Meet The Wall Builders

Meet The Wall Builders

Meet the Wall Builders

I have mentioned before that my favorite novel is Les Miserables. It is long, but the plot generally moves at a swift pace. Victor Hugo covers a lot of ground over the course of its 1200 pages. I say it generally has a fast pace, because there are a few sections of the narrative that come to a grinding halt. 

The two points that particularly stand out to me are his lengthy descriptions of the convent where Jean Valjean and Cosette live for a time. He breaks from the story to essentially give the background of the convent as well as detailed descriptions of the location and the building. He makes a similar decision describing the sewage system in Paris before Valjean makes his escape through it. One popular translation of the novel places both of these sections in the back as appendices to be read by the devoted few. 

Of course, I don’t think it counts as reading a book if you haven’t read every word that the author wrote, so I read them at the point in the novel where Hugo intended them to be read. But I did find those sections to be particularly cumbersome to slog through.

There are some sections like that in the book of Nehemiah as well. Chapter three takes a break from the flow of the plot to provide a detailed list of the building assignments. Similar lists are found in Ancient Near East cities during the time of the Assyrian rule. It seems likely that Nehemiah was keeping detailed notes of these assignments in order to provide updates for King Artaxerxes. 

This list of names and assignments to rebuild various portions of the wall also served as a testimony to future generations, but does it have any relevance to us today? Obviously, God has a good reason for inspiring this passage and preserving it. We know that all Scripture is profitable for us (2 Tim. 3:16-17). 

That being said, it would be easy to get lost in the forest trying to find meaning in each tree. Everything in this chapter can be narrowed down to two categories. We can talk about the project and we can talk about the people. However, while exploring those two sections this morning we will indeed learn some important principles for ministry.

Read Nehemiah 3:1-32

A Comprehensive Project

The IVP Bible Background Commentary on the Old Testament does a good job of guessing where each of the gates and walls mentioned were located. Maps have been created to show the estimated proportions of the wall, towers, and gates. I thought about including a bulletin insert with a map of Jerusalem at this time. But, honestly, the map is mostly conjecture. 

The Bible Knowledge Commentary provides a map labeled “Jerusalem in the Time of Nehemiah” that lays everything out including the number of yards each section would have been. However, there is a (?) behind each label on the map and a dotted line for the “possible location of the Broad Wall”.

Now, I’m being a bit too simplistic. The text does provide some structure and uses language that indicates the list goes from one section of the wall to the next in a counterclockwise motion. “The Sheep Gate” is mentioned in the first and last verse. We are given cubit measurements to indicate the length of one section (v.13). Plus, although we don’t have precision, there is corroborating archeological evidence that supports some of what we assume about the layout of the map. 

One study conducted in the region determined that the eastern wall, described in the latter half of the chapter, was moved up higher along the slope. So a new wall, eight feet thick, was constructed. While it was a solidly built wall, it was not very precise and seemed to have been rapidly made.

Still, it must be admitted that we have little data with which to reconstruct a map of Jerusalem during the Persian period. And a hypothetical map probably doesn’t help us understand and apply the purpose of this passage.

On the other hand, Ancient Christian Commentaries often found so many metaphors it is hard to imagine the original audience was able to pick up on all of the nuanced meaning. For instance, Venerable Bede (circa 672) interpreted the gates as typology:

  • The Fish Gate = Christians because they were often called “fish”.
  • The Dung Gate = Ordained ministers “through whom the filth of the vices is removed from the minds of the elect.”
  • The Pool of Shelah (believed to be the same pool where Jesus healed the man born blind) = The Savior “sent” by God for illumination.

I came across one pastor who spent a sermon on each individual gate. Could you imagine spending several months on this chapter alone? Each sermon took the name of the gate and developed an entire sermon based upon that theme. For instance, the Inspection Gate (v.31) was interpreted as a representation of God’s judgment. Therefore, he explained how this gate was a constant reminder to the inhabitants of Jerusalem that the judgment of God had sent them into exile, and that it would eventually fall upon their enemies. Now, that’s all well and good, but none of it can be proven from the text.

This chapter shows the very meticulous organizational skills of Nehemiah. He could write a book on The Magic Art of Rebuilding Walls. The chapter mentions about 45 different sections that needed repair (gates, towers, and walls). And Nehemiah is overseeing the whole operation. This was no minor project, but his administrative skills are on full display here.

  1. Sheep Gate (3:1–2) Where sheep were brought in for sacrificing in the temple. It was located near the temple and it’s significance is indicated by it’s being the only one they consecrated. The Rebuilding began in Ezra with the altar and temple. Here in Nehemiah, the rebuilding begins with the sheep gate. It emphasizes the centrality of worship in the covenant community. The north wall had two towers because it was located on the city’s most vulnerable side.
  2. Fish Gate (3:3–5) Where fish were brought in to be sold in the market (13:16).
  3. Old Gate (3:6–12) This section included the Tower of Ovens which probably means it was near where the bakers worked.
  4. Valley Gate (3:13) A thousand cubits = 500 yards. This was a lengthy section which may indicate that the wall was in fairly good shape to begin with or that there were several “inhabitants of Zanoah” contributing to the work.
  5. Refuse Gate (3:14) If sheep came in the sheep gate, fish were brought through the fish gate, bread was baked near the Tower of Ovens, we can make a fairly educated guess about what went out the refuse gate.
  6. Fountain Gate (3:15–25) After the Fountain Gate, the text mentions landmarks associated with each section of the wall rather than gates. This is probably where the wall was repositioned higher up on the hillside. They moved the wall (1) because less space was needed for the smaller population, and (2) due to the challenge of removing the extensive amount of debris down the steep eastern slope (2:14).
  7. Water Gate (3:26–27) Access to the Kidron Valley and the main source of water, the Gihon Spring. 
  8. Horse Gate (3:28–30) Large enough for horses to enter.
  9. Muster Gate (3:31–32) Where people gathered for inspection. We can’t even be certain whether they were inspecting priests, guards, or others.

Walls provided security. They were built to protect a city. They did not rebuild the walls due to a lack of trust in God. The walls were the secondary means by which God would protect them so that they might honor God with the worship that He prescribed. Some of us know how frustrating and distracting it can be to worship with enemies attempting to disrupt the service.

In addition to providing the inhabitants with security, walls also symbolized their separation from the pagan nations that surrounded them. In other words, the walls of the city represented the need for believers to be distinct from the world.

Our sense of security and identity does not come from a wall or a building, but these things afford us with the space to gather and focus our hearts upon the person with whom we identify. Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone of God’s greatest building project. And each one of us is called to play a part in building up one another as the body of Christ.

With the scope of this comprehensive project in mind we can now turn to comment on the wall builders who proved to be…

A Cohesive People

I can remember one occasion in a church I attended where the preacher asked for a show of hands for anyone who finds the genealogical records in Scripture to be boring. I sheepishly raised my hand. To my recollection, I was alone in that gesture. Predictably, the preacher proceeded to remind us just how important each one of those names were. That God’s word doesn’t contain any superfluous information. I wholeheartedly agree. But that was not the question. The question had to do with whether or not we enjoyed reading a list of names. If God’s Word contained nothing but a list of names, it would remain important, but can we admit that it would be very difficult to get through?

However, when you take a step back and consider the diversity of backgrounds represented by the various names, regions, and occupations that are mentioned among the builders—you gain an appreciation for their unity all the more.

  1. Priests The high priest, Eliashib, and his brothers built and consecrated the Sheep Gate (3:1). The religious leaders were setting an example by their commitment to the project.
  2. Individuals from Prominent Families We cannot pinpoint these names precisely, but we can assume the original audience was familiar with many of these families.
  3. Commuters People volunteered to travel in from Jericho, Tekoa, Gibeon, Mizpah, Zanoah. The Tekoites completed two sections, like several others, despite the fact that they received no support from their nobles (3:5, 27). 
    • The nobles were stiff-necked against their lords (or LORD). It is interesting to note that Tekoa was located near the region governed by Geshem the Arab (2:19). Were they protecting an ally?
    • Unfortunately, even among an outpouring of supportive people, there will always remain some who do nothing but complain and refuse to help.
  4. District Rulers In contrast to the nobles of Tekoa, we see men who ruled significant regions, including: Jerusalem, Beth-haccherem, Mizpah, Beth-zur, and Keilah. They did not consider the work of rebuilding walls to be beneath them. One of the most unusual examples is Shallum, over half the district of Jerusalem, who had his daughters helping with repairs (3:12).
  5. Occupation Guilds It almost sounds like a joke. A goldsmith, a perfumer, and a merchant show up at the construction site. Here we see just how far people were willing to serve outside of their comfort zone. If there were anyone who could say, “I have no idea how to use a trowel!” Or “I don’t do blue collar work” it would have to be the perfumers.
  6. Homeowners Who were particularly invested in the quality of the walls near their homes.

This wonderful unity is reflected despite the broad range of diversity. Had Nehemiah tried to force this level of diversity it would have failed miserably. It would have only brought greater tension to the project. But, by keeping their focus on the singular goal, they wound up finding much greater diversity than anyone could have hoped for.

Notice who isn’t mentioned. We find no mention of stonemasons, carpenters, or men skilled in “wall-building” in any way. Experts need not apply.

Boice Unfortunately, many churches have it completely turned around. It is said that today the churches more than anything else resemble a football game played in a large stadium. There are eighty thousand spectators in the stands who badly need some exercise, and there are twenty-two men on the field who badly need a rest.

The nobles from Tekoa, the only ones explicitly called out for their prideful refusal to work, stand in stark contrast to the humility exemplified by the ministry of Jesus, who said “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). On the night of his betrayal, he took a towel and a basin of water and washed the disciples’ feet commanding them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). That same night, Jesus prayed that his followers “may all be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you” (John 17:21).

This massive wall rebuilding project ultimately took Nehemiah and his diverse team of volunteers 52 days to complete. That means decades of devastation were reversed within a few short months of cooperation. The ordinary unity of the church can produce extraordinary results for the kingdom.