New European Commentary


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Deeper Commentary

Nehemiah 4:1 But it happened that when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews- It could be that this is looking back to the situation ongoing throughout Neh. 3, which provides a summary of the rebuilding; the idea would be that this was achieved despite all the opposition we now read of.

Nehemiah 4:2 He spoke before his brothers and the army of Samaria and said-
LXX "his brethren (that is the army of the Samaritans)". He was effectively the commander of an army, who were responsible for the destruction of the walls which Nehemiah was seeking to rebuild.

What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they fortify themselves?- "Feeble" is the word commonly used of the 'languishing' state of the Jews as a result of their judgment. It's as if they were mocking how those condemned by God were trying to do His work.

Will they sacrifice? Will they finish in a day?- The truth is that God was willing to revive the nation "in a day" (Is. 66:8). I suggested on Neh. 2:10 that the Samaritan opposition included an apostate Jew, Tobiah, who was present at this time (:3) and they may therefore have been aware of this prophecy and were mocking the prophetic word of restoration.

Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, since they are burned?- The “stones” were laid, but not with colours, as could have been (Is. 54:11-14 s.w.). And neither were the foundation stones gemstones, as could have been. This prophecy was therefore reapplied in Revelation to the things of the Kingdom to be established at the Lord’s return. But they did indeed "revive" the stones and thus the potential prophecies of 'revival' could have come true; see on Neh. 2:12. Time and again the Lord Jesus reapplies the language of the restoration from Babylon to what He is doing to all men and women who heed His call to come out from the world and follow Him. The ideas of bringing His sheep, "other sheep of mine", who will hear His voice and form one flock under one shepherd (Jn. 10:16)- all these are rooted in the restoration prophecies (Ez. 34; Ez. 37:21-28; Jer. 23:1-8; Jer. 31:1-10). When the Lord spoke of His people as being raised up put of the stones, as living stones, He surely had Neh. 4:2 in mind- where the stones of Zion are described as reviving, coming alive, at the restoration.

Nehemiah 4:3 Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, What they are building? If a fox climbed up it, he would break down their stone wall-
LXX "shall not a fox go up and pull down their wall of stones?". If Tobiah was indeed an apostate Jew (see on Neh. 2:10) then this explains how the opposition were mockingly quoting the Hebrew prophets (see on :2). And therefore he may be alluding to the foxes wandering over mount Zion in Lam. 5:18, part of the judgment for Judah's false prophets being as foxes (Ez. 13:4).


Nehemiah 4:4 Hear, our God; for we are despised. Turn back their reproach on their own head, give them up for a spoil in a land of captivity-
This is similar to how Hezekiah laid out the letter from the Assyrians before Yahweh. See on Neh. 4:8. Nehemiah likewise asks God to "hear", in the sense of noting and responding. Nehemiah wants the Samaritans to be sent into captivity as Judah had been. The same word for "reproach" is used of what the Assyrians did to Judah (Is. 37:4,17). Is. 51:7 had urged the returning exiles not to fear the "reproach of men". Is. 51:3-11 is clearly in a restoration context: “For the LORD shall comfort Zion: he will comfort all her waste places... Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, the people in whose heart is my law; fear ye not the reproach of men”; and that is the same word used in Neh. 1:3; 2:17; 4:4; 5:9 about the reproach of the Gentiles against the partially rebuilt Jerusalem.

Nehemiah 4:5 Don’t cover their iniquity, and don’t let their sin be blotted out from before You; for they have insulted the builders-
Both good and bad works are written in the book of life. Nehemiah however also asks for his good deeds not to be blotted out (Neh. 13:14) just as he asks for the sins of the Samaritan opposition not to be blotted out. He clearly had a legalistic mindset, where good and bad deeds as it were balance each other out. He had not clearly grasped the idea of salvation by pure grace which was offered to sinners who accepted the new covenant which the exiles were being invited to accept. There seems no evidence that Nehemiah looked for the repentance of the Samaritans, nor of Tobiah who appears to have maybe been an apostate Jew; and the reason he cited was that they had insulted and reproached the Jews. But multiple prophetic passages had said that such insult and reproach was the Jews' just desert until they repented- and there seems no evidence they really repented. This same avoidance of issues of personal sin and repentance can be seen in many religious people today.

Nehemiah 4:6 So we built the wall; and all the wall was joined together to half its height; for the people had a mind to work-
This joining together of the wall is described in Neh. 3:1,32, starting at and finishing at the sheep gate. The opposition of :1-5 is therefore being recorded retrospectively. The building of the tabernacle was likewise achieved by men who had a "mind to work", but the mind they had was given them by the Spirit (Ex. 35:35; 36:1 s.w.). It seems that God's Spirit was available to the builders and their hands were confirmed by God's hand or operation, by His Spirit. He gave them a mind to work, He operated directly upon the human heart, as He can do today. See on Neh. 2:18. But they didn't continue to make use of the Spirit, as many don't today.

Nehemiah 4:7 But it happened that when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabians, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem went forward, and that the breaches began to be filled, then they were very angry-
This as previously noted appears to be a retrospective comment, after Neh. 3 described the commencement and finishing of the work. Is. 41:11 had prophesied of the potential at the restoration: "Behold, all those who are incensed against you will be disappointed and confounded. Those who strive with you will be like nothing, and shall perish". And yet Sanballat, Tobiah, the Ammonites and Ashdodites were very angry” [s.w. ‘incensed’] against Judah. But they didn’t come to nothing, nor to shame, in that those very groups were the ones who married into Jewry, to the extent that Tobiah even shifted the tithes out of one of the chambers of the temple and set up his office there.

Nehemiah 4:8 They conspired all of them together to come and fight against Jerusalem, and to cause confusion therein-
This continues the similarities with the Assyrian invasion to "fight against Jerusalem" (2 Chron. 32:2; Is. 29:7). This is appropriate seeing that Sanballat was an Assyrian, and Tobiah an apostate Jew who was similar to Rabshakeh, who appears to have been the same (see on Neh. 2:10). The situation points forward to that of the last days, when Judah's neighbours will fight against Jerusalem (Zech. 14:3). The connections with the Assyrian crisis suggest that God could have totally wiped out this opposition by dramatic intervention. But this didn't happen because as explained on :7, the Jews actually accepted Tobiah and Sanballat into their midst and precluded it.

Nehemiah 4:9 But we made our prayer to our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them-
Prayer is also described as watching, and those who pray are likened to watchmen upon Zion's walls. So there is a balance between the two halves of this sentence; their prayer to God was matched by a human response, of also watching day and night [a phrase also used of prayer, Lk. 18:7]. The initiative is with us. All this means that how we plan to preach and care for others does need to be considered. Time and again, God works through humanly devised good strategies (Josh. 8:1,2; Neh. 4:9 etc.). But I love the way Derek Kidner puts it: "Scripture approves of strategy when it is a tool rather than a substitute for God".

Nehemiah 4:10 Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is fading, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall-
When “the time to favour Zion” came, at the end of the 70 years, God’s servants Israel were to “take pleasure in her stones, and favour [even] the dust thereof”; and then, “when the Lord shall build up Zion, he shall appear in his glory” (Ps. 102:13-16). But the few Jews who returned chose not to live in Jerusalem, preferring to carve out for themselves farmsteads in the countryside (Neh. 11:1), and the strength of those that shifted the rubble in Jerusalem decayed… they saw her dust and scattered stones as a nuisance, and didn’t take pleasure in them (Neh. 4:10). And so the Lord could not then appear in glory. See on Neh. 7:4.

Those who truly waited upon Yahweh would renew their strength; they would “mount up as eagles” (Isaiah 40:31), the s.w. used throughout Ezra and Nehemiah for the ‘going up’ to Jerusalem from Babylon to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1:3,5,11; 2:1,59; 7:6,7,28; 8:1; Nehemiah 7:5,6,61; 12:1). The idea of mounting up with wings as eagles also connects with Ezekiel's vision of the cherubim, mounting up from the captives by the rivers of Babylon, and returning to the land. But the reality was as in Neh. 4:10: “And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall”. Examination of the context shows that they had just had plenty of strength; they lost physical stamina because of their spiritual weakness.

Jer. 31:9 had prophesied of the restoration: “They shall come with weeping, and with supplications will I lead them: I will cause them to walk by the rivers of waters in a straight way, wherein they shall not stumble”. Likewise Is. 63:13 reminded the returnees that when they had been led through the wilderness to Canaan under Moses, they did not stumble [s.w.]. But both Ezra and Nehemiah wanted to have a Babylonian military escort on the journey back; they weren’t sure that they would be given “a straight way” with Yahweh’s protection. Neh. 4:10 records that “Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed [s.w. “stumble”, Jer. 31:9], and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall”. They were easily discouraged by the words of the surrounding world, by the apparent hopelessness of their task; and thus they stumbled.


Nehemiah 4:11 Our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, until we come into their midst, and kill them, and cause the work to cease-
Coming to their midst was in fact what Tobiah did by getting his family to marry into the Jews in Jerusalem (see on :7,11). Clearly the 'satan' of Zech. 3 is related to these "adversaries" who tried to stop the restoration of Zion.

Nehemiah 4:12 It happened that when the Jews who lived by them came, they said to us ten times from all places, Wherever you turn, they will attack us-
The impression is given that they had local Jews on their side, who totally failed to heed the command of Is. 51:7 not to fear the reproach of men. But more than that, it seems they were involved with Tobiah the apostate Jews (see on Neh. 2:10) who later 'came into the midst' of the Jews by intermarriage (see on :7,11).

Nehemiah 4:13 Therefore set I in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, in the open places, I set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows-
The idea is as in GNB "stationed them by clans behind the wall, wherever it was still unfinished". This confirms that Neh. 3 is a summary of the finishing of the wall, and now we are reading of the opposition endured to bring that situation about.

Nehemiah 4:14 I looked, and rose up, and said to the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Don’t be afraid of them!-
Asking them to heed the command of Is. 51:7 not to fear the reproach of men in the work of the restoration.

Remember the Lord, Who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses- This attempt to inspire the people with the thought that they were fighting for their families came to a sad end, in that as noted on :7, the enemy entered within by marrying into those very families.

Nehemiah 4:15 It happened, when our enemies heard that it was known to us, and God had brought their counsel to nothing, that we returned all of us to the wall, each one to his work-
"Counsel brought to nothing" is the phrase used in Ezra 4:5 of similar opposition in Ezra's time. Nehemiah had been inspired by Ezra, as noted previously, and so God responded in an appropriate way. This is how God works with us; if we are inspired to act as Biblical characters did, then He in turn responds to us in essence as He did to them.

Nehemiah 4:16 It happened from that time onwards, that half of my servants worked in the work, and half of them held the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the coats of mail-
Nehemiah's personal servants were involved in the work, possibly at his own expense. Or the reference could be to his own bodyguard, whom he sent to work rather than protecting him personally. And there we have an abiding lesson- to sacrifice our own personal comfort and protection for the sake of the wider needs of God's work. We note that "coats of mail" were worn only by senior officers. This is another encouraging indication that the wealthy and leaders worked themselves in the work.

And the rulers were behind all the house of Judah- GNB "And our leaders gave their full support to the people". But the idea may be that the rulers were present with the workers, standing by them and ready to lead them into battle, encouraging them.

Nehemiah 4:17 They all built the wall while those who bore burdens loaded themselves; each one with one of his hands toiled in the work, and with the other held his weapon-
The idea is that there were two groups of builders- actual builders, and those who carried the materials. It was this second group who carried the materials with one hand, whilst in the other hand holding their weapons.

Nehemiah 4:18 and the builders, each one wore his sword at his side, and so built. He who sounded the trumpet was by me-
As explained on :17, the actual builders needed both hands for the work, and wore their weapons in their belts. Nehemiah with typical humility doesn't state directly that he was present with them, but that the trumpeter was next to him. His personal presence with the builders was akin to the leaders standing next to the people (:16); his example of leadership inspired the other leaders.

Nehemiah 4:19 I said to the nobles, to the rulers and to the rest of the people, The work is great and large, and we are separated on the wall, one far from another-
The greatness of the work was ever in Nehemiah's mind (also Neh. 6:3). The work of restoring Yahweh's Kingdom on earth couldn't be greater; and nothing would distract him from that. Not internal politics, false accusations and claims, nor the size of the work and the apparently great size of the opposition.

Nehemiah 4:20 Wherever you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally there to us. Our God will fight for us-
This is quoting the common assurance that God would fight for His people if they were obedient to the covenant, as He had fought for His people against the Egyptians at the Red Sea (Ex. 14:14 cp. Dt. 1:30; 3:22; 20:4; 28:7). But the old covenant, according to the prophets, was broken; they needed to accept the new covenant. But still Nehemiah's faith, even if misdirected, is presented as creditable.

Nehemiah 4:21 So we worked at rebuilding. Half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning until the stars appeared-
This is a summary of the situation described in :16. They started at dawn and worked until late in the evening. "We worked" suggests Nehemiah was personally involved, the classic case of leading by example. See on :22.

Nehemiah 4:22 Likewise at the same time said I to the people, Let each one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that in the night they may be a guard to us, and may labour in the day-
This suggests that it was the more wealthy, able to own servants, who were actually doing the physical work of building. In Ezra 2:64,65 there was one servant to every six exiles who returned with Zerubbabel; now it seems their material situation had improved. Although in line with the abuses recorded in Neh. 5, it could be that the abundance of servants was because they had wrongly brought their brethren into servitude. I noted earlier that several of the builders were from areas outside of Jerusalem; hence the command for them to remain within Jerusalem. See on Neh. 5:13.

The Jews built a wall and appointed human guards over them (Neh. 4:15,22), even though Yahweh Himself had promised to be their wall and their guard (Zech. 2:4,5). And Zech. 12:8 had repeated it: “In that day shall the LORD defend the inhabitants of Jerusalem; and he that is feeble among them at that day shall be as David”. But they didn’t want to believe it, as they cowered in fear from those who “came to fight against Jerusalem” (Zech. 4:8), whom Zechariah prophesied would be destroyed by Yahweh. And yet He graciously worked with them in their plan to build a physical wall, just as He worked through their desire for human kingship and a physical temple in earlier days, even though it was not His ideal intention. Likewise He had promised support for them if they returned to the land; He would preserve them on the way.

Nehemiah 4:23 So I, my brothers, my servants, and the men of the guard who followed me, did not take off our clothes except to wash-
"My brothers" may refer to his literal brothers. The implication seems to be that the others did take their clothes off except to wash, whereas those under Nehemiah's direct personal control did so. The washing may well be a reference to the ritual washings. They would have had many opportunities to become ritually unclean, and despite the urgency and extremity of the situation, Nehemiah ensured that he and his people were still obedient to God's requirements. Whereas, by implication, the other builders weren't.