How vulnerable were the workers (Nehemiah 4:16-23) 16 And it came to pass from that time forth, that the half of my servants wrought in the work, and the other half of them held both the spears, the shields and the bows and the jackets of mail; and the rulers were behind all the house of Judah. 17 Those who built on the wall and those who bore burdens with those who loaded — every one with one of his hands wrought in the work and with the other hand held a weapon. 18 For the builders, every one, had his sword girded by his side, and so built. And he that sounded the trumpet was by me. 19 And I said unto the nobles and to the rulers and to the rest of the people, “The work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another. 20 In what place therefore ye hear the sound of the trumpet, resort ye thither unto us. Our God shall fight for us.” 21 So we labored in the work; and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning until the stars appeared. 22 Likewise at the same time said I unto the people, “Let every one with his servant lodge within Jerusalem, that in the night they may be a guard to us, and labor in the day.” 23 So neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of the guard who followed me, none of us, put off our clothes, except that every one put them off for washing.
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A great question and I humbly submit for your consideration that they were directed to be ready for either a surprise ambush or battle by their enemies in concert with others within their own. So in a sense it's been the same story with different players for human kind since the garden; those with situational awareness and those without it. It's not paranoia when someone threats and you know they mean to carry out the deed. (Psalms 144:1; Proverbs 22:3) The enemy plan is diabolically simple; appear as not a threat to your intended victims, while gaining access to their soft interior points by exploiting the ever present squishes proclivities, not be hurt, but rewarded via simple baubles. (Matthew 18:7) There was a time if a male did not have the stomach for battle, "they were told to go and sit with the women" as a societal correcting mechanism, but we have permitted the slow removal "any healthy shame" from our culture which is proving to be not a good thing for any civil society. Now I have been blessed experiencing warriors who were women with the heart of a lion, who would put to shame many a male, so there is always hope friend. (Judges 4:9; Judges 4:21; Judges 5:26; Luke 18:8) "The occupation of the good soldier of Christ is war" Charles Spurgeon In The Lord's Freedom...warrior on
I'd say that the passage cited in the question indicates that they were very vulnerable, as illustrated by the following considerations: Half of them had to be devoted exclusively to standing an armed guard to protect the other half while they worked on rebuilding the city wall. Even the workers themselves had to be ready to participate in an armed defense at a moment's notice. Jerusalem's protective wall -- the city's main defense -- was still broken down from the original conquest of it at the time that Judah went into exile. The number of people who returned, and who were able to do the work of rebuilding, was far less than the number of the former inhabitants of the city. They were surrounded by people who were indifferent (at best) and hostile (at worst) to the success of their endeavor. The workers were also not clustered in groups, but were isolated and separated from one another. Finally, their situation was so perilous that they also did not have time even for functions like a regular changing of clothes, except for a periodic laundering. However, despite all these adverse considerations, the workers still had the advantage of God's favor regarding what they were trying to do. Both the workers and God were fully contributing to the success of the mission, just as people even in the present day should show a similar willingness to add their own best effort to their requests for God's assistance.
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