The Builders of the Wall
We know that all Scripture is God-breathed, and is profitable for teaching and correcting. This does not mean that we gravitate to Nehemiah 3 as naturally as we do with Psalm 23 or 1 Corinthians 13, but it does mean something.
Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brethren the priests, and they builded the sheep gate; they sanctified it, and set up the doors of it; even unto the tower of Meah they sanctified it, unto the tower of Hananeel . . . (Nehemiah 3:1-32).
The overview of our text is pretty straightforward. In this chapter, we have a list of all the Jews who were involved in rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem, all the way around. “This group” was responsible for “this section,” and so on, until we make the circuit all the way around. The portions of this chapter that we will pay particular attention to will be three. First, we learn that some of the nobles did not respond as they ought to have (v. 5). Second, we will see that Shallum involved his daughters in the work (v. 12). And last, we will note that Baruch was singled out for particular notice (v. 20). But first we must consider the chapter as a whole.
The Fact of Particularity:
Because of our finitude, we cannot keep up with the endless particularization of things that our triune God obviously delights in. But though we cannot keep up, we can delight in what He is doing. And we can delight in all the scriptural manifestations of His delight. This is one such passage. Rather than dismissing it as a “bunch of names,” we need to remember that each name here represents the image of God, and that each name here represents covenant members, who were either being faithful or faithless to the charge in front of them. You have concerns this week that will be of no concern whatever to the people who will be living five hundred years from now, even if they know and love the Lord. God has assigned you this portion, this corner, of the vineyard.
The Nobles Who Weren’t:
The nobles or leading men of the Tekoites did not give themselves to the labor. Nehemiah says that they did not put “their necks to the work of their Lord.” First, note that in biblical times there was no notion of egalitarian democracy. There were common people and there were princes. The Jewish people had an aristocracy, which, literally translated, means “rule by the best.” But this brings us to the second point, which is just as important. What do you do when the “best” are not the best? Or they are not the best anymore? What do you do when the nobles are ignoble?
One of the besetting sins of leaders, those who are responsible for others, is the sin of forgetting that they are under authority themselves. Notice that in this place, Nehemiah says that these nobles neglected (or were not whole-hearted, same thing) “to the work of their Lord.” They had a Lord, which is something they forgot. So busy telling others what to do, they had forgotten how to be told what to do. St. Paul addresses this same phenomenon when addressing masters at Ephesus. ”And, ye masters, do the same things unto them, forbearing threatening: knowing that your Master also is in heaven; neither is there respect of persons with him” (Eph. 6:9). Those who are in authority must never forget that they are under authority as well.
The Daughters of Shallum:
A portion of this wall was being rebuilt by Shallum. Now Shallum was the “half-mayor” of Jerusalem, so it is unlikely that he was the chief rock-hauler. But, given what we have just learned about the Tekoite nobles, we are not encouraged to exclude a physical part in it either. He also was a noble, and he was involved in the work. Not only was he involved in the work, but so were his daughters. Now they were involved in the physical labor, or the supervision, or both. In any case, we have here a good scriptural counter-example for some of the masculinist over-reactions to the feminist heresy.
God teaches us what the normal pattern of human life is, and He does so in numerous places. Women are to be keepers at home (Tit. 2:5). The husband is the head of the wife (1 Cor. 11:3; Eph. 5: 23). Women are prohibited from serving in combat (Dt. 22:5). It is chastizement for a people when children and women rule over them (Is. 3: 12). Okay, so feminism is wrong. But with that position, and with that full understanding, we must not over-react into a hard and brittle macho position (to be distinguished from a truly biblical position). It ought not to distress us that Deborah judged Israel (Judges 4:4), that the daughters of Zelophehad inherited with the men (Num. 36:2), that Jael wife of Heber slew Sisera (Judges 4:21), that Huldah was a prophetess (2 Kings 22:14), that Lydia made a spiritual decision that affected her entire household (Acts 16: 15), that the mother of our Lord wrote Scripture that we must submit to (Luke 1: 46-55), and that the daughters of Shallum took responsibility for building part of this wall. One of the most important lessons for us to learn is that of balance.
The Protestant Work Ethic:
Baruch the son of Zabbai had responsibility for his portion of the wall, just as the others did. And no slight to the others, who worked well for the most part, but Baruch distinguished himself. He earnestly repaired the portion of the wall that was his responsibility. He did not ask what the union standards were, he did not spend the first few days on the job glancing sideways (in order to find out what amount of slacking was tolerable to the boss), and he did not spend a lot of time hiking around the edge of the hole with a shovel on his shoulder.
We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God has prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph. 2:10. Think of this—it comes right after one of the most glorious statements of salvation by grace in the New Testament. Grace is not work, but grace works. And if it is not working, it is not grace. If it does not bear apples, then it is not an apple tree. We do not conclude from this that we earn anything from God by working, just as we do not say that bramble bushes can become apple trees by producing apples. The hard work ethic that we are to display throughout the course of our lives is nothing less than one of the most gracious gifts of a gracious God.
Working unto the Lord this way is an important part of who we are. We are to work to please the Lord, which is not the same thing as pleasing man. St. Paul puts it this way: “Servants, obey in all things your masters according to the flesh; not with eyeservice, as menpleasers; but in singleness of heart, fearing God” (Col. 3:22; Eph. 6:6). Not only must we take care not to work hard as menpleasers, but we must also reject the pressure from co-workers to slack off . . . lest we make them look bad. What we do, how we live, how we labor, is all received as a gift from God. And whether we respond to what God gives with hard labor, is marked on God’s time sheets, not man’s. This does not mean that we are to react to this as one bumper-sticker urges—“Jesus is coming . . . look busy!” Rather, we work in the presence of God who gives us all things for His glory (1 Cor. 10:31) and our enjoyment (1 Tim. 6: 17).