After the Southern Kingdom (Judah) was taken into Babylonian Captivity by Nebuchadnezzar, the Persians defeated the Babylonians and annexed their territories into the Medo-Persian Empire. Hence, the ruins of Jerusalem became Persian territory, as did the surrounding nations.
Nehemiah and Ezra were Jews serving as officials in the Persian king’s court, and they were contemporaries, each involved in the return of some of the Jews — a minority — back to Jerusalem and the re-establishment of Jerusalem as a city and the rebuilding of the Temple.
Nehemiah was specifically charged by the Persian king with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem — a hugely significant decision.
(Neh. 1:1b-3 ESV) Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, 2 that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. 3 And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.”
(Neh. 2:17 ESV) 17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.”
The specific problem was one of shame in an honor culture. How can a nation have honor when its temple has been destroyed and its walls are in ruins? Of course, it was more than honor. Safety and protection were also critical — but a city without walls was a shamed city.
And it’s likely true that Nehemiah was too much of a diplomat to point out that the walls were needed to protect the citizens from invasion by their neighbors. After all, the neighboring kings were also subjects of the Persian king and really shouldn’t be invading another city in the same empire. In theory, the Persian king protected all his cities — and so why worry about walls? So Nehemiah spoke in terms of honor.
Of course, as Alexander the Great would soon prove, the Persian king could not protect Jerusalem from all its enemies — such as the Greeks. And even while Persia remained in power, there would be bandits and other criminals eager to sneak into the city to steal. And no wise city leader would trust his neighbors not to invade if they saw the opportunity. Who knows whether the Persian armies might have higher priorities than protecting a few Jews?
The gates were a key part of a city’s defensive system. It was imperative that people be able to enter and leave the city — and yet there had to be a way to keep out invading armies and other bad guys. The solution was to build gates that could be opened or closed — and when closed, would be solid enough to protect the city against the enemy. Hence, the city gates were generally made of very large, expensive timbers. When the gates were burned, it became vastly more difficult and expensive to rebuild the walls. Fortunately, the stone out of which the walls had been made had not been burned or reduced to dust.
Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild the city walls were opposed by local kings — who were also subjects of the Persian king. Why would they object to the walls being rebuilt?
(Neh. 2:19 ESV) 19 But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?”
The neighboring kings were unhappy at the prospect of Jerusalem being restored to its former glory. After all, during times past, the king in Jerusalem had ruled over his neighbors. And a rebuilt Jerusalem would be a competitor for trade. Therefore, they accused Nehemiah of rebelling against Persian rule. After all, a city with a well-built wall might rebel and use the wall to defend against a siege by the Persian army.
Nehemiah replied only that God would restore prosperity to his people, and under his leadership, the Jews began rebuilding the walls.
(Neh. 4:1-3 ESV) Now when Sanballat heard that we were building the wall, he was angry and greatly enraged, and he jeered at the Jews. 2 And he said in the presence of his brothers and of the army of Samaria, “What are these feeble Jews doing? Will they restore it for themselves? Will they sacrifice? Will they finish up in a day? Will they revive the stones out of the heaps of rubbish, and burned ones at that?” 3 Tobiah the Ammonite was beside him, and he said, “Yes, what they are building — if a fox goes up on it he will break down their stone wall!”
The neighboring kings then began to ridicule their efforts. They were too afraid of the Persians to actually attack the city (yet), and so they engaged in psychological warfare — seeking to destroy the morale of the workers. And they implied threats. To say, “Will they finish up in a day?” suggests that something may happen at night to make them wish they had!
(Neh. 4:7-8 ESV) 7 But when Sanballat and Tobiah and the Arabs and the Ammonites and the Ashdodites heard that the repairing of the walls of Jerusalem was going forward and that the breaches were beginning to be closed, they were very angry. 8 And they all plotted together to come and fight against Jerusalem and to cause confusion in it.
As the walls went up, the neighbors became more desperate — finally plotting to attack the workers, who were very nearly defenseless until the walls could be finished.
As a result, Nehemiah posted armed guards and made it clear that they’d not go down without a fight — and so the neighboring kings declined to attack.
(Neh. 4:16-17 ESV) 16 From that day on, half of my servants worked on construction, and half held the spears, shields, bows, and coats of mail. And the leaders stood behind the whole house of Judah, 17 who were building on the wall. Those who carried burdens were loaded in such a way that each labored on the work with one hand and held his weapon with the other.
And so the project was completed in less than two months!
(Neh. 6:15-16 ESV) 15 So the wall was finished on the twenty-fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty-two days. 16 And when all our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem, for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.
And honor was restored — as well as the safety of the Jews living there.
(Neh. 7:3 ESV) 3 And I said to them, “Let not the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot. And while they are still standing guard, let them shut and bar the doors. Appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, some at their guard posts and some in front of their own homes.”
And so Nehemiah had the gates kept closed at night and even during twilight — because he knew they were surrounded by enemies.
So while Nehemiah is usually taught as a lesson in leadership, it’s also a lesson in walls. City walls are a source of honor and safety. Until the walls could be built, the city was at risk of an attack from neighbors — so much so that armed guards were posted around the clock and the building of the walls had to be pursued urgently. The prospect of a walled Jerusalem brought fear to her neighbors.
And yet despite these fears, God wanted the walls built so that his people could prosper in their city and be safe — and have honor among their neighboring nations.
The neighbors likely feared that, over time, the Jews would regain their previous power under such kings as David and Solomon — putting themselves at risk of being conquered or else forced to pay tribute. They feared rebellion by the Jews against Persia, which might lead to reprisals against the entire region. And they likely feared competition for trade. Never discount the financial side of the equation.
And yet despite making their neighbors fearful, and despite the need to maintain guards and defenses at the risk of life, Nehemiah rebuilt the city — as God desired.
In short, there’s nothing wrong with a good wall to protect people from criminals and invaders. But walls must be coupled with Torah — and the Law of Moses has very specific instructions about sojourners — foreigners living among the Jews. The walls were needed for safety, but they were not there to keep all foreigners out.