Sunday, November 15, 2009

Walls (Part 4)

In the year 445 B.C., Nehemiah was cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, king of Persia. He had previously lived as a Jew, likely from the tribe of Judah, in the city of Jerusalem, which had been largely destroyed in previous Persian campaigns.

Upon hearing of the decline of his hometown, Nehemiah was convicted that he needed to return to Jerusalem to direct the construction of the walls surrounding the city. A city without walls was defenseless and it was considered an embarrassment to the people who lived there. Earlier attempts had been made to rebuild the wall during the time of the priest Ezra, but they had failed.

Having gained permission from the king of Persia to return to oversee the effort, Nehemiah begins by praying for the work. This was not about his own glory or power – he genuinely sought God’s blessing and direction over the effort. That might explain his dramatic success, because prayer was the very first thing he undertook (Nehemiah 1:4 and 2:4).

The book of Nehemiah makes it clear that he rallied families and workers to devote themselves wholeheartedly to the construction of the wall (chapter 3). Opposition arose against him and he was repeatedly asked to stop construction. The enemy even resorted to tricks to lure him outside of the city. At one point, they sent a seemingly friendly messenger to try to get Nehemiah to hide in the temple (where he was not allowed under Jewish law) because of a fabricated threat of being murdered in the night. Nehemiah stood firm. Even in the face of an impossible task, with daily opposition, Nehemiah was able to keep everyone on task, and the wall was completed in an amazing fifty-two days.

Once the wall is complete, he drew God’s people together in order to evaluate their dedication and purpose. Things began to really change for the Jews now. The word of the Lord was read publicly in the main square, and people would listen for hours. They would respond to the words by confessing their sin and rededicating their lives to the service of the Lord. Each day became a time of reading, confessing and worshipping of God. Now fully protected from outside invaders, the people of Jerusalem began to change and grow in their service to the Lord.

We have read in this series how walls have been built to keep people out (the Maginot Line) and to keep people in (the Berlin Wall). One might conclude that walls are simply bad and they should always be broken down. That sounds very much like a modern self-help theme.

But the story of Nehemiah makes it clear that there is a proper place and time to erect a wall – primarily for protection and to keep out evil influences. In fact, it is often absolutely necessary in order to have a place where we can reflect, be still, and know God. Nehemiah even made it a point to physically separate the people of Jerusalem from outside cultures (Nehemiah 13:1-3). To some degree, nearly all of us put up walls against things we find offensive or which might negatively shape our thoughts and actions, or those of our children. I get some strange looks when I tell people that our family doesn’t watch many movies or much television – and what we do watch is on the ultra-conservative end of the spectrum. Likewise, I still experience some derision from some who think our choice of homeschooling is over-protective and short-sighted. Yes, these things are both walls of a sort – intentionally built – and which I think are necessary in the sea of a declining culture. But like those people in Jerusalem in the fifth century B.C., it is done “for the sake of the Law of God”. From Nehemiah 10:28-29:

“The rest of the people – priests, Levites, gatekeepers, singers, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand – all these now join their brothers the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our God.”
Each of us, like the people of old, need to search for those times when we go into the world to be a light, and also understand that certain times call for us to clothe ourselves in protection, and block out evil influences. There is no simple recipe that can be written out to detail when each one of these occurs. But a good place to start is to do what Nehemiah did - begin with prayer for wisdom. Walls are sometimes a necessity.
Return to Part 1...

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