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“Common People with a Common Purpose”

Nehemiah 3:1-31
Bob DeGray
September 13, 2009

Key Sentence

God is at work when people come together to accomplish a common purpose.


Well, happy anniversary. I’m sure most of you remember one year ago today when we sat through, or were already waiting to return from Hurricane Ike. The thirteenth was Saturday. The worst of the storm came through after midnight Friday. I remember sitting in the chair in our living room, listening to the roar of the storm and dozing; getting up every twenty minutes or so to empty towels and buckets where rain was blowing through our upstairs windows.

Then on Saturday, as the last clouds headed north, we began to evaluate damage. In our neighborhood it was predictable: power out, fences down, some roofs, some tree limbs, a few trees. But when we got to the church we discovered some serious damage: nothing catastrophic, but it ended up over $100,000; we’re still working on it. Then, because the Kittles had stayed with me, so we went to Dickinson, and discovered what downed trees really looked like.

Late that evening Mark Lewis, with EFCA Crisis Relief, pulled up in front of my house with a trailer-load of chain saws and generators. The next morning he and Kevin Watterson came to church, spoke to us, and began to organize us for Ike relief. Now I’m sure we’d have gotten involved in Ike relief anyway, but not so quickly, not so well. Mark and Kevin and the others that came in the days to follow were the catalysts for getting the work done.

In that sense Mark Lewis was a bit like Nehemiah. As we’ve already learned in our first two weeks, Nehemiah heard about the disaster at Jerusalem, how even after many Jews had returned from exile the city was still desolate, its walls ruined, its gates burned with fire. Nehemiah came and inspected the damage, spoke to the people, and because of God’s hand they rallied to the work.

This week we’ll see how the work unfolded around Jerusalem. This text is filled with names and places we don’t know. But it’s that very obscurity that makes it such a fascinating, timely text, because it shows how God works through common people when they come together with a common purpose. That’s where we were a year ago with Ike. But in a very real sense we’re there in a more important way now. We at Trinity need God to be at work, to bring us together as a body to accomplish his purposes.

Nehemiah 3 has no outline, but it does have a clear organizing principle. Nehemiah takes us on a walk around the city of Jerusalem, starting on the north side and walking counter-clockwise. And at every spot along the destroyed wall of Jerusalem, he tells us who is working, and on what.

There are fascinating details here, interesting principles, but the big idea’s that God is at work when people come together to accomplish a common purpose. So let’s begin this walk, Nehemiah 3:1-2: Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests went to work and rebuilt the Sheep Gate. They dedicated it and set its doors in place, building as far as the Tower of the Hundred, which they dedicated, and as far as the Tower of Hananel. 2The men of Jericho built the adjoining section, and Zaccur son of Imri built next to them.

The rebuilt temple was in the north-east corner of Jerusalem. Therefore it was appropriate that Eliashib the high priest and his fellow priests should work in this area. The Sheep Gate was the gate through which the sacrificial animals were brought to the temple. So the priests had an interest in making this gate workable and safe. Notice that they dedicated the work to God. They were doing his work, and his help was crucial to its success or failure.

The priests worked west toward two towers, the Tower of the Hundred and of Hananel, which have not yet been identified by archaeologists. One of the commentaries pointed out that in a living city like Jerusalem you can’t just dig everywhere: you wish all these archaeological detail could be confirmed.

So the priests worked west for some distance, and next to them the men of Jericho. I want to begin listing some examples of the organizing principles for these work crews, different affinity groups working side-by-side to achieve the common purpose. The first group is organized by profession, priests; the second by geography; Jericho. And notice that not all the workers were drawn from Jerusalem itself: they came in from the surrounding districts.

Verses 3 to 5: The Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. 4Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of Hakkoz, repaired the next section. Next to him Meshullam son of Berekiah, the son of Meshezabel, made repairs, and next to him Zadok son of Baana also made repairs. 5The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.

The Fish Gate was probably near the northwest corner. The sons of Hassenaah, or possibly the men of Senaah, laid its beams and put is doors in place, no doubt using some of the wood Nehemiah had requisitioned. In verse 4 the priests Meremoth and Meshullam were already mentioned in Ezra. These are two of many links between the two books. Also in verse 4 notice the word repaired. This is a general term that means ‘to make firm or strong.’ It doesn’t necessarily mean making everything just the way it was.

In verse 5 we see the only note of opposition, from the nobles of Tekoa. The Hebrew literally says they were stiff necked. They didn’t refuse out of half-heartedness, but pride. This is the sin Amos, of Tekoa, had condemned in his prophecies against Israel. But even under the inspirational leadership of Nehemiah and in the common purpose of rebuilding, and with God’s hand at work, there were some who refused to get on board.

And even after Ike, when we mobilized to help both our own families and others, there were some who didn’t get on board, who seemed not to take notice of the needs we were trying to meet. Fortunately, as in Jerusalem, that was a very minority position among us after Ike. It was a joy to be organized by Mark Lewis and others, and to go to Dickinson and Alvin and Kemah and ultimately Galveston, to begin the work of cleaning up and rebuilding.

But physical work is easy compared to spiritual. This summer we’ve been thinking practically about building community at Trinity. We’ve seen that it’s harder to do than to gut houses or build gates. Our body is no more diverse than these groups that re-built Jerusalem, yet we’ve sadly shown a tendency, like the people in the time of the Judges, to pursue what’s right in our own eyes, or like the people of Paul’s day, not to look out for the interests of others. These attitudes, though not pervasive, make it clear that the building project needed among us is building community. My prayer is that God would be at work to bring us together in this common unity, that each of us will say ‘it’s God’s work, and I won’t oppose it by being like these nobles of Tekoa.’

Verse 6: The Jeshanah Gate was repaired by Joiada son of Paseah and Meshullam son of Besodeiah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. 7Next to them, repairs were made by men from Gibeon and Mizpah--Melatiah of Gibeon and Jadon of Meronoth--places under the authority of the governor of Trans-Euphrates. 8Uzziel son of Harhaiah of the goldsmiths, repaired the next section; and Hananiah, of the perfume-makers, made repairs next to that. They restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall.

The Jeshannah Gate, at times translated the Old Gate is probably around the corner on the west wall. Before the exile there had been a substantial residential area beyond this wall, but no attempt was made to enclose it. Verse 7 tells us some Jews who lived outside the district of Jerusalem came to help, possibly against their governor’s wishes. Verse 8 shows us another way of organizing the workers. Here we have gold-smiths and perfumers each taking a section of wall. That’s instructive – they were not working in their area of giftedness or expertise but simply getting on board with the work to be done. And sometimes we’re called out of our comfort zone for the sake of community.

Verse 9: Rephaiah son of Hur, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section. 10Adjoining this, Jedaiah son of Harumaph repaired opposite his house, and Hattush son of Hashabneiah repaired next to him. 11Malkijah son of Harim and Hasshub son of Pahath-Moab repaired another section and the Tower of the Ovens. 12Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section, he and his daughters.

You’ll hear about these ‘rulers of a half district’ a lot. The phrase translates an Assyrian word. In their empire they had been in the habit of dividing the region around a city into two half-districts assigned to different officials. So another organizing principle here is groups built around leaders or rulers.

Yet another organizing principle: Jedaiah made repairs opposite his house. I suspect a lot of these people did: they worked on building right where they lived. This increased their incentive to build a good wall. It’s also a principle we can use in building community: we need to start where we are and build a good community right there. Finally, in verse 12, where Shallum works with his daughters. One core unit of community is the family group.

Verse 13: The Valley Gate was repaired by Hanun and the residents of Zanoah. They rebuilt it and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. They also repaired five hundred yards of the wall as far as the Dung Gate. 14The Dung Gate was repaired by Malkijah son of Recab, ruler of the district of Beth Hakkerem. He rebuilt it and put its doors and bolts and bars in place.

The Valley Gate is the one Nehemiah used when he did his night inspection of the walls. It’s on the west side. This is one of the gates that has been pretty clearly identified by archaeology, along with the Dung gate, probably the gate by which refuse was carried out to the valley of Hinnom.

Verse 15: The Fountain Gate was repaired by Shallun son of Col-Hozeh, ruler of the district of Mizpah. He rebuilt it, roofing it over and putting its doors and bolts and bars in place. He also repaired the wall of the Pool of Siloam, by the King's Garden, as far as the steps going down from the City of David. 16Beyond him, Nehemiah son of Azbuk, ruler of a half-district of Beth Zur, made repairs up to a point opposite the tombs of David, as far as the artificial pool and the House of the Heroes.

One really wishes more archaeology could be done in Jerusalem. Most of these places are unknown, except the pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed a blind man. But the King’s Garden, the steps, the tombs of David, which would mean the tombs of his descendants, the artificial pool, probably a water storage area, and the house of the Heroes, all are unknown or only guesses.

There was a huge amount of variety and pre-existing structure along the lines of this wall on the south and east; work for all hands. By the way, Nehemiah from Beth Zur, is not the same person as the central figure in this book. But I do think it significant that he and the author share a name focused on the work of God: the Lord has comforted. As we study this list we can’t forget that it’s all being done through the gracious hand of God. These diverse groups wouldn’t have pulled together unless God was with them, just as we won’t build community except as Christ’s body, through His Spirit.

One of the first things that struck me, and probably struck you, about this text is the obscurity of the people: all these common folk enthusiastically doing this hard work. Verse 17: Next to him, the repairs were made by the Levites under Rehum son of Bani. Beside him, Hashabiah, ruler of half the district of Keilah, carried out repairs for his district. 18Next to him, the repairs were made by their countrymen under Binnui son of Henadad, ruler of the other half-district of Keilah. 19Next to him, Ezer son of Jeshua, ruler of Mizpah, repaired another section, from a point facing the ascent to the armory as far as the angle. 20Next to him, Baruch son of Zabbai zealously repaired another section, from the angle to the entrance of the house of Eliashib the high priest. 21Next to him, Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of Hakkoz, repaired another section, from the entrance of Eliashib's house to the end of it.

These common people, with nearly forgotten names are not unimportant to God. He works through them to achieve his goals, just as he desires to use us to build his community. We’ve already seen the priests at work. Here we see that the rest of the tribe of Levi, the temple servants, were also at work. They temporarily left their calling to build with their brothers, their countrymen.

Now look at how Baruch, the son of Zabbai did his work: zealously. This word can be used both of intense enthusiasm (it’s used of Nehemiah that way), and of anger (it’s used of Nehemiah’s opponent Tobiah that way). But in context this is clearly a strong positive emotion. There was real energy for doing this work, the kind of energy God gives his people when they come together.

Finally, notice in verses 20 and 21 that people other than Eliashib are repairing the wall by his house. Eliashib, you recall, is repairing at the sheep gate. These others have come to repair by his place. That’s community. We saw it in Ike, where people like the Olsons, whose home was badly damaged, put in hours helping someone like Susan Torney, whose home was basically destroyed. But then others came alongside to help the Olsons.

The same thing applies in building community as a body. If so and so is involved in leading a small group, then you and you might need to provide the meals, the table fellowship for that same group. That’s part of the plan this fall.

Verse 22: The repairs next to him were made by the priests from the surrounding region. 23Beyond them, Benjamin and Hasshub made repairs in front of their house; and next to them, Azariah son of Maaseiah, the son of Ananiah, made repairs beside his house. 24Next to him, Binnui son of Henadad repaired another section, from Azariah's house to the angle and the corner, 25and Palal son of Uzai worked opposite the angle and the tower projecting from the upper palace near the court of the guard. Next to him, Pedaiah son of Parosh 26and the temple servants living on the hill of Ophel made repairs up to a point opposite the Water Gate toward the east and the projecting tower. 27Next to them, the men of Tekoa repaired another section, from the great projecting tower to the wall of Ophel.

The east side of the city seems to have been in worse shape than the west. Much of the wall may have been rubble in the Kidron valley. Archaeologists studying this section of the list conclude that Nehemiah laid out a new wall, a little bit higher up the ridge, working from house to house as described here. So the angles and towers mentioned here are either parts of the old wall being bypassed or places where the new wall is reconnecting to the old wall.

Another facet of the great community spirit that God gave these people is that Meremoth, in verse 21, and the men of Tekoa in verse 27, without their nobles, have taken on more than one section of the wall. Either these were larger groups that could divide into two sections, or they were able to complete one section and instead of feeling like they’d done their part, they were empowered by God to keep working, to ask ‘what else can I do?

So we’ve walked most of the way around the wall, and in verses 28 to 32 we complete the circuit: Above the Horse Gate, the priests made repairs, each in front of his own house. 29Next to them, Zadok son of Immer made repairs opposite his house. Next to him, Shemaiah son of Shecaniah, the guard at the East Gate, made repairs. 30Next to him, Hananiah son of Shelemiah, and Hanun, the sixth son of Zalaph, repaired another section. Next to them, Meshullam son of Berekiah made repairs opposite his living quarters. 31Next to him, Malkijah, one of the goldsmiths, made repairs as far as the house of the temple servants and the merchants, opposite the Inspection Gate, and as far as the room above the corner; 32and between the room above the corner and the Sheep Gate the goldsmiths and merchants made repairs.

Here again we see the diversity of the groups, with many people working right where they lived. These priests made repairs at their own houses; the guard at the East Gate repaired the East Gate; the goldsmiths, temple servants and merchants worked in this north-east corner where the Temple and market were both located. So there is diversity, allowance for each person’s interest.

But the overwhelming picture is of unity and community and common purpose. One of the commentators I’m using summarized this well: “We are struck first by the unity of intention displayed. Some forty or more sections are mentioned in the list, most of them, we must suppose, being worked on simultaneously. . . The very length and detail of the list demonstrate the unselfish willingness to cooperate. Without a determination to submit personal pride and ambition to the larger task, the work could never have been accomplished . . . the result would have been self defeating chaos.

He goes on to compare this pattern to the pattern of unity in the New Testament church and says “many contributions are needed to promote the common goal of building the church in love, but without that unity of intention the wall will have serious gaps along its length.”

So we see unity of purpose, a unity we had after Hurricane Ike, unity that allowed us to form different groups on different days and go to different places and yet be able to share essentially the same experience of physically doing the will of God. And that work, sadly to a very limited extent, is ongoing. There were some folks helping Susan Torney just a week or two ago. A similar thing can happen next Saturday, at the church work day. You may be a goldsmith or a perfumer, but you can still paint a wall or repair a ceiling.

But do we see that unity of purpose in the spiritual life of the church? Do we see community, common unity? It’s because we’re not all we need to be in this area that the elders chose building community as a theme for this year. One of the key elements is common purpose, gained through shared vision. We’re studying Trinity’s vision statement not because it’s magical, but because it can become our simple common ground of Biblical conviction.

Trinity needs unity of purpose. But the other thing we long for is connectedness of people. I’ve said a couple of times, and with sadness every time, that when people leave Trinity, often their reason is, ‘I never connected.’ And even many people who have stayed feel some of that. Part of it can be a lie: Satan wants you to feel disconnected so you won’t benefit from the connections you could have. But part of it is a sad truth, that we’re not connecting with each other in all the ways we should.

So the reason for the small group component of what we’re doing this fall is to increase the number of people we know, to learn connectedness by spending time with those people. Then in the spring we’ll be able, by the grace of God, to connect as people connected in Nehemiah, through affinity groups of various sorts, working to build strong community on the shared vision.

We see clearly in this text that God is supernaturally at work when people come together to accomplish a common purpose. My prayer is that we will come together and discover how wonderful it is to share a common purpose and a common connectedness.