So Nehemiah showed up with a wild idea of everyone rebuilding the wall without much structure or planning. That was all fine and good, but would it work with the issue of defense? Rebuilding the wall was a great project with broad support from throughout the community. And yet, it had opponents.
It had powerful opponents, and we see what sort of response they triggered in Chapter 4.
Some people were invested in Jerusalem’s sorry state, which seems to have provided them with some benefit. “They all made plans to come and fight against Jerusalem and to bring about confusion there.” (v.8)
This word choice is ironic, since it could be argued that confusion was already the order of business, due to Nehemiah’s organizational style (or perhaps we should call it “disorganizational style”). On the other hand, the fluid, decentralized and rather haphazard system (which we might call “Nehemian”) was immune to outside meddling.
It could be likened to the flow of water, which splashes and spreads when it recieves a blow. Each team was compact and integrated enough to withstand any interference, and autonomous enough to keep working despite any disruption to its link to the whole.
More to the point, it was a cellular structure, which is the same sort of system that God has devised to keep living things in operation despite outside interference.
“Immune” is the key word here.
Although Nehemian organizing was resistant to disruption of its cells, it still needed a way to protect them enough that they could continue their respective work assignments. Here there is a stark contrast with a typical workforce:
Even though “The people of Judah began to complain that the workers were becoming tired, (v.10) there was no forced labor. Indeed, effective coercion would have been impossible: “The common laborers carried on their work with one hand supporting their load and one hand holding a weapon.” (v.17)
As it was with the work itself, so it was with defense. Nehemiah stationed the people by families, apparently with specialist guards only at the weakest points in the wall (v.13) The guards were most certainly not there to make sure the people were working hard enough.
So where was Nehemiah?
He did play a role as coordinator, traveling with a trumpeter who would sound the alarm if there was an attack. (vv.18-20) This suggests that Nehemiah was out where an attack was likely to originate, in the face of danger. He reported that he never took off his clothes and carried a weapon at all times, even to get water. (v.23)
A cushy desk job, this was not. If anything, Nehemiah was serving somewhat like the trigger for an immune response, in which the white blood cells are called in to defend against the invading microorganisms. Once again, we find that Nehemiah wasn’t really inventing anything. He was merely reproducing a system that was already at work within his own skin.