The Thirteenth in a Series of Sermons on Ezra-Nehemiah
Details, details, details. Why would Nehemiah take us on a counter-clockwise, brick by brick, tour of Jerusalem’s walls and gates–beginning at the northeastern corner of the city? Why does he mention so many of the workers, by name, by family, and by town. Why does he mention so many sections of the wall-some of which remain unknown to us today? Why would the Holy Spirit breathe forth God’s inerrant word through Nehemiah, and choose to include so many seemingly mundane details? We will attempt to answer these questions by looking first at Nehemiah’s historical account, and then to that to which the earthly city of Jerusalem points, the spiritual temple of God (the church) and ultimately to the New Jerusalem.
We resume our series on Nehemiah as we come to what one commentator has described as one of the “least lively and stirring of the narratives of the Old Testament.” Nehemiah 3 contains 32 verses of difficult to pronounce Hebrew names, as well as seemingly obscure details about the gates and walls of Jerusalem which archaeologists and biblical scholars love (lots of fodder here for Ph.D. dissertations), but which most Bible readers very likely skip over without bothering to read. There is a reason why I asked that only twelve verses be included for our Old Testament lesson even though we’ll be looking at the entire chapter–imagine making someone read this entire chapter out loud. I’d venture a guess that many of you who have read through the Bible and/or Nehemiah have skipped this chapter–or just skimmed it. I’ll also venture to guess that no one here has memorized any of these verses, or ever claimed one of them as a life verse.
To understand why this chapter is here and why it is important, we will begin by looking at some of the details within the passage, before we consider the role which the passage plays in the big picture of redemptive history. It is easy to bog down in a list of foreign names and long-forgotten places and overlook the fact that it was not long before, that Nehemiah arrived in the city and surveyed the damage to the city’s walls and gates under the cover of darkness. No doubt, the dry as dust content of this chapter encourages many to allegorize this account, attempting to turn Nehemiah’s factual narrative of how the walls of the city were rebuilt into a metaphor about how Jerusalem’s fallen walls symbolize problems in our lives from which we must rebuild. To do this is to turn Nehemiah’s detailed report about former Jewish exiles rebuilding their capital city into a story about us–something Americans crave, but which circumvents the whole point of the passage–God has ordained that his city be rebuilt.
According to Nehemiah 2:16-18, the author eventually informed “the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest who were to do the work, that “the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me.” Their response was overwhelming. “`Let us rise up and build.’ So they strengthened their hands for the good work.” In a short period of time, Nehemiah has performed an extraordinary feat–getting virtually the entire population of the city of Jerusalem organized and mobilized to begin a massive reconstruction project. This pretty remarkable in its own right, and explains the temptation to focus upon Nehemiah’s leadership skills (which are certainly apparent from the account) and not upon the bigger picture–the role the rebuilt Jerusalem and temple will play in redemptive history, especially in regards to the coming Messiah.
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