Did you ever really work hard on something and have to listen to biting criticism about the work you performed? Often the most severe critic is one who has put no time or effort into solving the problem you worked on, but they feel qualified to judge your attempt to solve the issue. You bit your lip, but inside it was painful to hear their caustic comments. You put your best effort forward, and you tried your best to accomplish something, and now you were having to endure it being picked apart by people who put virtually no effort into understanding how hard your accomplishment was, and how much it took to face the challenge in the first place.
Consider the challenge of a football game, and the millions of “self-qualified critics” across the USA today. Someone has described an NFL football team as “fifty-three twenty-five year old muscular and powerfully shaped bodies, led by fifteen middle aged assistant coaches and one fifty-something head coach – all being evaluated weekly by five million swollen and lethargic fans.” For some franchises, the opponent isn’t so much the guy who enters the field wearing the other jersey – his true opponent is in the grandstands and on the local radio talk shows of the city for which they ostensibly is playing the game.
It is undeniable: criticism is everywhere in the modern world. Politicians are either deafened to it, or they will find themselves disabled by it. We live in a time of “politics of personal destruction” where we get to criticize in the harshest term without a modicum of respect – those who are elected by us. Even worse, with the advent of the “mythical anonymity” of the internet, people offer words harsher than ever – believing they are somehow never going to be recognized in the crowd and delivered at lightning speed around the world.
Let me ask you something: How do you handle your critics? I don’t mean the people who mean to help you improve… I mean the mean-spirited, jealous, back-biters at work, or across the shop floor? Do you have in your life people who won’t face you with their disagreement, but they will gossip about you? God’s Word has some words for dealing with people who criticize and gossip – and this is the passage for you…
Key Principle: Opposition can be a point of discouragement, or a point for us to refocus and recommit to the Master and His purpose!
Let’s drop back into our story to “set the scene”:
• Nehemiah got a burden from God while serving in Babylon. The burden was about his people and their condition back in Jerusalem. That burden and the requests which followed it are recorded in chapter one of this ancient, thirteen chapter journal.
• By the second chapter of the journal, the plan was placed in front of the king, and provisions were made for the journey to rebuild walls and renew the hopes of the Jewish people in then broken Judah. Nehemiah took a team of men and embarked on the journey inspecting the damages and planning the work in Jerusalem. He was “on the clock” and couldn’t waste personal time – he had a job to do.
• Chapter three outlined the “people work” principles that we learned from reading the work report diary included in the journal.
• As chapter four opened, a series of “leadership tests” ensue that are covered in the center of the journal. This helps a Bible student recognize the PURPOSE for the narrative. This journal is ALL ABOUT the testing of one who would be a proper leader.
What better place to begin than to pick up the weak attempt from the end of chapter two. Do you recall the “insinuation” test against Nehemiah. It was so weak, we barely brushed into it – but it was a WARNING SHOT.
No sooner had Nehemiah gotten the people “on board” with the work that God laid on his heart in Nehemiah 2:17, the critics started their queries. Look at the record:
Nehemiah 2:17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.” 18 I also told them about the gracious hand of my God on me and what the king had said to me. They replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work.
“So far so good”, you say… “The people seem to be following, and the work is about to ‘get off the ground’”. It was at that very point, the opposition stuck its head up out of the hole in which it lived…
Nehemiah 2:19 But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official and Geshem the Arab heard about it, they mocked and ridiculed us. “What is this you are doing?” they asked. “Are you rebelling against the king?”
Nehemiah replied with poise, and without undue emotion. He projected well, and did not wobble in his answer:
Nehemiah 2:20 I answered them by saying, “The God of heaven will give us success. We his servants will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem or any claim or historic right to it.”
I seem pretty hard on Sanballat and Tobias – right from the beginning. Why? Perhaps they were nice men, and they aren’t sure what was truly going on? Why be so hard?
The fact is that when forward progress begins on a project that was called for from Heaven – God’s work is in play. It may LOOK like a small group of people trying to organize a local church, or a handful of believers trying to organize a children’s Sunday School – it may not LOOK like a very important work according to human standards. The actual work is MASKED by its physical smallness – yet it is a work GOD has called, planned and burdened a man or woman to accomplish. It is the KING’S WORK. What is tremendously important for any fellowship of believers to ascertain in the beginning is this: “Is the proposal from a real Heavenly burden?” If it is, it must be handled with CARE. In that case it is God’s work, regardless of how small, or how trivial the work may appear. Remember, every GREAT WORK of God began in a small place, by a small person.
We also should expect opposition – because God’s opponent doesn’t sleep. We must get on the right side of the work, or we will be used to provide opposition instead of help. With a new work, we should seek clarification and explanation – but we should primarily be seeking prayerfully to understand the truth: “Is this a work order from Heaven?” That is the task of leaders to define. If it is deemed so, leaders must offer it provision and quickly stand at its defense in the place of attack – because the attack will come.
What form will the attack come in? How will we recognize it? That is the BULK of this journal’s purpose – to record the attacks and responses… and it began with criticism:
Test #1: Facing Unjust and Destructive Criticism (4:1-6)
Nehemiah 4:1 Now it came about that when Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became furious and very angry and mocked the Jews. 2 He spoke in the presence of his brothers and the wealthy [men] of Samaria and said, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Are they going to restore [it] for themselves? Can they offer sacrifices? Can they finish in a day? Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?” 3 Now Tobiah the Ammonite [was] near him and he said, “Even what they are building– if a fox should jump on [it], he would break their stone wall down!” 4 Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders. 6 So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its [height], for the people had a mind to work.
The motivation of the critic was explored in the opening of the chapter (4:1). When a work for God gets underway, we should expect forward movement to be the stirring influence to get the opposition moving. Intimidation by criticism and sarcasm is often their first line of attack. It takes little to prepare and costs little if unsuccessful. It may, if not properly evaluated, slow or stop the progress – and that is the point of it. There are three details you should focus upon to understand this attack ploy:
• Sanballat HEARD about the wall…. He didn’t go and see it – that is an important detail.
• He was ANGERED by what he heard – it got under his skin emotionally, not rationally.
• He MOCKED what he heard about – what he said wasn’t based on any fact at all.
The critic is often driven by hearsay, and seldom has done careful research on the fullness of the thing they criticize. Don’t forget that. It is EASY to sound intelligent with sarcasm – but it covers a lack of knowledge in the area critiqued. In addition, the critic is often driven by an emotional stresser – not by the logical consideration of the facts. Trying to explain the facts will often tire you – but usually will not move them – because they didn’t hold their position because of the facts – they held them out of an emotional attachment to someone or something. The mocking is the sign that they don’t have serious issues to present. When someone uses sarcasm and comedy to make the point – they seek to overwhelm their opposition with stinging points that may lack foundation, but will seem substantial.
I have watched Jon Stewart do this countless times. He claims to be a comedian, but many Americans get a liberal translation of the news by watching his show. He uses foul language, is openly blasphemous, and does it all in the name of comedy. Yet, if you listen, he is an apologist for a very specific liberal agenda in modern America. He can be hilarious, but his comedy is a mask for a political and moral agenda. It has been very effective, and many would argue in support of him simply because he makes them laugh – even if they cannot see what he is doing.
Be careful about criticism without facts, offered for emotional reasons in sarcastic tones. You won’t find truth without proper examination and research. You may find comedy, but find yourself laughing along with those attacking the work set out by a Heavenly work order. How tragic the time when you meet the Master and recognize you supported His enemy against His own work – all the while claiming to be one of the Savior’s loyal servants!
Next, note the place of the critic: He did his boasting at a lodge meeting where those in attendance were already in agreement.
Finally, the text offers the logic of the critic: Sanballat was surrounded by other critics and ‘PILED ON’ one question after another. He asked five questions in front of a group that had NO ANSWERS:
1. What are these feeble Jews doing?
2. Are they going to restore [it] for themselves?
3. Can they offer sacrifices?
4. Can they finish in a day?
5. Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones?”
Sanballat used five strategic questions that are classic attacks – we must not be ignorant of any of them:
• Character assassination (ad hominem): What are these feeble Jews doing? Ignoring the issue and attacking the people involved is another common strategy (i.e. Can weak Jews build a strong wall?). This attack seeks to minimize the WORK by using ad hominem attack – if you cannot speak about the IDEA, speak about the weakness of the PERSON offering the idea.
• Scramble attack: Are they going to restore [it] for themselves? Do you remember “pig pen” in the Peanuts character roster? Things were never clear around him. The scramble attack is an attempt to make what is painfully clear somehow unclear – as though it cloaks some vast agenda. What the Jews were doing was building a wall. They were not arming and army against the king. They were not making some alternative taxation system to deprive the crown of its revenues. They were not doing anything complex. They were building a wall, plain and simple. Yet, an effective attack strategy seems to be to employ the question as though the facts are not plain – to suggest a deeper agenda where there may be none. It is done in questions, not conclusions – so the attacker cannot be “tagged” with an actual accusation.
• Taunting of values: Can they offer sacrifices? This attack attempts to draw the focus from success (i.e. Can you pray the wall into place?), to flanking it with the obvious comedy of the opponents value system. An example: “What do these pro-lifers want, more kids for their Sunday School?” By moving the discussion to something that reveals a different underlying value system, the opponent has the opportunity to poke fun at the foundational values without penalty – and it distracts the hearers from recognizing the argument has nothing to do with the wall at all. It has to do with the fact that Sanballat doesn’t believe in the value of Temple sacrifice to Yahweh.
• Poisoning the Well: Sanballat asked: Can they finish in a day? Can they revive the stones from the dusty rubble even the burned ones? This argument is the planting of doubts in “apparent progress” (Your stones are not good enough) that distracts from the truth – it doesn’t have to be FAST nor EASY to be APPROPRIATE. If the opponent can distract people with the complexity of the problem, he can manage to draw energy from the project in spite of the fact that it may be totally legitimate.
• Sarcastic redirection: Tobiah the Ammonite joined into the sarcastic attack and offered yet another form of distraction. He said: “Even what they are building– if a fox should jump on [it], he would break their stone wall down!” When all else fails simply use sound bites and comical absurdities! (i.e. “if a fox jumps up”).
Note that the men HADN’T SEEN THE WALL. They didn’t do an inspection. They weren’t qualified in architecture, and probably had little background building amongst themselves… what they had was a STRONG OPINION driven by an underlying set of values and emotions. God’s people have to be able to pick out REAL CONCERN from fluffy distracting opposition.
The point of the passage isn’t just to examine the method of attack, however, it is to offer a leadership defense in the attack. How did God’s chosen leader handle the distracting criticism? The record is found in Nehemiah 4:4-6:
Nehemiah 4:4 Hear, O our God, how we are despised! Return their reproach on their own heads and give them up for plunder in a land of captivity. 5 Do not forgive their iniquity and let not their sin be blotted out before You, for they have demoralized the builders. 6 So we built the wall and the whole wall was joined together to half its [height], for the people had a mind to work.
First, we recognize the leader didn’t answer the MEN, he turned the frustration to prayer. He was open before God concerning the opposition (4:4,5). Criticism should first be met with honest prayer! Don’t act like what hurts you DOESN’T – take the hurt to God. You are not wrong for POURING OUT FRUSTRATION on your knees. You can tell God ANYTHING, because He already knows what is in your heart. Tell Him if you want to punch them in the nose or flatten their white-walled tires. He will correct your heart, but I urge you NOT TO HIDE. Intimacy with God is about honesty before God. Prettying up prayer because you think “He cannot handle the truth” inside you is both inaccurate and ineffective. Look at the details of the prayer of the leader:
• First, he asked God to hear the thing that hurt the people.
• Second, he asked God to turn their criticism and sarcasm on them, and make them vulnerable to attack, while he closed the breaches of the wall for his own people.
• Third, he asked God not to let them get away with what they were doing – but make them pay for the pain they caused.
• Fourth, he acknowledged the effect of the attack (“we feel despised” 4a, “they have demoralized” 5b).
• Fifth, he kept the people working. The prayer wasn’t INSTEAD of the work – it was DURING the work.
If the point of God sending Nehemiah to Jerusalem was to GET THE WORK DONE, he needed to stay at the work, no matter what temptation could be presented to cease it. Don’t forget the end of the prayer… it had a positive statement: “the people had a mind to work.” It is easy to overlook the praise the leader picked out at the end. In the end, the work got done, regardless of how the leader and the people felt about it.
I cannot say it more clearly: God’s people must push PAST their emotions and stick to the job God called them to do. “I don’t feel like it is making a difference” is something that you can take to the Lord in prayer, but not a reason to stop working on what God told you to do. Most of us feel that way at sometime in the project God has assigned for us – but feelings are not the basis of our work – God’s call is!
Nehemiah and his people faced the distraction of criticism that somehow reached the ears of the people of Jerusalem. They kept working… but the attacks had just begun. External attacks are not nearly as effective as INTERNAL attacks of the enemy on the troops – and gossip is the next way the enemy attacked. He lobbed a gossip grenade into the command center of Jerusalem’s “God Squad” – people attempting great things from God who were assigned by Heavenly burden…
Test #2: Facing Discouraging Winds of Gossip (4:7-23)
Gossip is not a physical attack, but rather the “conspiring words” (v.8) and the “rumors” (v. 11) that are designed to distract, discourage and destroy the work of God. It isn’t about KILLING, it is about STOPPING:
Nehemiah 4:7 Now when Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repair of the walls of Jerusalem went on, [and] that the breaches began to be closed, they were very angry. 8 All of them conspired together to come [and] fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it. 9 But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night. 10 Thus in Judah it was said, “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, Yet there is much rubbish; And we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall.” 11 Our enemies said, “They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.” 12 When the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times, “They will come up against us from every place where you may turn,” 13 then I stationed [men] in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, the exposed places, and I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows. 14 When I saw [their fear], I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.”15 When our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had frustrated their plan, then all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work. 16 From that day on, half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates; and the captains [were] behind the whole house of Judah. 17 Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took [their] load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon. 18 As for the builders, each [wore] his sword girded at his side as he built, while the trumpeter [stood] near me. 19 I said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “The work is great and extensive, and we are separated on the wall far from one another. 20 “At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.” 21 So we carried on the work with half of them holding spears from dawn until the stars appeared. 22 At that time I also said to the people, “Let each man with his servant spend the night within Jerusalem so that they may be a guard for us by night and a laborer by day.” 23 So neither I, my brothers, my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us removed our clothes, each [took] his weapon [even to] the water.
None of God’s Word is “extra” – and these are not dead words of a fight long ago. They are an example, a pattern to help us discern how the opponent of God foments in the spiritual world to keep up the fire of the opposition in the physical world. With that in mind, look closely at the method of attack in gossip and the rumor mill – it is not unique to Nehemiah’s time. Look at the attack of “words” spread among God’s people:
How Discouraging Gossip derails a project:
If you take apart the text, there are four attack points for gossip and intimidating speech that can cause the work to stop.
• First, there is the temptation to succumb to a focus on the intimidation rather than the project at hand. 8 All of them conspired together to come [and] fight against Jerusalem and to cause a disturbance in it. Just the knowledge that someone is planning an attack – or claims to be planning an attack – is distracting. We can focus on the threat (and to some extent the leaders are forced to do so), or we can keep working while those in the leadership face the need for defense. It is the DISTRACTION the words were intended for. This wasn’t an attack – it was the RUMOR of an attack. Preparation for the real problem is even distracted by panic over the perceived possibilities. Keeping focus on the work and its protection is not the same and spreading panic.
• Second, there was an emerging focus on our weakness and the “undone” part of the project. “The strength of the burden bearers is failing, Yet there is much rubbish; And we ourselves are unable to rebuild the wall.” When that came up, don’t you wonder why no one thought about this ONE SIMPLE TRUTH? There is LESS to do now than when we started, and NOW we are realizing the size of the job? Here is the truth: they job didn’t grow, the energy was being sapped by panic and threat. A half-finished wall left them in greater peril, but it was easier to panic than keep working on the wall. Leaders have to sniff this out and keep people re-directed.
• Third, there was too much attention and credit given to unseen enemies. Look at verse 11 Our enemies said, “They will not know or see until we come among them, kill them and put a stop to the work.” Can you see the slide into fear of failure? We are going to get killed, and won’t even know it is about to happen. The conspiracy of vast unseen strength is always a winner when used by the opponent of God. He SEEMS so powerful, and evil seems so strong. How could good have survived so long in its face if it were half as powerful as it claimed?
• Finally, the people of God are susceptible to the attack point of “ganging” by people who never believed in the work to begin with. 12 When the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times… Can you hear the steady drum beat of the detractors. Ten times they kept saying it.
Remember this: God’s enemy won’t win in the end. If God called you to do something, better to die trying than defect. At the end of this life, He won’t forget faithfulness. He won’t overlook honesty. He won’t neglect the one abused for His name and His call. Don’t get lost in the words of the detractors – follow God’s Word for your life. Let the others look like they are winning. They may gain this whole world – but it will be small consolation in the next world.
How Discouraging Gossip is defeated:
If I am to take a stand in what God called me to do, how can I defeat the power gossip has over me and those I lead? The text offered four answers in Nehemiah’s example:
• First, I should refocus myself, and those on my team in the project, on the Divine perspective through prayers of supplication (4:9) and thanksgiving (4:15).
Keep a sharp eye on how Nehemiah responded. 4:9 But we prayed to our God, and because of them we set up a guard against them day and night. Nehemiah’s work was quickly under the threat of physical attack by outsiders. The men building the wall were facing the threat of assault by a stealth army. As a leader, he acted in defense and included with it a short and sincere prayer. The Heavenly petition wasn’t INSTEAD of action, but was PART of the action. That prayer had an added effect. When the enemy was thwarted, the leader made clear it was not simply because of the physical preparation – but the spiritual one as well. He said: ‘When our enemies heard that it was known to us, and that God had frustrated their plan, then all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work.’ Prayer and work together acknowledge the truth that two worlds are in conflict– not just one. We cannot reduce a battle of two worlds to a battle in the flesh alone, and expect to gain victories. God’s people must see the world for ALL it is – a reflection of a spiritual battle.
• Second, we must continue to focus on the task at hand and pull the team together in spite of the temptation to panic. The text continued 4:13 then I stationed [men] in the lowest parts of the space behind the wall, the exposed places, and I stationed the people in families with their swords, spears and bows. Instead of STOPPING the project, they added security to keep it going.
• Third, we must recall the Divine purpose and reestablish the power of God in the project (4:14). The problem didn’t change God’s original call. 14 When I saw [their fear], I rose and spoke to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” Either God told them to build it, or He didn’t. If He did, then any departure from that would have been disobedience.
• Fourth, they needed to define the rallying time and point (4:19-20) keeping the “hard targets” in front, while making sure people knew the team wasn’t just WHAT THEY COULD SEE! He said: 20 “At whatever place you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us.”
Nehemiah didn’t get where he was alone. God got him in that place. God stirred him. God pushed him to act. God gave him favor with the king. God got him to Jerusalem safely. Now God was going to see him through to the end… or he would die trying. That is what God was looking for. Nehemiah got the lesson:
Opposition can be a point of discouragement, or a point for us to refocus and recommit to the Master and His purpose!
Kyle Idleman wrote the book, Not a Fan. It is a stirring call to commitment, written to a generation that may not have grasped the truth of the Gospel message. He wrote:
So in case some left it out or forgot to mention it when they explained what it meant to be a Christian, let me be clear: There is no forgiveness without repentance. There is no salvation without surrender. There is no life without death. There is no believing without committing. Kyle Idleman, “Not a Fan” (p. 35)
I would simply add these words: “Even when the enemy attempts to distract you – complete the mission that only commitment can empower.”