Rubble or Opportunity
Nehemiah 4:1-21
“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 houses.” 

In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was a man of despicable character. He was a manipulator and seducer who was bent on revenge for any wrong done to him. Eventually, he would offend the god Zeus, who would then punish Sisyphus to spend an eternity wrestling a giant boulder up a steep hill. However, just as he would reach the crest of the top of the hill, it would slip from his grasp and roll back to the bottom. So he would have to repeat the process, forever laboring while accomplishing nothing.

As the Jews were starting to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, there were times when they must have felt like Sisyphus. Surrounding Jerusalem were piles of stone rubble from the destruction of the city by Nebuchadnezzar. No matter how many stones they manipulated and stacked upon the wall, the rubble only seemed to grow, and the walls remained broken. Day after day, they worked on the arduous task of restacking stones. To add insult to injury, Sanballat, the chief antagonists of the Jews, continually ridiculed them for their feeble efforts (vs. 2). Others also mocked their actions that it was so inadequate that even if a fox jumped on the wall, it would fall (vs. 3). When the Jews finally had the wall about half its original height, the opposition intensified. After all their labor, the people started to bow to the pressure of the opposition. They became discouraged. Instead of singing songs of praise, they began to sing a song of despair. In verse 10, we find a poem that became the song of the people. Their strength was failing. The word translated as “failing” means to stagger or totter. It gives us a picture of people so exhausted that they totter and stumble as they try to carry the rocks. What started as a dream had become a nightmare. The phrase, “Yet there is much rubbish,” can be translated as “The rubble increased.” Instead of making headway in the task, they seemed to fall further behind. They began to question if they had sufficient strength to meet the need.

When rumors of possible attacks by the enemies reached them, the people were broken. Fear began to grip their hearts as discouragement gripped their soul. However, what the people saw as an impossible task, Nehemiah saw as an opportunity for God to reveal his power. He encouraged the 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 houses.”  

Fear arises when we lose sight of God when our focus shifts from the God who upholds the universe to the problems we face. The problem was not the size of the piles of rubble. The problem is that our vision is no longer on the power of an infinite God who is great and awesome. 

There is an important play on words in verse 14. The terms “afraid” and “awesome” are from the same word in Hebrew. We begin to fear man when we no longer fear God. But unlike the fear of men, which brings terror, the fear of God is the reverence that comes from the recognition of the greatness of God. The fear of God is not the fear that causes one to flee from God; instead, it is the fear that causes one to stand in awe and wonder, leading to trust and obedience to God. It is the kind of fear and respect that motivates us to call upon him. The fear of men is defeating and debilitation; the fear of God is invigorating and victorious. It gives us the confidence to trust in God and causes us to look to him. Fear of men leads to discouragement of the rubble. The fear of God leads us to see the rubble as an opportunity to seek God’s deliverance (verse 15).  

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