Theme: When Opposition Comes
In this week’s lessons, we learn what it means to lift our eyes to the Lord, remembering his mercy, and striving to please him in all things.
Scripture: Psalm 123:1-4
The account in Nehemiah 4 tells of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. The leaders of the surrounding people, however, had begun to oppose it. These hostile leaders were headed by Sanballat and Tobiah. Each of Sanballat’s five rhetorical questions and Tobiah’s taunts strike at a legitimate sense of weakness that Nehemiah and the others must have had.
“What are those feeble Jews doing?” This was directly to the point. The Jews were feeble, and they knew it. How could anyone as weak as they were hope to rebuild their city’s walls?
“Will they restore their wall?” Indeed! How could they restore a wall one-and-one-half to two-and-one-half miles in circumference? It had been built by people much more numerous and stronger than they were. How could they even hope to reassemble those huge stones?
“Will they offer sacrifices?” Most commentators take this question as referring to sacrifices of thanksgiving to be offered after the walls were finished. But I think Derek Kidner is to the point when he regards it as meaning probably, “Are these fanatics going to pray the wall up? It’s their only hope!”1 The taunt was an attack on the Jews’ faith, which was not that strong anyway at this period. Don’t you find it difficult when someone ridicules your faith? “Maybe you think God’s going to help you!” or “Why don’t you go home and pray about it (chuckle)?” they say. It is hard not to be unsettled by such ridicule.
“Will they finish in a day?” This means, “Don’t they realize what an enormous task they are taking on?” This was effective because the Jews knew exactly how large the task was.
“Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?” This was an exaggeration. The gates had been burnt but not the walls. They were not limestone, which might well have been calcined by the intense heat of the fire that had been used to destroy Jerusalem at the time of Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest. The walls were not crumbled, only tumbled. But the question was nevertheless effective in reminding the Jews of the great and overwhelming dimensions of the task.
Tobiah’s taunt, “What they are building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones,” had bite because, as archeological studies of these walls have shown, they did not turn out to be of the same quality as those that stood before them.
These were all very effective taunts, as I have indicated. Yet the point cannot be missed that the only reason they were being uttered was that something important was nevertheless going forward and was perceived as being likely to succeed by these two governors. Their anger revealed their fear that what they were ridiculing might actually come to pass.
It is worth observing how Nehemiah dealt with these attacks because it is what the psalmist is doing here, though the psalm’s account is briefer. There is one thing Nehemiah did not do, and two he did.
First, he did not retaliate. The first thing most of us do when we are ridiculed is snap back. We would say, “So they think we’re feeble, do they? Well, they’re not so strong themselves. Sanballat, you’re just a petty governor of a petty province of a remote area of the empire. Tobiah, you’re only governor of that hot little desert area of Ammon. Who would want to live there?” Nehemiah did not do that. If he had, he would merely have lowered himself to the level of his critics, and he would have come out second best since they were stronger and more important in the world’s eyes than he was. This attitude is characteristic of the writer of Psalm 123. He is talking to God, not talking back to those who scorned his people.
Second, Nehemiah prayed, just as the psalmist is doing. He laid the problem before God and asked God to intervene. This is important in itself, but also because the alternative, bottling up our feelings or trying to suppress them, solves nothing. Nehemiah admitted that he was hurt and angry. “We are despised,” he said (v. 4). Nevertheless, the work was God’s, and he was able to leave it in God’s hands. “Turn their insults back on their own heads,” Nehemiah asked. “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” (vv. 4, 5).
Third, Nehemiah went on with the work. Since he had left the taunts of his enemies with God, he no longer needed to be concerned about them and could get on with the task God had given him. What he says is nice: “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart” (v. 6). In the same way, the psalmist is intent on pursuing his pilgrimage to Jerusalem.2
1Derek Kidner, Ezra & Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979), p. 90.
2Some of this material is borrowed from James Montgomery Boice, Nehemiah: Learning to Lead (Old Tappan, NJ: Revell, 1990), pp. 77-80.
How do Sanballat’s questions and Tobiah’s taunts strike at the Jews?
What did Sanballat’s and Tobiah’s taunts reveal about them?
Why did Nehemiah not retaliate? What action did Nehemiah and the psalmist both take?
Reflection: Think of a time when your faith was ridiculed. How did you react? How would you react now?
Application: Examine yourself to see if you use ridicule or any other kind of verbal offense to put down others. Ask for God’s forgiveness and work to change this pattern.
Prayer: Ask God’s help to enable you to handle problems in the manner of Nehemiah and the psalmist.
Key Point: The work was God’s, and he was able to leave it in God’s hands.