Nehemiah 4 Study Notes
4:1-6 These verses in the Hebrew Bible are a continuation of chap. 3 (3:33-38).
4:1-3 The Nehemiah Memoir (see “Structure” in the Introduction to Ezra, p. 699) resumes again with the renewed opposition of Sanballat. He became furious and mocked the Jews. Mocked is a strong word (Hb la‘ag) that means “to jeer, to deride.” The first of his derisive rhetorical questions, Can they restore it by themselves? involves reading a rare (and debated) Hebrew verb (see note at 3:8). Another possibility is to accept a minor textual change (from Hb lahem, “to them,” to le’lohim, “to God”) and understand the question as, “Will they leave it all to God?” The meaning of the second question is also not certain: Will they offer sacrifices? Perhaps the sense was that the Jews would offer enough sacrifices to God to persuade him to help them rebuild the city. The jest regarding bringing back to life the burnt stones was a recognition that the Jewish people had no time to quarry new stones but had to make do with the rubble left over from the destruction of 586 BC.
4:4-5 The book of Nehemiah contains two lengthy prayers, one private (1:4-11) and one public (the prayer/confession of chap. 9). This is the first of seven brief prayers in which Nehemiah either petitions God’s help or asks God to take note of his efforts to fulfill God’s purposes for his people (5:19; 6:9,14; 13:14,22). The sentiment here is that of the imprecatory prayers of the Psalms that calls for God’s judgments on the enemy (Pss 69; 83; 137; 139). While such a prayer seems out of place in light of Jesus’s teaching (Mt 5:43-47), it must be remembered that Nehemiah was writing before the cross in the context of the old covenant. While we cannot pray a prayer like Nehemiah’s, we can emulate his passion for God to bring justice to an unjust world.
4:6 The effect of the prayer of dependence on God was the completion of the task.
4:7-9 After Sanballat and his allies failed to discourage Nehemiah and the people, they virtually surrounded Jerusalem. Sanballat led the force from Samaria, north of Jerusalem, while Tobiah and the Ammonites were east of Jerusalem. The Arabs, probably led by Geshem (2:19), were south/southeast of Jerusalem, with the Ashdodites, from the former region of Philistia, southwest of Jerusalem. The response of those in Jerusalem reflected their trust in God as well as their understanding that faith did not preclude action but demanded it (v. 9).
4:10 Nehemiah’s problems were internal as well as external. Whether the slogan in this verse was an oft-repeated jingle or a song sung by the workers, it clearly reflected the discouragement and pessimism within the city.
4:11-12 Another possible translation of the second half of v. 12 is, “they said to us repeatedly from all [their] places, ‘You must return to us,’” suggesting that the Jewish people outside Jerusalem were encouraging the workers from their towns laboring in Jerusalem to leave before the city was attacked.
4:13-14 Nehemiah’s skill as a leader is exemplified in these verses. Although enemies surrounded him and the people were discouraged, he took action.
4:15-17 As the work resumed, Nehemiah took precautions against a surprise attack. He divided the group he called my men (Hb ne‘aray; lit “my youths”), which may have been a militia that supported Nehemiah’s role as governor. Half of them joined in the work while the other half were on guard duty.
4:18-22 Because the defenders were spread so thinly around the city, Nehemiah had the trumpeter beside him, so they could concentrate their forces quickly in case of attack. Having everyone spend the night inside Jerusalem not only bolstered the defenses of the city but also kept the discouraged or the fearful from deserting during the night.
4:23 Nehemiah and his military entourage set the example for diligence in the face of danger: [we] never took off our clothes. Another possibility for understanding the final phrase of the verse is to read the last word of the Hebrew text (hammayim, “the water”) as “the right hand” (Hb hayyamin), making the phrase, “each his weapon in his right hand.” Nehemiah and his people in this chapter exemplify the Benedictine credo, (Lat) ora et labora (“pray and work”). They sought God’s blessing and his protection while working with the strength he gave them to accomplish the task for which they prayed.