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Praying and Watching in Days of Opposition

Praying and Watching in Days of Opposition

Nehemiah 4–6 – God’s Construction Project (Ezra-Nehemiah) – Nov 6, 2022

Introduction

Reading Nehemiah 4:1–14.

To be a Christian is to be opposed.

  • Sometimes it’s open mockery. We’re fools or stupid—because we believe in the supernatural. Not only do we believe the miracles of the Bible are true—but that God is still doing miracles.
  • Sometimes we’re accused of practicing a religion of hate—because we uphold moral standards about gender or sexuality. Or because we believe Jesus really is the only name given by which people can be saved.
  • It’s rare in the US, but in some parts of the world being a Christian can lead to imprisonment or physical abuse or worse.

This is nothing new.

See it in 2nd century opponent, Celsus, who used open mockery,

Their aim is to convince only worthless and contemptible people, idiots, slaves, poor women, and children. They behave like mountebanks[1] and beggars; they would not dare to address an audience of intelligent men….But if they see a group of young people or slaves or rough folk, there they push themselves in and seek to win the admiration of the crowd. It is the same in private houses. We see wool-carders, cobblers, washermen, people of the utmost ignorance and lack of education….If they manage to get children alone, or women as senseless as themselves, then they set to work to put forth their wondrous tales. These are the only ones whom they manage to turn into believers.[2]
Celsus, 2nd century

This morning we explore the opposition during the rebuilding of the walls around the city of Jerusalem. In the book of Nehemiah, which is really Part 2 of a single work, Ezra-Nehemiah. The narrative in Ezra begins with Israel in captivity in Babylon. But when Persian king Cyrus defeats Babylon, he sends Israel back to its homeland.

Sends them with a mandate, to rebuild the temple. God’s people are returning to the promise land to fulfill the work. Ezra 1–6 records that temple rebuilding project. Finished during the reign of Persian king Darius the Great (522–486 BC) in 520 BC. That temple would stand for about 600 years until AD 70.

Xerxes (485–464 BC) and then Artaxerxes (464–423 BC). In 7th of his reign he sends Ezra back to teach the law in Jerusalem (Ezra 7­–10).

Then in 20th year of Artaxerxes, Nehemiah appeals to the king to send him to rebuild the walls of the city.

God’s Construction Project—Temple, Walls, the People.

Goal of this project: “that we may no longer suffer derision” (2:17). 1:3, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame.”

Praying and watching in days of opposition: (1) Opposition from Without, (2) Opposition from Within, (3) Opposition Against Leaders.

I. Opposition from Without

The pattern in Ezra-Nehemiah – Every time there is progress made in building the temple, rebuilding the city, there is also opposition that requires some kind of response.

Here opposition comes from “Sanballat” and then “Tobiah the Ammonite” joins in. Leaders to north in Samaria. Tactic is mockery.

When work continues (4:6), the opposition gets angry. Describes opponents on all sides—Sanballat/Tobiah to north, Arabs to south, Ammonites to East, Ashdodites to West.

4:8 – “Plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem.”

4:9 – The response powerfully summarized in 4:9, “And we prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night.”

The 19th century Reformed Baptist preacher Charles Spurgeon in a sermon on Nehemiah 4, saw here “the two guards” we need over our lives—“Praying and Watching.”[3] The first guard is critical, prayer. But the second guard is also critical, watching.

He finishes by saying it’s the two working together that is essential.

I finish by putting THE TWO GUARDS TOGETHER. “We made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them.” Dear friends, neither of these two guards is sufficient alone. Prayer alone will not avail. To pray and not to watch, is presumption. You pretend to trust in God, and yet you are throwing yourself into danger, as the devil would have had Christ do, when he tempted him to cast himself down from a pinnacle of the temple. If you pray to be kept, then be watchful. Prayer without watchfulness is hypocrisy. A man prays to be kept from sin, and then goes into temptation; his prayer is evidently a mere piece of mockery; for he does not carry it out in his practice....
On the other hand, dear friends, watching without praying is equally futile. To say, “I will keep myself right,” and never pray to God to keep you, is self-confidence, which must lead to evil. If you try to watch, and do not pray, you will go to sleep, and there will be an end to your watching. It is only by praying and watching that you will be able to keep on your guard.
Charles Spurgeon, “The Two Guards, Praying and Watching.”

Praying and Watching:

  • Prayers—4:4–5, 9
  • Speaking words of faith—4:14
  • Practical actions—4:15–23

APPLICATION

The opposition we face sometimes includes the same kind of mockery and intimidation we see in Nehemiah.

  • We believe the supernatural events recorded in the Bible are true.
  • And that God continues to do them.
  • We believe marriage is meant to be between one man and one woman.
  • And that there are two and only two genders—though psychological confusion about that can exist in a given person. But still, our biology has meaning.
  • Beliefs in these things can make us the subject mockery and intimidation.
  • The intimidation is not a conspiring mob, but it’s the intimidation of lawsuits or potential job less or consequences.
  • Christian companies and campus ministries continue to face lawsuits for believing and acting according to traditional Christian beliefs.
  • There are places around the world where the opposition to Christianity does get more physical—results in prison, confiscating property, beatings.
  • Jesus said,

“If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you.” (John 15:18)

Let us be those who PRAY AND WATCH.

II. Opposition from Within

Read Nehemiah 5:1–5.

5:1 – “Now there arose a great outcry of the people and of their wives against their Jewish brothers.”

5:1–5 – The situation.

  • These were mostly farmers.
  • Mix of landowners and some apparently not.
  • Problem of enough food to eat (v. 2).
  • But then also losing land as work continued throughout the harvest season (v. 3).
  • And then “the king’s tax” coming due (v. 4).
  • They were paying a high price to build the walls of the city.
  • But the disgrace also included having to sell children into indentured servitude (“sons and our daughters to be slaves,” v. 5).

Now the problem is not enemies outside the city, it’s how God’s people are treating one another. Breakdown of integrity. Breakdown of mutual care.

5:6–13 – Charges against the wealthy.

  • Nehemiah reacted immediately: “very angry when I heard their outcry and these words,” v. 6).
  • “I took counsel with myself,” v. 7.
  • But then, “I brought charges against the nobles and the officials” (v. 7).
  • “I held a great assembly against them” (v. 7).

Informed by the Law of Moses:

“If you lend money to any of my people with you who is poor, you shall not be like a moneylender to him, and you shall not exact interest from him.” (Exod 22:25)

Nehemiah called for a spontaneous Year of Jubilee. Described in Lev 25:

“If your brother becomes poor and cannot maintain himself with you, you shall support him as though he were a stranger and a sojourner, and he shall live with you. 36 Take no interest from him or profit, but fear your God, that your brother may live beside you. 37 You shall not lend him your money at interest, nor give him your food for profit. 38 I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt to give you the land of Canaan, and to be your God. 39 “If your brother becomes poor beside you and sells himself to you, you shall not make him serve as a slave: 40 he shall be with you as a hired worker and as a sojourner. He shall serve with you until the year of the jubilee. 41 Then he shall go out from you, he and his children with him, and go back to his own clan and return to the possession of his fathers.” (Lev 25:35–41)

Nehemiah’s personal response of generosity: “because of the fear of God” (v. 15), “because the service was too heavy on this people” (v. 18).

APPLICATION: MUTUAL CARE:

16 By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. 17 But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? 18 Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth. (1 John 3:16–18)

The missional aspect – v. 9 – “Walk in the fear of God to prevent the taunts of the nations our enemies?”

APPLICATION: MUTUAL CARE THAT MAKES A STATEMENT TO ALL WHO SEE:

34 “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35)

III. Opposition Against Leaders

Read Nehemiah 6:1–9.

The cycle of opposition repeats: Progress – Opposition – Response.

Repeated word is “fear” (6:9, 13, 14, 19) – Now the goal is personal. Opposition against Nehemiah. If they can get at Nehemiah, they undercut the work of God in Jerusalem.

Response? Remembering who he is (and isn’t)—remembering who God is.

  • Remembering who he is and isn’t – Not a king (v. 7). He flatly denies in 6:8. Prays for strength in 6:9.
  • Remembering who he is – A leader – Someone in his position can’t run away in sheer cowardice (v. 11).
  • Remembering who he is – Not a priest to enter temple (v. 11) – Nehemiah learned the lessons of Israel’s past.
  • Lessons like King Saul getting impatient when Samuel didn’t come. So King Saul offered the sacrifice Samuel should have. Saul was rebuked: “But now your kingdom shall not continue. The LORD has sought out a man after his own heart, and the LORD has commanded him to be prince over his people, because you have not kept what the LORD commanded you” (1 Sam 13:14).
  • Or the lesson of King Uzziah in 2 Chr 26:19–21. King decided he would enter temple to offer incense on the altar of incense. Priests resisted him. King got angry, but as soon as he did leprosy broke out on his forehead. Was a leper to the day of his death. He was a king who forgot he wasn’t a priest. The temple was not his domain.

Nehemiah never lost sight of his role. An important leader—but not the all-important leader.

APPLICATION

Attacks on leaders don't end in the Old Testament. Even the apostle Paul:

Alexander the coppersmith did me great harm; the Lord will repay him according to his deeds. 15 Beware of him yourself, for he strongly opposed our message. (2 Tim 4:14–15)

Proper care of leaders—not immunity against charges but not casual either:

Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence of two or three witnesses. (1 Tim 5:19)

Conclusion

The result of the praying and watching—even amidst the opposition?

The work is finished in 52 days! (6:15). 6th month Elul is Sept-Oct 445 BC. God’s people exalted but especially our God—Neh 6:16.

But we need more than a great example to live this way. Nehemiah is inspiring and teaches many things. But we need more than that. We need the greater Nehemiah to help us actually live that way.

14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Heb 2:14–18)

That’s because we have a GREATER ENEMY. Not just an enemy out there. But an enemy that’s IN HERE (in our hearts).

Application: Heads of households and members of households. Like the ancient city of Jerusalem, surrounded by enemies. We want to imitate their response:

“We prayed to our God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night” (4:9).

But in these days of opposition, good to remember that the greatest enemy of your household, the enemy who can do the most damage and cause the most heartache and destruction to your family, is you.

When a mother or father loses their way, gives in to sins and reckless living, gives in to anger or sexual sin or selfishness—that can bring destruction to a household like nothing else.

It’s good to take stock of the enemies OUT THERE. But even more important to make sure you aren’t becoming the ENEMY WITHIN THE GATES.

Prayer

Prayer

[1] Fraud, charlatan, deceive. Pronounced “moun-ti-bank.”

[2] Origen cites these words of Celsus in his, Against Celsus 3:49–55 (The Ante-Nicene Fathers, 4:484–86). 

[3]https://www.spurgeon.org/resource-library/sermons/the-two-guards-praying-and-watching/#flipbook/.

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