for Jesus unpopular. Satan is the god of this world (2 Cor. 4:4). Thus, Jesus warns you that Satan will cause you to face persecution and hatred when you serve Him: “If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, because of this the world hates you.” (Jo. 15:19). In fact, if you seek to be popular or loved by the world, you frequently make yourself an enemy against what God seeks to accomplish through you: “You adulteresses, do you not know that friendship with the world is hostility toward God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God.” (Jam. 4:4). If you feel public opinion turning against you for serving Jesus, that means you are effective and a threat to Satan.
Satan will make accusations against you as well. Jesus was beaten and mocked for preaching the truth: “Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking Him and beating Him,” (Lk. 22:63). “Some began to spit at Him, and to blindfold Him, and to beat Him with their fists, and to say to Him, ‘Prophesy!’ And the officers received Him with slaps in the face.” (Mk. 14:65). Satan will also incite accusations against you when you step out in faith to serve Jesus. He makes accusations against believers “day and night.” But you can have faith that your accuser will eventually be thrown down into the lake of fire (Rev. 12:10; Job 1:6; Zech. 3:1). If you are under Satan’s attack for your past sins, he knows that you are being effective. “Many are turned away from God's will because they experience or fear scorn. Men who were not afraid of death have been manipulated because they did not want to be laughed at. It seems that sooner or later, God will allow every Christian to be tested at this point; as to whom they regard more, man or God. We must never be more concerned about what people may say about us than what God requires of us.” (David Guzik on Nehemiah 2).8 You can plead guilty to all the charges against you knowing that Jesus has paid the penalty for your sins. If you feel tempted to make accusations against your brothers and sisters in Christ, don’t let Satan use you to discourage another fellow sinner from stepping out to serve Jesus.
When you put your faith in Jesus, He will give you His strength and courage to face evil. When you step out in faith to serve Jesus, He can also give you the strength and courage to face ridicule: “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline.” (2 Tim. 1:7). “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.” (Phil. 4:13). “And looking at them Jesus said to them, ‘With people this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”’ (Matt. 19:26; Mk. 10:27; Lk. 18:27). If you are mocked for following God’s Word, are you praying for Jesus’ strength to ignore these attacks?
True faith does not cower in the face of potential or real adversity. Nehemiah responded to the attacks by proclaiming in faith: ‘“The God of heaven will make us successful;”’ (Neh. 2:20). When they were given the stark choice between death and agreeing to worship Nebuchadnezzar’s idols, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego proclaimed: “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (Dan. 3:17-18). Although few can claim to do so, faith allows you to not fear a person’s threats: “I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies and of the son of man who is made like grass,” (Is. 51:12). David was a hero of the faith in part because he did not fear his enemies: “The LORD is for me; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” (Ps. 118:6; 56:4; Heb. 13:6). Paul urges believers to show a similar faith doing God’s will: “What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” (Ro. 8:31). If you are serving God, you have no reason to fear anything.
When you have faith, you never need to fear evil people. You are not to fear people who seek to discourage you. Believers will do foolish things when they let their fear of other people control their actions: “The fear of man brings a snare, but he who trusts in the LORD will be exalted.” (Prov. 29:25). “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do.” (Lk. 12:4). The only person that you are to fear is God (Prov. 1:7). And the fear of the Lord is hating evil (Prov. 8:12). “The fear of man brings a snare. But he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted.” (Prov. 29:25). “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding.” (Prov. 3:5). “casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” (1 Pet. 5:7). The initial fear is not the sin. Letting it control you is the sin.
God’s Word – the antidote to fear and lacking faith. Nehemiah bolstered his faith in the face of attack by reciting God’s faithfulness. If your faith is lacking, God calls upon you to build it up reading the Word: “[F]aith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Ro. 10:17). The next time you fear, recite His promises: “Do not fear for I am with you; do not anxiously look about you, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, surely I will uphold you with My righteous right hand . . . Do not fear, I will help you.” (Is. 41:10, 13; Jer. 29:11; 2 Tim. 1:7). Faith is like a muscle. It can atrophy if you don’t read the Word. Are you reading the Word and praying to build up your faith?