“I Am Doing A Great Work, I Cannot Come Down”
Some of you here today have been with me for, what is now, 8 sermons and 6 chapters from Nehemiah. Our story began in the Persian fortress city of Susa with Nehemiah serving as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. Upon hearing the news that Jerusalem remained in ruins and that the citizens of Jerusalem continued to be largely displaced, Nehemiah contrived a plan to rehabilitate the city of his ancestors.
Nehemiah’s vision was to rebuild the walls and city gates in order to encourage the reassembling of God’s people in Jerusalem. The vision was grand, but after significant prayer, planning, and probing, the vision was presented and promptly accepted by the people of Jerusalem. They then proceeded with great enthusiasm as they put their hands to the reconstruction project (2:18).
As is the case with most significant projects, problems soon arose. Opponents of Nehemiah began to cause disruptions to such an extent that Nehemiah and his builders were compelled to arm themselves and set a guard while they worked on the wall.
And, as if these external challenges weren’t enough, the project was temporarily shut down because of severe levels of internal strife. Nehemiah, the master problem-solver, eventually got things under control and now we find in chapter 6 that the reconstruction is nearly complete. Nehemiah reports that “All I lacked was hanging the doors in the gates” (6:1).
It appears that Nehemiah’s opponents would challenge him to the bitter end, and these final challenges, we see in chapter 6, come in a veiled manner. Nehemiah writes, “Sanballat and Gesham sent a message, asking me to meet with them in one of the villages in Ono Valley” (6:2). The NASB renders this more literally, “Sanballat and Geshem sent a message to me, saying, ‘Come, let us meet together at one of the villages in the plain of Ono.’”
‘What’s the harm here?’ you might be thinking. This sounds like a call to truce. The word, “together” implies a cordial meeting. The plain of Ono, twenty miles north of Jerusalem, would be a beautiful retreat location. It is as if Sanballat and Geshem were saying, ‘Come on Nehemiah, you’ve been working hard—give yourself a break. We’ve had some disagreements in the past, but let’s get past that and engage in some constructive dialogue. Come and join us in Ono.’
In response to this invitation, Nehemiah says ‘Oh no!’ to Ono. Nehemiah smells trouble. He writes in verse 2, “I knew they were planning to harm me in some way.”
How did Nehemiah know that? Previous experience had taught him not to trust Sanballat and Geshem. And even if we argue that Nehemiah could not have been sure about their intentions, we must bear in mind that the project was 99% done. Common sense would dictate that you finish the job. Nehemiah’s vision wasn’t to make friends; his vision was to rebuild a city. God had affirmed, and provided for, this vision and so the invitation would have to wait.
As for the wording of Nehemiah’s response, again I prefer the rendering of the NASB, “So I sent messengers to them, saying, ‘I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?’” (6:3).
We see that the final tactic of Nehemiah’s opponents was to distract him. The assumption must have been that the success of the project could be compromised if the leader was absent. Sanballat and Geshem attempted to draw Nehemiah away by providing an opportunity to meet and talk things over.
On the one hand, we can see the merit of a diplomatic meeting of this nature. Perhaps, this would be an opportunity for reconciliation. But, on the other hand, such a meeting would delay the completion of this important project.
Nehemiah had invested so much of himself into this vision of reconstruction. The finish line was in sight and so Nehemiah refuses to be distracted. In my mind, Nehemiah gives a marvelous reply. His response reveals a delightful mixture of courage and wisdom. Moreover, it is a response that honours God’s call on his life. Nehemiah replies, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”
Friends, I reckon that this is a phrase we should carry with us throughout our day. When we are confident that the thing we are doing is exactly what God wants us to do, we must refuse all distractions.
We may be presented with a great opportunity, and you may be able to see how you and those around you could be helped by this opportunity. However, if that opportunity pulls you away from the main thing to which God has called you, it must be refused. We need to have Nehemiah’s phrase on our lips, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”
In order to accomplish what God has called us to, we may have to pass up some good opportunities. It is these good opportunities that have the greatest capacity to distract us from the main thing, our vision.
Notice the persistence of Nehemiah’s opponents in verse 4, “They invited me four times, but each time I refused to go.”
I won’t presume to speak for the rest of you, but I am excellent at saying ‘No’ once. My problem is not an inability to say ‘No’—my problem is that I can be easily worn down by multiple requests. Parenting a 4 year-old child has revealed this weakness within me,
‘Papa, can I please have a cookie?’
‘No, I’m sorry. It is too close to dinner time.’
‘Just one cookie please?’
‘I’m afraid you’ll have to wait.’
‘Just a small cookie?’
‘OK, one cookie and that is it!’
While some of us buckle from the pressure of persistence, Nehemiah remained unmoved by these multiple requests. To maintain his steadfast position, Nehemiah must have been totally convinced that he was doing God’s will. By contrast, if you and I are only half-convinced that we are doing what God wants, or if we are merely being wishful that we are in God’s will, we will be quick to give in to distractions—especially ones that persist.
When Nehemiah’s opponents failed to distract him with persistent requests, they then attempted to distract by way of criticism. Nehemiah explains how Sanballat sent along an “unsealed letter”, which said: “A rumour is going around among the nations that you and the other Jews are rebuilding the wall and planning to rebel, because you want to be their king. And Geshem says it’s true! You even have prophets in Jerusalem, claiming you are now king of Judah. You know the Persian king will hear about this, so let’s get together and talk it over” (6:6,7).
It is most noteworthy that this letter was “unsealed”. In Nehemiah’s day, the custom was to roll the letter, tie it with a string, and seal it with clay. As an unsealed letter, however, the contents would become known to everyone who handled it. Rumours about Nehemiah’s intentions would undoubtedly spread, and the accusations against him would likely increase.
And while Nehemiah did reply to Sanballat’s message, it appears that Nehemiah didn’t spend any amount of time chasing down these rumours. Again, Nehemiah refuses to be distracted from the vision, for he recognized that this unsealed letter was designed to do just that (6:9).
I think it would be a mistake to conclude that Nehemiah’s steadfast position was easily maintained. We should not imagine that he was immune to the barbs of his critics and the ploys of his enemies. There can be no doubt that all of the challenges to Nehemiah’s leadership were taking their toll.
But instead of fighting back, instead of giving in or giving up, Nehemiah turned to the Lord. In verse 9 we read, “I asked God to give me strength.”
I suspect many of us have done this. Many of us know what it is to be beaten down, exhausted, and with nothing left in us we turn to the Lord to strengthen us. I do note, however, something slightly different between the prayer of Nehemiah and the prayer of Bryn MacPhail.
I find myself often praying for strength to survive the trial—my prayer is to be able to cope and get through the day. Maybe you have prayed in this way. It seems to me that there is something lacking in this approach. My typical prayer asks that God help me to survive what is negative rather than ask Him to help me triumph in what is positive.
Nehemiah’s prayer for strength follows his recognition that his opponents were attempting to keep him from his work. In other words, Nehemiah’s prayer was ‘Lord, help me fulfill this vision. Strengthen me to complete the work.’
Do you see the difference? One person prays, ‘Help me to survive the trial’, while another prays, ‘Help me to finish the work before me’.
In sports, commentators often distinguish between a team that is playing not to lose and a team that is playing to win. The latter usually prevails. Nehemiah fits this second category. He sees the finish line. He envisions the prize and, without hesitation, he presses forward.
Having failed in their earlier methods of distraction, the opponents of Nehemiah resorted to paying someone to try and convince Nehemiah that his life was in danger and that he needed to lock himself within the temple. Nehemiah eventually saw through the deception and exclaimed, “I won’t go!” (6:11).
And what was the end result? “On the twenty-fifth day of the month of Elul, the wall was completely rebuilt” (6:15).
Success! Nehemiah’s vision was realized. It was not an easy road for Nehemiah. He faced adversity at every turn—Nehemiah faced conflicts from without, and turmoil from within.
Along the way we have pointed to many principles employed by Nehemiah, which helped him to advance the vision. I will not review those principles here, however, I would like to highlight from chapter 6, two preeminent principles for fulfilling a God-ordained vision.
These principles are prayer and perseverance.
Nehemiah has not attempted this project by his own power, but we find in verse 9 a repeated theme, “I asked God to give me strength.”
God has gifted you and I with certain talents. He has given us a capacity to think our way through complex situations. The temptation for most of us is to depend on those abilities. And no doubt that is why Solomon instructed us to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). No doubt this is why Nehemiah “asked God to give (him) strength.”
Without God’s help—without prayer—we should not expect our vision to advance.
The important role of perseverance is that it makes the other principles effectual. In other words, half measures will not do.
We cannot expect to pray a little, work intermittently, and problem solve when convenient and expect things to go well. Half measures will not do.
Nehemiah had made significant advances, but without perseverance, the entire project could have been sidelined.
No doubt, Nehemiah’s best articulation of this persevering spirit is his statement, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.”
Friends, as we put our hands to the vision to Bring In Others and Teach Jesus, may we do so asking for God’s help at every turn.
And when opportunities and distractions arise and tempt us away from this Divine work, may we too respond by saying, “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Amen.