We covered Esther in two weeks and Ezra in two weeks, like we were in a hurry. But we’re going to slow down and spend the next several weeks in Nehemiah. Let’s dive right in with an introduction to Nehemiah, who he is and what he’s doing.
II. Background History
The Jewish people had sinned and God had judged them; it was approximately 605 years before Christ. God used Nebuchadnezzar II, King of Babylon, to invade Judah and lay siege to Jerusalem. In 597 BC, the prophet Ezekiel (who we studied just 2 months ago), documented the pillaging of Jerusalem and the deportation of Jews to Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar installed Zedekiah as the tributary king of Judah. However, despite Ezekiel’s warning, Zedekiah entered into an alliance with Pharoah Hophra of Egypt. Nebuchadnezzar II responded by sacking Jerusalem a second time in 587 BC and destroying Solomon’s temple. The Jewish king Zedekiah was forced to watch his two sons executed, then the king’s eyes were put out and the king was imprisoned until his death. The remaining healthy Jews still in the city were taken to Babylon, leaving behind only the weak, the poor, the sick. The city of Jerusalem was raised to the ground.
Thus began the Diaspora of the Jews which continues to this day. The Diaspora refers to Jews that live outside of the Kingdom of Judah. Today, about 44% of the world’s Jewish population lives in Israel, the rest are the Diaspora, Jews scattered mostly in the US and Western European countries.
The Jewish people lived as servants in Babylon, and many, like Daniel, Mordecai and Esther, and Nehemiah proved themselves trustworthy and faithful. They understood the exile as a consequence for their sins.
Fifty years go by, and the king of Babylon is now Cyrus the great. In 538 BC, Cyrus’s Declaration was issued which permitted Jews to return to the land of Israel. Then began the return to Zion, called Aliyah by the Jews, which continues to this day.
In Nehemiah’s time, there were 4 waves of Aliyah, returning to Zion, after Cyrus’s Declaration. The prophet Ezra tell us the first Aliyah was small, approximately 1000 young Jews led by Sheshbazzar to rebuild the holy temple on the temple mount in 538 BC. The second Aliyah was larger, later that same year, and led by Zerubbabel, and totaled nearly 50,000 people.
A third Aliyah was led by Ezra himself when Ezra was an old man, years later in 458 BC, and 5000 additional Jews returned to Zion. Ezra strengthened religious laws and the use of the Hebrew alphabet which was critical to the identity of the Jewish people as separate and holy.
The book of Nehemiah chronicles the life of Nehemiah and the fourth wave of Aliyah. In the book of Nehemiah, chapter 1, Nehemiah identifies a mission, a service to the Lord, and we can learn much about how he learns of his mission, how he prepares for his mission, and how he executes his mission. Let’s look at Chapter 1, and I love the way this book begins. It identifies Nehemiah’s mission and right away how he approaches God.
The words of Nehemiah son of Hakaliah:
In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that had survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”
When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said:
“Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
“Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’
“They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
I was cupbearer to the king.
Nehemiah learns that the place of his ancestors is in poor condition and in need of help, and it moves Nehemiah to tears. Nehemiah cried and fasted and prayed to God, and his prayer is a study on how to pray. There is praise and worship, there is confession, there is adoration and supplication and application of scripture. Nehemiah was a man of prayer which is also why I believe he was also a man of action. God was with Nehemiah because Nehemiah was constantly with God. Nehemiah did not act without praying first, and did not pray without acting.
Nehemiah is the king’s cupbearer, a position of no small importance. Wine presented to the king would first pass through Nehemiah, who would taste the wine for signs of poison. Nehemiah, as cupbearer, would be in nearly constant presence of the king, and so would also be an unofficial advisor with the king’s ear.
Months go by without an answer from God. Chapter 1 says Nehemiah starts praying in the month of Kislev. He prays throughout the month of Tevet, the month of Shvat, the month of Adar, the month of Nisan. And in the month of Nisan, Nehemiah is in the presence of King Artaxerxes, looking sad. The king must have been very familiar with Nehemiah’s presence, notices Nehemiah’s sad face and asks why. Nehemiah explains that he is sad because the city of Jerusalem is in ruins. Chapter 2, verse 4, the king said, “What is it you want?”
And again Nehemiah shows us why he is such a man of God. He’s been praying for 4 straight months, but when he is finally in the right place, right time, in front of the king, verse 4 says Nehemiah first prayed to the God of heaven, and then answered the king. We don’t know the content of this prayer, but by necessity it had to be a short prayer. Maybe it was “Lord have mercy” or “Thank you O Lord” or “Lord be with me” or “Your will be done, O Lord.” It shows that Nehemiah knows this meeting with the king is the answer to his prayer in Chapter 1, and Nehemiah is going to go to the Lord before he says or does anything.
III. Power of Prayer and Patience
Prayer is powerful, and I confess I do not fully understand why. I am a flawed man, full of sin and selfish pride. God’s judgment and wrath rightfully belongs on me for my sin, but instead, God has extended His grace to me, given me mercy by sacrificing His own son for me. It is only because of the blood of Jesus that I can approach God and His holiness at all, and when I do approach God, God listens to me. He cares for me. He loves me. And He loves it that I pray to Him. I have nothing to offer God except me, and I only exist because God willed it. And yet, God loves prayer. Proverbs 15:29 says,
“The Lord is far from the wicked, but He hears the prayer of the righteous.”
And James 5:13-16 says,
Is anyone among you in trouble? Let them pray. Is anyone happy? Let them sing songs of praise. Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven. Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.
We are only righteous because of our faith and obedience to Christ Jesus, not of our own doing. But it pleases the Lord to answer the prayers of the righteous.
Nehemiah prayed for months. Sometimes he prayed aloud, other times he prayed silently. Nehemiah prayed patiently for 4 months.
How long is patience? Is being patient waiting for 4 months? While 4 months is a long time, you and I may have prayers that last longer than that. I know I do, and I have unanswered prayers that go on for years. How long is patience? I think it’s always 1 more month. Or 1 more year. Or 1 more whatever. Just keep praying.
God always answers prayer. Sometimes the answer is “no” or maybe the answer is “not yet,” and it’s not the answer we were looking for. But we go to God in prayer, in faith that the Creator God of the Universe can answer it.
That’s how Nehemiah prayed. And the Lord God moved the heart of King Artaxerxes to provide all the materials necessary for Nehemiah to rebuild Jerusalem. But not all were pleased to see the Lord answering prayers; Nehemiah 2:10 says,
“When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.”
Even when the Lord is answering prayer, obstacles may still exist. Often those obstacles are people, naysayers, they tell you it cannot be done or that it’s not worth doing. Or that your God is a little god and isn’t really on your side.
But our God is an all-consuming fire. We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us. And when God is for us, who can be against it? Nehemiah led the fourth Aliyah to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls, knowing God was answering prayers.
IV. Twelve Gates of Jerusalem
Let’s take some time out to examine the work before Nehemiah. He’s rebuilding the city walls for two reasons. One is to protect the small Jewish community that returned to Jerusalem from attack; the walls had collapsed or been torn down, leaving little or no defense. The other reason is to bring glory to God; this was city of the temple of the Lord.
You might think Nehemiah chapter 3 looks boring with its list of gates and builders. And if you read Nehemiah 3 by itself, I might agree with you. I’d rather watch old reruns of “home Improvement” with Tim Allen that read this old boring list of people building gates. But you may have heard that every word of the bible is important, so let’s dig a little further and see if twelve gates of Jerusalem are described anywhere else in the bible. If we read all the way to the end of the bible, we find the twelve gates of Jerusalem are described in Revelation 21.
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
The twelve gates of the New Jerusalem have their origins in the twelve gates of the Old City of Jerusalem, and suddenly we realize that we’re not just studying Nehemiah restoring Jerusalem, but it is also a prophetic picture of God restoring His church, the spiritual City of God. Revelation goes on to describe each door as a single pearl, but we also know that Jesus is the pearl of great price.
Revelation is written with some amazing imagery and symbolism, and the one of the keys to understanding Revelation is to understand the Old Testament picture first. Each gate had specific meaning to Jews in their daily life, and each gate has a spiritual meaning for Christians.
The Sheep Gate, rebuilt by Eliashab the high priest. The Sheep gate led to the sheep markets where lambs were sold for sacrifice in the Temple. The gate also led to Golgotha, the path Jesus walked to His crucifixion. For Christians, the Sheep Gate is the first gate into our lives, where we accept Jesus as the perfect Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Jesus is the door by which everyone must enter to be saved. And if we read all the way to the end of Nehemiah 3, the last gate mentioned is the Sheep Gate. We’ve come full circle around the walls of Jerusalem, and realize that everything starts and ends with Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus is our high priest that restores our relationship with the Lord.
It’s interesting to me that when Eliashab rebuilt the Sheep Gate, Nehemiah 3 says they “dedicated it and set its doors in place.” Every other door we’re going to study says they rebuilt their gate and set the doors and bolts and bars in place. The Sheep Gate has no locks on it. The sacrifice of Jesus is always open to every sinner, and access to the other gates is impossible without first accepting Jesus.
Also, look how much work Eliashab did rebuilding the Sheep Gate. They went as far as the Tower of the Me’ah or the Tower of the One Hundred and to the Tower of Hananel which means “God’s mercy.” Remember when Jesus said if a shepherd loses a sheep, he’ll leave the other 99 and go look for it? Between the Tower of God’s Mercy and Jesus looking for His lost sheep, God is calling to us. And we’re 3 verses into this list of gates and builders and we realize there is great meaning in this list of gates and builders. The Sheep Gate is the Gate of Salvation.
Next to the Sheep Gate is the Fish Gate where merchants brought fish to the fish market. Jesus told Peter, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.” After receiving the Lamb of God through the Sheep Gate, God begins to use us to reach other unbelievers. The Fish Gate represents the Gate of Witnessing, of spreading the message. And if you look at verse 5, the fish gate was “repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work. “ Jesus didn’t come to spread the good news to the rich, but was born in a manger, among the common people. During the ministry of Jesus, He gave us many warnings how wealth can hinder our walk with Him. Whether rich or poor, the message is for everybody.
The third gate is the Jeshanah Gate which means the Old Gate. This is where elders of the city would meet to discuss important matters and issue judgments on disputes. God’s truth never changes, it’s as old as time itself. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And the wisdom of our elders should be respected. Let’s call this gate a Gate of Foundation. I started thinking of it as the Gate of the Old Testament.
The Valley Gate led out to two main valleys that divided Jerusalem. To the west was the Hinnom Valley. The Ammonites had built an altar here to Molek and sacrificed children by fire. Josiah rendered the valley ceremonially unclean by spreading human bones over it in 2 Kings 23. The name itself “Ge Hinnom” is also used for hell itself, the Lake of Fire. The other valley is Kidron that Jesus crossed to go to the Garden of Gethsemane. In 1st and 2nd Kings, this valley was used to burn pagan altars and images during the cleansings of Jerusalem. The Valley Gate is a Gate of Suffering for Spiritual Growth, as Jesus showed us the night before his crucifixion. But though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me. Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.
The Dung Gate. Yuck. The garbage of the city was taken out of this gate. Notice it also leads to the unclean Hinnom valley. It represents the sin in our lives. But the blood of Jesus cleanses us of all sin if we just accept Him. Then we can place all of our sin and shame at the feet of Jesus, whose blood cleanses us of all sin.
The Fountain Gate, primary access to the Gihon Spring, the sole source of water to Jerusalem. All of the fountains like the Pool of Shiloah were fed from this spring. What do you think this represents to us? Jesus is the Fountain of Living Water. If anyone is thirsty, let them come to Him and drink.
The Water Gate is the 7th gate, and 7 is the Bible number for perfection. This gate needed no repair. The water symbolizes the washing by the Holy Spirit. Later, in Nehemiah 8, Ezra will stand in front of the Water Gate and read from the Book of the Law to the people.
The Horse Gate, where the King’s chariot passed through. In the bible, the horse represents both discipline (James 3:3) and warfare (Zechariah 10:3). Make no mistake, we are in a spiritual battle, for which we must put on the full Armor of God.
The East Gate is also called the Golden or Beautiful Gate and it symbolizes the return of our Messiah and waiting on the Lord. In Zechariah 14:4 it says, “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south.” The week before His crucifixion, Jesus spent each night on the Mount of Olives . Each morning he would enter through the East Gate. He later ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives and will return the same way He left. At that time He will again pass through the East Gate into the city of Jerusalem.
The Miphkad Gate. Miphkad apparently is a difficult word to translate, it means meeting place, muster point, appointment, numbering in a census, or inspection. Appointed Place or Inspection seems the best translation, and this is the final gate before the entrance to the Temple. It is the place where God calls his people together at the final judgment.
The other two gates are mentioned later in Nehemiah. The Ephraim Gate is described in Nehemiah 12 and was associated with the Feast of Tabernacles which is God’s feast for the harvest of the last days. It means “Doubly Fruitful” and could refer to “Jew and Gentile” or “Earthly and Heavenly”.
Prison Gate, in Act 12 Peter is led by an angel through this gate. All wickedness will be judged, and only those who have accepted Christ Jesus as their advocate escape punishment.
The order of the twelve gates represents our spiritual growth. We begin at the Sheep Gate by the forgiveness of our sins by the sacrifice of our Savior. We become fishers of men at the Fish Gate and tell everybody about the Christ Jesus. The Old Gate is our foundation of our faith, the Valley Gate is our purification. The Dung gate is the rejection of our old life and sinful ways. The Fountain Gate as we drink from the Living Water of Christ Jesus, the washing of our sins by the Holy Spirit at the Water Gate. We put on the full Armor of God at the Horse gate to stand ready to fight the spiritual battles. We await the return of our Messiah at the East Gate. The final Miphkad Gate is a gathering of God’s people at the final judgment for eternal life, paid for by the blood of Jesus at the Sheep Gate.
The diaspora of God’s people. We have been separated from God by our sins. The Aliyah of God’s people. We return to the Lord, our sins paid for by the blood of the Christ. We are patient and prayerful until His final return, we gather for an eternity with Him inside the Twelve Gates of the New Jerusalem.
Revelation 21 again, verse 1:
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
When will this day come, the day of our resurrection and dwelling in New Jerusalem forever? We must continue to pray and be patient, for however long “patient” lasts. The day will come when I will stand with you, my brothers and sisters, inside the walls of the New Jerusalem and sing the praises of Christ our Savior.
To God be the glory.