“Unless the LORD builds the house those who build it labour in vain” says the psalmist. And he’s referring not just to physical building but to all we do. Evidently, if we want the LORD to build, we need to make sure that what we’re building (or rebuilding) is pleasing to Him. That is, that it’s done in accordance with His Word. If it’s not, you ‘labour is in vain’. If it is, you can go forth in confidence and in the strength of the Lord, even when there is opposition from within and from the world.
Nehemiah as example
Nehemiah knew the value of the Psalmist’s words. He had returned from Babylon to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls which lay in ruins. Those walls were there to help defend Jerusalem, the Old Testament city of God (Ps. 48), in which God’s Word was to be proclaimed in the temple. Without the truth of God’s Word, Israel was like any other city, and the people like any other people. They had learned from experience that when the people forsook God and His Word and served idols, their labour – all they had built – was in vain. God forsook the temple and brought His people into exile. They left behind a temple and city in ruins.
Now, in accordance with His promise, a remnant had returned, the temple had been rebuilt (Ezra) and the city’s walls were beginning to be rebuilt (Nehemiah). God gave Nehemiah faith and faithfulness to rebuild the walls despite all Satan did to thwart the work. Nehemiah clung to the truth that the work of rebuilding was God’s will. The truth was that God wanted these walls rebuilt; and that conviction, that faith, gave Nehemiah the courage and determination to continue the work despite the forces of opposition.
Forces of opposition
First there were the unbelieving defeatists who wouldn’t put their shoulder to the work (4:10). They looked not with the eyes of faith but with only what the physical eyes can see – the huge amount of rubble, the massive task, the dangers, the threats. Such weak-kneed, dispirited people were unsuitable for the task; they were not fired up with faith. But Nehemiah did not let their excuses sway him from his task. He persevered because he knew that it was the LORD’s work.
Then there was the opposition of those who saw their cosy positions threatened – the Sanballats of this world. They had established alliances and power and were interested in serving only themselves; they were not filled with holy zeal for the LORD. Just look at the obstacles they threw up – mocking slander, attempts to sabotage the building of the wall, threats against the lives of Nehemiah and the workers, evil whisperings, intimidation, letters to lure him away so as to kill him.
Nehemiah was even presented with an open letter (Nehemiah 6) – open for all to read – couched in friendly terms but full of deceit and lies intended to intimidate him and to bring his name into disrepute. Sanballat, the letter writer, said there were rumours that Nehemiah was accused of all sorts of evil, including an attempted coup of rebellion against the king of Persia. In such a situation, said Sanballat, wouldn’t it be best to have a meeting between the two of them, to discuss what they could do about it?
But Nehemiah saw through the overt friendliness. He saw the sly snares not only to bring him into disrepute and to intimidate him but to lure him away so that he could be captured or perhaps even killed – all to break the power of his leadership and ultimately to halt the work (6:5-9). His open reply was: You’re making all this up! He didn’t walk into the trap.
Then followed a new attack. A false prophet was to lure him into the temple where he ‘will be safe’. Nehemiah knew his Bible. He knew it was not permitted for an ordinary member to be in the temple (Numbers 18:7). He would be accused of sacrilege, of desecrating the house of God. It would allow his enemies to cast suspicion on him as a despiser of God’s commands and so undermine his authority with the people. Hence when a prophet visited him saying – let’s go to the temple, people are lying in wait to murder you, but you’ll be safe there – alarm bells rang.
Again, he did not walk into the trap. He understood that the quasi messenger of God had been paid to bring this message. Nehemiah was not going to give anyone the chance to lure him into doing something he knew from God’s Word to be illegal. He was not going to be accused of doing what he knew to be wrong.
As Keil & Delitzsche say, “the false prophets were again busy in the congregation, as in the period preceding the captivity, and seeking to seduce the people from hearkening to the voice of the true prophets of God, who preached repentance and conversion as the conditions of prosperity”.
The enemies had also hatched a plan to attack the workers rebuilding the walls. But their plan became known to Nehemiah. He armed the workers and arranged for counter-offensive measures. Thus the enemy attack was foiled, allowing the work to continue, for the LORD was building with them. Or rather, they were building with Him.
Building in the expectation of Christ’s coming
For, says K Schilder, they built in the expectation of the coming Messiah. Christ’s Son, the Promised One who would give them true salvation. Thus they worked with a zeal, and the LORD blessed it; the wall was completed in 52 days! It put the fear of God into the enemies. They saw this was the LORD’s doing and they became afraid.
However, Nehemiah did more than build the walls. It needed to go hand in hand with a reformation of church life. He forbade the mixed marriages, restored the Sabbath (forbidding commerce), dispersed the spiritual traitors, provided the temple with all its needs, read the Law of God publicly, called for a day of confession of sin, provided for the priests, etc., thereby rebuilding and reforming the church. And this, too, was blessed by God, for it was according to His Word.
This God is our God. If we build in accordance with His Word, humbly submitting to His revealed will, we may expect His blessing. Then the task may seem monumental, the workers few, the opposition strong, but the world and all the forces of hell shall not prevail against Christ’s church. For if God is on our side, what can man do to us? All we need to do is know His Word and simply apply it there where the Lord has placed us – confessing His name, promoting His kingdom, fighting faithfully in His strength the spiritual battle against those who oppose Him and His church. And through it all, the Lord is building the house, establishing His kingdom and preparing His church for His return.
- K Schilder, “Wederopbouw”, Schiftoverdenkingen (Scriptural Meditations), Oosterbaan & Le Cointre, 1957, pp. 358-362.
- Keil & Delitzsche, Commentary on the Old Testament Vol. 3 (Nehemiah 6), Eerdmans, Grand Rapids.