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"Sanballat and Tobiah"

(Nehemiah 2:10)

by

Kevin L. Moore

Trouble-makers have always plagued God's people. There are two types we must contend with today, namely those in the church and those outside the church. These can be divided into two categories: (1) those who are sincere and willing to change when confronted with the truth (e.g. 1 Timothy 1:13), and (2) those who are stubborn, rebellious, and resistant to the truth (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 2:10-12). We must be wise in discerning into which category our opponents fall and then deal with them accordingly.

In the book of Nehemiah, the following types of trouble-makers are identified: 1. Those who hinder the work of God by doing nothing (3:5). 2. Those who openly violate the will of God (5:1-9; 8:17; 9:2-35; 13:1-3, 15). 3. Those who compromise with the enemies of truth (6:10-18; 13:4-7). 4. The enemies of truth themselves (2:10, 19; 4:7; 6:1, 16). While Sanballat and Tobiah are not the only adversaries Nehemiah had to contend with, they seem to have been the chief instigators. Sanballat is described as "the Horonite" (2:10, 19; 13:28). This likely has reference to the Moabite city of Horonaim (Isa. 15:5; Jer. 48:5, 34), which suggests that Sanballat, in all probability, was a Moabite. At the time he appears to have been the governor of Samaria (4:2). Tobiah was an Ammonite (2:10, 19; 4:3) and possibly Sanballat's servant. Both of these men were connected to the Israelites through unlawful marriages (6:18; 13:28).

A brief history of the ancestries of these men further highlights the animosity between them and Israel. Both the Moabites and Ammonites were distant relatives of the Jews, having originated from the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters (Gen. 19:36-38). God had given them a land-inheritance on the eastern side of Jordan and instructed the Israelites not to harass them (Deut. 2:9, 19). Because they were inhospitable toward Israel and hired Balaam to curse God's people, it was written in the Law that no Ammonite or Moabite was to be admitted into the assembly of the Lord (Neh. 13:1-2; Deut. 23:3-4). The Samaritans were also antagonistic toward the Jews. When the nation of Israel was divided into two kingdoms, the northern kingdom was based in Samaria (I Kings 16:29). Assyria deposed the northern kingdom and repopulated Samaria with pagans from other nations (II Kings 17:24). During Zerubbabel's leadership of rebuilding the temple, the Samaritans were refused participation and then sought to hinder the work (Ezra 4:1-5).

As Israel laboured to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah's direction, their enemies used at least seven devices to impede their efforts: Derision (2:10, 19), Defiance (4:1-8), Distraction (6:1-4), Defamation (6:5-9), Deception (6:10-14), Dissension (6:16-19), and Debasement (13:4-8). As we consider each of these tactics, let's notice how Nehemiah dealt with and overcame them.

Derision (2:10, 19). Sanballat and Tobiah "were deeply disturbed that a man had come to seek the well-being of the children of Israel," so they laughed at and despised God's people. Nehemiah's response was three-fold (2:20): 1. He put his faith in God: "The God of heaven Himself will prosper us . . ." 2. He put his faith into action: "therefore we His servants will arise and build . . ." 3. He put his adversaries in their place: "but you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem."

Defiance (4:1-8). These antagonists were indignant and mocked the Jews, and they conspired to attack and create confusion. Nehemiah's reaction was to pray and give the problem over to God, while he and the people kept on working (4:4-6). Their focus was not diverted, "for the people had a mind to work."

Distraction (6:1-4). Nehemiah's enemies persistently said to him: "Come, let us meet together among the villages in the plain of Ono." But their motives were less than honourable, for they sought to do him harm. Today many are calling for "unity meetings" and efforts to end religious division. These might be productive if everyone involved had the same respect for God's authority and interest in seeking absolute truth. But too often the agenda is to compromise truth and merely agree to disagree. This does not promote biblical unity and is very harmful to the church. Nehemiah's response was: "I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down. Why should the work cease while I leave it and go down to you?" (6:3). We must never be distracted from God's work by those who are unsympathetic to the truth.

Defamation (6:5-9). Sanballat's letter to Nehemiah was not a private correspondence meant to generate honest dialogue, but rather it was an "open letter," unsealed so that anyone could read it. The allegations were not based on fact, but on second-hand information, false assumptions, and rumours. This no doubt was meant to malign, slander, and trouble God's servant. But Nehemiah, refusing to be intimidated, corrected the misinformation and prayed to God for strength (6:8-9). Again, the work continued uninterrupted.

Deception (6:10-14). Tobiah and Sanballat hired a false prophet to lead Nehemiah into sin and compromise his reputation. To flee into God's sanctuary would have been a violation of the Law (Num. 18:7; II Chron. 26:16-21) and a poor example for the rest of Israel. But Nehemiah was a man of integrity and conviction. "Should such a man as I flee?" (6:11). He knew this prophet's message could not have come from above. Again he prayed and turned his troubles over to the Lord (6:14).

Dissension (6:16-19). Tobiah was in alliance with the nobles of Judah, and he used his ties to create dissension in the ranks. When the devil could not deter the efforts of the early church with external persecution (Acts 4:17-21; 5:17-33), he turned to internal strife (Acts 6:1). Tobiah was able to make such inroads because his wife and daughter-in-law were Israelites. Even today family ties prove stronger for many than allegiance to God, and consequently the divine will is often demoted to secondary status (cf. Matt. 10:37; 12:46-50). Nehemiah, however, resisted his enemy's despicable scheme.

Debasement (13:4-8). The term debase means to make lower in value, quality, character, dignity; to cheapen. When Tobiah was permitted to reside in the temple, the law of God, the people of God, and the house of God were debased. This was a double insult in that no Ammonite was to be allowed into God's assembly (13:1-2), and the Levites, priests and temple servants were not receiving their rightful provisions (13:10). Nehemiah was moved with righteous indignation (13:8). He threw all of Tobiah's things out, had the rooms cleansed, restored the proper contents to the rooms, and made restitution to the servants of God who had not received the things to which they were entitled (13:8-13). When unrepentant sin is left unchecked among us, the Lord's church is debased. Like Nehemiah, we ought to be bitterly grieved, "purge out" the sin from among us (I Cor. 5:7), and restore the church to its purified state.

What can we learn from Nehemiah in dealing with the trouble-makers among us? At least three things stand out. First of all, remember the Lord (4:14). When our minds are focused on God rather than self, we are less likely to behave irrationally and improperly, and more likely to respond to these antagonists in a godly manner. Remembering the Lord includes a reverential attitude (5:15), prayer (4: 9; 6: 9; 9: 4), knowing His will (8:1-18; 9: 3; 13:1), and obeying His will (5:12-13; 8:16-18; 9: 2; 10: 29; 13: 22, 30). If we forget the Lord as we deal with those who are in opposition, we are no better than they are (Rom. 16:17-18; II Tim. 2:23-26).

Secondly, be ready and able to fight the good fight (4:14). This involves rational and serious thought (5: 7), watchfulness (4: 9; 7: 3), organization (4:16, 19-20; 7: 5), the willingness to defend (4:13, 16-23; 7:3), and the ability to rebuke, warn and instruct (5:7-13; 13:8-11, 17, 25). We are engaged in a spiritual warfare, and whether we are combating false teachers (II Pet. 2:1), immorality (I Cor. 5:1), laziness (II Thess. 3:10-11), indifference (Rev. 3:15), contentiousness (Tit. 3:9-10), or compromise (II John 10-11), we must never, retreat (Eph. 6:10-18; Phil. 1:17; I Tim. 1:18; 6:12; II Tim. 4:2; Jude 3).

Finally, no matter what happens, never stop working (4:15-18, 21-23; 5:16). This requires having a mind to work (2:18; 4: 6), overcoming discouragement (4:10-15), and relying on God's strength and providence to succeed (2:18-20; 4: 20; 6: 9). If we remain steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the Lord's work, even in the face of opposition, we have been assured the victory (I Cor. 15: 57-58; Gal. 6: 9).

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