Nehemiah 4:1-23

“I am Who God says I am”

“Who am I they often tell me, I would step from my cells confinement calmly, cheerfully, firmly like a squire from his country house. Who am I they often tell me. I would talk to my warders freely and friendly and clearly as though it were mine to command…Who am I…I would bear the days of misfortune, equably, smilingly, proudly like one accustomed to win, am I then really all that which other men tell of? An Excerpt from Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s testimony which will bookend this message.[1]

Who am I?…Am I what others says of me, how others speak to me or am I who God says I am?

He was secure and confident and sure about who he was in Christ…

What drives and motivates a person like Bonhoeffer, (P) to overcome the sorts of adversities, setbacks, discouragements he would have encountered, to reach his goal? What sorts of reserves did he have? Relationship with Christ that enabled him to be faithful literally to the end of his life?

Every day we are faced…with a barrage of opposing ‘truths’, misconceptions, lies…when *aligned with what, as Christians we believe is truth…and we are faced with deviating from that truth. Opposition will come to us all in all its various forms morally, ethically, verbally, physically spiritually.

…There is no more an important time for us to be certain and secure of the truth and who we are in Jesus

If something doesn’t align with the person of Jesus, his teaching, his values…it isn’t truth! The less our ‘gaze’ is on the person of Jesus, the more likely it is we may be influenced and swayed, and vulnerable to doubt, deception and offence. Not because I’m telling you he is, but because he said he is!

That being said what are the spiritual lessons we can derive from this story…number of…First…

(key) We have no control over any adversity, but we do, in the confidence we have in Christ…Identity, I am who God says I am…

…The Psalmist summarises my point when he said: “apart from you I have no good thing” (Ps. 16) …. “Whom have I in heaven but You? And on earth I desire no one besides You” (Ps 73:25)

First key point…

  1. (v.1-14) Prayer is a first response to opposition and criticism

This is probably my favourite chapter of Nehemiah…why…it captures a community at work, who despite having every reason to give up and quit, never gave up…we see in verses 1-14 of Nehemiah 4 that prayer was the first response to opposition and criticism

I prayed, “Hear how they make fun of us, O God! Let their ridicule fall on their own heads.…..So they all plotted together to come and attack Jerusalem and create confusion, 9 but we prayed to our God and kept men on guard against them day and night.

Did we hear what Nehemiah prayed to God in response to the criticism…not very PC? We don’t need to question the appropriateness of Nehemiah’s prayer. We might question whether Nehemiah had the gift of mercy? Even though what he prayed is worth noting here, that he prayed under the circumstances is what I want to highlight!

He was diverting what was occurring off of himself and onto God; this was his strategy

You know the bible says some tough things about opposition in its various forms.

Arise, Lord! Deliver me, my God! Strike all my enemies on the jaw; break the teeth of the wicked (Ps. 3:7)

Let evil recoil on those who slander me; in your faithfulness destroy them. (Ps. 54:5)

Whoever is pregnant with evil conceives trouble and gives birth to disillusionment. (Ps. 7:14)

In the balance of this whole situation Nehemiah didn’t allow his enemies and their criticism to become the focus of his attention.

Why is that? Because “Prayer places criticism in its proper context” …what is that context?…the truth, the person of Jesus, what is of the Spirit, what aligns with the scriptures. Prayer tempers and informs and guides our response to any and every situation

In consistent, persistent and committed prayer the Holy Spirit ‘speaks’ to us, (assumes…listening!) and I’ve no doubt if we’re facing a situation where there is or could be criticism & opposition, the Lord will show us how to handle it. I believe that’s what occurred with Nehemiah. He took a balanced, rational approach in his response; prayer had resourced him that way.

Nehemiah also understood the dynamics of the spiritual battle. He understood how opposition and discouragement has a psychological effect on people, negatively affecting motivation and leaving them to question what they we’re doing…

“We grow weak carrying burdens; there’s so much rubble to take away. How can we build the wall today?”…Nehemiah says “I saw that the people were worried…” (maybe they’re right, maybe I don’t have what it takes, wasting my time)…

Here Nehemiah gives one of the greatest half-time team talks in history.

Don’t be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”

That sort of spiritual stability doesn’t occur in a vacuum, it comes from identity in God, pressing into God in prayer to gain the right perspective on any matter we might be facing…prayer gives us the perspective of God

“What do these miserable Jews think they’re doing? Do they intend to rebuild the city? Can they make building stones out of heaps of burnt rubble?” “What kind of wall could they ever build? Even a fox could knock it down!”

This was straight out a strategy on the part of the enemy to discourage, and dismantle any vision that God had put in front of Nehemiah and the people…

Prayer helps us see what God wants us to see.  We all face and will face opposition, difficult people and hard situations…it’s the perspective we adopt in these that’s key…and, what perspective we adopt is our responsibility.

  1. (V. 15-23) Confident Community of Faith

We’ve seen in this chapter alone the dynamic of prayer, but we also see in verses 15-23 the people of Jerusalem were a faith community, discouraged yes, a little beaten up yes, but still confident in God.

Then all of us went back to rebuilding the wall….leaders gave their full support to the people 17 who were rebuilding the wall….Our God will fight for us.” 21 So every day, from dawn until the stars came out at night, half of us worked on the wall, while the other half stood guard with spears.

So even though there’s the practicalities of the wall being built, underneath all that there’s something deeply spiritual going on here…reflected in (3 values, strategies at work…):

Unity – the people were unified around the common goal of building the wall and fighting the opposition at the same time. There was synergy, collaboration and cooperation in the sharing of roles, guarding the city and helping one-another out

…scripture says “…the people worked with all their heart” (4:6)

Togetherness – remember Nehemiah came into an environment where the people were unmotivated, uninspired and tired. Scripture shows a shift though. In these verse’s we see camaraderie, that sense of we’re all in this together, not the task of the exclusive few, but of us all, ownership of what needed to be done for the city! Driven by the greater goal, the vision, & honouring God, over individual agendas

Motivated to honour God – God was the source of their motivation, their willingness to get on with the job…he was the source of their morale…our 3rd main point this morning.

  1. (v. 14, 15, 20) God is the source of our ‘morale’

What is morale? A. = Determination, self-esteem, confidence. Add…God is the source of our identity. All necessary for spiritual stability in Christ, as we are faced in different ways with different forms of opposition and criticism.

We talked about prayer being a first response to opposition and criticism earlier; this assumes a level of identity and stability in God…a dynamic very clear in Nehemiah here

… (v.14) “Don’t be afraid of them, remember the Lord who is great and awesome…”

So because I’m talking a bit about criticism today I want to spend a moment defining what I mean by criticism. Criticism is the act of judging unfavorably or faultfinding.  Jesus for example was critical of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy expressing his disapproval forcibly on a number of occasions (e.g., Matthew 23).

Jesus’ criticisms though were always truthful and, ultimately, loving. And he didn’t criticize randomly. He provided specific issues for them to, “consider”. Jesus also didn’t speak one way in front of the Pharisees and another to His disciples.

The criticism I’m referring today in Nehemiah 4 is that which tears someone else down without basis, with no relation to the truth, and is certainly not in love or with the best interests of the other person in mind. None of us ought to be above being challenged, disciplined, and rebuked even, but never behind someone’s back and always in a spirit of love, always in a manner that is consistent with scripture and the fruit of the Spirit[2]

We were first introduced to Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem in chapter 2 and ch. 4 a fourth party had joined that opposition “the men of Ashdod”.  You’ll note that Sanballat (more…) was absolutely ruthless in his criticism, why, because as the governor of Samaria, he had the most to lose with Jerusalem being a fully functioning God-honouring city again.

What was his coping-mechanism?…undo, disrupt, discourage & criticise.

Application of Neh. 4 shows us that Criticism that is not of the Spirit wears us down and is distracting from the vision and mission of God for us…so we need to constantly find strategies … for, warding off criticism and opposition… and in fact to encourage one-another. I don’t believe we can ever overdo that.  

In a world that beats up, let’s lift up!

I don’t want to understate the effect Sanballat and his buddies’ criticism had on Nehemiah’s team in Jerusalem…but it seems to me that as the gravity of this increased, Nehemiah was prepared with the countermeasures we ought to be prepared with, the first of which in verse 6… “they have thrown their insults at us, “so we rebuilt the wall…”.

“God was the source of their morale”…

When God is the source of our morale (self-esteem, confidence), we realise that ONLY IN HIM, can we rise above discouragement, rise above the negativity, opposition and criticism of individuals, and what the world can throw at us…

God is the one we draw hope and strength and truth from…(P) we are who He says we are!

If God is not the source of my morale – something or someone else is. Which means my defences are weak and my ‘walls’ are vulnerable.

Incidentally Proverbs 25:28 says, “Whoever has no rule over his own spirit is like a city broken down, without walls.”

Want to briefly mention 2 strategies we can use to ensure God is the source of our confidence, our morale…Firstly… 

Guard your spirit (see Ps 51…) A man’s spirit is what he is.

It is my responsibility to ensure my spirit, my life are controlled by no other source, or spirit, than the Holy Spirit. We just heard the Bible likens the person who does not control their own spirit as being like a city with walls that have tumbled down[3] (Prov. 25:28)

Do we realise that our spirits can be damaged and undermined? When we allow the negativity or offense of another person to enter our spirit, it can potentially sabotage Gods vision for you, we see this in today’s text, Sanballat was the expert at this!

So what rules my spirit? Is it free, or full of offenses of the past and present? How much of that am I holding onto, when Christ would have you free of it. When God is the source of my morale, my “walls are secure”

Guarding our spirit, which was what Nehemiah was encouraging the people to do, means our spirit cannot be ruled and robbed by someone else’s criticism, cynicism and pessimism.

When we look at David’s Psalms we see no doubt God was his source, but even he recognised the need to protect himself. David was determined he would not allow anyone or anything to steal away from him, what he could have in God

(Ps 63) “my soul clings to you, your right hand upholds me”

(Job 23:12) I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.

(Ps. 119:11) I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you.

There are clues in these texts as to how we guard our spirits…be in the word, be in prayer, cling to God with everything we’ve got!

When God is the source of my morale, my security my trust my confidence comes from him, alone (not self or any other source) and our response to opposition is spirit-led rather than the flesh (the world). The pattern of this world is to react; the pattern of the Spirit is respond as Christ would have respond

…Prov. 4:23…”above all else guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life”

Ward off Criticism

Yes Sanballat and co’s attacks definitely had an effect on Nehemiah and his team, criticising their character, questioning their ability and even viability of the project to start with, there’s no denying that, in the end it didn’t stick because their focus was on something greater

…here’s one thing that’s true of the sort of criticism we see in Nehemiah: vision can sometimes remind people of something they are not. And rather than celebrate and get on board, the easier thing to do is…criticise, it’s a coping mechanism for our own disappointments and inadequacy…

Let me quickly break this down a little further…

  1. There’s probably a little Sanballat, and Co in all of us, we’re all prone to dishing out a little criticism, but its potentially a lot to the person or people on the other end…we need to ward off that tendency
  2. Words are hurtful, things, even what we as Christians can say and how we say them sometimes, painful. But when criticism is being levelled at us, it is an opportunity to keep our integrity intact, as we ward off criticism, in the Spirit, in love
  3. We ward off criticism by looking at ways and for ways to encourage others and speak encouragingly to and about others, not tearing them down. What a great opportunity to alter our vocab, check what we think and say…
  4. May not come naturally but we can be naturally spirit-filled

We’re clearly not facing the same sorts of oppositions and adversity those in today’s scripture were, but we do, face opposition. Our morale is affected by people and voices around us, and society, and sadly even in the church

…we will all have a ‘Sanballat’ of some kind, which affects our ‘morale’

Let’s guard our hearts, and ward off unbiblical criticism that comes our way and, that we are tempted to engage with…


Prayer is our strategy

Strength of Community is our strategy

Guarding my spirit is my strategy

Confidence in God is my strategy


Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, thou knowest O God I am thine. The doctor who stood by to confirm Dietrich B’s death following his execution said this “I have hardly ever seen a man die so entirely submissive to the will of God”[4]

How could this be?…because he knew who he was in Christ, his identity was in Christ

Today is your opportunity to be sure and certain! God is reminding you today of who you are, in Him.

[1] The story of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 194

[2] See Eph. 4:15; 1 Cor. 13; Gal 5 (fruits)

[3] My Spirit…Houston

[4] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 203