Men of Sacrifice
A Study of Nehemiah
Dr. Jim Denison
Did you know that deer have no gall bladders? Crocodiles can run rapidly over land but cannot change directly quickly, so if you’re chased by one it is best to run in a zig-zag pattern. Every hour, 12,500 puppies are born in the United States. The Washington Monument sinks six inches every year. The Mona Lisa has no eyebrows. A sneeze can travel as fast as 100 miles an hour.
Sometimes sections of the Bible look at first glance like that—facts with no apparent relevance. Genealogies, long lists of dietary laws. In this lesson we will study the list of the people who helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. By my count, 46 different people or groups. Eliashib rebuilt the Sheep Gate; the Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah; the west gate was rebuilt by Ralph; and so on. Useless facts? Only until we study them.
We are going to learn about men of sacrifice, men whose commitment to God was so significant that they played a part in one of the most crucial activities in all of biblical history. Without their sacrifice, the story stops here. The nation dies here. God’s redemptive plan ends here. What they did for the Kingdom, we can do for the Kingdom. Your work, your life, your place, your influence plays a role in human history. Do what God calls you to do, and your life will matter for eternity. Where on the wall has God placed you?
Work for God (v. 1)
You know the setting of Nehemiah—the nation was destroyed by Babylon (modern-day Iraq) in 586 B.C. The Persians (modern-day Iran) have overthrown the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return and rebuild their city. Nehemiah, the king’s chief counselor and most important advisor, has been called by God and permitted by the king to lead the rebuilding effort. He has surveyed the damage and assessed the issues. He has called and motivated the people to join him in this work. Without their walls, they cannot have a city or nation. With their walls, their future is secure. Now the work begins.
The first in the story: “Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the Sheep Gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place, building as far as the Tower of the Hundred, which they dedicated, and as far as the Tower of Hananel” (Nehemiah 3:1).
The “Sheep Gate” was located at the northeast corner of the city. The repairs began here, and proceeded counterclockwise. We know that the Sheep Gate was located here, because it was near the Pool of Bethesda: “Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesdaa and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades” (John 5:2). Archaeologists have located this pool in the northeastern quadrant of the Old City.
The Sheep Gate was the place where the sheep entered the city to go to market. The principal function of sheep in ancient Israel was for sacrifice. These were the animals whose deaths would atone for the sins of the people and enable them to worship and serve their God. Without a gate for the sheep to come into the city, the sacrificial system could not be restored and the people could not be right with God.
“Eliashib” was the grandson of the high priest when Zerubbabel began rebuilding the city 60 years earlier. As High Priest, he was the spiritual leader of the nation. He was the only man permitted into the Holy of Holies, and that only on the Day of Atonement. If he were Catholic, he would be Pope; if he were Baptist, he would be pastor of our largest church. Yet we find him working at the wall, rebuilding the gate which would be critical to his work. Sawing lumber, driving nails, working alongside the rest of the men of the nation.
With him were “his fellow priests,” the “clergy” of the day. Their typical work was presiding over worship services, making sacrifices, leading the people spiritually. They were the staff of the church, showing up to help pave the parking lot or clean the carpets.
We might understand their interest in rebuilding the Sheep Gate, as it was vital to their work. But these men also worked to rebuild the walls “as far as the Tower of the Hundred, which they dedicated, and as far as the Tower of Hananel.”
“The Tower of the Hundred” was named either for its height, the steps which were necessary to climb it, or a military unit stationed in the area. The “Tower of Hananel” was an adjacent military structure.
The northern side of Jerusalem was the only part of the city not naturally protected by a steep hill. These towers were vital to protecting the city from northern invaders.
This is the only part of the work specifically “dedicated” by the priests to God, both the Sheep Gate and the walls surrounding it. And so we find the priests engaged in “spiritual” work, but also in the “secular” defense of the city as well.
As you know, there is no clergy/laity distinction in the Bible. The “spiritual/secular” division so popular today comes from Greek philosophy, not biblical teaching. See all your work as “spiritual,” as vital to the Kingdom of God. You will speak to people today who will not listen to me. You will impact lives I can never touch.
You are God’s ministers, his priests, sent to rebuild your part of the wall of his Kingdom. Dedicate your life and your work to the God of the universe, for it is his.
Do what it takes
The story continues: “The men of Jericho built the adjoining section, and Zaccur son of Imri built next to them” (v. 2).
“The men of Jericho” came from the oldest city in the world. Jericho was located 15 miles to the southeast of Jerusalem. The climb takes 10 hours or more on foot, ascending 3,000 feet through some of the most difficult and dangerous terrain anywhere in the world. It is no coincidence that the man who was robbed and beaten in the Parable of the Good Samaritan was traveling this road. But these men took the risk and paid the price to do their part.