The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are two Old Testament books that go together. These two men both wrote about the rebuilding of Jerusalem, which occurred several years after its destruction by the Babylonians. Ezra was involved with the rebuilding of the temple while Nehemiah was involved with the rebuilding of the walls.
In a series of sermons that senior pastor John Stange of Core Creek Community Church has been covering, there is much we can learn from the lives of these two men. In this post, we’ll focus on what Nehemiah had to endure during the rebuilding process—that being mockery.
Once Nehemiah was sent to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls, he quickly faced opposition. The neighbors did not like Jewish people rebuilding their city so they responded unkindly…
When Sanballat heard that we were rebuilding the wall, he became angry and was greatly incensed. He ridiculed the Jews, and in the presence of his associates and the army of Samaria, he said, “What are those feeble Jews doing? Will they restore their wall? Will they offer sacrifices? Will they finish in a day? Can they bring the stones back to life from those heaps of rubble—burned as they are?”
Tobiah the Ammonite, who was at his side, said, “What they are building—even a fox climbing up on it would break down their wall of stones!”
Nehemiah and his crew were greeted with mockery, taunts and even sarcasm. If you get really serious about following Christ, the truth is, you will also be mocked. In fact, some of you have experienced that already.
John Stange provides some insight into another form of mockery or retaliatory technique that is often overlooked and widely accepted as “friendly jabs” in our culture today—sarcasm. These moments can be amusing and provide an effective technique to keep tensions at a minimum, but it can also get us in trouble.
Oftentimes, if not checked, sarcasm can easily become vicious or hurtful. It can make for a very uncomfortable setting, especially for an outsider who may not be accustomed to this type of conversational sparring. A few times I’ve been in the presence of families or couples that interact in this way and it can be unsettling. Especially when taken to the extreme, leading to awkward silences or side comments that linger on after the initial offense.
Stange relays the story of Kondraty Ryleyev, who attempted to overthrow the Russian monarchy in 1825. After he was caught, he was taken to the gallows. But in an odd turn of events, the rope broke when they tried to hang him. Ryleyev survived the fall from the platform, but then supposedly told the crowd of onlookers that Russia was an “unhappy country, where they don’t even know how to hang you.”
Now at that time, the typical custom was to be pardoned if something interfered with carrying out such a death sentence. An event like this would be regarded as a possible sign of divine intervention, so the Tsar would spare the criminal’s life. But after getting word of Ryleyev’s sarcastic response, Tsar Nicholas I replied, “Oh is that so? Then show him a better rope.” And Ryleyev was hanged again, this time without any complication.
So what is the best way to respond to taunts or mockery? Since we are not called to take revenge, we should avoid fighting back with such retaliation—and this includes sarcasm.
Instead, Romans 12 outlines a much better approach…
Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone. If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. Do not take revenge, my dear friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. On the contrary:
“If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”
Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
In other words, we can’t defeat evil by the same thing that it is—evil. The only way to defeat it is by good. Christ demonstrated that throughout His ministry. And it’s also the tool that God uses to soften His critics, sometimes even turning those same hardened hearts towards Him in the end. Case in point, the man who was inspired to write the words you just read in Romans. He spent much of his life persecuting Christians before God softened his heart.
So what was Nehemiah’s response to his adversaries? He prayed…
Hear us, our God, for we are despised. Turn their insults back on their own heads. Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight, for they have thrown insults in the face of the builders.
When we feel insulted or offended, the last thing on our mind is showing love towards our enemies. It’s certainly not easy to exhibit Christ-like tendencies when we are being attacked. But we can take a cue from Nehemiah, because I’m sure in that moment, he was quite discouraged hearing the unkind words hurled at him.
The lesson we can take from Nehemiah’s account is to avoid relying on our own strength to find love in these moments. But rather we can rely on the strength of the Lord to change our hearts and transform our minds—providing the confidence we need to allow Him to lead us in a better direction in the end.