Damariscotta Baptist Church
Tuesday, September 18, 2018
Growing personal relationships with God and community

08/30/15 Sermon - Sword & Trowel

“Sword & Trowel”

Nehemiah Chapter 4

We are continuing in our reading and studying of the book of Nehemiah. You will find Nehemiah located in the Old Testament section of the Bible. It is the historical description of how the Israelites who had returned to Jerusalem, with Ezra, built the walls to protect it. Only 2% of the Israelites who had been living in captivity in Babylon and other nations surrounding the demolished city had chosen to return with the Jewish Scribe and Priest Ezra, to live.

Nehemiah had received a leave of absence from being the cupbearer to the King of Persia to come to Jerusalem to assist them in rebuilding the walls and gates. Last week we read in Chapter 3 exactly who rebuilt which wall and which gate. You see, Nehemiah had a plan, and he basically called on everyone who was living in the city, young and old, regardless of their occupation, to commit to building the walls and gates closest to their homes. And like any group venture, we read that there were Jews among them who did a lot, some who did little, some who did nothing at all, and there were also some who actually opposed the rebuilding of the walls.

This week, in Chapter 4, we are going to take a look at how those who actively opposed the reconstruction affected the progress of the rebuilding.

The opposition was led by two men we were introduced to us in Chapter 2 of Nehemiah. Back in Chapter 2, we read that Sanballat and Tobiah were deeply disturbed when they heard that Nehemiah had arrived to help the people living in Jerusalem, rebuild the walls. They initially tried using scorn and intimidation to prevent their fellow Israelites from joining with Nehemiah. Now that the wall had started to take form, Sanballat and Tobiah resorted to mocking the Jews. Their statements had a sarcastic tone which went something like….

“What are these feeble Jews doing?”

“Will they finish in a day?”

“What they are building – if even a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!”

I think we can comprehend what was happening. Have you ever started something that in the back of your mind you knew was a bit crazy, but somehow you knew you were supposed to be doing it. And then it would take only one person to come along and state the obvious, in a mocking tone, and you started second guessing yourself.

The reason mocking and intimidation work as tools of attack is because there is always a bit of truth in them that causes the one being mocked to be discouraged. What Sanballat and Tobiah were stating was a case in point. The Jews who were attempting to rebuild this wall were feeble. If you were to ask any of the Jews who were working on the wall outside their home if they thought they were great wall builders the majority of them would have probably said, “No.” In fact, last week in Chapter 3 we didn’t read that any of the people held the occupation of wall builder. They were nobles and perfume makers. Can you see how the mocking of Sanballat and Tobiah would have reminded them of how unskilled they really were?

Were they going to finish in a day? Which was to say, “Don’t you understand the enormity of the task?” Again, can you see how this would be just enough truth to make each person question the outcome? About this time in the project, I suspect each builder was wondering if they would ever finish.

Then, notice how the critics miss the meaning of the building of the wall. Tobiah mocks by stating, the fox will break down “their” wall. He just didn’t get it. The wall wasn’t “their” wall, it was “God’s” wall. They were really criticizing God’s work.

How easily someone who was not a part of God’s work, couldn’t see God being involved, and how quickly the workers were deceived into thinking the job was theirs, when in essence, it was God’s work, and God’s wall, and God’s plan. They were being used by God to carry it out.

This was something Nehemiah didn’t forget because notice Nehemiah’s response.

In verse 4, Nehemiah chooses to pray. How often do we first try our own response to opposition? I don’t know about you, but the human side of me often chooses the human response. When opposition occurs we choose to debate, thinking we can actually change the opposing minds.

Or, we could chose to do the organized church manner of dealing with opposition and form a committee.

Or we can follow Nehemiah’s example and take it immediately to God in prayer.

I am encouraged by the manner in which Nehemiah chooses to pray. He doesn’t sugar coat it, or make it sound “Christian”, he was actually asking God to battle his enemies for him.

Nehemiah’s prayer begins with a request for mercy.

“Hear, O our God, for we are despised.”

Nehemiah knew God cared about the rebuilding of the walls and for each person involved. What Nehemiah needed was for God to display His mercy and for the workers to sense God’s presence and care.

Then Nehemiah’s prayer gets tough. I’d like to read to you this part of the prayer from The Message, by Eugene Peterson, because he writes it in a way that makes more sense for us today.

“Oh, listen to us, dear God. We’re so despised: Boomerang their ridicule on their heads; have their enemies cart them off as war trophies to a land of no return; don’t forgive their iniquity, don’t wipe away their sin – they’ve insulted the builders!”

Wow! Not very nice. In the New Testament, Matthew 5:44 Jesus tells us to love our enemies and pray for them. I think Nehemiah is doing just that. God knew how Nehemiah felt and Nehemiah didn’t try to hide his anger. He simply gave it all back to God. He gave his honest feelings and his honest request to God, and left it at that. Nehemiah left it for God to handle.

The answer to Nehemiah’s prayer was interesting. The enemies don’t change at all. They continue to be royal pains. It’s God’s people who do the changing. Not only do God’s people continue to build the wall, in verse 6 we read, for the people worked with all their heart.”

Satan threw in his arrows of truth, in a manner that was meant to discourage and defeat. Yet, Nehemiah, a man following the heart of God, encouraged the people to remember it was God’s job and God would give them the strength and power to complete the job. As a leader, Nehemiah encouraged the Israelites to keep their eyes on God, / not on the attacks, / not on the wall, / but on God.

And at this point the Israelites have accomplished half of the work, the wall was half way done. Or, was there one more half to go? It all depended on how one chose to look at it.

We read that the enemies looked at it as half done and they became “very angry”. Not only Sanballat and Tobiah, but now the Arabs, the Ammonites and the men of Ashdod were joining forces. They met and came up with a plot on how they were going to fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble.

Nehemiah heard of the plot and this time, he not only prayed, he posted a guard day and night to meet the threat.

Faith and action. A dynamic combination.

Prayer was first and foremost but it wasn’t the only thing Nehemiah chose to do. Nehemiah’s faith acted first – he prayed. Nehemiah’s intelligence acted next – with posting of a guard.

Let’s take a look at how realistic this situation really was. We have God’s people building a wall because they believe God has directed them to do so. Then they have opposition, and threats of even greater opposition. It would have been easy for them to believe the continued attack was a failure on God’s part to answer their previous prayer. I mean, why would God allow enemies to keep threatening them, if He really wanted them to be building this wall? If it was God’s plan, wouldn’t God make things easy for them? From what I can tell, those in opposition had free will to do so. But notice how the more opposition occurred, the more God’s people drew closer to Him and how their trust grew deeper. Not only were the walls being built but God’s people were also being strengthened.

As we continue to look at what was going on, not only did God not make everything easy, the people knew they could not sit back and do nothing after hearing about possible attacks. There could have been some super spiritual among them who could have said, “Oh, Nehemiah, we don’t have to set watch. We have prayed for God to protect us and if we are really spiritual, that should be enough.

But Nehemiah wasn’t like that at all. He knew God would protect them, and He also knew that God had given them a duty to protect the city, first by building the wall of mortar and bricks and in the meantime, using willing servants of God to be the wall.

Commentator David Guzik put it this way:

“Our prayers do not replace our actions; they make our actions effective for God’s work.”

Nehemiah was determined. And his actions sent messages to everyone involved. The message to the people of God was one of commitment. They were to be in the job for the long haul, no matter what. They were going to succeed because it was God’s plan, not their plan.

The message to the enemies was they were not going to succeed. The people of Israel were willing to sacrifice to make sure the job was done, weary days, sleepless nights, whatever!

The message to God was, his chosen people trusted in Him again. Their faith was alive and was a faith of actions.

Challenges often accompany faith that is alive and active. And we find as we keep reading that was exactly what happened next. Challenges occurred from within and from without.

The challenges from within had to do with weariness. They were at the half way point, fatigue had set in because a lot had been done and there was so much more to be done. To add to the weariness of building the wall, there was the old rubble of a wall that needed to be torn down and cleared away. They had to clean up the old stuff before they could create the new. It was easier and more exciting to build the new than to take care of the trash. I suspect there was also the thought that even though the old wall wasn’t protecting them, it was better than nothing. If they were to take it down the city would be even more vulnerable and hadn’t they just heard rumors of the enemies planning attacks. What were they to do? Definitely a challenge.

I can only imagine how Nehemiah was feeling. It was much easier to lead people who were enthusiastic and eager to be led. There eagerness seemed to be waning. Adding to the challenge.

Then there were the challenges from the outside. The enemies had planned a surprise attack. If we were to draw a picture of how the Israelites may have felt at this point, I think it would be in a bottomless pit, as low as they could go.

The workers were exhausted, discouraged and felt like giving up. Now the news was the enemy planned to attack and crush them. Whether the enemy knew how discouraged the people of God were, is debatable. But God’s adversary the devil and his counsel of spiritual darkness knew. The battle was not only taking place on earth, it was also going on in the spirit world. 

In 1 Peter 5:8 we read,

“Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

The only way the challenges from the outside would work would be if their attacks could have been a surprise and they would be able to kill them.

The element of surprise was taken away because the Jews who lived near the enemies came and told the workers ten times over.

And when the enemies stated once they killed the workers they would put an end to their work, they had just given them a backhanded compliment. Because at this point in the story the enemy has come to realize the only way the building of the wall was going to stop was by God’s people dying.

Once Nehemiah heard the plan of the enemies he established a defense. He had every one prepare for battle. He reminded each of the nobles that God was the mighty one, and that God was on their side. Be bold, be strong and courageous, the battle was the Lord’s.

The enemies heard their surprise attack was no longer a surprise and that was the end of it. The workers returned to building the wall.

However, things were not the same. From this point on, we read, “half of my men did the work, while the other half were equipped with spears, shields, bows and armor….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 recorded that the workers continued to work this way. They were ready for both attacks and the building of the wall. Nehemiah also noticed that the workers were separated from each other while working on the wall, and so he organized a plan that when the trumpet blew, everyone was to come to the sound prepared to fight. That way they would be able to conquer the enemy. United they would stand.

Nehemiah went on to say they did not even take the time to change their clothes so they would always be ready if they were needed.

When you think about it, how strange that seems for us today. I mean, what would we think of Christians today who are that radically ready?

I would like to challenge that thinking. I believe we need more Christians to be armed with that same attitude today. Christians who are always ready, always clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ, always wearing the armor of God, Ephesians 6:10-18,

We read about the Armor of God

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.

14 Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, 15 and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. 16 In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. 17 Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.18 And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people.

Chapter 4 of Nehemiah has given us some helpful suggestions when it comes to dealing with the struggles and problems we face today. When we look at the big problems we have in our lives, or we see in the lives of those around us, Nehemiah 4 reminds us:

First – To Expect Criticism

            Do not be surprised when it comes, instead, learn how to measure criticism correctly. Though it is not easy and often requires wise counsel to assist us in the discernment, we need to learn how not to be run down by the critic, but still be sensitive to God’s voice in the midst of the criticism.

With criticism we can

Second – Be prepared for discouragement


Any hard trial, or long ordeal, discourages even the best of us. We should not allow discouragement to succeed in keeping us down. When we are discouraged we should remember that discouragement is somewhat the opposite of faith, and we should be reminded to place our faith back in God, not in our circumstances. Discouragement focuses on the worst and forgets about who God is and in God’s promises. When we are discouraged, rather than avoid it, we should own it and bring it immediately to the foot of the cross, where it belongs and pick up the promises of God, and the hope of heaven.

Not only should we be prepared for discouragement, we should

Third – learn how to handle our anger correctly

Discouragement isn’t the only emotion we feel when we are in the midst of a struggle or what seems to be an unsolvable situation. Anger also rears its ugly head.

The New American Standard Bible reads like this, in Ephesians 4:26

“Be angry, and yet do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger”

Nehemiah was angry, and one of the ways he handled his anger correctly was to take it to prayer to God. I am not suggesting you pray evil upon someone or something in your prayers, but that you turn the source of your anger, whether a person or situation, over to the good and just God, because He knows exactly what is best to do with them.

Not only are we to handle our anger correctly, we are also called to

Fourth – clean up the rubbish in our lives

The workers could not build the new walls until they removed the old walls. The same thing is required when we are working on the struggles and trials in our own lives. Let’s face it, if we are in a struggle or difficulty there is a pile of rubbish somewhere that is causing the difficulty or at least making things more difficult. I can speak from experience on this one. My childhood was riddled with rubbish. Living in a family with two alcoholic parents is a recipe for producing rubbish. As far as that goes, there isn’t a family in existence that doesn’t have some sort of rubbish to deal with, suffice it to say, with two hurting parents, the rubbish placed in my life was a big pile. However, I was blessed to begin my relationship with God at the age of 12, so for my teenage years, my relationship with Jesus certainly helped me through those difficult years.

But just having a relationship with God did not instantly remove the rubbish in my life.

This is where I bring in my Fifth and final suggestion from Chapter 4 in dealing with struggles in our life, and that is the need to use both the sword and the trowel to clean up the rubbish and be prepared.

When we look back at Ephesians 6:10-18 we discover the Sword of the Spirit is the Word of God, and the trowel, simply represents hard work.

I had a therapist who described it to me this way. She said, you have had people in your life who have dumped rubbish in your front lawn. You didn’t ask them to dump it. You didn’t deserve having it dumped on your lawn. Regardless, it’s sitting there. And because it has been there for so long, it stinks. So, you have a choice. You can leave it there and complain. You can continue to walk around it and let it continue to stink, or you can start cleaning it up, one scoop of your trowel at a time.

Nehemiah shared this same advice. There was rubble in the way of building the new wall. There were enemies doing their best to stop the creation of something new and good. In order for God’s people to get a new wall, they needed a sword – for us today, we need to know God’s Word and use it – they also needed a trowel – to physically scoop up the rubble and carry it away. Everyone’s rubbish pile is different. Getting rid of some of the rubbish in our lives requires different methods, but there is one method as Christians we should use first and that is prayer. Like Nehemiah, prayer should be our first resort, not our last resort. And as soon as God reveals to us the details of our rubbish pile, we need to take it to the foot of the cross, and drop it, and leave it there. And then we are called to walk away redeemed. Oh, you can bet the angel of darkness will try to lie to us and tell us we didn’t really get rid of it, but notice I said the word “lie”. That is where the sword comes in. When we claim God’s word, Satan is defeated. So when discouragement comes, and it will, we need to be prepared with our Sword, God’s Word and with our trowel, to bring it to the foot of the cross. And like the story of Nehemiah and the wall, the work will continue.

Let’s pray.