This proverb might appear to present somewhat of a paradox at first reading. However, the wise man is counselling discernment in our response to the utterances of folly. Such discernment is clearly evident in the interactions of Nehemiah with his enemies.

Reading through the book of Nehemiah, one cannot help but be impressed with his calm and collected approach to the difficulties that arose, and his obvious ability to apply the principles of discernment taught in this proverb.

In chapter 2, Nehemiah had responded clearly and unequivocally to Sanballat, and yet, in chapter 4 he deems it appropriate to offer him complete silence, choosing instead, to take the matter directly to his God in prayer.  Nehemiah was a man of tremendous enthusiasm. He was organized and vigilant in the face of external threat and opposition, and yet, he was wholeheartedly a man of prayer with implicit faith and trust in his God. What a remarkable example this man presents to us—especially in the area of prayer. How ready are we to place the issues that arise in our lives completely in the hands of the Father?

It is important to note that as much as Nehemiah is a personal example to each of us, there was only one Nehemiah in Jerusalem. There were, however, many involved in building the wall. We may not find ourselves with the required leadership skills to be a Nehemiah, but we can certainly be workers, and what would Nehemiah have accomplished without willing workers?

Waning Strength

In verse 10 we read, “And Judah said, The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish; so that we are not able to build the wall”. It had been more than seventy years since Nebuchadnezzar had broken down the very wall Nehemiah was determined to rebuild. The ruthless Chaldeans had done their job thoroughly; wreckage and refuse lay scattered in seemingly bottomless heaps around the city and in the valleys below.

Initially undaunted, the people had set to work and slowly but surely the wall began to rise. And yet, sifting through the rubble and debris… day after long day, attempting to unearth appropriate material with which to carry on the work, the people became overwhelmed and discouraged at the enormity of their task.

The strength of the burden bearers began to decay. The initial zeal and enthusiasm began to wane… gloom and negativity set in… “we are not able to build the wall”.

The construction of the wall was coming to a halt and was in danger of not being completed. Had Nehemiah counted the cost of such a task? Had they all counted the cost of the task at hand? The Lord had warned of this very thing in Luke 14:28—“For which of you, intending to build a tower, sitteth not down first, and counteth the cost, whether he have sufficient to finish it? Lest haply, after he hath laid the foundation, and is not able to finish it, all that behold it begin to mock him, Saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish” (Luke 14).

The scoffers were still outside the walls, wanting the workers to give up… would they succeed?

Although the physical work was without a doubt hard, very tiring and seemingly endless, this was not the root of the problem. The decaying of their strength had begun earlier when Sanballat and his rabble realised that they were building the wall, and came with the aim to discourage, bombarding them with these questions: “What do these feeble Jews? will they fortify themselves? will they sacrifice? will they make an end in a day? will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?” (v2).

Tobiah had also mocked and railed on them: “Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall” (v3).

Initially it seems this hostility had given them a spirit of defiance and had driven them on, giving them all the more “a mind to work”. Sanballat and Tobiah had been shown to be the fools that they were and furthermore, Nehemiah, who didnʼt react but went to God in prayer, encouraged the people to continue with the work.

Probing Questions

As the days went on, however, the work got harder and Sanballatʼs probing questions would have begun to agitate their minds. “What do these feeble Jews?” they taunted as they struggled, hauling the large stones up the wall. The question in some of their minds may well have been, “That is a good question! What are we doing?”   His railing continued (v2).

“Will they fortify themselves?” There were now rumours entering the city of large opposition to the work… so even if they did finish it… what chance did they have of keeping the enemy at bay?

“Will they sacrifice?” As they looked across at the priests labouring also in the work, would God even accept their sacrifices?

“Will they make an end in a day?” The work although it was going ahead seemed endless; would they finish it?

“Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned?” It seemed now more and more difficult to find stones amongst the rubble. It felt as if all they were doing was moving rubbish, and what were they building anyway? Could a fox knock down their feeble efforts? After all, they werenʼt builders, they were a group of people from all sorts of backgrounds—shopkeepers, goldsmiths, perfumers, priests and women, were all among those building the wall… what sort of a wall was it going to be? What sort a wall could it be?  The decay which Sanballat had sown, grew in the minds of the burden bearers, and the ʻmind to workʼ they possessed in the beginning was being eaten away… their strength and motivation was dwindling!

And if they thought pressure couldnʼt have got worse, Sanballat was now back, this time with additional ʻthugsʼ. The Arabians, Ammonites and the Ashdodites had joined him, not at all pleased with the progress that was being made. The information they were getting from the outside indicated that they could expect an assault from them at anytime. Nehemiahʼs response again was to approach God in prayer and set a watch day and night (v4,5,9).

All the information the enemy was receiving came from the workers who were going to and from the city. Knowing the real state of their morale Sanballat, rather than precipitate an all-out attack on the city, decided to mingle with the flow of people and infiltrate Jerusalem subtly, picking the workers off one by one.

The danger had reached its climax and something dramatic had to be done to deal with Sanballatʼs latest threat, and more importantly, inspire and motivate the builders to complete the work they had begun.

Labouring Together

We are working as builders and laborers on a spiritual house. Could we ever get to a situation like this? The answer of course is yes. Building a spiritual house is not our usual occupation, it is something we have to work hard at. Initially there is a lot of enthusiasm and zeal to do so. When we first start we have a mind to work.

The new challenges that face us are exciting and we deal with them ʻhead onʼ. Of course, there are setbacks but we overcome them. When the opponents come (whether they be literal, or the man of the flesh that wars within) we ignore them, not letting their remarks phase us at all in our work, hoping that they will see our diligence in our labour and leave us.

However as the days wear on and the building of our spiritual house continues, we come to the realisation that we have no control over the time of completion. Although we may anticipate that the building is almost finished, doubt can cross the mind, and we may be tempted to abandon the work because it is all becoming too hard. Our Lord warned—“there shall come in the last days scoffers, walking after their own lusts, And saying, Where is the promise of his coming? for since the fathers fell asleep, all things continue as they were from the beginning of the creation” (2 Pet 3:3).

And as we struggle in our “feeble” efforts against the flesh, the thought can cross the mind that maybe we are not cut out for this work; after all it is so much easier to carry out that to which we are naturally inclined!

It is at this point that the Sanballat in our lives looms bigger than ever and seems to come back   much stronger than ever before, wanting to get through the defences and strike! We can get to stages like this and though it may not be so intense as the threat of Sanballat was, we may be in danger of falling victim to him. It is then that we need something or someone to really stir us up, as the people on the wall received at this point.

The threat had been perceived by Nehemiah and he acted upon it immediately. The families of the workers were brought in behind the walls, with their swords, spears and bows. Preparations were made for the confrontation. One of those perhaps whose strength was decaying would look around and see his wife, his sons and daughters. Looking further up the wall he would see his brethren with their families, and further around the wall yet more and more families….

On seeing this, he would realise that he had lost his focus. Whilst working on one small section of the wall and struggling to build it, he had lost sight of the bigger picture. His part of the wall was one small section. But it was important and it had to be built. As he looked around he would become conscious of the fact that he wasnʼt fighting for himself but for his family and his brethren who were also working on other parts of the wall!

So Nehemiah encouraged the people: “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” (v14).

Remember the Lord which is great and terrible. Yes, some may have forgotten, but those thoughts were now being brought to the forefront. God had indeed won many battles for Israel before and would surely do so again. The battle was, and always is Yahwehʼs if we allow Him to fight it for us!

With this extra motivation among the people, the gaps in the wall vanished, the people united in the battle; there was no way Sanballat could get into Jerusalem now; and so the work continued.

The workers no longer went to their homes at the end of the day, but stayed to build and pray and protect. The idea that the strength of the burden bearers had decayed proved to be a myth, because now in addition to the burdens that they were carrying, they carried swords, ready for any battle that might develop.

Nehemiah continued his encouragement—“The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another. In what place therefore ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us: our God shall fight for us” (v19). He intended, that when the trumpet sounded, all would come together and fight side by side in the sure knowledge that God was fighting with them.

So the work of building the wall continued, the decay was reversed, the strength and the motivation returned, and the labourers worked from the rising of the sun—until the stars appeared in the evening! In the same way we need to realise, that the battle is not ours, but the Fatherʼs and we are to place our trust in Him that He will fight for us and help us overcome. We, too, must labour until the people of God are able to shine as the stars in the firmament of heaven.

We need to realise that we are not alone; we are all building together. We all have a common enemy that needs to be overcome, and in fighting the battle against the flesh, we are not fighting just for ourselves but for our brethren and sisters. Let us make sure we do not fall and discourage them in the process. We also need to ensure that we have a sword on us at all times—the sword of the spirit; the word of God. As we build, should we find an enemy facing us, we need to alert those around us, and face the threat with them, united under the banner of our God. In the words of Paul: “What shall we then say to these things? If God be for us, who can be against us?” (Romans 8:31)

So let us count the cost… and build. Lift up the arms which hang down; look diligently lest any fail of the grace of God. Remember that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us. In the words of the Master, let us take heed and watch and pray (Mk 13:33).