Sanballat and his associates narrow their reproach of the city to an attack on the builders, who, led by the faithful Nehemiah, persist in their efforts to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
The reproach that described the sorry state of Jerusalem and its inhabitants (1:3; 2:17, translated “trouble” and “disgrace” in the NRSV) now narrows to attack the builders seeking to rectify the situation, though here the Hebrew word is translated as “taunt” (4:4). Later, we will see the enemies’ reproach narrow further to Nehemiah himself (6:13).
Two distinct activities, repair of the walls and defense of the city, are held in tension by means of an ingenious wordplay on the Hebrew term hazaq. This term, translated as “repaired” in the NRSV, occurs thirty-four times in chapter 3. The same term, translated as “held [a weapon]” appears in verses 16, 17, and 21. The Inclusio is a literary device in which a writer places similar material at the beginning and ending of a work or section of a work. For example, Mark's gospel contains an inclusio in which Jesus is recognized (at his baptism and crucifixion) as God's Son. More thus formed frames the section and ties these two activities together.
Chapter 3, while it deals with the “repair” of the walls, is actually yet another of the many lists that punctuate this material. We have seen at other junctures that these lists, originally designed to provide historical information, serve the theological purpose of charting the community’s status as they move toward becoming the reconstituted people of God. Here, the solidarity of the people is being lifted up. Priests, Levites, lay people, merchants, and political leaders all work as one on the project. By bringing these disparate elements of the society together, Nehemiah was also forging them into a cohesive community.
Chapter 4 deals with the defense of the city. Nehemiah effectively dealt with the threats of the opposition by dividing the workers into three groups. One group was armed and served as guards (4:16). A second group served as porters, using one hand to work and the other for carrying a weapon (4:17). The third group, the actual builders, worked with both hands but kept a sword at their side (4:18). All could be summoned to defense at the sound of a trumpet.