Nehemiah 1:2 (Historical): Rebuilding the City Walls
Some of you have a picture of a man on horseback riding out from Jerusalem at night to see the ruins of the walls and gates, for the walls had long ago been broken down and still lay in ruins, and the doors of the gates had been burned. This was Nehemiah, who had been sent by the king of Persia and Babylon to be governor in Jerusalem and to stir the people up to build the city walls. Nehemiah was an officer of Artaxerxes, king of Persia, at Suza (Shushan) to the east of Babylon. His brother had come from Jerusalem and told him how sad things were there and how the city was still in ruins. It made Nehemiah very sad, till the king noticed it and Nehemiah told him why he was so sad. The king did what Nehemiah wished. He sent him to Jerusalem to help on the work. He gave him a guard of horsemen for the journey, and gave him letters to the governors of the country west of the Euphrates River, directing them to give him help, and especially to the keeper of the king’s forest to give him wood for the gates and for timbers. So Nehemiah came to Jerusalem, and after three days, he rode out at night to see the ruined walls.
Nehemiah was a good governor and leader for the work. He stirred the people up to build the city walls, and people from other towns came to help them. But there were enemies who tried in every way to hinder, and the people while they worked on the walls had always to be armed and on their guard against attack. But at last the work was done, and they marched in two processions around the walls, going in opposite directions. One procession was led by Nehemiah, and the other by our old friend Ezra. Yes, Ezra was still there, and now that the walls were built and Nehemiah ruled the people well, Ezra could teach the laws of worship, of the Sabbath, and of the feasts, as he could not do before Nehemiah came.
The two leaders worked together, Ezra for the temple and the worship, Nehemiah for the city walls and the good order of the city.
Read the thought that I have given the younger children about Nehemiah. Then if you look at the book of Nehemiah, you will see other important things that I have not told them. Especially you find much about Sanballat the Horonite, and Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian, who were leagued together as enemies of Nehemiah and of the people working to rebuild Jerusalem. We see from Nehemiah 4:1-2 that Sanballat had some position in Samaria. He represented the same hostility of the Samaritans toward the Jews, which we learned in Ezra developed when the first captives returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple and their help was refused. (Ezra 4) This becomes more important when it helps us to understand the unfriendliness of Jews and Samaritans and their separate places of worship which we find in the Gospel days. (John 4:9, 20) At first, these enemies represented that the rebuilding of the city was with the purpose of rebelling against the king. Then they ridiculed the work, saying that a fox could knock down the wall that they were building. They then planned an attack upon the workers so that Nehemiah's people working on the wall must always be armed. (Neh. 4:17-18) They tried to lead Nehemiah into a conference with evil purpose. They conspired with false prophets in Jerusalem. But the work of building the walls went bravely and steadily on, and was finished. We read of the celebration and the processions led by Nehemiah and Ezra in Neh. 12.
The strengthening of the city and the good rule of Nehemiah gave Ezra a freer opportunity for teaching the Scriptures and the laws of worship to the people. (Neh. 8) We find them especially keeping the feast of tabernacles, the autumn thanksgiving feast, in which the people for seven days lived in booths of leafy branches, on the housetops and in the city squares and temple courts, as prescribed in Lev. 23:33-44 but neglected since the days of Joshua. (Neh. 8:14-18) This feast of tabernacles the people were still keeping in Gospel days.
We have still to read the words of the prophets sent by the Lord to strengthen the people in rebuilding Jerusalem and the temple. Do you remember the prophets' names? Can you find them in the Bible?
Our purpose in this glance at the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is to make acquaintance of books not of the Lord's Word but preserved in His providence in the Bible. They help to give historical connection between the Old Testament and the New, and especially to give us the background of the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah.
Have you considered the spiritual significance of the captivity in Babylon and the return and rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple? There are abundant references to the captivity in books that are of the Lord's Word and have the deeper spiritual meaning. The taking of captives to Babylon is described in 2 Kings 24 and 25. The captivity is described in Psalms, as in Ps. 137, and is continually present in Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. It is mentioned also in the genealogy of our Lord in Matt. 1:17.
We gave some thought to the captivity of Judah in Babylon in connection with the taking captive of Israel by Assyria. Israel as a kingdom of the Holy Land represents the understanding, and the kingdom of Judah the will in a spiritual life. We recognize Assyria, representing a proud and self-confident rationality, as the special enemy of Israel, the spiritual understanding; and Babylon, representing self-love and love of rule, as the special enemy of Judah, the heavenly affection. The instances of blasphemous pride in Daniel give a vivid picture of the extent to which self-love can go. The seventy years may suggest the complete destruction of spiritual affection. But what of the many promises of the Lord's remembrance and of return from the land of captivity? Remember the tender words by Jeremiah to the captives, "Ye shall seek Me, and find Me, when ye shall search for Me with all your heart." (Jer. 29:13) It is plain that the captivity of seventy years may describe a thorough humbling of the soul through temptations from the love of self, through experience in its fiery furnace and its den of lions, resulting in a return to spiritual life, humbler and wiser than before. We shall recognize this thought in the saying of Haggai "that the glory of the latter house should be greater than of the former." (Hag. 2:3, 9) Read interesting statements about the meaning of the captivity, in A. 393, 728; E. 403.
For one illustration of the meaning of the captivity and the restoration, think of the reference to the captivity in the genealogy in Matthew. This genealogy is often thought of as describing the qualities of human nature which the Lord inherited in being born of a human being. Doubtless it does contain this thought, but it is more important as describing the building up of a human nature through learning and doing the Divine truth, in which the Divine love could dwell with humanity. The generations from Abraham to David are the steps of learning and obeying the Divine truth in childhood; the generations from David until the carrying away into Babylon are the steps of learning and obedience taken in years of rational development; and the generations from the carrying away into Babylon to Christ are the steps taken in the most loving reception of truth and obedience to truth, when through severest temptations all pride and self-love were thoroughly resisted and overcome. That each of these periods was fourteen generations describes the completeness with which the Lord accomplished the work of learning and obeying the Divine truth in childhood, youth, and manhood.
We enjoy especially in learning of the building and dedication of Solomon's temple the thought that the temple represents the Lord in His Humanity, the perfect dwelling-place of the Divine with humanity. We may have this same thought in relation to the temple rebuilt, of which Haggai speaks. And we find the Lord in the Gospels accepting a still later temple as the symbol of Himself. (E. 220)