A City That Jehovah Guarded
IF WE conscientiously try to serve God, and stick by his Word, we will come out successful, even though we may have many difficult, faith-testing experiences. And if we keep faith and look to God, we can count on the promise: “The angel of Jehovah is camping all around those fearing him, and he rescues them.”—Ps. 34:7.
On the other hand, however hard we may work, what we are doing will fail of success if we rely on our own ability, or on men. King Solomon stated this truth in the Psalms: “Unless Jehovah himself guards the city, it is to no avail that the guard has kept awake.” (Ps. 127:1) This principle was demonstrated in the destruction and later the restoration of ancient Jerusalem.
In the days of Kings David and Solomon, Jerusalem had been a flourishing city, capital of a mighty nation. But, due to disregard of God’s law, and the resultant injustices and corruption, the city came to be extremely wicked. Finally, God withdrew his protecting hand. Though strategically situated and quite powerful, Jerusalem fell into the hands of the king of Babylon, who laid the city completely waste.
But God had good thoughts toward desolated Jerusalem. He had placed the temple of pure worship there; his name was tied up with that city. He desired it to be rebuilt. Did men conceive the idea, or was the city’s restoration carried out through their strength? No. Its reconstruction was a miracle, even in the eyes of the surrounding nations.
The temple was first rebuilt by a small number of Jews who made the hazardous 500-mile (805-kilometer) journey across the wilderness. (Ezra 6:15) However, showing that Jerusalem’s restoration was not left to men, and could not be credited to the power or determination of men, was the fact that these first returnees, because of opposition from surrounding peoples, weakened and finally became completely engrossed in their own affairs. They deteriorated into a very sad state, and were reproached by their enemies, which reproach reflected on the God they represented.
JERUSALEM’S PERILOUS PLIGHT
About 82 years after the return of the first repatriates, a Jew named Nehemiah, who had been serving as cupbearer to King Artaxerxes (Longimanus) of Persia, received news from his brother, Hanani, and other men from Judah, of the deplorable state of the city of Jerusalem. They reported: “Those left over, who have been left over from the captivity, . . . are in a very bad plight and in reproach; and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down [there were great breaches in the wall], and its very gates have been burned with fire [as the king of Babylon had left them].”—Neh. 1:1-3.
This was most upsetting to Nehemiah. He prayed to God, even as he presented his petition to King Artaxerxes, that he might be permitted to go back to strengthen and help his brothers. God moved the heart of the king to supply Nehemiah with a guard and a retinue of servants, along with authority to get materials and supplies from the local governors.—Neh. 2:3-9.
Because of the bitterness of the neighboring enemies, and even of some Jews who carried on communication with them, Nehemiah at first told no one of his plan. He surveyed the extent of the damages and determined what had to be done. Then he gathered the priests, nobles, deputy rulers and those who would be supervisors of the repair work and assigned to them specific gates and wall sections. The program went ahead. However, this action met with bitter ridicule from Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite, leaders of neighboring tribes, who then conspired to kill the workers. Because of this the Jews prayed to God and posted a guard day and night.—Neh. 4:1-9.
WALL-BUILDING UNDER THREAT
The strain of work and guard duty was heavy. The workers became discouraged, but Nehemiah called attention to their real Protector with the words: “Jehovah the great and the fear-inspiring One keep in your mind.” (Neh. 4:14) Nehemiah assigned his own personal retinue of servants, half to work and half to carry the armor. Each burden carrier (of materials and rubbish) worked with one hand, holding a weapon in the other, while each builder had a sword girded on. When they slept they remained fully dressed, with their weapons at their right hand.
Bent upon thwarting Jerusalem’s restoration, the enemies treacherously tried to draw Nehemiah away for a discussion (ostensibly a peaceful parley to settle their differences), but the real purpose was to kill or capture him. Failing in this, they used false prophets living in Jerusalem to try to put Nehemiah in fear. But, trusting in God, he would not be drawn away.—Neh. 6:1-13.
Finally, after 52 days (which was really about the limit to which the builders could continue to work under such trying conditions) the wall was completed. The doors of the gates were then put in place and a guard force assigned to duty. But much internal work remained to be done. The people needed a more thorough knowledge of God’s law. Certain irregularities and illegalities called for attention. Nehemiah knew that God had been with them, and that His law must be put in force again and obeyed in Jerusalem if His favor was to continue.—Neh. 6:15; 7:4.
RESTORING THE DIVINE STATUTES
Accordingly, Nehemiah held the festival of the new moon in the seventh month, following it by the festival of booths, from the 15th to the 22nd day; then on the 24th day the Jews assembled to fast and to confess their sins. On all those occasions the priest Ezra read aloud the law of Moses before all the assembled people.—Neh. 8:1–9:3.
Jerusalem was, even then, very sparsely populated. So volunteers were sought, one out of every 10 families dwelling outside the city, to be assigned by lot a dwelling place in Jerusalem. Also, Nehemiah arranged for the resuming of the temple tax, the paying of tithes and the sacrifices of the firstfruits, so that true worship at the temple could be restored in harmony with the Law. These things being set in order, the city wall was inaugurated with great rejoicing. It must have been an exciting sight to view the colorful procession of two large thanksgiving choirs singing as they marched around the top of the wall.—Neh. 10:32–11:2; 12:27-39.
Yet other matters needed attention. Corruption and neglect existed in connection with the temple worship. While Nehemiah was away for a while in the service of Artaxerxes, Eliashib the priest had set aside a large dining hall for the use of Tobiah the Ammonite. This was a flagrant violation of God’s law. Also, the Levites had been deprived of the portion provided by law for their living and, consequently, had to do other work to support themselves. On returning and discovering these alarming developments, Nehemiah immediately threw out all of Tobiah’s furniture and restored the hall to its proper function as a storage place for temple goods. Then he made arrangements for distributing the needed grain, wine and oil to the Levites.—Neh. 13:4-14.
Nehemiah knew that, if God’s law was being violated, He would not bless the city, even though He had caused it to be rebuilt. Earlier, Nehemiah had put a stop to the practice of usury and the foreclosing on homes and fields on the part of the richer Jews. Now he forbade all work and business transactions on the Sabbath. Further, he ordered the outside traders to stay away from Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Finally, he corrected the illegal marriage alliances, in which Jews were giving their daughters to foreign men and receiving foreign wives for their sons.—Neh. 5:1-13; 13:2-27, 30.
Nehemiah’s work, carried out with the cooperation of Ezra the priest, was not in vain. Jehovah used these faithful men, but he himself was really the One who prospered and guarded the city, so that, despite all enemy efforts to destroy it, Jerusalem was still in existence some 400 years later, when the Messiah and his apostles walked the earth. Accordingly, Jerusalem was the city from which the start was made of offering the glorious opportunity of becoming a fellow heir of Christ to ‘the Jew first and also to the Greek.’—Rom. 2:10.