An Enduring Legacy: “Fear Mongering” – Nehemiah 6

I want to ask you a personal question as we begin this lesson: What are you most AFRAID of? fear 1In the world of psychological disorders, there are literally hundreds of phobias that are both named and have a diagnosis standard, with most offering a treatment regimen. Grab any medical dictionary and you will be amazed at the number of fears we have added to life over the centuries. Here are just a few from that list that should make you think about how unsafe life on this planet must really be!

• Ablutophobia – fear of bathing, washing, or cleaning
• Acrophobia – fear of heights
• Agrizoophobia – fear of wild animals
• Astraphobia – fear of thunder and lightning
• Autophobia – fear of being alone or isolated or of one’s self
• Barophobia – fear of gravity
• Frigophobia – fear of becoming too cold
• Gamophobia – fear of marriage
• Gerontophobia – fear of growing old
• Globophobia – fear of balloons, or balloons popping
• Hemophobia, haemophobia – fear of blood
• Ichthyophobia – fear of fish
• Melissophobia – fear of bees
• Mysophobia – fear of germs, contamination or dirt

Some I just never thought about:

Omphalophobia – fear of navels
• Ophthalmophobia – fear of being stared at
• Papaphobia – fear of the Pope

And, of course, my favorite phobia:

Phobophobia – fear of having a phobia!

It seems like many of us live in FEAR, and some of us are AFRAID that we might someday be AFRAID! I mention this short sample list, because FEAR is the essential subject of Nehemiah 6. Reduce the chapter down, and that is what the whole thing is about: planting fear, manipulating by producing fear, and distracting God’s servants doing God’s work through fear…First, let’s set the chapter before we get ahead of ourselves…We have been looking at the ancient journal of a Jewish wine steward who grew up in the exile of the Persian Empire about four hundred and fifty years before Jesus, and following God’s work in his life over these past lessons. As we followed the adventure from God’s burden on his heart to the journey into Jerusalem to do God’s bidding, we noted this is really a journal of leadership. In fact, there is perhaps no better place in the Bible to see a leader work from the call of God to the construction of God’s work.

The truth is that any time you attempt to do what God has laid on your heart, you will run face to face into God’s enemy, and he will stir up opposition. Every believer needs to KNOW THIS and reckon it into the plan of the work. In this journal, we have seen that spiritual foe stir up trouble in the form of testing against the leader and his workers. It began with criticism of the work, and morphed into planted stories of gossip in the ranks of Nehemiah’s followers. It was further challenged by the draining of his energy through the complaints of abused and battered people involved in the work, and then the lure of gain in the heart of the leader himself. By the time we open chapter six, we see the four previous attacks have been increased in severity, as Nehemiah now faced a trio of very personal troubles – slander, private intimidation and public threats. These all had one thing in common: they were meant to produce FEAR.

How do I know? If you skim the chapter, you will see the words in 6:9 “to frighten us”, and in 6:14 “to frighten me” and again in the close of the chapter in 6:19 “to frighten me”. Nehemiah made no mistake about what the enemy was trying to do. He wanted to stop the progress by bringing fear. He used unsealed letters, unpublished threats and a constant undercurrent of evil men speaking evil words…

Key Principle: Any fear that is greater than the awesome reverence of God acts as an idol of ungodly distraction to God’s people.

The Hebrew word that is used in different forms is the word “Yiraw”. It is used in two different senses in the Bible – depending on WHO is fearing. The very same “fear of the Lord” that anticipates with dread facing a Creator from within the heart of the unbeliever, is in us as we follow the Lord – not as dread, but as an awestruck wonder of the Creator’s magnificence. What is dread for one is reverence for the other. God’s love casts out the dread when we kneel before Him, and replaces it with awe.

Let’s look at the “terrible trio” of potentially fear producing problems with a special eye toward God’s leader – and how he handles each issue, beginning with SLANDER…

Test #5: “Enduring Slander” (Nehemiah 6:1-9)

6:1 When word came to Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab and the rest of our enemies that I had rebuilt the wall and not a gap was left in it—though up to that time I had not set the doors in the gates— 2 Sanballat and Geshem sent me this message: “Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.” But they were scheming to harm me; 3 so I sent messengers to them with this reply: “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you?” 4 Four times they sent me the same message, and each time I gave them the same answer. 5 Then, the fifth time, Sanballat sent his aide to me with the same message, and in his hand was an unsealed letter 6 in which was written: “It is reported among the nations—and Geshem says it is true—that you and the Jews are plotting to revolt, and therefore you are building the wall. Moreover, according to these reports you are about to become their king 7 and have even appointed prophets to make this proclamation about you in Jerusalem: ‘There is a king in Judah!’ Now this report will get back to the king; so come, let us meet together.” 8 I sent him this reply: “Nothing like what you are saying is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.” 9 They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.

The Setting of Opposition (6:1,2)

Look in the opening two verses (6:1,2) at the setting of the opposition. Three items are revealed:

1. Wall breaches stopped – every gap was closed with the exception of the gateless doorways.

2. The constructed and fortified gates were not in place (so they were still vulnerable).

3. A conference was called by the opponents of the work.

The simple truth was this: Since God’s declared objective was the completion of the work, Satan’s objective was distracting from the work’s completion, by slowing or (if possible) stopping the work for a time – in the hopes of eventually destroying both the work AND the workers. The fact that Nehemiah included in his journal the setting of the call to a conference was a specific indicator that he looked with discernment to recognize the enemy’s objectives – and thereby avoided falling into them or feeding them! This is the first truth of the passage – a believer must recognize the enemy’s strategy. Everything that crosses your path during your mission from God will either be the Holy One’s direction or the enemy’s distraction. Every problem will either be a platform to show God’s work in and through you, or it will require you to avoid it altogether. A mature believer must discern the ORIGIN of a test by discerning the PURPOSE of the test.

Remember the Apostle Paul’s words to the Ephesian church regarding the goal of maturity in this regard? He wrote in Ephesians 4:11 “And He [Jesus] gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, 12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ. 14 As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; 15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ…”

If you look closely at the words of the Apostle, they are a warning to recognize strategies, and discern truth. Nehemiah saw through the plan, and that maturity allowed the work to continue unabated. Notice the simple end to verse two: “But they were scheming to harm me.” Often God provides an inner sense of danger or caution that a mature believer can heed. The call is not to overreact, nor under react, but walk circumspectly! You have an enemy, and you must not think that evil distractions arrived at your door by mere coincidence.

The Sounds of Distraction (6:3,4)

Notice verse three the sounds of distraction in the repeated requests that became as annoying as a gnat flying around your face doing yard work. (6:3,4) The fact is that we cannot effectively ignore the problem because the enemy is too persistent at the task of interruption, but we would be wise to keep the priority on obedience to the Word and fervor in the work. A second leadership challenge, behind looking with discernment is to effectively and consistently measure the critical nature of our time and be prepared to choose God’s priorities.

The Slander of the Opposition (6:5-7a)

Look for a moment at the slander of the Opposition (6:5-7a). It included an open letter that cited a false motivation – a lust for power – and included open lies about the work. Here is one of the tell-tale signs of the enemy’s work…LIES. When the Father of Lies touches a work, he will leave a trail of lies behind. It is wise to know the content of what is alleged and by whom, before we take much leadership time to try to and answer lies and objections.

Let me offer you a secret that has helped me decide what to answer and how to answer it as a matter of leadership. If someone questions something we are doing, I look at that as an opportunity to offer counsel and instruction. If they criticize it, I look at that as positive feedback and try to figure out what we can learn from it. If they LIE about what is happening, I evaluate that as an attack from the enemy using a weak brother or sister – and I gauge response accordingly. Sometimes I simply don’t respond at all. Sometimes I make boundaries clear.

Recently a man came to me and asked why I don’t use the “actual Word of God” – by which he meant his preferred version. I took a few minutes and explored two things: His knowledge of the subject for which he had such a strong opinion, and why he felt he needed to confront me in it. When I saw the spirit of the man seems utterly unteachable, I made clear that I was not going to be silent if he lobbied the hallways and made trouble. He disappeared a week later. If he was truly interested in instruction, or wanted to offer helpful ways to help us grow, that would be fine. I believe he was a weak brother under the influence of the enemy to distract believers from the work we have been called to do in this place – which is “make disciples that make disciples”. His initial approach to me signaled that there was no real desire to learn about the subject he brought up. He knew what he thought, and he felt the right of the prophet to stand and pronounce us wrong, but he was not interested enough to involve himself in the process of building anything. There are many self-proclaimed prophets that distract the work of God today, and no good leader can afford to let them run roughshod over the people of God and slow down the call of that people.

The Summons of the Opposition (6:7b)

Look at the summons of the opposition for a moment and consider the sheer “chutzpah” (guts) of someone asking, “In spite of the fact that I have spread lies and rumors about you, let’s sit down privately and “discuss” your mission!” Seriously? Here is the truth: We need not feed the fire of the opposition by communicating more with those who are clearly trying to ensnare us! If a person is open to God’s work, then there is little we should be unwilling to do to make it plain to him. If, on the other hand, they show themselves to be people setting a trap for the unsuspecting, don’t waste time placating them.

The Sure Response of the Leader (6:8-9)

I love that our text offers the sure response of the leader (6:8-9). I call it a SURE RESPONSE because it was delivered without a shaky voice. Nehemiah flatly denied the false charge openly, because the charge was made openly. He returned lies promptly to their place of origin, and then turned to God with a response of his heart. Look closely at the two elements of his “breath of fresh prayer”:

• He acknowledged the objective was to promote fear and discouragement.
• He made clear there was a choice – do the work or slow the work.

Don’t neglect to spot some of the ways the enemy uses intimidation as they are revealed in the text:

1. He cites “cloudy” sources (6:6) “It is reported..”

2. He uses exaggeration and inaccuracy surrounded by baseless rumors.

The point was simple: a GOOD LEADER will never respond at the expense of the work, nor will he respond ONLY to the accuser, the issue isn’t over until you’ve laid it to rest in God’s hands! The last verse (6:9) may not be clear – so let us make it clear – IT WAS A PRAYER. He was talking to God in his journal. He knew how to get peace – it was by taking the complaints and problems to the ONE Who was able to help him get settled and stay with the work.

That opened the door to the next test…

Test #6: “Facing a Personal Threat” (Nehemiah 6:10-14)

This time, the test was fired directly at Nehemiah’s personal sense of safety…

6:10 When I entered the house of Shemaiah the son of Delaiah, son of Mehetabel, who was confined at home, he said, “Let us meet together in the house of God, within the temple, and let us close the doors of the temple, for they are coming to kill you, and they are coming to kill you at night.” 11 But I said, “Should a man like me flee? And could one such as I go into the temple to save his life? I will not go in.” 12 Then I perceived that surely God had not sent him, but he uttered [his] prophecy against me because Tobiah and Sanballat had hired him. 13 He was hired for this reason: that I might become frightened and act accordingly and sin, so that they might have an evil report in order that they could reproach me. 14 Remember, O my God, Tobiah and Sanballat according to these works of theirs, and also Noadiah the prophetess and the rest of the prophets who were [trying] to frighten me.

Let’s break the narrative into five points that will help us unravel the problem:

The Disturbance Point (6:10a).

First, let’s look at the disturbance point (6:9). It is clear in reading the whole chapter that fear is the objective, and that spying (as in 6:18-19) and lying (6:6-7) were the methods employed to throw Nehemiah off his planned execution of God’s work. Look carefully at what seems WRONG IN verse 10. Nehemiah went to see a man who was CONFINED AT HOME, but the man called for a conference OUTSIDE HIS HOME because of the word of impending danger to Nehemiah. The situation just didn’t look right on the surface. A good leader cannot let the emotion of the danger blind his senses and force his actions.

The Deception Attempt (6:10b)

The tenth verse continues with the key request that was a rouse. “Let us meet together” was not the point of the proposition. The idea was to get Nehemiah to do SOMETHING GOD DIDN’T ALLOW, so that he could be blamed and defamed. To pull off the deception, Nehemiah’s enemies paid off a “prophet for hire” and gave him the words of a death threat. Note the “religious” nature of the deception. The enemy often uses the “religious sounding words” to mask the “right thing to do”. The issue was not complicated, but the enemy counted on the emotion to throw off Nehemiah. When you cut through it, the issue is this: Will I follow God’s Word to do God’s plan and trust God’s protection? If I believe that I must violate God’s stated Word – in this case the violation of a civil ruler entering the holy space of the Temple – then I close God’s chief source of direction and revelation goes “dark”. How can I follow God forward if I ignore what He already told me to do?

You want to build a big building to house your ministry. A man offers money, but you know the source is from a shady business deal. Do you do wrong to do right? God’s clear answer is no.

The Decision Explained (6:11)

Nehemiah answered directly, “Should a man that represents God by doing the work He called me to do run for my life and in the process break the Law of God? Of course not!” He knew exactly what to do personally – he set the question before the revealed Word of God, and that was enough to get a straight answer. His simple question was this: “Am I allowed to do this?” If not, the choice is wrong no matter how tempting it is! This is the logic the modern church needs to recognize. The answer to what we do will not be found in the badly formed moral conscience of the populous. We shouldn’t look to the polls to figure out right and wrong ways forward – the answers that light the path are found from the same lamp that lit the way generations ago – the Word of God.

The Discredited Prophet (6:12-13)

When the standard is the Word of God, and it has been carefully considered, the messenger’s integrity can be easily measured. Look at the perception of God’s leader. He said: “The man was not from God, he was the source of the so-called prophetic words, he was hired by enemies, he was trying to get me to be afraid, he wanted me to SIN to discredit me…” He seems to have seen all the way through the issue and made a thorough assessment. God gave us the Word to judge the events and the Spirit of offer inner cautions to slow us from danger, but we must choose a path of spiritual sensitivity. Fear is a terrible motivator for right decision making, so it is one that our enemy often chooses to move us in the wrong direction. In the life of a leader, the fear can be for the future of his family, for the stability of his economic safety, for the personal perils that come with opposing spiritual forces, and the like.

The Discussion with God (14)

Nehemiah AGAIN took his troubles, as well as his frustrations to God in prayer – an example to every believer. The fact is that God’s work will always suffer attacks. Leaders serving God have available equipment from the Word to work in the midst of attack if they will stay at the task, allowing God to handle the attacks! They also can’t get caught in the blame game. We have to learn to leave retaliation to God and get on with the work!

Test #7: Answering “Under-miners” (Nehemiah 6:15-19)

The third and final test of this chapter was to confront the situation of spies that were undermining the work from within the camp:

6:15 So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of [the month] Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 When all our enemies heard [of it], and all the nations surrounding us saw [it], they lost their confidence; for they recognized that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God. 17 Also in those days many letters went from the nobles of Judah to Tobiah, and Tobiah’s [letters] came to them. 18 For many in Judah were bound by oath to him because he was the son-in-law of Shecaniah the son of Arah, and his son Jehohanan had married the daughter of Meshullam the son of Berechiah. 19 Moreover, they were speaking about his good deeds in my presence and reported my words to him. Then Tobiah sent letters to frighten me.

The Work Accomplished (6:15)

Finally, the fifty-two day wall project was completed. The work was accomplished (15). It was a tough job, and Nehemiah took it on and got it done, in spite of the distractions of testing and trouble. The man or woman who stays with it until the task is done may collapse, but they will do so with the reward of finished labor. At the same time, every step forward should be met with the anticipation of another level of attack.

The Wicked Astonished (6:16).

Those who boasted that such a project could not be completed were confounded at God’s success. Evil often boasts as though God is their equal competitor – it is bluster. God has no equal. He will finish what He chooses when He chooses – and there is none in Heaven or earth that can stop God. Armies can march against Him, Chiefs can curse Him, whole populations can spurn Him – but He marches on. The people around Judah could see that He was helping the Jewish migrants get the work done… and it frustrates them and robbed them of confidence.

The Workers Anxious (17-19).

While the nations about Judah were flustered, the people in the work camp were not as confident as they should have been. Other leaders attempted to coax Nehemiah into peace at all cost. They cried for Nehemiah to be more TOLERANT and UNDERSTANDING to those who tried every distraction to shut the work of God down. They tried intimidation, undermining, and alas – they were down to “buttering him up”. Nehemiah didn’t like the slippery sensation of being lathered in butter. He turned and saw right through yet another ploy. How did he do it?
First, he carefully discerned the real purpose of the undermining – to create fear in him (Nehemiah 6:19). Next, he recognized the ties that bound people together, and connected the loyalties to figure out what was truly going on. He was not looking for fault, but rather trying to make sense out of the issues. He took the time to observe the results of each offender’s life carefully, in order to make true statements with real substance. He even appeared to understand the loyalites and marriage ties, and simply took them into account in examining the situation.

The bottom line is that he didn’t let fear of men determine his actions, but reverence of God and loyalty to God’s Word. A successful life is not an easy life. It is a life built upon specific character qualities: sacrifice, loyalty, integrity, authenticity. Listen to the words of a wise Pastor of decades gone by:

The present position of Christ in the gospel churches may be likened to that of a king in a limited constitutional monarchy. The king is in such a country no more than a traditional rallying point, a pleasant symbol of unity and loyalty much like a flag or a national anthem. He is lauded, feted, and supported, but his real authority is small. Nominally he is head over all, but in every crisis someone else makes the decisions. On formal occasions he appears in his royal attire to deliver the tame, colorless speech put into his mouth by the real rulers of the country. The whole thing may be no more than good-natured make-believe, but it is rooted in antiquity, it is a lot of fun, and no one wants to give it up. — A.W. Tozer (cited from a sermon by Stephen Sheane, The Kingdom of Heaven, Sermon central – 8/24/2011)

The church of our day needs a renewed vision of God. We need a renewed fear of HIM, a new reverence, a renewed sense of our beginning days. In the ninth chapter of Acts, where the story of the Apostle Paul’s conversion was first unfolded, you see a church facing waves of persecution, followed by times of peace and rest. This was our beginning:

Acts 9:26 When he [Paul] came to Jerusalem, he was trying to associate with the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple. 27 But Barnabas took hold of him and brought him to the apostles and described to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had talked to him, and how at Damascus he had spoken out boldly in the name of Jesus. 28 And he was with them…31 So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase.

Afraid of a man and his reputation of persecution, the church would have turned a deaf ear to the voice of the Apostle that, in the end, wrote most of the Christian Scriptures! Fearing God, they grew into listenersAny fear that is greater than the awesome reverence of God acts as an idol of ungodly distraction to God’s people.

Maybe you don’t think it cannot happen. Maybe physical threat seems too powerful and spiritual reverence too abstract. It may be because we haven’t suffered much yet: One of the most powerful prayers in the midst of suffering I have read was uncovered from the horrors of Ravensbruck concentration camp. Ravensbruck was a concentration camp built in 1939 for women. Over 90,000 women and children perished in Ravensbruck, murdered by the Nazis. Corrie Ten Boom, who wrote The Hiding Place, was imprisoned there too. The prayer, found in the clothing of a dead child, says: O Lord, remember not only the men and woman of good will, but also those of ill will. But do not remember all of the suffering they have inflicted upon us: Instead remember the fruits we have borne because of this suffering, our fellowship, our loyalty to one another, our humility, our courage, our generosity, the greatness of heart that has grown from this trouble. When our persecutors come to be judged by you, let all of these fruits that we have borne be their forgiveness. (Quoted from Pastor Victor Yap, Sermon central illustrations).