Warfare has changed. It used to be, for centuries, that two armies lined up facing each other. Distinguished by their uniforms and carrying their banners and standards aloft, it was clear which side each soldier was on. Then they marched forward and slaughtered each other. Madness, yes, but at least you knew who your enemy was.

Now it’s different. War is often guerrilla-style. Your enemy may wear everyday clothes and mingle with civilians. He snipes from a hide-out. He triggers roadside bombs remotely at the moment you are passing or launches shells and rockets at you from miles away. Knowing such an enemy is difficult, which is why army intelligence units are now more important than ever.

This is relevant because we Christians, too, are at war. We are called to be good soldiers of Jesus Christ,[1] which implies that we are in a conflict—that we have enemies.[2] This has been true of God’s people in every generation, and Nehemiah is a case in point. A Jew in exile in Babylon, he had returned to Jerusalem with a specific aim: to organise the rebuilding of the city walls, which had lain in ruins since King Nebuchadnezzar had torn them down. Once the project had got under way his actions had drawn fire from local anti-Jewish factions, particularly from two men named Sanballat and Tobiah. These were the builders’ sworn enemies.

There is some symbolism here for us. We, too, are building the city of God—not with stones and mortar but by cementing relationships in the living community of God’s people, the ‘new Jerusalem’, the church. We are concerned, like Nehemiah, to see ruins repaired. Like him, too, we have an enemy who is happy for us to talk about building but who gets very angry when we start doing it. ‘When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall,’ Nehemiah records, ‘he became angry and was greatly incensed.’[3] Our own opposition comes, of course, from the devil—and from those he co-opts to his cause.

A little military intelligence goes a long way in such circumstances. It enables us to penetrate Satan’s plans and thus foil them: ‘We are not unaware of his schemes,’ Paul reminds us.[4] So, since the principles of spiritual conflict remain the same in every generation, let’s examine Nehemiah’s approach to his opponents, and that way we will hopefully learn a trick or two about managing those who oppose our own community-building.

The first tactic that Sanballat employed against Nehemiah and the builders was ridicule.

He ridiculed them publicly: ‘What are those feeble Jews doing?’ he jibed. ‘Will they restore their wall?...Will they finish in a day?’ To support him, his sidekick Tobiah jeered, ‘What they are building—even if a fox climbed up on it, he would break down their wall of stones!’[5] ‘It’s a massive civil engineering project,’ these men were saying, ‘and you inadequate nobodies, without an engineering qualification between you, think you can complete it? Ha!’

This is a tactic loved by Satan, who delights to make you feel inadequate. He reminds you how big the world is and how small you are. ‘Look at that great new bridge—or hospital, college or skyscraper—that non-Christians are completing down the road. Then look at your puny bunch of saints, arguing about what colour carpet to put in your pathetic little church building.’

Maybe he has a point, we conclude if we are not careful. Soon we grow despondent as we realise that even our spiritual efforts seem weak. Most of us, after all, are just ordinary folk who love God and, because of that, want to reach the lost and nurture the saints. Our efforts seem to fall well short of changing society and ushering in anything like the promised ‘new heavens and new earth’. Yes, the task is daunting and we often feel feeble. We see a change in the church leadership team, for example, and the congregation splits over it. Saddened, we come to doubt whether we can ever build anything of substance and lasting value. ‘Have we bitten off more than we can chew?’ we ask ourselves. ‘Can a bunch like us really expect to influence society in any meaningful way?’

Note how Nehemiah responded to the ridicule. He turned first to God in prayer—always a good starting-point. ‘Hear us, O our God,’ he prayed, ‘for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own head…for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.’ That’s good: he recognised Sanballat and Tobiah’s words for what they truly were—insults. Then he simply ignored the two men and cracked on with the job in hand: ‘So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.’[6]

I suggest you take a similar line when the devil and his agents snigger at you. Pass the problem on to God, then press on with the job in hand, doing it ‘with all your heart’. Get that Alpha course up and running. Spend time mentoring the young people in the church. Invite folk round for fellowship and a bite of supper, or whatever. What will change the world is a multitude of ordinary Christians each doing a little bit. You may not hit the headlines but you are changing the world!

When ridicule failed to deter the builders their enemies resorted to physical attack: ‘They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it.’[7]

In some parts of the world today Christians are subject to such attacks from adherents of other religions or from the political authorities. We need to pray for them. They need massive wisdom to know how to respond. Mercifully, most of us are not in that situation. But physical attack may well come from Satan in assaults on your health. Or he may afflict your mind so that worry about your health leaves you incapacitated and unable to advance God’s work.

Nehemiah and the Jews, when attacked, took action both spiritual and practical: ‘We prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.’[8] Once again the spiritual took precedence. Pray first. Commit your health to the Lord and pray for one another so that you may be healed.[9] But don’t stop there. ‘Post a guard’ as well: take practical action to safeguard your health. Adopt sensible preventative measures: a sound, balanced diet, for example, some regular exercise and adequate sleep. Where appropriate, seek medical help and don’t swallow the nonsensical notion that recourse to medical help spells a lack of faith. Nehemiah would have laughed at such an idea, and rightly so.

The next tactic used against the wall-builders was isolation.

Two of the opposition sent a message to Nehemiah: ‘Come, let us meet together in one of the villages on the plain of Ono.’ That was about twenty-five miles away. The plan was to get Nehemiah away from the builders he was organising by drawing him off to this lonely place where he could be roughed up a bit or even murdered. And they were persistent, sending him the same invitation four times. But he saw straight through it: ‘They were scheming to harm me.’[10]

The devil will attempt to isolate you, too, so that he can harm you. He will try to get you away from regular fellowship with likeminded believers, to keep you away from the stimulation and mutual strengthening that comes from worshipping together, being involved in the use of spiritual gifts and listening to the teaching of God’s Word. He will whisper that Sunday mornings are made for a long lie-in, that you’ve been working hard and have earned a rest, so skip the meeting this week, and maybe next week as well. Soon, you become a passenger in the church rather than a crew member. Just as, after the exodus, the Amalekites used to pick off the fringe Israelites in the desert, so materialism and self-indulgence will snipe at you.

Recognise the enemy’s attempts to isolate you, then take a leaf out of Nehemiah’s book: ‘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?”’[11]

I love that: ‘I am carrying on a great project.’ That’s exactly what you are doing. You are not just a church-goer. Christianity is not just a bolt-on appendage to your life. It’s not a hobby. The creator and sustainer of the universe has redeemed you, joined you to his family and elevated you to his service. Along with your fellow-believers you are now caught up in the biggest world-changing project of all through the gospel. How could you possibly leave that? Never. So stay with the builders and strengthen the city of God.

The next enemy tactic was character-smearing and gossip.

In an open letter, Sanballat accused the Jews of planning to revolt against the Persian authorities, with Nehemiah as their king. It was, of course, a total invention with no foundation in truth at all, a sinister plan to leak the alleged revolution to the Persian king, Artaxerxes, and hopefully get Nehemiah imprisoned or executed.[12] The letter was ‘unsealed’, a sure way of ensuring that its contents would leak out and circulate.

This really was serious stuff. Eastern kings of that period were very touchy about their positions, constantly on their guard against coups, always insecure on their thrones and liable to overreact to any threat of a usurper. Now the enemies of the Jews were maliciously portraying Nehemiah as just such a threat. Desperate to scupper the whole wall-building project, they aimed to strike the shepherd so that the sheep would be scattered. Success in such a plan would result, at the very least, in making the builders’ ‘hands…weak’[13] and so slow down the work.

It was hard enough for Nehemiah to cope with these allegations from his opponents outside. But worse was to emerge because the enemy had planted spies and traitors inside Jerusalem itself. Many of the nobility, in particular,  had links with Tobiah and were keen to point out that he wasn’t such a bad guy after all.[14] But his track record proved that he was. The devil loves to wreck churches this way. Once insiders start arguing about leaders and their merits or otherwise, cliques quickly form and the social and spiritual cohesion of the church begins to loosen. Hearsay and gossip spread like wildfire. Bad guys are held up as good guys, and vice versa.

Nehemiah’s response was both swift and wise. First he tackled the outside allegations. He addressed Sanballat’s gossip with the truth: ‘Nothing like what you say is happening; you are just making it up out of your head.’ Then, knowing that the enemy’s plan was to weaken the hands of the builders, he used the crisis to prompt the very opposite effect, praying to God, ‘Now strengthen my hands.’[15] The devil often overreaches himself this way and you, if you act wisely, can hoist him with his own petard and turn the crisis into a step up to higher things.

So much for the outside threat. Interestingly, there is no record of any action taken by him to deal with the unrest on the inside, among the nobles in Jerusalem. Their traitorous liaisons must have embarrassed him deeply and we can only assume that he dealt with the matter privately, as wise church leaders will always do as a first resort.

Ridicule. Physical attack. Isolation. Character-smearing and gossip. There was one more to come, and this last enemy tactic was perhaps the most subtle, and hence the most dangerous, of them all: compromise. This one was an attack not so much on the building of the city walls, which had by this time been completed, but on the integrity of the spiritual community who lived inside them.

Here’s what happened. After twelve years as Governor of Judah, Nehemiah returned to Persia. In his absence the people’s faith grew slack, while the old enemies Sanballat and Tobiah gained in influence. Partly to blame was the High Priest, Eliashib, who unwisely let a member of the high priestly family marry Sanballat’s daughter. He also gave permission for Tobiah to take up residence in a room in the Temple, and Tobiah thus brought his unspiritual baggage—his ‘household goods’[16]—into the house of God. In view of these two men’s track records and the lack of evidence of any change of heart, both actions let the fox through the hen-house door. It was compromise with the uncommitted.[17] No wonder society in Jerusalem slipped away from God.

Hearing of the problems, Nehemiah came back to Jerusalem. His response was prompt and pointed: ‘I…threw all Tobiah’s household goods out of the room. I gave orders to purify the rooms, and then I put back into them the equipment of the house of God.’[18] In other words, he undid the compromise, and robustly at that. He set in motion a radical return to right priorities so that God’s house could be used for its proper purpose.

Look out for compromise in the church and nip it in the bud. You may find, for instance, that grants are available from local authorities for developing your church premises and starting new social projects. That may be fine, but watch carefully for provisos that effectively remove control over what you build and do from Christian hands and put it into the hands of people with no spiritual understanding or vision. Make a difference, too, between committed members of the local church and mere service-attenders, however regular these may be. The two will never be the same, and the latter will weaken the former unless you maintain the distinction.

Learn from Nehemiah’s wisdom and experience, recorded in Holy Scripture for that very purpose. Stay alert to the enemy’s tactics. Stick with building God’s community, not allowing anything at all to hold up the work. The enemy, in the face of such a determined attitude on your part, will eventually lose heart: ‘When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it,’ records Nehemiah, ‘we all returned to the wall, each to his own work.’[19] And best of all, he records a short time later: ‘So the wall was completed.’[20]

May your testimony be the same!

Copyright © David Matthew 2009


Know Your Enemy


This is one essay in the Windows On The Word series. Click the Next and Previous buttons to move through the series, and Up to go to the list. Footnotes appear in the right-hand column. Hover over Bible references to see the text.



The gist of this article

Nehemiah, back from exile in Persia to organise the rebuilding of the city walls in Jerusalem, found himself beset by enemies intent on stopping the work going forward. We can learn from him in dealing with our own enemy, the devil.

1. 2 Timothy 2:3

2. Ours is not, however, physical warfare. There is absolutely no place for Christians to take up arms to impose their faith on others. We are engaged in spiritual warfare only: a conflict of ideas, philosophies and priorities (2 Corinthians 10:4-5).

3. Nehemiah 4:1

4. 2 Corinthians 2:11

5. Nehemiah 4:1-3

6. Nehemiah 4:4-6

7. Nehemiah 4:8

8. Nehemiah 4:8

9. James 5:16

10. Nehemiah 6:2, 4

11. Nehemiah 6:2-3

12. Nehemiah 6:5-7

13. Nehmiah 6:9

14. Nehemiah 6:17-19

15. See Nehemiah 6:8-9

16. Nehemiah 13:8

17. Tobiah had opposed the Jews all along and was himself an Ammonite. His very presence in Jerusalem undermined the purity and purpose of God’s people.

18. Nehemiah 13:8-9

19. Nehemiah 4:15

20. Nehemiah 6:15