A Culture in “Great Trouble”
A Study of Nehemiah
Dr. Jim Denison
The “gates” of Israel
The year is 444 B.C. Nehemiah is “cupbearer” to the Persian king Artaxerxes, his close personal advisor. A group has come to Susa, the winter palace of the king, with this report: “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire” (Nehemiah 1:3).
The Babylonians had destroyed the city and walls of Jerusalem 142 years earlier, in 586 B.C. After the Persians liberated the Jews in 538, a group had returned to rebuild the city and nation. They had attempted to rebuild the walls earlier in the reign of Artaxerxes, but the king had ordered them to stop the project.
Enemies of the Jews had written to the king, protesting the rebuilding project and claiming that the Jews would only rebel against Persia once their city was reestablished.
The king sent them this reply:
“The letter you sent us has been read and translated in my presence. I issued an order and a search was made, and it was found that this city has a long history of revolt against kings and has been a place of rebellion and sedition. Jerusalem has had powerful kings ruling over the whole of Trans-Euphrates, and taxes, tribute and duty were paid to them. Now issue an order to these men to stop work, so that this city will not be rebuilt until I so order. Be careful not to neglect this matter. Why let this threat grow, to the detriment of the royal interests?” (Ezra 4:18-22).
With the result that the project was halted and the people left defenseless (vs. 23):
“As soon as the copy of the letter of King Artaxerxes was read to Rehum and Shimshal the secretary and their associates, they went immediately to the Jews in Jerusalem and compelled them by force to stop.”
Now Nehemiah finds himself working for the man who would not allow his people to rebuild their nation. His first act must be to win royal permission to begin the project again; his second must be to rebuild the walls. Only then will the people be safe.
Why were walls and gates so critical in the ancient world? Cities were established wherever they could find water and defenses. Thus the ancient Jebusites had built their capital city at the top of Mt. Moriah, near the Gihon spring. David captured their citadel and made it his own, establishing “Jerusalem” as the capital of his empire. The name means “legacy of peace,” from salem or shalom.
Solomon built the first Temple and royal palace atop Mt. Moriah, at the very spot where Abraham had offered Isaac a thousand years earlier. This was the center of the Jewish world until Nebuchadnezzar destroyed it in 586 B.C.
Nehemiah would rebuild the walls; the people would eventually rebuild their temple as well. It would be further modified until Herod the Great (37-4 B.C.) set out to recreate it as the most magnificent building in the world. He created the Temple of Jesus’ day, a structure destroyed by the Romans in 70 A.D. Jesus had predicted the very catastrophe: “Do you see all these things?” he asked. “I tell you the truth, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down” (Matthew 24:2).
The walls made the Temple possible and safe. The “Old City” of Jerusalem stands approximately where the city was rebuilt under Ezra and Nehemiah. Its walls today, built by Sulieman the Magnificent in AD 1538, stand at the same places as the walls of Nehemiah. There are 11 gates today; 7 are in operation. The gates are essential for allowing the commerce and people into the city, and for keeping enemies out. A tour of the walls and gates is a tour of the history of Israel.
If the “gates are burned with fire,” the nation is defenseless. So it was in the time of Nehemiah. So it may be in our day as well.
The “gates” of America
When I planned to study Nehemiah with you, I had no idea that I would also be surveying the crises facing America on Wednesday nights. Last night we looked at the moral crisis. Today that discussion is vital to our understanding of our “culture in crisis” and our “burned gates,” so I’ll summarize what we discussed together.
Beginning and ending of life
More than 48 million abortions have been performed in America since 1973. Every year, approximately 40,000 people die on American highways. Every ten days, that many abortions are performed in America. Doctors conduct 1.5 million abortions every year in the United States, more than the total of all America’s war dead across our history. Depending on the year, an abortion occurs for every three or four live births in our country. If you believe that the Bible teaches that life begins at conception, as I do, then you must be troubled by America’s position on abortion.
Genetic engineering can be used to determine gender, eye color, and capabilities of children, and to clone humans as well. Euthanasia is supported by 72% of Americans. It is now legal in the Netherlands, Belgium, Great Britain, Mexico, Oregon and Washington.
Sixty-five percent of Americans see nothing wrong with sex outside of marriage. According to a recent survey by the age of 20, 75% of respondents had had premarital sex; by age 44, 81% had had premarital sex.
42% of Internet users have viewed online pornography. A person is first exposed to pornography in America at the age of 11. 90% of 8-16 year olds have viewed porn online, most while doing their homework.
Same-sex marriage is becoming more accepted than ever before in America. In 2001, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to recognize same-sex marriage. Same-sex marriages were then recognized in Belgium (2003), Spain and Canada (2005), Massachusetts (2004), South Africa (2006), and Norway (2008). California recognized them in 2008, before Proposition 8 repealed this position.