Nehemiah 3, 4

Nehemiah 3, 4

SERIES: Godly Leadership

Trust in God, and Keep Your Powder Dry!  

Introduction:  When my wife heard my sermon title yesterday, she responded, “A 4th of July sermon, huh?”  I was surprised at the question because I hadn’t even thought of this message in those terms, but perhaps it could be related.  Please listen to the Word of God as found in Ezra 4. 

When the enemies of Judah and Benjamin heard that the exiles were building a temple for the Lord, the God of Israel, they came to Zerubbabel and to the heads of the families and said, “Let us help you build because, like you, we seek your God and have been sacrificing to him since the time of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.”

But Zerubbabel, Joshua and the rest of the heads of the families of Israel answered, “You have no part with us in building a temple to our God. We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel, as King Cyrus, the king of Persia, commanded us.”

Then the peoples around them set out to discourage the people of Judah and make them afraid to go on building.[a] They bribed officials to work against them and frustrate their plans during the entire reign of Cyrus king of Persia and down to the reign of Darius king of Persia.

At the beginning of the reign of Xerxes,[b] they lodged an accusation against the people of Judah and Jerusalem.

And in the days of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Bishlam, Mithredath, Tabeel and the rest of his associates wrote a letter to Artaxerxes. The letter was written in Aramaic script and in the Aramaic language. 

Rehum the commanding officer and Shimshai the secretary wrote a letter against Jerusalem to Artaxerxes the king as follows:

Rehum the commanding officer and Shimshai the secretary, together with the rest of their associates—the judges, officials and administrators over the people from Persia, Uruk and Babylon, the Elamites of Susa, 10 and the other people whom the great and honorable Ashurbanipal deported and settled in the city of Samaria and elsewhere in Trans-Euphrates.

11 (This is a copy of the letter they sent him.)

To King Artaxerxes,

From your servants in Trans-Euphrates:

12 The king should know that the people who came up to us from you have gone to Jerusalem and are rebuilding that rebellious and wicked city. They are restoring the walls and repairing the foundations.

13 Furthermore, the king should know that if this city is built and its walls are restored, no more taxes, tribute or duty will be paid, and eventually the royal revenues will suffer.[e] 14 Now since we are under obligation to the palace and it is not proper for us to see the king dishonored, we are sending this message to inform the king, 15 so that a search may be made in the archives of your predecessors. In these records you will find that this city is a rebellious city, troublesome to kings and provinces, a place with a long history of sedition. That is why this city was destroyed. 16 We inform the king that if this city is built and its walls are restored, you will be left with nothing in Trans-Euphrates.

17 The king sent this reply:

To Rehum the commanding officer, Shimshai the secretary and the rest of their associates living in Samaria and elsewhere in Trans-Euphrates:


18 The letter you sent us has been read and translated in my presence. 19 I issued an order and a search was made, and it was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition. 20 Jerusalem has had powerful kings ruling over the whole of Trans-Euphrates, and taxes, tribute and duty were paid to them. 21 Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. 22 Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow, to the detriment of the royal interests?

23 As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshai the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop.

24 Thus the work on the house of God in Jerusalem came to a standstill until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.

Last Lord’s Day we saw how Nehemiah assumed responsibility to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and it didn’t matter how far the distance, how long he must wait, how busy his schedule, how difficult the task, or how great the opposition.  We also learned about seven steps we can take to repair and rebuild the broken walls in our lives.  I know some of you began that process this past week because you told me so.  What an encouragement it is to see God’s people applying His Word to their own lives.  I would love to hear about other examples of rebuilding.

In our text today the work on the wall progresses with the focus upon the incredible ability of Nehemiah to maintain the delicate balance between faith and action.  My sermon can be put in a sentence.  “Any God-ordained task can be accomplished if God’s people are willing to work, if they meet opposition with prayer, if they refuse to succumb to discouragement, and if they keep their powder dry.”  Without further ado, let’s see what God has for us in the Scriptures today.  First, any God-ordained task can be accomplished if …

God’s people are willing to work.  (3:1-32)

We did not read chapter 3 this morning or last Sunday, but I trust you have had a chance to glance through it.  If one is simply reading the Bible a chapter a day, this list of names in Neh. 3 may not prove very interesting.  But if one reads it with an eye to the diligence some people are willing to devote to the Lord’s work, it breaks the time barrier and speaks volumes to us today.  Essentially it is a description of how Nehemiah organized and delegated the work on Jerusalem’s walls.  We are informed who worked where and next to whom, and many interesting details provide fascinating local color.  We are not going to take the time to go through this chapter verse by verse, but there are a few important concepts we should not miss.  

             In the family of God everyone has an assignment.  Among the workers mentioned in this chapter are priests, Levites, and laymen.  There are men and women.  There are adults and children.  There are rulers and servants.  There are jewelers, perfume-makers, gatekeepers, farmers, guards, and merchants.  In other words, everyone had a job to do.  This serves to portray a very important principle from the New Testament, namely that the ministry of the church belongs to everyone in the congregation.  There was a time when most people thought the pastor and hired staff were to do the work of evangelizing, teaching, counseling, and healing the hurts of the needy, but in recent years there has come an increasing realization that the job will never get done that way.  Every believer is gifted by the Spirit of God for service to the Body, and if everyone is not serving, it’s causing gaps in the wall.

Last Sunday and again today there is a flyer in the bulletin concerning a number of needs in the children’s S.S. and Children’s Church ministries.  I am personally convinced that there is no lack in this church family of people with the gifts and abilities to meet these needs.  The problem is getting everyone to realize that Christian service is not optional for believers.  Everyone has an assignment from God.  

             In the family of God cooperation and coordination are crucial.  The phrase “next to him” or “next to them” is a very common one in this chapter.  I counted thirty times such a phrase was found in these 32 verses.  It speaks of cooperation and coordination.  Every section of the wall was assigned to a different family or group, and each knew where his responsibility lay and what was expected of him.  Each section had to be tied into the next in order to have a secure barrier, for a wall is useless if there are gaps between its sections.  If anyone acted independently and decided to do his own thing, the result could have been catastrophic.  

But there was such a spirit of cooperation among the workers that special notice was made of one group that failed to cooperate.  In verse 5 we read, “The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.”  As Ray Stedman put it“God records the names of the shirkers as well as the workers.”[i]  Some commentators suggest that as members of the upper class, the nobles of Tekoa had perhaps established business relationships with the non-Jews of the surrounding territory.  If so, they may have believed that the building of a wall was an unwise, provocative act that might have negative economic repercussions for themselves.

Even today we have spiritual descendants of the elite of Tekoa in our churches!  Some are willing to enjoy the benefits of the church but refuse to take any active part themselves.  Others are willing to get involved but never to get their hands dirty.  I’ll never forget an incident that happened back in Wichita.  One Sunday one of the ushers called in sick and the head usher had to find a last-minute replacement.  He went up to a man who arrived early and was sitting toward the back of the sanctuary—a recognized leader in the church and also a very successful business executive.  When asked if he would usher that morning the man responded, “I’m an Elder; I don’t usher.”  When the shocked usher told me about the incident later that day, I recalled I had never seen this man at a workday at the church, nor had I seen him participate in anything that might be interpreted as “beneath his dignity.”  Frankly, a man with such an attitude had no business being an Elder in the first place.  In the family of God cooperation and coordination are essential.  

             In the family of God responsibility starts at home.  Another phrase that is found many times in this chapter is the phrase “so-and-so worked in front of their house,” or “beside his house,” or “opposite his living quarters.”  Even the priests worked on the Sheep Gate, which was the gate nearest the Temple, where they lived and worked.   Nehemiah was wise enough to realize that having people commute from one end of Jerusalem where they lived to the other end to build the wall would have wasted time and reduced efficiency.   Furthermore, building the wall outside their own homes gave them an added incentive to put their best effort into the work (and into the fighting, if necessary).

There is a principle here that “responsibility starts at home.”  Some people have the mistaken notion that going on a short-term mission trip will suddenly and automatically turn them from apathetic Christians into spiritual dynamos, but going overseas never made anyone a missionary—ministry starts with sharing the Gospel and serving others where we work or in our neighborhood.  In fact, it really begins in our homes.  The Scriptures say that if we don’t provide for those of our own household, we are worse than an infidel.  That doesn’t mean providing every conceivable luxury; it means providing the necessities of life, but not only the physical necessities but also the emotional and spiritual ones as well.

Before leaving chapter 3, allow me to comment on one other item mentioned in verse 16, where it says that Nehemiah son of Azbuk (this is a different Nehemiah from the author of the book) made repairs up to a point opposite the tombs of David, as far as the artificial pool and the House of the Heroes.  We don’t know exactly what the House of Heroes was, but apparently it was some kind of Hall of Fame for the Jewish exiles.  I suspect it was a place established to honor great leaders of Israel’s past or perhaps martyrs of the destruction of Jerusalem under Nebuchadnezzar.  Bible Study Fellowship, an organization that has had a marvelous impact on the lives of several hundred people in this congregation, has their headquarters in San Antonio, where they have built a series of apartments which they call, “The House of Heroes.”  It is used for all the volunteers who come and devote a week, two weeks, sometimes several months, to help out in the work of that ministry, thereby saving the organization tens of thousands of dollars every year.  Since these people are viewed as “heroes of faith,” BSF has provided a House of Heroes for them to live in.  I think that’s a great idea.  

Yes, any God-ordained task can be accomplished if God’s people are willing to work and, secondly, if …

God’s people meet opposition with prayer. 

We read earlier in chapter 2 of the renewed opposition from Sanballat and his cronies.  Scorn and ridicule from these guys mounted as the rebuilding got under way.  “What are these feeble Jews doing?  Will they finish in a day?  Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”  Tobiah was even nastier:  “What they are building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!”  Through this kind of disdain the enemy is attempting to lower the self-esteem of the builders, weaken their resolve, and destroy their morale.   And friends, I don’t care how successful you are or how thick your skin—that kind of ridicule hurts, and if you tend to be sensitive and insecure, words like that can put you totally out of commission.  

So what is Nehemiah’s response?  Prayer.  A rebuttal would have led to heated words and perhaps retaliatory violence.  But by resorting to prayer, Nehemiah is able to tap into the strongest resource available to counteract opposition—the all-powerful God who cares for His children.  The exact nature of Nehemiah’s prayer, however, has long been a source of embarrassment to many Christians.  Look at it in verses 4 & 5:  “Hear us, O our God, for we are despised.  Turn their insults back on their own heads.  Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity.  Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.”  

             Prayer can legitimately call for God’s justice.  (4:1-6). Those who have been brought up on the Sermon on the Mount and the model of turning the other cheek and forgiving one’s enemies are often shocked to find a bona fide prayer in the Bible that pleads with God not to forgive but instead to punish.  But this kind of prayer is more common in the Bible than you might think.  There is a whole group of Psalms, for example, called the “imprecatory Psalms”, in which David or some other Psalmist calls upon God to break his enemies’ legs or dash their children to pieces.  How do we harmonize such prayers with the Spirit of Christ?  

Part of the answer can be found in the fact that virtually every time an imprecatory prayer is prayed in the Bible, it is God’s honor and glory that is at stake.  David doesn’t willy-nilly pray for the destruction of those who have personally insulted him; such prayers are reserved for those who have insulted his God.  Here in Nehemiah also, the issue is not simply that the builders have been insulted but that the work of God is being despised.  This is God’s wall, not Nehemiah’s.  This is why one OT theologian wrote, “You have to be a very spiritual person to pray that kind of prayer!”  In other words, only a person who is righteously jealous of the reputation of God would dare pray in this fashion. 

But another factor in these prayers often overlooked is the fact that Nehemiah is giving full expression to his feelings.  He does not suppress his emotions or bottle up his anger inside him.  If we cannot be honest with God in prayer, when can we be?  God understands our anger, even if we try to hide it from Him.  Perhaps if we’d be more honest with Him, we’d end up being less angry with our enemies.  Furthermore, at least Nehemiah leaves the vengeance with God—he doesn’t pray, “Lord, help me find a way to ambush Sanballat and knock him senseless.”  Rather he asks God to deal with him.

Immediately following the prayer—which may have been public or private, we can’t be sure—we read that they returned to work until the wall reached half its height, “for the people worked with all their heart.”  The King James reads here, “the people had a mind to work.”  I like that—it speaks of promptness, thoroughness, efficiency, and perseverance in labor, and it reminds me of a number of servants in this church.  You almost have to tell them to slow down so they don’t burn out.  What a blessing such people are!

Prayer has a way of renewing one’s strength and putting a different perspective on one’s problems.  It replaces our negative emotions with positive responses; the positive outlook inspires hope; hope gives us renewed confidence; and the result is an upsurge in morale. Unfortunately, a renewal of faith is sometimes also accompanied by a renewal of opposition.  Just as Nehemiah wasn’t about to quit, so the enemy is not ready to quit either.  As they watched the wall continue to rise, they got very angry and, according to verse 8, “plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.”  So what is Nehemiah’s response this time?  Again, prayer.  Verse 9:  “But we prayed to our God.”  This time there is no record of a prayer for God’s justice against the enemy, so I would assume that this is the more common call for God’s mercy. 

             Prayer is more often a call for God’s mercy.  (4:7-9) A prayer for mercy is the kind that focuses on our predicament rather than on whoever may be responsible for our predicament.  For example, a person who loses his job may pray earnestly that God will meet the needs of his family without calling down judgment upon the boss who fired him.  This kind of prayer is certainly more common in the NT and should probably be the model that we normally look to. 

So far we have seen that any God-ordained task can be accomplished if God’s people are willing to work and if they meet opposition with prayer.  There is a third requirement, though.

God’s people refuse to succumb to discouragement.

Beginning in verse 10 we see that the persistent opposition begins to take a toll on some of the Jewish people.  They begin to complain, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”  Will you notice when this occurs?  Just a few verses earlier we were told that the wall had reached half its normal height.  I would like to suggest to you that the half-way point is usually the most crucial time in any work of an extended nature.  The newness has worn off; the excitement is gone; and now you just have to gut it out.  

On Saturday a week ago a group of fifteen or twenty men from the church gathered over at the BIGG House to paint that building.  The first few hours were kind of exciting.  The spray painting went fast and some of the big areas were finished quickly.  I’d guess that about half the work was finished by the end of the day.  But if I don’t miss my bet, the last half will be a lot tougher.  It’s that slow, painstaking trim work as the weather gets hotter and hotter that will separate the painters from the dabblers.  

             Some of the people lose their strength, their vision, and their confidence.  (4:10-12). Here in chapter 4, verse 10, the people of Judah speak: “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.”  Also our enemies said, “Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.”  Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.”  

A couple of things are happening here that are very similar to what happened to the spies that Moses sent into the promised land a thousand years earlier.  All of the spies except Joshua and Caleb got their eyes off God, which caused the enemy to appear as giants and themselves as grasshoppers.  Here the Jews get their eyes off God, with the result that the enemy looks like monsters, the piles of rubble look like mountains, and they view themselves as hopeless weaklings.  These people who had exercised so much faith just a few weeks earlier have now taken a dive in strength, vision, and confidence.  

Not that the situation isn’t genuinely critical.  The mention of the men of Ashdod in verse 7 means that the Jewish community is now completely surrounded by enemies:  Ashdod on the east, Ammon on the west, Sanballat in the north and Geshem the Arab on the south. This seems overwhelming, so ten times some of the people of Judah come to Nehemiah and complain that they are in danger.  They have become “better rabble-rousers than rubble-raisers.”  (Sorry about that; I just couldn’t resist.)  But Nehemiah doesn’t fire them or even rebuke them.  Instead, he demonstrates that he is more than an organizational leader—he is a spiritual leader.  

             Nehemiah strengthened their defenses and their hearts.  (4:13-15). Nehemiah wisely perceives that neither exhaustion nor the size of the rubble piles is the real problem.  Those are just smoke screens for the real problem—fear.  So Nehemiah attacks their fear in two ways.  First, he strengthens their defenses by stationing armed families behind all the exposed places along the wall.  Why families?  Probably because that would heighten their appreciation of just what was at stake. (Interestingly, history has a way of repeating itself, and in the battle for Jerusalem in 1948 the Jewish military leaders refused to evacuate women and children so that their husbands and sons would fight harder).  

Only after the defenses are strengthened does Nehemiah speak to everyone a message of courage:  “Don’t be afraid of them.”  It would have mocked them had he said, “Don’t be afraid” without providing any protection.  But Nehemiah does both.  Then he adds, “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” 

The reason he can urge them not to be afraid is not only because he has posted armed guards, but even more because they have a great and awesome Lord, a fact God’s people easily forget.  The point is not, “Remember that there is a great and awesome Lord;” they were not in any danger of forgetting His existence.  Rather the point is, “Remember what the great and awesome Lord has done in your lives in the past and realize that He’s the same today.”  That, dear friends, is a message we need to hear over and over again today.  We need to remind ourselves and remind our children of special ways in which God has helped us before so that we are more inclined to trust Him now.  

Nehemiah’s efforts to strengthen their defenses and their hearts certainly worked, for in verse 15 we read that “when our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.”  A brief halt in the work had paid off and a milestone was crossed.  A great crisis was met and resolved.  

The fourth and final prerequisite I see in our text today for accomplishing any God-ordained task is that God’s people must keep their powder dry.  It was Col. Oliver’s advice in “Ballads of Ireland” that went like this:  “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry!”  A similar expression was turned into a popular song following the attack on Pearl Harbor:  “Praise the Lord and pass the Ammunition.”  Both, interestingly, contain very biblical advice, and nowhere is that advice made more clear than right here in Nehemiah 4. 

God’s people keep their powder dry.   

In three separate statements the truth is reiterated that trust in God goes hand in glove with intelligent, careful action.  Look at it first in verse 9, where the enemies have plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem.  Nehemiah writes, “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.”  The second we just looked at in verse 14:  “Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”  The third appears in verse 20:  “Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, join us there.  Our God will fight for us!”

Wait a minute, you say.  If they prayed, why do they need to post a guard?  And if the Lord is great and awesome, why do they need to fight?  And if God is going to fight for them, why do they need to mobilize at the sound of the trumpet?  Because through prayer God almost always provides the resources to solve a problem, but rarely does He solve it for us.  He expects His people to use their brains or their brawn (or some combination of the two) to resolve whatever difficulty they are in, while He works behind the scenes to provide discernment, encouragement, confidence, and joy.  Occasionally He even intervenes in a supernatural way, though I think this is rare. 

How does this work out in regard to practical problems you and I might face?  Well, need a job?  Pray, and hit the pavement.  Need friends?  Pray, and reach out to someone who’s lonely.  Broke?  Trust God, and trash your credit cards.  Need to grow up spiritually?  Pray, and join a small group.

The great 19th century Baptist preacher in England, Charles Spurgeon, edited a newspaper based upon this chapter in Nehemiah.  It was called “The Sword and the Trowel.”  Nehemiah’s workers were required to carry a sword in one hand and a shovel in the other.  Both are necessary instruments in the hands of a Christian servant.  Sometimes we are called to build and once in a while we are called to fight.  The problem is that some of us build when we should be fighting and even more fight when they should be building.  

Several years ago I read the account of a young woman, a new convert to Christianity, who came to a national denominational convention.  She had been highly successful in business and now she wanted to enter some phase of full-time, church-related Christian activity.  Here is what she wrote:

    “I came to Detroit expecting to see ministers walking arm in arm, and I expected the predominant question to be, ‘How can we further our great fellowship and how can we communicate the Gospel?’  What I found has almost devastated my spiritual wonder.  I have seen men in secular conventions more motivated for money than these men were motivated for God.  These preachers are an army of insecurity, marching to the tune of mediocrity, and packing the deadweight of rifles that fire only blanks. These soldiers don’t even know who the enemy is.”[ii]

If the clergy can be described that way, no wonder the Church is in trouble.  But there is hope—there are a few who are willing to work, who meet opposition with prayer, who refuse to succumb to discouragement, and who keep their powder dry.  

Conclusion:  Trust and obey, for there’s no other way.  The combination of a powerful, faithful God and an obedient, committed servant is unbeatable.

DATE: July 5, 1992






[i] Ray Stedman, sermon on Nehemiah 3, Peninsula Bible Church website.  

[ii] Citation lost.

Nehemiah 5
Nehemiah 2