By Shelley Neese

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Welcome to Bible Fiber. I am Shelley Neese, president of The Jerusalem Connection, a Christian organization devoted to sharing the story of the people of Israel, both ancient and modern. This week we are studying Nehemiah 6.

The city wall was almost complete. All that remained was setting the doors in the gateways. With the window of intervention closing, Judah’s local enemies kicked their opposition campaign into overdrive. This time around, they focused all their efforts on Nehemiah. Chapter 6 is a record of the various intimidation tactics they brought against him. As the visionary and leader of the wall project, he had a target on his back.

In earlier stages, the local opposition mocked the workers and insulted their craftsmanship to try and kill the morale (4:1-4). When that did not work, they threatened to knock off individual workers as soon as they let their guard down (4:8,11). With Nehemiah’s constant encouragement, the scared and tired workers refused to quit. Nehemiah, as governor, was at the forefront, reminding them, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord who is great and awesome and fight for your kin” (4:14). Nehemiah’s habit of regular and spontaneous prayer sustained them spiritually. With intimidation and opposition coming at them from every angle, Nehemiah asks God to “strengthen my hands” (6:9).

At the head of the enemy alliance were the same three haters from previous chapters: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. While Nehemiah worked on the wall, they sent him a letter asking for a meetup “in one of the villages in the plain of Ono” (6:2). The plain of Ono was a day’s journey from Jerusalem. At the very least, Nehemiah was not willing to leave the jobsite for several days when they were right at the cusp of finishing. He refused to attend on those grounds saying, “Why should the work stop while I leave it to come down to you?” (6:3). It was no time for diversions.

Perhaps, however, the coalition of the angry had more in mind than merely stifling the wall’s progress. The specificity of the proposed location was reason enough to cause alarm. On the practical side, it was in between Judah and Samaria so a logical place to meet if each party was looking to reduce their travel time.

But the plain of Ono was outside of the Judean province and therefore outside of Nehemiah’s security zone. Nehemiah perceived their violent plans, stating plainly, “they intended to do me harm” (6:2).

You might be wondering, why did the local enemies not attack the city walls? As subjects of the empire, they had no other choice but to honor the imperial permission granted to Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem’s fortifications. They could not launch an attack on any fellow Persian province. With their hands tied and unable to launch an actual assault, they resorted to subversive schemes.

The enemies wrote three more letters to Nehemiah asking for a meeting. The text does not describe how Sanballat altered the proposal but presumably he did not make the exact same suggestion all four times. Whatever the content, Nehemiah responded “in the same manner” each time (6:4). He repeatedly shot back, “Why should I?”

Eventually, Sanballat changed strategies. He left his fifth letter to Nehemiah unsealed. Normally, the custom in the ancient Near East was to seal correspondence with a clay bulla, ensuring that the intended recipient was the first to break the seal. Sanballat left the letter unsealed intending for the letter carriers to read its contents. Letter carriers, not made of stone, would tell others about Sanballat’s accusations. Sanballat was relying on the rumor mill to circulate his anti-Nehemiah propaganda, hoping the rumors of revolt would reach the local Persian authorities.

The letter charged Nehemiah with various decrees of treachery, asserting that the Jews “intend to rebel” against the Persian empire (6:6). Rumors of rebellion was one of the locals’ repeated tactics to stop the returnees (Ezra 4). Samarian officials knew that Nehemiah had permission to rebuild the wall. Their only hope of the king withdrawing his permission was if they could stir up doubts about Nehemiah’s real intentions. Since Nehemiah had been Artaxerxes trusted cupbearer, they had to work hard to discredit him.

Sanballat’s letter read, “You have also set up prophets to proclaim in Jerusalem concerning you, ‘There is a king in Judah’” (6:7). An unsealed letter filled with lies was the ancient version of a political attack ad.

Nehemiah flat rejected the accusation that he was preparing to take the throne of Judah. He tells Sanballat “you are inventing them out of your own mind” (6:8). The Persian empire forbid local authorities from taking the title of king. While the empire tolerated traditional religions and encouraged local law codes, they did not recognize rivals to the Persian throne.

If Nehemiah had declared himself as king, it would have been like signing his death sentence. However, it is important to point out that while Nehemiah denied Sanballat’s charge that he was trying to take the throne, he did not deny Judah’s long-range goal to restore the royal house of David.

According to Jewish tradition, the king of Judah had to be a descendant of King David. Nehemiah was not in the Davidic line and therefore not a royal candidate. Zerubbabel had been the only descendant of David to take on a leadership role in the remnant. Zerubbabel was leader over the first wave of returnees, charged with laying the foundation of the second temple (Ezra 3:2; Zech. 4:9). The prophets harbored high hopes that Zerubbabel was God’s chosen. Haggai envisioned Zerubbabel taking the signet ring of God (Hag. 2:21-33). In Zechariah’s visions, Zerubbabel was elevated above the mountains (Zech. 4:7). And then suddenly, Zerubbabel vanished from the biblical record without explanation.

Most likely, there were members of the community who admired Nehemiah and yearned for him to transition from governor to king, as one step forward in their path toward independence. They may have been willing to forego the Davidic requirement. With the temple rebuilt and the city walls near completion, a Judean king was an unchecked box on the list of restoration promises.

We do not know the power relationships between the leaders in the postexilic community. With the full restoration of Israel still on the horizon, readers can feel the angst of that middle ground in the Ezra and Nehemiah narratives. Both reformers fulfilled their duty as leaders, surely aware of the underlying question of how long they could last without a king. The Ezra and Nehemiah narratives avoided the subject of king and instead narrated the things only in their control. Judging from the accusation of Sanballat in his open letter, talk of restoring the Davidic throne lingered.

Sanballat and his cronies eventually realized, after five failed attempts, that Nehemiah was never going to leave his work and risk meeting with them on their terms. Even if the rumors of sedition did eventually reach King Artaxerxes’s ears, the king trusted Nehemiah too much to believe he had ulterior motives.

Tobiah’s bitterness toward Nehemiah had generational roots. In the genealogical record of the first wave of returnees in the time of Cyrus, the Tobiah family was listed among the immigrants who were unable to prove their Israelite heritage (7:61-62). Apparently, the Tobiah family stayed in the land anyway, living as outsiders. At some point, they managed to reinfiltrate the Judean community via intermarriage.

Chapter 6 includes a postscript explaining Tobiah’s many family connections within Judah. The explanation for his influence in the community is important in understanding the chapter’s last scene at the house of Shemaiah. Tobiah was at one point called an Ammonite but his Yahwistic name indicated he also identified as Jewish (2:10). The postscript explained that Tobiah’s wife and his daughter-in-law were Jewish. Through marriage, “many in Judah were bound by oath to him,” eager to take his side over Nehemiah (6:18). When Sanballat’s maneuvers failed to make Nehemiah budge, Tobiah was better positioned to pull strings with his network of internal informants that included higher-ups, prophets, and priests (6:12; 13:4-8).

Nehemiah went to the house of Shemaiah, a priest and supposed prophet, believing Shemaiah had a word from the Lord. Shemaiah was apparently in confinement although the narrative gave no reason for his isolation. Shemaiah, a double agent working for Sanballat and Tobiah, faked concern over Nehemiah’s safety. Trying to speak in the repetitive cadence of the prophets, Shemaiah warned him, “they are coming to kill you; indeed, tonight they are coming to kill you” (6:10). His proposed escape plan was for Nehemiah to hide within the safety of the temple with the doors closed.

Ever prudent and discerning, Nehemiah saw through the false oracle threatening his assassination. He recognized the temple offer as a sneaky means of discrediting him as the Judean governor. Nehemiah’s refusal to take refuge in the temple was twofold. He was not the kind of leader who abandoned his people to protect his own skin. He asks, “Should a man like me run away?” (6:11). At every turn, the local enemies were trying to pull Nehemiah away from the wall project.

The second part to Nehemiah’s refusal is that he knew Jewish laws and put his respect for the temple’s sanctity over his own security. Only priests lawfully entered the temple (1 Chron. 24:19). The punishment for a layperson who entered the sanctuary was death (Num. 18:7). If Nehemiah disregarded the temple laws, he would jeopardize his reputation as an upstanding Jewish governor. Nehemiah interpreted Shemaiah’s motives, accusing him of trying to “make me sin by acting this way, and so they could give me a bad name” (6:13). Such an act would have driven a wedge between Nehemiah and the priesthood.

The postexilic community took false prophecy seriously, but it was still an issue after the exile. Zechariah warned the remnant of the poisonous effect of false prophets. He described a hypothetical scenario of a false prophet spreading lies to the point that his own parents had to kill him (Zech. 13:2-6). After reading Zechariah, one has a vague sense about the spiritual problems in the restored community, but it is all interpreted through spiritualized prophetic language. On the contrary, Nehemiah’s telling of the troubles with false prophets is refreshingly pragmatic and gives all the drama and detail. He named the bad actors and exposed their motivation.

Working alongside Shemaiah was the false prophetess Noadiah (6:14). In the preexilic period, good prophetesses ministered to the community, like Miriam, Deborah, and Huldah. The naming of a false prophetess at least points to the continuation of the office in both male and female spokespeople.

True to character, Nehemiah left vindication in God’s hands, praying that God would remember the false prophets for hire “according to these things that they did” (6:14).

In 445 BCE, the wall of Jerusalem was complete with the placing of the doors in the gateways. The entirety of the fortification project took only 52 days! Opposition threatened the project at every point along the way, but Nehemiah and his workers moved past every obstacle, refusing to let the work stop or even stall. Judah’s enemies “were afraid and lost their self-confidence” when they heard news of the completed wall (6:16). Nehemiah says, “they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God” (6:16).

The locals were having a moment. They knew they had witnessed a divine hand at work in the world, and they realized they had been working against the divine will. After all their efforts to intimidate and frighten the wall workers, their plan backfired and they were the frightened ones. Nehemiah clearly had supernatural protection. Sanballat and Tobiah threw every form of deterrence his way but he was unscathed. At every phase of their scheming, their goal had been to discredit Nehemiah. If they had succeeded in pulling him away from the wall building, the exhausted workers would have lost respect for their tireless leader. If Nehemiah had broken the laws and hid in the temple, he would have hurt his relationship with the priests. But Nehemiah persevered, perseverance being the overarching theme of the entire book.