Perhaps, like me, you were first attracted to the idea of becoming a disciple of Jesus because you thought that was the road to an easier life. In my case, I was led to believe that if I just prayed a certain prayer to Jesus, that would keep me out of hell one day when I died. That sounded like a pretty good idea to me at the time so I went ahead and prayed that prayer.
For others, perhaps you were enticed by the idea that becoming a Christian was your ticket to financial prosperity or to a blessed life. There is certainly no shortage of people teaching that idea in our culture today.
Some of you were promised, perhaps by some well-meaning person who really did have your best interests at heart, that if you committed your life to Jesus, all your problems would go away.
But if you’ve been a follower of Jesus for any time at all, I’m pretty sure that you’ve learned that our life as a follower of Jesus is not always easy. It is a battle from beginning to end.
That is certainly what Nehemiah discovered when he embarked on his endeavor to lead the people of Jerusalem to rebuild the walls. He prayed, he planned, he handled opposition from without and conflict from within. But more than anything, Nehemiah was successful because he finished well. He persisted in spite of all these obstacles. And the further we get into the book of Nehemiah, the more I’m convinced the reason he was able to do that is that he understood that the struggle he faced was not just a physical struggle, it was primarily a spiritual one.
The apostle Paul warned us that we also face that same kind of spiritual battle:
For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.
(Ephesians 6:12 ESV)
These same invisible enemies that confront us daily in our walk with Jesus were also present in the book of Nehemiah nearly 2,500 years ago. So as we study the book of Nehemiah, we are given a glimpse into the tactics that these powerful forces employ in their effort to keep us from finishing the work that God has given us to do. And even more importantly, we see how we can respond effectively to those attacks so that, like Nehemiah, we might finish well.
As we’ll see this morning, Satan uses two main tactics in that battle. The purpose of both of these tactics is to distract us from doing what we need to do in order to persevere in our journey to become mature disciples of Jesus:
• Fear. Fear is the opposite of faith. And Satan knows that if he can get us to take our eyes off of God, he can cause us to be hindered in our spiritual walk by our fear. That is why Peter compared Satan to a roaring lion who is seeking to devour us:
Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour.
(1 Peter 5:8 ESV)
• Deception. If Satan can’t get us to fear him, then he will try to deceive us.
And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.
(2 Corinthians 11:14 ESV)
This morning we will see Nehemiah’s enemies, who are unknowingly being used by Satan to attempt to thwart the work of God, use both of these tactics as they attempt to keep Nehemiah and his fellow Jews from finishing the work that is almost complete.
When we left Nehemiah last week in chapter 5, he had just handled some internal conflict within the Jewish community that threatened to keep the people from completing the task God had given to them. Once Nehemiah led the people to repent and make restitution, the work continued. And now as we get to chapter 6, we find that work is almost complete. So because Nehemiah’s enemies sense they have one last chance to keep the people from finishing that work, they use fear and deception to make one final attempt to stop the rebuilding project.
So let’s see how Nehemiah deals with fear and deceit in order to finish well. Then we can apply what we learn to our own walk with Jesus. Go ahead and turn in your Bibles to Nehemiah 6 and follow along as I read beginning in verse 1:
Now when Sanballat and Tobiah and Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies heard that I had built the wall and that there was no breach left in it (although up to that time I had not set up the doors in the gates), Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come and let us meet together at Hakkephirim in the plain of Ono.” But they intended to do me harm. And I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” And they sent to me four times in this way, and I answered them in the same manner.
(Nehemiah 6:1-4 ESV)
The wall itself is now complete and the only remaining task is to set the doors in the gates. Sensing they have only a small window of opportunity left to stop Nehemiah and his fellow Jews, Sanballat and Geshem change their tactics. You’ll notice that they have now focused on Nehemiah personally rather than the Jewish people as a whole. That is exactly the same method that Satan uses today. If he can’t defeat the entire body, he goes after their leaders.
These enemies invite Nehemiah to meet them in Ono, which was located on the coast, about 25 miles from Jerusalem. On the surface, it seemed like these adversaries were willing to bury the hatchet. They wanted to make it appear that they just wanted to get together with Nehemiah for a religious conference to discuss what they had in common. They were trying to use deception to distract Nehemiah from the task God had given him to complete.
But Nehemiah countered that deception with discernment, sensing that Sanballat and Geshem’s motives were to do him harm, not to make peace. And since Nehemiah didn’t want to be distracted from the task God had given him. So he just said “no” to “Ono”.
But Sanballat and Geshem didn’t give up easily so they made the same invitation four times, but Nehemiah refused to succumb to their attempts to keep him from completing the task he had started. So Sanballat and Geshem change tactics once again in their efforts to distract Nehemiah:
In the same way Sanballat for the fifth time sent his servant to me with an open letter in his hand. In it was written, “It is reported among the nations, and Geshem also says it, that you and the Jews intend to rebel; that is why you are building the wall. And according to these reports you wish to become their king. And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, ‘There is a king in Judah.’ And now the king will hear of these reports. So now come and let us take counsel together.” Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.” For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God, strengthen my hands.
(Nehemiah 6:5-9 ESV)
This time Sanballat sends an open letter to Nehemiah. While some commentators suggest that sending an unsealed letter to an official like the governor was an act of public disrespect, the main reason the letter was open was so that its contents would be known to the general public. And in that letter, Sanballat attempts to slander Nehemiah by making a bunch of false claims about Nehemiah’s intentions. This is an attempt to use fear to stop Nehemiah.
That slander begins the way it often does - by reporting what someone else supposedly said. Sanballat begins by saying “it is reported among the nations…” That is the same kind of vague accusation that we often face when people will say something like “everyone is saying…” or “a number of people are talking about this…” And then he tries to bolster his attacks by claiming that Geshem is also saying the same thing – as if he were a reliable witness.
I love how Nehemiah responds to Sanballat here. He doesn’t waste his time by going into some long defense or by trying to disprove Sanballat’s claims point by point. He merely denied the accusations in no uncertain terms and then moved on. He understood that dwelling on these false accusations would just give them more credibility and waste his time in the process.
Knowing that these claims might put fear into the people and might even distract him from his God-given task, Nehemiah does exactly what we expect by now – he prays. He asks God to strengthen his hands so that he will be able to finish well. But just like Satan is persistent in our lives, these enemies of Nehemiah aren’t ready to give up yet. They have one last trick up their sleeves.
Now when I went into the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was confined to his home, he said, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple. Let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you. They are coming to kill you by night.” But I said, “Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in.” And I understood and saw that God had not sent him, but he had pronounced the prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. For this purpose he was hired, that I should be afraid and act in this way and sin, and so they could give me a bad name in order to taunt me. Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, according to these things that they did, and also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who wanted to make me afraid.
(Nehemiah 6:10-14 ESV)
Tobiah and Sanballat employ Shemaiah in their attempts to stop Nehemiah. There is some evidence that Shemaiah was a priest or at least a member of a priestly family. We learn that he was confined to his home, probably a chamber adjoining the Temple. There are a couple of possible reasons he was confined there. Perhaps he was secluding himself in an attempt to appear religious, as is frequently the case with those who claim to have some special revelation from God. Or possibly he was attempting to give the impression he feared for his own life in order to give more credibility to what he was going to tell Nehemiah.
What Shemaiah said made a lot of sense logically. It wasn’t a stretch to believe that there were those who were trying to kill Nehemiah. And he certainly would be safe if he hid in the Temple. But once again we see Nehemiah’s enemies are using deception to try and distract him from his task.
And once again, Nehemiah uses discernment to overcome that deception. He knew that, according to God’s Word, only the priests were allowed in the part of the temple where Shemaiah wanted him to hide. And I’m sure he was aware that earlier when Uzziah tried to take the place of the priests and entered the Temple to burn incense to the Lord, God struck him with leprosy.
So he knew right away that Shemaiah could not possibly be a prophet of God since he was telling Nehemiah to do something which violated God’s commands. Nehemiah saw right through this scheme and knew that the whole thing was a plot by Sanballat and Tobiah. So he refused once again to be distracted from his God-given task of rebuilding the wall.
And once again, just as we would expect, Nehemiah responds to the entire situation with prayer – asking God to deal with his enemies rather than trying to take things into his own hands.
Because Nehemiah had confronted the fear and deception with such skill, He and his fellow Jews were able to finish well:
So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.
(Nehemiah 6:15-16 ESV)
To be able to complete the rebuilding of the walls in just 52 days was an amazing feat. When the people from the surrounding nations saw what had been accomplished in such a short time, they knew that such an achievement could only have been done with God’s help. And because of that the other nations were in awe and fear of God.
Now that work was done, we would expect Nehemiah’s enemies to finally leave him alone. But that is not the case.
Moreover, in those days the nobles of Judah sent many letters to Tobiah, and Tobiah's letters came to them. For many in Judah were bound by oath to him, because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah: and his son Jehohanan had taken the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah as his wife. Also they spoke of his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. And Tobiah sent letters to make me afraid.
(Nehemiah 6:17-19 ESV)
Apparently over the years Tobiah had developed business relationships with some of the Jewish nobles in Jerusalem, relationships that had been facilitated by intermarrying with members of those families. And Tobiah was trying, without success, to use those relationships to use the tactic of fear once again.
So essentially some of these nobles were saying to Nehemiah, “Hey this Tobiah guy is really not a bad guy at all. He’s been good to us and our families. So why don’t you cut him some slack?”
This may very well be the most practical and important chapter in the entire book of Nehemiah because it is so relevant for all of us. As I mentioned earlier, we are all in a spiritual battle in which we constantly face fear and deception that threaten to keep us from persevering and finishing well. But Nehemiah shows us how we can deal with those tactics of the evil one in an effective manner. Here in this chapter we find both the overall principles that ought to guide us in this battle as well as some very practical practices in which we can engage in order to live according to those principles. Let’s begin with the broad principles:
HOW TO FINISH WELL - PRINCIPLES
Nehemiah understood how to overcome the two tactics we identified earlier that are the primary ways that Satan tries to keep us from finishing well – fear and deception.
1. I overcome fear with faith
Throughout his journey, Nehemiah was constantly confronted by enemies who attempted to instill fear in his life and in the life of his fellow Jews. But Nehemiah consistently combatted the tendency to be distracted by fear, by responding in faith. He knew God well enough to trust that since God was calling him to the task of rebuilding the walls that God was going to protect him and provide for him and his people during that project.
2. I overcome deception with discernment
Nehemiah’s enemies constantly attempted to stop the work by deceiving Nehemiah and his fellow Jews. But Nehemiah consistently exercised great discernment that allowed him to see beneath the surface and detect the underlying motives of his enemies.
So if faith and discernment are the primary tools we need to develop in order to stand firm against the schemes of the evil one, exactly how do we do that? We can answer that question by looking at several consistent practices that were a part of Nehemiah’s life and should be a part of ours as well.
And the good news is that these five practices will help us to develop both faith and discernment in our lives.
HOW TO FINISH WELL - PRACTICES
1. Practice perspective
Nehemiah was able to withstand the attacks from his enemies because he had the proper perspective on the work he was doing. He knew he was leading more than just a building project. This was a God-given task that God was using to rebuild His people even more than He was using it to rebuild the walls. And because he understood that he was doing God’s work and not just his own work, he was able to ignore the distractions which threatened to keep him from finishing this project.
We need to remember that God has also called every one of us to a great task. That is true whether you are a new believer or whether you have been a follower of Jesus for many years. God has called us to live our lives to the very end in a way that will cause people to look at our lives and see that God is at work and cause them to esteem and fear God.
We have been called to live a life that is different from the world around us, not only because that is what is best for us personally – which it undoubtedly is - but because through us God wants to show the people around us that there is hope in the midst of a world where there often seems to be no hope. Like Nehemiah we need to remember that this life we live is more than just about us. It is about furthering God’s kingdom right here and now and for eternity.
Like Nehemiah we also need to remember that there is no distinction between the “secular” and the “spiritual” in our lives. What Nehemiah did while building the walls was just as much worship as we’ll see in Nehemiah 8 in next week when the people come together for a corporate gathering of worshippers. Everything we do in our lives is part of this great task to which God has called all of us.
2. Practice partaking
We see evidence time after time that Nehemiah was intimately familiar with God’s Word. In chapter 1, he recalled God’s promises to Moses. Last week in chapter 5 we saw that he was familiar with the God’s laws regarding lending and charging interest. This week in chapter 6, we see he was familiar with God’s commands concerning the Temple. And throughout the book, Nehemiah consistently demonstrates his knowledge of God and His character.
God’s Word is absolutely indispensable to developing both faith and discernment – a fact that is confirmed by the author of Hebrews:
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.
(Hebrews 11:1 ESV)
And how do we develop that assurance of things hoped for and the conviction of things not seen? By getting to know God in His Word. As we read the Bible and see how God is faithful to do what He has promised over and over throughout history, our faith is strengthened. And we also see in the Scriptures the accounts of those who had faith in God and how God enabled them to overcome the obstacles in their lives because of that faith. Hebrews 11 is a great summary of the faith of many of those people. And our faith is strengthened as we read and consider how God worked in their lives.
Partaking of God’s Word is also the most important thing we can do to develop discernment:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
(Hebrews 5:12-14 ESV)
Notice here that discernment is developed as we move from milk – a very basic understanding of the Bible – to solid food – a more mature understanding of God’s Word that only comes from constantly partaking of that word and applying it in our lives on a consistent basis.
3. Practice prayer
I probably don’t need to say a lot here other than to remind us that Nehemiah consistently engaged in prayer.
And, as we saw back in chapter 1, when he prays it is not to get something from God, but rather to seek God’s heart. That kind of prayer is essential in developing both our faith and our discernment.
It is also important to note here that Nehemiah doesn’t spend a whole lot of time defending himself or trying to rebut his enemies. Instead he entrusts their judgment to God through his prayers. I can’t help but think about how much time we waste and how distracted we get from our God-given tasks trying to defend ourselves against those who slander us and make false accusations against us. Although there are obviously times when we must directly refute false allegations, I think in many cases we would be wise to follow Nehemiah’s example and just move on and let God deal with those people
4. Practice participation
We don’t need to spend a lot of time here either since we’ve covered this pretty well in the past few weeks. Nehemiah’s faith and discernment were not developed in isolation. As he participated in the life of the faith community there in Jerusalem, his interaction with others in that community were an indispensable element in his spiritual development.
5. Practice persistence
Like Nehemiah, we face an enemy who won’t give up easily. When one form of attack failed to deter Nehemiah, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem just changed tactics over and over, seeking to find an area where Nehemiah might be vulnerable.
But Nehemiah was even more persistent than his enemies. And over time as he saw how God was at work in his life protecting him from those enemies, Nehemiah’s faith was strengthened even more. And as the attacks of the enemies got more and more deceptive, Nehemiah’s ability to discern their motives got even sharper.
If we’re going to combat the tactics of fear and deceit with faith and discernment, then we, too, must persevere and not give up. And every time we do that, our faith and our discernment are developed in a way that they become even more effective tools for us as we take our stand against the evil one.
Becoming a mature disciple of Jesus is not easy because we are in a spiritual battle in which our powerful enemy attempts to keep us from finishing well. But the good news is that if you have committed your life to Jesus, then the one who has already defeated our enemy lives within you:
Little children, you are from God and have overcome them, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.
(1 John 4:4 ESV)
And as we develop our faith and our discernment through practicing perspective, partaking, prayer, participation and persistence, we get to experience the victory that is already ours in Jesus.