The Dung Gate
Nehemiah 3: The Dung Gate itself was rebuilt by Malkijah son of Recab.
As the work begins on the big wall rebuilding project, Nehemiah, as general contractor, takes us on a tour of the job site. This is a huge undertaking so he’s organized the leading families of Jerusalem to take on different sections of the wall, including some who are rebuilding the gates to the city. We meet Hanun and his team who are rebuilding the Valley Gate and then we come to Malkijah and his crew. Malkijah is an important person among the returned exiles; in fact, he’s the mayor of the nearby district of Beth Hakkerem.
Just a second, it looks as though Malkijah is taking a short break, maybe we can have a word with him, “Excuse me, your honor, do you have a second?”
“Sure, but not long mind you; there’s work to be done.”
“Being such an important person in Jerusalem, I imagine you have an important gate to rebuild. So tell me about this gate…is it one of the historic royal gates, used only for the king?”
He smiles and shakes his head.
“Maybe it’s used for religious purposes, like the Sheep Gate…or for commerce?”
Malkijah grins at us, “This, my friends, is none other than the Dung Gate.”
We’re somewhat taken back by this. “Do you mean this gate is primarily used for human waste disposal?” We’re surprised that this important man is rebuilding such a lowly gate.
Then Malkijah son of Recab, mayor of Beth Hakkerem says, “But it is an important gate – it’s important because it’s being rebuilt in the Name of the Lord. Anything you do in his Name is a worthy effort.”
As we rejoin the tour we find ourselves thinking about our attitude toward some of the more lowly things we do in the Name of the Lord.
Take Away: If the Lord gives us a task, for us, that task is the most important one in the world.
With God’s help anything is possible
Nehemiah 2: The God-of-Heaven will make sure we succeed. We’re his servants and we’re going to work, rebuilding.
Upon his arrival in Jerusalem, Nehemiah quietly inspects the walls of the city. Well, it might be better said that he inspects the ruins of the city walls. They were demolished decades earlier. He meets with city leaders and proposes that the next big project be rebuilding those walls and gains their enthusiastic support. As word of this project spreads, we meet Nehemiah’s three adversaries: Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. These men are leaders of the area’s non-Jewish residents and they oppose the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls. There’s likely a power struggle here. At first, the returning Jews brought welcome capital and man power to the area, but now they threaten to become its dominant residents once again. Nehemiah’s reply to them is that in spite of the overwhelming task before them and even in spite of the opposition of these three men that he’s assured of success. The reason is that he is doing God’s work and that God, Himself, will bring them success. As I hear this declaration of faith from a man standing in the rubble of a city I’m impressed with his absolute trust in God. This isn’t some “pie in the sky” situation; this is real work in the most unlikely of circumstances and with real and powerful opposition. Nehemiah doesn’t think he can rebuild the wall because he’s going to try real hard or because he’s going to outsmart his enemies. He’s going to do it because God’s there to help them. There’s a good lesson here for me in all I attempt to do in the name of the Lord.
Take Away: If it’s up to me the chances of success are nominal. If I’m doing God’s work God’s way, the chances of success are 100 percent.
Two sides of the same coin
Nehemiah 1: The wall of Jerusalem is still rubble; the city gates are still cinders.
The stories of Ezra and Nehemiah are actually two sides of the same coin. Ezra returns to Jerusalem as priest and teacher. His mission is to reestablish worship and teach God’s Law to the returned exiles there. Nehemiah returns as a builder. He brings building and organizational skills to bear on the pile of rubble that is Jerusalem. Together these two men are used by God to accomplish a fresh start for the people of Israel. If I’m ever tempted to divide “sacred” from “secular” in my life I need to spend some time thinking about Ezra and Nehemiah. Nehemiah’s work is every bit as necessary and Spirit-driven as is that of Ezra. When Nehemiah hears of the conditions in distant Jerusalem he immediately prepares to do something about it; not by organizing work crews and accumulating building materials, but by praying. As God’s people, everything we do, even building walls, is done “unto the Lord” and therefore, falls under the “sacred” category.
Take Away: Everything we do as a people of the Lord has a sacred flavor to it.
A failure of leadership
Nehemiah 13: I was angry, really angry.
Having accomplished his mission of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and having had a unanimous agreement from the Jews there to live according to God’s Law, it’s time for Nehemiah to return to Babylon. He leaves things in the hands of those who are to keep things organized and on track. However, Nehemiah’s heart is now in Jerusalem, so he once again asks Artaxerxes for permission to return there. When he arrives he’s greeted with all kinds of bad news. One man has made a deal with one of the old enemies of the Jews, Tobiah, who he’s allowed to use the Temple storerooms. The worship leaders were left unpaid and have had to leave the Temple to earn a living. The civic leaders have forgotten the Sabbath and are allowing that day to be a time when business as usual is being conducted. And, the Jews are again intermarrying with the idol worshipping people of the area. Nehemiah is “really angry” about all this and immediately goes to work repairing all this damage. I can’t help but wonder where all those declaration signers are, or even more, where Ezra the priest of God is at this time. That’s a mystery the Bible doesn’t solve for us. However, the rest of it is pretty easy to understand. Nehemiah’s a strong leader and when he leaves it creates a void that no one steps in to fill. One of the dynamics of the human race is that people, even well-meaning people, need leaders who not only cast a vision and oversee the pursuit of that vision, but, even after the fact, provide a compass that keeps things moving in the right direction. This doesn’t excuse those civic and other leaders for their failure, in fact, they should have provided some of that “God-centered” energy themselves. Reading this story is a real life lesson in leadership. It also reminds me of the importance of my staying focused, even when the biggest part of the project has already been done.
Take Away: Even when the biggest part of the work is done there remains the danger of losing focus and giving up gains that have been made.
Summing up a good man’s life
Nehemiah 13: Remember me, O my God.
As I reach the conclusion of Nehemiah’s story I find myself reflecting on this man’s life. One thing that stands out is his leadership and vision. Even from far off Babylon Nehemiah envisions the great project of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem. He organizes the work and stays on course through all kinds of distractions and discouragements. A second thing that comes to mind is his love for, and trust in, God. Nehemiah isn’t driven by desire for power or to leave some sort of legacy. Instead, his eye is always on the God he serves. Finally, I see the third outstanding thing about Nehemiah. That is his spontaneous prayer life. Nehemiah doesn’t wait until some specified time to pray, although it’s clear that he does honor the scheduled worship times. For him, prayer is like breathing; a natural and necessary part of life. In the final words of his story, written by his own hand, three times he inserts short bursts of prayer, asking for God’s favor in light of his faithfulness. I get the feeling that this is not just for the official record of his work but an example of what it was like to be around Nehemiah. Here’s a man who practices the constant presence of God in his life and it’s not unusual to hear him address the Almighty right in the middle of a conversation. This, I think, is the greatest lesson of all I can learn from this good man.
Take Away: Practice prayer until it becomes as natural for you as is breathing.
Can you keep it down over there?
Nehemiah 12: Jerusalem’s jubilation was heard far and wide.
It’s a lavish celebration of praise and worship. The erection of the wall of Jerusalem symbolizes the dawning of a new day for the people of Israel. No longer are they a scattered, defeated people. Now, they’re once again the assembled people of God. Their holy city is now a city again and their Temple is a prepared place of worship. Getting to this place hasn’t been easy. God’s grace has worked in their lives and called them out of distant lands to return to this Promised Land. The rebuilding of the Temple was a years-long effort. The rebuilding of the wall brought unexpected challenges in addition to great labor. Now it’s finished and it’s time for celebration. No doubt, there’s danger in celebrating when there’s still work to be done. However, there’s also danger in never taking time out for celebration. God is good to us. While it’s true that he calls us to work in his fields, he also invites us to rejoice with him when significant victories are won. As his people we’re a people of hope and joy. Even those who live in the settlements distant from Jerusalem hear the sound of jubilation. In the same way, those on the “outside” of our fellowship ought to know that we rejoice in the Lord who has done great things for us.
Take Away: We’re blessed and we ought to act like it.
Spiritually deciding things in practical ways
Nehemiah 11: The people drew lots to get one out of ten to move to Jerusalem.
When the Jews return to the vicinity of Jerusalem to rebuild the city and reestablish worship there they find a city in ruins. They also find small settlements of the descendants of the remnant of Jews who had been left behind a generation earlier. Many, apparently, opt to live in those settlements rather than in the rubble of Jerusalem. That makes good sense; after all, this is an agrarian society in need of open land for their livestock and for growing food. Now, though, the wall project is complete and worship has been reestablished in their holy city. I’m impressed that the leaders have already led the way back by making their homes in Jerusalem. Now, the decision is made to draw lots to decide who else will join them. It’s an interesting mixture of spiritual and practical decision making. As God’s people they want to have a real presence in this City of David. However, they’re practical about it too. Not everyone can immediately relocate to this broken city. Instead, one tenth of them will, and to be fair, it’s decided by drawing lots. To me, this all embodies the balance the Lord wants us to have in our lives. Some would have us live mystical lives in which God opens parking spaces at the mall for us and in which we just flip our Bibles open to a random passage to find “God’s will” for us in big decisions. Others want us to keep our feet planted firmly on planet earth. “If it’s to be it’s up to me” is their motto. They plan their lives and operate the Church as though they’re putting on a performance for God, who sits off at a distance being impressed by it all. In the middle is the balanced life. Living with an eye toward God, seeking his direction and relying on his strength while at the same time using the brains he gave us, applying our experiences, intelligence, and gifts to all we do. As I watch these Jews lining up to draw lots, I’m impressed by their desire to walk with God even if it means the inconvenience of moving to the destroyed city. I’m also impressed by their practical way of working through who will do what.
Take Away: The people of the Lord are to live between the extremes; both trusting God and, at the same time, using all the capability he has given us.
Nehemiah 10: We will not neglect The Temple of our God.
Part of the pledge that’s signed by the civil, religious, an family leaders (and then ratified by the people) is a commitment to pay attention to the support of the Temple. The “not neglecting” part isn’t about attendance at worship services. Instead, it concerns their physical support of their place of worship. While it’s clear that our meeting houses are a far cry from the Temple in everything from architecture to national significance to actual worship practices there’s still the “House of Worship” connection. The Temple is where they worship and our churches are where we worship. In fact, the issue at hand presents a pretty strong connection between Temple and church. The people of Nehemiah’s day pledge themselves to proper support of their Temple. They’ll see to it that every resource necessary for its operation is provided. Today, I thank God for those who support the church like that. Because of their faithfulness the energy of the church can focus on doing the ministry it’s called to do rather than on endless fundraising that the bills might be paid and the maintenance might be done.
Take Away: Thank the Lord for faithful supporters of his work.