Hard-Pressed but Not Crushed — Part One
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Hard-Pressed but Not Crushed — Part One

As God’s people carried out the work described in Nehemiah 3, each person had a unique part to play. At the same time, each individual was dependent on everyone else as they worked together to fulfill God’s purposes. Alistair Begg reminds us that we are not saved into isolation but into a community. The urgent work of spreading the Gospel in our day requires a unified commitment by God’s people.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Nehemiah, Volume 1

God’s Work, God’s Way Nehemiah 1:1–7:3 Series ID: 11601

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to take your Bibles once again, and we’ll turn to the section of Scripture that we read a wee while ago from Nehemiah.

And as you open to the page, let’s come before God in prayer:

Spirit of God, descend upon my heart;
Wean it from earth; through all its pulses move;
[Speak] to my weakness, mighty as thou art,
And make me love thee as I ought to love.[1]

We listen for your voice, Lord Jesus Christ, and your voice alone—you, the living Word, through your written Word, to which we now turn with expectant hearts as we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.

In embarking on these studies in the book of Nehemiah, we are essentially seeking to answer one question. And the question is straightforward: What does it mean to do God’s work in God’s way? We are not studying Nehemiah because we are about to begin to build once again, although that may well be taking place in the foreseeable future. But the real nature of the building upon which we find ourselves focusing is the building of the people of God, comprising the “living stones … built into a spiritual house.”[2] So if any of us have the idea that the studies in Nehemiah are somehow able to be externalized in terms of building actual physical buildings, then we are missing the point, and I am not doing justice to the Scriptures at all.

In coming to chapter 3, what we have is a catalog of largely forgotten names and places. For every name that is mentioned, there are a whole host of names that are unmentioned—many names that we will never know that were vitally important to what was an extraordinary feat of organization. The construction work that is described here in chapter 3 would stand alongside any large-scale project, given its time and place, that has ever taken place. And it is a quite incredible piece of work.

In reading those opening verses as I did and allowing your eyes to scan beyond, you’re perhaps tempted to think that since what we have is simply this catalog of names and the rather boring illustration of their building project, we might be tempted to believe that there’s nothing really here for us that we can learn from this chapter. We should, of course, never, ever assume that with the Scriptures, because the Bible tells us that all Scripture is inspired by God, and it’s profitable for rebuke and for correction and for teaching and for training in righteousness.[3] Therefore, whether it is a long list of names, whether it has a scant storyline to it, nevertheless, the Bible’s claim for itself is that it is there for our instruction—that Nehemiah chapter 3 is in the Bible because God the Spirit intended it to be so, and since it is there, we should pay attention to it. That doesn’t mean that we pay the same detailed attention to every part, but it does mean that it is there purposefully.

So, what I would like to do is this: to skate, as it were, across the surface of chapter 3, and then, in reaching chapter 4, to start to walk more slowly through it.

Skating Across the Surface of Chapter 3

In skating across the surface of chapter 3, let me point out, for our help, a number of important factors which were fundamental to what was taking place in Jerusalem and are equally important today for what is taking place here in Cleveland. I think they’re fairly straightforward. I don’t expect you to be awed by my insights, but I nevertheless want to point them out for our benefit.

The first observation is simply this: that a project of this magnitude could never seriously have been entertained without the mobilization of the entire community. What we have in chapter 3 of Nehemiah is everybody involved, everyone filling a part. This is not the picture of the average soccer game, with sixty thousand people in the stands, badly in need of exercise, and twenty-two fellows on the field, badly in need of a rest. This is not your classic church situation where 20 percent of the people do 80 percent of the work. For this project to have been undertaken and successfully completed demanded something much more than that. And what you have here is the involvement of each individual.

I say to you this morning—and it’s a straightforward point of application—if ever we’re going to take seriously the mandate given us by Christ himself, to “go into all the world and preach the [gospel]”[4] and “make disciples of all nations,”[5] then it demands the mobilization of the totality of the people of God—no pew sitters, no pew fillers, no observers; total mobilization of the troops.

Second observation is this: the participation of these mobilized people needed to be and was harmonious and simultaneous. When you go through chapter 3 and count up, you will find that there are some forty or forty-one sections of wall all broken up, subdivided into various areas of responsibility. And these people had an individual part to play, they had a small-group part to play, and they had a big-group part to play. Because the Old Testament knows nothing of an individualized form of religion. It knows nothing of a personal relationship with God that is unconnected from the community.

Now, that is something that some of us have not, frankly, come to grips with. Because we are at pains to tell people all the time—this is what we say: “I have a personal relationship with God.” And that’s true. At least, it may be true in your case. And sometimes we’re tempted to believe that it is this singular, if you like, direct connection through Jesus to God which is the total expression of what it means to be in Christ, when in point of fact, the Old Testament and the New Testament, the whole Bible, knows nothing of that kind of description. There is no solo flying to heaven. It’s all in relationship to the other pilots around us, and the other planes. We are saved and brought into community because God has purposes for his people together that can never be achieved when his people are apart.

Now, the implications of this we will see as we proceed in these studies, but let us not miss, in passing, this fact: that while there is rich diversity amongst the people then and, for example, this morning, their diversity is subsumed in a unity of purpose. If you asked the people what they were doing, they would all answer with one voice. Irrespective of which part of the wall they were engaged in, they would have answered to the effect that they were involved in doing God’s work God’s way, under the leadership of Nehemiah.

We are saved and brought into community because God has purposes for his people together that can never be achieved when his people are apart.

And in the same way, loved ones, it is absolutely important that the stated purpose of the church universal and the express plan and strategy of the church local is something which is shared by, enthusiastically committed to, by everyone who names themselves a part of that church—so that if our responsibility, as we mentioned last Sunday in Acts 9:31, is to see the people of God edified or built up so that we may in turn see the people of God multiplied, or expanded and extended, then it shouldn’t matter whether we attend a small-group Bible study or a Sunday school class, or engage with people in the choir, or be involved in youth ministry, or take part in some outdoors project, but that we would find that there was a cohesion about all of that which attached to the broad, overarching purpose of the community of God’s people. That was involved in sustaining this objective, and that must be involved in sustaining every large-scale project, such as the one that God has given us here—something that we have not peculiarly sought, nor are we endeavoring in any special way to try and engender the scale of it. Nevertheless, to look out on this congregation, having just looked out on a prior congregation at nine o’clock and anticipating again the congregation this evening, you’ve got to know, loved ones, that unless there is harmonious and simultaneous commitment to the overarching purpose of the church, there will only be disintegration and failure.

The third thing that we can say by way of observation is that the immensity of the challenge in the building project could only have been met by an unquenchable dedication and an ardent enthusiasm. Unquenchable dedication and ardent enthusiasm. I like both those words: enthusiasm and dedication. And it takes both amongst the people of God to do the work of God—empowered by the Spirit, guided by the Scriptures, challenged and encouraged by one another, but enthusiasm and dedication.

May I ask you: Are you enthusiastically dedicated to the work of the gospel? “Oh,” you say, “why would you ask me that?” Because that’s the question I ask myself: Am I committed? Would people in my company say, “This guy’s enthusiastic about this! We know what makes him tick. We know what rings his bell. We know what fires his passion. I know what makes that girl go. I understand why she is that way.” Do people know that of us? Or are we marked by a kind of that horizontal scan on the screen when you go in and encounter death in the hospital room? It goes, “Ding-dong, ding-dong, ding-dong. Mmm.” Soon as it goes like that, if you’re lying in the bed, hooked up to that, and it goes “Mmm,” you won’t ever know. But the people around you will know. See, you’ll never know you’re dead if you’re a Christian. So you don’t know how dead you are; the people around you know how dead you are, if you’re not marked by enthusiasm and dedication. That’s what it takes.

The fourth thing, skating across the surface, is this: that what we have here are small groups of all different kinds. You need to read the chapter 3 and notice this. When you go through it, you find that all these wee groups of people were divided up in multivarious ways. For those of you who want it in the parlance that is most accurate, the groups were heterogeneous rather than homogeneous. For the rest of us, all the groups were different.

Some were made up according to family relationships. Some were divided geographically on the basis of the towns from which they came. Some were involved on the basis of their crafts. There were perfume makers and there were goldsmiths that had a little group. Some were gathered up in terms of their trading responsibilities; there were merchants. There were some who were gathered religiously—priests and Levites and temple servants. Some were gathered politically—district officers. And in verse 12, one man even had a small group that comprised his daughters, and that was how he endeavored to play his part in the overarching purpose. So they split up on the basis of a variety of circumstances, and they were equally effective.

Now, let me just make a point of application here for our church. From the very first day that I came to this church, I always said this: I believe wholeheartedly in a large, worshipping, gathered congregation. I don’t care how large it is, but the people come together, and they’re able to offer praise in community in a way that isn’t as good in a wee group. They are able to give in community in a way that they can’t do in a wee group. They are able to do elements of evangelism in a large-scale operation rather than in the smaller. And so I said, “I believe in that.” And I believe also that if you bring people together in those large groups, they need to find their feet. They need to be able to share, develop, grow, and establish relationships in smaller groups. Okay? We’ve always said that. And our attempt at developing that in the early days was through the ministry of Flocks, which has gone on right to this day and goes on successfully in certain areas.

What we have discovered, though, is this: that as our church has continued to grow, both numerically and in terms of ministry development, it seems increasingly unlikely that it is possible to give people the small-group experience by means of one strategic approach. In other words, we cannot micromanage what will be a person’s small-group experience. Because we have discovered, for example, that there are certain men that would like to get together, hold one another accountable, do a Bible study, meet on a regular basis at six thirty in the morning. There are other ladies that are meeting together. There are couples that are meeting together. There are groups that are meeting together. There are Flocks that are meeting together. And the whole thing is completely out of control—in a good way! A potentially good way. Because I think what the Lord has been impressing, at least upon my own heart, is this: that once you get to a certain size and you begin to maximize and multiply ministry, you must make the principle subservient to the program. There is no program that will ultimately be able to cater for all of that. And so the principle mustn’t be let go of, while the programs will be developed in their own way.

“Well,” you say, “what are you saying?” I’m not saying anything more than that. That is simply me. The elders may come to me and say, “Why’d you go and say that? You put the cat among the pigeons, and now we’ve got all this stuff.” Yeah, well, that won’t be the first time they said that to me. What I’m telling you is this: that in the same way as there was groups and groups and groups that were involved in the wall, and they weren’t all the same dimensions, they weren’t all the same characteristics—they were heterogeneous rather than homogeneous—I think that’s probably the way the church has to be developed. I don’t know what the implications are. I’m not sure what it will mean. I don’t know where we’ll be twelve months from now. But I think it’s going to be different. I think it has to be.

Fifthly, as we skate over the top, it is impossible for a project of this size to be undertaken without interference. And in verse 5, you will notice that “the men of Tekoa” had some nobles who “would not put their shoulders to the work.” In other words, there will always be people bucking the system—always be folks who do not wish to submit to leadership, those who are unwilling to put their shoulders to the plow.

So, what you have in chapter 3, if we could summarize it, is a classic illustration of the principle of interdependence—not living in independence but living in interdependence: connected with one another, dependent upon one another.

Let me summarize it in these statements.

Interdependence involves every individual taking responsibility for something. Every individual taking responsibility for something. If you had gone about Jerusalem and said, “Who are you, and where do you work?” they would have been able to say, “I’m Manasseh, and I work at the Jackal Gate.” “I’m Zadok, and I work at the Valley Gate.” If you went to somebody and said, “Who are you?” and they said, “I don’t know,” and “Where do you work?” “I don’t know,” you could assume safely that they had not either grasped the overarching purpose or had determined that they had no interest in being involved in the project.

If interdependence is to work, it demands that we set aside our sharp edges, our personal disagreements, and we realize the need for the love of God to be shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

Secondly, interdependence means setting aside personal disagreements. You see, building the church, as we’ve said before, is not like building with precast concrete. It’s not like building with little bricks that all come out of a machine just the same size—eight by three, or four, or two and a half, or whatever they come out. It’s like building with bananas. You ever imagine building a wall with a bunch of bananas, you get a picture of what it’s like to try and build a church with people like you and me: funny shapes, some are soft, some are hard, some are green, some are overripe, some are very tender, some are very sensitive, some have got that thing on the end that really jags you when you grab for it. I mean, it’s just a hard project. It’s a hard project. And it was a hard project here, because they weren’t building with little symmetrical lumps. They were building with stones of various sizes.

And some people are just really uncomfortable to sit next to. Some people have sharp elbows. And if you happen to be one of those with the sharp elbows, you wonder why it is that no one snuggles up to you. You can’t snuggle up to those razorlike elbows! And therefore, if interdependence is to work, it demands that we set aside our sharp edges, our personal disagreements, and we realize the need for the love of God to be “shed abroad in our hearts”[6] by the Holy Spirit so that love will be the mortar, if you like, which molds all of these multivarious stones together.

That’s why our studies in the evening in 1 Corinthians 13 are so vitally important. Every one of us who misses the evening studies misses a significant part of the diet. Don’t take that as a condemnation; take that as an observation. And I plead with you: if, for whatever reason, you do not attend our evening service and you consider yourself a part of our church, do one thing for me—order all the tapes on 1 Corinthians 13, and listen to them. Because otherwise, you may be living with the lopsided notion that the leadership of this church believes that, provided principles are delineated and implemented, all will be well. We do not believe that. For the glue which holds it all together is the love of Jesus. And without the love of the evening studies allied with the principles of the morning studies, we are like a ship, like a vessel, leaning off on the one side on its keel—on its hull, on its whatever. Leaning! (Do not use boating analogies ever. You don’t understand boats.) All right. That was just a note to myself in passing. Sorry. You get the picture. You get a lopsided congregation.

And we do have a lopsided congregation. We have two thousand people in here this morning, and tonight maybe six hundred. When we come back in the evening, we say, “This is fundamentally important for the future of our church. Parkside Church is not touchy. Parkside Church does not demand its own way. Parkside Church keeps no record of wrongs. Parkside Church forgives.” When we start to say that, we’re only saying it to a third of the church. So please, either come, or get the tapes. But interdependence demands setting aside personal disagreements.

And the third thing, skating across the top, is that interdependence means keeping the overall purpose in view. Every one of these wee groups had an objective, and that was to meet the next group. So the people at the Fish Gate were moving from the Fish Gate up to whatever the next one was; we need to check the chapter. And the people who were at the Jackal Gate or the Tower of the Hundred knew what they were doing, and that was, they were seeking to build in such a way that they would arrive and see their neighbors coming round the corner.

Problem: if one wee group gets so focused in its little project that it forgets what it’s actually endeavoring to do, then it diminishes the totality of what’s going on. Obvious, right? I mean, so, you’ve got this little group, and their part of the wall is here. They get it up and get going, and somebody says, “You know, I’ve got a fabulous idea. I think we could build a deck off this wall, don’t you? I mean, don’t you think it would be a fabulous view, just out there like that? Why don’t we build a deck?” Someone else says, “You know, if we’re going to build a deck, these orange groves are magnificent here. We could haul down some of those oranges, and we could put together a little orange business. We could squeeze the oranges, and we could sell them off the deck.” Somebody says, “That’s a fabulous idea! You know, maybe we could make some furniture. And then we could bring the people…” And before they know where they are, they’ve lost sight of what they’re supposed to be doing, which is hurrying up to finish their piece of the wall so they can meet Fred and his brothers around the corner.

The principle’s obvious: if I get so consumed with preaching the Bible that I lose sense of what my part is in the overarching purpose of Parkside Church, I’m going to be a jolly nuisance. And if you get into some project in this church that consumes you—the kind of “I, me, mine” deal—and you can’t see beyond your deck and your orange juice, then, loved ones, check and see whether you haven’t lost sight of the overarching purpose of the church. The church ultimately does not exist to rearrange the furniture so that all who are inside it feel comfy; it exists so that people who are outside of it may be brought inside of it. The church exists not for itself; it exists for other people, who don’t know Jesus. That’s why we exist! Not, ultimately, to find out how to be good parents, although we should be; not, ultimately, to memorize the books of the Bible, although it’s helpful to; not, ultimately, to sing songs and preach sermons; but ultimately to evangelize the world for Jesus Christ. That’s the overarching purpose. So you see, when you get in your small group, ask yourself the question, “Am I in sync? Or am I building a deck?”

Seventeenth century, late seventeenth century, Sir Christopher Wren is involved in overseeing the magnificent structure being built—St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. He has been the architect, and now he is the Master of Works. A stranger comes on to the construction site and begins to go around and ask various artisans, What are they doing? He comes to this young man, and he says, “And what are you doing?” He says, “I am helping to carve out the loft for the organ.” Moves across to another area and asks a man, “And what are you doing?” He said, “Well, I’m actually working on the construction of the magnificent stained-glass windows.” And to another, “How about you?” “I am laying the mosaic on the floor of the chancel area.” And then to a fellow, away in obscurity, with a chisel, raising up dust and beating with a hammer on this chisel on a big block of apparently inconsequential stone, and the visitor says to him, “And young man, what are you doing?” And the young man looked up at him, and he said, “I am helping Sir Christopher Wren build St. Paul’s Cathedral.” See, he wasn’t just there with his stone and his little chisel, doing his own little project. He understood that he was part of the whole.

We can apply this further. What does Parkside Church exist for in relationship to the whole of Christendom? We don’t exist for ourselves. We don’t exist to draw attention to ourselves. We don’t exist to become notorious. We don’t exist to become well-spoken of. If someone walked in here and asked the question, “And what is Parkside Church doing?” there’s only one legitimate answer—namely, “We are helping, by the power of the Spirit, to do the work of our head and Lord Jesus Christ, who determined he would build the church.” That’s what we’re doing. And that’s all we’re doing. And that’s the only thing we have a mandate to do.


Now, you see, this is so vitally important. That spirit of unanimity, of harmony, of working together, is crucial. Because when you turn the page into chapter 4, you realize another foundational principle. And we’ll just hit this this morning and come back to it next time. Here it is: whenever God’s people endeavor to do God’s work in God’s way, it will not go unopposed. It will not go unopposed. Anyone who thinks that they can be involved in doing God’s work and not be opposed is living with an empty head and a closed Bible. The whole of history—biblical history and secular history beyond—points to the fact that whenever any individual or group of people have taken a stand for the things of God, they have faced an onslaught of opposition.

And it is no less true this morning. Leadership needs to understand it. Leaders need to lead. Leaders need to lead by conviction—a conviction which then becomes the basis for consensus. That is biblical leadership. Leaders have conviction that is a God-given conviction, and then they call people to consensus on the basis of the conviction. That needs to be understood. Because largely, the political model with which most of us have lived for the last while is simply this: that leaders lead on the basis of consensus. They form consensus by the lowest common denominator, and then they build conviction out of the consensus—which is usually no conviction at all.

Now, Nehemiah was not a man of consensus but a man of conviction. And consequently, he was going to take it in the neck. Whatever your responsibility—you’re a team leader in your sales force; you are a teacher, and you have a responsibility for others; you’re a principal in a school; you head up an office; you are overseeing some nurses on your floor; whatever it might be; certainly true in the church—anyone who steps into the arena of leadership must be prepared to pay a price.

Let me quote Swindoll:

True leadership exacts a heavy toll on the whole person—and the more effective the leadership, the higher the price! The leader must soon face the fact that he will be the target of critical darts. Unpleasant though it may sound, you haven’t really led until you have become familiar with the stinging barbs of [criticism]. Good leaders must have thick skin.[7]

And Nehemiah had been given thick skin.

Leaders cannot lead if they simply allow themselves to go up and down on the yo-yo of popular opinion.

I came across a quote by someone that I don’t know. He’ll be known to many of you: a guy called Sonny Jurgensen or Yurgensen—played as a quarterback, I believe, for the Washington Redskins. And he was being interviewed after a very poor performance one afternoon, in the locker room. And the interviewers had said, you know, “Why did you do this?” and “How did you do that?” and “Do you think you’re washed up?” and “Do you think you’ll be able to play again?” and all these kind of things. And they beat him up very good. And eventually, one reporter, when most of the crowd had dispelled, said to Sonny, he said, “You know, how do you put up with this? I mean, how can you cope with this? Doesn’t this just discourage you forever?” And Sonny said “No.” He said, “When I became a quarterback, I understood this: that I will either live in the penthouse or in the outhouse, but I seldom live in between.”[8]

And that’s true of leaders. If you’re a leader in any capacity, some people will have you in the penthouse, and simultaneously, other people will have you in the outhouse. You are for some a hero of the most monolithic dimensions. You are for others the ultimate villain in the plot. You are respected by some. You’re, frankly, hated by others. And leaders cannot lead if they simply allow themselves to go up and down on the yo-yo of popular opinion.

That, incidentally, is why the average stay of a pastor in a church in the United States is somewhere around twenty months. A year and eight months is the average length when you take it right across the board. And that doesn’t just have to do with the fact that he ran out of sermons in eighteen months. It has to do with the peculiar challenges of it.

A man with whom I served in Edinburgh when I was an assistant, he used to say that when you assume leadership amongst the people of God, as you become a church leader, an elder, he said, “You need to be prepared for the fact that in the first year, they idolize you; in the second year, they criticize you; and in the third year, they ostracize you.” I was thinking again about that this week, and I said, “Well, here we go.” I said, “I wonder: Are there any other words that end in -ize that could summarize, you know, a ten-year cycle?” So I decided: the first year, they idolize you. The second year, they criticize you. The third year, they ostracize you. The fourth year, they try and liquidize you—just completely squeeze all the juice out of you. The fifth year, they tyrannize you. The sixth year, they analyze you: “Let’s just see if we know who this person is.” The seventh year, they paralyze you. The eighth year, they fossilize you. The ninth year, they stigmatize you. The tenth year, they feel sorry for you and try and galvanize you. And by the time you get to the eleventh year, they write articles about you and memorialize you. But you never go back to being idolized; I know that for sure.

Ridicule, Reaction, and Rebuilding

Now, the opening verses of chapter 4 record for us, then, the reaction of these people to this amazing work that was taking place before their eyes. Remember that for ninety years, most recently, all that had been here was rubble, just junk. And under the cover of darkness, this man has come from Susa. He’s taken time to rest. He’s taken time for reconnaissance. And all of a sudden, he makes a preemptive strike, and before the reactionary forces can move their hands to stop it, the wall has begun to be rebuilt right before their eyes. And the response is that they’re absolutely infuriated. That’s what we’re told of this man, Sanballat: he was “angry”; he was “greatly incensed.” He didn’t like this newfound enthusiasm amongst these people. This vigorous spirit of independence that now pervaded them he didn’t like.

You see, whenever the church rises with a united voice in a generation, people don’t like that. By and large, Western culture wants to hold on to religion. They know that a wee bit of it is nice. It’s good when visiting dignitaries come, and it brings a measure of cohesion to the culture. But whenever the church stands up and says, “Thus saith the Lord,” unequivocally—says, “Jesus is the only way,” that Calvary is the pivotal event of human history, that monogamy in marriage is the only way, that premarital sex is absolutely out, that homosexuality is a deviation, that heaven will be gained by those who trust in Christ, and hell will be the abode of those who reject him—whenever the work of God goes on like that, all hell breaks loose against it. And the first strategy is ridicule. Ridicule.

It wasn’t that Sanballat was apathetic to what was going on. He was antagonistic to what was going on. And, loved ones, don’t believe this nonsense about the fact that the world around us is benign, that it doesn’t really care, that it doesn’t have an opinion, that it is happy for us to go on and do what we want to do, to build the work of God as we choose. That is ridiculous! The world around us, Satan and his host, is ticked—feverishly aggravated by seeing Jesus continuing, as he promised, to build his church.

Now, their reason for ridicule is because they were unable to do anything else at all. And ridicule, says Howard Vos, is “a ‘marvelous’ tactic,” because it “requir[es] no wrestling with facts,” no “intelligent argument. It requires no brains, no light, only heat.”[9] Isn’t that true? You make fun of somebody in your school, you don’t have to have any brilliant argument behind it. You just have to choose something and make fun of them. And if you can do it in a way that brings the support of others around you, then you can make somebody look like an absolute clown, and you’ve got no basis for it whatsoever. But you become a master of ridicule.

And Sanballat wasn’t good enough to be a master of ridicule. Because for ridicule to really work, it can’t have any rage in it. You can’t use ridicule and rage together. Ridicule has to be on ice. Ridicule has to be controlled. The caustic statements of ridicule need to come from a very controlled tongue. And Sanballat had lost that. Therefore, his dismissive taunts couldn’t really crush.

Look at what he says: “What are those feeble Jews doing?” Here he comes and puts on a big show—brings the army, brings a few of his friends, makes his little speech. Plays well in front of the home crowd; won’t play in away games. You’re not going to be able to say this on away games. “What are the feeble Jews doing?” and all the people go, “Yeah, feeble Jews!”

“Will they restore their wall?”

“No chance!”

“Will they offer sacrifices?”

“I doubt it!”

“Do you think they can pray the wall back up?”


“Will they finish in a day?”

“They’ll never finish at all.”

“Can they bring the stones back to life?”


That’s all he does: shouts—makes these caustic statements.

And, verse 3, birds of a feather flock together. He’s got his sidekick—Laurel has got Hardy with him, or Hardy has got Laurel, or whatever you like—“Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side.”

Now, I may be completely wrong, but I think this guy was a creep. I think this guy was a real cringing rascal. I don’t think he had enough smarts to be able to make the speech himself, but he was the kind of fellow that is always standing beside the big guy, you know, and he’s going, “Yeah, and I agree with that too! Yeah. Yes!” You know? And so he musters himself up. He comes up with a little joke. Look at his little joke: “[Oh,] what they[’re] building—if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!” That’s exactly right. The people are going, “What, Tobiah? What?” “Yeah, did you like the joke? I thought that if a fox climbed up on it, they would break down the wall of stones!” Even Sanballat’s going, “Cut it out, Tobiah! We don’t need that stuff.” Derek Kidner says, “Even from a man of importance, so fatuous a joke needs a little help from the atmosphere.”[10] In other words, you had to be there. And even if you were there, it wasn’t that good.

So here are the people of God, united in their project, determined in the task, and up comes Sanballat and his sidekick, Tobiah, and they employ ridicule. What’s the reaction? Prayer. Verses 4 and 5:

Have [you] trials and temptations?
Is there trouble anywhere?
We should never be discouraged.
Take it to the Lord in prayer.[11]

He doesn’t start a shouting match with him. He doesn’t say, “Oh yes, we can!” “Oh no, you can’t!” “Oh yes, we can!” No! He says, “Hey, God, give ’em a taste of their own medicine. The things they want to do to us, you do it to them, God.”

Now, we’ve got a real problem with that. We read the Psalms, and the psalmist does the same thing. We know that Jesus gave us a better way, and that is “Do not repay … evil [with] evil,”[12] but “overcome evil with good.”[13] But the principle is this: when we are set upon, vindication and vengeance is not ours but God’s. And Nehemiah understood that. So he receives all this aggravation and this ridicule, and his reaction is to pray. The principle is clear.

And what was going on while he was praying? The rebuilding. So you have ridicule, you have reaction, and you have rebuilding.

Verse 6 and we’re through: “So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height.” “All of it reached half its height.” Now, there’s a principle there, and we shouldn’t miss it. It would have been possible for them to build one section at a time and build the whole wall, and then wait till they built the whole wall before they go to build the next piece. But if they did that, they wouldn’t have been able to complete the circle quick enough. They knew the only way they could close the gaps was build it up half the height and keep going all the way around. There’s a principle. Some of us are very perfectionistic, and this is how we go: “Now, we’re going to start this area of ministry. Once we start this area of ministry, we’re going to build it to its complete height. It will have four leaders—two of these, one of those. It will have this, and a manual, and three instruction sheets, and tapes, and diagrams, and charts, and implements of destruction. And once we do that, then we will move to the second one.” What happens is you get one thing—this gigantic thing that gets built, built, built, built. Meanwhile, the whole rest of the wall is in disrepair.

Here’s the principle, loved ones: we’re going to have to determine right now, at this juncture at our church’s history, what the key elements are that we need to build in this wall, and then we better start building them. And we’re not going to get them all built up to the top. We’re only going to get some of them built a quarter height, half height. But they need to be built, ’cause we need to close the gaps.

And loved ones, you are the key to the closing of the gaps. You are the builders. You are the builders. You’re on the wall. You’re by the gates. You’ve seen the rubble. You’re the key to the future of this church, under God. Not me. Not the leaders. Nehemiah could have gone; they’d put another one in. But those people, in their place, were vital. And that’s the encouragement of it.

And with that word of encouragement, let’s finish. Notice: “The people worked with all their heart.” Look at what God is able to do without big names and big splashes, just with people prepared to do their work. Unknown people! Do you think you’ll be remembered in history? I don’t think I will. I don’t think I’ll be a footnote in an appendix in the fattest book you ever saw. Not a chance of it! Most of us, we will be “Frail as summer’s flower we flourish; blows the wind, and it is gone.”[14] We’re gone! We’re out of here! People will walk through graveyards and go, “Begg? Begg? That’s a funny name. I wonder who in the world that was. Oh! Owen. Oh, that’s a singing name, you know. That’s a Welsh name. I wonder if Owen was a singer. I wonder if he was a musician.” Yes, he was actually. But by and large, we’re gone! But we’re here today, and we’re here on a mission. And it doesn’t matter if we’re remembered. But it matters now that we take our place, we play our part, we grab our trowel, and we build our piece of the wall.

You see, the people here got the a word and the e word clear. Do you know about the a word and the e word? I have these two words with my children all the time.

The a word is attitude. I tell my kids, “You can’t control how tall you’re going to grow. You can’t control, ultimately, how bright you’re going to be. You can’t control many things, but you can control your attitude when you wake up in the morning.” You can’t control many of the things that are going on around you. You can’t control ministry in this church any more than I can. There’s a million things over which we have no control, but we can control our attitude.

Secondly, the e word is effort. We can control the effort level. And in the report cards that come home from school, I’ve noticed there are two columns. There’s the column that you get, the thing with the A, B, C, and D—and it goes down to F, about which I can speak with some conviction and familiarity. It goes down there. And there’s another column, which we never had at school—which we should have had at school—which is the effort column. And you get between a one and a four for effort.

Let me tell you something, and you can hold me to this as well: if you’re prepared to go for a one in effort, I don’t care whether you get Cs, Ds, As, Bs, minuses—whatever it is—if you’ll just commit to the effort column, going for number one. And I will too. ’Cause I can guarantee you that personally, I can’t get straight As. I’m not good enough at enough things. I’m not smart enough, bright enough, committed enough. But I will give you my best in the effort column. That is all that we can ultimately ask of one another. And that kind of attitude, with that kind of effort, enabled by the Spirit of God and guided by the Word of God, we can turn the world upside down in our generation for Jesus Christ.

So I say to you this morning: get by a gate, get a trowel, and get going.

Let’s pray:

God our Father, we’re just struck by the amazing way in which you used Nehemiah and took all these unknown names and faces and galvanized them for your purpose. In our generation, we humbly ask you might be pleased to do the same. We’re just such a strange group of people, united by a common love for you and for your Word. We don’t all get As. Far from it. But Lord, give us the right kind of attitude. Help us to make the right kind of effort. And over it all, pull the blanket of love, so that coming generations may be able to build on the foundations that we lay, for the glory of your name.

May the love of the Lord Jesus draw us to himself. May the power of the Lord Jesus strengthen us as we seek to serve him. May the joy of the Lord Jesus be our encouragement in the hours of this day and in the days of this week. For it’s in his name we pray. Amen.

[1] George Croly, “Spirit of God, Descend upon My Heart” (1854).

[2] 1 Peter 2:5 (NIV 1984).

[3] See 2 Timothy 3:16.

[4] Mark 16:15 (NIV 1984).

[5] Matthew 28:19 (NIV 1984).

[6] Romans 5:5 (KJV).

[7] Charles R. Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 69.

[8] Charles R. Swindoll, Dropping Your Guard: The Value of Open Relationships (Dallas: Word, 1983), 35–36. Paraphrased.

[9] Howard F. Vos, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther, Bible Study Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Lamplighter, 1987), 100–101.

[10] Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity, 1979), 90.

[11] Joseph M. Scriven, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” (1855).

[12] Romans 12:17 (NIV 1984).

[13] Romans 12:21 (NIV 1984).

[14] Henry F. Lyte, “Praise, My Soul, the King of Heaven” (1834).

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.