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.
Note that they lived too far from Jerusalem to make the city an immediate refuge under threat. They did this work for the sake of the nation more than their personal safety.
Next, “the Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place” (v. 3). The “Fish Gate” was the gate through which people brought fish from Tyre and the Mediterranean coast, as well as from the Sea of Galilee. It was the chief commercial and economic entrance to the city, the Wall Street or Main Street of the day. The economic future and vitality of the city depended on the work done by these “sons of Hassenaah,” men who are otherwise unnamed and unknown to history.
“Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of Hakkoz, repaired the next section. Next to him Meshullam son of Berekiah, the son of Meshezabel, made repairs, and next to him Zadok son of Baana also made repairs” (v. 4). Meremoth, the son of a priest, also worked on a second section of the wall (v. 21). Here we find another example of clergy/laity synergy.
Now the work crew becomes even more disparate, as they turned to rebuilding the western wall.
“The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors” (v. 5). Tekoa was the hometown of the prophet Amos (Amos 1:1), 12 miles south of Jerusalem. Like the builders from Jericho, these people lived too far away to use Jerusalem as an immediate refuge. They did the work out of love for their country, not personal gain. And they did so with no engagement or support from their leaders. Others from Tekoa worked on yet another section of the wall as well (v. 27).
“The Jeshanah Gate was repaired by Joiada son of Paseah and Meshullam son of Besodeiah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. Next to them, repairs were made by men from Gibeon and Mizpah–Melatiah of Gibeon and Jadon of Meronoth–places under the authority of the governor of Trans-Euphrates” (vs. 6-7).
“Uzziel son of Harhaiah, one of the goldsmiths, repaired the next section; and Hananiah, one of the perfume-makers, made repairs next to that. They restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall” (v. 8). Goldsmiths and perfume-makers were not typically given to heavy labor and construction work. But they did whatever it took.
“Rephaiah son of Hur, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section” (v. 9). Here we find a “ruler” working alongside those he ruled. And note that “Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section with the help of his daughters” (v. 12). Here we find another ruler at work with his daughters at his side. They were exposed to severe and significant danger, but served the nation they loved.
On the story goes, as builders put their shoulders to the task of rebuilding the walls of their sacred city. One group repaired not only the Valley Gate but also 500 yards of wall (v. 13). A ruler rebuilt the Dung Gate, the gate leading to the Hinnom Valley where refuse was dumped. An enemy would have been only too happy to attack the city through that valley and gate if he had not done his work well.
In verse 17 we find Levites at work, not on the Temple but on the walls of the city which would surround it. Each person did whatever it took, and the city was rebuilt, the nation saved.
I am a believer because a mechanic bought a bus with his own money and repaired it on his own time. An insurance executive gave up his Saturday mornings to knock on doors, looking for young people to ride that bus to church.
A family living down the street from that church gave up their home each Sunday morning for the youth group to use for Sunday school. A busy pastor’s wife played the organ for the church but also chose to teach 10th grade Sunday school. A busy pastor came to my home to visit my brother and me on a Tuesday evening after we began attending his church. They did whatever it takes to serve Jesus.
Is there anywhere God cannot send you, anyone he cannot ask you to love and serve and help, anything he cannot ask you to give or do? Find your calling, your passion, and use it to serve God, paying any price to fulfill his purpose for your life.
I recently met Terry Bradshaw, the Hall of Fame quarterback of the Pittsburgh Steelers. At the age of seven, he came to believe that God was calling him to play quarterback in the National Football League. He dedicated his life to that calling, giving it whatever it took.
He was allowed to play linebacker in Pop Warner football. Then in the seventh grade, he was not chosen for the school team. In eighth grade, he was not chosen for the team. Because he had a strong arm in PE, he was allowed to play linebacker on the 9th grade team. He became the B team quarterback in 10th grade, and in 11th grade, never being permitted to throw a pass. As a senior he was allowed to throw only 73 passes.
He was pressured by friends and family to go to LSU but didn’t want to go, so he purposefully flunked the ACT. And so he enrolled at Louisiana Tech, where he became the MVP of the Senior Bowl and was selected as the first choice in the draft by the Pittsburgh Steelers. Before he was finished, he had won four Super Bowls and was elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. All because he was persistent.
But that doesn’t tell the whole story. Terry suffers from clinical depression and ADD, and has all of his youth and adult life. He cannot treat both, so he treats the ADD and suffers from the depression. Ten years ago, after his wife left him and took their daughters, he hit rock bottom. In talking with a Christian counselor, he came to understand the gospel. On his knees in a barn, his life in turmoil and despair, he gave himself to Jesus.
Now he travels the world, making $50,000 a speech to tell his story. When they tell him that he cannot discuss his religion, he does it anyway. His message to the men on Monday was simple: You need Jesus. You need to be saved. Then you need to find your calling, your purpose in life for God, and give it everything you have.
Nehemiah would agree. Do you?