Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 3 Background Reading: Jeremiah 52:1–14
Rebuilding the Walls
As we begin reading through Nehemiah 3, we are probably asking ourselves whether we want to continue, or jump ahead to Nehemiah 4. In one sense, we find these names and places rather meaningless. Why should we bother learning all these names of persons or the names of the gates that they fixed? Is there any significance to them? Why did God, the primary author of Scripture, allow or inspire Nehemiah to include all these names and connections in his Word?
At the most elementary lesson, we know that genealogies and family histories were important in Jewish culture. We have seen that in the census reported in Numbers 1 and in Numbers 26. We have also seen it in 1 Chronicles 1–9, where family groups are laid out in seemingly endless detail. We have seen it in our study of Ezra 2 and Ezra 8, where those returning to Jerusalem are recorded for us. From earliest times, the Jews were masters at recording genealogical records.
At a more advanced level, we should note that this rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem is an event of profound historic meaning. This is an event worth recording. God’s people had suffered the humiliation of a broken kingdom center, without any attempts at restoration. Now, finally, it was about to be rebuilt, restored to its original splendor and function. To report it without giving recognition to the most important helpers would be unthinkable.
On a more profound level, we are reminded that “all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Tim. 3:16–17). This passage in Nehemiah 3 is no exception. God has included it for our instruction. What can we learn from it? How will we be edified by it?
The High Priest Sets the Example
As we open Nehemiah 3, we note that it is Eliashib, the high priest, who is first cited as a builder. How fitting, that the high priest should set the example and should be the first to respond to Nehemiah’s challenge. Matthew Henry makes the astute observation, “Ministers should be foremost in every good work; for their office obliges them to teach and quicken by their example, as well as by their doctrine. If there be labor in it, who so fit as they to work? If danger, who so fit as they to venture? The dignity of the high priest was very great, and obliged him to signalize himself in this service.” He goes on to focus on their specific project, reminding us that “the priests repaired the sheep-gate, so called because through it were brought the sheep that were to be sacrificed in the temple; and therefore the priests undertook the repair of it because the offerings of the Lord made by fire were their inheritance. And of this gate only it is said that they sanctified it with the word and prayer.”
On a broader scale, we need to note the number and scope of the volunteers who immediately went to work on a specific section of the wall or on a particular gate. We note that there are ten separate gates listed, and forty-two sections of the wall being repaired. According to different estimates, the circumference of the wall extended two and one-half miles. The wall enclosed an area of approximately 220 acres, which was the apparent size of Old Jerusalem. If we jump ahead to Nehemiah 6:15, we note that the entire rebuilding project was completed in just fifty-two days. At first blush, this seems incredible. Was Nehemiah such an outstanding organizer? Were all these people waiting, with bated breath, to tackle a job that had lain dormant for over a century? How does one explain such a tremendous accomplishment? We could, with some legitimacy, argue that this is an example of the way that church groups should always work. We could make this a model for all church projects. We could even personalize the accomplishments by calling attention to strong family traditions, citing individuals who also appeared in the group listed in Ezra 2 and in Ezra 8. We note, for example, that Eliashib is the grandson of Jeshua, who was the high priest in that first migration in 538 B.C. We could note other names (Hassenaah, Meremoth, Meshullam) that appeared earlier in the listing in Ezra 2.
What should amaze us is the speed with which this big, important project is undertaken. We might surmise that Nehemiah is an extremely successful motivational speaker. We might also conclude that Nehemiah is a fantastic community organizer, marshaling all these volunteers and assigning them work stations near their homes. We might want to award him the Jewish Medal of Honor. But Nehemiah does not want any credit for himself. In his motivational speech, he declares, “Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision” (Neh. 2:17). He then goes on to acknowledge both the hand of “my God” and the “words that the king had spoken to me” (Neh. 2:18). The only motivational argument offered is “that we may no longer suffer derision.” That is effective, for the Samaritan neighbors have been jeering and mocking them for more than one hundred years. Ever since the first attempts to rebuild the temple in 536 B.C., these neighbors have been thorns in the Jewish sides (see Ezra 4:1–6). Now, at first sight of King Artaxerxes’s envoy, the harassment continues. Noting the king’s strong commitment to this endeavor, God’s people quickly respond. A beautiful, inspiring reaction.
The Holy Spirit Is at Work
But this is not just a human work. The Holy Spirit is at work. God had obviously been at work in the heart and mind of King Artaxerxes and his seven counselors. They are the ones who commissioned Nehemiah and gave him all the authority and resources necessary. They provided all the means for its accomplishment, but God had moved them to that point. But God also uses human agents to accomplish his purposes. Two people who probably had powerful influence on the empire’s leaders were Queen Esther and Mordecai, the second most powerful person in the empire. Scripture is silent on this matter, but it is clear in the way that God had worked on King Darius, an earlier Persian monarch, by shutting the mouths of the lions (see Dan. 6:19–28). That miracle prompted him to issue a decree “that in all my royal dominion people are to tremble and fear before the God of Daniel, for he is the living God” (Dan. 6:26). The sovereign Lord had previously shown King Nebuchadnezzar that his Son, “the stone cut out by no human hand” (Dan. 2:34), would rule the nation of Persia with a rod of iron. He has also used the orphan Esther to influence the father of King Artaxerxes, who now commands that the walls be rebuilt. Historical redemptive theology is at work in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, even as it is proclaimed in the book of Daniel. The linkages have to be seen.
There are numerous reasons to rejoice as we ponder this passage, but there are also areas of concern. The Samaritans have once again attempted chaos. They had stopped the construction of the temple for ten years, from 530 to 520 B.C. They claimed to be deeply religious people and pretended to worship Jehovah. Almost all of the inhabitants are willing to go to work, but not the Tekoites, whose “nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord” (Neh. 3:5). Building walls and gates was heavy, dirty, physical work, which most everyone else was willing to do, but not “the nobles.” That was too demeaning, too lowly an occupation. The scene is reminiscent of that experienced thirteen years earlier, when Ezra and his entourage came from Persia. They, too, found an imperfect society. In that case, 111 men, some Levite priests, had married pagan women (see Ezra 10:18–44). Now, in Nehemiah’s experience, there is a class of people who think that they are too important to engage in physical labor. Life this side of heaven is never without its challenges. As we progress, we will see more evidence of opposition and the ways of meeting it.
Why Is a Wall Necessary?
A nagging question remains: Why is the wall necessary? Why should the king of Persia and his seven counselors expend so much effort to rebuild a wall that has been in ruins for more than 140 years? Why did the people of Judah not tackle the job sooner? As soon as the first exiles returned, they immediately constructed the altar and then began rebuilding the temple. After much difficulty, the temple was finally dedicated in 515 B.C. and became the center of glorious, inspiring worship. Why not begin work on the walls and the gates? Was there no threat of invasion? Was the Persian monarchy practicing a policy of benign neglect? Was there no sense of embarrassment among the Jews in their royal city?
Scripture gives us but one rationale, that coming from the mouth of suffer derision” (Neh. 2:17). The conditions in Jerusalem weighed heavily upon his heart. When he heard Hanani report that the exiles now living in Jerusalem are experiencing “great trouble and shame,” he was deeply affected. Jerusalem was the sacred city. That was where God dwelt. That was where God’s temple dwelt. If the surrounding peoples are mocking and ridiculing the people of God, they are also mocking and ridiculing God. That is intolerable. That must be stopped. The way to stop it is to restore the walls and the gates. These neighbors, who pretend to be so pious, are really enemies of God. They have the form of godliness, but their hearts are not right. They need to be kept out.
When King Artaxerxes commissioned Ezra to go to Jerusalem thirteen years earlier, he did so with the explicit desire to know whether God was being worshipped according to his law (Ezra 7:14). Ezra was the leading scholar whose job it was to make sure that worship in the land of Judah was in strict compliance with divine prescription. He found that to be so, even to the extent of Levite men having their marriages annulled because they conflicted with the Lord’s commands. The seventy-year exile, forced because of widespread disobedience, has had a very positive effect. Church discipline worked. God’s people had been transformed. They wanted the mocking and jeering and derision to stop, not because they were offended but because their God was offended. The wall was a symbol of protection. It was also a sign of restoration. What had been destroyed because of self-imposed punishment had to be rebuilt for the glory of God. This was his city. This was his home.
1. What was the response of Nehemiah to the threats of Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem when they jeered at and mocked the Israelites for wanting to rebuild the walls of the city (2:20)?
2. What does Nehemiah 3 tell us about the response of God’s people to the task at hand? Why did they not attempt this reconstruction at a much earlier date?
3. Did all classes of people volunteer their services? Were the priests, the temple servants, the government officials, and homeowners all willing to do the necessary work? Was there any group of persons unwilling to get involved (3:5)?
4. There are two parts to the rebuilding process: the wall itself and the gates. What can you learn about the gates into the city (3:3, 5, 13, 14, 15, 28, 29, 31, 32)?
5. What do the names of the various gates suggest about their functions (3:3, 14, 15, 28, 32)?
6. What is the purpose or function of the wall? Since the wall has been broken down for approximately 140 years, why the need to rebuild it now (Isa. 44:26; 45:13; 56:6–8)?
7. How did Sanballat and Tobiah react to the rebuilding that was going on (2:19; 4:1–3)?
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.