[The travelers from Judah] replied, “The survivors there in the province who escaped captivity are in great trouble and shame; the wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been destroyed by fire.”
When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
Nehemiah 1:3-4 (NRSV)
In ancient days, a nations walls were everything. Every major city (which subsequently controlled the nearby lands) was surrounded by walls. Walls were your security, making it impossible for enemies to easily invade. Walls were your pride. Their height, width, and engineering told the world how prosperous, industrious, and educated you were. Your gates were your calling card. Being the weakest point of defense, your gate said everything about you. The more secure, enamored, and embellished the gate, the more your city state would be held in high esteem.
The book of Nehemiah is about the walls and the gate of the city of Jerusalem, which had been destroyed (along with Solomon’s temple) by the Babylonian empire in 587 B.C. Most of the nations best and brightest were carried off into captivity in Babylon. Ezra, Nehemiah and their families were among them. As the scene is established in the opening sequence of today’s chapter, Nehemiah runs into some travelers who had arrived in Babylon from back home. He inquires about the state of their homeland and capitol city, and learns that the walls and gates had been utterly destroyed. The remnant back home feel utter shame.
If you have no walls, you are nothing.
Nehemiah’s reaction to the news was telling. He is grief stricken. He weeps. He fasts. He prays and confesses to God his sins, the sins of his family, and the sins of his nation.
We don’t have literal walls surrounding our homes and capitols [Unless you live in a gated community…there’s a good conversation to be explored there. Trump’s promised border wall is another interesting parallel conversation, but I digress] Walls as a line of defense became obsolete hundreds of years ago. The word picture, however, still carries weight for me in my personal life. I still build walls, metaphorically, around my heart and life. I build walls of protection against forces spiritual, emotional, relational, and cultural. I erect walls of possessions and words revealing to others what I want them to see, while hiding safely that which I desire to hide. I engineer relational walls that warn people off, walls that keep people out, and gates of relationship that open and close at my will.
And, my walls can crumble and fall just like Jerusalem’s.
On my left bicep I have a tat that references Psalm 51. It is an ancient song of confession, the lyrics written by King David at a moment when the walls of Jerusalem stood tall and proud, but the walls of his personal life had come crashing to the ground. The gates to his soul lay in utter ruin. It is on my left bicep because the ancients identified left, and left-handedness (I’m a lefty, btw), with foolishness, iniquity, and sin. It is on my bicep because it is a reminder to me that my strength is not in the quality of the walls I build around myself, but in humility and the utter honesty of my confession.
Nehemiah is having a Psalm 51 moment. I have had my own (multiple times). Walls crash and burn. Life sometimes lays in ruin before us. I have learned along the journey that in those moments when life crumbles around me the key to finding seeds of redemption and restoration lie not in the strength of my biceps, but in the condition of my spirit. Nehemiah gets it, too.