When US President Obama visited Russia recently, journalists pointed out that he declined from tasting the sumptuous Russian dishes prepared for him. Why so rude? He may have recalled an image of Victor Yushchenko’s pock-marked face after his poisoning during the 2004 Ukraine election. Or perhaps he recalled Russia's ex-KGB Alexander Litvinenko’s dying words in 2006 after drinking poisoned tea: Putin has "no respect for life, liberty or any civilized value." Poisoning happens, but we may not be aware of how it happens in our own lives regularly. The scriptures say our tongues can be “full of deadly poison” based on the words we speak, according to James 3.8.
Nehemiah’s main job in life was “cup-bearer,” one who would take a cup of wine prepared for the king, handle it, examine it and test it, and if it was pure then pass it on to the king. This experience of discernment would prove to be very similar to his role as he returned to build the walls of Jerusalem. As the people worked, the enemy prepared for attack. Because the workers became aware and armed, the enemy chose different tactics including slander and deception. But through God’s wisdom, Nehemiah was able to discern what was going on with each different kind of attack and the work was accomplished, nevertheless. The rebuilding of the city walls can be seen as a symbol for the restoration of the soul after salvation. Nehemiah's name means "God's comfort" and like the Holy Spirit, he helped the Israelites greatly with discernment, guidance and comfort.
According to Webster’s Dictionary, the word “slander” is from the Latin word “scandalum”, meaning “scandal” which itself is from the Greek word “skandalon,” which means “trap.” The Greek word translated “slanderers” (1 Tim 3:11) is “diabolos,” which Strong defines as the name Satan who is known as the “accuser of the brethren.” (Rev 12.10) According to Ephesians 6.11, we are to be aware of the “wiles” or schemes of the evil one and be fully armed with spiritual armor. While Nehemiah and the people desired to rebuild, the enemy desired to destroy. The following are some of the schemes the enemy used and how Nehemiah responded:
1. Deride (Neh 4.1-6) Sanballat and the armies of Samaria set out to mock and ridicule the Israelites working on the wall of Jerusalem. They called them feeble people building a feeble wall. The workers were in fact not professionally trained, like most who work to advance the kingdom of God. In the world’s eyes the kingdom of God is a foolish ambition but Nehemiah prayed God would defend them and kept on working (4.6), just as Jesus said we are to keep our “hand to the plough” and not look back (Lu 9.62).
2. Dispatch (4.7-15) After the wall had been built half way, the enemy was ticked and organized a conspiracy against the work. Real strategies and weapons were prepared and the work was stopped as the Israelites realized what was happening, prayed for protection, prepared their own weapons, and organized a watch. Ephesians 6 outlines the many spiritual weapons we have at our disposal and the need to be watchful and aware.
3. Divide (5.1-19) After the external opposition there was internal division, including complaints of greed, usury and jealousy. The internal slandering was caused by wrong motives, the lusts of the world (1 Jn 2.15-17) which Satan has been adept at tempting us with from the very beginning (Gen 3.1-7). In answer to this Nehemiah had them vow to show fairness and kindness to each other (Neh 5.12) and showed great “agape love” by inviting up to 150 people to his dinner table regularly! (5.17)
4. Distract (6.2-3) Then the enemy tried to draw Nehemiah away from the work by inviting him to a different town under pretenses as a recreational getaway. His response was to affirm his was a “a great work” and worthy of his full attention and leadership. Jesus warned of distractions and cares that can make our lives unfruitful (Mat 13.22).
5. Denounce (6.6-9) As progress on the wall continued, the enemy used an open letter of slander and false accusations calling the Israelites rebels. As a result the people felt real fear. Ephesians 6.12 shows we wrestle against spiritual powers and a fear of slander can allow for “demonic oppression.” The mind and emotions are battle grounds and we can be freed from anxiety and strengthened through prayer just as Nehemiah and the people were.
6. Deceive (6.10-14) One who pretended to be a friend, Shemaiah, tried to trick Nehemiah into sinning so as to destroy his reputation. I Corinthians 12.10 mentions the gift of discernment of spirits or the distinguishing between spirits. There are some evil people who will attempt to deceive us in order to try and destroy us and we can pray for this spiritual gift, which, by the way, also comes from studying the word (Heb 5.14)
The enemy never actually used physical force against Nehemiah but was skillful at using words as weapons and slander proved to be the most affective of these in paralyzing the workers and bringing on a sense of fear. Slander has become so much a part of our society that we often don’t realize we are doing it and that it’s a serious sin according to the Bible. According to the Apostle Paul, increased slander is one of the signs that we are living in the last days. II Timothy 3.1-5 outlines this and offers the advice to avoid people with this infectious habit, among others. Paul considered it a sin worthy of God’s wrath (Ro. 1:30). David also defined it as a serious sin. He wrote that slanderers would be “cut off” from his kingdom. (Ps 101.5). Jeremiah echoed this sentiment, showing it was a reason for God’s wrath upon Israel: “every neighbor will walk with slanderers.” (Jer. 9:4). Jesus said that slander “defiles a man” (Mt. 15:19-20). The Psalmist showed it breaks our fellowship with God and hinders our prayer life (Ps. 15:3).
According to 1 Timothy 5.19, we're not to entertain accusations against other believers but rather to speak directly with people to try and ascertain the truth and, if necessary, try to resolve an issue. Only rarely did Paul criticize anyone by name, such as "Alexander the coppersmith" who "bitterly opposed" Paul's message (2 Tim 4:14). But even then it was mentioned in a letter to Timothy, his personal student. James' answer to slander is found in James 3:13: "Who is a wise man and endued with knowledge among you? let him shew out of a good conversation his works with meekness of wisdom." (KJV) We're not to respond in kind but rather to show grace and truth through good words, good actions, and a good attitude. The main idea, it seems, is that "talk is cheap."
Like Nehemiah, may we exercise discernment as an experienced cup bearer. May we take any information passed to us and examine it for purity before passing in on to others. And if we find that we are being slandered against, may we be strengthened in the Lord through prayer. David, Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Apostle Paul experienced slander, to name a few. But more than any person in history, Jesus was regularly slandered. When it comes to working towards the advancement of God’s kingdom, it seems it goes with the territory.
Do you sometimes fall into this habit of slander when you know it’s not right? Have you ever suffered harm from unjust slander?