What does it say?
Nehemiah’s brother has just returned from Jerusalem and reports that the city walls still lie in ruins (Neh 1). The news devastates Nehemiah and he immediately intercedes for his people. An ancient maxim says that a city without walls is no city at all – defenseless. Nehemiah is a very high official (cup-bearer) in the Persian king’s court. For a cupbearer to be sad in the king’s presence could be punished by death, but four months later (Neh 2) Nehemiah risks his life by sharing his heart with the king, asking for a leave of absence to assess the situation in Jerusalem. His request granted, Nehemiah leads a third wave of returning exiles. Upon arrival he secretly inspects the walls and then announces his rebuilding plan. Immediately he gains three enemies, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem, determined to stop his plan.
Chapter 3 describes the division of the work among the many willing inhabitants of Jerusalem, each group taking sections of the wall between the city’s gates. No divine work goes unopposed, and the three enemies previously introduced continue with ridicule, intimidation and threats of terrorism (Neh 4). Not only does Nehemiah face an external enemy, he must deal with enemies within (Neh 5). The city’s rich were getting richer at the expense of the poor, some even selling themselves into slavery. Nehemiah takes firm action to correct this injustice.
What does it mean?
Zerubbabel and Ezra focus on rebuilding the temple and the people; Nehemiah gives himself to rebuild the city walls. Both aspects are essential to God’s mission that his people in Jerusalem worship him and shine his light on the peoples of the world. Nehemiah’s story has many practical lessons. Courage, leadership, discipline, wisdom, prayer, dealing with opposition and civil injustice are just a few topics to be explored by those looking beyond the history itself.
Modern readers struggle to understand the ancient significance of walls, but Proverbs 25:28 gives us insight, telling us that a broken down city with no walls is like an individual that has no control over his or her own spirit. Henry Cloud and John Townsend have written a series of books on the need to set boundaries in our lives. Without boundaries, without control over our own spirits, we are at the mercy of every wind that blows and every enemy that would destroy us.
How will I respond?
Do I have good boundaries in my life, or does life toss me around uncontrollably? What step(s) will I take today to begin to address this? Then, what is the most important lesson that I have learned in today’s reading?