When the Haters Hate
Series: Nehemiah: Rebuilding Together
We’ve all probably heard the saying, “Haters gon’ hate.” Anything you do, there will be someone who doesn’t like it. Building up Jesus’ church is no different. In this passage, we learn how to keep going even when the haters hate.
Ezra and Nehemiah (Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries), Derek Kidner
One of the sage pieces of advice of our age is the saying, “Haters gon’ hate.” The idea of it is there are certain things you want to do in life, and no matter what they are, somebody’s not going to like it. If you spend your whole life trying to satisfy the haters, that’s what you’ll end up spending your life on, instead of the things you actually want to be doing. So you gotta accept it: “Haters gon’ hate,” and move on. Well we’re preaching through the book of Nehemiah, and they’ve just begun a project to rebuild the city of Jerusalem, which in the ancient world meant rebuilding the wall, and what do you know? Today we’ll see that they faced some haters. We’re also called by God into a project of rebuilding: Rebuilding His people by building up His church, and in a season as a church now where much of what we were used to doing was interrupted over the past year. As we rebuild, we too should realize, haters are gonna hate. So Keep rebuilding when opposed, and Nehemiah shows us three ways how: Talk to God, Remember God, and stay on guard.
Talk to God
Our passage begins with Sanballat, who we met last week. He was a high-ranking official in the province Beyond the River under Persia, which included Jerusalem, and wasn’t so into the idea of the Jewish people rebuilding their city. Now the work had actually begun, and Sanballat is livid. He responds by insulting the Jews along with his sidekick Tobiah, specifically with insults making the work seem crazy and impossible. We hear such things from our world today. People tell us, in more words or less, that we are going to end up on the wrong side of history. And of course, there are the hopeless taunts Satan himself loves to plant in our minds: “Your church is never going to grow,” “The gospel isn’t really anything special. You have to believe it I guess, but nobody else would really like it if they understood it. Don’t both trying to share it.” “Ugh; I guess you could serve others in your church, but it really will be a lot of work. It probably won’t do any good anyway.” “You’re always going to give in to that sin. Don’t bother fighting it.”
And how often are we passive listeners in this process? Don’t just let that stuff become the background noise of your life. Talk back! Talk, specifically to God. That’s what Nehemiah does next, starting in verse 4. He asks God to hear the taunts of his enemies. He wants God to notice what is happening. When you feel belittled for your faith, it’s easy to feel all alone. Ask God to hear. Then he asks God to turn back their taunt on their own heads and give them up to be plundered in a land where they are captives. He prays specifically that God would not cover their guilt, and let not their sin be blotted out from his sight.
Perhaps that is a bit jarring to you; why is Nehemiah praying for God to punish them and have no mercy on them? Isn’t that a bit vengeful? Well, the first thing to notice is that Nehemiah does not feel free to execute this vengeance on them himself. He does not insult them back. It’s also worth noting that Nehemiah is not merely a private individual. He is interceding on behalf of the nation of Israel, a nation in covenant with God. They aren’t just jeering at Nehemiah; they’re jeering at the Jews, God’s people. If someone is bullying one of your kids, your kids will rightly expect you to not be cool with that. So Nehemiah asks God, “God, don’t be cool with this.”
Love does not mean we ask God to be cool with everything. Love does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. It is right and good that when we see evil, when see injustice, we desire for justice to be restored, for evil to be judged. Nehemiah has that desire, but instead of taking it into his own hands, he takes it to God and asks him to execute justice on the evildoers. Can you see how much we need that right now? Think about how we process persecution today as Christians in America: There are some Christians who totally deny it: “We’re not persecuted; get over it guys,” but even though at this point Nehemiah is just facing verbal insults, he doesn’t minimize it. Words have power. But then you have Christians who feel so persecuted that they blast anyone who disagrees with them. Nehemiah does neither. So also, when you are opposed, when you feel your faith being insulted or belittled, don’t minimize it, but talk to God about it. Ask Him to oppose your opponents, insofar as they are also acting as His opponents, as Nehemiah’s were here. If you’re being opposed for being a jerk, that’s on you. But if you’re facing opposition for following Christ, that’s on God. You can keep following Christ when opposed though by talking to God about your opposition and asking Him for justice. What taunts are you hearing that you need to talk to God about? Don’t just listen; talk to God. Nehemiah does, and then verse 6 tells us they kept right on building, getting the wall up to half its height.
But haters still gon’ hate, and it begins to discourage the people, such that they need to not only talk to God, but remember God. That’s the second way to keep rebuilding when facing opposition that we’ll talk about.
So once again in verse 7 Sanballat and Tobiah do their thing and get angry, only now it escalates from insults to a violent plot. Nehemiah says in verse 9 that they prayed, so there is talking to God again, and set a guard in response, and the rest of the passage unpacks that for us in a bit more detail. Verse 10 gives us a window into the condition of the workers: The strength of those who carried supplies was failing. They saw all the rubble, and began to feel like the insults had suggested: They will not be able to rebuild the wall by themselves. And we feel this too, right? We don’t just struggle with the opposition from outside: We get tired. We see the greatness of a mission to make disciples of all nations for the glory of God, but then feel like we have a hard enough time being disciples ourselves or making disciples of our neighborhood, let alone the nations. And our world today especially promotes the assumption that if I’m tired, if something is hard, I probably shouldn’t be doing it. I probably need a break, or to quit entirely.
And rest is good and God-honoring; don’t get me wrong. Nehemiah wasn’t working these guys 24/7; he’d be violating the 4th commandments to honor the Sabbath if he did. Even here verse 13 seems to suggest they stopped building for a bit to defend themselves from an imminent threat, and we’ll talk about that soon. But Nehemiah doesn’t assume that because they’re tired and discouraged they should stop building the wall. We already have plenty of reasons to give up; Satan makes sure of that, but we can never have too much encouragement to press on. We can never be too reminded of God. You ever met someone like that? “Hey how you doing?” “Oh I don’t know; I’m just thinking of God way too much these days. I’m far too encouraged.” Yeah; didn’t think so. So Nehemiah says in verse 14: Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes. Later, in verse 20, Nehemiah reminds them: “Our God will fight for us.”
So remember God today and when you are feeling the opposition and fatigue. The opposition is real, the fatigue is real, but God is real. As great and awesome as the opposition is, it’s never as great or awesome as your great and awesome God. They cannot do a single thing to you apart from Him. It kinda feels today like the governments, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Apple, universities, and television run the world, but they don’t. God does. And when you look at the work of even just praying for one fellow church member, reaching even one neighbor who doesn’t know Christ, planting just one church in a city like Philadelphia, putting to death one sin, let alone the work of making disciples of all nations for the glory of God, the task seems too great and too awesome for us. And it is. And that’s why you need to remember the great and awesome God. Nothing is too great or too awesome for Him, and He will fight for us.
Nehemiah goes further though. Part of remembering God is not only remembering Him: It’s also remembering His people. So Nehemiah in verse 14, after he tells them to remember God, he tells them: Fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes. So also when we are rebuilding the church and feeling opposed and weary, remember God’s people. These are the people God loves, who He obtained with His own blood. If you’re working directly to minister to other people, that will get tiring at times, but consider the value of what you are giving yourself to. That’s an image of God, and in the case of a fellow church member, a brother or sister, who Jesus loved enough to purchase with His own blood. And that’s also important to keep in mind when the work you are doing to rebuild is less obviously “people work.” We have some people learning how to run a live stream right now, and it’s not easy. They aren’t professional videographers. But remember, there are people at home who actually want to gather with us for worship but for various reasons feel like they can’t. Your work enables them to still hear the same sermon content those of us who gather are hearing, to be encouraged, to sing God’s praises, and to be led in prayer. Remember God’s people.
Talk to God, but also talk to one another. When you see people weary and afraid, definitely take the appropriate time to listen to them, but at some point, remind them of God and His people, not to beat them down, but to encourage them. Remember God today, and finally, stay on guard.
Stay on guard
With only what I’ve said so far, a misconception is possible. We’re facing opposition; what do we do? We pray, we remember God, and we keep right on building. God will fight for us, after all. That’s actually not what Nehemiah does. When he learns of the plot, he doesn’t give up building, but he does change how they’re building. So back in verse 9 we read that they prayed to their God and set a guard as a protection against them day and night. In verse 13 we read that in open places Nehemiah stationed people by their clans, with their swords, their spears, and their bows. That’s where it seems the threat was imminent enough that they stopped building for a bit, until in verse 15 we read that the enemies backed off and they returned to the wall, each to his work, only from that day on, half of the servants worked while the other half held the heavier artillery: Spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. The passage goes on to tell us that even those who worked were armed while they did it. If you carried things, you carried with one hand and held a weapon in the other. If you built, you kept your sword strapped to your side. And as the passage ends, we read that they even slept armed.
Trusting that God will fight for us doesn’t mean we don’t fight; it’s what motivates us to fight! Because we know we are going to win, we are ready for battle! There are stories in the Bible of God defeating another army by sending a plague on them or making them turn their swords against one another, but the ordinary way God gives His people victory in battle is through their fighting. So Nehemiah makes sure the people have their weapons and stay on guard. Now that kind of idea is one that can be hard for us today, kinda like how Nehemiah praying for God to judge his enemies rubs us wrong at first. We even use the word “defensive” negatively: “He seemed very defensive; oh don’t be so defensive.” Ideas of openness, tolerance, and inclusion have much more positive connotations today than “staying on guard.” Part of the American dream even is that we can just be safe and free to pursue life, liberty, and happiness, without having to constantly worry about the enemy at the gates.
Of course, this is not all bad. Humanity was created for peace and rest. Though God worked hard to create the earth in 6 days, however long you take those days to be, the culmination of it all was His Sabbath Rest on the 7th day. But early on in the Bible’s story, we are brought into a conflict. One of God’s creatures, taking the form of a serpent, opposed Him, and tried to get God’s people to join him. Tragically, they did. So God cursed them and the serpent, but instead of simply giving them over to the serpent’s side, God said He was going to put enmity between the offspring of the serpent and the offspring of the woman. Since Genesis 3, we’ve been inescapably involved in a conflict between God and the serpent, who we later find out was a spiritual being using the form of a serpent, a spiritual being named Satan, who rebelled against God and enticed the first humans to join him. There were then those who were allied with Satan, and they have always opposed those allied with God. Now we see the conflict in Nehemiah again as God’s enemies plot an attack against God’s people. As long as that conflict remains, we cannot let down our guard.
But the conflict reached its climax when the promised Son of the woman came to earth. When the King of his day, Herod, heard of his birth, he wanted to kill him so badly that he killed all the firstborn children of Israel in an attempt to do so. But God preserved the life of this child, and He grew up to be a great warrior, only not the kind we might expect. He went to demon-possessed people. If there’s anyone who’s definitely on Satan’s side, it’s those who one of his demons literally controls. But instead of killing such people, He drove the demons out of them. And He didn’t use a sword to do that; He used the powerful words of His mouth. With that same weapon He proclaimed a kingdom not of this world, and when one of his disciples tried to advance His kingdom with the sword, He told him to put it away. In the end the battle got so intense that He was nailed to a cross, only who were the ones driving the nails? It was the Israelites, God’s people. At the cross we see that all of us were by nature enemies of God, but even as we were nailing Him to the cross, instead of killing us, He died for us. If you want to see how our God fights, look at the cross. He came to do battle not with us, but with the archenemy, so that He could deliver us from our bondage to Him and bring us once again to peace with God.
And on the cross the enemy threw the worst he could at Him, but in doing so, only accomplished the purpose of God, whereby Christ atoned for the sins of God’s people and brought them back to God. As the great 4th century preacher John Chrysostom put it, “Hell took a body, and discovered God. It took earth, and encountered Heaven. It took what it saw, and was overcome by what it did not see.” This victory was complete when Christ rose from the dead in our flesh, incapable of dying again. Whoever hears His Word now and believes in Him is rescued from the dominion of Satan, given peace with God, and given a new power, the power of Jesus’ Spirit, to fight against sin and the devil until the conflict reaches its consummate end, when Jesus returns and casts God’s archenemy into the lake of fire.
Until then, though Satan is defeated, he’s running around like a snake with its head cut off…mortally wounded, but going crazy. And until you turn from him and submit to Jesus, you are still on his side. There are plenty of nice, moral people who are still, in their hearts, at war with Jesus. If that’s you, why keep up the fight? Do you see though He had every right to kill you, He died to save people like you? And if you have been reconciled to Him, do you see how that might change your prayers, even from Nehemiah’s? Nehemiah prayed for God’s judgment on God’s enemies when they taunted him; that was all he could do. But Jesus is greater than Nehemiah. He didn’t pray for our judgment; He took our judgment, and prayed for our forgiveness. Now we can pray not only for God to judge our opponents; we can pray for God to save our opponents, because we realize we were once His opponents too!
And now we fight not with the sword at our side but with the sword of God’s Word. We fight the way our leader did, with self-sacrifice, giving ourselves so that God’s enemies might hear God’s Word and become God’s friends. That Word is such good news that it must be defended. If we really go for this, if we try to gather to offer God acceptable worship, if we start really getting into each other’s lives enough that we’re helping one another put sin to death and loving one another in ways that attract the world, if we’re fervent in prayer, if we’re announcing this good news to people over whom Satan currently holds sway, he is going to rage against us. He will accuse us, lie to us, send false teaching among us, discourage us, divide us, seduce us into thinking sin is no big deal and actually pretty fun, and a host of other schemes. And they will all be in vain. He’s already lost, and what a sore loser he is. Encourage one another with these words. Remind one another of Christ’s victory. Speak the truth of God’s Word over Satan’s insults. Let’s keep building and stay on guard until Jesus returns to finish the job.