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Every day during this season of Lent we’re looking at one of the “3:16” verses of the Bible, spotlighting some of the significant theological statements that happen to fall on the 16th verse of the third chapter of a number of Old and New Testament books.
“Beyond him, Nehemiah son of Azbuk, ruler of a half-district of Beth Zur, made repairs up to a point opposite the tombs of David, as far as the artificial pool and the House of the Heroes” (Nehemiah 3:16).
At this point, it’s getting harder to make the case that every “3:16” is worth studying.
It’s hard to imagine, for example, that anyone would claim Nehemiah 3:16 as a “life-changing verse,” let alone a statement that has any relevance to what any of us might be facing this weekend.
But before we kick Nehemiah to the curb, let’s drop back and look at the wider context. This book represents a dramatic surge of hope after centuries of despair.
During the “golden age” of the reigns of David and Solomon, Israel had risen to the apex of its power and influence. Israel was a nation of consequence. But during the three and a half centuries that followed, God’s people suffered a long, slow slide into spiritual oblivion. The citizens of Jerusalem were crushed by Babylonian invaders who burned their gates, broke down their walls, and destroyed their temple. For seventy years the Chosen People, bowed and broken, were exiled in Babylon.
Then something remarkable happened. The conquerors themselves were conquered. The armies of the Medes and Persians – who were essentially kinder, gentler dictators – overwhelmed the Babylonians. Suddenly, for the Jews, hope became a realistic option. Their new Persian overloads granted them permission to trudge back home again to begin the laborious process of rebuilding.
Only a remnant of the Jews decided to embark on that journey. The Jerusalem they returned to was a heartbreaking heap of ruins. When the first wave of returned exiles laid the foundation for a new temple, the Bible tells us that the oldest men and women amongst them wept openly. They wept not because of joy but because of shame: Their new temple was merely a fraction of the size of what Solomon had built.
The resettled Jews took one swing at rebuilding the walls that surrounded the city, but the project failed. The people then decided, for all intents and purposes, that while national mediocrity wasn’t the best thing, at least it was something. Progress ground to a halt. Decades went by. What would happen next?
As so often happens in the Old Testament, God sends a hero – a special leader to meet the needs of the hour. He is Nehemiah – a Jew who lives in the region of Babylon about 445 BC. He hears that those who have returned to Jerusalem “’are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’ When [Nehemiah] heard these things, [he] sat down and wept” (Nehemiah 1:3).
Why is a broken-down wall such a big deal? Virtually any citizen of the ancient world could tick off three reasons why a wall was far more than just a pile of rocks.
First, a wall helped provide the identity of an ancient city. What made Jerusalem special? It was the only place on earth where the God of Israel could be encountered in the context of sacred space – inside a temple specifically dedicated to his worship.
One week after our wedding, Mary Sue and I moved into our FCA – that would be our First Crummy Apartment – just north of Chicago. It was old. The bathroom fixtures had been installed when Harry Truman was President. The people who lived above us generated a significant amount of noise. But that was our space. We had a twelve-month lease on our very own four walls – which seemed to announce to the whole world that we were now a couple to be reckoned with.
Even at its height, Jerusalem was hardly the most beautiful city on earth. But it was the Jewish city, and the one piece of real restate where God had chosen to dwell. That gave the Jews a unique identity.
A wall was also, secondly, the key to Jerusalem’s security.
Ancient cities had walls for the same reason that modern houses have locks. Apart from a thick barrier, foreign invaders could come and go at will. In the age before cannons and battering rams, a wall was almost always a city’s number one defensive weapon.
Mary Sue and I felt secure in our First Crummy Apartment until the day she forgot her key. While she stood patiently outside the door, waiting for me to come home, the guy who lived upstairs – this would be the guy with the aforementioned reputation for being noisy – just happened to walk by. “I can get you inside,” he said, whereupon he whipped out a credit card and opened our door in five seconds. That night we didn’t feel nearly as secure in our apartment as we had the night before.
For any ancient city worth its salt, it was vital to have a wall tall enough and thick enough to deter strangers.
But most important of all in the case of Jerusalem, a wall helped ensure spiritual integrity. There had to be a separation between the people of God and the people of the world, or Judaism itself would be subject to dilution.
The border between North Korea and South Korea is essentially arbitrary. The 38th Parallel was selected on a map in Washington D.C. during the course of the Korean War 70 years ago as a way to separate the Cold War allies of China to the north from the Cold War allies of America to the south. Those two nations are governed by radically different philosophies, leading to astonishingly different ways of life. If the border were somehow erased and people migrated from one side to the other, it would quickly become impractical to enforce the laws of either nation.
In the same way, a secure wall around Jerusalem was a helpful asset in regulating the Jewish people’s fidelity to Torah legislation like a kosher diet and Sabbath-keeping.
Nehemiah’s leadership efforts in the rebuilding project were spectacularly successful. What the Israelites had been unable to accomplish in almost 100 years, he and hundreds of volunteers accomplished in just 52 days. The completed wall was six-and-a-half feet thick and featured 11 gates and multiple defensive towers.
Archeologists have uncovered a few remaining stretches of Nehemiah’s wall, including the one pictured above. Because it was built so hastily, it’s not a thing of beauty. The unfinished stones were pieced together in ragtag fashion, and the large gaps between them were packed with smaller rocks and mortar.
But it’s still intact.
That brings us back to the third chapter of the book of Nehemiah. All 32 verses provide an enduring record of who did what work on various segments of the wall. The “Nehemiah, son of Azbuk” mentioned in 3:16, by the way, is different from the Nehemiah for whom the book is named. The verse we’re spotlighting today may seem trivial. But it’s a priceless memorial to those who believed in safeguarding the identity, security, and integrity of God’s people.
That was then, and this is now. Jesus has forever changed the way we experience those three realities.
Our identity is no longer associated with a limestone temple surrounded by an imposing barrier. We ourselves are now God’s dwelling place on earth. Here’s a preview of another “3:16,” the one in I Corinthians: “Don’t you know that you yourselves are God’s temple, and that God’s Spirit dwells within you?”
Our security no longer comes down to rocks and blocks. Instead, “I can do all things through [Christ] who gives me strength” (Philippians 4:13).
And our job is no longer to put up walls that will keep outsiders at bay – so we can create a pure community – but to tear down the walls that have separated us from others for far too long. So-called “outsiders” are people who need to hear the Good News that they, too, are known and loved by the Savior who died for them.
Nehemiah 3:16 may not be a verse worth memorizing.
But it’s a great reminder that all of us are always building something.
Let’s join God in his work of building his kingdom, right here and right now.
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