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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Nehemiah 3

 

 

Verses 1-32

BUILDING THE WALLS

Nehemiah 3:1-32

THE third chapter of the Book of Nehemiah supplies a striking illustration of the constructive character of the history of the Jews in the Persian period. Nor is that all. A mechanical, Chinese industry may be found side by side with indications of moral littleness. But the activity displayed in the restoration of the city walls is more than industrious, more than productive. We must be struck with the breadth of the picture. This characteristic was manifest in the earlier work of building the temple, and it pervades the subsequent religious movement of the shaping of Judaism and the development of The Law. Here it is apparent in the fact that the Jews unite in a great common work for the good of the whole community. It was right and necessary that they should rebuild their private houses, but though it would appear that some of these houses must have been in a very ruinous condition, for this was the case even with the governor’s residence, [Nehemiah 2:8] the great scheme now set on foot was for the public advantage. There is something almost socialistic about the execution of it; at all events we meet with that comprehensiveness of view, that elevation of tone, that sinking of self in the interests of society, which we should look for in true citizenship.

This is the more noteworthy because the object of the Jews in the present undertaking was what is now called "secular." The earlier public building operations carried out by their fathers had been confessedly and formally religious. Zerubbabel and Jeshua had led a band of pilgrims up to Jerusalem for the express purpose of rebuilding the temple, and at first the returned exiles had confined their attention to this work and its associated sacrificial rites, without revealing any political ambition, and apparently without even coveting any civic privileges. Subsequently some sense of citizenship had begun to appear in Ezra’s reformation, but every expression of it had been since checked by jealous and hostile influences from without. At length Nehemiah succeeded in rousing the spirit of citizenship by means of the inspiration of religious faith. The new enthusiasm was not directly concerned with the temple; it aimed at fortifying the city. Yet it sprang from prayer and faith. Thus the Jews were feeling their way to that sacredness of civic duties which we in the freer air of Christianity have been so slow to acknowledge.

The special form of this activity in the public interest is also significant. The process of drawing a line round Jerusalem by enclosing it within the definite circuit of a wall helped to mark the individuality and unity of the place as a city, which an amorphous congeries of houses could not be, according to the ancient estimate, because the chief distinction between a city and a village was just this, that the city was walled while the village was unwalled. The first privilege enjoyed by the city would be its security-its strength to withstand assaults. But the walls that shut out foes shut in the citizens-a fact which seems to have been present to the mind of the poet who wrote, -

"Our feet are standing

Within thy gates, O Jerusalem;

Jerusalem, that art builded

As a city that is compact together." [Psalms 122:2-3]

The city is "compact together." City life is corporate life. It is not at all easy for us to appreciate this fact while our idea of a city is only represented by a crowd of men, women, and children crammed into a limited space, but with scarcely any sense of common life and aims, still less when we look behind the garish splendour of the streets to the misery and degradation, the disease and famine and vice, that make their nests under the very shadow of wealth and pleasure. Naturally we turn with loathing from such sights, and long for the fresh, quiet country life. But this accidental conglomerate of bricks and human beings is in no sense a city. The true city-such a city as Jerusalem, or Athens, or Rome in its best days-is a focus of the very highest development of life known to man. The word "civilisation" should remind us that it is the city which indicates the difference between the cultivated man and the savage. Originally it was the civis, the citizen, who marched in the van of the world’s progress. Nor is it difficult to account for his position. Inter-communication of ideas sharpening intelligence-"as iron sharpeneth iron,"-division of labour permitting the specialisation of industry, combination in work making it possible for great undertakings to be carried out, the necessity for mutual considerateness among the members of a community and the consequent development of the social sympathies, all tend to progress. And the sense of a common life realised in this way has weighty moral issues. The larger the social unit becomes, the more will people be freed from pettiness of thought and selfishness of aim. The first step in this direction is made when we regard the family rather than the individual as the true unit. If we pass beyond this in modern times, we commonly advance straight on to the whole nation for our notion of a compact community. But the stride is too great. Very few people are able to reach the patriotism that sinks self in the larger life of a nation. With a Mazzini, and even with smaller men who are magnetised by the passion of such an enthusiast in times of excitement, this may be possible. But with ordinary men in ordinary times it is not very attainable. How many Englishmen leave legacies for the payment of the National Debt? Still more difficult is it to become really cosmopolitan, and acquire a sense of the supreme duty of living for mankind. Our Lord has come to our aid here in giving us a new unit-the Church, so that to be a citizen of this "City of God" is to be called out of the circle of the narrow, selfish interests into the large place where great, common duties and an all-comprehensive good of the whole body are set before us as the chief aims to be pursued.

In rebuilding the city walls, then, Nehemiah was accomplishing two good objects; he was fortifying the place, and he was restoring its organic unity. The two advantages would be mutually helpful, because the weakness of Jerusalem was destroying the peculiar character of her life. The aristocracy, thinking it impossible to preserve the community in isolation, had encouraged and practised intermarriage with neighbouring people, no doubt from a politic regard to the advantage of foreign alliances. Although Nehemiah was not yet prepared to grapple with this great question, his fortification of Jerusalem would help the citizens to maintain their Jewish separateness, according to the principle that only the strong can be free.

The careful report which Nehemiah has preserved of the organisation of this work shows us how complete it was. The whole circuit of the walls was restored. Of course it was most necessary that nothing less should be attempted, because, like the strength of a chain, the strength of a fortress is limited to that of its weakest part. And yet-obvious as it is-probably most failures, not only in public works, but also in private lives, are directly attributable to the neglect of this elementary principle of defence. The difficulty always is to reach that kind of perfection which is suggested by the circle, rather than the pinnacle-the perfection of completeness. Now in the present instance the completion of the circuit of the walls of Jerusalem testifies to the admirable organising power of Nehemiah, his tact in putting the right men in the right places-the most important and difficult duty of a leader of men, and his perseverance in overcoming the obstacles and objections that must have been thrust in his path-all of them what people call secular qualities, yet all sustained and perfected by a noble zeal and by that transparent unselfishness which is the most powerful solvent of the selfishness of other people. There are more moral qualities involved in the art of organisation than they would suppose who regard it as a hard, mechanical contrivance in which human beings are treated like parts of a machine. The highest form of organisation is never attained in that brutal manner. Directly we approach men as persons endowed with rights, convictions, and feelings, an element of sympathy is called for which makes the organising process a much more delicate concern.

Another point calls for remark here. Nehemiah’s description of his organisation of the people for the purpose of building the walls links the several groups of men who were responsible for the different parts with their several districts. The method of division shows a devolution of responsibility. Each gang had its own bit of wall or its own gate to see to. The rule regulating the assignment of districts was that, as far as practicable, every man should undertake the work opposite his own house. He was literally to "do the thing that lay nearest" to him in this business. It was in every way a wise arrangement. It would prevent the disorder and vexation that would be excited if people were running about to select favourite sites-choosing the easiest place, or the most prominent, or the safest, or any other desirable spot. Surely there is no principle of organisation so simple or so wise as that which directs us to work near home in the first instance. With the Jews this rule would commend itself to the instinct of self-interest. Nobody would wish the enemy to make a breach opposite his own door, of all places. Therefore the most selfish man would be likely to see to it that the wall near his house was solidly built. If, however, no other inducements had been felt in the end, the work would have failed of any great public good, as all purely selfish work must ultimately fail. There would have been gaps which it was nobody’s interest in particular to fill.

Next it is to be observed that this building was done by "piece work," and that with the names of the workmen attached to it, so that if any of them did their work ill the fact would be known and recorded to their lasting disgrace, but also so that if any put an extra amount of finish on their work this too should be known and remembered to their credit. The idle and negligent workman would willingly be lost in the crowd, but this escape was not to be permitted, he must be dragged out and set in the pillory of notoriety. On the other hand, the humble and devoted citizen would crave no recognition, doing his task lovingly for the sake of his God and his city, feeling that the work was everything-the worker nothing. For his own sake one who labours in this beautiful spirit seems to deserve to be sheltered from the blaze of admiration at the thought of which he shrinks back in dismay. And yet this is not always possible. St. Paul writes of the day when every man’s work shall be made manifest. [1 Corinthians 3:13] If the honour is really offered to God, who inspires the work, the modesty which leads the human agent to seek the shade may be overstrained, for the servant need not blush to stand in the light when all eyes are directed to his Master. But when honour is offered to the servant also, this may not be without its advantages. Rightly taken it will humble him. He will feel that his unworthiness would not have permitted this if God had not been very gracious to him. Then he will feel also that he has a character to maintain. If it is ruinous to lose a reputation-"the better part of me," as poor Cassio exclaims in his agony of remorse-it must be helpful to have one to guard from reproach. "A good name is rather to be chosen than great riches," [Proverbs 22:1] not only because of the indirect advantages it brings from the consideration of the world-its mere purchasing power in the market of human favour; this is its least advantage. Its chief value is in the very possession of it by one whose honour is involved in living worthily of it.

From another point of view the record of the names of people who have rendered good service may be valuable. It will be a stimulus to their successors. The early church preserved the names of her confessors and martyrs in the diptychs which were expressly provided for use in public worship, that God might be praised for their noble lives, and that the living might be stimulated to follow their example. Here is one of the great uses of history. We cannot afford to forget the loyal service of the past, because out of it we draw inspiration for the present. The people with a great history have come into a rich heritage. To be a child of a really noble house, to spring from a family truly without reproach-a family all whose sons are pure and all whose daughters are brave-surely this is to receive a high commission to cherish the good name unsullied. As the later Jews gazed at the towers of Jerusalem and marked well her bulwarks, with the thought that this massive strength was the fruit of the toil and sacrifice of their own forefathers-so that the very names of individual ancestors were linked with exact spots on the grey walls-they would hear a call to loyal service worthy of their noble predecessors.

To proceed, we may observe further that the groups of builders fall into several classes. The first place is given to the priestly order-"the high-priest and his brethren the priests." [Nehemiah 3:1] This is quite in accordance with the sacerdotal spirit of the times, when the theocracy was emerging into power to take the place left vacant by the decay of the house of David. But the priests are not only named first. Nehemiah states that they were the first to respond to his appeal. "Then" - i.e., after he had addressed the assembled Jews-"Then Eliashib the high-priest rose up," etc. This man-the grandson of Jeshua, from whom so much was expected by Zechariah-was the first to set his hand to the tremendous task. First in honour, he was first in service. The beauty of his action lies in its silence. Not a word is recorded as spoken by him. But he was not satisfied to sanction the work of humbler men. He led the people in the best possible way, by beginning the work himself, by directly taking upon him his share of it. In this noble simplicity of service Eliashib was followed by the priesthood generally. These men put forth no claims to immunity from the obligation of civic duties or secular occupations. It never occurred to them to object that such employments were in the least degree inconsistent with their high office. The priestly order was hampered by the strictest rules of artificial separation, but the quaint notion-so common in the East, and not quite unknown in the West-that there is something degrading in hard work did not enter into them.

There are two points to be noticed in the special work of the priests. First, its locality. These ministers of the temple set up the "Sheep Gate," which was the gate nearest to the temple. Thus they made themselves responsible for their own quarters, guarding what was especially entrusted to their care. This was in accordance with the plan observed all round the city, that the inhabitants should work in the neighbourhood of their respective houses. The priests, who have the honour of special connection with the temple, feel that a special charge accompanies that honour, and rightly, for responsibility always follows privilege. Second, its consecration. The priests sanctified their work-i.e., they dedicated it to God. This was not in the sacred enclosure-the Haram, as it is now called. Nevertheless, their gate and wall, as well as their temple, were to be reckoned holy. They did not hold the strange modern notion that while the cemetery, the city of the dead, is to be consecrated, the city of the living requires no consecration. They saw that the very stones and timbers of Jerusalem belonged to God, and needed His presence to keep them safe and pure. They were wise, for is He not "the God of the living" and of all the concerns of life?

The next class of workmen is comprised of men who were taken according to their families. These would probably be all of them citizens of Jerusalem, some present by right of birth as descendants of former citizens, others perhaps sprung from the inhabitants of distant towns not yet restored to Israel who had made Jerusalem their home. Their duty to fortify their own city was indubitable.

But now, as in the earlier lists, there is another class among the laity, consisting of the inhabitants of neighbouring towns, who are arranged, not according to families, but according to their residence. Most likely these men were living in Jerusalem at the time, and yet it is probable that they retained their interest in their provincial localities. But Jerusalem was the capital, the centre of the nation, the Holy City. Therefore the inhabitants of other cities must care for her welfare. In a great scheme of religious centralisation at Jerusalem Josiah had found the best means of establishing unity of worship, and so of impressing upon the worshippers the idea of the unity of God. The same method was still pursued. People were not yet ripe for the larger thoughts of God and His worship which Jesus expressed by Jacob’s well. Until that was reached, external unity with a visible centre was essential if a multiplex division of divinity was to be avoided. After these neighbours who thus helped the metropolis we have two other groups-the temple servants and the trade guilds of goldsmiths and merchants.

Now, while on all sides ready volunteers press forward to the work, just one painful exception is found to mar the harmony of the scene, or rather to lessen its volume-for this was found in abstention, not in active opposition. To their shame it is recorded that the nobles of Tekoa "put not their necks to the work of their Lord." [Nehemiah 3:5] The general body of citizens from this town took part. We are not told why the aristocracy held back. Did they consider the labour beneath their dignity? or was there a breach between them and the townsfolk? The people of Tekoa may have been especially democratic. Ages before, a herdsman from this same town, the rough prophet Amos, had shown little respect for the great ones of the earth. Possibly the Tekoites had vexed their princes by showing a similar spirit of independence. But if so, Nehemiah would regard their conduct as affording the princes no excuse. For it was the Lord’s work that these nobles refused to undertake, and there is no justification for letting God’s service suffer when a quarrel has broken out between His servants. Yet how common is this miserable result of divisions among men who should be united in the service of God. Whatever was the cause-whether it was some petty personal offence or some grave difference of opinion-these nobles go down the ages, like those unhappy men in the early days of the Judges who earned the "curse of Meroz," disgraced eternally, for no positive offence, but simply because they left undone what they ought to have done. Nehemiah pronounces no curse. He chronicles the bare fact. But his ominous silence in regard to any explanation is severely condemnatory. The man who builds his house on the sand in hearing Christ’s words and doing them not, the servant who is beaten with many stripes because he knows his lord’s will and does not perform it, that other servant who buries his talent, the virgins who forget to fill their vessels with oil, the people represented by goats on the left hand whose sole ground of accusation is that they refused to exercise the common charities-all these illustrate the important but neglected truth that our Lord’s most frequent words of condemnation were expressed for what we call negative evil-the evil of harmless but useless lives.

Happily we may set exceptional devotion in another quarter over against the exceptional remissness of the nobles of Tekoa. Brief as is his summary of the division of the work, Nehemiah is careful to slip in a word of praise for one Baruch the son of Zabbai, saying that this man "earnestly repaired" his portion. [Nehemiah 3:20] That one word "earnestly" is a truer stamp of worth than all the honours claimed by the abstaining nobles on grounds of rank or pedigree; it goes down the centuries as the patent of true nobility in the realm of industry.

"MARK YE WELL HER BULWARKS."

Nehemiah 3:1-32

THE book of Nehemiah is our principal authority for the ancient topography of Jerusalem. But, as we have been already reminded, the sieges from which the city has suffered, and the repeated destruction of its walls and buildings, have obliterated many of the old landmarks beyond recovery. In some places the ground is now found to be raised sixty feet above the original surface, and in one spot it was even necessary to dig down a hundred and twenty feet to reach the level of the old pavement. It is therefore not at all wonderful that the attempt to identify the sites here named should have occasioned not a little perplexity. Still the explorations of underground Jerusalem have brought some important facts to light, and others can be fairly divined from a consideration of the historical record in the light of the more general features of the country, which no wars or works of man can alter.

The first, because the most obvious, thing to be noted in considering the site of Jerusalem is its mountainous character. Jerusalem is a mountain city, as high as a Dartmoor tor, some two thousand feet above the Mediterranean, with a drop of nearly four thousand feet on the farther side, beyond the Mount of Olives, towards the deep pit where the Dead Sea steams in tropical heat. Looked at from the wilderness, through a gap in the hills round Bethlehem, she soars above us, with her white domes and towers clean-cut against the burning sky, like a city of clouds. In spite of the blazing southern sunshine, the air bites keenly on that fine altitude. It would be only reasonable to suppose that the vigour of the highlanders who dwelt in Jerusalem was braced by the very atmosphere of their home. And yet we have had to trace every impulse of zeal and energy after the restoration to the relaxing plains of the Euphrates and the Tigris! In all history the moral element counts for more than the material. Race is more than habitat, and religion is more than race.

Closely associated with this mountainous character of Jerusalem is a second feature. It is clear that the site for the city was chosen because of its singularly valuable ready-made defences. Jerusalem is a natural fortress. Protected on three sides by deep ravines, it would seem that she could be easily made impregnable. How awful, then, is the irony of her destiny! This city, so rarely favoured by nature for security against attack, has been more often assaulted and captured, and has suffered more of the horrors of war, than any other spot on earth.

The next fact to be noticed is the small size of Jerusalem. The dimensions of the city have varied in different ages. Under the Herods the buildings extended far beyond the ancient limits, and villas were dotted about on the outlying hills. But in Nehemiah’s day the city was confined within a surprisingly contracted area. The discovery of the Siloam inscription, leading to the identification of the gorge known to the Romans as the Tyropaeon with the ancient "Valley of Hinnom" or "Tophet," cuts off the whole of the modern Zion from the site of the ancient city, and points to the conclusion that the old Zion must have been nearer Moriah, and all Jerusalem crowded in the little space to the east of the chasm which was once thought to have run up through the middle of the city. No doubt the streets were narrow; the houses may have been high. Still the population was but slender, for after the walls had been built Nehemiah found the space he had enclosed too large for the inhabitants. [Nehemiah 11:1] But our interest in Jerusalem is in no way determined by her size, or by the number of her citizens. A little town in a remote province, she was politically insignificant enough when viewed from the standpoint of Babylon, and in comparison with the many rich and populous cities of the vast Persian dominions. It is the more remarkable, then, that successive Persian sovereigns should have bestowed rare favours on her. From the day when Solomon built his temple, the unique glory of this city had begun to appear. Josiah’s reformation in concentrating the national worship at Jerusalem advanced her peculiar privileges, which the rebuilding of the temple before the restoration of the city further promoted. Jerusalem is the religious metropolis of the world. To be first in religious honour it was not necessary that she should be spacious or populous. Size and numbers count for very little in religion. Its valuation is qualitative, not quantitative. Even the extent of its influence, even the size and mass of this, depends mainly on its character. Moreover, in Jerusalem, as a rule, the really effective religious life was confined to a small group of the "pious"; sometimes it was gathered up in a single individual-a Jeremiah, an Ezra, a Nehemiah. This is a fact replete with encouragement for faith. It is an instance of the way in which God chooses the weak things-weak as to this world-to confound the strong. If a small city could once take the unique position held by Jerusalem, then why should not a small Church now? And if a little knot of earnest men within the city could be the nucleus of her character and the source of her influence, why should not quite a small group of earnest people give a character to their church, and, through the church, work wonders in the world, as the grain of mustard seed could move a mountain? The secret of the miracle is, like the secret of nature, that God is in the city and the church, as God is in the seed. When once we have discovered this truth as a certain fact of life and history, our estimate of the relative greatness of things is revolutionised. The map and the census then cease to answer our most pressing questions. The excellence we look for must be spiritual-vigour of faith, self-abnegation of love, passion of zeal.

As we follow Nehemiah round the circuit of the walls the more special features of the city are brought under our notice. He begins with the "Sheep Gate," which was evidently near the temple, and the construction of which was undertaken by the priests as the first piece of work in the great enterprise. The name of this gate agrees well with its situation. Opening on the Valley of the Kidron, and facing the Mount of Olives and the lonely pass over the hills towards Jericho, it would be the gate through which shepherds would bring in their flocks from the wide pasturage of the wilderness. Possibly there was a market at the open space just inside. The vicinity of the temple would make it easy to bring up the victims for the sacrifices by this way. As the Passover season approached, the whole neighbourhood would be alive with the bleating of thousands of lambs. Rich associations would thus cluster round the name of this gate. It would be suggestive of the pastoral life so much pursued by the men of Judah, whose favourite king had been a shepherd lad, and it would call up deeper thoughts of the mystery of sacrifice and the joy of the Paschal redemption of Israel. To us Christians the situation of the "Sheep Gate" has a far more touching significance. It seems to have stood near where the "St. Stephen’s Gate" now stands; here, then, would be the way most used by our Lord in coming to and fro between Jerusalem and Bethany, the way by which He went out to Gethsemane on the last night, and probably the way by which He was brought back "as a sheep" among her shearers, "as a lamb" led to the slaughter.

Going round from this spot northwards, we have the part of the wall built by the men of Jericho, which would still look east, towards their own city, so that they would always see their work when they got their first glimpse of Jerusalem as they passed over the ridge of the Mount of Olives on their pilgrimages up to the feasts. The task of the men of Jericho ended at one of the northern gates, the construction of which, together with the fitting of its ponderous bolts and bars, was considered enough for another group of builders. This was called the "Fish Gate." Since it faced north, it would scarcely have been used by the traders who came up from the sea fisheries in the Mediterranean; it must have received the fish supply from the Jordan, and perhaps from as far as the Sea of Galilee. Still its name suggests a wider range of commerce than the "Sheep Gate," which let in flocks chiefly from neighbouring hills. Jerusalem was in a singularly isolated spot for the capital of a country, one chosen expressly on account of its inaccessibility - the very opposite requisite from that of most capitals, which are planted by navigable rivers. Nevertheless she maintained communication, both political and commercial, with distant towns all along the ages of her chequered history.

After passing the work of one or two Jewish families and that of the Tekoites, memorable for the painful fact of the abstention of the nobles, we come to the "Old Gate." That a gate should bear such a name would lead us to think that once gates had not been so numerous as they were at this time. Yet most probably the "Old Gate" was really new, because very little of the original city remained above ground. But men love to perpetuate memories of the past. Even what is new in fact may acquire a flavour of age by the force of association. The wise reformer will follow the example of Nehemiah in linking the new on to the old, and preserving the venerable associations of antiquity wherever these do not hinder present efficiency.

Next we come to the work of men from the northern Benjamite towns of Gibeon and Mizpah, [Nehemiah 3:7] whose volunteer service was a mark of their own brotherly spirit. It should be remembered, however, that Jerusalem originally belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. Working at the northern wall, in accordance with the rule observed throughout that all the Jews from outlying places should build in the direction of their own cities, these Benjamites carried it on as far as the districts of the goldsmiths and apothecaries, [Nehemiah 3:8] whose principal bazaars seem to have occupied the north quarter of the city-the quarter most suitable for trade, because first reached by most travellers. There, however-if we are to accept the generally received emendation of the text mentioned in the margin of the Revised Version-they found a bit of wall that had escaped destruction, and also probably the "Ephraim Gate," which is not named here, although it existed in the days of Nehemiah. [Nehemiah 8:16] Inasmuch as the invasions had come from the north, and the recent Samaritan raid had also proceeded from the same quarter, it seems likely that the city had been taken on this side. If so, the enemy, after having got in through a gate which they had burnt, or through a breach in the wall, did not think it necessary to waste time in the heavy labour of tearing down the wall in their rear. Perhaps, as this was the most exposed quarter, the wall was most solid here-it was known as "the broad wall." The wealthy goldsmiths would have been anxious that their bazaars should not be the first parts of the city to entertain a marauding host through any weakness in the defences. The next bit of wall was in the hands of a man of some importance, known as "the ruler of half the district of Jerusalem," [Nehemiah 3:9] i.e., he had the management of half the land belonging to the city-either a sort of police supervision of private estates, or the direct control of land owned by the municipality, and possibly farmed for the time being on communal principles.

Still following the northern wall, we pass the work of several Jerusalem families, and so on to the potteries, as we may infer from the remark about "the tower of the furnaces." [Nehemiah 3:11] Here we must be at the "Corner Gate," [2 Chronicles 26:9, Jeremiah 31:38] which, however, is not now named; "the tower of the furnaces" may have been part of its fortifications. Evidently this was an important position. The manager of the second half of the city estates and the villages on them-known as "his daughters"-had the charge of the work here. It was four hundred cubits from the "Ephraim Gate" to the corner. [2 Kings 14:13] At this point the long north wall ends, and the fortifications take a sharp turn southwards. Following the new direction, we pass by the course of the Valley of Hinnom, leaving it on our right. The next gate we meet is named after this ravine of evil omen the "Valley Gate." It would be here that the poor children, victims to the savage Moloch worship, had been led out to their fate. The name of the gate would be a perpetual reminder of the darkest passage in the old city’s history of sin and shame. The gate would face west, and, in accordance with the arrangement throughout, the inhabitants of Zanoah, a town lying out from Jerusalem ten miles in that direction, undertook the erection of it. They also had charge of a thousand cubits of wall-an exceptionally long piece, but the gates were fewer on this side, and here possibly the steepness of the cliff rendered a slighter wall sufficient.

This long, unbroken stretch of wall ends at the "Dung Gate," through which the refuse of the city was flung out to the now degraded valley which once had been so famous for its pleasure gardens. Sanitary regulations are of course most necessary. We admire the minuteness with which they are attended to in the Pentateuch, and we regard the filthy condition of modern eastern cities as a sign of neglect and decay. Still the adornment of a grand gateway by the temple, or the solid building of a noble approach to the city along the main route from the north, would be a more popular undertaking than this construction of a "Dung Gate." It is to the credit of Nehemiah’s admirable skill in organisation that no difficulty was found in filling up the less attractive parts of his programme, and it is even more to the credit of those who accepted the allotment of them that, as far as we know, they made no complaint. A common zeal for the public good overcame personal prejudices. The just and firm application of a universal rule is a great preventative of complaints in such a case. When the several bands of workers were to undertake the districts opposite their own houses if they were inhabitants of the city, or opposite their own towns if they were provincial Jews, it would be difficult for any of them to frame a complaint. The builders of the "Dung Gate" came, it would seem, from the most conspicuous eminence in the wilderness of Southern Judaea - that now known as the "Frank Mountain." The people who would take to such an out-of-the-world place of abode would hardly be such as we should look to for work requiring fineness of finish. Perhaps they were more suited to the unpretentious task which fell to their lot. Still this consideration does not detract from the credit of their good-natured acquiescence, for self-seeking people are the last to admit that they are not fit for the best places.

The next gate was in a very interesting position at the southwest corner, where the Tyropaeon runs down to the Valley of the Kidron. It was called the "Fountain Gate," perhaps after the one natural spring which Jerusalem possesses-that now known as the "Virgin’s Fountain," and near to the Pool of Siloam, where the precious water from this spring was stored. The very name of the gate would call up thoughts of the value of its site in times of siege, when the fountain had to be "sealed" or covered over, to save it from being tampered with by the enemy. Close by is a flight of steps, still extant, that formerly led down to the king’s garden. We are now near to Zion, in what was once the favourite and most aristocratic portion of the town. The lowering of the top of Zion in the time of the Maccabees, that it might not overlook the temple on Mount Moriah, and the filling up of the ravines, considerably detract from the once imposing height of this quarter of the city. Here ancient Jerusalem had looked superb-like an eagle perched on a rock. With such a fortress as Zion her short-sighted citizens had thought her impregnable, but Nehemiah’s contemporaries were humbler and wiser men than the infatuated Jews who had rejected the warnings of Jeremiah.

The adjoining piece of wall brings us round to the tombs of the kings, which, according to the custom of antiquity, as we learn from a cuneiform inscription at Babylon, were within the city walls, although the tombs of less important people were outside-just as to this day we bury our illustrious dead in the heart of the metropolis. Nehemiah had been moved at the first report of the ruin of Jerusalem by the thought that his fathers’ sepulchres were there.

From this spot it is not so easy to trace the remainder of the wall. The mention of the Levites has given rise to the opinion that Nehemiah now takes us at once to the temple again, but this is hardly possible in view of his subsequent statements. We must first work round by Ophel, the "Water," the "East,’" and the "Horse" Gates-all of them apparently leading out towards the Valley of the Kidron. Levites and Priests, whose quarters we are gradually approaching, and other inhabitants of houses in this district, together with people from the Jordan Valley and the east country, carried out this last piece of work as far as a great tower standing out between Ophel and the corner of the temple wall, a tower so massive that some of its masonry can be seen still standing. But the narrative is here so obscure, and the sites have been so altered by the ravages of war and time, that the identification of most of them in this direction baffles inquiry. "Mark ye well her bulwarks." Alas! they are buried in a desolation so huge that the utmost skill of engineering science fails to trace their course. The latest great discovery, which has simply revolutionised the map by identifying the Tyropaeon with the Old Testament "Valley of Hinnom" or "Tophet," is the most striking sign of these topographical difficulties. The valley itself has been filled up with masses of rubbish, the sight of which today confirms the dreadful tragedy of the history of Jerusalem, the most tragic history on record. No city was ever more favoured by Heaven, and no city was ever more afflicted. Hers were the most magnificent endowments, the highest ideals, the fairest promises; hers too was the most miserable failure. Her beauty ravaged, her sanctity defiled, her light extinguished, her joy turned into bitterness, Heaven’s bride has been treated as the scum of the streets. And now, after being abused by her own children, shattered by the Babylonian, outraged by the Syrian, demolished by the Roman, the city which stoned her prophets and clamoured successfully for the death of her Saviour has again revived in poverty and misery-the pale ghost of her past, still the victim of the oppressor. The witchery of this wonderful city fascinates us today, and the very syllables of her name "JERUSALEM" sound strangely sweet and ineffably sad-

"Most musical, most melancholy."

It was fitting that the tenderest, most mournful lament ever uttered should have been called forth by our Lord’s contemplation of such a city-a city which, deeming herself destined to be the joy of all the earth, became the plague-spot of history

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Nehemiah 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/nehemiah-3.html.


Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, September 20th, 2017
the Week of Proper 19 / Ordinary 24
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