When we consider the story of Nehemiah, it is clear that he was surrounded on all sides by powerful enemies – Sanballat and his schemes, Tobiah and his fierce tongue, the Arabians, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites with their armies. It is so true what is written in Psalm 38:19-20, “But my enemies are vigorous and strong; and many are those who hate me wrongfully. And those repay evil for good, they oppose me, because I follow what is good.” With such an array of enemies from the outside, we sometimes forget to consider the enemies that Nehemiah had to deal with on the inside – his own mind, at times, worked against him, along with his perceptions of the situation, and the greed of the Jews who were working with him in Jerusalem. Having dealt with the same kind of enemies, the apostle Paul once wrote, “For even when we came into Macedonia our flesh had no rest, but we were afflicted on every side: conflicts without, fears within” (2 Corinthians 7:5).
The enemy within is often more dangerous than those outside forces which upset us. Anxiety, for example, is the result of outside pressure, but it is formed within the mind of man as a result of his own weaknesses and insecurities. Fear is the same thing, as one man put it, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself!” Greed is a dangerous enemy also, as almost every person has succumbed to it at some point in his or her life. Within our minds, we have such a vast array of powerful forces tugging us in the wrong direction, and how we cope with these forces is a reflection of the strength and comfort that we receive from God, based on faith and obedience to His will. The more trust we place in God, the less potent factors such as greed or fear or self-perception become. For example, in Psalm 73:26-28, the writer explains that although his flesh and his heart may fail, he takes comfort in how close he is to God – the Lord is “the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”
What I would like to do is examine several passages from the book of Nehemiah, and how dealt with the enemies within both his own spirit and the spirits of his fellow Jews. We can see very clearly how anxiety and fear nearly ended the progress on the walls, how poor self-perception led to arrogance on the part of noble and optimistic self-perception ended up being a tool for Nehemiah, and, finally, how greed factored in to the project. Hopefully, by studying the positive way with which Nehemiah handled these inner enemies, we will be better equipped to control our own enemies.
Anxiety and fear are two of the strongest motivational factors in the human mind. When we are in a situation that is potentially dangerous (whether that danger is real or not) we feel nervous and do one of two things. Either we deal with the situation and face our fear, or we find ways of avoiding that situation and give in to the fear. Why this is such a powerful enemy to the work of God should be obvious to us when we consider the constant threats of danger that believers have had to endure at various times throughout history. This is why Nehemiah’s example has proven so encouraging for thousands of years. Consider his situation in Nehemiah 1:3-4. Having discovered the destitute state of affairs in Jerusalem, Nehemiah understood that there was only one solution. He must go before King Artaxerxes and ask permission to rebuild the walls of the city. This, however, is where the anxiety becomes an issue. Consider Nehemiah 2:1, “Now I had not been sad in his presence.” Normally a cheerful servant, Nehemiah now appears before Artaxerxes with a despondent expression. Few kings would have taken the time to care or inquire as to why Nehemiah was forlorn, but this king seems to have taken a liking to Nehemiah. Continue reading in 2:2-6. There are some important points that we can note about this section of scripture.
First of all, Nehemiah admits very frankly that this situation was a cause of great anxiety and fear to him. And with good reason, too! “Notwithstanding his kind and compassionate words, Nehemiah feels his danger. He has looked sad in the king’s presence. He is about to ask permission to quit the court. These are both sins against the fundamental doctrine of Persian court life” (Pulpit Commentary, Vol. VII, G. Rawlinson, 10). It is human nature to feel a sense of fear during life-threatening situations, but there is an important detail that should give all of us encouragement. “The king said, ‘What would you request?’ So I prayed to the God of heaven” (2:4). Nehemiah prayed. Right there in the hall of the king of the most powerful empire in the world, he prayed. This is the first thing we ought to do in a stressful time, as we can see from other scriptures such as Philippians 4:6-7, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, shall guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” There is never an inappropriate time for prayer – before we leave for work in the morning, pray for safety; before we must do the duty of rebuking a Christian brother or sister, pray for wisdom; when we here of an injured or sick loved one, pray for the strength of God’s power. Prayer has great power over anxiety because it helps put things into perspective. When we are able to pray before or after any stressful situation, we realize that we are neither alone nor defenseless (as God is with us always [“God makes a home for the lonely” in Psalm 68:6] and He is our defense [Psalm 27:1]).
There is another tool that helps us in stressful experiences; preparation. Nehemiah is entirely prepared when he goes before the king. In verse 5, he describes exactly what he would like to do in Jerusalem, and then in verse 6 even gives a time frame for the project, “So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time.” Often, it is only our lack of preparation that induces stress and anxiety. Consider some examples from today; only students who do not study have any reason to feel nervous before a test, just as employees who do not read up on an important business deal fear going into a meeting. When we do not know our scriptures very well, we feel anxious about discussing the Gospel with unbelievers. They may ask us questions for which we have never studied, or they may know more about the Bible than we do – we who claim to be defenders of it (Philippians 1:7). It is important, therefore, to always be ready for trouble because we are not always aware when it will arise. Nehemiah obviously had thought through his plan and had a logical, reasonable and well-articulated answer for every question posed by King Artaxerxes. So should we (1 Peter 3:15).
It was not only Nehemiah’s own anxiety with which he had to deal, but it was also the fear of all the other inhabitants of Jerusalem. When the enemies began preparing for an attack on the exposed city, a short adage began spreading throughout the populace, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, yet there is much rubbish; and we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall” (Nehemiah 4:10). When faced with an impending invasion, the people lost heart and let their fears get the best of them. Just like in his experience with the king, though, Nehemiah’s continued response to this dismal affair is the same: he kept on praying (4:9). But the troubles continue in 4:11-12, “And our enemies said, ‘They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them, and put a stop to the work.’ And it came about when the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times, ‘They will come up against us from every place where you may turn.’” This kind of discouragement is common among many Christians today, who see the constant progress of sin and liberalism in the world and feel as if the struggle is not worth the suffering. Finding ourselves surrounded by enemies is enough to put fear into anybody – especially when it seems sometimes like the whole world is against us. With the strength of true leadership, though, Nehemiah responds in 4:14, “When I saw their fear, I rose and spoke to the. . . people: ‘Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your houses.’”
In the end, friends, we have God on our side, and who can separate us from His love (Romans 8:38-39). “Just as it is written, ‘For Thy sake we are being put to death all day long; we were considered as sheep to be slaughtered.’ But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us” (Romans 8:36-37). We do not have to fear the evil in this world. Rather, we must stand up to it and have faith in the wisdom given to us by God through His Gospel. Anxiety is one of our enemies, and it must be killed if we expect to stand up to our enemies – just as Nehemiah found the strength to stand in the presence of the most powerful king in the world, and to take his stand against deadly foes.
It is amazing how detrimental our own self-concept can be to the work of the Lord. Some people see themselves as better than they really are and succumb to greed, hypocrisy, and arrogance, while others become discouraged by how they perceive themselves. Still others see their destitute and weak state and use that perception as motivation to work and improve themselves. We see examples of this concept in the account of Nehemiah, starting with his own perceptions of the weak state of the walls of Jerusalem in Nehemiah 2:12-16. First of all, we must understand that self-examination is a good thing because it leads us to reevaluate our condition, just as it leads Nehemiah to make accurate and logical conclusions about how much work needs to be done to complete the walls and hang the gates. If he had no desire to examine the walls, he would have been ill-prepared to make any judgments. At the same time, though, self-perception means nothing if it is inaccurate – consider, for example, the men described in Luke 18:9 or 2 Corinthians 10:12.
When we read about the broken and burnt stones of Jerusalem, and the exposure of this city to its enemies, it would be too easy to fall into a false perception of weakness, leading to despair. Surely this is what most of the Jews already felt, or else somebody would have come along and rebuilt the wall long ago. Perhaps Nehemiah’s brethren were too preoccupied with their homes to worry about the state of the city at large. The same state is described by the prophet in Haggai 1:4-9, especially in the phrase, “Because My house lies desolate, while each of you runs to his own house.” As yet, no person in Jerusalem had had the selflessness to spearhead a movement to rebuild the walls. They perceived that the job was too great for them and this affected their actions. Do we ever perceive our task as too difficult, or even hopeless? It is quite a charge we are given in Matthew 28 to go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them. Even on a small scale, it is a difficult task to tell a friend or loved one that he is in sin. At times, we may not even try to convert somebody because it seems too hopeless (heavy smokers, for example, and alcoholics, chronic liars, pornography addicts, and other insoluble habits).
The problem with this perception, though, is that if we see ourselves as weak, we always will be weak. The biggest reason the walls of Jerusalem remained broken was because people did not have enough confidence to go out and just get the job done. Sometimes, the main reason why a friend of ours never receives the Gospel is because we lack the confidence in the Word to simply go out and teach it. We forget those immortal words in Romans 1:16, “I am not ashamed of the Gospel, for it is the power of God unto salvation.” If we trust that the Word of God is strong enough, and let it do its work, we will not fail in spreading it.
The flip side of this idea, though, is found in Nehemiah 3:5, “Moreover, next to him the Tekoites made repairs, but their nobles did not support the work of their masters.” While some struggle with a very low self-perception, others seem to easily fall into the trap of an inflated self-perception. That is, they believe they are better than they really are, and view others with contempt. “The upper classes at Tekoah, the adirim or “exalted,” withdrew from the work. . . and stood aloof, leaving it to the common people to engage in it, or not, as they pleased” (Rawlinson, 27). But the arrogance of these nobles is doubly contrasted by the hard work of their peasants, as we see from 3:27 that the Tekoites proceeded to help build another section of wall after completing their own section. This is true today, too, as the zeal and hard work of “small” people puts to shame the laziness and decadence of the pompous.
Of course, the proud people often get to enjoy the benefits of the hard work of the common man, as there is no doubt that these Tekoite nobles were probably quick to take shelter behind the walls once they were completed!
How we see ourselves can either greatly hinder us or greatly help us in our work for God. It can be a powerful enemy that we must fight quickly before it spreads! To the proud, we must say that God will be the judge in the end. To the despondent and depressed, we must remember that we are told in 2 Corinthians 7:6 that God comforts the depressed. We must always strive to fit into neither category, regarding ourselves as what we really are, sinners with hope. Though our own souls, or the state of the church, are at times in disrepair and seemingly without hope, we cannot lose heart and give up when salvation has been brought so close (Ephesians 3:13, Hebrews 12:3).
Greed is a powerful enemy. It has the power to motivate us to do terrible things, to take advantage of innocent people, and stain our names all for the sake of self-gratification. God deplores greed, as is evidenced by the numerous passages of scripture that describe how miserable greed actually makes us feel. Consider Proverbs 15:27, “He who profits from greed troubles his own house.” Also see Proverbs 1:19, in which greed is described as taking away the life of its possessors, and Isaiah 5:8, which says greed isolates people from each other. No good can from greediness or illicitly gained goods. Who will stand before God justified on that last day after having stolen from the poor and given to himself (Proverbs 22:16)? There are two examples of greed that play a key factor in the story of Nehemiah, beginning with what we read in Nehemiah 5:1-8. During a great famine, also described in Haggai 1:9, the wealthier Jews were abusing their poor brethren and, essentially, enslaving them. Because of the famine, and the high demand for food, and also because of a hefty tax placed on the people by the Assyrian government, the poor Jews were left with no choice but to sell their recently released children into slavery to their own brethren! According to Exodus 22:25, Leviticus 25:35-37 and Deuteronomy 23:19, usury, or the often unreasonable exaction of money from loans, was forbidden between fellow Israelites.
Imagine how much greed had to be running through the minds of the wealthy Jews for them to take advantage of the peasants, many of whom were probably alternating their time between rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and trying to harvest their crops during a time of famine! There is nothing that is as cruel and unjust as abusing somebody who is already destitute. Another excellent scripture that deals with this is found in Ezekiel 22:12, “In you they have taken bribes to shed blood; you have taken interest and profits, and you have injured your neighbors for gain by oppression, and you have forgotten Me.”
A second example of greed is Nehemiah 13:10-11. “While the guilt of profaning the temple lay especially with the priestly class, that of withholding the tithes was mainly chargeable to the “rulers,” or “nobles.” These persons, as wealthy landowners had. . . a pecuniary interest in keeping back the tithes” (Rawlinson, 140). Nehemiah had set up the system of paying the Levites their proper portion for their work in the temple (12:47), but since Nehemiah had left Jerusalem for a brief time (13:6), the rules had been relaxed and the service neglected. Each Levite left his post and went to work in his own field. Two sets of people display greed in this passage; the nobles for withholding a payment that was due to the Levites, and the Levites for seeking their own self-interest (they would rather see the house of God left empty than see their fields untended). Do we see now what greed can drive people to do? Under normal circumstances, those Levites would probably never dream of abandoning the temple. But when things got tough and they had to decide between their own fields and the work of God, they made their decision.
There are two lessons to be learned here. First, we cannot become so greedy that we neglect giving of our means to support preachers and help our brethren in need. It is a specific command from God to lay by in store (1 Corinthians 16:1-2, Romans 12:13) and pay the wages of Gospel preachers (1 Corinthians 9:11-14). These nobles did not support the workers of God, but kept back the money for themselves. Second, we must always be careful not to concern ourselves with our own pursuit of wealth in neglect of the spiritual work that needs to be done. It was greed that drove these Levites away from their work, and it is often greed that drives people away from obeying the Truth (like Felix in Acts 24:26 or the rich man in Matthew 19:22).
We have many enemies, but it is often the enemies within our own minds that deceive the easiest. Our own fears and anxieties are constantly working against to stop the good work. Our own self-perception can lead us astray when it is incongruent to the will of God. And greed, in any form, only leads to destruction and vanity. Time prevents us from discussing all of our “self-enemies” – our own ambition when it leads us to hurt others, our pride, our pre-conceived notions and stereotypes, all of our desires and compulsions that pull us away from God.
When we can come to an understanding of our own enemies, we are better equipped to fight them. The best and most profound way of fighting them is with the Word of God. We must study it, love it, learn it, obey it and completely immerse ourselves in it (Psalm 19:7-9). Nehemiah knew his enemies, even the ones that were in his own head. Instead of despairing at the broken walls, he prayed and kept on working. Instead of joining the other nobles in their greed, he rebuked them. Instead of fleeing from the work to pursue his own wealth, he restored the work of the temple and put his life on the line every day make sure that God’s will got done in the city of Jerusalem.
Why will you not fight your enemies? The answer is simple – obey God. Listen to His Words and believe them. Confess that belief. Repent and start fresh. Allow yourself to be immersed in water for the forgiveness of your sins. Live faithfully all the days of your life! “He who believes and is baptized shall be saved” (Mark 16:16).