Now it came to pass, when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and Geshem the Arabian, and the rest of our enemies, heard that I had built the wall, and that there was no breach left therein; (though at that time I had not set up the doors upon the gates); that Sanballat and Geshem sent unto me, saying: ‘Come, let us meet together in some one of the villages in the plain of Ono’.
But they thought to do me mischief. And I sent messengers unto them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down: why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?’ Yet they sent unto me four times after this sort; and I answered them after the same manner (Nehemiah 6:1-4).
The above words contain what is probably best-known statement that God’s servant Nehemiah ever uttered: ‘I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down’.
The statement has been used often , and rightly so, to express a determination on the part of the Lord’s people to be about the Lord’s business. But the total setting of the statement needs to be appreciated, and its application implemented in our own lives.
Plots and devices
Nehemiah 6 is set in the context of a whole series of plots and devices on the part of Israel’s enemies, designed to hinder the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem and re-establishing her defences.
Sanballat and company used ridicule, derision and scorn to sow misgivings and doubts in the minds of those engaged in that work. They also used open force, confrontation and threats.
Each of these ‘devices’, recorded in previous chapters, had some measure of success. But, for all that, the work had managed to proceed and was very near completion. In the light of this, Sanballat and his cronies resort to other tactics.
The first of these is brought before us in the passage quoted above. What was the tactic? And what was the reasoning behind Nehemiah’s famous response?
The tactic was a very simple one: Sanballat and his co-conspirators aimed to lure Nehemiah away from the work on Jerusalem’s defences. By doing so, they hoped to delay and impede that work.
When they suggest a meeting for dialogue in ‘the plains of Ono’, we should bear in mind that such a meeting, including journey time, would have occupied about a week of Nehemiah’s precious time. It might also have put him in physical danger, no promise of safe passage being offered.
If the ‘adversaries’ of Israel had not been able to halt the work up to this point, at least they could now, perhaps, hinder it for a period of time, and that would achieve at least some furtherance of their designs.
The shrewd eye of Nehemiah discerns the subtle purpose behind the tactic: ‘I am doing a great work’, he replies, ‘so that I cannot come down; why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you?’
The application of this should not be missed. We live in days of extensive ‘dialogue’ and great discussion concerning the things of our ‘Jerusalem’ – the church of Jesus Christ. Much of this dialogue is carried on with people who are, in reality, the ‘adversaries’ of the church and the gospel.
Not a few of the ‘good brethren’ who enter into such discussion assure us that they would never ‘give way’ on the essential issues of church or gospel. That may well be so, but it is not the point.
In the light of Nehemiah’s example, we can see that they have already given way – in dissipating precious ‘working hours’ that might have been devoted to strengthening Jerusalem’s bulwarks.
You see, Nehemiah had long-since settled the status of Sanballat and Tobiah. As soon as he appeared on the scene to build the walls of Jerusalem, he made their position crystal clear: ‘ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem’, he told them (Nehemiah 2:20).
He emulated the faithful leaders of Ezra’s day, who had declared: ‘Ye have nothing to do with us, to build an house unto our God’ (Ezra 4:3). Like them, Nehemiah knew where his adversaries stood. Therefore, there was nothing to talk about.
Any time spent in talking would be a distraction and a waste of precious opportunity to further the ‘great work’ to which the Lord had called him.
‘They thought to do me mischief’, adds Nehemiah. And we also may rest assured that the devil is always up to mischief. When it comes to the work that has been committed to our hands, it serves his purpose well to send us off on wild goose chases with those who have ‘no portion, nor right, nor memorial in Jerusalem’. Even worse, we may absorb some of their errors into our own thinking.
The potential value of the ploy, in Sanballat’s estimation, is evidenced by the fact that he sent ‘four times after this sort’.
Those involved in endless ecumenical dialogue and related activities should take note as, four times over, Nehemiah ‘answered them after the same manner’. May the Lord grant us Nehemiah’s spirit and wisdom today!
Very simply, he said ‘no’ to the invitation. There was nothing to discuss, therefore there was no point in wasting time discussing it.That time was precious and should be devoted to Jerusalem’s good.
It is interesting to note how Nehemiah described his work on rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. ‘I am doing a great work’, he declares.
No doubt many would have looked on the work being done in those days and considered it a very small work, an insignificant activity, that was engaging the energies of the Lord’s servants. But they would have been wrong.
This sets before us a vital fact of the Word of God, namely, that those things are truly ‘great’ that are counted so in God’s sight, not man’s. Even at the best of times, Jerusalem did not rank with some of the other cities of her day, as far as size and splendour were concerned.
She was no Babylon, such as Nebuchadnezzar built, its hanging gardens one of the Seven Wonders of the World. And at that particular time, she was most assuredly in a woeful state. So today, the true church of Jesus Christ may appear to be in a sad condition.
But Jerusalem was nevertheless God’s city once again. And if her reconstruction was not a ‘great work’, then nothing was. So it is with the church of the living God.
Never let us be intimidated or discouraged by the estimations of men. If God has called us to the work of building the church of God’s Word, then that is by definition a ‘great work’, however small it may seem to us and to others.
This work has never appeared great in the eyes of men; ‘we are counted as the off-scouring of the earth’, says Paul. But if we are helping to build Christ’s church, as revealed in the Lord’s Word, then to be employed in its construction and defence is to be engaged in a great work.
The enemy recognises this, and uses every possible subtlety and device to deflect us from the work. The more we also are convinced of it, the better!