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The Heroic Nehemiah

Updated on October 7, 2013

Rebuilding Jerusalem's Walls

Reconstruction of Walls and Gates
Reconstruction of Walls and Gates

Restoring Self-Esteem

The story of Nehemiah in what Christians call the "Old" Testament of the Bible, runs parallel to the Book of Ezra because both Nehemiah and Ezra were involved in the reconstruction of Jerusalem after it was destroyed by the Babylonians. Ezra supervised the rebuilding of the temple while Nehemiah supervised the rebuilding of the walls, gates, and stairs that surrounded the city. Both Ezra and Nehemiah had to be authorized to do these things by the ruling powers who occupied and dominated the Hebrew people and all surrounding territories at this time in history.

Nehemiah, saddened by what had happened to Jerusalem when conquering forces destroyed it and carried off survivors to Babylon, asked his master for permission to go to Jerusalem and see the state of the city now that Hebrew captives had been allowed to return there from Babylon. Jeremiah was a cup bearer of one of the foreign kings who presided over an area outside of Jerusalem, which then and now is the jewel of Hebrew society.

Because Hebrews had gone through one of their many spells of disrespectful behavior, showing a lack of faith in God, they once again were given "into the hands of their enemies." The Babylonian forces knocked down the walls, demolished the homes, buildings, and temple, and killed anyone who resisted.

Jerusalem and all the territory of Israel had come under the domination of various empires that existed before the time of Jesus when the Romans dominated the region. These older empires took turns ruling over the Jews and everyone else in their paths in the area we now call the Middle East. First Syria took over (the Assyrian Empire) around 640 BC, then Babylonia (the Babylonian Empire) around 560 BC, and finally Persia (the Persian Empire) around 500 BC.

Jerusalem is nicknamed the City of David after the great king of the Hebrews who followed the law of God with very few exceptions. David and his son Solomon presided over a strong Hebrew nation centered around their great city. But when Nehemiah arrived, he saw the work that had to be done to rebuild. Ezra, the priest and scribe, had done a good job of rebuilding the temple, but the city was exposed and shamefully run down.

Nehemiah's workers began reconstruction of the walls and their adjoining gateways and stairs. Jerusalem and all cities back then had to have walls to protect from invasion.

But the surrounding non-Jewish peoples ridiculed the Jews for trying to rebuild. They threatened to attack the workers, who then had to carry weapons as they worked.

Nehemiah was made Governor of Jerusalem. As construction continued, he made internal improvements in government and society there. He ended the existing corruption and usury, which were commonplace. As radical changes progressed, many types of enemies sought to kill Nehemiah.

He "registered" all the Jews who had returned from the Babylonian captivity, according to genealogy, all 42,360 Hebrews with their 7,337 servants.

When Nehemiah and his workers completed their massive reconstruction project, there was a solemn religious ceremony. Ezra, the high priest and scribe for whom the Book of Ezra was named, brought the Book of the Law of Moses to a huge meeting, a congregation of all the Jews residing in Jerusalem in the province of Judah. Ezra read from the book all morning, then for a total of seven days. The Jews made booths of branches and stayed in these booths on top of their houses.

It was a celebration of those who returned from Babylonia, about 500 miles to the east, and rebuilt their native Jerusalem. The seven-days ceremony took place in the seventh month of the year. The Jews confessed their sins and iniquities of their forefathers.

In attempting to summarize the prayers of the people as they prayed, dressed in sack cloth, fasting, with dust on their heads, Nehemiah recounts the historical events establishing the Hebrew nation up to that time.

Those events included God's choosing Abram and giving him the name Abraham, promising him and his descendants certain land (what we call Israel today) which already was inhabited by other, non-Hebrew peoples. Later, the Hebrews' forefathers were afflicted slaves in Egypt, but God divided the Red Sea and swallowed up the Egyptian army as they passed through in pursuit of the Hebrews. God spoke on Mount Sinai, giving the ordinances, laws, statutes, and commandments. He gave the Hebrews bread from heaven and water from out of a rock, as they traveled in search of the land God promised them. Even when they disobeyed, God forgave them, giving them a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night to lead them onward for forty years. God gave them kingdoms and nations, subdued all the people already there and gave those people and their homelands to the Hebrews.

But when the Hebrews turned their backs on God, they were delivered into the hands of their enemies until they cried out again to God and once more were saved. Back and forth until the time of Nehemiah, this cycle continued, always following the same pattern of loss of faith, defeat, asking for forgiveness, and success.

In Nehemiah's time, the Hebrews were on the upswing again, rebuilding their city and their faith. They made a covenant to walk in God's law, to not intermarry with foreigners.

With Jerusalem on the mend, Nehemiah left to go back to work for his king. But on returning some time later, he saw that in Jerusalem the commandments and laws (what we might call cultural and religious traditions) weren't being observed. He became angry and enforced the laws concerning the sabbath, the offerings, and the avoidance of marriage to outsiders. Thus, Nehemiah was a reformer as well as a builder. He represented the spirit of the Hebrew people as they struggled to regain their proud heritage.

Nehemiah's Walled City

Jerusalem's Walls

Within modern Jerusalem is the preserved "old" city that has the walls made famous by Nehemiah, although not much of them are original. More than 3000 years ago, the city had to be protected by a substantial wall to keep out would-be conquerors. At that time, the biblical figure King David was said to have ruled over the city.

There were many walls built around Jerusalem over the centuries. They included the ones built by Nehemiah over 2400 years ago.

Different nations and religious cultures warred repeatedly throughout history, battling for the possession of the City of David. In the 7th Century, Muslims took over the city; then in the 12th Century, the Christian Crusaders took it from the Arab Muslims, who then recaptured it from the Christians. In the 13th Century, Jerusalem's walls were destroyed by a Syrian sultan and his army, after which Germany ruled over the city and rebuilt its walls, which again were destroyed by an Arab conqueror; but Christians took the city again after that and rebuilt the walls once more; finally, another Arab sultan demolished the walls yet another time. All this 13th Century activity took place in the space of only 25 years from 1219 to 1244.

After years of tumultuous upheaval of wall building, destruction, and rebuilding, the present modern-day walls of the city of Jerusalem still stand. These enduring walls were built in 1538 by a Muslim sultan. They run for a distance of about 3 miles and rise to a maximum height of about 50 feet. But the strength of the walls is evident from the fact that they are 10 feet thick. There are towers along the walls where guards can stand to keep a look-out. The walls have a total of 11 different gates.


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