The Unseen Enemy
Doing a Great Work for God
And I looked, and rose up, and said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, Be not ye afraid of them: remember the Lord, which is great and terrible, and fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses.
Perhaps the central theme running through Nehemiah chapter 4 has been the various foes opposing the building of the walls. The chapter began with the opposition from the enemies of the Jews led by Sanballat and Tobiah. In the last lesson we saw that the rubbish was hindering the work. In the text for this lesson, we shall find yet another enemy to God's work and one that is not only invisible but also nonphysical.
In verse 11 we read of the plans by the enemies of the Jews for a surprise attack, but was this really their plan? The next verse is a particularly difficult one to understand as evidenced by the number of different interpretations you may find by various commentators. When faced with such difficulties, we must rely upon the context of the passage, which in this case makes the meaning quite clear. First we may notice that certain Jews which dwelt near their adversaries must have come to Jerusalem with news for Nehemiah. Whatever this news was, it caused Nehemiah to prepare the people for battle, and it caused the plans of the enemy to come to nothing. Clearly the message brought by these Jews had something to do with the pending surprise attack by the adversaries. Remember that Jerusalem was basically surrounded by these enemies and therefore they could attack from just about any direction.
The remaining difficulty is whether the "they" in "they said unto us" refers to these Jews or to their adversaries. It hardly seems likely that the Jews would have had to tell Nehemiah "ten times" that the enemy was mounting a sneak attack before he finally acted. In addition, the last pronoun used before the "they" is "them" and clearly refers to the enemy. Therefore, the "they" must be the adversaries. This means that the enemy was the one that told their Jewish neighbors about the plans for a surprise attack. Now why would they do this? This sheds some very interesting light on the situation because it reveals the true plan of these adversaries. Back in verse 8 we are told that they had "conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem", but why had they not done it yet? Why would they have told the Jews that dwelt near them their secret plans? Perhaps their "counsel" was not to actually attack, but rather to strike fear in the hearts of the Jews.
This plan had some temporary results and would probably have worked had it not been for
Nehemiah. He gathered the people together in verse 14 with the message, "Don't be
afraid of them". Afterwards, the people returned to the work, and the enemy found
that their plan had been foiled. So, who was the true enemy in this passage? Fear - the
unseen enemy. The work ceased for some short duration because of fear; the strategy of the
enemy had been to use fear; and Nehemiah preached against fear. The great lesson for us in
this passage is to not give in to fear because it can hinder our great work for God.
Before we look further into what Nehemiah had to say about fear, let us lay some groundwork by considering these truths:
1. The Unholy Fear
Is fear always sinful?
There is a form of fear that is proper and good. It is spoken of in the Old Testament, "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge" (Proverbs 1:7), as well as the New, "perfecting holiness in the fear of God" (2 Corinthians 7:1). This kind of fear is not the result of dread, but comes from respect and reverence, and breeds caution and wisdom. It is the kind of fear we teach our children concerning a hot stove, and the fear that God requires us to have of Him (Deuteronomy 10:12, Ecclesiastes 12:13).
When Nehemiah told the workers not to be afraid, he was not talking about the fear of God. No, there is another kind of fear which is not holy. It is a fear of what may happen to us if we follow God's commandments, as the children of Israel feared for their lives when Pharaoh's army drew nigh (Exodus 14:10). It is a fear that the promises of God will not come true, as the children of Israel were afraid to enter the promised land (Numbers 14:9). It is a fear that the will of God will not satisfy us, as some of the children of Israel were afraid that the commanded amount of manna would not be enough and so they gathered more (Exodus 16:16-20). Ultimately, this unholy fear is unbelief or lack of trust in the character and nature of God. How sad that we should have this kind of fear.
2. The Unknown in Fear
It is interesting that the object of unholy fear hardly ever comes to pass. Fear is False Evidence Appearing Real (Zig Ziglar). Pharaoh's army did not destroy Israel; Israel could have easily inherited Canaan, and the daily allotment of manna was sufficient. How often have we missed out on God's promises or doubted Him over figments of our imaginations?
3. The Universality of Fear
Unholy fear is inherited through our sin nature, and is present in even the greatest men and heroes of the faith. God had to tell men like Moses, Joshua, John, and Paul not to be afraid. We find this fear in Abraham when he lied about Sarah being his wife, Elijah when he ran from Jezebel, and Peter when he denied the Lord. Since it is part of the nature that is ever present with us, it is critical that we do not let it have dominion over us. Our reaction to fear is perhaps more important since we cannot eradicate it altogether from out lives.
4. The Use of Fear
Between 1875 and 1883, Black Bart robbed 29 different stagecoach crews without firing a single shot. For him, fear was a better weapon than his gun. Satan knows well that fear can cause man to sin, and he uses it often. Satan is likened to a "roaring lion" (1 Peter 5:8). What does the roar of a lion cause in those he is pursuing? It ought to anger us just to realize that our enemy often gets the victory just because we were afraid.
5. The Uncontrollability of Fear
One last point that we should remember: Fear is contagious. We can see from our text
that the adversaries did not have to tell all of the Jews that they were planning an
attack. They only had to tell those who were dwelling nearby, and they ended up spreading
it in Jerusalem. Had Nehemiah not been there to stem the tide, the walls may have been
abandoned. You need to keep your fears to yourself lest they infect others and cause an
epidemic in the church.
Having established some facts about this unseen enemy that we must battle, let us examine Nehemiah's message, "Be not ye afraid of them", for the keys to victory.
In our text, the very first thing Nehemiah told his people was "remember the Lord, which is great and terrible". How fitting that one of the best ways to not give in to fear is simply to remember God. We tend to maximize that which we are afraid of and minimize God, and this causes our fear to get the best of us. Hudson Taylor once said, "How often do we attempt work for God to the limit of our incompetency rather than to the limit of God's omnipotency." We get our eyes focused on the great host that compasses us when we need to see that "they that be with us are more than they that be with them" (2 Kings 6:15-17). We need to remember as Hudson Taylor also said, "We are asked to do an impossible task, but we work with Him who can do the impossible." If we only would remember what kind of God we serve, what could we fear?
According to Romans 1:17, "the just shall live by faith"; that is, "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Hebrews 11:1). This means our lives should not be guided by what we see and feel, but rather, all should be based on who God is and the way He says things are. We can overcome fear by refusing to believe what our eyes and ears tell us and instead, relying on what the Master of the Universe says. When you feel afraid, remember God and what it means to be God!
The next thing that Nehemiah told the Jews was "fight for your brethren, your sons, and your daughters, your wives, and your houses". This was a call for courage.
Can courage exist without fear?
Courage is acting even though we are afraid to. Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway (John Wayne). To combat fear, we just need to look at the worst that could happen to us and say, "If I perish, I perish". Like Jonathan, we just need to have the courage to get in the battle regardless of the outcome (1 Samuel 14:8-10). Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego we need to have the courage to say, "If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, but if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up" (Daniel 3:17-18). Through courage we can resist and master unholy fear.
Finally, notice that Nehemiah's message would have had no effect if the people had not been there to hear it. We can overcome fear by simply listening to preaching. Paul said, "faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Romans 10:17). Hearing about God through preaching or reading the Bible will help us to remember Him in the time of fear. Reading about the courage of others through the Bible or good Christian biographies will help inspire us to share that same courage and fight!
Only a few months after arriving in China, missionary Jonathan Goforth had an
experienced missionary give him some advice that would go unheeded. This person told him,
"Do not attempt to speak of Jesus the first time when preaching to a heathen
audience. The Chinese have a prejudice against the name Jesus. Confine your efforts to
demolishing the false gods and if you have a second opportunity you may bring in
Jesus." When Bro. Goforth shared this with his wife, he said "Never, Never!,
NEVER! The Gospel which saved the down and outs in the slums of Toronto, is the same
Gospel which must save Chinese sinners." (Men of Faith: Jonathan Goforth, Rosalind
Goforth, Bethany House Publishers, 1986). As Christians, we need to stand up against our
fears, the unseen enemy, and say, "Never, Never!, NEVER!"