Nowadays, multitasking seems to be the rule, not the exception. I have long observed people who claim they can be more efficient by doing several things at once. Usually I observe that they do at least one of the tasks so badly that they have to do it over. I’m not much in favor of multitasking, but sometimes I have no choice.
After 70 years of captivity in Babylon, the Israelites were allowed to return to their homeland (538 BC). They found it in ruins and, of course, began to rebuild immediately. The people who had ruled the land in the mean time did not want to give up power and appealed to the imperial government to order a halt to the rebuilding effort.
The book of Nehemiah opens in 446 BC, nearly a century after the return from exile. At that time, Nehemiah learned that the walls had been broken down and burned. In other words, the opposition had recently destroyed whatever rebuilding had been accomplished in the meantime.
The news upset Nehemiah very much. An unwalled city was a defenseless city. Nehemiah secured an appointment as governor of the district and set about to make sure that the wall got built. His appointment did not greatly impress Israel’s enemies. They continued to harass and oppose building the wall with all of the tactics they had used for decades.
Nehemiah rallied his people and assigned various groups to work on specific parts of the wall. The enemies watched in dismay and anger as the people repaired breeches in the wall and built it up to about half its eventual height.
The enemies began a war of words. The Israelites’ morale proved too firm for mere ridicule to undermine. Propaganda about the immensity of the task began to have an effect, though. The people began to doubt whether they were capable of finishing the work. At that point, the enemies began to make threatening noises about an armed attack.
At that point (Nehemiah 4:9), Nehemiah first prayed and then ordered armed guards on day and night watch. The guards turned out not to be enough to allay the people’s fear. That’s when Nehemiah resorted to multitasking.
He took half of the people off building duty and had them stand guard, ready for any attack. The other half of the people worked with “one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon” (4:17, NASB). It’s hard to imagine anyone literally working that way, but hyperbole is a very respectable literary device. Here are the important outcomes:
- People worked in shifts. At any given time, half of them served as armed guards while the other half worked on the wall.
- The builders and carriers likewise bore arms, ready to stop and fight at a moment’s notice.
- Work continued without interruption until the wall was completed.
The spiritual lesson
In a way I have misrepresented Nehemiah. Although he was a man of action, he was above all a man of prayer. Although he excelled at making plans and adjusting them quickly when necessary, he never expressed faith in his own abilities or any natural advantages.
Even when speaking to enemy leaders, he laid much more stress on his faith in God than his official royal connections and written authorization. And as a result of his prayer life and his openness to God’s leading, his “citizen-soldier” plan presents a powerful picture of how Christians ought to work at whatever task they’re doing.
Nehemiah recognized that he was not simply restoring a wall around a once great city. He was rebuilding a ruined wall around the city that housed the temple of the living God, the city where God himself had chosen to live. At God’s direction, he was doing God’s work, which happened to entail rebuilding a wall.
We, too, have a powerful and implacable enemy. Satan stands opposed to building the kingdom of God and comes against the church with a wide array of weapons. Whatever else we are doing, we are at work building the kingdom of God in wartime conditions.
Like the ancient builders of Jerusalem’s wall, we must work diligently, but also be mindful of the enemy. Whenever Satan attacks, we must be wearing the full armor of God and prepared to use the weapons of our spiritual warfare.