It is mildly amusing that a phrase so innocuous as ‘the wall’ should literally reverberate around the world, provoking reaction from every quarter. But don’t panic, it is not my intention to pass comment on the particular structure in the news at this time! What struck me in following this saga has been the fact the Bible appears to have an inordinate fascination about another wall. A wall that had more to it in terms of its significance than might immediately meet the eye.
The wall in question is, of course, the wall [or walls] of Jerusalem. One entire book of the Old Testament, Nehemiah, is constructed around this wall in more ways than one. The book of Psalms also makes reference to it in a number of places. Positively in Psalm 48, where the city of God is seen to be ‘in good shape’ spiritually, as well as structurally in terms of its strength and security. But negatively in Psalm 51 where David reflects on his moral failure as Israel’s leader and the impact his sin has had on the city from which he reigned. There he expresses his plea for restoration with the words, ‘…build up the walls of Jerusalem’ (Ps 51.18). So too as an expression of the grief felt by the exiles in Babylon when they remembered the Holy City and how their captors had torn it down ‘to its foundations’ (Ps 132.7).
One comment on this topic struck me recently in a particular way. It was where Nehemiah told the people of Jerusalem, ‘I devoted myself to the work on this wall’ (Ne 5.16) – a work he described later as being ‘a great work’ (Ne 6.3) – one which he would not allow to be interrupted. In many ways this is how Nehemiah has gone down in the collective memory of God’s people. He is ‘the wall-builder’. Although this certainly was true, there is far more bound up with that epithet than we might imagine.
The first clue to this comes in the opening chapter of the book. There we meet, not only Nehemiah, its author, but also Hanani, one of his brothers who had come to the citadel of Susa along with other men from Judah. Nehemiah questions them about the state of the city and the Jewish remnant who had survived the exile and they tell him of great trouble and disgrace among the people and that ‘The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates…burned with fire’ (Ne 1.3).
Nehemiah’s response to this report was to grieve and fast and pray. Indeed we are given the words he used in his prayer and they are very enlightening. Despite the fact that a once great wall, reduced to rubble, visibly dominated the news from Israel, his prayer says nothing about this structure. Instead he pleads with God about the spiritual and moral state of his people – himself included.
What happened next is so well known, it hardly bears retelling; but Artaxerxes, the Persian king Nehemiah served as cupbearer, sees that his servant is visibly upset by something and wants to know what it might be. Nehemiah gives the briefest of answers; but the king gives the most unexpected response: ‘What do you want?’ The High King of Heaven’s concern for his people and their city is channelled through this earthly monarch to open the door for Nehemiah to go back to his native city and take up the task that God had in mind for him. Once more, even though the state of ‘the wall’ seems on the surface to be the pretext for his mission, it was the fact that ‘someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites’ (Ne 2.10) that caused gravest concern among Israel’s enemies.
In many ways the landscape of the chapters that follow seems to be dominated by the physical challenges of reconstructing the wall – not just in terms of man (and woman) power, but resources and the running skirmishes that were being fought against Israel’s enemies throughout the project. Nehemiah provided hands-on leadership in this. He didn’t simply stand back and direct operations from a safe and comfortable distance; he literally rolled up his sleeves and got stuck in along with everyone else. But woven through this aspect of the narrative is the even greater story that unfolds in this chapter of Israel’s history.
The visible drama of Nehemiah’s involvement in ‘Building the Wall’ only succeeds because of the less visible spiritual drama of ‘rebuilding the broken lives’ of its people – something in which he was even more deeply involved.
The work on the wall project was challenging in the extreme; but the work on the human project even more so. It not only entailed this leader’s being involved with the practical and pastoral needs of the rank and file members of the community; it entailed his having to challenge those who were ostensibly their leaders. The spiritual leaders as well as the civic and community leaders had abused their positions for their own gain and Nehemiah was not afraid to confront them. Indeed, in a way that must have surprised all who saw it in the corridors of power, Nehemiah declined his right as governor to special privilege.
It is more than fascinating to read the climax to this great section in the history of God’s people. When the wall was complete and celebrations called for, it was not the physical structure that was the focus of the occasion; it was God. His word was publicly read and proclaimed to old and young. He himself was publicly acknowledged and adored in a way that had not happened for a long time in Jerusalem. And the people were overwhelmed by a deep sense of their own sin and guilt (Ne 8.1-18). This in turn led to an extraordinary act of corporate repentance and covenant renewal on the part of the people (Ne 9.1-10.39) – and once again the City of God became a magnet that drew the surrounding peoples.
‘The wall’ was the pretext for all that took place under the ministry of Nehemiah; but the spiritual ruin of the people’s lives was the subtext that explains its story. And that is why this ancient tale embedded in God’s word never loses its relevance. There continues to be an outward face of broken and decaying ‘walls’ in the Christian community: church buildings closed or in disrepair, Christian institutions that have become institutionalised. But there is a backstory to them all. One that speaks of Christians losing heart and losing their way, of following generations not catching the vision of those who served before them. But through it all the God of Nehemiah is the same today as he was all those years ago. He will answer our prayer as we echo David’s prayer with its far-reaching scope: ‘Please build up the walls of Jerusalem’ – because his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, is the church’s Master-Builder who will not rest till the work is complete.