In our previous studies, we have watched and learned from Nehemiah as he encountered opposition in his God-given task of rebuilding Jerusalem’s walls. So far, he has encountered opposition from without in the form of ridicule and threatened violence (Chapter 4). Having addressed those threats, more opposition arose from within the ranks of Israel. People of wealth became greedy and sought to exploit the poor causing internal disunity, which threatened to halt construction of the wall.
No sooner had Nehemiah settled these conflicts than a new category of opposition began to unfold – that of personal attack. This sort of testing can be the most difficult because it is often subtle and difficult to diagnose the real intent. Cyril Barber says, “When Sanballat and his co-conspirators realize that they have been outmaneuvered, outgeneraled, and outwitted by Nehemiah, they decide to attack him personally…Their wounded pride will not be appeased until Nehemiah has been humiliated.” 1 Satan’s design was to discredit Nehemiah as a leader of God’s people and again attempt to stop the completion of the wall.
Throughout the Scriptures, we read about people in trying situations who undergo personal attacks to discredit them. Even Jesus was tested directly by Satan (Matthew 4:1). Leaders such as Abraham, Moses, David, Esther, and others were put to the test to determine the strength of their faith and character.
If you think about it, all testing situations are two-sided. On one side, God puts His child to the test to develop character and spiritual maturity. An example of this kind of testing is found in Deuteronomy 8: 2, 16: “Remember how the LORD your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and to test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands…He gave you manna to eat in the desert…to humble and to test you so that in the end it might go well with you.”
On the other hand, Satan is allowed to test the child but his purpose is always to destroy faith and ruin one’s testimony. Hence, Paul’s concern for the Thessalonian Christians: “I sent to find out about your faith. I was afraid that in some way the tempter might have tempted you and our efforts might have been useless.” (I Thessalonians 3:1-5). In every trial, we are pulled in one of two directions: either upward by God or downward by the devil. Satan’s pull is always to destroy. God’s tug is always to build, develop and strengthen us in our inward man.
DAYS ONE and TWO: The First Personal Attack: Intrigue (6:1-4)
A. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem are almost desperate. All of their efforts to thwart the work of God have failed. Their only recourse is to bring down the leader of the project – Nehemiah.
1. What was the condition of the wall when the personal attacks began?
2. Why was this a critical time?
3. In what way can you relate to the timing of this attack? In other words, how have you experienced increased opposition just as you were about to complete some major task?
B. Dr. Boice observes that the invitation seemed like a concession speech in a political campaign: “Nehemiah, it is no use pretending that we have not been opposed to your project. We have been…But you have succeeded in spite of us, and now there is no use to carry on our opposition. For better or worse, we are going to have to live together, you as governor of Jerusalem and ourselves as governors of our own provinces. So let’s be friends.”
1. How did the enemy employ the use of flattery to tempt Nehemiah to meet with them?
2. Have you ever been sidetracked into a useless enterprise because someone flattered you into accepting the job?
3. What did Nehemiah suspect was their motivation? How would he have known this?
4. On a map entitled “Canaan as Divided Among the Twelve Tribes”, try to locate the plain of Ono. Approximately how far was it from Jerusalem? Consider the fact the journey would require two days travel time plus one day to meet. How would that time frame effect Nehemiah’s decision?
5. Those of you who live and work in areas of the world where intrigue and coups are standard fare can easily relate to how dangerous it would have been for Nehemiah to accept the invitation. At any moment his caravan could have been hijacked and he and his entourage taken captive or assassinated.
C. Nehemiah responded to the invitation with great wisdom. Carefully he chose his words so as not to accuse the enemy of his suspicions about their true motives and intent.
1. Summarize in your own words Nehemiah’s response.
2. What part did Nehemiah’s awareness of his priorities play in his refusal to meet with the enemy?
3. Nehemiah’s ability to focus on his priorities has been for me one of the significant lessons in this study. J.I. Packer comments on Nehemiah’s ability to say “No” to distractions:
Though his ability to concentrate was partly at least, no doubt, an endowment of nature, this God-centered, goal oriented single-mindedness was certainly sustained by grace…no amount of wisdom will make one a leader if one cannot keep one’s priorities steadily in view…And it is evident that his single-minded refusal ever to be distracted was throughout his years in Jerusalem a source of enormous strength.2
How does Packer’s comment challenge you in your ministry endeavor?
4. Take some time to record your thoughts in your journal. If you struggle in the area of priorities and focus, ask God to sustain you with His grace as He did Nehemiah. Be sure to write down your prayers. Later when you review your journal, you may find this a great source of encouragement as you note how God has answered.
DAYS THREE and FOUR: The Second Personal Attack: Innuendo (6:5-9)
A. After four attempts to distract Nehemiah, the tactic changes a bit. The fifth time the courier arrived it was with an open letter in his hand.
1. Summarize the contents of the letter in your own words.
2. What is the significance of the open or unsealed letter?
B. Verse 6 specifically uses the word “rumor” (NLT). Pastor Chuck Swindoll notes that a rumor is a rumor
(1.) because the source is never declared,
(2.) because it contains exaggerations and inaccuracies and/or
(3.) when its purpose is to hurt.3
1. Apply the above three points to the rumors contained in the open letter.
2. The sin of gossip: Read Proverbs 6:16-19. Of the seven things listed in the passage, how many relate to the use of one’s tongue and what are those things?
3. Pastor Swindoll comments, “People who spread rumors invariably display a lack of wisdom. Wisdom forces a person to ask such searching questions as, ‘Is it necessary to say this? Is this confidential information? Do I have any right to pass this on?’ Wisdom prompts the reply, ‘Don’t open your mouth because God hates those who sow discord among His family.’”4
C. No one knew the source of this gossip. There were no witnesses to determine what was true. They were just rumors designed to ruin Nehemiah’s reputation and possibly cause him to be recalled to the Persian court. Again, we can learn a lesson from Nehemiah on how to handle gossip.
1. How did Nehemiah respond to the accusation in the letter (vs.8-9)? In your opinion is this the best way to handle gossip?
2. Read Ephesians 4:29-32. According to this text, what questions should you ask yourself before responding to or repeating any information that might be considered gossip?
3. The Bible is replete with admonishments concerning the proper use of words and speech. Review the following references and choose one to memorize and record in your journal for meditation. In a time of temptation, the Holy Spirit will bring to our remembrance that which we have hidden in our hearts (Psalm 119:11): Psalm 101:5; Proverbs 13:3; 21:23; Titus 3:1-2; James1:26; 3:1-12; 4:11-12.
4. When we have issues with someone in our church, ministries, or family, it is vitally important to take the situation to those in leadership who have the authority to do something about the problem. (Matthew18:15-20). Spreading discontent shows a serious lack of spiritual maturity and is certainly unbecoming in a leader.
5. However, there are times when situations are beyond our control. Nehemiah could not control the spread of the rumor nor what King Artaxerxes might do when he heard it. Therefore, he chose to leave the problem in the hands of God and get on with the job. So must we. We must commit our cause to God and get on with the business of the day – trusting that we will be vindicated at some point in the future. I often refer to Psalm 37 when I find myself in one of these difficult and frustrating situations. Read it through slowly and prayerfully, meditating on those parts that speak to your heart.
DAY FIVE: The Third Personal Attack: Intimidation (6:10-14)
A. The third tactic employed by Sanballat and Tobiah was to induce fear in Nehemiah. Their intent was to arouse the instinct of self-preservation and hopefully cause him to break God’s law and thereby discredit himself.
1. Shemaiah was a prophet whose message to Nehemiah was presented as an oracle from God. What was his proposal?
2. It seems that Nehemiah realized that the message was not from God because of the proposal itself. Pagans believed that one could find security and exemption from punishment for a crime in the temple of a god. Jews did not hold this belief about their temple. Read the following texts and record the similar but distinctly different practice provided by Jewish law: Deuteronomy 19:1-13; Joshua 20:1-9.
3. In addition, the term used by Shemaiah means “Holy Place”. What Shemaiah was suggesting was in direct contradiction to the law. Read Numbers 18:7 and II Chronicles 26:16-21. If Nehemiah had been lacking in his knowledge of God’s Word he might have succumbed to the intimidation. However, because he valued God’s Word enough to read and study it, he understood that this tactic was nothing more than a threat from the enemy. He knew God’s character; what God considers wrong is always wrong. God is utterly consistent; His rules do not change. Therefore Nehemiah answered boldly.
4. Imagine how terrifying this threat was. This is not unlike the situations many people living and working overseas find themselves facing. For example, as they are accomplishing a work for God, some of the locals inform the workers that the leaders are really angry because of the good things that are being accomplished in their village. Those who have absolute power are beginning to lose it. A message is sent, “We’ve heard that they plan to kill you. Perhaps you should think about leaving the area.”
5. Nehemiah’s response (v.11) may seem a bit arrogant on the surface but we need to take a closer look. What does Nehemiah say about himself in response to the attempt at intimidation? In your opinion, is courage to withstand such an attack a natural ability or God-given?
6. About courage, John White has said, “The words [Should a man like me run away…] echo across the centuries to us. Like Nehemiah we live in days when we must let our courage be seen by the way we act and speak. It will help us, perhaps, to realize that true courage does not consist in the absence of fear but in doing what God wants even when we are afraid, disturbed and hurt.”5 Early on in his career Nehemiah established the habit of taking the initiative in spite of fear (2:2). Through this exercise of faith, he enhanced his ability to lead with courage. He may have been naturally gifted with courage but acting courageously by trusting God certainly grew that giftedness.
B. Application is where the “rubber meets the road” in our daily walk. Therefore, we must ask ourselves how we might be tempted like Nehemiah to take some wrong action because we’re afraid and there just doesn’t seem to be any other suitable recourse. Or we might need to think of our present difficulty as a personal challenge to courageously stand firm against the schemes of the enemy. Will you stand firm because you know the unchanging character of God and the standard of His Word? Or perhaps you are simply reminded of the importance of daily Bible study as a source of strength for the future battles that are sure to come.
1. Cyril J. Barber, Nehemiah and the Dynamics of Effective Leadership (Ross-shire, Scotland: Geanies House, 2004), p. 136.
2. J.I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway Books, 2001), p. 129.
3. Charles R. Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick (Nashville, TN.: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1978), pp. 130-131.
4. Ibid., pp 132, 133.
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