In Ezra 4 we noted the opposition of surrounding nations to the rebuilding of Jerusalem during the time of Darius (ruled 522 – 486 B.C.). Then, in the same chapter, we learn that this persecution and opposition continued well into the reign of Artaxerxes (ruled 465 – 424 B.C.).
Rebuilding Jerusalem, at least the wall anyway, was forbidden by the royal decree of the Persians. It continued to the 20th year of Artaxerxes (445 B.C.) when Nehemiah was specifically commissioned to get the work done. But even royal decree couldn’t insure against conflict.
Sanballet was the governor of Samaria. Tobiah is a powerful figure in the region of Ammon. Geshem is the ruler of Moab, Edom and parts of Arabia extending toward Egypt. Jerusalem and Judah is virtually encircled and these men exerted powerful influence among the Jews. Tobiah had married the daughter of Shecaniah, whose identity is somewhat obscure. The name is one of the priestly divisions created by David as well as the name of a priest during the days of Hezekiah. His son also married the daughter of Meshullam who was also likely related to the Levites. These connections help explain how he could have access to a storage room in the temple (see Nehemiah 13).
The pressure on Nehemiah must have been great. Four times these men, with military armies at their disposal, sent him “orders” to meet them at the plain of Ono, half way between Jerusalem and Samaria– which Nehemiah refused.
Sanballet then sends an unsealed letter, calculated to feed the curiosity of the messengers and be spread throughout the area, stirring up trouble for Nehemiah. Shemiah, possibly also of the priestly family, tried to scare Nehemiah into taking refuge in the temple to avoid assassination. Nehemiah, not being a priest, would have committed sacrilege by doing so (remember King Uzziah – 2 Chronicles 26:16ff).
Nehemiah focused on the task at hand and refused to be deterred. The result was the completion of the wall of Jerusalem in fifty-two days.
We cannot always be guaranteed the protection Nehemiah received during these difficult times, but the lesson here is not that if we are followers of the Lord nothing bad will happen to us. The message is that we must be followers of the will of God even if bad things could happen to us as a result.