Without getting too bogged down into the weeds of biblical history, the prophet Nehemiah was a Jew who served as an affluent governor of his people under the King of Persia (what is now Iran), who was then ruling over the Jewish people, who had been returned to Judah from exile in Babylon. Judah was the so-called Southern Kingdom of Israel, after the north-south split, where Jerusalem existed.
Nehemiah was a good governor and did not take the additional taxes and food rations that were his due, by Persian edict, from the Jewish people, as other Jewish governors had done. He also forced the other Jewish nobles to stop over-taxing their own people (against Jewish law forbidding usury) who were over-mortgaged in the pre-Nehemian system and often forced to have their children do undesirable things to offset debt obligations—Nehemiah was a good egg.
He got a brainstorm to rebuild the wall around Jerusalem, not to make a name for himself, or for personal gain, but because it needed to be done for the protection of the capitol and it seemed like the right thing to do.
A certain alliance of enemies of the Jewish people did not like the idea of a rebuilt wall around Jerusalem, as it would foil their schemes to eventually overtake it. And thus, set out to kill Nehemiah and scuttle his shovel-ready, well-orchestrated and nearly completed public-works project.
Nehemiah 6:1 Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies heard that I had finished the wall. There were no gaps in it, but I had not yet put the doors in the gates. 2 Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message, ‘Let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain called Ono.’ But they were plotting to hurt me. 3 So I sent some men to say to them, ‘I am doing an important task. I cannot go down there. The work should not stop, so that I can go down to meet you.’ 4 Sanballat and the men who were with him sent me the same message 4 times. Each time I gave them the same answer.
Puh-leez!, if you will pardon the slang. “Let us meet…” Nehemiah knew, in his spirit, they were up to no good and that he needed to stay focused on his work.
Sanballat persisted, basically saying, in so many words, ‘C’mon, “Nee,” my man—just meet us after work one day for one drink, so we can talk about your future.’
But the city of Ono, from Jerusalem, was a one-day trip going and a one-day trip coming back, meaning Nehemiah’s work would have been sidetracked for nearly 3 days.
I suppose a short vacation, on someone else’s dime, may have been nice (if Nehemiah had fallen for the hype). But Nehemiah sent back four brief, but polite RSVPs in the negative, highlighting the impact his absence would have had on finishing the wall. Continuing, Nehemiah 6:5:
5 Then Sanballat sent his servant to me again. This was the 5th time that he came with the same message. The servant was carrying a letter in his hand. Sanballat had not closed the letter.
Wait a minute, an open letter to a sitting governor from a foreign leader! Any official communication in that day would have been rolled up, likely tied up, and sealed with wax. I smell a skunk. Verse 6:
6 The letter said, ‘There is a report that you and the *Jews are plotting a revolution. That is why you are building the wall. This report is well-known in the nations round you. And Geshem says that it is true. People are also saying that you want to become the *Jews’ king. 7 They say that you have appointed *prophets. And these *prophets will declare the news about you in Jerusalem. These *prophets intend to say, “There is a king in *Judah.” People will tell the king about this. So come and let us discuss this.’
“Ono” he didn’t! Sanballat is trying to start some mess! Where I come from, some people call it being “loud talked” when someone tries to “put your business in the street” like that.
I guess more formally one could say Sanballat was trying to foment seeds of dissent among Nehemiah’s colleagues and instigate distrust of him by his boss, the King. That crafty old Sanballat (whose name means, enemy in secret) intentionally left open that letter, knowing full well it would be read by some prying eyes, whispered into some “itching ears,” and passed on by a ready tongue and loose lips, to start some scandalous gossip about Nehemiah. Continuing with verse 8:
8 I sent this reply to Sanballat, ‘What you are saying is not true. You are making it all up.’ 9 Sanballat and the men with him were all trying to frighten us. They thought, ‘The *Jews will be so afraid that they will stop the work. Then they will be unable to complete their task.’
Nehemiah had the good sense to calmly and succinctly try to set the record straight and made it clear that he knew what Sanballat was up to, hoping he would stop the madness.
Nehemiah also thought to do one other thing. Verse 9 continues:
But I prayed to God, ‘Make me strong.’
Nice move, Nehemiah, pray for strength! But he was still a little jumpy, so he decided to take some old friends into his confidence, in verse 10:
10 One day I went to Shemaiah’s house. He was the son of Delaiah and was the grandson of Mehetabel. Shemaiah had shut his door and he would not go out of his house. He said, ‘Let us meet in God’s house, in the inner *temple. Let us close the *temple’s doors. Men are coming to kill you. They are coming by night to kill you.’
Stop it! Here we go with another sketchy invitation, with the same words: “Let us meet…” It was absolutely forbidden for any layman to enter into that part of the inner temple where the doors could be shut. Nehemiah’s supposed confidant (whose house he was already in, whose people’s people he knew of) was a back-stabbing co-conspirator of Sanballat.
Good old Shemaiah offered Nehemiah some get-you-fired-from-your-job type advice that, in this case, would also put him in line for a stone shampoo, with a complimentary rocky scalp-massage treatment! Continuing with verse 11:
11 But I said, ‘A man like me should not run away! I cannot go into the *temple to save my life. I will not go!’ 12 I realized that God had not sent Shemaiah. Shemaiah had pretended to give me a message from God because Tobiah and Sanballat had paid him. 13 They paid him in order to frighten me. They wanted to make me do what was wrong. Then Tobiah and Sanballat could make people think bad things about me. They could make me ashamed.
Nehemiah bucks up, realizes the back-stabbing nature of his un-cool so-called friends, then goes back to the source of his keen discernment, the “Wonderful Counselor” (Isaiah 9:6) to renew his strength. Verse 14:
14 I prayed, ‘God, you know the bad things that Tobiah and Sanballat have done. And you know about Noadiah, the female prophet, and the other prophets who have tried to frighten me.’
LOL! Until I met Nehemiah, I did not know you could get away with praying and naming names of people (including preachers, smile, because Nehemiah called out some would-be prophets in his prayer) who are getting on your nerves and trying make what is yours, theirs, by trying to jam you up, ruin your reputation and in the ensuing drama, try to separate you from access to the power of God in your life.
Nehemiah’s prayer wasn’t an unrighteous one, and he didn’t pray for anyone’s nosey nose to drop off into their coffee cup. Nehemiah basically prayed, “Dear God you and I both know these people are straight tripping, and, Lord, you know I do not have time for this foolishness! Amen!”
Who knew that was allowed under the rules?!!! How liberating! Nehemiah 6 continues:
15 We finished the wall on the 25th day of the month called Elul. It took 52 days to rebuild the wall. 16 Our enemies heard that we had finished. All the nations round us became afraid, and they felt less important. They realized that God had done the work.
Sweet! I mean, Glory!
Such understated elegance from Nehemiah: “They felt less important” (the old silver-tongued angel!). I love that, but that’s probably just my flesh, huh? Well, it was Nehemiah who said it, not me.
Nehemiah used his gift of discernment, a cool head, survival of a moment of self doubt that led to a near-stumble, but a quick recovery, along the way (from talking to the wrong people!), and ultimately his faith, prayers and strength of character led him to successfully navigate his way through the wiles of the enemy, and walk in the grace that had been afforded him.
Note to self: Stay focused! Don’t let others force you into a manufactured crisis in your life—and always test the spirits (and the facts) to avoid taking bad advice.
Thanks to Pastor Dave Huffman of South Potomac Church, White Plains, MD for the inspiration for this piece.