The Power of Perseverance

Nehemiah 4:1—11

Perseverance is one of those remarkable qualities that is becoming increasingly rare these days. We live in a culture that wants everything “right now.” Instead of saving up to make a large purchase, we simply go and “get a loan.” Rather than starting at the bottom, apprenticing, taking our time learning to become experts in some area, we go to college and get a degree, thinking that piece of paper will open every door and we’ll be able to start at the top. We want success that same way: we want it right away; we want it guaranteed; we don’t want anything to detour us on our way to success. But success in almost everything doesn’t work that way. Success doesn’t always go to the most educated. Or the most wealthy. Or even the most talented. Herodotus got it absolutely right when he wrote this:

Some men give up their designs when they have almost reached the goal; While others, on the contrary, obtain a victory by exerting, at the last moment, more vigorous efforts than ever before.

People just don’t know how to “stick to it” anymore. They have forgotten how to solve their own problems. They don’t know what it means to “persevere.” So many people, even Christians who mistakingly think success for them is guaranteed simply by virtue of their relationship with Jesus Christ, can take lesson from them the lowly postage stamp:

…its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing until it gets there. (Josh Billings)

In Nehemiah 4, we will see what perseverance looks like when believers are engaged in the work of the Lord. The really interesting thing about Nehemiah’s experience is that God had told the Jews through Ezra and Nehemiah to go and rebuild that wall around Jerusalem, and that they would have success. God never mentioned the obstacles we will see in this chapter; and probably for good reason! In fact, there are probably two reasons why God never told His people the whole story in advance. (1) Had they known about persecution they would face, many of the workers might have chosen to stay home. (2) The people needed to learn how to persevere. The more a young oak tree is bent in the wind, the deeper its roots dig into the hard earth below. Perseverance in the face of persecution is what the people needed to give them spiritual depth.  Persecution, not necessarily something we ought to covet, isn’t something we should shun or avoid it, either.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (James 1:2—4)

1. What Nehemiah’s opposition was like

The difficulties Nehemiah and his people faced actually took three forms. Even though these things happened thousands of years ago, in this chapter we see the ways in which people of God are constantly attacked when they are trying to forge ahead.

a. The were mocked and their efforts ridiculed, 4:1—3

What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”

It looks as though that when Sanballat heard that Nehemiah was actually going ahead in rebuilding the wall, be brought his whole army of half-breeds, Samaritans, to the outskirts of Jerusalem for the sole purpose of mocking him and the Jews. How small this man must have been! How petty his attitude was that he would marshal an entire army just to make fun of people. His jeers to the form of five questions, shouted out in rapid succession:

  • “What are those feeble Jews doing?” The word for “feeble” is used only here in this form in the entire Old Testament and means “frail,” “miserable,” “withered,” “powerless.” That’s how these Jews appeared to the Samaritans. The J.B. Phillips translation translates the word “pathetic Jews.” That’s how any minority appears to the majority. But what Sanballat and his forces didn’t see was the legion of angels behind the workers. They didn’t know that God was on their side.

  • “Will they restore their wall?” Another way to translate this phrase could be, “Would they expect to build this by themselves?” It’s a difficult phrase to put into English, but the sense is that this decrepit bunch of people had no business even trying to do this work. It was beyond their abilities. They were foolish for thinking they could build the wall without any outside help.

  • “Will they offer sacrifices?” The Samaritans were wondering if the Temple would eventually be open for business again. Of course, it was eventually. By chapter 12, the Jews had succeeded in offering sacrifices as they had done in the distant past.

  • “Will they finish in a day?” The Jews were working at a feverish pace, and this caused the enemy to mock them even more.

  • “Can they bring the stones back to life…burned as they are?” Sanballat made fun of the people, possibly using some of the old stones in the rebuilding efforts. Their aim was too lofty, in other words; they had bitten off more than they could chew.

But it was Tobiah, the Ammonite, that drove the nail home. He made fun of the wall, suggesting even a fox could knock it down.

Here is how the world views the work you do for the Lord. The world belittles your efforts. They mock your testimony. They poke fun at your lifestyle because it’s different than theirs. Christians—genuine, Bible-believing believers—are in the minority (sometimes even in their own church!) and to the “mighty majority,” maybe we do look like the pathetic Jews of Nehemiah’s day and maybe our efforts don’t appear to “measure up” to what they can do. But when we are engaged the great work of the Lord, there is no power on earth that can stop us. We are reminded of 1 John 4:4—

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the one who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.

We all know this verse, yet many of us live as though were had been overcome, instead of like overcomers. We are the people who should be walking on water, metaphorically speaking. There is nothing we can’t do in the Name and Power of Jesus Christ. There really is no way we can’t succeed because when we are on God’s side, He is on ours.

He mocks proud mockers but shows favor to the humble and oppressed. (Proverbs 3:34)

b. They were conspired against, 4:7—9; 11

They all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and stir up trouble against it. (verse 8)

Before we get to the conspiracy, we read this in verse 6:

So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

They had already succeeded; the end was in sight; the people worked together and accomplished an incredible thing in the face of mockery and derision. Notice, though, as soon as their efforts were measurable, their enemies did more than just mock them; they began to cause trouble. Sanballat and his allies, including many nations around Jerusalem, planned a concerted attack against the Jews. The rubble couldn’t stop the Jews. The mockery didn’t dishearten them.  Their lack of skill didn’t slow them down, so now these enemies were about turn up the heat. This was a terrible conspiracy between nations that hated God’s people. In verse 8, the word translated “trouble” means literally “confusion,” “chaos,” and “perversion.” Apparently, these people weren’t going to use swords and arrows to stop the Jews, they were going to use a much more insidious device:  discouragement.

In a sense, it’s easier to fight against an enemy you can see and defend yourself against literal weapons. But when the enemy uses things like “confusion,” “chaos,” and “perversion,” the believer has to be doubly on his guard! It’s hard to guard against emotions and temptations. That’s how the Devil works, though.

For such persons are false apostles, deceitful workers, masquerading as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light. It is not surprising, then, if his servants also masquerade as servants of righteousness. Their end will be what their actions deserve. (1 Corinthians 11:13—15)

Christians have to be alert to the schemes of the Devil and his minions. We need to realize he is no horned goat and his followers aren’t spaced out, tattooed thugs. The Devil looks like whatever is good and pleasing to you. His followers are clean cut and say the things you want to hear. He is the master of deception, and years ago Petra put the Devil’s techniques to song:

You got the clergy working overtime to widen the narrow way
You’ve got politicians everywhere listening to what you say
You’ve got false apostles teaching lies perverting the only way
You’ve got principalities and powers waiting to obey
You’ve got philosophies and vain deceits lying to deceive
You’ve got hate, and greed, ungodly lusts in the deadly web you weave
Somehow you’ve got so many thinking you’re not even there
One look is all it takes to get them blinded by your glare! (Angel of Light, as performed by Petra)

Be alert! Don’t be blinded by the Devil’s glare.

c. Doubting friends causing discouragement, 4:10, 12

Meanwhile, the people in Judah said, “The strength of the laborers is giving out, and there is so much rubble that we cannot rebuild the wall.” (verse 10)

Then the Jews who lived near them came and told us ten times over, “Wherever you turn, they will attack us.” (verse 12)

Poor Nehemiah. It wasn’t enough to overcome the enemy from without, but he had to contend with enemies from within. Opposition is bad enough when it comes from the “usual suspects,” but when it comes friends, it’s just plain heartbreaking.  How sad it is when believers buy the Devil’s lie, then peddle it to their friends.

Judah got discouraged because they took their eyes off of God and started to look at the circumstances around them: the workers were tired and there was so much more work to do. Verse 10 sticks out as being so negative: “we cannot rebuild the wall.” That is the voice of discouraged people, and discouraged people are are worse than useless—they are a positive hindrance.

Did you know it only takes one negative person in a congregation to shipwreck that congregation’s faith? Negativity and discouragement spread like wildfire in the Christian community, and nobody is immune, no matter how strong in the faith you think you are, you can be caught off guard because, truthfully, serving the Lord, being faithful to Him, and working for the Kingdom can really take their toil on you. And if you aren’t careful—if you aren’t in the Word and if you aren’t in church, and if you aren’t having good fellowship with strong Christians—you won’t recognize discouragement when it comes sniffing around. It will seem like a friend, and before you know it, you will have become a positive hindrance in the Body of Christ.

Remember the words of Joshua; inscribe them on the tablet of your heart:

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the LORD your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

2. The importance of character

The friends Nehemiah could count on had three important character traits that we should not only cultivate in our lives, but find in the lives of the people we choose call “friends.”

a. Determination and perseverance, verse 6

So we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.

Look at the determination in that verse; no negativity there! These people didn’t sit around moping about how tired everybody was or how bad their situation had become; they didn’t sit around talking about the glory days, finding fault with everything as it was. No, these people worked with “all their heart.” Literally, the people “had a heart to work.” The work—that project for the Lord—was all that mattered. Now that is perseverance. That is determination. That is what distinguishes a Christian who just wants to go to heaven from one sees how ripe the field is and isn’t afraid to work in that field. But it takes perseverance and it takes determination.  It takes those things to be consistent in the work and it takes those things to be different from rest.

We also call it “true grit,” and a person can’t go to college to learn it. You can’t learn it from a book. It’s a character trait, but if you don’t have it, you can get it! The Holy Spirit has it, and the Holy Spirit can give you all that you lack if you would but yield to Him. Do you have trouble with perseverance? Start walking in the Spirit; it will come to you.

b. Prayer, 4:9

But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.

That is an interesting verse. These faithful people prayed, but then they also posted a guard. That’s God and man working together. A working mind should be accompanied by a praying heart. A Christian can’t just work; he must also pray constantly. Did you know that work and prayer go hand-in-hand? Those who rarely pray, rarely do anything of lasting value for the Kingdom of Heaven. Ephesians 6:11—18 is an instructive passage on this. Believers are called, not only to “put on the whole armor of God,” but also to “pray” all the time! We can’t do one or the other; success in perseverance comes when we do both: work and pray. When we work in the Spirit of God we will have His strength both in our bodies and in out hearts.

It is interesting to see how often “watching and praying” are linked together in the Bible. But “watching and praying” is not the same thing is sitting around and waiting for “the Spirit to move” you; it’s not the same thing as merely studying the tactics of the Devil. “Watching and praying” means that we pray about our God-given work and that we watch out for the interests of our God-given work.

In 1 Peter 4:7, Peter offers this piece of advice to his readers:

Therefore be alert and of sober mind so that you may pray.

“Watching and praying” means that we are alert; our eyes are open; we are aware of things going on in our world. But we aren’t phased or driven to fear: our minds are to be sober. We claim the objective truths of the Bible; the truths that tell us success and victory are ours regardless of what the circumstances may be.

Believers, working for the Lord, need to be persevering in their work. They need to be watching and praying. When they do these things, they can’t help but succeed no matter what.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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