Summary: Just as a tiny spark has the power to start a devastating fire, one word has the power to devastate lives, homes, churches and communities. Words can tear down but they also can build up. How do you think the Lord would have us use our words?
We have all either heard or used the phrase, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Is that true? We’ve had kids all over this church who have broken bones in the past year or so. Things like that happen. People get hurt. Bones get broken. But that kind of hurt goes away fairly quickly. Yes—sticks and stones can break your bones. But bones heal pretty quickly. A whole lot quicker than the damage that words can cause. I’m sure that just about every one of us can remember something that somebody has said to us that hurt our feelings. If you were ever made fun of, that is a hurt that will stay with you forever. If somebody made fun of your clothes because they were hand-me-downs. Or teased you because your shoes had holes in them, or you didn’t have any shoes at all. Or if you had buck teeth. Or if you were chunky or scrawny. Those hurtful words can stick in your mind forever. Make no mistake about it, words are powerful. What did James say? James 3:3-5 says, “Behold, we put bits in the horses’ mouths, that they may obey us; and we turn about their whole body. Behold also the ships, which though they be so great, and are driven of fierce winds, yet are they turned about with a very small helm, whithersoever the governor listeth. Even so the tongue is a little member, and boasteth great things. Behold, how great a matter a little fire kindleth!” In 2007, a brushfire burned nearly 2,300 acres of beautiful land in Maui, Hawaii. Do you know how the fire got started? A hiker was smoking while he was walking along a nature trail and dropped his cigarette. Just like one tiny cigarette butt has the power to start a devastating fire, one tiny word has the power to devastate lives, homes, churches and communities. But just as words have the power to tear down, they also have the power to build up. Which way do you think the Lord would have us to use our words? Words are significant. Words have meaning. Words are powerful. In our passage tonight, we see different ways that words can be used. The first words used, were bad words. Look back at verses 1-3.
Here we are again with Sanballat and Tobiah. Once again, they’re being a burr under Nehemiah’s saddle. They are the opposition that keeps continually popping up. They pop up, Nehemiah and the people resist their opposition, they go away, and then they pop up again. Of course, there is a lesson for us in that. Opposition will never completely go away. Until Jesus calls us to be with Him, we will never be free from opposition. As a matter of fact, the more you accomplish the mission God has called you to, the more opposition you will face. When the remnant was accomplishing nothing, the opposition left them alone. Sanballat and Tobiah had no problem with the Jews when they were floundering in a pile of rubble. But when they started to accomplish the mission God had called them to, they were hit in the face with opposition. I say that they were hit in the face. That might have been easier to deal with. Physical confrontation tends to strengthen resolve. When somebody attacks us physically, we tend to circle the wagons and fight to the death. But Sanballat and Tobiah didn’t attack the remnant physically, did they? They were strong enough to, but they didn’t. Probably because they knew that Nehemiah had the king’s backing. So they didn’t attack them physically. Instead, they attacked them with words. Verse 1 says that Sanballat mocked the Jews. He taunted them. He made fun of them. Verse 2 says that he brought his whole army down, and paraded them in front of Jerusalem. He brought the home crowd with him. He brought his own cheering section. And as he stood there in front of all of his supporting cast, he began to hurl insults at the remnant. He called them feeble. That word pictures a withered, shriveled up vine or a tottering old man who can barely get around. The phrase, “will they fortify themselves,” is difficult to translate. The idea is that Sanballat is sarcastically asking if that feeble remnant will be able to restore the wall by themselves. The reason it’s so difficult to translate is because the word has a double meaning. It can mean “restore” or “rebuild” like we see in the King James as “fortify”. And it can mean “forsake” or “leave”. Sanballat was such a witty guy. Most sarcasm is witty, isn’t it? There is an edginess. Many times, sarcasm is humor that bites. And it bites hard. So hard that it can leave terrible scars. Sanballat was sarcastically saying to the remnant, “What are you going to do? Rebuild or retreat? You haven’t ever finished anything. What makes you think you’re “strong” enough to finish now?” Then he went on to mock their faith. When he said, “will they sacrifice”, he was continuing his biting sarcasm. “You know that you’re too feeble to build this thing yourselves. You know that you’re going to barely get started and then give up. What’s going to happen then? Are you going to get all religious and hope your God finishes it for you? Are you going to offer up a bunch of sacrifices to get your God to come bail you out?” You can almost hear his home crowd roaring in laughter, can’t you? Every time he throws out another flame, his people back him up by throwing fuel on it. “How long is all this going to take you, Nehemiah? A day? A week?” “Since your people are so pitiful and feeble, you might get more help from the stones themselves.” “They show more life than your people do, Nehemiah.” Then Tobiah jumps in with his ridiculous little joke. “Yeah, Nehemiah, even if you do get the wall built, it will be so fragile that it couldn’t even hold the weight of a little fox walking across it.” Tobiah didn’t quite have the art of sarcasm down like Sanballat did. All he had was blunt insult. Now I want you to notice something about the words that Sanballat and Tobiah used. Did they have any basis in fact? Did they spend a lot of time reasoning through their argument? Did they make sure and form a logical basis for what they were saying? No—all of their words were emotion based. All of them were designed to generate emotion and fear. They were angry, indignant, mocking, taunting, argumentative, and inciting. They were useless words that were designed to suck the life out of the remnant. Words can do that can’t they? They can do that intentionally and unintentionally. I know of churches right now where there are active smear campaigns going on to tear down a part of their ministry. People don’t agree with a decision that has been made. So instead of doing something constructive or seeing the benefit of it, they are doing everything they can to undermine it. The phone lines are burning up and the words are flying. Useless words. Destructive words. Words that will do nothing but destroy the display of God’s glory before a watching world. Remember why the Jews were rebuilding Jerusalem in the first place. God wanted the city rebuilt to put His power and glory on display. A rebuilt Jerusalem was a witness of God before a watching world. That is the exact same thing God has called us to be as His church. We are His witness before a watching world. How many people will never darken the door of a church because of the destructive, backbiting words they have heard coming from the church? Last year, I was trying to engage in a Gospel conversation with an unchurched man at Lowes. He used that opportunity to tell me all the gossip and dirt that was going on in another Southern Baptist church in our area. When I asked where he was getting all of his information, since he didn’t go to church there, he told me his friend’s name who was a member there. Sanballat would be proud. And so would Satan. Satan’s proud, because most of the time he didn’t have anything to do with it. Because it’s our words that are so destructive. Our tongues are the spark that start some pretty huge, uncontrollably destructive fires. Are your words sarcastic? Are your words destructive? Are your words going to cause anger or resentment or fear or pain? Are your words designed to tear down or to build up? Even when we don’t intend to, our words can have a negative impact. Are your words about God’s work always gloomy? “Well, there’s no way we’ll ever get that done.” Are your words depressing and downer? Are you always able to find the dark cloud inside every silver lining? Words are powerful. They have meaning. Choose your words carefully. Proverbs 25:11 says, “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” Sanballat and Tobiah didn’t know that Proverb. If they did, they certainly didn’t exercise it. But I want you to look at how Nehemiah responded to the bad words they used. Look with me in verses 4-5: