Nehemiah 4:1-12: Facing Opposition

Reading: Nehemiah 4:1-12

Nehemiah was a reformer — and, one thing reformers have in common is that they face opposition. Last week, I mentioned that systems protect themselves, people who have an advantage do not want change, and even those who are at a disadvantage fear change. There is a saying: “Better the devil you know.” that applies.

After Nehemiah explored Jerusalem and announced his presence. When the process of rebuilding started, the neighbors to the north immediately started a campaign of opposition, including harassing the workers. You might remember, I have some sympathy for the Samaritans. I think that they had a valid grievance due to how the governors behaved in the time of their grandparents; however I don’t think Nehemiah was personally responsible — he merely had to deal with the situation he walked into.

In order to know what Samaria had to protect, we need to consider the situation. Last week, we learned that Jerusalem was in ruins. Even if the temple were finished, it would not matter. Jerusalem was not inhabited, and if you asked for directions to the temple in Jerusalem, the answer would be: “you can’t get there from here.” If you put ‘temple in Jerusalem’ into your GPS, you would get the error “No route found.”

Judah had been plagues with corrupt leadership, poverty, likely as a result of that corruption. The roads were terrible, and the historic capital was a ghost town. Archaeologists tell us that the population of Judah was smaller than the number of people who came to colonize it. Samaria didn’t want Jerusalem rebuilt, and there really was not much of a Judah to do the rebuilding.

The border of Samaria was about 40 miles north of Jerusalem. Shechum is 42 miles north of Jerusalem, or basically on the border. There was a temple in Shechum, served by Hebrew priests, and sacrificing to the Jewish God. Torah was read in Samaria, and there is an excellent change that there were a large number of Jewish refugees in Samaria. No matter what, Jerusalem was abandoned and Shechum was an economic and religious center. Judah might have been it’s own province on paper, but functionally it was a wasteland. The temple in Jerusalem was unfinished, unused, and inaccessible. If you asked for directions to the temple of the God of Abraham, you would be sent to Shechum.

If Jerusalem were rebuilt, and the Temple were restored and put back into use, Shechum would lose it’s position of being the religious center of both provinces. If Jerusalem were rebuilt, inhabited, and established as a proper territorial capital, Shechum would compete with another major city just 42 miles to the south. The result would certainly be a diminished economy, and diminished regional influence.

Perhaps even more importantly, there was a personal element to this. Even if the Samaritans offered to help rebuild Jerusalem and the temple decades ago, the grandchildren would have several grievances to remember. They would remember that they were told that there was no place for them at the temple. They would remember when those who were in mixed marriages were exiled, presumably to Samaria — and, this is especially important because Jewish Historian Flavius Josephus tells us that the Samaritan governor Sanballat was in a mixed family, such as those who were exiled. There is likely not only a fear that any wealth or influence Judah gains, Samaria will lose – but, a personal grudge, possibly held by the leader of Samaria.

None of this, of course, is Nehemiah’s fault, but he very much has to deal with this. It is very hard to accomplish anything when you have somebody who is more powerful and more connected actively working to make sure you fail. Nehemiah might have been paying for the sins of his predecessors, but this is a steep price to pay. The easy thing of course is giving up — but, Nehemiah found a way to work in spite of all these problems.

Nehemiah drafted a group of people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. When they were harassed by enemies, Nehemiah armed the workers and provided some security. Now, conscripting people for a building project is nothing new, but I particularly like who Nehemiah conscripted — the third Chapter of Nehemiah is a list of workers, and the workers include the high priest, a bunch of Levites, and a number of other priests. Now, as you know, the high priest had a mansion and a salary, but without a temple, he didn’t have much of a job. Nehemiah had people doing manual labor who had paying jobs, but no office to attend to — and wouldn’t until Jerusalem was rebuilt. There is, in my mind, a poetic justice to having people such as Eliashib doing manual labor. For context, not only had he been drawing a salary for a job that was not being done, but later, he would misappropriate the temple treasury — but, more on that in 3 weeks.

Eventually, Jerusalem would be rebuilt. Just as Nehemiah had to conscript people to work to rebuild the capital city, he had to order people to move in and make it a community, but he would be successful. Because of this work, Jerusalem became a major city again. Jerusalem became such a major city that people would go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem: People still go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
This story is about the rebuilding of the capital and reestablishing the temple as the temple. This was a major project, and I think we have some things that we can learn from this project.

First: If it is worth doing, it is worth doing even if there is opposition. I really do empathize with the opposition. I understand personal grievances, but there are some people who will always be opposed. As a kid, I really wanted people to be happy. One of the hard lessons my teenage self had to learn is that some people are never happy, and there is nothing you can do to please them; so trying can be a terrible waste of effort.

In this case, the goal was not to make Sanballat happy, the goal was to re-establish the city of Jerusalem, and bring the Temple back into use. It would not be possible to make this guy happy, so there comes a point where they did what they had to and built anyways.

Second: I notice that Nehemiah got this rebuilding done by changing the system. The old way of doing things was one where a few people benefited while the rest sacrificed. The high priest lived in a mansion, and received a salary out of tax revenues; yet the Temple remained unfinished, and even if it were finished the roads were not passable.

Nehemiah had the high priest moving rocks along with everybody else. The high position did not exempt him from the work that needed to be done for the position to even be relevant. I know that when one person does the work, and somebody else takes the credit and gets the reward there is no shortage of jealousy. There already was enough problems from the people who are never happy; jealousy is un-needed, so the High Priest was there with everybody else doing manual labor.

Finally: I notice that this was a well managed task. If we read Chapter 3, we see a list of workers and the tasks that they were assigned to complete. When Jerusalem is resettled, Nehemiah orders a list of people to move there and create a city. I know this is obvious and pragmatic — but, if we want to accomplish anything, we have to know our goal, how we will work towards our goal, and who is responsible for doing the work.

Any big project needs a lot of organization. A big dream without organization is something that sits in a notebook until everybody forgets that they ever had a big dream. If we go so far as to make a strategy to build up to a big dream, but nobody is responsible for the various parts of the strategy, the big dream goes nowhere — because nobody knows what to do with it. There are few things more frustrating than working alone at an impossible task; and few things more rewarding than finishing a possible task, that combines with other possible tasks to form what looked impossible.

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