Nehemiah 4
Pulpit Commentary
But it came to pass, that when Sanballat heard that we builded the wall, he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.
And he spake before his brethren and the army of Samaria, and said, 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?
Verse 2. - Before his brethren. By "his brethren" would seem to be meant his chief counsellors - probably Tobiah among them. The army of Samaria. Some understand by this a Persian garrison, stationed in Samaria under its own commander, with which Sanballat had influence (Ewald, 'History of Israel,' vol. 5. p. 153), but there is no real ground for such a supposition. Psalm 83, belongs probably to David's time; and as Samaria had doubtless its own native force of armed citizens, who were Sanballat's subjects, it is quite unnecessary to suppose that he addressed himself to any other "army" than this. The Persians would maintain a force in Damascus, but scarcely in Samaria; and Persian soldiers, had there been any in that city, would have been more likely to support a royal cupbearer than a petty governor with no influence at court. We can really only explain the disturbed state of things and approach to open hostility which appears in Nehemiah's narrative, by the weakness of Persia in these parts, and the consequent power of the native races to act pretty much as they pleased - even to the extent of making war one upon another. Will they fortify themselves? No other rendering is tenable. Ewald ('History of Israel,' vol. 3. p. 154, note 5)defends it successfully. Will they sacrifice? Will they make an end in a day? The meaning seems to be, "Will they begin and make an end in a day?" It is assumed that they will begin by offering a sacrifice to inaugurate their work. Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of the rubbish which are burned? Rather, "Will they revive the burnt stones (the stones that are burned) out of the heaps of the rubbish?" Will they do what is im-possible-solidify and make into real stone the calcined and crumbling blocks which are all that they will find in the heaps of rubbish? If not, how are they to procure material?
Now Tobiah the Ammonite was by him, and he said, Even that which they build, if a fox go up, he shall even break down their stone wall.
Verse 3. - Tobiah the Ammonite was by him. The presence of Tobiah on this occasion, before the alliance was made with the Ammonites (ver. 8), is a strong indication that his position was not one of independent authority, but of dependence upon Sanballat. There is nothing to show that he was more than a favourite slave of the Samaritan governor. A fox. Or, "a jackal," which would be more likely than a fox to stray over a ruined wall into a town.
Hear, O our God; for we are despised: and turn their reproach upon their own head, and give them for a prey in the land of captivity:
Verse 4. - Hear, O our God. Compare Ezra's parenthetic burst of thanksgiving (Ezra 7:27, 28). That which in Ezra was a sudden impulse has become a settled habit with Nehemiah (comp. Nehemiah 5:19; Nehemiah 6:9, 14; Nehemiah 13:14, 22, 29, 31). Turn their reproach upon their own head. The imprecations of Nehemiah are no pattern to Christians, any more than are those of the Psalmists (Psalm 69:22-28; Psalm 79:12; Psalm 109:6-20, etc.); but it cannot be denied that they are imprecations. Before men were taught to "love their enemies," and "bless those that cursed them" (Matthew 5:44), they gave vent to their natural feelings of anger and indignation by the utterance of maledictions. Nehemiah's spirit was hot and hasty; and as he records of himself (Nehemiah 13:25) that he "cursed" certain Jews who had taken foreign wives, so it is not to be wondered at that he uttered imprecations against his persistent enemies.
And cover not their iniquity, and let not their sin be blotted out from before thee: for they have provoked thee to anger before the builders.
Verse 5. - Cover not their iniquity, etc. Some of David's imprecations are very similar (Psalm 109:7, 14, 15, etc.), as also some of Jeremiah's (Jeremiah 18:23). They have provoked thee to anger before the builders. It is not as if they had merely "thought scorn" of thee, or insulted thee before one or two. They have uttered their insult publicly, so that it is known to the whole body of the builders. Therefore they deserve not to be forgiven.
So built we the wall; and all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof: for the people had a mind to work.
Verse 6. - So built we the wall. Rather, "and we (still) built the wall" Insults and gibes had no effect on us - did not touch us. Despite of them we steadily kept on our building, and the result was that soon all the wall was joined together unto the half thereof - the whole continuous line of wall was completed to half the contemplated height. For the people had a mind to work. Literally, "there was a heart to the people to work." They wrought, as we should say, "with a will"- they had their heart in the work. Insult and gibe rather stimulated than daunted them.

CHAPTER 4:7-23
But it came to pass, that when Sanballat, and Tobiah, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, and that the breaches began to be stopped, then they were very wroth,
Verse 7. - It came to pass, that when Sanballat, and Tobiah, at Samaria, and the Arabians, and the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites, in their respective residences, heard that the walls of Jerusalem were made up, or "that the (entire) wall of Jerusalem was of a (good) height," they were wroth. Observe that Tobiah is here quite separated from the nation of the Ammonites, and in no way represented as their leader. Jealousy of Jerusalem on the part of the Ammonites and Philistines is quite natural; and, if the Arabs are the Edomites, their opposition would be equally a matter of course (Psalm 137:7; Ezekiel 25:12; Amos 1:11; Obadiah 1:10, 14); but the Edomites are not called Arabs in Scripture, nor do Arabs appear very often among the enemies of the Jews. It has been suggested that the "Arabians" here mentioned are the descendants of a colony which Sargon planted in Samaria itself. This, of course, is possible; but they may perhaps have been one of the desert tribes, induced to come forward by the hope of plunder (Ewald), and influenced by the Ammonites, their neighbours.
And conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem, and to hinder it.
Verse 8. - To hinder it. Rather, "to do it hurt." The word used is a rare one. According to Gesenius, it has the two senses of "error" and "injury."
Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.
Verse 9. - We... set a watch against them day and night, because of them. Rather, "over against, them,". "opposite to them" - opposite, that m, to the point from which they were expected to make their attack.
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.
Verse 10. - The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed. The complaint seems to be, that by the drawing off of men from the working parties to act as guards, those parties were so weakened that they could not continue the work, the quantity of rubbish being so great.
And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst among them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease.
And it came to pass, that when the Jews which dwelt by them came, they said unto us ten times, From all places whence ye shall return unto us they will be upon you.
Verse 12. - If the text is sound, it can only mean that the Jews who dwelt in the outlying towns, in the neighbourhood of Ammon, Samaria, Ashdod, etc., came repeatedly to Jerusalem, and tried to draw off their contingents, saying to them, "You must return to us." But it is suspected that there is a corruption of the original words of Nehemiah, and that what he wrote was, that these Jews came repeatedly to Jerusalem and warned him of the enemy's designs. (So Ewald, Houbigant, Dathe, A. Clarke, and others. )
Therefore set I in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places, I even set the people after their families with their swords, their spears, and their bows.
Verse 13. - Then set I in the lower places behind the wall, and on the higher places. There is no and m the original. Nehemiah means that in the less elevated places, where the wall was least strong by nature, he had his men posted on conspicuous spots within the walls, where they could be seen from a distance, and so deterred the enemy from advancing. He drew them up after their families, that each man might feel he was fighting for his brethren, sons, etc. (ver. 14).
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.
Verse 14. - And I looked, and rose up, and said. A particular occasion seems to be spoken cf. The allies had joined their forces; the army was advancing; Nehemiah had obtained information of the quarter from which the attack was to be expected; he had posted his men (ver. 13); when he "looked, and rose up," and spoke, it was probably as the enemy was coming up to the attack; he then made this short but stirring appeal. That no conflict followed would seem to show, that "when the enemy approached, and saw from a distance the whole people awaiting them in perfect equipment, order, and spirit," they lost heart and "turned back" (Ewald, 'History of Israel,' vol. 5. p. 155). The Lord, which is great and terrible. See the comment on ch. 1:5.
And it came to pass, when our enemies heard that it was known unto us, and God had brought their counsel to nought, that we returned all of us to the wall, every one unto his work.
And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields, and the bows, and the habergeons; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah.
Verse 16. - The half of my servants wrought in the work. Nehemiah divided his "servants" or slaves into two bodies, one of which laboured at the wall, while the other kept guard, fully armed, and held the spears, bows and arrows, shields, and corselets of their fellows. The rulers were behind. The "rulers" or "princes" did not labour, but stood behind the labourers, directing them, and ready to lead them on if the enemy ventured to come to blows.
They which builded on the wall, and they that bare burdens, with those that laded, every one with one of his hands wrought in the work, and with the other hand held a weapon.
Verse 17. - And they which bare burdens, with those that laded. Rather, "both they which bare burdens, as they laded." The builders, or those engaged upon the work, are divided into two classes -

(1) actual builders, and

(2) those who carried the materials.

Of these, the latter did their work with one hand, while in their other hand they held a weapon; the former needed both hands for their employment, but even these wore swords in theft girdles.
For the builders, every one had his sword girded by his side, and so builded. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me.
Verse 18. - For the builders. Rather, "and the (actual) builders"- masons, bricklayers, and the like, as distinct from the bearers of burthens, or carriers of material. He that sounded the trumpet. The signalman. Trumpeters appear both in the Egyptian and the Assyrian sculptures (see 'Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 1. p. 539, second ed.; Wilkinson, 'Ancient Egyptians,' vol. 2. p. 260).
And I said unto the nobles, and to the rulers, and to the rest of the people, 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.
So we laboured in the work: and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared.
Verse 21. - So we laboured: and half of them held the spears. This is a summary of the main points previously related: "So we continued to work; and one-half of my personal followers continued to keep watch, and to hold the spears" (ver. 16). From the rising of the morning, etc. This is additional, and shows how early the work commenced each morning, and how late it continued.
Likewise at the same time said I unto the people, Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that in the night they may be a guard to us, and labour on the day.
Verse 22. - Every one, with his servant. The material condition of the people had much improved since the return under Zerubbabel. Then there was only one slave to every six Israelites (Ezra 2:64, 65); now every Israelite had his slave, and many no doubt a large number. Lodge within Jerusalem. i.e. "sleep" or "pass the night" there, instead of returning to their several villages or towns. That in the night they may be a guard to us. The very fact that they were in Jerusalem, and known to be there, would tend to prevent an attack; and if the enemy assaulted by night, they would be at hand, and able to take their part in guarding the work.
So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for washing.
Verse 23. - My brethren. Actual brothers probably. That Nehemiah had brothers appears from Nehemiah 1:2; that one of them, Hanani, had accompanied him to Jerusalem is evident from Nehemiah 7:2. My servants. See above, ver. 16. The men of the guard that followed me. As governor, Nehemiah would maintain a body-guard, in addition to his band of slaves. Saving that every one put them off for washing. So the Vulgate: "Unnsquisque tantum nudabatur ad baptismum;" but it is at least doubtful whether the Hebrew words can possibly have this meaning. The most natural and literal sense of them is that given by Maurer and Rambach - "Each man's weapon was his water;" the supposed connection of the clause with the preceding being, "No one took off his clothes," not even for the bath - no one bathed; "a man's only bath was his weapon." Some critics, however, defend the rendering of the A. V.; others take the words in the same way, but explain the term "water" differently, of a natural want (Ewald, Stanley); while many regard the text as unsound, and propose emendations. None, however, that has as yet been proposed is satisfactory.

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