I love watching toddlers learning to walk. Once they’ve reached the stage of pulling themselves up on chairs and coffee tables, they’re ready for the big adventure. Some brave souls make a few solo attempts, but these wobbly steps often end in tears.
What comes next? A parent or grandparent steps in! You’ve seen this adorable dance—the adult, bent at the waist, the child between their feet; the toddler, reaching up to grasp the offered hands, ready to barrel out into the wide-open spaces.
This picture always brings to mind the way that our work and God’s work are joined together.
At his request, Nehemiah was sent from the Persian city of Susa back to Jerusalem so that he might rebuilt the city that lay in ruins (Neh 2:5). He quickly won the support of the people and directed an effort to rebuild the walls that encircled Jerusalem (Neh 2:9–3:32).
However, from his first days back in the holy city, Nehemiah faced opposition (Neh 2:10, 19). This hostility reached a breaking point in the fourth chapter of Nehemiah.
We have much to learn from the way Nehemiah pointed the Israelites to their God and to their work in response to the resistance of the surrounding peoples.
Sanballat the Horonite heard about the Jewish work on the Jerusalem wall and he was “angry and greatly enraged” (Neh 4:1). He and Tobiah the Ammonite taunted and mocked the Israelites (Neh 4:2–3). Nehemiah responded by praying to God for his people (Neh 4:4–5); then everyone got to work and built the wall (Neh 4:6).
When Sanballat and Tobiah (and others) made a plan “to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it” (Neh 4:8), Nehemiah took the same approach. The people prayed and set a guard for protection (Neh 4:9).
Later, there were reports of a more specific threat, so Nehemiah stationed armed Israelites in strategic places near the wall (Neh 4:13). Nehemiah addressed the nobles and officials and people:
Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.
God frustrated the plans of these opponents, and thus the Israelites got back to work (Neh 4:15). Nehemiah organized an alert system for the workers—a trumpet would blow when an attack came, and the people would rally there. Nehemiah was confident of the Lord’s hand: “Our God will fight for us” (Neh 4:20).
Throughout this chapter, Nehemiah urges the people to work while reminding them of God’s work. He instructs them to look to the Lord and to look to their labor.
Without older hands for stability, a toddler would stagger and fall. But without the child’s desire to learn and move, the adult would just drag an unhappy, small person across the floor. The child’s and the adult’s work go together.
We may be tempted to work without looking to the Lord, but that is foolish. We cannot accomplish God’s work without him. But we must not swing to the other extreme either—praying without putting our hands to work is presumptuous and faithless. Most often, God works through our work.
Nehemiah 4 is a good reminder that God’s sovereignty and our responsibility are not opponents to be pitted against one another. They are friends, walking hand in hand, accomplishing God’s will.