Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me, saying, “Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono.” But they thought to do me harm. So I sent messengers to them, saying, “I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?” But they sent me this message four times, and I answered them in the same manner. Nehemiah 6:1-4 (NKJV)
The rebuilding of the wall is going great. Sure there’s been some conflict from without and from within, but still the people press on in building the wall. By the time we get to chapter 6 the wall has pretty well been completed. From what we read here all that remained on the wall was to hang the doors and the gates. Frustrated that their previous attacks to stop the work of God had failed, the enemies of God try a different approach to stop the work.
Instead of launching disruptive attacks on the construction project itself, they now begin to attack Nehemiah personally. With the wall near completion they are getting desperate to stop the work. They knew if the wall were ever finished they would have no hope of being able to continue their control over the people of Jerusalem. The completed wall would cause them to lose a great deal of authority and influence over the people. They also realized that a completed wall would invite many more Jews to come home from exile and so strengthen the city and the nation. Given enough time the city could flourish to the point that it began to exert control over the surrounding nations.
So in their minds at this point is the idea that if they stopped Nehemiah, the leader, they would stop the work. They also seemed to have it in their minds that if they could stop Nehemiah that it would discourage anyone else from taking up the mantle and trying to lead the city to rebuild the wall. Nehemiah isn’t the primary source of their anger and hatred. Truly they hate the God of Israel and they hate seeing the work of God go on. So they are committed to doing whatever it takes to stop this work. In their determination to stop the work of God the enemies of God begin to hit Nehemiah in very personal ways.
As the wall goes up Sanballat, Tobiah and the rest of the opposition decide they want to meet with Nehemiah and talk. Perhaps they’ve had a change of heart? Perhaps they’ve seen all the work that the people have done and they now want to get on board to help. Perhaps they’ve been impressed with Nehemiah’s persistence and they’ve realized they were wrong about him. They ask Nehemiah to meet them in what would probably be the halfway point between Jerusalem and Samaria. The plain of Ono was about 25 miles NW of Jerusalem. From all appearances they now wanted to make peace and maybe open up economic trade between Samaria and Jerusalem. Appearances however are not always accurate.
We see that Nehemiah suspected them of seeking to harm him. Nehemiah showed some great wisdom by recognizing that they really weren’t seeking to make peace and they were up to no good. Their desire to meet with Nehemiah was nothing more than a distraction to keep him from doing and completing the work of God. Nehemiah recognized this and didn’t go.
His response to them is one of the greatest verses in the entire Bible. He said that he was doing a great work and couldn’t come down to go and meet with them. His response doesn’t openly question their motives or antagonize them. He simply explains that the work he was doing was too important to take time away from to come down and meet with them. This meeting would most likely have taken at least three days. One day to travel, one day to meet and then one day to travel back. Nehemiah had his priorities in order and he was determined that nothing would distract him from doing the work of the Lord.
However Sanballat and company were not easily turned down. They sent letters to Nehemiah four more times to try and get him to come and meet them. They were hoping to wear down Nehemiah’s determination through irritation. They seemed to have the mindset of a 5 year old kid. They hoped that if they irritated Nehemiah enough he would meet with them if for no other reason than to make them leave him alone. Nehemiah however was determined to do and complete the work of God. So he wouldn’t allow them to distract or irritate him enough to stop.
At first glance Nehemiah’s response of “no” seems counterintuitive. As Christians aren’t we supposed to be available and seek to make peace with others? As a general rule the answer to that is yes, we should. However there are going to be times when the answer to this will be no we shouldn’t. The key is to have the wisdom necessary to know when we should and when we shouldn’t. This, I believe, is the hard part. It’s easy to say we should always meet with those who want to meet with us despite the fact there will obviously be times when this really isn’t what would be best. It’s also easy to say we shouldn’t meet with people if we feel uncomfortable about it. The problem with this, at least for me, is that a one on one meeting like this always makes me feel uncomfortable and so I would never meet with anyone.
So how do we know when we should and when we shouldn’t? I don’t know that I can give you absolute, always do it here and never here. However what we see in Nehemiah is that if this will take us off the wall, then we should probably say no. The work of God should take priority over something like this. If this meeting will hinder or slow down the work of God then maybe/probably this is a time to say no.
To keep from being distracted requires us to be wise and devoted to the work. We have to be wise so we can recognize whether or not this is a distracted. Obviously not everything is a distraction that will keep us from the work but also obviously some things are. It will take wisdom to know the difference. We have to be devoted to the work so that we can say no. Like Nehemiah we have to recognize that work of God is greater and more important than the distraction.
There are a couple of things about this I want to say before we move on. First is that just because we say no doesn’t mean they are going to take no. We see from Nehemiah that they sent this request to him four times after he told them no. Ultimately what the opposition wants is to stop the work of God. If they can do this through distraction they will. If their initial attempts at distraction don’t work they may try to pester us until we give in to their distraction. If the distraction will take us off the wall we must continue to say no to it no matter how many times they ask.
The second thing I want to say before we move on is that if you are determined to stay on the wall and not be distracted then you had also had also better be ready to be misunderstood. There will be some who will see your determination to do the work of God as a lack of concern, arrogance or some other bad character trait. Sadly this is the price you may have to pay for being determined to do the work of God. We need wisdom and perseverance to complete the work of God when faced with the opposition of distraction and irritation.
For further study read 2 Timothy 2:1-4.
What warning does Paul give Timothy in verse 4?
What does this mean?
How might the distractions of the opposition fit this?
How can we keep Paul’s admonition?