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Rebuilding the Wall

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The third chapter of Nehemiah consists exclusively of Nehemiah’s description of the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem that took place under his leadership.

Altogether forty-two sections of wall were rebuilt, including ten gates and four towers. Later in the book, Nehemiah mentions two more gates: the Gate of Ephraim (Neh. 8:16) and the Prison Gate (Neh. 12:39). This takes the total number of gates to twelve, which is the same number of gates that we find in the New Jerusalem in the book of Revelation (Rev. 21:12). Interestingly, Nehemiah gave us the only complete list of Jerusalem’s gates in the entire Bible. According to Psalm 87:2, The LORD loveth the gates of Zion more than all the dwellings of Jacob.

Nehemiah’s account is very methodical. He began with the Sheep Gate in the northeast corner of the city near the Pool of Siloam (cf. John 5:2). Archaeologists have been able to identify this area. The rest of the work he described in a counterclockwise rotation. He also gave us a fair amount of information about those who worked on the wall. Some were priests and Levites (vv. 1, 17). Others were goldsmiths and perfumers (v. 8), rulers (v. 12) and merchants (v. 32). There were even some women who lent a helping hand (v. 12). Most of these folks worked on the stretch of wall that was nearest to their own homes, and their cooperation shows that they were united in their purpose and mission.

Nehemiah took great care to record the names of most of the workers. Although many of these people are unknown to us today, the fact that he recorded them reminds us that they were real people whom the Lord used to accomplish a great task. They are therefore examples of godliness as they labored to repair the city and trusted the Lord to bless their effort.

The Sheep Gate

The first person to act, according to verse 1, was Eliashib the high priest. Jeshua, his grandfather, (cf. Neh. 12:10) was the high priest when Zerubbabel led the first group of captives back to Jerusalem about ninety years earlier (Ezra 3:2). From what we can tell, Eliashib was probably about eighty years old when he rose up with his brethren to build the Sheep Gate. He and the other priests repaired and dedicated the Sheep Gate and then rebuilt the wall to the Tower of Meah and the Tower of Hananeel.

From this we learn that the religious leaders of God’s people were the first to act, and so it should be. As leaders, they need to lead. Here we note that even Eliashib’s advanced age did not keep him from participating. Nor was he like the late British humorist Jerome K. Jerome, who once said, “I like work, it fascinates me. I can sit and look at it for hours.”

On the other hand, Eliashib was not a completely honorable man. Here he seems to be honorable, but toward the end of the book we learn that he betrayed the cause. On one of Nehemiah’s trips back to Persia, Eliashib not only established an alliance with Tobiah (which was probably as a result of a marriage) but also gave him access to the storage rooms of the temple (Neh. 13:4–5). These two things were offenses of the highest order and show that his heart was not right before God. That’s probably why we read nothing about him between chapter 3, where he seems to have been doing a good work, and chapter 13, where he undermined Nehemiah’s service.

The fact that Nehemiah’s account of the work begins with the Sheep Gate is especially important, since this particular gate was especially important to Jewish life. It was named the Sheep Gate because it was the gate through which worshipers brought their sheep to the temple for sacrifice. There was also a sheep market nearby where those who had come from a distance could buy the animals needed for sacrifice.

Some commentators have noted that this gate was the only one of the major gates concerning which there is no mention of locks and bars. I’m not saying that it didn’t have locks and bars, but only that Nehemiah doesn’t say anything about them. This gives a sense of the gate always being open and the Lord always ready to receive the sacrifices of his people. This is also the only gate that the priests sanctified separately from the rest of the wall. In fact, verse 1 mentions this detail twice so that we don’t miss it. This shows the importance of the Sheep Gate to the work of the priests.

Next to Eliashib we have the men of Jericho doing their part in verse 2, which shows that the workforce was not limited to residents of Jerusalem. Throughout this chapter, we’ll see many other people from various places contributing to the work as well. Of course, the residents of Jerusalem were not the only ones who should have had an interest in the rebuilding of the wall. Every Jew should have should have shared David’s desire for the Lord to build the walls of Jerusalem (Ps. 51:18).

The Fish Gate

The next gate was the Fish Gate, which was on the northwest side of the city facing the Mediterranean Sea. This gate was used primarily for fishmongers to bring their wares to the market, as we see the men of Tyre doing later in chapter 13 (v. 16). Just as there was a sheep market near the Sheep Gate, there was also a fish market near this gate.

The people who worked on the wall between this gate and the next one were quite interesting for several reasons.

One named whose name was Meremoth was the son of Urijah, who, according to Ezra 8:33, was a priest. But what’s interesting about this individual is not his priestly descent but the fact that he is the first person in this chapter that worked on two parts of the wall. After finishing the part that was assigned to him, verse 21 says that he repaired a section in front of Eliashib’s house. He seems to have been both diligent and committed to the work of the Lord.

The next individual was not as devoted as Meremoth. Meshullam, who seems to have had an elder-like role later in the book (cf. 8:4, et al.) and also helped work on two sections of the wall, had allowed his daughter to marry Tobiah’s son (cf. ch. 6:17–18). Chapter 6 records this information to show how it was that Tobiah had acquired specific information about the status of the wall project. The fact that Tobiah’s two sons-in-law were allowed in the city gave them access to this information.

Next in line were the men of Tekoa, which was most famous for being the birthplace of the prophet Amos (Amos 1:1). The rank and file Tekoite not only worked on his own section of the wall, but also helped elsewhere (v. 27). But there is more going on here. The overall picture that Nehemiah presents to us is one of unity and cooperation. The people work together toward a common goal. But here Nehemiah was also realistic. The nobles of Tekoa, as the KJV puts it, put not their necks to the work of the Lord (v. 5). Thankfully, their dampened enthusiasm for the work did not prevent other Tekoites from giving it their all.

The Old Gate

From there we move on to the Old Gate in Nehemiah’s counterclockwise description of the work. Jehoiada repaired this gate with the help of another man named Meshullam. Various Gibeonites, Meronothites and others continued the work to the Broad Wall (v. 8).

The stretch of the wall known as the Broad Wall had had a very interesting history long before Nehemiah came long. Joash, king of Israel, tore this part of the wall down in a conflict with Amaziah, king of Judah (II Chron. 25:23). A few years later, Uzziah, king of Judah, rebuilt it (II Chron. 26:9) and made it so strong that, when the Babylonians sacked the city, they were unable to knock it down. It was probably still standing in Nehemiah’s day, though it may not have been in good repair. We don’t really know what its condition was, but verse 8 seems to indicate that it was more or less skipped over. The Jews only worked up to where the Broad Wall began and then resumed at the other end.[1]

Among the workers on this part of the wall were the men of Gibeon and Mizpah. A thousand years earlier, the men of Gibeon had tricked Joshua into making a covenant with them. When Joshua discovered their deception, he condemned them to perpetual servitude, which would have continued if King Saul had not violated Joshua’s covenant. In any case, Gibeon lay within the bounds of Benjamin and was, along with its suburbs, allotted to the priests. Mizpah, on the other hand, was situated about three miles from Gibeon. It was one of the three cities that Samuel visited as judge on his circuit and it had been fortified by King Asa to protect the south against northern aggression. However, neither city would have considered itself Jewish property, especially not in earlier periods of history, and Nehemiah made it clear in verse 7 that these people were not even under his control. Yet, they chose to contribute to the work anyway. It’s possible that they considered themselves Jews in Nehemiah’s day. They may have intermarried with the Jews, and they certainly benefited from the protection of Judah.

Verse 11 mentions the Tower of the Furnaces (v. 11). No one really knows what this was, but it may have been a tower near the baking ovens mentioned in Jeremiah 37:21.

Again, we find quite a variety of workers on this part of the wall. We have goldsmiths and apothecaries in verse 8. The apothecaries manufactured either medicinal ointments or perfumes, perhaps both. The civil leaders of various districts also took up the work. Rephaiah the son of Hur, who governed half of Jerusalem, is mentioned in verse 9; and Shallum the son of Halohesh, who governed the rest of the city, is named in verse 12. Just as the priests worked, so did the civil rulers. No one’s job was so important that it excused him from doing his share. Further, according to verse 12 Shallum’s daughters also pitched in, which shows that whole families worked together. The project demanded everyone’s participation and cooperation.

The Valley Gate and the Dung Gate

Next we come to the Valley Gate. You might remember that this was where Nehemiah began his nighttime inspection in the previous chapter. Not much is said about it, except that Hanun and the citizens of Zanoah repaired it. Since it had already been cleared so that people could come and go from the city, it probably didn’t need much work.

Malchiah, a ruler from Bethhaccerem, worked on the Dung Gate. This was probably the most ignoble part of the entire project, but what a blessing it is to see a civil leader adopt it as his own project!

The Fountain Gate

Returning to the east wall, we come to the Fountain Gate in verse 15. Shallun, a ruler of Mizpah, worked here. He also rebuilt the Pool of Siloah and the King’s Garden. Zedekiah, who was the king of Judah when the Babylonians raided Jerusalem, fled here to escape (Jer. 39:4), though his flight was unsuccessful.

The Sepulchers of David in verse 16 were the tombs where David and his descendants were buried. The pool mentioned here may have been the King’s Pool (cf. Neh. 2:14) or another pool that Isaiah once called the lower pool (Isa. 22:9). The House of the Mighty may have been the barracks used by David’s mighty men. A man named Nehemiah contributed to this part of the work. This was not the writer of this book, however. The former was the son of Azbuk, while the latter was the son of Hachaliah (cf. ch. 1:1).

Nehemiah mentioned the armory in verse 19, indicating that it was positioned near a place where the eastern wall suddenly changed directions. Ezer, the son of Jeshua (the ruler of Mizpah), worked here.

The remainder of the wall protected a mostly residential part of the city. Note the number of private dwelling mentioned in verse 20 and following: the house of Eliashib the priest (vv. 20–21), the house of Benjamin and Hashub (v. 23), and Azariah’s house (vv. 23–24). Other houses are mentioned later: the priests’ houses (v. 28), Zadok’s house (v. 29), Meshullam’s house (v. 30), and the house of the temple servants (Nethinims) and merchants (v. 31).

Verse 25 mentions a tower that was next to the royal palace. This may have been something that Solomon built (cf. I Kings 7:9–12). The Hill of Ophel was the area between the City of David (the Jebusite stronghold that David conquered and made his own residence) and the temple mount. This explains why the temple servants, who had been appointed by David to aid the Levites (cf. Ezra 8:20), lived there.

The Horse Gate

Verse 28 takes us to the Horse Gate on the eastern wall. This gate was used to bring horses into the palace area.

The East Gate, which Shemaiah the son of Shechaniah repaired, lay due east of the temple area.

The Miphkad Gate or Inspection Gate, mentioned in verse 31, was between the East Gate and the Sheep Gate.

As we follow the details of Nehemiah’s account, it becomes clear that Nehemiah made no attempt to return Jerusalem to glory that it had under David and Solomon. He had neither the manpower nor the resources to undertake such a massive project. His only mission was to protect the city as much as he could. Thus, Jerusalem ended up being about half the size it had been. Zerubbabel’s temple was smaller and less ornate than the temple that Solomon had built. The city’s former glory was gone.

The overall picture given in this chapter is instructive in many ways.

First, it depicts a high degree of unity and cooperation in the work. Forty-two sections of wall plus numerous gates and towers were all built at the same time. One liberal commentator complains that Nehemiah’s method was awkward, disorganized and ineffective, but the text shows exactly the opposite. The entire wall with all of its accessories, as we’ll see later, was rebuilt in less than two months and it was done in the midst of tremendous opposition. This could never have been done had Nehemiah and his crew built only one part at a time.

Second, there was a wide range of interests and motives represented among the workers. Some participated in the project because of their family connections, others represented government offices and trade guilds. God worked through all of his people, not just those who had civil or religious posts. Generally speaking, the workers worked near their own homes, where they had a special interest in seeing the wall rebuilt. This illustrates the unity and diversity that complement each other in the church of Jesus Christ (cf. Rom. 12:3–8; I Cor. 12:4–27; Eph. 4:1–13).

Third, we see several different perspectives on the work. Some — the rulers of Tekoa, for example — refused to work at all (v. 5). Most did their work as expected, without grumbling or complaining. A few, after finishing the part allotted to them, repaired a second section (vv. 1, 19–21, 24, 27 and 30).

Whatever their reasons or commitment, the people by and large worked together to rebuild the wall. The wall that we build today, according to Revelation 21, is the church itself. We do not use mortar and stone, but the everlasting gospel of Jesus Christ. We build our wall by preaching the Word of God, engaging in evangelism, supporting the work of the church and praying for God’s blessing. This is what God has called us to do.

Let us look to God for his grace as we worship and serve together! Amen.


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[1] The Gate of Ephraim, which is not mentioned in this chapter, stood between the Old Gate and the Broad Wall (cf. Neh. 12:39).

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