Of Hammers and Swords: Introducing Nehemiah, the Wall-Builder (@Byers_Andy)

It is 445 BC. Two brothers are reunited in the grand Persian capital of Susa. One is adorned with the palatial garb of royal service — he is the cup-bearer to Lord Artaxerxes I, king of the land. The other has just returned from a long journey from The Provinces Beyond the River.

“How do things fare in our homeland?”

“The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”

The face of the royal official, a Jew who stands before the King as a powerful and trusted servant, became disfigured with grief and misery. He wept. He refused food. He prayed without ceasing.

And with the King’s permission, he packed his bags and headed West….

Welcome to the book of Nehemiah.

To be Affected
When we hear reports of bad news from some distant somewhere today, it is easy to shake our heads with mild pity and then continue one with our cup of tea. Nehemiah, the Jewish cup-bearer for King Artaxerxes, is one of the great biblical figures who refused to remain passive and unaffected in the halls of luxury and comfort at the report of bad news abroad. The state of his ancestral home lies Beyond the River, far from his palatial home. But its crumbled masonry and piles of ash instantly haunt him.

Nehemiah lives in immense comfort. Asking the Persian King for permission to take leave of his current post is quite risky. But he cannot shake from his mind those splintered gates and the dislodged stones. So he makes his plea….

And God grants Nehemiah favor with Artaxerxes. Then ensues an exciting story about the reconstitution of the exiled people of God.

Modern depiction of Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem

Modern depiction of Nehemiah rebuilding Jerusalem – Wikepedia http://thebiblerevival.com/clipart47.htm

Rebuilding Walls and People
It seems as though Ezra had appeared well before Nehemiah. The Temple has been reconstructed (a pale version of Solomon’s prototype). But the demolished walls leave the ancient city of David and the new Temple vulnerable to attack. Local thugs wielding official power in these backwater provinces Beyond the River have enjoyed the diminished status of this once great city. When Nehemiah shows up with a hammer in hand, he must also wear a sword. Rebuilding is exciting work. But there are always threats and enemies like Samballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.

In spite of the constant threats, the entire city wall was built in 52 days — the work of God amidst the labouring of mortal hands. Nehemiah found, however, that rebuilding a people is harder work than rebuilding a wall.

Along with the reconstruction is the need for revival. This spiritual endeavor takes much longer than 52 days. Years ensue. Ezra’s reading of the Law is a watershed moment. But when Nehemiah returns several years later to check on things, he finds that Tobiah has been given a special office suite in the Temple, that the city was an emporium on the Sabbath, and that the children of intermarriages did not even know the language of the Jews.

Entropy. It seems to be a law for spirituality as well as for physics….

So, the Book of Nehemiah — there is much to think about in these ancient pages. We look forward to your reflections throughout April!

About AndyByers

I serve as the Chaplain for St Mary's College at Durham University while working on a PhD in the Department of Theology. CODEC has also taken me on to work as a theological consultant of sorts for the BigBible blog. My first book is about cynicism toward the church and disillusionment with God—'Faith Without Illusions: Following Jesus as a Cynic-Saint' (IVP Likewise, 2011). My latest is ‘TheoMedia: The Media of God in the Digital Age’ (Cascade Books, 2013).