7. Restoring the Wall (Nehemiah 2:9-7:73)

Audio (54:40)

James J. Tissot, ‘Nehemiah Sees the Rubble in Jerusalem’ (1896-1903), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.
James J. Tissot, 'Nehemiah Sees the Rubble in Jerusalem' (1896-1903), gouache on board, The Jewish Museum, New York.

God has answered Nehemiah's prayer and helped the Jews. And so Nehemiah begins the arduous journey along the Euphrates, across the desert to Syria, then south to Jerusalem.

He is a devout believer -- and, as wine steward of the king, understands the world of palace intrigue. But does he have the skills to lead people? Yes. God, the ultimate Personnel Manager, has selected well. Nehemiah travels to Judah (the Persian province of Yehud (Judah) as the king's newly-appointed governor.

Consternation among Judah's Enemies (Nehemiah 2:9-10)

"So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king's letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me." (Nehemiah 2:9)

Nehemiah's appearance, arriving in the cities of the Satrapy of Abar-Nahara ("Beyond the River") with royal cavalry escorting him, carrying letters from the king, has a devastating effect on Judah's enemies. Artaxerxes had approved their anti-Jewish building ban, but now that has been completely reversed. The Jews have royal authority to proceed with rebuilding Jerusalem's walls. Any interference could be construed as obstructing the king's command, so you'll notice in this lesson that most of their opposition amounts only to bluffs, rather than actual physical interference.

"When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites." (Nehemiah 2:10)

More on Nehemiah's enemies shortly.

Nehemiah Inspects Jerusalem's Walls (Nehemiah 2:11-16)

Landmarks in Building the Wall of Jerusalem
Landmarks in Building the Wall of Jerusalem (Larger map)

Notice carefully Nehemiah's strategy. He is being closely watched, so he doesn't do much for his first three days in the city. Then he acts in secret.

"11 I went to Jerusalem, and after staying there three days 12 I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem. There were no mounts with me except the one I was riding on.

13 By night I went out through the Valley Gate toward the Jackal Well and the Dung Gate, examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire.
14 Then I moved on toward the Fountain Gate and the King's Pool, but there was not enough room for my mount to get through; 15 so I went up the valley by night, examining the wall. Finally, I turned back and reentered through the Valley Gate." (Nehemiah 2:11-15)

We can't be sure about all the locations. However, the Valley Gate seems to open on the west into the Hinnom Valley.[194] The Dung Gate is about 500 yards south of the Valley Gate,[195] at the southwest corner of the wall, probably opposite the refuse heap of Jerusalem.[196] Perhaps it was a place of perpetual burning as garbage was burned there outside the city.[197] Dung Gate is probably an alternative name for the Potsherd (rubbish) Gate of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 19:2). The Fountain Gate seems to have led to the spring En Rogel, while the Water Gate, farther north along the east wall of the city led to the Gihon spring. The King's Pool probably refers to what was later called the Pool of Siloam.[198]]

"The officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, because as yet I had said nothing to the Jews or the priests or nobles or officials or any others who would be doing the work." (Nehemiah 2:16)

Though it is often wise to work in collaboration with others where there is an agreed upon objective, in this case, Nehemiah doesn't yet have people in the city that he can trust. He must do his homework. If he presents his plan for rebuilding without careful study, it will be rejected out of hand. The response might be, "Who is this who comes from Susa to tell us what to do? What does he know?"

Nehemiah Reveals His Plan (Nehemiah 2:17-18)

So Nehemiah studies and plans in secret. Only when he is ready does he reveal his plan and work to get the local residents excited about it.

"Then I said to them, 'You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.'" (Nehemiah 2:17)

He begins with the obvious problem, then provides a solution, and explains the resources at his disposal.

"I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, 'Let us start rebuilding.' So they began this good work." (Nehemiah 2:18)

Nehemiah explains:

  1. Enemies. King Artaxerxes has reversed his anti-building edict, and has sent Nehemiah with the specific task of rebuilding the walls. They now have the king's protection.

  2. Leadership. Nehemiah has been appointed governor of the province. As we'll see, he is a skilled leader.
  3. Materials. The king has provided for the timbers necessary to rebuild the gates, as the original timbers had been destroyed when the city was burned by the Babylonians. Many other repairs can be made with the cut stones recoverable from the rubble of the previous walls.
  4. Labor. As we'll see in Nehemiah 3, he presents a plan to divide up the huge project among the locals, so that the project doesn't seem as overwhelming.

Enemy Reactions (Nehemiah 2:19-20)

The enemies of the Jews don't take long to respond with an accusation.

"But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. 'What is this you are doing?' they asked. 'Are you rebelling against the king?'" (Nehemiah 2:19)

The enemies initially come with two responses: (1) ridicule, and (2) a renewed accusation of rebellion against Artaxerxes. At this time, Nehemiah doesn't waste time answering or defending their mocking. They know he has the king's authorization, so they are powerless to bring a new charge of rebellion, as they had previously (Ezra 4:7-23). Instead, he points to God's help and blessing.

"The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it." (Nehemiah 2:20)

As the king's governor of the province, Nehemiah denies them any role in the rebuilding project, as had Zerubbabel and Jeshua when the temple was rebuilt (Ezra 4:3). He knows that any offer to help that they make is insincere. Their real desire is to stop the project any way they can. So he excludes them from being part of the project.

Which Walls Were Rebuilt in Nehemiah's Time?

It is not clear exactly which walls were in place in Nehemiah's day. There is some attempt to repair the walls and gates when Ezra comes (Ezra 4:12-13), but that effort is stopped when Jerusalem's enemies complain to the king.

Some mapmakers in our day show a larger city in Nehemiah's time, but it had shrunk since its heyday under David and his descendants, and had few residents (Nehemiah 11). Apparently walls farther west had been abandoned, and the west wall of the city was now just east of the Hinnom Brook. At the top of the eastern ridge of the City of David, Nehemiah and the returned exiles build a new city wall. Although they simply repair the pre-existing walls elsewhere in the city, the wall just above the steep Kidron Valley is too damaged and too difficult to mend. So they relocate the eastern wall higher up the slope and, according to Eilat Mazar, build it directly on top of a ruined wall of King David's palace and its massive rampart.[199]

Builders of the Wall (Nehemiah 3)

Nehemiah 3 details how the wall is rebuilt. Nehemiah divides the task into 41 different sections, some larger, some smaller, according to the number and wealth of those recruited for the task.

Read this chapter, skipping all the hard-to-pronounce names. You'll see a number of wealthy individuals who take a section, involve their offspring in the task, or pay workmen to repair it. Mashullum son of Bereciah repair two sections (4:3, 30). In other cases, various organized groups take their parts.

  • Priests from Jerusalem (verses 1, 22) and the surrounding region (verse 28)
  • Goldsmiths (verses 8, 31-32)
  • Perfume-makers (verse 9)
  • Levites (verse 17)
  • Temple servants (verse 26)
  • Guard of the East Gate (verse 29)
  • Merchants (verse 32)

Leaders from surrounding towns where the Jews lived, make their section a community project. They bring workers from their towns to complete their assigned portions. We see workers from:

  • Jerusalem (verses 9, 12)
  • Jericho (verse 2)2)
  • Tekoa (verses 5, 27)
  • Gibeon (verse 7)
  • Mizpah (verses 7, 15, 19)
  • Zanoah (verse 13)
  • Beth Hakkerem (verse 14)
  • Ben Zur (verse 16)
  • Keilah (verses 17-18)8)

The Province of Judah (Yehud) about 440 BC.
The Province of Judah (Yehud) about 440 BC. Larger map.

A number of people repair sections of the wall next to their houses (verses 23, 28-30). You can be sure they didn't want the sections of the wall close to their home to fail under attack!

We see a couple of interesting comments:

  • "The nobles [of Tekoa] would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors" (verse 5). The nobles felt they were too good to work under a mere foreman. Pride.
  • "Shallum ... repaired the next section with the help of his daughters" (verse 12). Building isn't considered "woman's work," but Shallum's daughters are heavily involved in their father's project.

Rebuilding the Gates

Several times we read about the rebuilding of a gate.

"They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts[200] and bars in place" (Nehemiah 3:3, 6, 13-15).

Gates are the most vulnerable parts of a city's fortifications. Jerusalem in Nehemiah's time has nine gates. If one of these fails, the entire city can be taken. So they are built carefully.

A gate system would have a beam that supports the masonry above the gate opening. A pair of doors swing on projections that fit into sockets in the sill and lintel. The gates are made of heavy planks, perhaps plated with metal to keep them from burning (Psalm 107:16; Isaiah 45:2). The gate is locked at night with one or two large bars that are fitted into clamps on the doors. Above each gate are towers where defenders can rain down arrows, rocks, and perhaps fire upon attackers. [201]

Project Management

If you've ever managed a large project, you can understand that Nehemiah doesn't begin to rebuild three days after he arrives. Here's what Nehemiah's task entails:

  1. Assessing the task. This begins with Nehemiah's night reconnaissance of the wall (Nehemiah 2:11-16).
  2. Communicating his vision of the completed wall. Most of the Jews have lived in Judah for 10 to 70 years by the time Nehemiah comes. They are used to the status quo. Many are discouraged from previous setbacks. Others owe political favors to Nehemiah's enemies, especially Tobiah (Nehemiah 6:17-19). Nehemiah helps them understand the advantages of a completed wall and a secure city.
  3. Dividing the task into manageable sections. This probably works in tandem with how many leaders he can recruit.
  4. Recruiting leaders for each section, 41 in all. These are individuals who lead groups of men, or are wealthy enough to pay for workers to help. Nehemiah needs to convince them to take on such a project at their own expense! This must have taken some time, but has to be completed before construction begins so that work can take place simultaneously all around the city.
  5. Gathering materials for the task includes ordering timber from Lebanon for the beams of the gate structures. Everything has to be on site before construction begins. Quarries supply stones to replace those that are unusable from the existing rubble.
  6. Training and Direction. Nehemiah provides instruction and training for each of the 41 sectional teams. One of the first tasks, for example, is to clear the heaps of burned rubble and identify usable stones to place in the rebuilt wall (Nehemiah 4:2, 10). That alone takes a great deal of labor. Each team needs instruction in how to move and set huge stones. Some teams have to reconstruct complex gates and towers.
  7. Building a Management Team. Nehemiah doubtless assembles a management team to handle different aspects of the project. He probably appoints several leaders, each of whom manages several of the 41 wall construction teams, as well as logistics manager and military commanders to organize the defense.

We're not told how long these preparations take. But when they begin, the people work with all their heart and the entire project is completed in under two months.

"The wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days." (Nehemiah 6:15-16)

But we're getting ahead of ourselves. During construction Nehemiah is working hard as well.

  1. Ongoing management of people and problems. When you have 41 teams working simultaneously, you are required to manage personalities and problems, competition for resources, and unanticipated needs that occur.
  2. Security. We see in Nehemiah 4:16-21 that partway through the rebuilding project Nehemiah had to assign half his workforce to defense. This slows completion, but is necessary. Since the workforce is made up of 41 teams, managing defense is a complex task.

Where does Nehemiah get the experience and ability to lead such a huge task? We're not sure of all the roles required of a cupbearer to the Persian king. Did he lead a staff in the palace? Perhaps. Certainly he observed how the king organized and delegated authority. It's obvious that Artaxerxes has confidence in his abilities, or he wouldn't have sent him with the authority of governor. No doubt, Nehemiah is a remarkable leader.

As governor, Nehemiah supervises the entire project, but it could have been completed in less than two months only if it were superbly organized and supervised.

Why try to build the wall all at once rather than in pieces, one at a time? I see two main reasons:

  1. Security. The city needs immediate security. A years-long wall construction process would have given many opportunities for military attacks by Jerusalem's enemies. A quick construction gives the enemy only a narrow window of time to attack, and Nehemiah's heavy guard forestalls such an attack until the wall is complete.
  2. Forestalling appeals. Jerusalem's enemies have a history of stopping wall repair by appeals to the Persian king (Ezra 4:5-23; 5:1-17). With a two-month construction period, there isn't enough time to send a message to Mesopotamia and then get back a reply before the wall is fully repaired. At that point, any order to cease repair is moot.

Q1. (Nehemiah 3) Why does Nehemiah need to build the walls quickly? Why does he assign so many teams? What motivates these teams? What kinds of problems would Nehemiah need to solve with so many teams working simultaneously?

Opposition to Rebuilding (Nehemiah 4)

The Scripture lists three primary enemy leaders.

  1. Sanballat the Horonite. Sanballat leads the Samaritan opposition. According to an Aramaic papyri from Elephantine, he is governor of the Persian province of Syria. Sanballat I is contemporary with Nehemiah, about 444 BC. Later, the son of Jehoiada marries his daughter (Nehemiah 13:28).[202]
  2. Tobiah the Ammonite official. He may have had the status of governor over Ammonite territory, east of Judah. A family by his name is prominent in Ammon during the Persian period. Tobiah seems be of Jewish descent and has close ties to the temple and Jewish nobility. Many influential people are bound to him by oaths (Nehemiah 6:17-19), making him particularly dangerous, since he has a lot to lose from Nehemiah's reforms. He also occupies a chamber in the temple precincts during Nehemiah's absence from Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:4-9), threatens military raids against Jerusalem while the walls were being built (Nehemiah 4:7-9), and seeks to lure Nehemiah out of the city to assassinate him (Nehemiah 6:1-3). [203]
  3. Geshem the Arab seems to be the chief of an Arabian tribe that has settled in the area (Nehemiah 2:19; 6:1-2, 6). His name appears on a silver vessel about 40 years after Nehemiah's time. Apparently, Geshem and his son rule a league of Arabian tribes that have taken control of Moab and Edom, to the south and east of Judah.[204]

Taunts from the Enemies (Nehemiah 4:1-6)

Certainly the surrounding province leaders are worried as the project begins. In chapter 4 we meet Sanballat and his associate Tobiah.

"When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed."[205] (Nehemiah 4:1a)

Sanballat is extremely upset. The defenseless city over which could previously exercise some control, is repairing its fortifications. Soon it will be impregnable -- and independent from his domination. So he and his associate resort to mocking and jeering.

"1b He ridiculed the Jews, 2 and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, 'What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble -- burned as they are?'

3 Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, 'What they are building -- if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!'" (Nehemiah 4:1b-3)

The Jews have tried to rebuild the walls before and failed. Again, Sanballat and Tobiah try to undermine their confidence. The reference to sacrifice may mean something like, "Do you expect to pray the wall into existence?" They point out the huge amount of work involved in recovering the stones from the piles of rubble -- and indeed it was hard, tiring work (Nehemiah 4:10).

When we seek to serve the Lord, sometimes our friends mock us and tell us that we can't do it, that we'll fall back into our old ways. Sometimes, when we sin, Satan mocks us. "What a hypocrite you are! You claim to be a Christian, but you keep doing the same sins." But with God, we can rise above failure. The answer is to look to God for help.

Instead of wasting time answering the insults[206] of the enemy, or demanding a duel or battle to vindicate the Jews, Nehemiah calls upon God to vindicate their cause (Nehemiah 4:4-5) -- just as Jesus did not answer his accusers and those who mocked him (1 Peter 2:23).

The Jews ignore the insults and keep working. Good morale and diligent leadership keep them moving forward.

"So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart." (Nehemiah 4:6)

As other translations put it, "the people had a mind to work" (NRSV, ESV, KJV).[207] This refers to the Jews' morale, vision, hope, and will. They enthusiastically build until all the gaps are closed -- at least to half the height. Now any would-be attackers will be forced to scale some height of wall at the very least.

Threat of Attack (Nehemiah 4:7-9)

But morale is a fickle thing. It can turn to despair and discouragement. It is that morale that Judah's enemies try to attack next, this time with fear.

"7 But when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod heard that the repairs to Jerusalem's walls had gone ahead and that the gaps were being closed, they were very angry. 8 They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it." (Nehemiah 4:7-8)

Those who want to keep Judah weak are upset at the Jews' progress. If they're going to stop the Jews with military force, they need to do it before the wall gets any higher.

We've met most of these enemies before -- Sanballat, Tobiah, and Gesher. But "the men of Ashdod" is a new threat. Ashdod is an old Philistine city on the Mediterranean, about 40 miles (62 kilometers) west of Jerusalem. Ashdod still has interests in the area, and later intermarries with the Jews -- against God's command (Nehemiah 13:3-4).

Sanballat seems to have organized this military alliance[208] to attack Jerusalem.[209] Nehemiah responds with a two-fold strategy:

"But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat." (Nehemiah 4:9)

Nehemiah begins with prayer. God is the nation's ultimate Protector. First, Nehemiah seeks Him. Then he responds with practical action by posting a 24-hour guard to protect the city, soon to be strengthened further by arming the workers themselves (verses 13-23).

Sometimes people think that if you pray, you shouldn't take any action yourself. To do so would indicate distrust in God, they say. But the Biblical pattern is to pray and then to take whatever action God seems to show you. We pray that God will meet all our needs, but we also seek a job. These are not incompatible.

Discouragement and Fear (Nehemiah 4:10-13)

Nehemiah faces an external threat from Judah's enemies, but also twin internal threats: discouragement and fear.

The wall is half its height, but the workers are exhausted. Can they keep up the pace that Nehemiah has set to complete the project? There are the inevitable complainers and whiners.

"The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall." (Nehemiah 4:10)

In addition to exhaustion, there is fear, which can be contagious. The enemies' fear campaign is having an effect on morale.

"11 Also our enemies said, 'Before they know it or see us, we will be right there among them and will kill them and put an end to the work.' 12 Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, 'Wherever you turn, they will attack us.'" (Nehemiah 4:11-12)

It sounds like some were panicking and spreading their fears.

Whether or not the fear is warranted, Nehemiah realizes that even the perception of danger can derail the rebuilding project. So he develops a two-fold plan to provide a defense: (1) reinforce the most vulnerable places in the wall, and (2) arm the workers so as to provide security even while they are working.

Reinforcing the Low Points, Encouraging Faith (Nehemiah 4:13-14)

Nehemiah gives orders to reinforce the guard at the weakest parts of the wall.

"13 Therefore I stationed some of the people behind the lowest points of the wall at the exposed places, posting them by families, with their swords, spears and bows. 14 After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, 'Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.'" (Nehemiah 4:13-14)

Nehemiah makes sure the defense force is well-armed and placed strategically. This is not a professional army; none is available. Rather, he uses family groups, knowing that family members will fight ferociously for each other. Then he gives them a pep-talk:

  1. Don't be afraid.
  2. Remember the Lord's awesome power.
  3. Fight for your families. He reminds them that they're not defending Jerusalem because they've been conscripted. He makes it personal. This is a personal battle for your family's survival. And to underscore the point, he has family groups and clans fighting alongside each other.

Nehemiah takes prudent actions to defend the city and rebuild it, but he is fully aware that it is the Lord who is the real Defender and Builder.

"Unless the LORD builds the house,
its builders labor in vain.
Unless the LORD watches over the city,
the watchmen stand guard in vain." (Psalm 127:1)

Nehemiah's response is effective.

"When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to his own work." (Nehemiah 4:15)

Judah's enemies see Jerusalem's walls bristling with armed men and they know they have lost the element of surprise. God has "frustrated" their plot.[210] Even more important, the Jews feel secure enough to return to the task of rebuilding. Rather than giving up the work in panic and confusion, they resume the task with even greater focus, because they realize of the consequences if they fail to complete the wall.

Citizen Soldiers (Nehemiah 4:16-23)

'Guarding the Builders on Jerusalem's wall' (artist unknown)
'Guarding the Builders on Jerusalem's wall' (artist unknown)

Nehemiah doesn't relax his vigilance once the immediate threat has been overcome. Rather, he directs that each group of workers has its own armed guard -- half guarding, half working.

 "16 From that day on, half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor. The officers posted themselves behind all the people of Judah 17 who were building the wall. Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, 18 and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked." (Nehemiah 4:16-18a)

The result of this is a sudden drop in productivity, since defense takes a great investment in personnel. But it is necessary.

Nehemiah arranges a signal: "When you hear the sound of my trumpet, gather to me and fight" (Nehemiah 4:18b-21).

As part of the defense, Nehemiah has all the workers stay inside the city at night rather than returning to their villages outside the city. Moreover, Nehemiah and his bodyguards set the personal example of constant preparedness. What the people see their leaders doing, they are likely to emulate (Nehemiah 4:1-23).

When all is said and done, the huge personnel commitment to defense has the result that Jerusalem's enemies are afraid to attack. And so the restoration continues to completion -- more slowly, yes, but safely.

Rebuilding the Walls of Our Lives

Bible expositor Ray Stedman (1917-1992) observes,

"You will never build the walls of your life until you have first become greatly concerned about the ruins. Have you ever taken a good look at the ruins in your own life?"[211]

Leaning to protect ourselves from Satan's attacks is vital. If we are so vulnerable to temptation that Satan can savage our lives at will, we find it difficult to grow. Sometimes we blithely go through our lives without understanding of the enemy's plots and devices (2 Corinthians 2:10-11). We don't take the devil's power seriously, and fail daily to arm ourselves. We identify triggers that lead to sin, for example, and take steps to avoid those situations.

Paul issues a militant command:

"10 Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. 11 Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes. 12 For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. 13 Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand." (Ephesians 6:10-13)

When we live our days prepared for battle, we're much less likely to be attacked in our areas of weakness. Time invested in our own spiritual preparedness and defense allows us to continue our work on God's priorities without being distracted so easily by sin.

Q2. (Nehemiah 4) How does Nehemiah respond to his enemies' ridicule? How does Nehemiah respond to military threats? What effect does this have on construction? How does Nehemiah respond to discouragement and fear in the people? How do you respond to discouragement and fear? What "walls" need to be rebuilt in your life to protect you from temptation and sin?

Dealing with Greed and Disregard for the Poor (Nehemiah 5:1-18)

But now another problem comes to Nehemiah's attention -- greed and disregard for the poor. This isn't directly related to the effort to build the wall -- but it may have been addressed during this period. The wall rebuilding project takes a great deal of men away from tending the crops.

Under normal conditions, the people are surviving and even prospering. But now, drought and resulting famine stress the entire economy.

"1 Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. 2 Some were saying, 'We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.' 3 Others were saying, 'We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.' 4 Still others were saying, 'We have had to borrow money to pay the king's tax on our fields and vineyards. 5 Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen and though our sons are as good as theirs, yet we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.'" (Nehemiah 5:1-5)

Their crops fail and they are forced to purchase food. Demand causes food prices to skyrocket. To pay the high prices, people have to borrow at high interest rates to be able to feed their families. If farmers want to plant, the price of seed is high, and any future crop may be lost due to the drought. An economic and social disaster is going on. And through it all, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer. It reminds me of all the people who lost their farms in the Dust Bowl and Depression in 1930s America.

The results of this inflationary cycle are heartbreaking.

  1. Slavery. Those without lands are being sold into slavery to repay the money they borrowed to buy food. Moreover, to avoid restrictions on slavery within Judaism, some are being sold to Gentiles whose law offers less legal protection for the slaves (Nehemiah 5:5-6). Families are being torn apart.
  2. Mortgage Defaults. Landowners use their lands for collateral, and forfeit them when they can't repay the mortgage fast enough.[212] Some who have had to sell their property, now find no way to repay their loans. Slavery is next.
  3. High taxes. Landowners suffer under high Persian taxation.
  4. Lack of compassion. The rich don't care about their poor countrymen, only about taking advantage of the situation to increase their own fortunes.

Loans and Usury in Mosaic Law

High interest rates seem to be at the root of the problem -- which are clearly contrary to Mosaic Law.

"If you lend money to one of my people among you who is needy, do not be like a moneylender; charge him no interest." (Exodus 22:25; cf. Leviticus 25:35-37; Deuteronomy 15:7-8; 23:19-20a)

The Mosaic Law isn't talking about interest on a loan to expand a business, purchase a house, buy an automobile, or increase one's standard of living. It's talking about lending money needed for the poor to survive -- for basic food. Throughout the Scripture, God is portrayed as One who has compassion for the widow and orphan, as the Defender of the poor; He commands his people to have the same attitude.

Nehemiah calls a large general meeting to deal with the situation. In it he publicly exposes the heartlessness of the rich and demands change.

"6 When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. 7 I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, 'You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!'" (Nehemiah 5:6-7)

Nehemiah uses his authority as governor to severely and publicly reprimand the rich who are taking advantage of the poor. They are embarrassed and have nothing to say in their defense. Then Nehemiah:

  1. Buys back Jews sold into slavery to Gentiles and forbids the sale of other Jews to pay their debts (verses 8-9).
  2. Demands the end of high interest rates, exacting usury.[213] Verse 11 is difficult, but it seems that Nehemiah is limiting interest rates to 1% per month. He asserts that he and his people have made loans to people so they can buy food to eat, but they too will abide by the new limited interest rates (verse 10).
  3. Demands the return of confiscated lands to their original owners (verse 11a).
  4. Demands the refund of excessive interest -- or of income derived from the confiscated lands[214] (verse 11b).
  5. Cuts taxes required to support the governor (verses 14-19).
  6. Pronounces a curse on those who don't comply (verse 13a).

In the public meeting, the shamed nobles and officials agree to Nehemiah's demands. Not taking them at their word, he calls for the priests and administers oaths that will legally bind them to their promises (similar to Ezra demanding oaths from leaders in Ezra 10:5).

Foregoing the Governor's Rights (Nehemiah 5:14-19)

For his part, Nehemiah refuses to tax the people to pay for his maintenance as Persian governor of the province. He notes that previous governors have taken advantage of their office, but he refuses to. And he asks God to remember his good deeds. His prayer may sound a bit self-serving -- but then so do some of mine.

Q3. (Nehemiah 5) Why doesn't Nehemiah wait until he isn't so busy to deal with the complaints of the poor who are being oppressed? What is the chief motivation of their oppressors? How does Nehemiah deal with the issue? Why are church leaders sometimes quicker to deal with the complaints of the wealthy than those of the poor? What motivates these leaders?

A Plan to Assassinate Nehemiah (Nehemiah 6:1-9)

Location of the Plain of Ono, Nehemiah 6:2
Location of the Plain of Ono, Nehemiah 6:2 (larger map)

The wall is almost finished and Nehemiah's enemies are desperate.

"1 When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it -- though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates -- 2 Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: 'Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.'

But they were scheming to harm me; 3 so I sent messengers to them with this reply: 'I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?' 4 Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer." (Nehemiah 6:1-4)

Sanballat and his fellow conspirators ask Nehemiah to attend a meeting on the "plain of Ono," a location about 37 miles (60 km) northwest of Jerusalem near the coast, a day's journey away.[215] This is a substantial distance from the safety of Jerusalem, and would expose Nehemiah to considerable danger. Perhaps they sweeten the offer by including him in a kind of regional summit with other leaders -- something that would appeal to his ego. But Nehemiah sees through it and says, "I'm too busy." "A great work" (NRSV, ESV, KJV), which suggests self-praise, is probably better translated "a great project" (NIV) or "task."[216]

So they try another tactic. They threaten to tell the king that Jerusalem intended to rebel from Persian control. "Come," they said, "let's negotiate this." Nehemiah refuses that invitation as well (verses 5-7).

"I sent him this reply: 'Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.'" (Nehemiah 6:8)

Judeans would be afraid, since such a threat had been carried out successfully by previous enemies (Ezra 4:6-23). But Nehemiah realizes that delaying out of fear plays into his enemies' hands. If the Jews keep working the walls and gates, they will be completed long before any order from the king can be received.

"They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, 'Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.' [But I prayed,] 'Now strengthen my hands.'" (Nehemiah 6:9)

The Jews remain at work, putting the finishing touches on the walls and gates.

A Plot to Lead Nehemiah into Sin (Nehemiah 6:10-14)

When these conspiracies fail to sidetrack Nehemiah, his enemies try something much more subtle -- prophecies intended to frighten[217] Nehemiah and lead him into sin. The conspirators are the prophet Shemaiah (Hebrew, "Yahweh has heard") and a prophetess named Noadiah (Hebrew, "appointed by Yahweh") and others, paid by Tobiah and Sanballat to prophesy falsely. These leaders among the prophets are people of influence who have been corrupted by bribes.

The prophet Shemaiah is confined to his house -- perhaps for some kind of ritual defilement.[218] He calls for Nehemiah to visit him, and, in the privacy of his home, he prophesies that Nehemiah is in danger of an assassination plot and should take refuge from his enemies in the temple in order to preserve his life. He tries to frighten[219] Nehemiah so he'll panic and sin, but Nehemiah sees through the ruse.

Corrupt Prophets

It's a heavy thing when a prophet of God speaks a word to you. But God helps Nehemiah discern that it isn't God motivating this prophet, but Satan. Shemaiah, once one who listened to God, now listens to those who pay him.

Dear friends, this happens today. A man or woman of God -- maybe you -- begins sincerely following God, listening for his voice, and being obedient. But somewhere along the line, perhaps out of fear of not having enough, or valuing too much what money will buy (greed), he or she stops listening to God so closely and starts following the money. The wealthy people in the church or ministry have a louder voice. The church board succeeds in controlling their spiritual leader by the salary they pay (or don't pay). And the servant of God becomes corrupted by money. He or she will do whatever is necessary to secure a living, an income. The leader is now corrupt, serving Mammon (Matthew 6:24).

Shemaiah is corrupted by money. He is paid to try to manipulate Nehemiah through fear to induce him to commit sin by going into the temple building.

Attempt to Compromise Nehemiah's Integrity (Nehemiah 6:13)

Nehemiah, though governor of the province of Judah, is not allowed to go into the temple building for two reasons: (1) he has probably been castrated as a eunuch, and thus seems to be excluded from temple worship by Mosaic Law (Deuteronomy 23:1), and (2) he is not a priest or Levite. The Scripture instructs Aaron and his sons:

"Let no one enter the house of the LORD except the priests and ministering Levites. They may enter, for they are holy...." (2 Chronicles 23:6a; also Numbers 18:7)

Kidner observes, "King Uzziah trespassing, had been fortunate to escape with no more than leprosy (2 Chronicles 26:16-21)."[220]

The Jews' enemies can't get Nehemiah in a vulnerable place to assassinate him. And as the Persian governor, he is politically untouchable. But if they can get him to break the Mosaic Law, his enemies have cause to discredit him among the Jews, destroying his reputation and ability to lead, and thus derailing the wall-building project just before it can be completed. Paying for the corrupt prophet's false words is Sanballat's and Tobiah's last attempt to stop Jerusalem from becoming secure. They fail.

Nehemiah prays for justice against his enemies:

"Remember Tobiah and Sanballat, O my God, because of what they have done; remember also the prophetess Noadiah and the rest of the prophets who have been trying to intimidate me." (Nehemiah 6:14)

Q4. (Nehemiah 6:1-14) Why do Nehemiah's enemies want him to travel away from Jerusalem? Why do his enemies bribe the prophets? How are they hoping to hurt Nehemiah's integrity, will, and authority? How is your enemy trying to make you stumble?

Completion of the Wall (Nehemiah 6:15-16)

Now the text states an astounding achievement:

"So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days." (Nehemiah 6:15)

Elul (August/September) is the sixth month of the year.

Considering all the obstacles they have faced, what are the odds of a 52-day completion? Has Nehemiah been the target of spiritual warfare? Undoubtedly. Yes, the warfare is manifested in real-time circumstances by flesh-and-blood enemies. But behind it all is Satan, who does not want the people to return to God with their hearts, to be secure, to be "a light to the Gentiles." Paul reminds the Ephesian church about the true nature of their enemy:

"Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms." (Ephesians 6:12)

The result of the wall's completion is a victory both in the heavenly realm and over the Persian provinces adjoining Judah.

"When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God." (Nehemiah 6:16)

Who gets the glory? God!

Tobiah's Ongoing Influence among the Nobility (Nehemiah 6:17-19)

The victory is complete, but in spite of that, the spiritual battle continues. Nehemiah tells us of behind-the-scenes correspondence and divided loyalties among the wealthy and powerful in Judah.

Tobiah, an Ammonite with Jewish roots, has powerful ties. Tobiah's father-in-law is Shecaniah, a Jewish noble. And Tobiah's son marries the daughter of Meshallam son of Berekiah, a noble who had helped build two sections of the wall of Jerusalem (Nehemiah 3:4, 30). Tobiah also has close ties to the high priestly family (Nehemiah 13:3-4), which show up after Nehemiah has returned to Susa for a time.

These families of the "Tobiah party" keep promoting Tobiah's cause to Nehemiah and providing intelligence to Tobiah -- an act which is best called treason! Tobiah's threats kept coming even after the wall is completed.

A Summary of Opposition Tactics

We've looked at the various opposition tactics. A comprehensive list helps us appreciate the determination of Nehemiah's enemies -- and the greatness of our God who gives him wisdom to deal with each of the threats. It also provides a checklist that modern-day leaders might consider:

  1. False accusations (Nehemiah 2:19; 6:5-9).
  2. Ridicule (Nehemiah 4:1-3).
  3. Devious attempts to be included in the project so they can subvert it from within (Ezra 4:1-3; Nehemiah 2:20).
  4. Appeal to higher authorities to stop the project (Ezra 4:5).
  5. Bluffs.
  6. Rumors to instill fear (Ezra 4:4; Nehemiah 4:11-12).
  7. Temptations to sin in order to undermine moral authority (Nehemiah 6:10-11).
  8. False prophecies or supposed "words from God" (Nehemiah 6:12-14).
  9. Threats and plots to physically incapacitate Nehemiah (Nehemiah 4:7-8; 6:1-4).
  10. Plots to distract his attention (Nehemiah 6:3).
  11. Disloyalty among Nehemiah's own team (Nehemiah 6:17-19).

Securing Jerusalem (Nehemiah 7:1-3)

Chapter 7 begins with actions Nehemiah takes to regularize life in a secure Jerusalem. Nehemiah appoints:

  1. Temple servants -- gatekeepers, singers, and Levites who are to keep temple worship in order.
  2. Mayor of Jerusalem -- his brother Hanani, who had first brought word of Jerusalem's problems to Nehemiah while in Susa (Nehemiah 1:2-3).
  3. Commander of Jerusalem's Defense, Hananiah, a God-fearing man of integrity. This fortress or citadel seems to have been located adjacent to the temple (Nehemiah 2:8), perhaps the Tower of Hananel (Nehemiah 3:1).
  4. Gate-Keepers. The gatekeepers are given instructions not to open the doors at night and to guard them to make sure no one gets in or out at night.
  5. Guards. Some of these have regular posts during the daytime to prevent against attack. Others seem to be some kind of Neighborhood Watch guards, who post someone to guard the area around their homes.

List of the Exiles Who Returned (Nehemiah 7:4-73)

"4 Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt. 5 So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families. I found the genealogical record of those who had been the first to return. This is what I found written there." (Nehemiah 7:4-5)

Notice the phrase, "God put it into my heart...." (verse 5a). Nehemiah, a man of prayer, is sensitive to God's leading.

Nehemiah has provided for Jerusalem's government, worship, and security. Now he tackles the problem of its small population, which we'll consider when we look at Nehemiah 11 in Lesson 8. The remainder of Nehemiah 7 is comprised of a list of the first to return to Judah. The list is almost an exact transcription of the list found in Ezra 2.

Lessons for Disciples

This passage is rich in lessons for modern-day disciples.

  1. Nehemiah inspects the wall and prepares his strategy prior to announcing his plans. We learn from this to keep our own counsel (or with a small group of advisors) until our plans are complete. Only then should we share them with the larger group. If we share half-baked plans, it gives our opposition all they need to stop us (Nehemiah 2:11-16). This is especially true of leaders new to an organization.
  2. In any great God-inspired work we can expect opposition. Having enemies doesn't mean you're out of God's will; rather, it may even be an indication that you have heard from God.
  3. Nehemiah involves people in the project who will be motivated by their own self-interest. We need to build coalitions of people to implement projects. This often takes time, but is essential to success (Nehemiah 3).
  4. In any God-inspired project we can expect some people in our organizations to be opposed or to refuse to help (Nehemiah 3:5). Don't wait to act until you have complete unanimity; find God's will and then go forward.
  5. Prayer should be combined with action, whenever possible. Taking God-guided action, doesn't mean you lack faith in God's ability to answer prayer. Rather, it is a willingness to allow God to use you as part of the answer (Nehemiah 4:9).
  6. In any great God-inspired project we can expect discouragement and apprehension among our workers, and will need to deal with it (Nehemiah 4:10-15).
  7. Leaders must be willing to adapt their original plans to meet unforeseen circumstances (Nehemiah 4:16-18). German military strategist Helmuth von Moltke (1800-1891) famously said, "No battle plan survives contact with the enemy."
  8. Every great God-inspired work needs to take into account security (Nehemiah 4:16-21). Since we are in a spiritual battle, this probably means intercessory prayer teams and the like.
  9. Rebuilding Jerusalem's defenses so the enemy cannot control us is analogous to us building up spiritual defenses against Satan's temptations, so he cannot keep us weak (Ephesians 6:10-13).
  10. God opposes anything that oppresses the poor -- including high interest rates and injustice. We must resist the temptation to greed (unjust gain) at the expense of others (Nehemiah 5:1-18). The underlying issues are injustice and a lack of compassion.

  11. Available in paperback, PDF,  Kindle formats
    Nehemiah uses public shaming to force greedy Jews to change their ways (Nehemiah 5:7-12). This can work if the leader has enough influence, but we must be very careful in adopting this tactic so that it will not backfire.
  12. Nehemiah sets an example by foregoing his rights to financial support (Nehemiah 5:14-19), just as does the Apostle Paul centuries later (1 Corinthians 9:3-23). Leaders should set an example of self-sacrifice, not of privileged rights and luxury. Unfortunately, some proponents of the Prosperity Gospel neglect this principle.


Father, as I read about Nehemiah's struggles, I remember that Paul and Barnabas cautioned Christian leaders, "We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God" (Acts 14:22). But constant warfare is wearing. We get tired. We get discouraged. I ask you, O Almighty God, strengthen the hands of your people. Lift us up. Help us. Increase our faith. Help us to see your mighty power to achieve your goals. And help us to align ourselves with your goals -- and with your strength. In Jesus' name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"They said to me, 'Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.' When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven." (Nehemiah 1:3-4, NIV)

"Then I said to them, 'You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.' I also told them about the gracious hand of my God upon me and what the king had said to me. They replied, 'Let us start rebuilding.' So they began this good work." (Nehemiah 2:17-18, NIV)

"So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart." (Nehemiah 4:6, NIV)

"Don't be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes." (Nehemiah 4:14b, NIV)

"Those who carried materials did their work with one hand and held a weapon in the other, and each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked." (Nehemiah 4:17b-18a, NIV)

"They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, 'Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.' [But I prayed,] 'Now strengthen my hands.'" (Nehemiah 6:9, NIV)

"So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days. When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God." (Nehemiah 6:15-16, NIV)


[194] The Valley Gate is also mentioned in 2 Chronicles 26:9.

[195] Nehemiah 3:13 says the two gates are separated by 1,000 cubits. A cubit is the distance from the finger tips to the elbow, usually about 18 inches or half a yard.

[196] J.A. Patch, "Dung," ISBE 1:996.

[197] D.J. Wieand, ("Hinnom, Valley of," ISBE 2:718) attributes this speculation to Lightfoot. The New Testament word gehenna comes from this, associated with the idea of fire and judgment. The Valley of Hinnom was to be a place of judgment (Jeremiah 19:6-7), and came to represent the eschatological place of judgment.

[198] Nehemiah 3:15 mentions "the pool of Shelah of the king's garden," a related Hebrew word (Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 90).

[199] Leen and Kathleen Ritmeyer, Jerusalem in the Time of Nehemiah (Second Edition; Jerusalem: Carta, 2005, 2015); Etgar Lefkovits, "Nehemiah's wall uncovered," Jerusalem Post, November 28, 2007; Eilat Mazar, "The Wall That Nehemiah Built," Biblical Archaeology Review (Vol. 35, No. 2), March/April 2009.

[200] "Bolt" (NIV, ESV, NRSV), "lock" (KJV) is manʿāl, "lock, bolt for gate" (Holland, p. 202). Used in Nehemiah 3:3, 6, 13, 14, 15.

[201] Burton Scott Easton, Ralph W. Vunderink, "Gate, ISBE 2:408; Keith N. Schoville, "Fortification," ISBE 2:346-354.

[202] William S. LaSor, "Sanballat," ISBE 4:321.

[203] A.E. Hill, "Tobiah," ISBE 4:865.

[204] Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, pp. 83-84; J.J. Reeve, "Geshem," ISBE 2:449.

[205] "Become angry" (NIV, ESV), "furious" (NRSV), "wroth" (KJV) is the verb ḥārâ, "burn, be kindled (of anger)." The root is related to an Aramaic root, "to cause fire to burn." In Hebrew it's always used to refer to anger. (TWOT #736). "Was greatly incensed" (NIV), "very angry" (NRSV), "greatly enraged" (ESV), "took great indignation" (KJV) is the adverb rābâ, "great, much, numerous" plus the verb ʿas, "to vex, agitate, stir up, or provoke the heart to a heated condition which in turn leads to specific actions" (Gerard Van Gronigen, TWOT #1016)

[206] "Despised" (verse 4a) is the noun bûzâ, "contempt," from bûz, "despise, hold as insignificant" (Elmer A. Martens, TWOT #213b). In verse 4b, "insults" (NIV), "reproach" (NRSV), "taunt" (ESV), "despised" (KJV) is the noun ḥerpâ, from ḥārap, "to reproach," with the specific connotation of casting blame or scorn on someone (Thomas E. McComiskey, TWOT #749).

[207] The noun is lēb, "heart, understanding, mind." It is "the richest biblical term for the totality of man's inner or immaterial nature ... either to the inner or immaterial nature in general or to one of the three traditional personality functions of man; emotion, thought, or will" (Andrew Bowling, TWOT #1071a).

[208] "Plotted" (NIV, ESV), "conspired" (NRSV, KJV) is the Qal stem of qāshar, "bind, conspire." The basic idea is to bind or tie something to something else. Here it refers to people binding together in a pact or military alliance (Leonard J. Coppes, TWOT #2090).

[209] "Fight" is lāḥam, "fight, do battle." "Stir up trouble" (NIV), "cause a disturbance" (NRSV), "cause confusion" (ESV), "hinder" (KJV) is the verb "to make" plus the noun, ʿâ, "error," from the noun "err, stagger, stray, wander." Holladay (Hebrew Lexicon, p. 388) defines the noun as "confusion, chaos, perversion."

[210] "Frustrated their plan" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "brought their counsel to naught" (KJV) uses the verb pārar, "break, destroy, frustrate, invalidate.... Pārar has a moral overtone. It does not mean 'to break' in the sense of an exhibition of physical strength, but to violate or renege on revealed truth" (Victor P. Hamilton, TWOT #1829) In this case the enemy's "plot" (NIV), "plan" (NRSV, ESV), or "counsel" (KJV) has been revealed. The noun is ʿēṣâ (TWOT #887a).

[211] Ray C. Stedman, "Reading Nehemiah," RayStedman.org

[212] "Mortgaging" is ʿārab, "to be / become surety, mortgage, pledge" (Ronald B. Allen, TWOT #1686).

[213] "Exacting usury" (NIV, NRSV, cf. KJV), "exacting interest" (ESV) in verses 7 and 10 is maśśāʾ, "Load, burden, lifting, bearing, tribute," from nāśāʾ, "lift, carry, take" (TWOT #1421d). Holladay sees this as "burden = hardship." This isn't the Hebrew word for usury, but that seems to be the meaning. See Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, pp. 95-96.

[214] So Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 105; and the New English Bible.

[215] Ono is the site of the present day town of Kafr 'Anam (Hebrew, Or Yehuda), an eastern suburb of Tel Aviv.

[216] Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 107.

[217] "Discredit" (NIV), "reproach" (NRSV, KJV), "taunt" (ESV) is the Piel stem of ḥārap, "taunt, reproach" (Holladay, Hebrew Lexicon, p. 117).

[218] For example, see Numbers 19:11-13.

[219] "Intimidate" (NIV) in verses 13 and 14 is "become frightened" (NRSV), "be afraid" (ESV, KJV) is the Qal stem (vs. 13) yārēʾ, "fear, be afraid." The Piel stem in vs. 9, 14, 19 means "to overawe, alarm" (Holladay, Hebrew Lexicon, p. 142-143).

[220] Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah, p. 109.

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