God, thank you for revealing yourself to us through the Scriptures. We pray that you will speak to us in our gathering today, as we share our thoughts and insights and as we seek your wisdom for our lives. We thank you too for the protection you grant to your people. In times of hardship and conflict, help us trust in your unfailing love.
The coronavirus crisis has led to our political leaders sometimes using the language of warfare to describe it – the virus is an enemy to be defeated. Whether it’s entirely appropriate or not, it certainly feels like that. Most of us do know what it’s like to face enemies, whether it’s our own bodies turning against us in sickness, or hostility from other people, or just the way of things. But the theme of our studies is hope. Psalm 37 speaks of the power of God to save; it tells us to be patient and wait for God to act, and says that ‘the wicked will disappear’.
The book of Nehemiah’s set some time after God’s people return from exile in Babylon. They’re back, but they’re poor and downtrodden, and the walls of Jerusalem are in ruins. In those days, city walls didn’t just keep you safe – they were powerful symbols, too. Walls defined the city; walls round a capital city defined a nation. With them you could hold your heads up high. Without them, you didn’t really count.
Nehemiah was a great leader. He motivated the people to rebuild the walls, even the ones who weren’t builders by trade. They faced opposition from Sanballat and Tobiah; it says in chapter 2 that they were ‘indignant that someone had come to work for the good of the people of Israel’. They’d done well for themselves in the power vacuum, and it wasn’t in their interests that Nehemiah should succeed. So they mock and they threaten, and Nehemiah has the people armed as they work, with the sword in one hand and the trowel in the other.
Nehemiah inspired the people with hope. But they didn’t just hope someone else – God, for instance – would do the work for them. They were brave, creative and resilient – and they finished the wall.
Sometimes hope means facing dangers and hardships and pressing on with our work regardless, because we believe there’s blessing on the other side.
1. Can you think of a time in your life when you’ve faced conflict or opposition?
2. What stands out for you in this story? It might be something that challenges you, inspires you or confuses you.
3. TS Eliot reflects on this story in Choruses from ‘The Rock’. He says:
‘O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.
‘Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite and Geshem the Arabian: were doubtless men of public spirit and zeal.’
When we face conflict and opposition, how can we be sure we’re on the right side? Have there been times when you’ve been on the wrong side?
4. Read the story carefully and identify how Nehemiah responded to the threat. What can we learn from this today?
5. The great 19th-century Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon called his church magazine The Sword and the Trowel, a reference to this story (‘The trowel in hand, and the gun rather loose in the holster’, TS Eliot says). In church life today, what might count as a sword? What might count as a trowel?
6. What are the sorts of threats the Church faces today?
7. Another famous Baptist was the pioneer missionary William Carey (1761–1834). In his ‘Deathless Sermon’ (31 May, 1792) he challenged his hearers to ‘Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.’ Are there things we haven’t attempted for God because they look too difficult?
8. In some parts of the world, Christians face opposition in the form of discrimination and – all too often – martyrdom. What does hope look like in these situations?
It can be very hard to feel people or circumstances are against us when we’re trying to do something good. Hope sometimes has to be fought for and held on to in the face of opposition. But if we undertake something prayerfully and carefully, it can sustain us when we’re under attack.