God calls people to great things. And great things are rarely easy.
Appointed people – men and women who aspire beyond the default to God’s preferred best – always face roadblocks.
Funds run short. Enthusiasm wanes. Unexpected technical issues arise.
And sometimes, people following God’s call face opposition from other people.
One of the most instructive cases of this kind of intentional sabotage is found in the Old Testament book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah, a Jewish man living in exile, had worked up the civil-service ranks to become cupbearer to the king of Persia. But when news of Jerusalem’s dire conditions landed on his heart, Nehemiah left the royal banquet table for Judea, convinced that God had called him to spearhead rebuilding efforts in the Jewish capital.
From the jump, Nehemiah encountered opposition. A gang of regional administrators – Sanballat and Tobiah chief among them – stood against the project. As leaders of nearby political entities, they enjoyed the power vacuum that a ruined Jerusalem afforded, and a rebuilt capital jeopardized their control over local affairs.
Chapters 2-5 describe their first efforts to sidetrack Nehemiah’s work. They derided the builders and lampooned the bricklaying as a fool’s errand. But guided by Nehemiah’s steady hand and encouraging heart, Jerusalem’s workers persisted.
Before long, it became clear to Sanballat and his crew that the walls of the city would stand again. And that’s when these haters broke out a series of new tactics.
Pay attention, because the salvos they turned on Nehemiah are often aimed at the great tasks of today:
First, the opposition tried to kill the vision with conversation:
Nehemiah 6:1-3: 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— 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; 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?”
With the work nearing its conclusion, Sanballat and Geshem invited Nehemiah away from Jerusalem to A Series of Really Important Discussions: “Come on Nehemiah, let’s just sit down and process this together. We know this whole wall thing is a big deal for you, but can’t we talk about something that everybody will agree to?”
This is death by dialogue. Many an obedient heart has been told to pull the plug on a great dream because they were “hasty” or “stubborn.” More conversations are required before work can continue.
This particular sabotage works very well today. We have been conditioned to believe that dialogue is to be valued above all else. We need to talk it out, to process things slowly.
It’s true; Christians shouldn’t be rash people. They should be wise and should take time to listen to others. But sometimes the task is so critical to God that stopping to discuss it yet again is the wrong move.
I love Nehemiah’s response. I can picture him there: standing on the rampart. Hammer in hand, he hardly even looks up from the gates he’s framing in: “I’m carrying on a great project. I can’t be distracted, cozied up, or delayed. There’s nothing left to discuss.”
The venue for Sanballat’s proposed meeting allows for one of the great Scriptural puns – Nehemiah says “Oh, no, I’m not going to the plain of Ono.” I’m not going to Ono, Or Yoko, or Ringo, or any other plain. I’ve got something big going here and I’m seeing it through.
Sorry. Low-hanging fruit.
At any rate, when the filibuster approach fails, Nehemiah’s opponents move on to their next tactic: They nag him.
Nehemiah 6:4: Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer.
Sometimes opponents will try to pester you into quitting.
Four times Sanballat sends the same letter to Nehemiah:
How about now, Nehemiah?
How about now, Nehemiah?
How about now, Nehemiah?
How about now, Nehemiah?
Sometimes, the enemies of your work just try to wear you out. They come at you and come at you and come at you until you just throw up your hands and quit.
But the Bible says Nehemiah is up to the task; each time his enemies test his strength, he steels his resolve and gives them the same response:
I’m not leaving this wall.
I once heard a story about a young man who wanted to drop out of high school. His father pushed back hard: “You want to quit, son? No way! Think of Abraham Lincoln… Think of General McArthur and Babe Ruth and Elmo McCringle!”
“Who’s Elmo McCringle?” asked the son. “Never heard of him.”
The father said, “Exactly. Elmo is the guy who quit.”
Nehemiah spurned Sanballat’s overture every single time. Repeated requests to make the same bad decision weren’t going to dissuade him.
Still, Sanballat, Tobiah, and the others battled on. And this time, they made it personal. They attacked Nehemiah’s reputation:
Nehemiah 6:5-8: Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter in which was written: “It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.” I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”
And so the stakes are ratcheted up. This time, Sanballat goes after Nehemiah’s motives. His character. Sanballat claims that Nehemiah’s wall is just a rallying point for his secretly-planned uprising against the Persian king.
This work isn’t about your God or your people, Nehemiah, it’s about your personal ambition. You really just want to be the king and this is how you’re trying to make it happen.
There’s a detail in verse 5 that’s important. The Bible says that this communication comes in an unsealed letter. In this time and place, when most correspondences were stamped shut and carefully guarded, the sending of an unsealed letter was a slap in the face. Unsealed letters were open for everybody to see.
Sanballat aimed to drive a wedge between Nehemiah and the people of Jerusalem. This communication was meant to destroy Nehemiah’s reputation and the workers’ confidence. If they believed that the Persian king would ride in with the cavalry to shut down their construction, they would lose the will to work.
For a moment, think about how this would play out if Nehemiah were living in our day and age. If this happened in 2019, Nehemiah would issue a press release denying the report. His staff would scramble onto cable news shows to spin the story. Nehemiah would hire a publicist, tweet out a denial, and offer a blow-by-blow rebuttal in the Washington Post.
But Nehemiah doesn’t play that way. Without setting down his trowel, he drops one of the best lines in all of the Old Testament: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.”
I feel you, Nehemiah. Sometimes people just make things up in their heads. Rationality is not a prerequisite for attack. Enemies of God’s preferred future will throw anything at the ceiling and hope that it sticks.
But this treachery fails, too. Nehemiah continues building his walls.
Hang on though. How is it that Nehemiah could be so calm in the face of this attempted character assassination? I think it’s because Nehemiah knew the same thing that Pastor Dwight Moody once said: “If I take care of my character, my reputation will take care of itself.”
Nehemiah’s character was known to the king. He had been the man’s cupbearer; you don’t come into that position without being trustworthy and noble.
And by this point, Nehemiah’s heart was well-known to the people of Jerusalem. He was hard-working, humble, and fair.
The conspiracy was dead on arrival because Nehemiah’s integrity and intent were on full display.
If you are doing something great, people who want to stop you will tell stories about you. They’ll invent new versions of reality, impugn your motives, and talk behind your back. But if you stay steady, stay focused, and stay patient, the only person who’s going to end up looking bad is the one concocting the conspiracy.
Sanballat was down to his last card. Finally, in a last-ditch attempt to foil the building, he and his fellow saboteurs tried to distort spiritual conceptsto manipulate Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 6: 10-13: One day I went to the house of Shemaiah son of Delaiah, the son of Mehetabel, who was shut in at his home. He said, “Let us meet in the house of God, inside the temple, and let us close the temple doors, because men are coming to kill you—by night they are coming to kill you.” But I said, “Should a man like me run away? Or should someone like me go into the temple to save his life? I will not go!” I realized that God had not sent him, but that he had prophesied against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. He had been hired to intimidate me so that I would commit a sin by doing this, and then they would give me a bad name to discredit me.
When Nehemiah’s recognize their cause is nearly lost, they resort to twisting spiritual values to stop the building.
In this case, Sanballat and Tobiah hired a false prophet to tell Nehemiah to go to church rather than work on the wall. Shemaiah lies and tells Nehemiah that there is a bounty on his head and that he should seek asylum in the temple. “Go to God’s house and be saved!” they said.
The words sounded good – is there ever a bad time to go to church? – but their intent was to deceive.
The enemies tried to weaponize worship. Sin and sabotage came wrapped in sanctified language.
Had he fallen for the scam, scholars think, Nehemiah would have been guilty of breaking other religious laws. At the least, he would have looked like he had something to hide.
We can’t allow misappropriated truths – even the ones that sound righteous – to divert us from God’s true calling and our designated work.
Nehemiah wouldn’t. He stood on Jerusalem’s wall and kept hammering down. And verse 15 says that the great work was completed on the 52nd day.
Nehemiah was relentless in pursuit of the goal to which God had called him. He would not be stopped, dissuaded, or cut down. And in the end, the job got done.
What is the great work to which you have been called?
Is it starting a new ministry or leading a mission trip? Maybe it’s the work of overcoming an addiction or leaving behind a bad habit. Perhaps it’s restoring a relationship or ending one. Maybe it’s finally having a public conversation about your faith.
It doesn’t matter what your goal is – starting a business, going to counseling, raising your GPA, or restructuring your devotional life. There’s probably wall-work before you. God’s put you on those ramparts for a reason.
Friends, with anything that precious, with anything that consequential, adversity is bound to arise. Lean on the power of God’s call, trust in the quality of your character, and keep on laying bricks.