For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from their work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God, strengthen thou my hands” (Neh 6:9).
The book of Nehemiah begins with the speaker discovering
that the wall around Jerusalem has been “broken down, and its gates [destroyed]
by fire” (1:3). As cupbearer to king Artaxerxes, Nehemiah does not live in
Jerusalem with those who survived the exile and returned, but he still feels a
deep connection to the hoy city: learning its wall has fallen, he sits down and
weeps (1:4). Nehemiah asks God to forgive His people for their sins against
Him, and comes to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall (1:4-11). He inspects it
without telling anyone what he intends, then convinces the people to
“[strengthen] their hands” (2:18) and begin to rebuild, so Jerusalem may no
longer live in disgrace.
The people of the Nations surrounding Israel don’t like
Nehemiah rebuilding the wall. They mock and deride the Israelites for building
it, asking if they are defying the king (2:19). Still, they keep building the
wall. Their enemies plot to fight them (4:8), and Nehemiah sets a guard on the
wall, and they keep building. Their enemies plot to kill them in the middle of
their work (4:11), and Nehemiah places people in every space, one person to
build and another to defend. He reminds them not to be afraid of their enemies
but to remember “the Lord, who is great and terrible” (4:14). They keep
building the wall. The people who carry burdens have the load in one hand and a
sword in the other (4:17), and they keep building the wall. They labour at
their work and sleep with weapons in their hands, retreating into the city at
When the wall is built, with no doors yet in its gates, Jerusalem’s
enemies try to trick Nehemiah into leaving the city to meet them, so they can
kill him (6:1-2). He refuses to stop the work and leave. His enemies accuse him
of wanting to be king, thinking that he will be frightened of Persia’s
reprisals (6:6-9). People try to fool Nehemiah into closing himself in the
temple, thereby declaring himself ruler of Jerusalem and bringing down
Artaxerxes’ wrath (6:10-13). Jerusalem’s enemies try everything they can think
of to fill the Israelites’ hearts with fear, so their hands will drop from
their work, so that they will give up. Through it all, they keep building the
wall until the city is surrounded and its gates are secured.
It’s easy to question why Nehemiah was so hung up on
building the wall in the first place, and why he was so devastated to hear it
had been destroyed: after all, “the people within [Jerusalem] were few and no
houses had been built” (7:4). For Nehemiah, Jerusalem – its temple, its people,
and its walls – represents much, much more than just a city, much more even
than a home. Jerusalem represents God’s covenant with Israel: that He will be
their God and they will be His people; that the people will never cease to be;
that a king of David’s line will sit on the throne; that they will be a multitude
beyond numbering. The people have come up from Egypt and God has delivered them
into their own land, which they shall hold forever as their inheritance.
For Nehemiah, and for most of the Hebrew bible, Israel’s
misfortunes happen because of sin. The people are sent into exile, and
Jerusalem is destroyed, because they turned away from God through idolatry and
did not keep His commandments. The temple must be rebuilt so that the people
can keep the laws and glorify the Lord. The people must repent and be purified
so the remnant can be restored. The walls of Jerusalem must be built because
the city is both the reality and the symbol of God’s promise that He will
gather His scattered people from among the nations and return them to Himself.
Each in her own way, we are like Nehemiah and the Israelites
building Jerusalem’s wall. We all have work we are called by God to do. God has
covenanted Himself with us and we are asked to do His work, to follow where He
leads us, to repent and turn to Him anew. Like Nehemiah and the Israelites, we
are faced with enemies, forces that try to turn us aside, to step off the path,
that frighten us into dropping our hands from our work.
Depression can be that enemy in different ways. It can strip
you of your energy and will, leaving you paralyzed. Anhedonia can make you lose
interest and pleasure in the people and things that are important to you. You
might not be able to concentrate, as if you’re thinking and moving and seeing
through a thick fog. You could spend hours sobbing uncontrollably, or numb to
the world and staring at a wall, or curled up under a pile of blankets. You
could be crushed by fear, and guilt, and loneliness, and the feeling that your
life has no meaning and is not worth living. Sometimes you might want to
withdraw from everyone. Sometimes you might be afraid to be with anyone because
you’re desperately trying to hide the reality of what’s happening to you.
Everyone – no matter who they are – has enemies urging them
to drop their hands from building the wall. It’s easy to fall prey to these
forces because they’re powerful, because sometimes their way looks simpler,
because it isn’t always obvious that we’re doing God’s work. The thing about
not building an actual wall is that it isn’t always clear what bits of what
we’re doing are part of God’s plan. But we know we’re called to praise and
glorify the Lord, and to love God and neighbor.
The story of Nehemiah building the wall shows us that it’s
important not to allow anything to let our hands drop from God’s work. We must
keep striving no matter what tries to frighten us away. Though the Israelites
have been beaten down, have been conquered, are still conquered, and have
sinned – they are still building the wall, and God is still helping them.
We are not building a wall, not rebuilding a home, because
we have a home in Jesus and it can never fall. We have a temple, and God raised
it in three days. We do God’s work, however fragile it may turn out to be, on
the firm foundation of Jesus Christ, which will never be shaken.
Like Nehemiah, we cannot expect to do it alone, and we need
to learn to admit that. I have to learn to admit that. Sometimes I can’t do it,
I can’t be who I want to be. I just can’t. Whatever it is that God wants me to
do, I can’t today. I am failing. And I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. But God
gathered the remnant, and I know when I try again tomorrow He will gather me.
Nehemiah wasn’t the only person building that wall, so maybe it’s okay to do it
together. To defend us, we have the martyrs and saints, the whole company of
heaven, God, and each other. It’s okay to not be able to do it alone. In his
moments of weakness, Nehemiah asks God to strengthen him. In darkness, in
doubt, in despair, God is the strength of our hands.