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September 3, 2008

Building the Wall

As a retired Bible Teacher, I couldn’t help but think of Nehemiah as I watched the workmen build a block wall around our yard this last week. I loved teaching the Old Testament because it is a series of stories, each seemingly, more interesting and full of drama and conflict than the one before. One of those great books is the book of Nehemiah. I trust that you will forgive me if I revert a bit to my old avocation.

Nehemiah lived in Persia or what is now called Iran, in the city of Susa. Susa was supposedly the most ancient civilization there was. It was located about 150 miles east of the current location of the Tigris River. The Jewish people had been taken captive in two groups. The Northern Kingdom was taken captive in 721 BC after a three year siege. These people were deported to Assyria. The Southern Kingdom, or Judah, was taken captive in 586 BC by Babylon in the reign of Nebuchadnezzar. The invaders came in, looted and destroyed the temple, burned down every important building and tore down the walls of the city and led the elite of the people captive to Babylon where they became servants to the rulers.

The people had been warned that they would be in captivity for 70 years to make up for violating the Lord’s command observe a Sabbath Rest for the land. There were three returns of the people. The first group, under Zerubbabel, had returned to Jerusalem 536 BC, years before Nehemiah, but they had made no progress in fortifying the city. They walls were broken down, the gates were missing and the city was vulnerable to attack. The people had first rebuilt the temple, even though it was a small little temple. Whenever they tried to build up the walls they were frightened off by their more powerful neighbors or the word would come from the Persian court that they were to stop.

The second return was under the leadership of Ezra,who was the great grandson of Hilkiah, the great Old Testament priest who had directed child King Josiah in his reforms. Ezra and his group returned in 457 BC. Ezra was both a priest and a scribe and he reestablished the worship of the people. But still the wall hadn’t been built. The third return was under the leadership of Nehemiah who was a cupbearer to the king, Artaxerxes. The king noticed that when Nehemiah appeared before him he was sad. The king inquired of him and when Nehemiah told him his sadness was because Jerusalem was not secure, the king sent him back to Jerusalem loaded with provisions and materials and letter from the king giving him permission to rebuild. Not only that but the king sent army officers and cavalry to escort them. This was done in the year 444 BC.

When he reached Jerusalem, Nehemiah went out on horseback at night and surveyed the damage. Then he assembled the people and gave a stirring speech, probably better than any convention speech we have heard. He told them all about his call from God to do the work, about how God had provided everything they needed and more and how God had stirred the heart of the king. He said, “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and we will longer be in disgrace.” The people responded, “Let us start rebuilding.” Of course now it got interesting. There was opposition from the neighbors, they were mocked and ridiculed but the building progressed. Nehemiah was a great administrator. Each section was built by the people who lived there. They built walls and set doors in place. What might appear to be a dry section is full of interesting little tidbits. Neh. 3:5 tells us that “The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.” I especially liked Neh. 3:12 which gives this little insight, “Shallum, son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section with the help of his daughters." I am one of six daughters so I can just picture it.

Later on there was more opposition and actually physical fighting and opposition but the people worked on with half of the people posted with spears and weapons and the other half building the wall. It is wonderful exciting story. The opposition used lies and deceit and intimidation and discouragement and even tried to infiltrate them but the people built on from the first light of dawn until the stars came out, it says. Nehemiah, the exemplary leader, worked with them. He and his men did not even take off their clothes as they worked and watched.

The wall was completed in 52 days. The record tells us that when the enemies heard about this they lost their self confidence because, “They realized the work had been done with the help of our God.” Of course the wonderful part of the story is not how they built the wall in such a short time, or how they overcame the opposition, it is because the whole book is laced through with the prayers of Nehemiah and the people and the answers to those prayers. Over and over their confidence in God and His provision is iterated in such phrases as:

Neh. 2:8 - And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my request
Neh. 2:20 - The God of heaven will give us success.
Neh. 4:20 - Our God will fight for us.
Neh. 6:9 - But I prayed, “Now strengthen my hands.”
Neh. 8:10 - Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.
Neh. 8:17 - And their joy was very great.

Of course there is much more but you get the picture. Our wall is functional, I hope. Their wall symbolic and instructional. The lesson was - “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me." It was true for Nehemiah and it true for me.

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