This is a famous part of Nehemiah. The Israelites encountered dangerous opposition from the peoples around them, led by the Samaritan governor, Sanballat. It forced the Israelites to station a guard around them and even to work with one hand while carrying a weapon in the other.
Remember, the building of God’s kingdom brings opposition. Some will not like it. Some may think Christians are up to no good – that our motives are poor – or that we are weak and trying to do what’s impossible for us.
It means we need to work at kingdom-building with diligence and care. We need to keep our eyes wide open, ready for attacks. Our enemy isn’t necessarily people, although people can cause us problems in our building of the kingdom, of the church. Our enemy is spiritual in nature. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith, knowing that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world” (1 Peter 5:8-9).
It’s not a unique thing to encounter danger, resistance, and suffering as God’s people. Nehemiah and the returned exiles encountered it. So will we.
But Sanballat’s opposition to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem tells us something about the work of the kingdom of God, of the work of building up the church. Sanballat asked five questions about the work.
Sanballat’s question #1: “What are these feeble Jews doing?” There is a certain feebleness to the people of the kingdom of God. In Nehemiah’s day, Israel was a weak nation, under the control of the Persians. They were relatively few in number. And their resources were far diminished from the previous greatness of nation. From the world’s perspective, it’s foolishness. But God’s way is a way of weakness. The world looks on and scratches its head. “For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-29).
Indeed, Jesus didn’t appear to be anything special, at least according to the world’s standards. “Feeble” might be a good description of him. “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, no beauty that we should desire him. … We esteemed him not” (Isaiah 53:1-3). God brings strength out of weakness. Think also of Samuel, David, Gideon, and Elijah. Even Paul went into the city of Corinth professing his own weakness. God’s ways aren’t the world’s ways. His ways require our total dependence upon him, rather than our own strength. In fact, God shames those who think they are strong. Are you willing to admit your weaknesses?
Sanballat’s question #2: “Will they restore it for themselves?” Could it possibly be that these “feeble Jews” would restore the city of Jerusalem? Yep. This was God’s plan, to build up a people for his name, who would bless the world. This restoration seemed so unlikely to Sanballat. Of course, a “restoration” would require things to return to the way in which they once were. And for that to happen, the people would need a king. And there was no Israelite king in sight in Sanballat’s day. There seemed to be no new King David in the offing.
But He was coming. A virgin named Mary would have a son who would sit on the throne of David: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33). A restoration was coming.
Sanballat’s question #3: “Will they sacrifice?” This is the best question of all. Sacrifice was at the heart of Israel. I suppose the Jews were known most for their sacrifices. We know those sacrifices were part of walking in relationship with the One True God. Those sacrifices were designed to bring atonement for sins, to remove the barrier between God and humans, to join unholy people to a holy God – at least for a moment.
But an even greater sacrifice was coming that Sanballat did not foresee. What did Jesus say? “For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). One sacrifice would be sufficient to cover over all sin. The people’s work on the walls of Jerusalem was moving the whole world toward that one ultimate sacrifice.
Sanballat’s question #4: “Will they finish up in a day?” The walls would take some time to complete. God’s building project would continue. But there is a Day (Isaiah 66:6-8). Nehemiah and the Israelite builders were participating in it. And there’s a moment within that “day” for which we all are waiting (1 Corinthians 15:52).
Sanballat’s question #5: “Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” Is it possible to “revive” a stone? This question of Sanballat should warm your heart – because in Christ, we all are living stones. “As you come to him, a living stone rejected by men but in the sight of God chosen and precious, you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:4-5).
When we read that – “Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish?” – it’s best to think about Jesus, walking among the piles of broken down stones, among rocks cracked and abandoned. It’s best to think about Jesus saying, “Yes, I want that one – and that one – and that one …” This is the story of the gospel. Broken down things are restored by the work of Christ.
And so Sanballat asked more than he knew. Yes, those feeble ones were indeed involved in the eternal restoration of Jerusalem – through a “feeble Jew” named Jesus Christ and an unthinkable sacrifice that reconciled God and humanity. And all this is being brought to fulfillment in the Day of the Lord. And we’re the broken down stones that are getting a revival.
I wonder what you think of all of this. For me, this is a reminder that salvation is about restoration. Our relationship with God is restored through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. And that restoration is not just the restoration of me as an individual. It also is the restoration of God’s people. The “walls” of Jerusalem are being built up – stone by stone. This is the church. And so salvation is not an individual thing. We are saved into a community. We’re part of the restoration project.