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Ezra & Nehemiah

Building the Wall

Nehemiah 1-4,6

Lesson audio

The Wall

We now move into the book of Nehemiah. In the early days of the Jewish recordkeeping, Ezra and Nehemiah were consolidated as one book. Gradually, over the years, they were separated into Ezra 1 and Ezra 2. Ezra 2 eventually became what is now known as Nehemiah. To understand why this particular book has its own importance to Jewish history, we will need to begin with an explanation of the use of a fortified wall around the city in ancient times.

Advantages to the Defender

Perhaps you’ve never wondered about this, but all of the significant cities of ancient times had a large, thick wall around the city. This was not simply a method of defining the city limits; it was a military necessity given the technology of the time. The wall gave the defender certain advantages which were indispensable if you wanted to maintain your own empire.

·         The first is what the military tacticians call “economy of force.” The concept is a relatively simple one; it means that you can achieve the maximum effect with the minimum number of troops. If you put the man behind a 30 foot high wall (or more likely, on the pathway on top of it) he is shielded by the stones from the weapons of the enemy. Attacking a walled city takes a much larger number of troops than defending it. So the king with a smaller number of troops could match the power of his adversary who was standing in an open field.

·         There is also the question of physics. If you are standing on top of the wall, and your opponent is down below on the field, the range of your arrows is in general longer than the range of his arrows. He’s shooting uphill. You’re shooting downhill. The same distinction applies to spears; there is almost no sense trying to throw a spear at someone on top of the wall. The man on the wall, on the other hand, has gravity to increase the speed of his spear. Score one for physics.

·         A walled city almost always had what was called a “sally port.” This was a gate that was easy to get out of — especially in the middle of the night — so you could launch a raid on your opponent and then run back inside your fortress. This kept the attackers from sleeping, at the very least. It also meant that if this was just one of many walled cities in the kingdom, your opponent had to consider whether or not to lay siege to this walled city.

Disadvantages to an Enemy

Modern logistics have made light work of many of the disadvantages of ancient times. One of the four weapons Dwight Eisenhower cited as being crucial for success in the World War II was the 2 ½ ton truck. (The others were the DC-3, the bulldozer and the Jeep — and none of the four was originally designed for combat.) It goes to the heart of the problem of dealing with a fixed fortification. Specifically, and attacking enemy had to consider these things:

·         He had first to decide whether or not to lay siege to your fortress, or simply mask it. You mask a fortress by putting enough troops are rounded to keep the troops inside, inside. This takes less in the way of military manpower, but you have to leave the folks in position. That’s a drain on your resources; it means you have so many fewer troops for the next attack.

·         There is also the little problem of food and water. Your opponent in all likelihood has left you no food and no water out in the open country. Standard procedure would be to stop up all the springs and gather all the food in the area into the fortress. This meant that if you’re going to lay siege to that fortress, you are going to have to find a way to eat and drink. There was also the little difficulty that concentrating that number of troops in such a small area might produce an epidemic of disease. Armies of this time were best fed by marching on.

·         Remember too that campaigns in those days were usually conducted by alliances of small kingdoms. The Persian Empire, for example, had well over 100 different tribal groups. Many of these would be together on the same campaign. Troops were motivated by the thought that they would plunder their opponents. If you have to conduct a siege, that means the troops have to put up with delayed gratification. It was considered standard fare that the troops were entitled to rape all the women and then select the best and prettiest as slaves. So, for example, if you decide to mask the fortress that means that the tribal groups doing that don’t get the ordinary privileges of rape and pillage; they just have to sit there. This might not be politically stable.

Peacetime Advantages

The wall also had its peacetime advantages. It defined the existence of a city, and the city meant civilization. In the little villages of the countryside you can have no organized police force; the walls of the city to find a place where you could. Typically, the city was much larger than anything that did not have a wall. That meant that you could have people specializing in certain economic activities — money lending, for example. The parallel today would be something like living in a small town without a bank or an ATM.

The city was also a natural magnet for trade. Since there were a sufficient number of citizens there for business, it would not take long for roads to be defined which led to the city. Think of the advantages today to owners of a store in a strip mall if that strip mall is right at the bottom of a freeway off ramp. The simple act of trading generally produced economic benefits for all those involved. It allowed the gold diggers to dig gold without worrying about where they were going to find turnips.

Being a citizen of a particular city also carried its advantages. The power and prestige of that city went along with citizenship. You will recall Paul telling us that he was a citizen of Tarsus, which in the King James he described as “no mean city.” In a sense, it defined the city sophisticate in the country pumpkin.

So, as I hope you can see, if you have a city of any significance, you need a wall around it. Nehemiah knew that; this is the story of how he built that wall for Jerusalem.

Nehemiah’s Prayer

Let’s take a look at how Nehemiah started this project.

Nehemiah 1:1-11 NASB  The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol,  (2)  that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem.  (3)  They said to me, "The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire."  (4)  When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.  (5)  I said, "I beseech You, O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments,  (6)  let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father's house have sinned.  (7)  "We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.  (8)  "Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples;  (9)  but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.'  (10)  "They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand.  (11)  "O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man." Now I was the cupbearer to the king.

 

Preparation

It would be wise for us to note that Nehemiah begins his account with a short mention of the detailed that he had obtained the facts before going to God in prayer. This carries with it certain implications.

·         It implies that he is serious about the problem; in other words, he cares. This is not the case of a man asking God for something that he thinks is a good idea though he personally would want to put

·         It specifically implies that he is willing to do something about it — and since he’s is in a prominent position in the king’s court it will be a personal sacrifice.

·         As is customary in the Old Testament with the Jewish people, he approaches this with mourning and fasting. This is the spiritual complement of his willingness to take action.

His Prayer

An outline of Nehemiah’s prayer will show us his approach. Kindly note the following:

·         He begins by acknowledging who God is. If you want a personal relationship with someone, you need to understand who they really are. Nehemiah acknowledges who God is in three particular aspects:

o   He describes him as “great and awesome.” There is no aspect here of the “me and Jesus in the phone booth” theology. Nehemiah knows he is addressing the Lord of the universe, one who is far greater than he is.

o   He invokes the fact that God has made a covenant with the people of Israel. In other words, he is establishing the basis for his plea not upon his own personal worth but upon what God has promised to the people of Israel.

o   He also recalls God’s promise of loving kindness to those who are obedient to him. In this, he appeals to the eternal nature of God. The New Testament tells us that “God is love”; that fact was well known to the people of the Old Testament times. It is still a basis for our appeal in prayer today.

·         Next, he makes full confession of the sins of the nation of Israel. This may seem strange to us; we seldom hear of the idea that a nation can sin. But I submit to you that the Christian in a democracy is particularly vulnerable to this. We bear some responsibility for what our country does, and we should be willing to confess when our nation has sinned.

·         He then goes on to claim the promises of God’s word. It’s interesting to note that the promises given were first enunciated almost 1000 years earlier. Nehemiah is implicitly depending upon the unchanging, eternal nature of God. It is a disease of our modern times that we assume that anything which is older than we are must be unreliable. The things of God are eternal.

·         His appeal echoes with the phrase, “your people.” He is reminding God that he chose the Jews to be his selected people, and asking him to care for them as he did before. In short, he is reminding God who the good guys should be, even if they haven’t been all that good.

·         He then makes his specific requests. He asks in general for success in what he is doing, and in particular asks for compassion on the part of the king. That’s particularly important; he is asking God for favor within the system of government that exists, not to overthrow the government and restore the monarchy of David.[1]

Before the King

We may now take a look at the results.

Nehemiah 2:1-8 NASB  And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence.  (2)  So the king said to me, "Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart." Then I was very much afraid.  (3)  I said to the king, "Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers' tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?"  (4)  Then the king said to me, "What would you request?" So I prayed to the God of heaven.  (5)  I said to the king, "If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' tombs, that I may rebuild it."  (6)  Then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, "How long will your journey be, and when will you return?" So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time.  (7)  And I said to the king, "If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah,  (8)  and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go." And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.

 

It is fascinating that the King’s permission turns upon a point of emotion. Ataxerxes evidently was a man of perception; and Nehemiah is taken by surprise by this. He evidently wasn’t quite ready to talk to the king just yet. But in the midst of the affair he utters a little prayer to God and steps forth in faith.

The king seems to be fond of the young man — but he’s still a king. He’s used to wheeling and dealing. So he does not give Nehemiah unlimited resources and time to get this done. He limits the time that Nehemiah is going to get; after all, the man is a valued advisor and a trusted servant. He commits certain royal resources to the project and has the prudence to provide an army escort.

You can see why Nehemiah said “the good hand of my God was on me.” He’s been obliged to roll the dice a little too early in the game; he hasn’t had time to prepare the King for his request. But his opportunity came up and he grabbed it with both hands. Sometimes, the life of the Christian requires such holy boldness.

Building the Wall

Scattered throughout chapters 2 through 6 (excluding chapter 5) is the account of the actual building of the wall.

Tour of Inspection

The reader will pardon the commentary which follows. Your author was, for many years, a professional project manager. It is impossible for me to look at this without seeing the wisdom in project management which Nehemiah brings to the situation. It stands in stark contrast to the method usually found in the churches with which I am accustomed. Good project managers know that there are three things which are absolutely critical in understanding: what is the task, how long do you have to finish it and what is it going to cost. This triangle — task, time, cost — is the basis for understanding project management. Nehemiah already has a time constraint; he has an implicit cost constraint because he has only the people in Jerusalem to work with; and now he has to determine how big the task is.

So, just exactly what is the task? We know from archaeological records the size and width of the wall, and how it was constructed. Nehemiah’s task is to build a wall approximately 8 meters high, approximately 23 feet wide at the base, whose edges are of laid stone carefully chinked, filled in the interior with rubble. This would be typical of the wall construction of the time for a city wall of minimal cost. There are other methods; if money was no object he would use large stone blocks. If time was no objection, he might’ve had people make large mud brick walls. In this instance he is short of time and has only the resources at hand — which determines how the wall is to be constructed.

There is a parallel to this in Christian life:

Luke 14:31-32 NASB  "Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand?  (32)  "Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.

 

We are encouraged to count the cost of the faith. Often enough, the preaching profession comes out with the idea that careful planning is antithetical to faith. If that is true, Nehemiah is an excellent example of doing it wrong — which does seem to be contrary to the point here.

You will please note that Nehemiah begins by providing encouragement to those will be the workers on the project. It’s a common problem that people at the beginning of a project look at it and say, “it can’t be done.” Sometimes the project manager has to start by explaining that the way you eat an elephant is one bite at a time. If your project happens to be a Christian one, it’s perfectly valid to say that if God wants it done it will happen — but he wants it done by you specifically, you’re going to need some encouragement along the way. There is a difference between magic and faith.

Chapter 3 is one of those long lists of people and activities which would be quite at home in today’s project planning world. Not only is this convincing evidence that we’re reading a true account, it is also evidence of careful planning on Nehemiah’s part. The comparison with the common church method of, “God will provide somehow” is instructive.[2]

Opposition

One way to tell for certain that you’re doing what God wants is that the people of evil will oppose you. Here’s what Nehemiah had to face; the same sorts of things apply today.

·         It’s very frustrating, but your opponents will begin with mockery. Every important project gathers a collection of naysayers who know it can’t be done. It’s difficult to say what motivates them, but they appear in every significant project. If you are charged with doing something large for the kingdom of God, expect this.[3] Note that these people do not produce facts and figures; just laughter. Take the irritation to God, as Nehemiah did.

·         You should also expect “fifth column” activities inside the church. There are plenty of people who have a better way to do the job, a better job to do, or other interests which conflict with what you’re trying to do. Persistence is sovereign.

·         Sometimes, in this passage is a good example, you’ll actually face combat of some sort. Like Nehemiah, you should prepare for it. You should encourage those were going to have to perform the combat that they will be well taken care of, for this is God’s work. Note that in this instance combat is a threat, not a reality. A good parallel example today would come from the ACLU, which regularly tells preachers they can’t comment on politics. If they do, we’ll sue.

·         Always, always expect a personal attack on the leader of the project. In this instance it is done by someone who calls himself a prophet. If you are doing something important for God, your courage will be tested.

Character of a Christian Leader

Most of us will never be called upon to build a rock and rubble wall. But if you have a position of leadership in the church, no matter how minor, there are some lessons in this passage for you.

·         First, remember that courage is the foundation of all other virtue. If you don’t have the guts to do the job, it isn’t going to get done by you. Expect that it will be challenged; pray that you will rise to that challenge.

·         Next, be sure that you know what task you have been given. It is frequently found in the church that people are given something so vague and fuzzy that it would be impossible to determine whether or not they ever accomplished it. Some people are commissioned with, “go forth — and do good things.” Do not accept this; at least at the first step outline what it is you think you need to do and see if that’s reasonable as a statement of the work to be done. Planning ahead is not a demonstration of lack of faith. Once you have planned, then do not hesitate to implement. Get the job done.

·         Expect opposition. Some of that opposition will be internal to the church; some of that opposition will be outside the church. You should not only expect it, you should expect it to be unscrupulous. The best defense against false accusation is the truth.



[1] As a side note, you might look at Daniel 9:25-27. The King's decree letting Nehemiah go forth to rebuild the wall is the starting point of the sixty-nine weeks described by Daniel. Most good commentaries will give you the timeline for this.

[2] Your author’s church recently went through a major building campaign. If you perceive that some of these comments came from the results of that campaign, you are correct.

[3] J. Lawrence Peter, the man who coined the "Peter principle", referred to these people as the "Abominable No-Man."

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