Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 3:1-32, Romans 12:3-8, Psalm 8:1
Summer 2017 was a doozy for hurricanes. We could hardly flip on the television or open Twitter without seeing brutal images of destruction, people desperate for power and food, and endless press conferences from emergency officials. In Houston and Florida and Puerto Rico—the storms came in vicious waves.
When the storms stopped, aid rushed in from all corners. The money came from donors big and small, celebrities and ordinary people alike. Houston Texans defensive end JJ Watt raised millions of dollars for recovery in Houston. Celebrity chef José Andrés and his non-profit cooked more than three million meals for people without power in Puerto Rico. Alongside many of his famous friends, Lin-Manuel Miranda—creator and star of the Broadway musical Hamilton—recorded a song for Puerto Rico and dedicated the profits to relief efforts.
Houston and Puerto Rico are still recovering, and it will take decades to rebuild them both. I don’t want to assume the efforts of these varied groups of people allow us to tie these devastating events up with a pretty bow, or draw moralistic and clichéd conclusions about how disasters bring people together. These aren’t joyful barn raisings; they are the direct result of tragedy.
We see the same in the book of Nehemiah. Jerusalem was burned and pillaged by the Babylonians. God’s people had repeatedly turned away from Him, and they were displaced, their homes destroyed. But when the time came to return and rebuild, a diverse group of people banded together to do the work.
In Nehemiah 3, the author records at least 43 distinct groups or named persons who rebuilt the gates and the walls around Jerusalem. They were all types of people: the high priest Eliashib (v.1); the Tekoites (v.5); the daughters of Shallum, who was the son of the ruler of half of Jerusalem (v.12); Hashabiah, who was the ruler of his own district (v.17); temple servants (v.26); goldsmiths and merchants (v.31).
They were rulers and servants, men and women, tradesmen and priests. The work knew no distinction between rich and poor, the same way the tragedy of the exile touched every person in Israel and Judah. Tragedies flatten. They knock down walls and homes indiscriminately, across class, race, gender, and age. And when it comes time to rebuild, the work falls on everyone as well.
Nehemiah 3 is a story, not just a list of who did what while rebuilding the gates. It’s a story of a broken people finding their way home again, and then laying aside titles, traditional roles, and expectations to build the walls around their city. Not unlike the body of Christ the apostle Paul describes in Romans 12, those who rebuilt Jerusalem’s walls worked as one body with many parts (v.4).
And while Nehemiah 3 isn’t really our story, one of the beautiful gifts of the gospel is that it is for everyone. We are all flattened by sin, by the tragedy of the fall. But rather than each of us doing the hard, back-breaking work of redeeming and rebuilding our own hearts, our story has a different ending. No matter how hard we work, whether individually or together, we cannot fix sin. Instead, we all have to rely on the power and work of one person alone: Jesus Christ.
Thanks be to God!
Melanie Rainer is a bookworm from birth who makes her days writing, editing and reading in Nashville, where she also joyfully serves as the editor of Kids Read Truth. She has an M.A. in Theological Studies from Covenant Seminary, spends as much time as she can in the kitchen, and can’t wait until her two daughters are old enough to read Anne of Green Gables.