In my preparations for preaching on Jesus’ call to the fishermen to be his disciples, “Come, follow me…” (Mark 1:17), I discovered something really fascinating that gave me an idea. I won’t explicitly say what the discovery was at this point, suffice to say it took me to Nehemiah 3 and the construction of all ten Gates in Jerusalem’s city walls. Over the next ten weeks, I’d like to write about the spiritual significance of each of the Gates and apply them as the food of God’s word for our spiritual nourishment. You may want to develop these either in personal prayer and study, or in a Bible study with friends.
By way of historical context, Nehemiah is what is called a ‘post-exilic’ book. This means that after the Babylonians had captured and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC (2 Kings 25), and exiled most of the people for 70 years, Nehemiah’s story happens when the next generation of exiled Jews are set free, and their story is in the very last few years of the Old Testament.
Nehemiah is part of a greater whole of post-exilic books that include Ezra, and the prophets Haggai, Zechariah and Malachi.
We can set approximate dates like this, with a high degree of certainty: Zerubbabel returns to Jerusalem in 536 BC, Ezra in 458 BC, followed 12 years later by Nehemiah in 445 BC. Ezra is known as the Father of Pharisaism, and so his ministry re-established the Torah among the returning exiles with a renewed vigour. Nehemiah followed this by building the city walls and making Jerusalem an inhabitable place under the Covenant of God. Ezra rebuilt the Law, Nehemiah rebuilt the city, and in this way, God is rebuilding His people.
As we know, the walls of an ancient town or city were vital to survive attack from invaders. Jerusalem’s walls were all destroyed by the Babylonians, and now the people returning were both happy yet fearful. They were vulnerable and in fact did resist mocking and violence from their enemies.
The Gate of a town or city is also important. It’s where the leaders met to discuss governance and make their deals or bring their requests, etc, in public, at the point of entry or exit. When the walls are broken, people can come and go as they please without using the established Gates, without using the culturally appropriate way to conduct oneself in public life (imagine people willy-nilly coming and going into a courtroom as it was in session, with people who have no business being there). This causes confusion and mayhem. Each person taking it upon himself to do what they want, without recourse to the well known ways of the Gate. They are the place where truth and justice are seen to be done. The Book of Proverbs speaks often about the importance of the Gate (Prov. 8:3, 22:22, etc).
Gates are where you put watchmen, who ‘stand in the gap’. In the church, this is the role of the one who prays: Standing in the gap for and on behalf of the inhabitants of the city. The gate is guarded to protect from attack; the Gate where the recognised leaders and elders of the city take their elected place to lead. When the walls are broken, the city leaders are undermined and as the Song of Songs poetically puts it, “Foxes enter the vineyard” (2:15-17). Foxes are those who should not be there, by design or decree. This is precisely what Jesus meant when he referred to Herod as “that fox” (Luke 13:32). It is in the context of this passage that Jesus goes on to describe himself as a hen gathering in her chicks under her wing. Foxes do not belong in the Henhouse of God’s people!
Ezra and Nehemiah, along with the mighty prophetic voices with them, are fighting with all their strength to ensure that God’s people will live in safety when and only when they follow the ways and decrees and laws of God himself.
I plan to explore the spiritual significance of each of the Ten Gates. The first one named in Nehemiah 3 is the Sheep Gate,and I’ll come to this in th next post.