It was a big job.
Jerusalem was a big city, rebuilding its walls was a big task, and Nehemiah was facing some big challenges. And there were times when he wondered if his dream would ever be finished.
It wasn’t as if no one had tried. The walls had been torn down about 120 years earlier, when the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed the city. But the Babylonians had themselves been overthrown, and one of the first things that the new Persian king had done was give permission for work to begin on rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem. Ezra, a highly respected priest, headed up that project until its completion.
But Ezra’s efforts failed after that. Old family feuds surfaced again. Political enemies created dissension. Turf wars over who should do what paralyzed their efforts. The people were overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. And so the walls of Jerusalem remained in ruins, symbolic of the shame that continued to grip the once-proud city.
And this wasn’t just a matter of bragging rights or civic pride. A city’s entire well-being depended on a well-built wall. Without a stable wall, bandits could raid the city and harass its inhabitants. Without a patrolled wall, thieves would loot and plunder at will. Without a secure wall, enemy warlords could even kidnap citizens and hold them for ransom. So for nearly 120 years, with no wall, Jerusalem remained a city without security, without peace, without hope.
Nehemiah was far removed from that despair. He enjoyed both personal and professional fulfillment in Susa, the capital city of the empire, far removed from the trouble in Jerusalem. Yes, he was a Jew, but he had worked his way up to become a trusted adviser to the king, with the honored title of cupbearer. What happened in Jerusalem wasn’t really his problem. Or was it?
When some emissaries from Jerusalem arrived in Susa, Nehemiah asked about how things were back in his homeland, and that’s when he got a troubling report: even though many had returned to Jerusalem a generation earlier, the city walls were still in ruins, the city gates, scorched and worthless.
So Nehemiah began to pray. And he began to have a daring dream of a plan. It was risky – as in, if it didn’t work, not only would he be dismissed from the king’s service, but he would probably be executed. But trusting the future to God, he suggested his plan to the king, who prompted agreed. Nehemiah was made governor and given great resources from the royal treasury to make his dream a reality.
When he arrived in Jerusalem, he rode around the perimeter of the city, surveying it and assessing what needed to be done. And somehow along the way, he came up with an idea. Nobody really knows what gave him the idea, but it was brilliant. Besides needing the wall rebuilt, the people of Jerusalem also needed their hope and confidence rebuilt. So, thought Nehemiah, why not get them involved in the work?
So here was the plan: he put all the families of Jerusalem to work, rebuilding the section of the city wall closest to their home. You work on your section; other people will work on theirs. That was it. He made sure that everyone knew that each family had a stake in this project, and each individual had a part to play. He made it a matter of honor to work diligently on your section, joining up with your neighbor, knowing that together you would be able to accomplish something great.
For his part, Nehemiah himself went around encouraging and keeping up everyone’s spirits. When would-be enemies conspired to attack, he stationed guards and watchmen at strategic locations, with a promise that if anyone came under attack, everyone would come to help. When economic issues threatened to halt the work, he called in the rich landowners who were exploiting their neighbors and challenged them to do the right thing, and they did.
Everyone worked together. Everyone had something to contribute. They prayed. A lot. They all worked hard. Neighbors became friends as they labored side by side. Old grievances were forgotten for the sake of a greater cause. Nobody much cared who got the credit as long as the job got done.
For 120 years, the walls of Jerusalem had been in ruins. 120 years. But under Nehemiah’s leadership, working together, the people of Jerusalem rebuilt them in just 52 days. That’s right – 52 days.
Each of us has a part to play. Each of us has a job to do. And together, we can dream. And with God’s help, what we dream together, we can do. Together.