Building Walls

I’ve been reading in the book of Nehemiah this week. Nehemiah’s quest to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem may strike a discordant note in today’s Western culture. Back in ancient times, most cities were enclosed with high walls. This kept invaders out, and gave protection and a sense of identity to those who lived within. Today, we have cities spilling into other cities in sprawling metroplexes. We have trains, buses, and airplanes constantly shuttling between cities. Walled cities are not practical. Even the borders between nations have become porous and flexible (except during times of war or distress!) It can be difficult for modern readers to share Nehemiah’s distress at the state of Jerusalem’s wall, or his passion to see the walls rebuilt. After all, Jerusalem was a conquered city, being ruled by foreigners–the invaders had already gotten in! The project seems to us like a waste of time, materials, and energy. Even in his own day, the project seemed problematic, and Nehemiah faced resistance on many fronts.

Photo by Steven Putong on Pexels.com

Yet God put it upon Nehemiah’s heart to do this; He answered Nehemiah’s plea to soften the King’s heart, and provided Nehemiah with an abundance of materials and even protection for the journey. It seems as though it was important to God that these walls were rebuilt. Why? How does God feel about walls, anyway? Did He not give Joshua great victory by making the walls of Jericho collapse? Does He not command the Israelites to welcome and be kind to foreigners? Did the Apostle Paul not say that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”(Galatians 3:28 ESV)? How do walls fit in with God’s plan for our lives?

Photo by Ryutaro Tsukata on Pexels.com

Part of our confusion may lie in our understanding of walls in ancient cities. We know they provided protection from invading armies, but they did much more–and they represent much more in the Bible. Walls not only provided protection to ancient cities– they provided structure and definition. Walls kept strangers out, but they also had a series of gates to let people come and go in an orderly fashion. There were gates used for commerce, gates that served ceremonial functions, gates that smoothed travel through the city, and even gates that were mostly used to transport garbage and dung outside of the city.

Photo by Rachel Claire on Pexels.com

Walls and gates also gave a sense of identity to people in and around the cities– some people lived close to (even in or on) the city walls. All those who lived within the city “belonged” to that city– and those who lived and farmed close by could claim the protection of the city walls in times of danger– whether from siege or natural disasters. They could also expect the city dwellers to be a ready market for their products or services. Travelers and traders could expect to be safe inside the walls of a friendly city– such protection could not be found on the open road, nor in many smaller towns. Cities tended to have more public services, better systems of laws and more stable economies. Walls could help control the flow of commerce, ideas, and loyalties.

Just before the book of Nehemiah is the book of Ezra. Ezra was a priest and historian who also traveled to the fallen city of Jerusalem. His mission was to help rebuild the Temple, and to make sure the priests were purified and re-establishing the Jewish religious practices after years of exile. At the end of the book of Ezra, it is discovered that many of the returning exiles have broken the Jewish laws by intermarrying with foreign women, and “adding” idol worship and pagan practices to their worship of the One True God. The city –and all of its structure and identity–had been destroyed; the Temple and the Walls were gone, and the area was open to all the peoples and practices of the surrounding cultures. Over time, even the priests had become defiled, no longer obeying, or even knowing, their own laws and customs! It is in this context that Nehemiah’s book begins to make more sense.

Photo by Suliman Sallehi on Pexels.com

God is concerned about the “walls” in our lives– boundaries in our behavior and worship. Some walls may need to crumble and fall like those of Jericho– walls that keep us locked away, smug and proud, defiant and unapproachable. Walls that create barriers without providing protection or shelter. Walls that stand in the way of God’s authority in our lives. Other walls may need to be strengthened and rebuilt– walls pocked with compromises that have eroded our commitments; unguarded gates where lies and confusion have stolen in and weakened our faith; areas where the pressures and stresses of life have chipped away at the building blocks of our Christian walk.

In the very first chapter of Nehemiah’s book, there is a prayer– it is not about rebuilding a wall for power or protection–it doesn’t even mention the wall– rather it is about repentance, restoration, and recommitment:

In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem. They said to me, “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.”
 When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said: “Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you.  We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand.  Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”

Nehemiah 1: 1b-11 NIV
Photo by Nicola Barts on Pexels.com

May we be willing to pray for the walls in our lives– those that need to come down, and those that need to be rebuilt!

A Bulwark Never Failing…

“A Mighty Fortress is our God; a bulwark, never failing..”
These words are known and sung (in various translations and languages) around the world. But Martin Luther wrote this song over four hundred years ago. What relevance can these words have in an age of nuclear bombs and globalized economies and climate change? What do they mean to us today?

I don’t live in a nation of many castles. There are two stone “mansions” in the small town where I live. They seem tiny compared to mansions in other parts of the U.S. and the world. And we have a small armory; home to a National Guard outpost. But a mansion (or even an armory) is not the same as a castle or a fortress. Mansions are built to be impressive; armories are built to be immediately prepared for disasters or attacks; castles are built to be impregnable and permanent. Our God is not just a fortress; one outpost among many mighty gods– He is The Mighty One–uniquely sovereign, eternally victorious, and perfectly protecting all within His power.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

And this protection doesn’t depend on my might or fighting ability, or my weapons or strategies. It depends on my being inside the fortress, safe and sound. The war rages all around, but it cannot defeat me, so long as I am in the fortress.

Photo by Porapak Apichodilok on Pexels.com

There are mighty castles, forts, towers, citadels, and walls around the world– all built by people and victims of the ravages of war, time, weather, fire, bad management, etc. Over the years, types of fortresses have given way to new weapons designed to bring them down. Wooden forts are susceptible to fire; stone castles can be brought down by catapults, battering rams, and bombs. Underground bunkers can even be ruined by earthquakes or nuclear assault. And yet, we are still amazed at the power and legacy they represent. Many have stood for hundreds or even thousands of years. But God is eternal; His might and protection will never fail. No weapon forged or imagined can triumph over His power and sovereignty.

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Prayer brings us into the safe and powerful presence of God Almighty. There is nothing of our worries, our guilt, our doubts, or the accusations of the enemy that can shake the foundations of God’s fortress. And the cornerstone is none other than Jesus Christ– unshakable, victorious, and eternally one with the Father and the Spirit.

Photo by Magda Ehlers on Pexels.com

That doesn’t mean that we won’t ever find ourselves in battle, trusting in God’s armor against the arrows of the enemy. But the war is already won– His Kingdom is forever! And ever!

Every Wall Has Two Sides

A mighty fortress is our God;
A bulwark never failing…

 

bulwark:

noun
    1. a wall of earth or other material built for defense; rampart.
    2. any protection against external danger, injury, or annoyance:The new dam was a bulwark against future floods.
    3. any person or thing giving strong support or encouragement in time of need, danger, or doubt:Religion was his bulwark.
  1. Usually bulwarks. Nauticala solid wall enclosing the perimeter of a weather or main deck for the protection of persons or objects on deck.

see Dicionary.com for further synonyms, etc.

Walls, fences, borders, barriers– there are many reasons to build them, and many ways to view them, but they have only two sides, and we can be only on one side or the other.  I enjoy visiting castles and forts, monasteries, and mansions.  Nearly all have impressive walls.  From the outside, they look imposing, intimidating, and often unfriendly (especially those with armed guards and cannons!).  But inside, the walls provide protection, insulation from any outside threats, and often peace.

black cannon in front of the brick wall building
Photo by musicFactory lehmannsound on Pexels.com

Most walls provide protection– from nature, from floods or winds, from predators, and from enemies.  But there are a few walls that are built, not to keep danger out, but to keep people trapped within.  Such walls are used to isolate, punish, and imprison.

God is described in the Psalms (and elsewhere) as a fortress, a rock, a safe place, a hiding place, and a sure defense.  But those attributes and qualities are for those who chose to come inside the fortress; to ask for protection and defense.

Sometimes, we approach God as an adversary, rather than a defender and protector.  We find ourselves on the outside, facing dangers unprotected and alone.  The very walls that can shield us and give us peace rise up as barriers,   We feel locked out and vulnerable.  The only difference between peace and peril is where we are in relation to the wall.  We are no stronger, our enemy is no weaker on one side or the other– only the wall makes the difference.  And the level of peace and confidence is related, not to our own ability, but to the stability and strength of the wall between us and disaster.  The higher and stronger the wall, the safer we feel.

Other times, we approach God as a jail-keeper.  We have lived inside the walls, and resent His protection.  We have forgotten, or we deny, that there is danger outside the walls.  Or we assume the walls are too close or too restrictive to offer us peace.  But God hasn’t built a wall to keep us near Him or to control us– He IS the wall, the fortress, the bulwark.  To approach Him is to be protected.  To resent His protection is to resent His very presence.

selective focis photo of blue betta fish
Photo by Tim Mossholder on Pexels.com

Earthly walls will eventually crumble and return to dust.  Even walls that have stood the test of centuries, like the Great Wall in China, or the Tower of London, or the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem– they are not perfect, nor will they last forever.  But our Bulwark, our Sure Defense, will never fail.  Not only will He never fail to stand, nor fail to protect us, He will never fail to let us in when we seek His salvation.

man wearing gray and red armour standing on the streets
Photo by PhotoMIX Ltd. on Pexels.com

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑