The Wall Under Threat
Even as Sanballat and Tobiah contemptuously mocked the Jewish rebuilding effort (verses 1-2), we can perhaps sense the panic behind their words. They were really worried. Jewish success could mean their demise. While their taunting and ridicule is intended to shake the confidence of the Jews, it is also a self-deceptive way of steadying their own shaken confidence.
Nehemiah does not answer them. Instead, he prays to God to turn the reproach back on their heads and that their sin not be blotted out—recognizing that they were actually belittling God Himself (verses 4-5). This is not a prayer for eliminating any possibility that they would ever find forgiveness through repentance. It is simply asking that God, as a matter of justice and defending His reputation, not let what they have done go undealt with.
In verse 6 we see that the confidence of the people is not shaken. Their minds are instead set on the task assigned to them and they succeed in joining the wall's sections together—though not yet to full height.
News of this development infuriates the Jews' enemies, as Jerusalem would soon be a strong fortress. In addition to Sanballat and Tobiah, we also see reference here to the Arabs (among whom Geshem was a leader—see Nehemiah 2:19), the Ammonites (of whom Tobiah was apparently governor) and the Ashdodites (Nehemiah 4:7). Ashdod was one of the five principal cities of the Philistines. Yet those who lived there at this time may not have been full-blooded Philistines. The Assyrians destroyed the city in 711 B.C. It was later controlled by the Babylonians and then the Persians, who repopulated it. "With the Persian conquest alternate patches of the Palestinian coast were parceled out to the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, which provided ships for the Persian navy. During this period Ashdod was the most important city on the Philistine coast" (Expositor's Bible Commentary, note on verse 7).
The Jews' enemies lashing out in anger is not a matter of genuine indignation but of alarm. They are rather afraid of what is happening. As they see it, things have gotten out of control—that is, out of their control. They decide that they had better put a stop to this business right away—before it is too late. So they begin plotting against the Jews.
The Jews resort to their only sure defense—prayer to Almighty God. This time it is a collective prayer of the people, not merely a private prayer of Nehemiah (verse 9). Yet even as they pray, they do what they humanly can to protect themselves by posting watchmen at all times.
In verse 10 we see that the great task of rebuilding is taking its toll on the Jewish workers. Fatigue and the sheer volume of debris lead to discouragement. In the next verse we see that despite the posted watch, the adversaries seem to think that they can still catch the builders by surprise. But the plot is discovered before it can be executed.
The Jews are then arrayed for battle and exhorted to bravery on the basis of two factors: 1) The people are to remember all that God has done for His people; and 2) the people are to reflect on the fact that they, unlike their enemies, are defending their homeland and families. But the attack doesn't come. Foiled in their hopes for a surprise attack, the adversaries are so far unwilling to challenge the Jews' newly instituted security measures.
There are spiritual parallels to the dual responsibilities in verse 17. We must not neglect our own spiritual survival and security, nor must we neglect doing the Work of God.
The last three words of the chapter in the original Hebrew—is silho hammayim—as Expositor's notes on verse 23, "are notoriously difficult to interpret; they are literally 'each man his weapon the water'.... The NIV rendering is similar to that of the RV: 'every one (went with) his weapon (to) the water,' and the JPS: 'every one that went to the water had his weapon.' This would parallel the way Gideon's selected men drank their water with weapons in hand as an indication of their vigilance.... The Vulgate took the word silho, not in the sense of 'his weapon,' but as a verb meaning 'stripped himself'... ('every one stripped himself when he was to be washed'). This sense was followed by the KJV [and NKJV]: 'every one put them [i.e., their clothes] off for washing'"—that is, only for washing.
Despite the still-constant threat of enemy attack, the rebuilding work went on.