Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education
Estimated reading time: 8 min.
Did you know that about 90 years after the people of the House of Judah returned from captivity in Babylon, their capital city of Jerusalem still did not have a defensive wall around it?
The Jewish governor of Judea challenged his compatriots to unite and complete a project to protect Jerusalem and its inhabitants from their enemy’s opposition.
Decades earlier, the ancestors of these folks had built a semblance of a sacrificial altar and later a temple. But Jerusalem was undefended from hostile neighbors since it had no protective wall. The Bible records that the Jews recognized the importance of their participation to build a wall and worked with determination through the effective leadership of their governor. This Digging Deeper recounts this story to grasp an applicable lesson for God’s people who perform His work today.
Needing a wall
This building project occurred during the Persian Empire period of Old Testament history. Judea and much of the Ancient Near East were governed by this vast empire. Starting with Persia’s king, Cyrus, the people of the House of Judah were permitted to depart from the land of their captivity to rebuild their temple and city if they remained loyal to the Persian king and were peaceful contributors to the realm. Cyrus followed a policy of repatriation for the Jews and other formerly captive peoples, as noted in history.
Decades later, King Artaxerxes of Persia appointed as governor of Judea his cupbearer, Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:11), to direct the project of rebuilding the walls around Jerusalem. The entire Book of Nehemiah details this exciting saga of Nehemiah’s leadership over God’s people who accepted this challenge. They had lacked the necessary leadership until Nehemiah arrived. The Jews were being opposed by many nearby enemies. A wall around the city was vital for their protection.
John Gill’s Exposition of the Bible summarizes Nehemiah 4: “This chapter relates, how the Jews, while building, were mocked by their enemies, to which no answer was returned but by prayer to God, and they went on notwithstanding in their work, Nehemiah 4:1 and how that their enemies conspired against them, to hinder them by force of arms, Nehemiah 4:7 to oppose which, both spiritual and temporal weapons were made use of, so that the work was still carried on, Nehemiah 4:13” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
In Nehemiah 4:1, Sanballat, the satrap (governor of a whole province) for Samaria, mocked the Jews and worked to discourage their progress. Nehemiah turned to God in prayer after learning of Sanballat’s opposition (Nehemiah 4:4-5). Arno Gaebelein’s Annotated Bible notes that this “… is another of the brief ejaculatory prayers of Nehemiah. There are seven of them in this book: chapters 2:4; 4:4-6; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29” (e-Sword 13.0.0). Nehemiah’s effective leadership skills were the result of his constant prayer.
Our focus verse details what followed: “So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work” (Nehemiah 4:6 KJV throughout). Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible explains the Hebrew of this passage: “The original is very emphatic: ויהי לב לעם לעשות vayehi leb leam laasoth, ‘For the people had a heart to work.’ Their hearts were engaged in it; and where the heart is engaged, the work of God goes on well” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
David Guzik’s Enduring Word Commentary makes this vital point about the result of Nehemiah’s prayer: “The immediate answer to the prayer made no difference in the enemies. The prayer was answered in the people of God doing the work. Nehemiah’s prayer asked God to take care of his enemies, and God answered by taking care of His people… We often miss God’s answer of our prayers, because we pray for Him to do a work in the lives of others we are in conflict with – and He answers by moving in our lives, but we resist that moving. It is as if He tried to give us a mind to work in a situation, but we resisted it” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
Prayer and hard work
Commenting on the importance of joining prayer to work, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Old Testament asserts: “After praying, Nehemiah and the Jews continued with the work. Some Christians pray and then wait for things to happen, but not Nehemiah! As in all his efforts, he blended the divine perspective with the human. He faced Sanballat’s opposition with both prayer and hard work. Once he committed the problem to the Lord, he trusted God to help them achieve their goal” (Victor Publishing, 2000, p. 682). This combination of prayer and work empowers God’s people to perform His will.
HandFuls on Purpose, Vol. 06, (1) by James Smith and Robert Lee provides three vital actions taken by these Jews:
“1. A Mind to Work (Nehemiah 4:6). They had no mind to sit moping over their difficulties, or to spend their time in mere talk or fault-finding. The love of God constrained them…
2. A Heart to Pray. ‘Nevertheless, we made our prayers unto God’ (Nehemiah 4:9). A working mind should always be accompanied with a praying heart…
3. An Eye to Watch. ‘We set a watch against them day and night’ (Nehemiah 4:9). Watching and praying are frequently linked together in the Scriptures of truth (see Matthew 26:41; Mark 13:33; Ephesians 6:18; 1 Peter 4:7)” (Bible Analyzer 18.104.22.168).
Christians need to join prayer with watchfulness, as K.L. Brooks’ Summarized Bible declares: “Nehemiah 4:13. Having prayed, they set a watch. We cannot secure ourselves by prayer, without watchfulness. Matthew 26:41. Prayer without watchfulness is presumption. Watchfulness without prayer is hypocrisy” (e-Sword 13.0.0). This is an example of faith as displayed by works. Brooks continues with another lesson on watchfulness: “God’s people are often a despised people, loaded with contempt, but the reproaches of enemies should rather quicken them to duty than drive them from it. Those who cast contempt on God’s people, in reality despise God Himself and prepare for themselves everlasting shame” (Ibid.).
Completing the job
The good news is that these pioneers did complete the wall they had built only halfway in chapter 4: “So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days” (Nehemiah 6:15 KJV). Fifty-two days was record time. Nehemiah’s leadership in this project was vital. Charles Simeon’s Homileticae explains the state of the project before he came: “The walls of Jerusalem still continued in their desolate condition, notwithstanding the Jews had returned thither about ninety years: but, at the instigation of one single man, the people combined; and engaging heartily in the work, they effected in a short space of time what had appeared utterly impracticable: Nehemiah says, ‘So built we the wall; for the people had a mind to work’” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
Ger deKoning’s KingComments makes some pointed remarks on Nehemiah 4 that Christians must consider: “There is a kind of people who stand by and comment from the sidelines, but disappear when there is opposition. Some also want to contribute in an easy way, so they avoid effort. They send money – and insist on getting proof of payment in order to be able to use the gift as a tax-deductible item – and in doing so they think they can redeem their service in the kingdom of God. But they do not have a heart to work. Work in and for the church is not regulated by a collective labor agreement” (BPBible 0.5.3.1).
God’s people have always faced opposition from those who insist their work must be stopped. The Popular Commentary by Paul Kretzman provides the proper response: “Those who undertake the work of the Lord in true faith will not permit the ridicule of the enemies to discourage them, but will piously trust in the power of God to support them” (e-Sword 13.0.0). A New Testament admonition parallels this lesson from Nehemiah: “Therefore, my beloved brethren, be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labour is not in vain in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 15:58 KJV).
As Christians approach the very end of the age, this will be even more important for God’s work to be completed through them. Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible offers two final lessons: “1. Good work goes on well when people have a mind to it. 2. The reproaches of enemies should rather quicken us to our duty than drive us from it” (e-Sword 13.0.0).
Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.