The Walls of Jerusalem

Nehemiah 1-5

by John Kitto, Daily Bible Illustrations

The decree of Cyrus, in behalf of the Jews, had reference only to the building of the temple. But, in the East, it is so important that a town of any consequence should be surrounded by a wall—and, in the case of the returned captives, it was of such special importance—that they reasonably concluded that the permission to build a temple necessarily implied leave to surround the place which contained it with a wall. The presence of a temple such as they had been allowed to build, raised the city to such a rank, that the absence of a wall would be most strange and anomalous—besides that it was most needful for the protection of the inhabitants, subject as they were to hostile annoyances from all their neighbors, who regarded with malignant hatred the prospect of the re-establishment of the Jews as a people in their own land. So much, indeed, were the inhabitants distressed, and so natural was it that they should conceive themselves free to take this measure for their own safety, that they began to rebuild the town wall as soon as the temple had been finished. This raised a clamorous opposition, especially from the Samaritans, the authorities in charge of whose local government sent a forcible representation on the  subject to the Persian court, urging the danger to royal power on “this side the river” (Euphrates), of allowing this “rebellious city” to be fortified. This procured what they desired—authority to stop the work. The kings of Persia had been willing, when the case was fairly set before them, to allow all that had been literally allowed in the decree of Cyrus—which formed to the Jews their great charter in all the troubles to which they were subjected—but beyond this they would not go, when it appeared, from the records of the realm, that Jerusalem had once been the seat of mighty kings, and that the later sovereigns had constantly rebelled against their foreign masters.
Thus, in all the favors granted by the Persian court, and all the renewals of the charter of Cyrus, permission to fortify the town by a wall is studiously withheld, though known to be greatly desired; and Jerusalem remained as a town whose growing prosperity was kept in check, and its peace continually endangered, by the want of a wall; and it still presented to the external view the aspect of a ruined and burned city, surrounded by fragments of broken wall, and by vast accumulations of rubbish and ruin; for in the East people never clear away the débris of old ruins till they need to build again on the same foundations.

But, thirteen years after the arrival of Ezra, the housetops of Jerusalem were crowded to witness the arrival of a new civil governor, whose high rank and power at court was evinced by the splendid escort of “captains of the army and horsemen” which attended him. It is the king’s cup-bearer. “Only a cup-bearer!” Softly: this designation, which sounds so undignified to us, was one which inspired the citizens with the most lofty ideas of power and influence; and they felt that surely good days were come, since so great a man had deigned to take the government of their poor state, and since “the king of kings” had spared him from his side. This office is mentioned by ancient writers as one of the highest honor and influence in the great monarchies of the East, the fortunate possessor of which enjoyed great influence,  from the peculiar facilities afforded him of access to the royal presence, and might aspire to the highest civil or even military employments without presumption. It was the same with the Assyrians—of which we have a Scriptural instance—for that foul-mouthed Rabshakeh, who seems to have held the chief command under Sennacherib, was, as his name, or rather title, imports, “chief cup bearer” to the king. At the Persian court, the expatriated natives of conquered states and their children might, equally with native Persians, aspire to the highest offices at the court or in the state; and this high place was, in the present instance, held by a pious Jew called Nehemiah, whose patriotic heart felt a deep interest in the welfare of “the city of his fathers’ sepulchres.” A Jew named Hanani, who had come back to the imperial city of Shushan, gave him a saddening account of the state of affairs at Jerusalem—dwelling particularly upon the disadvantages experienced from the still ruined condition of the wall. This afflicted Nehemiah greatly, and he conceived an absorbing wish to be the honored instrument of repairing the desolations of Zion. He felt that, as he was the one of the nation highest in place and influence, the service seemed to devolve upon him; and how could he know but that he had been so prospered and exalted, that he had been placed in this peculiar position for this very end? The thing was not in itself too much for him to ask; but he could not conceal that there was much danger in asking. The king had been used to see him about his person, and his self-love might be offended at the wish of a servant so favored to leave him for some years; and then, although that danger were escaped, and the king, in a moment of happy humor, might consent to let him go, with large powers as governor, might he not demur at the very point which was of most consequence—the rebuilding of the walls—seeing that this had, on grounds of public policy, been refused by many kings who had in other respects evinced a favorable disposition towards the Jews? In this perplexity and danger, Nehemiah did exactly the right thing—he cast the matter in earnest prayer upon the  Lord, imploring him “to give him favor in the sight of this man.”

Kings do not like the sight of unhappy faces. It looks like a disparagement of their greatness—an insinuation that they have not the power of conferring universal happiness; Note: So the existing president of the French Republic declines to grant an audience to Abd-el-Kader till he shall have the power of making him happy. A right royal sentiment!—April, 1851. and in the Persian court it was a capital crime to appear sad in the king’s presence. Nehemiah knew this very well; but when he found that the lapse of time, day after day, afforded him no suitable opportunity of naming the matter to the king, he could not prevent some traces of his trouble from being visible in his countenance. This was noted by the royal eye; and the cup-bearer had reason to tremble when the monarch asked—“Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick?” “This is nothing else,” he added, “but sorrow of heart.” At these words, Nehemiah confesses that he was “very sore afraid.” But he took courage to speak out—“Let the king live forever. Why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire?” Then the King said, “For what dost then make request?” This brought the matter to a truly critical point. “So,” says this good Jew, “I prayed to the God of heaven,”—a silent prayer, the aspiration of a moment—the first of the kind recorded in Scripture, but not the first by many that the children of God had sent up on high. He then found his heart strengthened, and be asked for leave of absence, and to be sent to Jerusalem with full powers to build up its walls. This was granted, on his undertaking to return within an appointed time; and he set forth, furnished with such royal letters to the governors west of the Euphrates as were needful to facilitate his object, together with orders for the free supply of materials for the city wall, and for the palace which the governor intended to build for himself. 
Nehemiah came with the title of Tirshatha—the same that had formerly been borne by Zerubbabel. The exact signification is doubtful; but it is supposed to come from the Persian torsh, “severe,” and to signify something like “your severity,” “your dreadness,”—reminding one of the “dread sovereign” of our forefathers.

When Nehemiah arrived, he did not at once make known the full extent of his commission—that he was the bearer of the long-desired privilege of building the walls. But one moonlight night, the third after his arrival, he went out privately with a few attendants, and rode quite round the outside of the town, making a complete survey of the walls in their ruined state. The next day, however, when the chief persons attended his levee, he said to them, “Ye see the distress we are in; how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: Come and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.” We may easily imagine the thrill of surprise and joyful excitement these words produced, and the zeal which they inspired. Nehemiah, all whose narrative is in the first person, proceeds to state—“Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me, and also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.”

No time was lost. They went to the work with vigor, and men of all trades—every one, young or old, that could be of the slightest use, was engaged in this great work—the governor and chief persons being always present to encourage them. The danger was great from their old enemies, whose animosity was excited to frenzy when they saw that the Jews were thus securing themselves against them. All kinds of scoffs and insults were showered upon the undertaking. A bitter sarcasm of Tobiah the Ammonite is recorded: “Even that which they build, if a fox go up he shall even break down their stone wall.” At last, seeing the work proceeding so vigorously, they took counsel to put a stop to it by force  of arms. This coming to the knowledge of Nehemiah, he took remarkable precautions for safety. Every one was kept on the alert—every workman was armed—and the governor, who had put all his attendants and guard to the work, withdrew half of them to be constantly in arms by the men who wrought on the wall. Nehemiah was ever present, with a trumpeter by his side, and the people were enjoined to hasten to him whenever the trumpet sounded. The vigilant precautions had the effect intended. The enemies knew their plot was discovered; and the great work was in a short time brought to a close. Nehemiah declares that, during the time the work was in progress, “Neither I, nor my brethren, nor my servants, nor the men of my guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, saving that every one put them off for washing.” The whole work was completed in fifty-two days.