At the time Nehemiah did his work among the people of Judah, the Jews had been back in Judah from captivity for some time. The temple had been rebuilt and the people had planted their farms and vineyards. But the walls of the city were still lying in ruins, and the people, because of much discouragement, had all but abandoned the work.
This report had reached Nehemiah who was cupbearer to the king of Persia in Shushan the palace. Upon hearing these sad tidings and praying to his God, he obtained a leave of absence from his duties to go to Judah and help with the work. This work he performed under great duress and through many difficult struggles until the walls were finished. When the enemies of Judah launched attacks against the workers, Nehemiah armed the people with weapons while they worked so that with one hand they did the work and with the other hand they held a weapon.
It is to this that I wish to call your attention for a few moments tonight at our convocation exercises.
This building of the walls of the city of God is still the essential work of the Church today. Throughout her history, the church must and does continue to build the walls of Zion-not in the typical sense any more in which Judah did the work, but in the spiritual reality of gathering, defending, and preserving the Church of Christ. And it is still necessary to do this work with the weapons of war in one hand and the tools of building in the other.
It is not surprising that when the captives returned from Babylon their most pressing work was the re-establishment of the kingdom of Judah. The nation, after all, represented, and indeed was, the Church of God, and the people of Judah were the people of God upon whom God had set His love. As a step towards that goal, the people had immediately set about building the temple, for the temple was the center of Judah’s entire ecclesiastical life as the Church. After several delays and many discouragements the temple had been completed. The next order of business was the rebuilding of the walls and the establishment of Jerusalem as the political and religious capital of the nation. Jerusalem was the seat of the throne of David, beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth. In fact, the very existence of the people as a nation depended upon the rebuilding of the walls and the raising of Zion’s ramparts. Without this the nation could not and would not long endure. The work of Nehemiah was directed to that end.
But no sooner did Nehemiah begin the work, and no sooner did it become evident to the people around Judah that the work was proceeding seriously and with every prospect of being completed, than the enemies set about attempting to defeat these purposes. They tried mockery first: a fox jumping over the walls will knock them down. When this failed, they marshalled their forces I under the leadership of Sanballat and Tobiah to launch a frontal attack against the workers. Nehemiah heard of the plan and immediately armed the men so that they would be in a position to defend the walls and ward off the attack. When the enemies of Judah saw Judah’s resolve, they abandoned their plans of a frontal assault and decided on a plan of infiltration: “And our adversaries said, They shall not know, neither see, till we come in the midst of them, and slay them, and cause the work to cease” (vs. 11). It was in response to this threat that Nehemiah devised the strategy outlined in this passage.
Nehemiah first of all divided the available men into two groups. The one group would be responsible for defense and would be constantly armed for battle while the other half would be engaged in the work. Of the half that were engaged in the work, the carriers of bricks and mortar would carry their loads with one hand and carry a weapon with the other. Those who actually worked on the wall and needed both hands to lay the bricks carried a sword strapped to their side. Trumpeters were placed at critical spots on the walls to blow the trumpets and summon all to a spot being attacked. Even while the work went on, therefore, every man was always ready to fight with his weapons at hand.
This instructive and beautiful narrative of God’s Word is given to the Church as an illustration, by way of figure, of what the calling of the Church continues to be throughout her history. The building of the walls of Jerusalem goes on today. Scripture often compares the Church also in the New Testament to a walled city. The Psalmist was speaking of the Church as well as Mount Zion when he, in Psalm 48, sang: “Mount Zion’s walls behold, About her ramparts go, And number ye the lofty towers That guard’ her from the foe.” Even more explicit is our Psalter rendering of Psalm 87: “Zion, founded on the mountains, God, thy Maker, loves thee well; He has chosen thee, most precious, He delights in thee to dwell.” When Jesus speaks to His disciples of the keys of the kingdom of heaven, He likens the Church to a city with large and strong iron gates which must be opened and shut by the use of the keys. And when the prophet of Patmos sees the new Jerusalem come down from God out of heaven, the glorified and perfected Church, he sees that Church as a city foursquare with foundations and gates in her walls.The Scriptures use the figure of a city with walls to describe the Church because the Church is a kingdom within a kingdom in this present world. The Church is, in this evil world where darkness and sin dwell, a foreign element, a foreign kingdom, a strange and other-worldly people out of step with the inhabitants of the world. Her King is Christ, her laws are the precepts of the gospel, her armies march to the beat of different drummers, her whole life is antithetically opposed to all that the world stands for. For this very reason, the Church is a city with many enemies, a besieged city —to use the graphic figure of the prophet Isaiah, a city which from every human point of view is constantly in perilous straits and under constant attack. But the Lord’s assurance comes to those who inhabit the city that the gates of hell cannot prevail against her. She is strong and unconquerable in the world. But her strength lies in the strength of her walls. And her walls are the truth of the Scriptures. The city, as Jesus reminds His disciples, is built upon the cornerstone of the confession: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Upon that rock Jesus builds His Church; and against that Church the gates of hell cannot prevail.
But for this the walls must be built.
There can be no doubt about it, I think, that in our day, as in Nehemiah’s day, the walls of Jerusalem lie in ruins. One need only look about him at the church of our time to see that, instead of high, sturdy, well-maintained walls with strong towers and guarded ramparts, the church has nothing but piles of stone and rubble. The Church has not only failed to continue to build the walls, but has failed to maintain what she had while the walls visibly crumbled before her eyes. In fact, much worse and a great deal more saddening, the Church has turned her own hands systematically to tearing down the walls erected by former generations.The church has chosen to forget that she is a besieged city in the world and has instead chosen to make alliances with her enemies round about her. The enemy has been allowed to enter the city.
There are especially two evidences of this. The truths of Scripture which are the stones in the walls are abandoned in favor of the philosophies of men. The heritage of the fathers is forgotten and the truth of God’s Word is openly scorned. The enemies’ ideas are adopted and hailed as enormously important insights into matters of truth. The walls of the truth crumble and fall into piles of rubble. The second evidence of this is that the antithetical walk of the members is lost as the Church seeks friendship with her enemies. This too results from a crumbling of the walls because when once the walls are torn down and reduced to piles of rubble, the wicked come into the city and live with the inhabitants of the city to teach them the evil ways of the ungodly. This happens in Nehemiah’s day when a generation of children spoke half the language of the Jews and half the language of Ashdod.
How sad it is to see Jerusalem lie in ruins.
But the attacks of the enemy continue unabated. As in Nehemiah’s day, the enemies of the Church do not want the walls built. They will attack either by frontal assaults or, if that fails, by the more gradual but deceptive device of under-cover infiltration so that they may attack from within.
We must never once forget it: the Church is under attack today, fierce and unrelenting attack. It was so throughout all time; it is no less true today.
The walls of Jerusalem must be built.
Today also a sword is needed to engage in defense.
The weapons with which the men of Judah were armed were obviously for purposes of defense. There is a point here which we do well to emphasize, though it be in passing. The weapons were not given to the workers on the walls of Jerusalem so that the men could engage in offensive warfare. This was not the purpose nor was it their calling. They were not called to leave the walls of the city to conquer the enemies’ land. Our swords, too, are defensive weapons. We are not commanded to conquer the world for Christ as some within the Reformed community would have us do. We are to be preoccupied with building the walls. And because the enemy attacks in an effort to keep the walls from being built, we need weapons. But the world will not be gained for Christ, and we must not venture forth from the walls in order to conquer the strongholds of the enemy. Nevertheless, defense is important. Without it the work cannot go on. If the enemy is allowed to penetrate into the ranks of the workers, the work will be stopped.
And so the Church, in the building of the walls, has the calling to engage in this aspect of the work.
There is a strange, but growing, reluctance to do this work today. Even within our own circles there are complaints that are made against any kind of negative criticism of other views, whether that criticism appears in the preaching or in the writings published within our Churches. And these complaints about criticism or erroneous views are often accompanied by please for greater tolerance of opposing viewpoints and doctrines that are incompatible with the Scriptures or the historic Reformed faith.
This impatience with the negative aspect of the defense of the faith arise out of very weak and wrong attitudes. There is often, also among us, a lack of understanding of what constitutes sound doctrine. There is a sad inability to differentiate, to distinguish properly, to understand clearly the sharp and careful lines which Scripture draws in connection with the truth. And this is, in turn, often closely connected with a lack of deep and abiding love for the truth as it is maintained by and for the cause of Christ. There is not the love of the truth of the Church which there ought to be.
Nevertheless, the defense of the truth against false doctrine is essential, now also, even as it was in the day of Nehemiah.All the officebearers within our Churches are bound to this by the Formula of Subscription in which they promise, “to refute and contradict all errors and to exert themselves in keeping the Church free from such errors.” All the members of the Church are bound to this same calling by the examples of the apostles and prophets and by the admonitions of the Scriptures to contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered unto the saints. And to this calling we are urged by the testimony of the Church of all ages. When the Church failed in this aspect of her calling, her failure was marked by rapid decline and by a swift drift into false doctrine and worldlymindedness. And when the Church stood firm and uncompromising for the truth, she also prospered in her calling and in faithfulness to God.
The sword of the defense of the faith must be wielded carefully. It must be wielded in the Seminary, in the pulpit, and by all God’s people, even from their vantage point in the pew, for we all are engaged in the battle. It must be wielded by careful study of the truth, by appeal only to the Scriptures as the rule for faith and life, with courage and fearlessness, but with meekness and fear as Peter admonishes us.
But not only must the inhabitant of Jerusalem fight; he must also build. The walls have to go up. It is important and necessary that he fight to keep the enemy out. But he must also build. He must work with stone and mortar; for the walls are the defense and strength of the Church. Without them the Church is easy prey for the wicked. Her safety lies in her walls.That can be done by the development and advance of the truth of the Scriptures. There have been arid, perhaps, always will be movements of reform within the Church which are almost completely negative. These movements are against evils in the church: against false doctrine and worldliness, against hierarchy and church political tyranny. Now it is certainly true that reformation in the Church begins with being against evil. But this can never be enough. One must also be for something. One must have a sword; but one must wield the trowel with as much conviction and determination, with as much zeal and eagerness as he swings the sword. Else all the work will come to nothing. He cannot stand all day on the partially finished walls fighting; he has got to get the walls built up to a point where he can find protection behind them. He cannot only fight; he has got to build. And so the Church must ever be busy with the development of the truth. A stagnant church is a church doomed to death. A developing Church is a living, vibrant, and exciting church which is strong and safe in the world. And so the Church must ever be busy with the development of the truth. A stagnant church is a church doomed to death. A developing Church is a living, vibrant, and exciting church which is strong and safe in the world. How must that be done? There are three things which must be said about that.
In the first place, that work of building must be done on the basis of what the church of the past has done. By this I refer not only to the what the post-apostolic church did, what the Reformers did, what our own ancestors of the Reformed faith did in the building of the walls. But I refer too to what is part of the heritage of our own Protestant Reformed Churches. God has given to us a place in that work of developing the truth. That unique place we must know, and to that truth we must be faithful.
Secondly, this is a task which must be performed by the whole Church. It is not the work of the Seminary alone. Nor is it the task of the professors and ministers of the Word. But it is the work of the whole Church. The truth can be developed only when all God’s people search the Scriptures, discuss sound doctrine, love the truth, give themselves to the study of good literature, make the pursuit of the truth an exciting adventure. Then, and then only, will also the ministers preach lively and vibrantly, and then and then only will the truth advance and the walls of Zion go higher.
Thirdly, this must be done with careful regard to doctrine. The Seminary must concentrate on sound doctrine. The pulpits must preach sound doctrine, instructing the people, developing the truth, feeding God’s sheep with the bread of life. And this sound doctrine must be preached in such a way that the truth is reflected in the consciousness of the people of God to become their own cherished possession. Then will all work together to build the walls of Jerusalem, and then the Church will be safe.
Our Heidelberg Catechism tells us that Christ alone gathers, defends, and preserves His Church. That He has given us a place and calling in this glorious task is reason for profound gratitude. That the work is His, in us and through us, is the hard ground for all our courage to go forward in the confidence that Zion today too is beautiful for situation and the joy of the whole earth. Against her the gates of hell cannot prevail.