We all have a Sanballat in our life.

If you’ve been a Christian for any period of time, you’ve most likely had somebody try to discourage you along the way. Whether they tried to kill your enthusiasm for your work, stir up rumors about your inefficiency (or loyalty), or tell you that something can’t be done, a Sanballat is around just about every corner.

Which is probably what makes Nehemiah’s completion of Jerusalem’s wall in 52 days such a remarkable feat. Yes, it’s amazing that he was able to pull off the engineering and logistics necessary to accomplish such a monumental task, but it’s made even harder when you have two men like Sanballat and Tobiah constantly in your ear.

Nehemiah overcame them to complete the work, though, and so can we.

Why did Sanballat and Tobiah Try to Discourage Nehemiah?

Usually, when we read about this story, we believe that Sanballat and Tobiah’s actions are purely personal. We think that maybe they just don’t like the Israelites — or maybe they don’t like Nehemiah — but either way, their vendetta against Israel is based on emotion and not fact.

While that may very well be true, the reality is probably closer to the middle.

Tobiah is in Ammonite, which means he has a centuries long feud with the Israelites anyways. There’s no question his motivation in that matter.

But Sanballat is a different matter. As a leading man in Samaria (Nehemiah 2), he would’ve had a vested interest in seeing Judah fall and Samaria rise to power.

Nehemiah 2:10 says that Nehemiah’s arrival was distressing to them, because someone had “come to seek the welfare of the sons of Israel.”

After all, the Samaritans — at least in their own eyes — were the ones that stayed in the nation while the Israelites were deported for 70 years. That makes them more pure, and more holy, in their own eyes.

Rebuilding the stone wall in Jerusalem would be a direct blow to his belief that Samaria should reign supreme. And, as demonstrated through the book, he would stop at nothing to ensure that doesn’t happen.

How did Sanballat and Tobiah Discourage Nehemiah?

On virtually every page, Sanballat and Tobiah re-enter the picture in an almost universally negative way.

  • In Nehemiah 4:11-12, they threaten to kill the workers.
  • In Nehemiah 6:1-2, they asked Nehemiah to meet up so they can ambush him.
  • In Nehemiah 6:6-8, they stir up false rumors as to Nehemiah’s loyalty and plan to send letters throughout the empire defaming his name.

As a side note, Josephus records that Sanballat himself would swap loyalties from Darius to Alexander the great when he thought he could advance his own position. Such is an eternal truth about people like Sanballat — they’ll do anything to secure their own position, even betrayal.

What we often times miss when it comes to this story is the emotional toll that these actions took on Nehemiah’s life. It’s hard enough to accomplish what we need to do in this life for God’s kingdom, but when we’re dealing with discouragement at such a close proximity, it’s nearly impossible.

In a lot of ways, the story is similar to that of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. There, Cain is frustrated by the acceptance of Abel’s sacrifice and subsequent rejection of his own. Instead of fixing it for next time — which is what God told him to do — he decides to take Abel into the field and kill him.

1 John 3:12 reveals the motivation behind Cain’s actions: “And for what reason did he slay him? Because his deeds were evil, and his brother’s were righteous.” It’s as simple as that.

Just like Sanballat, Cain had no objective or desire to serve God on his own. The only thing he’d wanted to do was to eliminate the ones who did and made him look bad as a result.

How Did Nehemiah Handle Sanballat and Tobiah?

I think there’s a lot that we can learn from how Nehemiah accomplished this feat in the face of all this discouragement. God’s Word goes through great lengths to demonstrate Nehemiah’s actions, so it is a good idea for us to learn how he handled it.

Nehemiah Prayed. A lot.

A cursory reading of his book will tell you that Nehemiah is a very emotional person. 

In the first chapter, Nehemiah learns of the plight of Jerusalem and the people that are left, so he prays fervently to God for two things. First, he asks God to forgive the people of their sins, and secondly, asks for God’s help in restoring the city. Every single word of that prayer is recorded and demonstrates a heart that is tenderly devoted to God.

In fact, seven times in the book, Nehemiah prays a simple prayer: “Remember…oh God.” What he asks God to remember changes every time, but there’s no doubt that Nehemiah trusts that God is watching the whole story unfold.

He exhibits this reliance on God when he speaks to the people in Nehemiah 2:17-20. He reminds them that the only way that they’ll accomplish this work is through God’s help, and that they should all pray to God on behalf of the city.

Prayer should be a part of our life anyways, but when we’re facing people like Sanballat and Tobiah, our knees should be on the ground even more than usual.

Anticipate the Unthinkable.

The Samaritans of Nehemiah’s day were different than the ones that Jesus interacted with. 400 years before Jesus talked with a simple woman at the well about her multiple husband problem (John 4), the Samaritans were an emerging race that were not so distant from the Jews.

In Nehemiah’s time though, less than 200 years had passed since the fall of Jerusalem and the remnant returns, which means that the Samaritans are much closer to the Jews — genelogically-speaking — then they would be in the New Testament. Many of these people could trace their lineages tighter, and, one would suppose, be more like family than in later times.

Which makes the fact that the Samaritans even threatened to kill the Jews even more barbarous.

Not since the period of the judges has there been such opposition between peoples that both claim to be children of God. There were pockets throughout the period of the Kings where individual tribes were at odds with each other, but nothing to the degree of full on warfare.

To prepare for this unthinkable situation, Nehemiah had his men work on the wall while simultaneously watching for any advance. According to the Old Testament, they held a hammer in one hand and a spear in the other. It most likely made for a slower building project, but it covered all their bases while still focusing on the project at hand.

Keep the Objective Front and Center

The number one goal of any type of persecution is to stop the work from reaching its completion. In Paul’s day, the Jews even made a vow that they would stop eating until they had killed Paul. Considering that Paul lived for several more years afterwards, they either broke that vow or lived a very hungry life.

In Nehemiah 6:1-4, Sanballat and Tobiah asked Nehemiah to meet with them. Nehemiah’s response is classic: “Why should the work stop so I can come to you?”

In Nehemiah 6:10-13, they try again. The two men hire somebody inside Jerusalem to deceive Nehemiah into coming into the temple. Fortunately, Nehemiah sees through the trap and avoids it completely.

Both of these were attempts to interrupt the work from finishing, and both represent efforts by our enemies to try and stop our work from its completion as well. As the end result becomes clear, Sanballat’s will grow stronger and more determined in his attempt to stop it.

Why? Because your success insults their willful failure.

“Remember Me, Oh My God, For Good”

In Nehemiah 13:31, Nehemiah utters the above statement as he closes out his book. He has achieved his goal of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, in spite of all the difficulties that mounts.

And even though we don’t have a record of what God said back to him, I would imagine it’s the same thing that he says to all of His faithful on the day of judgment who refuse to allow the enemy to win.

“Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Last modified: December 13, 2021