COMMENTARY ON NEHEMIAH
“ 3:1 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. 2 And next unto him builded the men of Jericho. And next to them builded Zaccur the son of Imri. 3 But the fish gate did the sons of Hassenaah build, who also laid the beams thereof, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof. 4 And next unto them repaired Meremoth the son of Urijah, the son of Koz. And next unto them repaired Meshullam the son of Berechiah, the son of Meshezabeel. And next unto them repaired Zadok the son of Baana. 5 And next unto them the Tekoites repaired; but their nobles put not their necks to the work of their Lord.” (Nehemiah 3:1-5)
Having declared to their enemies that God would bring success to their labors, Nehemiah and his workers will now put their hand to the work. They will separate themselves from their critics by engaging in the work of the Lord. As soon as believers put their hands on the plow, a distance is formed between themselves and unbelievers. Throughout this book, we will find that Nehemiah refuses to engage in extended conversation with skeptics and critics. The energy it takes to be involved in endless disputes will be channeled into the work they have come to do. The undertaking to which they have been called is a massive one, and they cannot afford to be distracted by small thought. The work is distributed appropriately, with various groups accomplishing different tasks. In the end, everything will fit together to the glory of God, but each must do their own work. In this text we will behold how the people of God work together, even though they are doing different things. The outline of various works that are accomplished in this chapter is an example of giving “honor to whom honor is due” (Rom 13:7). It is God’s tribute to those who were challenged by the devastation of Jerusalem, and were not intimidated by the enemy.
THE SHEEP GATE IS BUILT BY THE PRIESTS
“ 3:1 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.”
THE PRIESTS LEAD IN THE WORK. It is appropriate that the priests lead out in the work, setting the standard for the people. Those who are more close to the Lord and acquainted with His ways, should be involved from the beginning the work.
ELIASHIB. This man is mentioned eleven times in Nehemiah. His house was a reference point in the building of the wall (3:20,21). He was the grandson of Jeshua, the first high priest after the Jews’ return from Babylon, who joined with Zerubbabel in building the altar of God in Ezra’s time (Ezra 3:2). His father was Joiakim, who was also a priest. Later in Nehemiah, this man is noted for having oversight over the chambers of the house of God. At that time, he formed an alliance with wicked Tobiah (Neh 13:4). Also one of the grandsons of Eliashib would become a son in law to Sanballot the Horonite (Neh 13:28). But at the time of our text, these things had not yet taken place. Eliashib and his brethren the priests rose up to build, beginning with the sheep gate. We learn from this that all who begin the good work of God do not necessarily continue therein. Their later defection did not contaminate the walls, anymore than Judas’ presence among the Apostles defiled that office. Many a naive soul has pondered why those once noted for their faithfulness have later formed unholy alliances. Some have even taken blame upon themselves for not detecting such souls more quickly. You should carefully note that Nehemiah was not turned aside by such speculations and doubts.
THE SHEEP GATE. The sheep gate is mentioned in John 5:2, and was an incoming gate near the northeast corner of the wall. It was also near a pool, where sheep were washed and brought to the temple for sacrifice. Some historians feel the pool of Bethesda, mentioned in John five, was the original pool for washing sacrificial sheep. UNGER It is also understood that the priests dwelt primarily in this part of the city. All of this being true, it seems most appropriate to begin with the gate associated with sacrifices made to God, thereby giving Him the preeminence.
THEY SANCTIFIED IT. Later, when the wall is finished, there will be a general dedication of the complete wall (Neh 12:27-43). In this text, there is a dedication of the first part of the project: “they sanctified it.” I cannot help but notice the solemnity associated with this project. There seemed to be an acute awareness of the sacredness of the city of Jerusalem, and everything related to it. In their dedication, they were giving the work over to God at the earliest possible moment. They seemed to sense, “Except the LORD build the house, they labor in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain” (Psa 127:1).
There is also a holy orderliness about this project. The people are all united in the work, each group working on a particular facet of the project. There is no division among the people at this time, and they all have a mind to work. I doubt not that one of the major reasons for this circumstance is owing to their dedication of the work to God. While dedications contain no power of themselves, they do produce a godly environment in which thoughts and intentions are more easily focused upon the Lord.
SET UP THE DOORS. The setting up of the doors would be the last part of the project. When the doors were hung, the gate was about ready for use. This gate was associated with two towers. The first was “the tower of Hananeel,” and the second “the tower of Meah,” or “the Tower of the Hundred.” NKJV Both gates are mentioned again in 12:39, after the work had been completed. Eliashib and the priests not only restored the “sheep gate,” but also repaired a considerable part of the wall standing between the “sheep gate” and these two towers. Some have thought the gate stood between these two towers, which would mean the builders were responsible for the wall leading to the gate, and going away from it – no doubt a sizeable undertaking.
The builders not only sanctified the “sheep gate itself,” but all of the wall related to it, “as far as the Tower of the Hundred . . . then as far as the Tower of Hananeel.” NKJV Thus the entire work was given to the Lord, and labor was done with the Lord in mind.
This is a fitting picture of the type of building that is required in our day. There are “walls and bulwarks” associated with the salvation of God (Isa 26:1). Those walls relate to great proclamations like the Gospel itself, justification, sanctification, and redemption. Those setting about to restore these to prominence must dedicate their work to the Lord.
THE WALL, THE FISH GATE
“ 3:2-4 And next unto him builded the men of Jericho. And next to them builded Zaccur the son of Imri. 3 But the fish gate did the sons of Hassenaah build, who also laid the beams thereof, and set up the doors thereof, the locks thereof, and the bars thereof. 4 And next unto them repaired Meremoth the son of Urijah, the son of Koz. And next unto them repaired Meshullam the son of Berechiah, the son of Meshezabeel. And next unto them repaired Zadok the son of Baana.”
THE MEN OF JERICHO. There was no unattended gap in the building project. Where Eliashib and the priests left off, “the men of Jericho” began. We Learn from the seventh chapter that these people returned with Zerubbael several years earlier. There were then three hundred forty and five of them (Neh 7:36). The original city of Jericho was decimated when Israel entered the promised land (Josh 6:24). At that time, Joshua pronounced a curse on any one who sought to build that city again. “Cursed be the man before the LORD, that riseth up and buildeth this city Jericho: he shall lay the foundation thereof in his firstborn, and in his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it” (Josh 6:26). Ignoring that curse, Hiel the Bethelite rebuilt the city, precisely fulfilling the word of Joshua: “he laid the foundation thereof in Abiram his firstborn, and set up the gates thereof in his youngest son Segub, according to the word of the LORD, which he spake by Joshua the son of Nun” (1 Kgs 16:34). In the time of Elisha the prophet, the “sons of the prophets” dwelt in Jericho (2 Kgs 2:5). Eventually, the city became prominent in Israel. In the Babylonian captivity, king Zedekiah was overtaken in the area of this city (Jer 39:5). In our text, “the men of Jericho” were Jewish inhabitants.
ZACCUR THE SON OF IMRI. Right next to the “men of Jericho,” the wall was repaired by Zaccur, who was a Levite (Neh 10:9-12), and those with him. It appears from the narrative that each group of people worked on the portion of the wall that was nearest to their dwelling place. We know nothing more of either Zaccur or his father Imri. All who do a work for the Lord do not need to be well known or prominent. There are still significant works to be done by those whose praise will only be in the world to come, and from God Himself (1 Cor 4:5).
THE FISH GATE. The “fish gate” is mentioned in Second Chronicles. It was part of the building project accomplished by king Manasseh after he had been restored by God (2 Chron 33:13-14). Zephaniah also mentions this gate (Zeph 1:10). It was apparently set apart to bring food into the city. The “sons of Hassenaah” had charge of this part of the project. We know nothing more of these builders than what is here said of them. However, their work must have been most expert, for several details are provided. They “laid its beams, and put its doors and bolts and bars in place.” NIV It appears as though great damage had been realized at the “fish gate,” but the “sons of Hassenaah” fully restored it.
A considerable amount of the wall was repaired by different groups, each one working back to back, as it were, leaving no part of the wall neglected. Next to “the sons of Hassenaah,” credit is given to three individuals rather than groups. “Meremoth the son of Urijah, the son of Koz,” “Meshullam the son of Berechiah, the son of Meshezabeel,” and “Zadok the son of Baana.” We know Meremoth’s father was a priest (Ezra 8:33). Meshullam was one of the “chief,” or leading, men who was associated with Ezra (Ezra 8;16). We know nothing else of Zadok. Three men, apparently from differing backgrounds, and apart from being Israelites, unrelated to one another. Yet, working together, they restored a sizeable portion of the wall. These men were united by purpose and by their inclusion among the people of God. Those two things enabled them to work side by side, and without any conflict among themselves. Like those who were of the tribe of Zebulun, these men “could keep rank,” and were “not of double heart” (1 Chron 12:33).
So it is with the work of God today. People of divers backgrounds and aptitudes join as laborers together with God. They are not joined together by their religious heritage or occupations, but by virtue of their identity with Christ Jesus. They are not doing identical work, but they are working on the same project, so to speak. It is possible for believers to be “perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Cor 1:10). That marvelous unity, however, will not be realized if they sit about and discuss their various theological persuasions. Those of Nehemiah’s day would not have realized such marvelous accord if they spoke only of the places and homes in which they personally lived. Their unity existed when they came together where God dwelt, and worked together on His city. It is still possible for unity to exist on that level. It does, however, require sharp focus.
THE NOBLES COME SHORT OF THEIR NOBILITY
“ 5 And next unto them the Tekoites repaired; but their nobles put not their necks to the work of their Lord.” Next to those working with “Zadok the son of Baana,” were “the Tekoites.”
THE TEKOITES. These were inhabitants of Tekoa. This was the home of Amos the prophet, who was “among the herdmen of Tekoa” (Amos 1:1). Jeremiah said a trumpet was to be blown in this area, sounding the impending Babylonian captivity (Jer 6:1). It was also in “the wilderness of Tekoa,” that Jehosaphat realized a decisive victory over “the children of Ammon, Moab, and mount Seir” by singers going before the army, praising “the beauty of holiness” (2 Chron 20:20-22). Also, among David’s top “valiant men” was Ira, who was a “Tekoite” (2 Sam 23:26). He is described as “The sixth captain for the sixth month,” and headed up twenty-four thousand mighty soldiers (1 Chron 27:9). In our text, the “Tekoites” were among those who had “survived,” or “escaped,” the Babylonian captivity (Neh 1:2). Now they put their hand to the work of the Lord.
THEIR NOBLES. Now, for the very first time, a bitter note is sounded. The “nobles,” or most famous and principal men among the Tekoites, “put not their necks to the work of their Lord.” Other versions read, “their nobles did not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord,” NKJV “their nobles did not support the work of their masters,” NASB and “their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.” NIV These men did not use their influence for the work of the Lord. They neither worked on the project, nor gave their support to those who did. They did not back up or give aid to the ones having charge of the section being completed by the Tekoites. The upper class withdrew from the work, standing aloof from it. In the work itself, these nobles were made subject to others, and they could not abide what they conceived to be great humiliation.
Right here, a devastating blow is dealt to the notion that bad leaders necessitate bad constituents. There are some who imagine a work cannot be done if the leaders of the country or the church do not put their influence behind it. Some, citing Proverbs 29:2, hinge everything upon the rulers of the people. “When the righteous are in authority, the people rejoice: but when the wicked beareth rule, the people mourn.” But that text does not suggest that all good fails when the ruler is wicked. There can still be seven thousand prophets who do not bow the knee to Baal, even when Jezebel is in power (1 Kgs 19:18). Even when the Jewish council and leaders are against the work, the Apostles can still stand and speak the words of life to the people! The Tekoites did not need the support of their leaders to do the work! They built their portion of the wall in spite of their “nobles.”
A PICTURE OF THE BOOK OF LIFE. We have in this text a marvelous picture of the “book of life” – the record of those who are “alive unto God” (Rom 6:11; Phil 4:3). Most of the people involved in Nehemiah’s wall-building project would never have been known to us apart from their work under him. Further, we would have known nothing of the nobles of Tekoa if they had not failed to put their shoulder to the work of the Lord. Thus, unknown people became known because they worked for God, and known people became a blotch in history because they did not work for God.
In the end, when the book of life is opened, we will not doubt find records much like that of the book of Nehemiah. People who have been “laborers together with God” (1 Cor 3:9), will be recorded, together with their labors. Their role in building the wall, so to speak, will be duly noted, and they will “receive praise from God” (1 Cor 4:5). Those who have worked on projects that honored God will themselves be honored (John 12:26). Those who have opposed the work will also be noted, like Pharaoh, Og, Sihon, Sennacherib, Pilate, Herod, and others. If some elaboration is given concerning those who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, what will be said of those who build upon the good foundation of Jesus, bringing the truth of God within the grasp of the people.
In the end, we will find everyone is either a builder or a hindrance to building. They are like Nehemiah, or Sanballot and Tobiah. They are like the workers on the wall, or the Tekoite nobles who refused to put their shoulder and influence to the work. No one is neutral! That is the message you want to get from this text. Additionally, even though men of nobility do not lend their influence to spiritual building projects, the work will go on without them! Some man of God will rise up who can be trusted to serve Him, and the portion of the wall the nobles have neglected will be built anyway. However, and make no mistake about this, those who could have assisted and encouraged, yet chose not to do so, have their responses written in the books! Their aloofness will be made known to all!