Message title: Building with Sword and Trowel, Nehemiah 4
Broadcast date: August 1, 2021 (No. 4100)
Radio speaker: Rev. Carl Haak
Dear radio friends,
In the last weeks we have been following Nehemiah, the man who returned to Jerusalem to build the walls of the city of God. With Nehemiah, we have seen that we too, as believers, are called in the same work.
What are the walls of Zion? They refer to everything that the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh would want to be torn down in the Christian life. Building the walls of Zion refers to the gathering, defending, and preserving of the church of Jesus Christ by the preaching of God’s Word. Building the walls of Zion refers to a faithful life with respect to the truth of God, a life of repentance and faith in Jesus Christ, a life of fellowship with the saints. The walls of Zion are godly marriages and godly families that flow from those marriages. The walls of Zion are the personal lives of holiness to be built up in faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Now, no sooner had Nehemiah begun to build the walls of Jerusalem in earnest and to show that he had not come to talk but to work, than also his problems began in earnest—opposition that dwarfed all of the trials that he had experienced to that point. There was opposition that was outside the ranks, and there was discouragement within the ranks of the Jews. That is always the case. In the words of the apostle Paul (II Cor. 7:5), “For, when we were come into Macedonia, our flesh had no rest, but we were troubled on every side; without were fightings, within were fears.” The true work of the building of the walls of Zion must now, according to God’s own purpose, face great adversity. The purpose of God is, first of all, to drive us to Him for our strength. His purpose is, secondly, to increase our dependence upon the living God. And, thirdly, it is to make us more sensitive to the needs of each other.
Nehemiah is now faced, in chapter 4, with great opposition to the work of the building of the walls. But we will note that Nehemiah did not bemoan it, he did not curse it, he did not become pessimistic. But he showed the grace of perseverance. He showed the grace of strength and Christian love. We read in the chapter, “Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night” (v. 9). “I set them behind the walls with sword and spear. I rose up and said to the people, ‘Be not afraid. Remember, the Lord is with us.’”
Nehemiah is an example to us upon whom the ends of the world are come today, as we, too, are engaged in that same work and face the same adversity and opposition. He is an example of faith. He is an example of God-given, God-centered, and God-dependent faith. Nehemiah continued in the work because of God’s grace working in him mightily. His was a faith that knew how to use the tools God gave him. He placed in one hand of the men of Israel a weapon of war, a sword to defend, and in the other hand a builder’s tool, a trowel to build. He built with sword and trowel.
Chapter 3, which we looked at last week, gave a beautiful picture of God’s people whose hearts were in the work, of how they went about to build the walls of Jerusalem in unity, with sacrifice, and in a display of great zeal. Waves of enthusiasm pulsed among them—the singing of the Psalms, and the smile of satisfaction in God’s blessing.
But now chapter 4 brings us back to reality. There are moments of enthusiasm and excitement in the work of the Lord—for example, in the beginning of a new Christian school, the establishment of a new congregation, the first child born in a marriage, a honeymoon. But in chapter 4 we have the reality that in the work of the Lord we must expect to be bombarded with trouble, adversity, and opposition.
The trouble came, first of all, from outside, in the form of mockery, in the form of threat, and in the form of plots devised by those who were the enemies of what Nehemiah was doing because they hated Nehemiah’s God. We are told of Sanballat and Tobiah. These two men, we remember from chapter 2:10, were grieved when Nehemiah came. They were grieved exceedingly that there came a man to seek the welfare of the Jews. The two men laughed when the Jews decided to heed Nehemiah’s call to begin the rebuilding of the walls.
Sanballat means “sin gives life.” He was a profane man. He was a governor in the area. And Tobiah was an Ammonite and was a false prophet. These two enemies tried three things to defeat the building of the walls.
First, they tried cruel mockery. If you read verses 1-3, you will find that when these two men heard that the walls were going up, they began to say, first to themselves, “What do these feeble Jews? Will they fortify themselves? Will they sacrifice?” Then they began to mock. Tobiah said this: “Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall” (v. 3). They began with cruel mockery. They derided the purpose of these feeble Jews, of building the walls of Zion for the glory of God. They mocked them. They lampooned their enthusiasm. They magnified the problems that they would experience. Words are powerful. Words can hurt. The words of Tobiah and Sanballat were filled with sarcasm and bitterness. They said that even if a fox (which is known for its being light-footed and balanced), even if a fox would daintily walk upon the stone wall that they are building, that stone wall would fall down.
The second thing they did was try to bully Nehemiah and the people. As the work continued to progress and walls were joined together, the enemies held counsel of war from all the areas surrounding Jerusalem. They marshaled their forces before Jerusalem, thinking that their presence, a show of force, would be enough to drive the people off the walls and cause them to give it up.
Then they tried to scare them with intimidation. We read of that in verses 11ff. Each morning the workers who had gone home to the surrounding villages would return to the work on the wall. The enemies said, “We will sneak in among them as they enter into Jerusalem. We will pretend to be workers. We will sneak in among them and slay them. We will try the Trojan-horse approach.”
So the tactics were: scorn, bullying, and threats. Please take note. The prosperity of the true church of Jesus Christ is a great grief, an irritation to the world. It angers the forces of sin. When you make progress in sanctification in your own life, repenting and forsaking sin, this provokes the devil. Faithfulness in marriage and not living together before marriage but living pure and chaste—this angers the world, this incenses the forces of darkness, so that they become dedicated to destroying you in that way of holiness.
But note: all opposition to you must not turn you from your duty. The ridicule that you receive for your walk of life, the looks of scorn, and the jokes heaped upon you—these must not drive you from your Christian duty.
But the adversity that Nehemiah experienced was not only from the outside. He was faced with discouragement within the ranks that was even more threatening to the work. The people of Judah came to Nehemiah to tell him of the difficult working conditions and that they were tired and that the dangers to which they and their families were being exposed were great. We read, “And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall” (v. 10). Their strength is decayed. They were teetering, tired, so tired they could hardly stand straight anymore. They were staggering. A couple of weeks tussling with boulders up the cliff had drained their strength. They had begun the work but now it was very plain that what was involved was a great effort and it promised only more in the future. The demands had increased.
Secondly, they were exposed to a danger in their families. We read, “And it came to pass, that when the Jews which dwelt by them came [that is, their adversaries], they said unto us ten times, From all places whence ye shall return unto us they will be upon you” (v. 12). That is, the men who lived in those outlying villages were repeatedly being threatened that in their absence their families would be attacked. Or, when they came home exhausted from the work, they would be ambushed.
Picture Sanballat placing his thugs, his bullies, on the street corners as a man went early to work. “Hey, buddy. Going to work on those walls, huh? Wife and children home alone, are they? You’re going to come back tonight tired. You had better watch your back.”
The difficulties, the discouragements, the fears, and the weariness of the people of God were very real. They constituted as great a threat to the work as the opposition from the outside. In fact, a greater threat. It is easier to begin the work of the Lord in the church, in a Christian marriage, in a Christian family with little children, than it is to continue it. Pessimism and hopelessness and despair and inward cynicism (I can’t, it’s too costly, the threats are too great) are great enemies. Pessimism is a greater enemy than atheism. Unbelief is a threat to us. Despair and hopelessness sap our strength. And pessimism distorts reality. The people were beginning to say, “We are not able to build the walls.” That was not true. Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.”
What did Nehemiah do? Three things.
First, he prayed, and he had the people pray (vv. 4, 5). “Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity: and cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee: for they have provoked thee to anger before the builders.” So immediate, so spiritually engrained is prayer in Nehemiah that here he does not even announce it. He just breaks right out into prayer. He stands with the builders and he hears Sanballat and Tobiah and all of their ridicule. And he does not respond in a verbal battle. He does not say, “Oh yah? Well, you listen here!” He does not begin to spar with them. He does not begin to mix it up with them. This was not his weapon.
And these are not our weapons. We do not battle scorn with scorn, ridicule with ridicule, cut-down with cut-down, jeering with jeering. Those are not our weapons. The weapons of the church are not the refurbished weapons of the world. You may not use those weapons as you go about your work, wherever you are—in the church, in marriage, in the family. You may not use the weapons of the world. Use the weapons of God.
Nehemiah prayed, and his prayer centered in God: “For they have provoked thee to anger before the builders.” Now, get that! You would expect that something they were saying would hurt him. One of the arrows that they had shot at him would lodge in his soul. But, to Nehemiah, it was not about his leadership, not about his work, not about his ability as a bricklayer, or his motives. But it was about God. He does not try to defend himself. He sees that the insults are directed at God Himself. He prayed that God would take care of His own name. And he had the people pray that way. He said, “Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God.”
How full of significance. How pregnant with truth for us. How rich is the application. You cannot build the walls of Zion in your own life, you cannot labor in the church, you cannot labor in behalf of the kingdom of God, without prayer. You cannot shield yourself from the darts of sarcasm and the threats of this world, without prayer. What is your first response? To return in suit? To pick up the weapons of the flesh? To use what is at the disposal of the flesh—your tongue and further sharp words?
Nehemiah viewed all of these things as foolishness. But he went in prayer to the present God. He believed that the issue ultimately was God and that God would and must maintain His honor.
The second thing that Nehemiah did was that he took action. He did not panic. He looked around, he surveyed, he assessed the situation. He took time to evaluate. Prayer led to action. Prayer made him decisive. I think one of the most memorable statements in the book of Nehemiah is the one found in chapter 4:9: “Nevertheless [and this is in the context of the slander thrown against his work] we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night.” We prayed, then I set a watch. Prayer led to prudent, decisive, courageous action. He did not pray and waffle. He did not pray and then, at the end of his prayer, throw up his hands in confusion. He did the next prudent step decisively. In the conviction and in the calmness of his Lord, he put men out to stand watch, so they would be alerted if there was any threat of physical danger. He did not pray and bemoan. He did not pray and send out a scouting party to see how many men Sanballat had. But he prayed…and he set a watch. Putting his trust in God, he arranged for a defense of the weak spots of the wall. He gave to families swords and spears. He announced to the enemy that their threats would meet with resistance.
And he thought of the people with compassion. He said to them, “Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren….” He made changes in the work schedule to alleviate bone-weariness by organizing work into parties – those who would bear burdens and others who would be builders. Then he had every man strap a sword on, put a trumpeter by himself, and told the people, “When you hear the trumpet, you gather to me and we will fight.”
Beloved, Nehemiah did his duty. How often does opposition, weariness, adversity, and fear cause us to freeze in indecision or to drop our hands and say, “Go ahead then. Roll over me. I give up.” We have so much more than Nehemiah. We have the full Scriptures—the crucified Lord, and Jesus’ promise: “I will build my church.” Do we wait for problems to go away before we will work? Do we expect we can do good only if there are no negatives in marriage? Do you say, “Well, I’m not going to. It’s just too hard…until she….” Is that what you say? In the church: “Why should I until they….” No, Nehemiah prayed, and then took action.
And in the third place, Nehemiah equipped them with sword and trowel. Everyone had a sword. We read, “They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.” Those who did not need both hands for working, who were harnessed to a sled pulling, they had their sword ready. The rest, equipped by Nehemiah with a trowel, had their sword strapped to their side.
Both sword and trowel were needed. The sword of the Word of God—to defend us from the temptations of the world, the sins of our flesh, the heresies, the waves of despair infiltrating our heart. Beat them back by the sword of the Word of God. Through the preaching, through catechism, through the creeds, through Christian discipline, keep the church free from ungodliness. Maintain your life of holiness.
And a trowel. That is a brick-layer’s tool. It is short and wide to carry the mud, to smooth out the mortar, to lay each brick evenly and carefully. A trowel to build up in the Word of God, to encourage, to make our life firm, to give peace, hope, and strength of soul.
This is an important point. Do not confuse these two. A sword is not a good tool for laying bricks, and a trowel is not a good weapon for defending a breach. I have seen the sword used wrongly in building the walls of the church and in marriage. When there are issues and questions and weaknesses among the people of God—areas where there is the need of growth and maturity and understanding—one may say, “I have my position, and it’s the only position. This is the only way to do it.” Then instead of the trowel, the careful, patient use of the Word and the patient placing of each brick of truth into place, I hear the sliding of the sword out of the scabbard and the readiness to fly in and start hacking fellow believers with the truth. They use the truth as an ax to smash the other person’s head. How awkward it would be if you had to lay brick with a sword.
I’ve also seen the trowel used in place of the sword. I’ve seen that questions arise in the church over whether the Bible is inspired, whether creation is true, whether the fourth commandment is enforced, whether justification is by faith or by faith and works, whether homosexuality is just another lifestyle. And as the enemies of heresy and ungodliness approach and a breach is made in the wall, men wield a trowel in response, and churches say, “Well, I suppose we should make a study of this.” The enemy has entered into the city to slay the truth, and the church comes out against them with a trowel.
Builders on the walls of Zion need to know when to use the sword and when to use the trowel.
Nehemiah continued in the work of the building of the walls. In verses 23 and 24 of chapter 4 we learn that he was ready to fight if attacked by Sanballat. He was ready to go on laboring in the face of much discouragement. He had the commuters (those who would otherwise go home each night) lodge instead within Jerusalem. And he himself did not take off his clothes for weeks except for washing. He practiced constant vigilance, readiness. He continued in the work.
Do we? Does adversity drive you from the working on the wall? Does weariness or fear drain your heart of the impetus to go on? Are you committed to stay at the work of God? In your personal call to holiness, do you say: “Oh, my sin is too great. I can’t overcome it. Don’t be naïve, preacher, I can’t be delivered.” Do you talk like Sanballat before the call of Jesus Christ who says, “Repent! Follow Me! Deny yourself!” Do you say, “What can I, a feeble Christian do? How in the world can I revive the stones that are fallen down in my life? I can’t put this back together.” You say, “I’ve yelled all my life at my kids. I’m not going to be able to change.” Do you say, “I just don’t get along with that person, and it’s never going to be any different”? In your marriage, do you say: “It’s just too hard to pick up the pieces anymore”? Are you weary of the burden and say, “We can’t build the wall. The cost is too great”?
May God raise up Nehemiah-like faith, Nehemiah-like love, Nehemiah-like strength and prayer and action. May God put a sword in your hand and a trowel in your other hand. And then may God raise up in us the kind of knowledge of God that Nehemiah had—the knowledge of a God who is present, a God who hears, a God who will maintain the honor of His name, a God who in mercy will use His servants for His good, a God before whom the enemy is puny (a bunch of loud-mouths), a God who is committed to us.
Our God shall fight for us. So we labored in the work and the wall was built.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. And we pray that Thou would apply it unto our hearts today. In Jesus’ name, Amen.