Lessons from the Wall
Jean Paul Sartre once wrote a short story encapsulating the incarcerated lives of three anarchists during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939). He entitled his story, “The Wall.” In this story you are challenged to ferret out the signification of various perspectives of a wall throughout the narrative. In Lessons from the Wall, we are going to try and capture various aspects of the spiritual significance of Nehemiah’s wall as recorded in the historical and prophetic writings of the Old Testament. Hopefully we will discover here guiding principles that will help us as individual believers and as the church to more successfully navigate the troubled waters challenging our nation and the church today. We are part of both a nation and a church that are in “great distress and reproach.”Can we discover the brokenness of the walls and the gates burned with fire and bring God’s redemptive life and power to them?
It came to pass …that Hanani one of my brethren came with men from Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach. The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.”
For we were slaves. Yet our God did not forsake us in our bondage; but He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem.
Ezra 9:9 NKJV
So we built the wall, and the entire wall was joined together…
Nehemiah 4: 6 NKJV
Our account begins with the prophesied tale of Judah’s banishment to Babylon. This story of Judah’s 70 year captivity is relatively familiar to most biblically literate Christians. It was the result of three successive raids by Nebuchadnezzar who destroyed the temple, the city of Jerusalem and the wall surrounding the city while deporting most of the people to Babylon. This destruction took place over a period of 19 years covering the period from 605-586 BC. At the completion of the 70 year exile, notables such as Ezra, Nehemiah and Zerubbabel were instrumental in the restoration of the Israelite nation. During the exilic period the people were ministered to by Daniel and Ezekiel while Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi all prophesied during the time of restoration. The purpose of this horrible destruction and exile was to purge idolatry from the people. Like its kin in the northern tribes before it, Judah had fallen into idol worship of the worst kind.
Although there are myriad lessons that could be extracted from the Scriptures related to this story, I am interested here in seeing the spiritual implications found in the restoration of Jerusalem’s wall. The destruction of Judah was centered in Jerusalem and was focused principally on the temple, the city and the wall. Conversely then the reconstruction deals with these same three entities. Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple to interdict their relationship with God. He destroyed the city to discourage the societal aspects of their lives with one another. Finally, he destroyed the wall to disrupt their personal sense of integrity and well being.
For us, the temple represents our personal relationship with our heavenly Father through the Lord Jesus Christ. We are the temple of his Holy Spirit now; we are individually and corporately the house of God. For our understanding here, the city represents our interpersonal relationships within the body of Christ. So the entire reconstruction undertaken by the returning exiles brings to my consciousness the passage in which a lawyer asks Jesus to name the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus’ response unites these three areas of reconstruction that we are looking at:
“Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Matt 22:36-39 NIV
Loving God, others and ourselves—temple, city, and wall. A proper and biblical loving of ourselves is an essential and foundational part of walking out our life in Christ. Loving one’s self is in essence one’s acceptance of God’s unconditional love and his ascribing worth to one’s life. It is affirming belief in God’s word that “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It is hearing to our hearts what Jesus heard following his baptism by John, “You are my beloved son and in you I am well pleased.” Out of this matrix we are not only free but empowered to convey Calvary love back to God and to others. We are set free from the compulsion to stand in judgment of others and to simply release God’s grace and goodness on absolutely everyone.
I previously stated that Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the wall around Jerusalem to disrupt their personal sense of integrity and well being. There are numerous spiritual dimensions to the wall. In the natural, the most prominent function of the wall would be to protect or shield the city from undesired intrusion. In a finer sense, it is also a statement of those who live in the city regarding their intent and ability to control the composition, culture and demeanor of their city. When Hanani reported to Nehemiah that the returned exiles in Jerusalem were “in great distress and reproach,” he was stating their condition as a result of the “wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.” Nehemiah’s response to this report was to literally sit down and weep. He mourned, fasted and prayed for days rehearsing before the Lord his promise to accept back the repentant people of God and to grant Nehemiah favor with the king.
Hanani’s assessment of their conditions in Jerusalem as being in “great affliction and reproach” portrays just how dire he believed their situation to be. Every nuance of the Hebrew word for “affliction” carries the connotation of “bad and evil.” To be held in reproach is to be despised, scorned and treated with contempt. A city without a wall not only was defenseless, but it also lacked the ability to properly differentiate itself from the outside world. Failing to separate itself from the surrounding world’s culture and values is what led to Judah’s spiritual demise and ultimately its exile into captivity. Israel failed to remember that the peoples of Canaan were exterminated precisely for their horrendous practices of idolatry which included sexual rituals, cult prostitution and human sacrifice including child sacrifice.
A city without a wall was a city without pride, a city without distinctions and without the ability to define itself proprietarily after its unique calling and mission. We often think of walls in a negative sense as that which improperly separates and causes divisions. We see this in how psychological walls are erected as a defensive mechanism employed by individuals in an effort to ostensibly protect one’s self from hurt from others. Many Americans feel it is wrong to create a national border or wall for the express purpose of monitoring and enforcing our country’s immigration policy, a policy designed to intelligently control the size and scope of our population. Dr. Michael Savage on his talk radio program has often repeated the phrase “borders, language and culture” as distinctives which help order and define our national life. This would be analogous to Jerusalem’s wall, a means for defining your own nationhood.
It may seem somewhat incongruous to many believers, but there is a sense in which the church also needs to build a wall. The perception regarding this will be predicated on one’s theology of the church. Is the church to be thrown open to any and all who would come with the intention and hope that attending unbelievers would find Christ? Or, is the church the gathering of those who have already utterly committed themselves as sold out followers of Jesus and who assemble to minister to one another, building each other up in Christ? This would be what Elton Trueblood called, The Company of the Committed. These persons have already settled the issue of eschewing the things of this world and have chosen to fully pursue the gospel of the kingdom of God.
Another way of phrasing this would be in asking the question, “Should evangelism be principally the function of the church gathered or of the church scattered?” I believe the Bible teaches and early church history substantiates that by definition the church is truly the communion of saints, the gathering of disciples, the fellowship of the committed. They gather to share their gifting and calling in mutual edification that all might come into the full stature of Christ. Evangelism in this regard is more an individual than corporate function. Many refer to what is called “lifestyle” evangelism wherein a person’s very living out the life in Christ makes Jesus attractive to others.
If the church is the company of the committed, than of necessity there must be “walls” that differentiate it from the world and serve to ensure its purity in the faith. The walls I speak of here are meant in a very positive sense and might be more accurately be perceived as boundaries or limitations. These would be the kind of self-imposed delimiters that serve to define our character and performance as disciples of Christ. An example of this would be how we perceive our individual roles within the body of Christ. Scripture teaches that we are all called as ministers one to another. This understanding necessarily involves personal disciplines that would equip and prepare each of us for the mutual ministry of the body. The Apostle Paul put it this way:
How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification. 1 Cor 14:26 NKJV
Each of us, under the auspices of the Holy Spirit, would need to determine what self-imposed boundaries we would adopt that we might more fully participate in the mutual ministry we are called to in the body. Some boundaries would be meant to screen out or shield us from spiritually harmful influences in our lives. Other disciplines or limitations would serve to enhance and foster spiritual gifting in our lives. For me personally, not watching television is a boundary God has called me to. It is not something I would foist on anyone else but rather it is a “wall” God imposed for my own spiritual wellbeing.
Walls are a very personal reality. Some serve to defend and protect. Others are there to call us into deeper devotion to Christ. As we invite the Holy Spirit to structure and guide our wall building, we will discover an ever deepening fellowship and walk with the Lord. Regardless of the nature of the walls we are called to erect, they will always serve to continually differentiate our lives more and more from the world and the world’s systems. A church or an individual believer without walls will always be vulnerable to the corruption of the enemy and subject to be taken captive by him. Without walls, we would find ourselves in “great distress and reproach.”
Let each of us prayerfully consider the Lord’s design for each of us that we might be able to confess with Nehemiah…
So we built the wall, and the entire wall was joined together…