There is a lot of discussion in modern American politics about walls. Some see a moral imperative to build a wall to protect the nation from illegal immigrants. Others see a moral imperative to not build a wall to care for migrants looking for hope in the American Dream. From time to time, the bible is brought into this discussion by pointing to the book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah recounts the story of Israel’s return to Jerusalem after the Exile and the rebuilding of the city wall. God works through Nehemiah and the people to rebuild the city and to re-establish his covenant with the people. Walls were a part of this.
Walls are neither inherently good nor bad. Robert Frost in his poem “Mending Wall” uses the line, “Good fences make good neighbours.” That line is often quoted in support of walls, but Robert Frost puts those words in the mouth of his neighbor as a poor reason for why walls exists. His poem is actually in opposition to walls. Or perhaps, more accurately, unnecessary walls. Frost seems to imply in the poem that there are occasions where walls are needed, like for cattle. It would seem that there are circumstances and situations in which a wall is good. And it would seem that there are circumstances and situations in which a wall is bad. Wisdom must be applied to determine which is which.
Perhaps all of this is just plain common sense and unnecessary to even be said. But the question does arise when people invoke Nehemiah in their current wall-building desires. Why was Nehemiah building a wall? What was the purpose? Does it relate to 21st century immigration policy?
The book of Nehemiah was originally combined with the book of Ezra. Ezra wrote about the return of the people to Jerusalem by the edict of the Persian king Cyrus. In Jerusalem, the people went to work to rebuild the temple of the Lord. When Nehemiah hears the news about the return of the people to Jerusalem, he also hears that “the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire” (Neh 1:3). When he hears this news he wept and mourned for days. Nehemiah is then sent to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. The walls of this city must be rebuilt or else she will be vulnerable to continual attacks. The people who re-establish the city after the Exile will constantly be harassed unless a wall is completed. Nehemiah is the Lord’s agent to do this work.
Nehemiah inspects the status of the wall and finds it is in poor shape. But almost immediately he faces opposition from Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem. They accuse Nehemiah of rebellion against the king (i.e. King Artaxerxes, the Persian king who followed Cyrus in sending the Israelites back to Jerusalem). Nehemiah stands strong and continues on with the construction project. Knowing that they will face opposition, he instructs the men to build the wall with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.
When the wall is complete, Nehemiah opened the gates and the people returned to the city. Nehemiah includes a list of the returned exiles that mirrors the list in Ezra 2. The wall has been rebuilt, now the community must be rebuilt. And to rebuild the community required the Word of God. All the people of the city gather in the town square and Ezra brings out the Book of the Law. “They read from the book, from the Law of God, clearly, and they gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (Neh 8:8). Ezra and officials preached through the Scriptures to the people. The response was an overwhelming sense of the holiness of what had happened. And then there was a deep, spontaneous, and corporate confession of sin. Retracing their failures in their covenant with God, they confessed their sin and renewed their commitment to the Lord.
This led to a complete reformation of the people. The result was a desire for holiness among the people. They wanted to be holy in their commitment to the Lord, holy in their worship, and holy in their families. The contaminant of paganism had to be rooted out completely. They were to be a people covenanted wholly to the Lord. But that reformation failed. Nehemiah 13 ends with a litany of all the continued failures of Israel. Something more than a wall is needed.
This is where the modern American talk of walls is disconnected with Nehemiah. The American people have been blessed by God, but they are not the people of God. The Church is. The Church is a global people. The Church has walls, but they are spiritual in nature. The application of Nehemiah to us today is that by grace we strive for holiness within the walls of the Church. This is not to keep out the foreigner, but to keep out sin. The gate is opened wide to all who are called to come to Christ. But the wall is established to protect the flock from the enemy. But walls alone will not suffice. We need a full reformation of heart. We need Christ to come and make us “living stones built up into a spiritual house” (1 Pet 2:5).