Jan 15 - Dealing With Opposition To Change

Dealing With Opposition To Change

January 15, 2017

Nehemiah 4



January 15th, 2017

Nehemiah 4




Personal witness re. fasting and prayer to help bring about positive changes in my life (more consistent when it comes to exercising, writing book, better sleep, more prayer, greater joy.  Wasn’t as hard as I had imagined, except in the evenings.  Thankfully only two of those.


The experience reminded me of the verses in Ephesians chapter 1.


May you know the hope to which Jesus Christ has called you, just how wonderful the inheritance is among the saints, and what the immeasurable greatness of his power is toward us who believe.  Ephesians 1:18-19,  


We are continuing on in our message on Nehemiah as we look at chapter 4 and the opposition that Nehemiah faced as building of the wall around Jerusalem continued. 


It is the year 444 BC, and Nehemiah received permission from the Persian king Artaxerxes I to leave the royal court in Susa and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem which had been destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar about 150 years previously (586 BC). 


1. Dealing with opposition (ridicule)


Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews.  And he said in the presence of his brothers and the army of Samaria [Not just in Samaria.  In fact Nehemiah comments in v,5 on the fact that Sanballad and Tobiah said what they did in front of those who were building the wall.  So they took the army along in order to intimidate those building the wall, and had to shout out their comments so that it would be heard.]

“What are these feeble Jews doing?  [He accuses those who are working of being feeble, that is physically too weak to do the work]

Will they restore the wall by themselves?  [They can’t do this on their own.  They lack the resources and knowhow and stamina]

Will they sacrifice? [This is not a comment on the temple.  It had already stood for decades and sacrifices had taken place all that time.  No, he puts into question their resolve. They won’t be able to sacrifice their bodies and their income as necessary]

Will they finish up in a day? [The implication here is that it will take them a long, long time to rebuild because they lack the knowledge, strength, and resolve]

Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?”  [Here he ridicules their efforts to re-use the damaged and burned stones from the former wall.  It can’t be done.  They too badly damaged.  Give up!]

Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building - if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”  [Here the other major opponent of Nehemiah chimes in and comments on the quality of the work.  It is so poorly constructed that it will fall over even at the slightest bump] 

Nehemiah 4:1-3


So Sanballad and Tobiah were publicly ridiculing the process and effort of those who were rebuilding the wall.


Ridicule is a tactic with a number of purposes.  For one, it is a way of gaining status in the eyes of those listening.  "Hey, look at Joe, he can’t even comb his hair.” He is not worth having as a friend.  Why not join me in laughing at him.


If I can make the other person look bad or stupid, that will discredit the person in the eyes of others, and thus increases my status. 


But ridicule is also a tactic to purposefully hurt another person.  It is a way of inflicting emotional pain. Intentionally hurting another person is a way of getting back at a person or lashing out at them. 


Thirdly, ridicule is meant to demoralize someone.


“You’re so incompetent that if you try this you’re a nincompoop.”  “Wow, your painting is really bad. Face it, you’re just not an artist.”  “When you fail, and you will, you will demonstrate what a loser you really are.”


In this case, the overall desire was to discourage those who were building the wall to the point where they would give up on the project.   


This is the third time that we hear about Sanballat.  He was a Samaritan leader who lived in Samaria.  He was also an official of the Persian Empire, possibly the governor of Samaria.


Similarly, his associate Tobiah was a Persian official in Ammon, a region on the East side of the Jordan river - possibly the governor of that region.  Given his name, Tobiah was likely a Jew. 


Another political leader opposed to the building of the wall, not as persistent as the other two, is called Geshem (Neh 2:19; 6:1,2) or Gashmu (Neh 6:6).  He is the only Arabian mentioned in the whole of the Bible by name. 


He was from the region south of Judah and Edom, outside of Persian influence.  Egyptian records of that time speak of a Gashmu as the king of Kedar, one of the main Arab groups at that time. Similarly, a list of kings from the Arabian city state of Dedan, located in what today is northern Saudi Arabia, mentions an Arabian king called Gashmu.  Since the names match to Nehemiah, this is very likely one and the same person.


The three men had previously accused Nehemiah of rebelling against the Persian king (Neh 2:19), in the hopes of intimidating him into giving up on the project to rebuild the wall.  Their threat was really to send an emissary to Susa to report that Nehemiah was in open revolt against Artaxerxes decree, 10 years previously, that prohibited the walls from being rebuilt.


Obviously these men were unaware at the time, that Nehemiah had been given express permission by Artaxerxes to do exactly what they opposed.   


In our passage, Nehemiah records the fact that Sanballat was extremely angry when he saw the wall actually being rebuilt.  Why was that?  What was at stake here?


Nehemiah might have been tempted into thinking that Sanballat and Tobiah were simply being unreasonable or inexplicably evil.  However, there were a number of factors that actually played a role in what took place. 


For one, Sanballat and Tobiah had a high standing and a lot of influence in Jerusalem.  Tobiah was the son-in-law of a very influential and prominent man in town (Shecaniah - Neh 6:18).[1]  Tobias had also married off his son to the daughter of another very prominent man in town (Meshullah - Neh 6:18; 8:7).  Thirdly, we are told that he was related to the powerful chief priest at that time, Eliashib - Neh 13:4). 


This got him a lot of traction in Jerusalem, to the point that Nehemiah was constantly being told about the virtues of Tobiah by Tobiah’s supporters (Neh 6:19).  Not only that, Tobiah had the annoying habit of sending letters to Nehemiah with the express purpose of intimidating him (Neh 6:19).


Sanballat had a similar family connection in Jerusalem.  He had married off his daughter to a grandson of the high priest (Eliashib - Neh 13:28). 


So, while the high priest was very influential and had a very large house that abutted the wall of the City (Neh. 3:20-12), it should come as no surprise to us that he was not supportive of or actively involved in the rebuilding of the wall - he was related through marriage to both Tobiah and Sanballat. 


Sanballat and Tobiah clearly saw that their influence was threatened if Nehemiah was successful, because that would mean that people would listen to him and follow his direction instead of theirs.  They felt threatened by Nehemiah’s influence over the people in Jerusalem and the region surrounding them. 


And their fears were well founded.  Nehemiah had made it very clear to them that he intended to destroy their influence. He told them that they no longer hand any “portion, right or claim” in the city (Neh 2:20). 


Secondly, Nehemiah tells us in this book, that Sanballat and Tobiah were opposed to the returnees regaining a sense of strength and status (Neh 2:10), Having them back from Babylon was OK as long as they were at the mercy of Samaria or Ammon or Arabia. 


So how did Nehemiah deal with the jeering?  Well, for one, he was very much aware of their motives. So when dealing with opposition, for example, in the form of ridicule ...



a. It is helpful to understand the reason for the opposition. 


As I already mentioned, ridicule is an attempt to assert social dominance and manipulate others into doing what they want them to do. It is a way of putting the other person down in order to elevate one’s own standing. 


b. It is helpful to already have a plan how to deal with the feelings that opposition (in this case ridicule).


And at first ridicule will always sting. It is hurtful and embarrassing. But if we react to it, if our pain or displeasure or anger shows, then the person who is doing the demeaning has achieved their goal.


If we then retaliate, the person who is ridiculing us really knows that they have got to us.  That they have hurt us and discouraged us.  So what to do? 


i. I will not take the bait (be annoyed, get angry, or retaliate)


I will stay calm.  I will stay cool.  I know that will be really hard to do, but it takes the power out of their words. This may be a pretend calm to begin with, but if they don’t see me reacting to their insults, they will realize that their tactic is simply not working. 


Rather than get afraid or sad or lash out in revenge, Nehemiah simply blew off the taunts and took the matter to God, asking God to bring justice into the situation and punish Sanballat and Tobiah.[2]  


ii. I will ooze self-confidence


Again, that may be pretense to begin with. However, even if I stand up straight, act confident and unconcerned or humoured by the attack, no matter how much the comment may hurt, and walk away calmly, they will look and feel silly.  They will not look better in the eyes of others, their status won’t increase, and they will think that their efforts to hurt you have had the intended effect.


By the way, the ultimate defense against ridicule is self-acceptance, because when we accept ourselves, it leads to real self-confidence.  The more we struggle with our self-acceptance or self-image, the more we will be prone to be hurt by and react to ridicule. 


iii. I will get to the point where their opinion no longer matters to me.


I know that sounds rather harsh.  But the reality is that if we want to get to the point where ridicule doesn’t negatively affect us, then the emotional hold that the other person has over us will need to be broken.  


Now, while the intimidation tactics did not work on Nehemiah, they did in fact discourage on the people who lived in the regions surrounding Jerusalem. 


In Judah it was said, “The strength of those who are carrying the stones is failing because there is too much rubble.  By ourselves we will never be able to rebuild the wall.”                                                                Nehemiah 4:10


This echoes the very words of Sanballat.  However, the people who were actually doing the work weren’t discouraged in the least.  They just redoubled their efforts.


So we continued to build the wall.  And the whole wall was joined together up to half its height, for the people were determined in their work.


This again infuriated those who saw their dominance in the region and their personal clout in Jerusalem lessened.


But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and those from Ammon and Ashdod heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were starting to be closed, they were very angry.  And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it. 

                                                            Nehemiah 4:6-8


When Sanballat and Tobias realized that their tactic to intimidate and discourage the people who were building the walls didn’t work, they went to some other regional leaders who might be frightened at the thought of Jerusalem becoming a fortified city again.  And together they devised a plot to attack the city. 


By the way, you already know where Ammon, Samaria and Arabia were.  Ashdod is a powerful city on the Mediterranean coast almost due west of Jerusalem, traditionally inhabited by the Philistines. 


You have the Province of Samaria to the North, the Land of Ammon to the East, Arabia to the South, and now Ashdod to the West.  The force basically surrounds Judah and Jerusalem on four sides.


So the various groups started to get together to plot what they were hoping would be a surprise attack.


And our enemies said, “They will not notice anything or see us until we are already among them.  We will kill them and so the work will stop.                      Nehemiah 4:11 


The threat of attack was real.  Thankfully, Nehemiah and those with him heard about these plans.  We are told that the Jewish people who lived in the vicinity of the various enemies heard about the plan and spilled the beans. 


At the time the Jews who lived in those areas came from all directions and said to us at least ten times, “From all quarters they will come upon you.”        Nehemiah 4:12[3]


So as a result, Nehemiah got the people ready for battle in a number of ways. 


And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. ...

Where there were still openings I stationed the people by their clans below the wall, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. ... 

Half of my servants worked on construction and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail.  And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah, who were building on the wall.   Nehemiah 4:9,13,16-17


First of all they prayed, by the way, one of the most underrated strategies, sometimes even for believers. 


We sometimes pray when we are desperate, but most of us don’t think about it in the daily struggles that we face


By the way, I don’t think that intermittent fasting in and of itself has any value in bringing about positive change in our lives other than possibly some health benefits.  It is the prayer in conjunction with fasting that makes all the difference. 


Then Nehemiah set an armed guard during the day and through the night consisting of those within Jerusalem and those in Judah who were in support of the project.


Nehemiah grouped the guard according to family and clan, appointed clan leaders to be in charge, and had them armed with a variety of weapons.


Although it would slow down the construction, Nehemiah decided to use half of his workforce as sentinels and guards.


Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each laboured on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.  And each of the builders had his sword strapped at his side while he built.  The man who sounded the trumpet was beside me.  And I said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and widely spread, and we are separated on the wall, far from one another.  In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there.  Our God will fight for us.”


Then he made sure that the half who were working on the wall were armed as well. 


And he set up a system whereby the troops could be rallied by means of a trumpet.


So we laboured at the work, and half of them held the spears from the break of dawn until the stars came out.  I also said to the people at that time, “Let every man and his servant pass the night within Jerusalem, that they may be a guard for us by night and may labour by day.”  So neither I nor my brothers nor my servants nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us took off our clothes; each kept his weapon at his right hand.

                                                            Nehemiah 4:21-23


Everyone was told to stay overnight in the city so that there was a greater force to protect it should an attack occur.


And finally, everyone just stayed dressed, prepared to fight. 


It must have been a smelly couple of months, but all of these precautions actually had the effect of discouraging their opponents from even attacking.


Why is it, that in general, we are so resistant to positive change?  Why is it that most New Year’s resolutions fail? It is because of the barriers and opposition to positive change in our lives.


a. Demotivating thoughts and discouraging words


Well, for one, much like the discouraging words from Sanballad and Tobiah, we could tell ourselves that change for the better, while desirable, is simply not possible for us, or maybe not possible at this time. What if we can’t keep up the change and fail miserably?


If that is the case, much like the people of Judah we can say, “I am simply too feeble, too weak, the challenge is too great. Why not give up!” 

I think it was Henry Ford who quipped, “If you think you can do something or you think you can’t do something, you’re right.” 


If a good friend told you that she was going to change this year ... that this year was going to be different.  This year she will stop doing what she’s always done, and do what needs to be done, in order to achieve the change she wants to achieve. 


Would you support her, or would you discourage her with doubt and negative words?  My guess is that you would encourage her. 


However, often we aren’t a friend to ourselves.  We don’t encourage ourselves or believe in ourselves.  The reality is that we need to send ourselves supportive and encouraging messages:  “This year WILL be different.  I CAN do this this year.  In fact I WILL do this this year.” 


b. Fear of what positive change may mean


I spoke about this last week as well.  An obstacle as big or bigger than the negative self-talk, is fear.  We are afraid of the negative consequences of changing for the better. This is the attack that is threatened. That may sound odd, but it’s true. 


Change intimidates us because we are afraid of the risks involved in positive change. 


We may be seriously afraid of the potential consequences. What will it mean to have to do without something?  What will it be like living with a new reality

Will I gain weight if I do this?  Will I be more stressed out?  Will I be unhappy?  What if I change careers?  Will I lose money?  No longer hang out at the pub - will I loose friends?  Will I compromise my comfort?  Will I lose my peace of mind?  Will I lose control over others or the ability to intimidate them and make them do what I want?  I’m not sure that I want to risk it. 


Yes, exercising is healthy for me, but it’s just another thing to squeeze into my impossible schedule, and I’m too exhausted already to do something strenuous. And it makes me sweat and sticky and smelly.


So how do we set a guard against the attack of fear?  I think we need to get rid of all the excuses and all the fear and embrace change as necessary, good, and positive.  Yes, it may not be the easiest thing, and maybe there will be some failures, and I will be put out, but given that the change is positive, who cares!


So let’s deal with the barriers.  Maybe, instead of putting another thing into my overworked life, I need to cut things out and declutter and destress my life so I can enjoy it again. 


Maybe I need to break down the amount of time necessary in the change into smaller increments.  So I’m too tired to walk 1 hour a day.  What about ½ hour? 


If I’m too self-conscious to exercise in public, let’s do this at home, or work on getting over my personal insecurities and lack of self-confidence. 


What do I need to do in order to get myself unstuck?  Do I actually need to write down all the things that I will gain and lose if I should implement this change?  The pros and cons?


The second thing I need to do is arm myself.  I need to have a plan.  A strategy.  What resources do I need to bring about this change?  Do I need to join a health club, get a supply of nicotine patches, or find an activity that destresses me enough to keep me from drinking alcohol?  Instead of going to the pub with a friend, I’ll go to a movie instead. Or I’ll go for a 15 minute walk, or I’ll do some deep breathing exercises.  Maybe I need an accountability person or a work-out buddy


I need to get an arsenal of these “weapons” in order to keep my resolve from eroding.


You realize that we become what we repeatedly do.  Creating a new habit is the only way to go if we want a change in our lives.  And it takes about 52 days to create a new habit. 


So why is it that most New Year’s resolutions fail to make it to day 52?  Because of the negative voices and because of fear. 


By the way, when 52 days are over, then we have incorporated the change in our lives and we enter the maintenance stage.  At this point the work is to prevent relapse and to make it an even more integral part of life.


But that is something we will deal with in chapter 6 of Nehemiah. 


There is the reality, spoken of in the NT, that the work that Jesus did, his suffering and death and resurrection and ascension, did much more than just allow us to be forgiven of our past mistakes. 

There is the empowerment that we often don’t experience or take advantage of.  And so we go about doing the same old mistakes over and over again, and we get stuck in a negative rut that God does not want us to be in. 


Yes, there will be negative forces that will seek to keep us from positive change.  What are you and I going to do about those?

My final questions are the very same ones I had last week.




Don’t try to do too much too soon.  Start to build one good habit or get rid of one bad habit. 




Am I telling myself the wrong message, a discouraging message.  Am I being a bad friend to myself?




[1] Possibly one of those who returned with Ezra (Ezra 8:3; also mentioned in 1 Chron 3:21-22), or the one who supported the initial reforms of Ezra (Ezra 10:2).  Less likely, the father of Shemaiah who helped repair the wall (Neh 3:29).

[2] Turn back their taunts on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives.  Neh 4:8

[3] This is from the LXX since the MT really makes little sense.