The way in which a person responds to opposition reveals the stuff he’s made of. Nehemiah had barely unpacked his toothbrush in the ruined city of Jerusalem when his enemies started sharpening their swords — and their tongues. Commentator Derek Kidner writes, “Sanballat and Tobiah throw a long shadow over the story.”
The truth is that without conflict, there is no story. Where would Frodo be without Sauron? The Pevensie children without the White Witch? Wesley without Prince Humperdink? Even though I know this is true, most days I still wish I could leave out the conflict in my own story. Perhaps this is why we tend to prefer Luke’s account of the Christmas story during this time of year. We love that he focuses on the shepherds’, the angels’, and Simeon’s and Anna’s welcome to the baby Jesus. Matthew paints a darker tale of wise men who refuse to be informants, middle of the night narrow escapes, and a jealous king who will stop at nothing to protect his own interests. Leave it to the weeping prophet (Jeremiah 31:15) to foretell the royal slaughter of all the children two and under in that region. In Revelation 12, John also portrays the dark side of the Christmas story in apocalyptic style with a red dragon standing before a woman in labor, waiting to devour her child. The fact that Jesus was swept away from Herod’s scourge; that the Revelation 12 man-child was caught up to the throne of God; that Frodo destroyed the ring; that the White Witch was cast out of Narnia; and that Wesley and Buttercup lived happily ever after does not diminish the genuineness of the danger nor the importance of the process as conflict unfolds.
Nehemiah’s tattling and tongue-wagging enemies were against him from the start (2:9.10), and the sound of their derisive laughter followed close on the heels of Nehemiah’s rallying speech to the people of God, (2:18, 19). No doubt these hecklers were prominent; they were titled; they had the wherewithal to make life very complicated for Nehemiah. Kelly Minter paraphrases Nehemiah’s response brilliantly: “He looked the opposition dead in the eye and said, ‘I’ve got God, and, by the way, He trumps everything.'” He didn’t wave the royal decree under their noses. He didn’t name drop (“Well, King Artaxerxes sure didn’t mention you guys when he said . . .”). He didn’t whistle for the captains of the army and horsemen that had accompanied him from Susa. He didn’t even offer to compromise or to give them an honorary position on the city council (see verse 20). His heart stayed rooted in the truth he had prayed in chapter one verse five, because his hope was resting in the “great and awesome God of heaven.”
Opposition will be part of our story for as long as the setting of our story is planet Earth. Unlike Nehemiah, we have the historical advantage of hindsight to a God who pulled victory out of a stone tomb, who will ultimately defeat the dragon, and who has given us bold promises of our ultimate triumph, (see Psalm 44:5; Luke 10:19; Romans 8:35-37; I John 5:4).
In the face of opposition, Nehemiah’s strategy was expressed in three words: “Arise and build!”
(For further study, check out the verses on triumph listed above; read Nehemiah 1 and 2 in one sitting. . . and join us at Spruce Head Community Church for my Sunday School class on the book of Nehemiah!)