Nehemiah 4, and this morning we're looking at our sixth study in this book which we've entitled 'Building For God', and the title of this morning's message is 'The Enemy And The Overcomer'. Beginning to read at verse 1:
"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. And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, 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? 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. 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. So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work. 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. Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them", and we end our reading at verse 9.
Now the simple lesson in chapter 4 that we will find out both this week and, God willing, the week after next, after Children's Day, is that if you're going to do a work for God - whatever that work may be, no matter how small or how large - you will face opposition to your work. You will face it, and this morning we're going to see how Nehemiah began to build the walls in chapter 3 - we took two weeks looking at that, how the walls were built - but as soon as he started the work there was an opposition that came his way. We will see this morning, first of all that there was external opposition from people outside of the people of the Jews; but then we will find that not only was there external opposition, but there was also internal opposition which is perhaps the most discouraging.
The fact of the matter is, and I want you to note before we go on any further, that if you're going to be a good spiritual leader for God, or worker for God, it is inevitable that hand-in-hand with that work will come opposition. If you don't want to ever face any opposition, then just don't do anything for God! Maybe that's why some of you don't do anything for God, because in the past you've faced opposition, you've faced criticism, and you couldn't handle it so you said: 'Enough of this! I can't take any more of this! I don't need this, I've enough problems in my life!'. So you put down your trowel and your sword, and you decide 'That's it, I'm not going to do anything for the Lord'. But if you're about to take up the sword and the trowel, and do a work for the Lord - maybe go to the mission field, or be involved in some kind of work here in the assembly or in your local church, or an organisation you're involved with - you need to anticipate this fact: that you will face external and internal opposition if you want to do anything that counts for God. It's inevitable!
Some of you will be familiar with the writings of Oswald Chambers, you're maybe reading his daily readings at the minute 'My Utmost for His Highest', but he also wrote a book entitled 'Spiritual Leadership'. One of the chapters in that book is called 'The Cost of Leadership'. There's a lot of people, and they pander after the position of an elder or a pastor, a missionary or a preacher or an evangelist, a Sunday School teacher, a Young People's leader, because they want to be in the limelight - anybody that's in the position will know that there's not much limelight there! It's not 'The Glamour of Leadership' that he calls this chapter, he calls it 'The Cost of Leadership', because that's where the rubber meets the road, that's the reality: if you're going to lead for God, in fact if you're going to do any work for God, it's going to cost you - there's a price to be paid!
In that chapter he makes this statement, and I quote it to you, take careful note to it: 'No leader is exempt from criticism' - no leader is exempt from criticism! - 'and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts and reacts to it'. I want you to get that: 'No leader is exempt from criticism, and his humility will nowhere be seen more clearly than in the manner in which he accepts or rejects criticism'. Now can I just say that if you haven't picked it up already in these studies, I believe that Nehemiah is one of the greatest characters in the whole of the word of God - certainly he is by far one of the greatest leaders among the people of God. Listen to what Alan Redpath says of Nehemiah's leadership in his little book on Nehemiah: 'Nehemiah's courage and determination in the face of the fiercest opposition, his complete faith in God, his great passion for the service of his Lord, all of these things point him out as a man in a million, a man whose life is worth emulating, whose character is worth our close scrutiny and examination'.
That's exactly what we're doing in this series. Nehemiah is a man to be marked, and what I want you to mark in him today is how he reacted and faced opposition in his spiritual ministry for the Lord. In fact, I would go as far to say that Nehemiah is a character akin to the great apostle Paul. Turn with me for a moment to 2 Corinthians chapter 4. We've just finished 1 Corinthians in the Bible Study, but 2 Corinthians is really rather an autobiographical book for Paul outlines much of his sufferings and much of what he did for the Lord - not for his own glory, but for the instruction of the Corinthians. Chapter 4 is no exception, and verse 7 - Paul says: 'But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the excellency of the power may be of God, and not of us'. 'The reason why I'm so weak', Paul is saying, 'is that I may not glory in what God does through me, but that through these cracks in this old earthen pot and vessel, that glory would be brought to God. He is the power in me'.
But here is his experience, this is the experience, the cost of leadership: 'We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed; Always bearing about in the body the dying of the Lord Jesus, that the life also of Jesus might be made manifest in our body'. There is a cost! J. B. Phillips in his translation, or paraphrase really, translates one of these verses we've just read like this: 'We are hard-pressed on all sides, but we are never frustrated; we are puzzled, but never in despair; we are persecuted, but never deserted' - and listen to this statement - 'We may be knocked down, but we are never knocked out', isn't that lovely? We may be knocked down, but we are never knocked out! There is a cost to any spiritual work, but you've got to get that equilibrium from being discouraged to the point of finishing the work, or deciding: 'Well, I may be knocked down this time, but I'm going to get up again and again and again - I'm not going to be knocked out!'.
Now listen: if we are to build the walls of our church, as we've been talking about in these weeks - the walls of the local Assembly and the church at large, we're to build them up again, those spiritual walls of protection - if we're going to bring this home to ourselves, into our own houses - remember where we start the work? In our last study, over from our doors like those men in chapter 3, if we're going to do that and we're going to build up walls within our own hearts, setting in order the things that are lacking, strengthening the things that remain - we've got to realise that we've got to overcome the opposition of the evil one. There are forces and characters, personalities in the spiritual world, who are interested in our downfall, they are interested in keeping the word of God back.
Now listen, I want to give you this study of the enemy and the overcomers under two headings. The first is this: the strategy of the enemy; and the second is: the strategy of the overcomer. Let's look first of all at the strategy of the enemy. Paul in 2 Corinthians 2 and 11 said these words: 'Lest Satan should get an advantage of us: for we are not ignorant of his devices'. Paul did not want the Corinthian believers to have the evil one get an advantage over them, therefore they needed not to be ignorant of his devices. Therefore we, as believers, if we're going to build up the walls of the church, and if we're going to build the walls of our own lives up again to the glory of God, we have to know the plan and the strategy of the evil one that he has to pull down, to destroy.
The first strategy that we see today is external opposition, external opposition to the work of God. Look at verse 1: 'But it came to pass, that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth', or angry, 'and took great indignation', he was incensed, 'and mocked the Jews'. Now see these three things: Sanballat, when he heard that the work was going on, he was angry, he was filled with indignation, and he began to ridicule the people of God. Now if you turn back with me to chapter 2 and verse 9, you see that there he was only angry: 'Then I came to the governors beyond the river, and gave them the king's letters. Now the king had sent captains of the army and horsemen with me. When Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the servant, the Ammonite, heard of it, it grieved them exceedingly that there was come a man to seek the welfare of the children of Israel'. It grieved them, but now in chapter 4 and verse 1 that grieving is starting to be manifest, and he starts to get angry, be incensed, and it comes out of his mouth - he can't hold it in any more - and he ridicules these Jewish builders!
Sanballat was not pleased now that the building had started, and it irritated him even more that people weren't listening to all of his great human wisdom. I hope you realise this, that one of the chief characteristics of our enemy the devil is that of a mocker. The devil's mouth is filled with mockery and ridicule. You remember the Lord Jesus Christ on His way to Calvary was mocked and ridiculed, when He was hanging on the cross He was mocked and ridiculed - 'He saved others, Himself He cannot save!' - the people did it, the soldiers did it, the Romans did it, the Jews did it. Out of every corner and crevice of humanity people came, motivated and inspired by the evil one himself, to mock the Lord Jesus. The devil is the prime mocker of all time.
Now here's the question that I have to ask you at the very beginning of looking at the strategy of the enemy: if you are a mocker, or if you ridicule anyone involved in the work of the Lord, do you realise the seriousness of being involved personally in the devil's work? This is something that we can't poo-poo and ignore and brush under the carpet. We're all very good at justifying our criticism, our censoriousness towards other believers in Christ, perhaps, that we don't agree with - and we don't realise that we are actually getting involved ourselves in the work of the devil himself! One writer has said that ridicule is a device used by ignorant people who are filled with jealousy. Often all that motivates people in criticism is the fact that they are jealous of someone who is doing something greater for God than they have ever done, or have motivation within themselves to do.
Now look at this: they mocked the people in verse 2: 'And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, What do these feeble Jews?'. Mocked the people, called them feeble Jews. Then he mocked not only the people, but the plan: 'Will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day?' - will they finish this job in a day? 'Look at these feeble Jews, these people! Look at their plan! They're hoping to get this wall built soon - do you think they'll ever do that?'. Not only did he mock the people and the plan, but he mocked the very materials that they were using for the job, at the end of verse 2: 'Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?'. 'Look at the rubbish material they're using!'.
Then Tobiah joins in, the Ammonite, in verse 3 and says: 'Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall'. 'They're building up this wall as a wall of protection, even a fox would knock it down'. Now my friend, I hope that you can see that Sanballat was filled with ridicule, but ridicule doesn't always work, the backbiting and the jibing at the sidelines. So, when ridicule doesn't work in those that criticise, often they resort to force. When ridicule and deceit didn't work for Sanballat here, he attempts by force to discourage the people of God.
What a confederation we see of opposers in verse 7, look at it: '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'. It's amazing, isn't it, that the devil has no shortage of manpower when it comes to opposition to God's work? When we started this study in chapter 2 and verse 10 there were two enemies: Sanballat and Tobiah. In chapter 2 and verse 19 there's Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem - there's three of them, somebody joins them. Now in chapter 4 and verse 7 there is Sanballat, and Tobiah and Geshem, the Ashdodites and the Ammonites - there's a whole multitude of people opposing the work of the Lord.
Do you know what this teaches me? That criticism, criticism rubs off and is contagious! Critics usually run with other critics - the reason why that is, is that critics like to be reinforced in their views, so they get friends alongside them that will agree with them - not challenge the status quo of their minds and hearts. So Sanballat runs with Tobiah, and another naysayer named Geshem, and then he gets all the close friends together in their mutual love of grumbling and griping, and together they oppose the work of the Lord. It's amazing that even mutual enemies at times can become mutual friends in their effort to stamp out the work of God! Sure don't we read of that in the case of the Lord Jesus going to Calvary in Luke 23:12: 'And the same day Pilate and Herod were made friends together: for before they were at enmity between themselves' - but when it came to opposing God's work in Christ, they were united!
Now here's a very searching question to all of us, because I could stop my sermon here this morning and say: 'Isn't it terrible when people oppose our work that we're doing for the Lord? Have you ever been persecuted in a work that you do for God?' - and you'd be saying: 'Yes, I can remember this time, and that time, and the other time'. We're all very quick to identify ourselves with Nehemiah, aren't we? We say: 'I know what it is to suffer for the Lord, and to do a work for the Lord that's not appreciated' - but how many of us today will identify ourselves with the Sanballats and the Tobiahs? That's a different thing, isn't it? Well, here's one diagnostic question that will discern whether or not you are a Nehemiah or a Sanballat and Tobiah: who do you naturally gravitate towards in the Christian church? What type of people do you naturally gravitate towards in a body such as this? Is it the complainers? Is it the backbiters? Is it the jibers? Is it the criticisers? Is it the people that want to get the boot into the leadership at every opportunity? Is it the negative people?
Do you ever ask the question why you do this? Could it be that you do this because you are one as well? Now, it should be no surprise to any of us that in every group of people, especially God's people, there are always Sanballats and Tobiahs - and in one regard there's very little you can do about them - but the issue is not whether or not they're there, the issue is how to handle them. You have got them in your life, I have got them in my life, Nehemiah had them in his life - how did he respond? How did he respond? What did he do? Our natural reaction would be to strike out in defence of ourselves, maybe another natural reaction would be to run to someone else and talk to them about it, and say: 'Look what such-and-such did to me, or said about me, can you help me? Do you think this is right?'. They say: 'No, that's not right', and you feel reinforced in your position. Nehemiah did neither of those two things. He did not lift up a hand to defend himself, and he did not talk to others about it, the first and foremost thing he did was talk to God.
How quick we are to run to other people, when the God of heaven gives us - any moment, any time, any place - an audience with Himself. Look at this prayer he prays in verses 4 and 5: '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'. He prayed - now you can see that he felt like doing something with his hands, but he took those feelings that we all have times and, rather than venting them on the person, he went to God and he poured out his heart. Prayer, for Nehemiah, was a release mechanism where the valve just blew off and allowed all the steam out before God rather than before ones whom he could offend, and if he did offend it would only accentuate the difficult circumstances.
Now, we look at the strategy of the enemy - the strategy was to be angry, and then to ridicule, and when ridicule didn't work to take the matter into their own hands and start with force. Now let's look more closely at the strategy of the overcomer. I love Nehemiah, you know why? Because he is the epitome to me of a balanced Christian. You hear that saying about some people that they're too heavenly minded for any earthly good - there's not too many of those about mind you - but this could never be said of Nehemiah because he was both prayerful and practical. You remember in our first week he was a man of prayer and he was a man of action, and he had within himself in his character this combination of both prayer and what I call 'sanctified commonsense'. There's not a lot of that about: prayer and sanctified commonsense.
You've heard the expression 'Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition' - that's maybe not a good one, but it's the same thought. It's not just about prayer God-ward, but we have a responsibility man-ward to others - as the old song put it: 'Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry'. It's the idea that there's not just something to be done in prayer in some kind of spiritual realm, but there is a work for Jesus to be done - and we must come down from the mountain of prayer, and get involved on the field of service. Now I think that Nehemiah's strategy as an overcomer, a man of prayer and a man of action, can be summarised in three short points. Here's the first found in verses 4 and 5 in our prayer: he had a prayerful heart, he had a prayerful heart. He had a heart to pray! How did Nehemiah fight his battles? Did he run to his solicitor? Is that what he did? Did he get a petition? Did he get a clique around him on a Sunday night at his own home for supper and talk about all the grievances, one with the other, over a cream bun? No, that's not what he did, he went to God. He went to God in prayer, he fought his battles through prayer, and every great man of God has done exactly the same!
Remember David and Goliath? What were the odds on David overcoming Goliath? But before David even threw a stone at Goliath, do you know what he said to Goliath? 'The battle is the Lord's, and He will give you into our hands!', what about that? He knew that the battle was the Lord's, he had committed the situation to his God. Was Daniel not the same? Daniel was commanded to bow down to that great image of Nebuchadnezzar, and what did Daniel do? He went up to his room, opened the windows, three times a day he cried unto his God and he committed the whole thing to prayer - and the battle was won, because spiritual battles are won by prayer warriors!
Oh that we could learn that, and that I could learn it: that we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers - and we are to pull down those strongholds, not with our hands or our arms or our influences or our advertising or our organising, but our agonising! Nehemiah had a heart to pray. It's amazing, you know, that elders and pastors and leaders of the church of Jesus Christ never have any bother from the people who've got hearts to pray. Isn't that strange? The praying people are the encouraging people, because they're praying for you. They maybe see your faults, and if you're looking at me you'll see a lot of them, but they don't talk about them, they pray about them - thank you for doing that. But leaders, this man Nehemiah overcame in his praying - how do we fight our battles? How do we build the church? For if it's not with prayer, the Lord's not building the house, and we labour in vain that build it!
I love that little verse: 'Satan trembles when he sees the weakest saint upon his knees'. What are you facing today? Are you facing the enemy? Are you staring into the blood eyes of the devil himself? My friend, take courage, there is a calm, a safe retreat, 'tis found beneath the mercy seat - he had a heart to pray, that was the first thing he did. I'm too quick to lift the phone and talk to some man of God, there's not a man of God that's just available - there's a God of men that's available! Not only had he a heart to pray, but he had a mind to work and so had the people, he had an industrious mind. Verse 6: 'So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together' - it's so matter-of-fact, isn't it? After the opposition and after his prayer, he just says: 'So built we the wall'. He didn't take any notice of all those jibes, and all those pokes of criticism - 'So built we the wall...', the end of the verse, 'for the people had a mind to work'.
You see, critics demoralise - anybody doing a work for God, critics pull down, they don't encourage, they demoralise and sap the strength and energy and vitality out of the servant of God. The fact of the matter is: Nehemiah got off his knees with a renewed spirit, because that's what prayer does to you. You can go into the very presence of God and cast your armour down, and say: 'Lord, I've had enough, I can't take any more', and get on your feet again after a few moments in prayer, and put the armour on again, and go out and fight as never before. I can see Nehemiah, and all the jibes and criticisms and destructions in words and now in actions are coming towards them - they're now ready to fight, the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other, they're building the wall and all the shouts and jeers are coming - and the people are maybe getting fearful. He offers up this prayer to God, and what does he do? He just says: 'Come on, let's keep mixing the cement, let's keep building the wall' - as Chuck Swindoll says in his book: 'Hand me another brick!'. That's his attitude: 'Hand me another brick, till we build this wall all the quicker!'.
Do you know what God loves? God loves a man or woman who, when the criticism gets hotter, their determination gets greater. Do you know what it's called? In my dictionary it's called 'stickability'. I think it was William Carey, who saw very little, it would have to be said, in his earthly ministry - it was what happened after his ministry on the mission field. But I think it was William Carey who said: 'God loves a plodder' - God loves a plodder! Someone who is able to roll with the punches, who is able to keep sticking all the abuse and all the criticism and all the dejection, of people who are doing nothing perhaps, and still build the wall of God no matter what. God loves a practical Christian!
Are you a practical Christian? I'm trying to get you folk to pray as much as I can, but you know if you just pray all the time that's not good enough. You've got to be practical - if you want nobody to break into your house you've got to lock the doors and shut the windows. One of the brethren here in the assembly told me about the time a young man came to him, and was praying about getting a job, that the Lord would lead him to a job. This brother asked him: 'Have you bought the Belfast Telegraph?', and he hadn't. He was praying about a job, but he wasn't doing what he could do, what was necessary to look to see if he could find a job!
Watch what happens: he prays from his heart, his mind is active and industrious to work, and then as his work intensifies the opposition intensifies, and as the opposition intensifies Nehemiah's prayer intensifies. In verse 9 he gets them all together: 'Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them'. He didn't just pray, he watched and prayed. He watched and prayed - I wish I could take you, I don't have time, to all the three times in the New Testament that that admonition is repeated, 'Watch and pray'. Once it's regarding the world, watch the world; once it's regarding the flesh, watch the flesh and pray; and another it's regarding the evil one, Satan, the devil in Ephesians 6, watch the devil when you're praying. But he didn't depend on prayer alone, he watched - here's one for us, a Psalm: 'Set a watch, O LORD, before my mouth; keep the door of my lips'. Put your hand up if you pray that one everyday! Not too popular, is it? Setting a watch before our mouths - whatever scorn was directed toward Nehemiah, what did he do? Do you know what he did? He did exactly what the Lord Jesus Christ did: when he was reviled, he reviled not again; but he committed himself to Him who judgeth rightly. He was brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He didn't react as most of us would have reacted, but his soft answer turned away wrath and his weeping and wailing, and cries unto God, brought strength to take the work on and to win the victory. When the opposition and the ridiculing came, he prayed. When the ridiculing came into force, what did he do? He watched and prayed. Can I ask you: are you a criticising Sanballat? Now don't be going through the roll book know, and saying: 'She is, and he is, and they are - you see that couple, that family' - it's you we're talking to here! Are you a criticising Sanballat, or an encouraging Nehemiah?
I was reading, as you've probably gathered, Chuck Swindoll's book on Nehemiah this week - and I was tremendously encouraged from a quote in it where he is very honest, and I end with this. He says this, when he was writing this book: 'I became discouraged because of criticism in my ministry. My optimism eroded as a lengthy chain of events led me into the pits. Knowing of my need for encouragement, my wife searched for a way to lift my spirits, and she found a hand-lettered statement written by a statesman I've always admired. She used it to make a wooden plaque, and gave it to me as a gift. What an encouragement that was! I often read it when opposition abounds and my shoulders start to droop, when I'm knocked down and feel like I'm about to be knocked out'. It reads like this, now you mark this, and I'll give you a copy of this if you want it - I quote: 'It is not the critic that counts, not the man who points out how the strongman stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done even better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; who does actually try to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly'. Now this is what really impressed me: 'Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though chequered by failure, than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy or suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat'.
What are you? A Sanballat or a Nehemiah? Are you aware of the strategy of the enemy in your life? Do you see the strategy of the overcomer? Have you a heart to pray? Have you? Have you an eye to watch? Have you a mind to work?
Our Father, we pray that You will move in our hearts. We are so prone to criticise others, but Lord we think of what the Saviour said to the apostle Peter when he asked 'What shall this man do?' - 'What is that to thee, follow thou Me'. Lord, if we took account of our own lives and spent the energies that we spend in criticism of mind and mouth on others, and applied it to our own lives and shortcomings, and started building the walls of our own personal spiritual existence - O Lord, we believe that we would be revived overnight. Lord, let this church be a church of builders, not destroyers. Let us be a church of encouragers and not criticisers. Let us see a building, not a brick building, but a spiritual building for God built up to His glory and honour, for Jesus' sake we pray, Amen.
Preach The Word.
This sermon was delivered at The Iron Hall Assembly in Belfast, Northern Ireland, by Pastor David Legge. It was transcribed from the sixth tape in his 'Building For God' series, entitled "The Enemy And The Overcomer" - Transcribed by Andrew Watkins, Preach The Word.
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