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Rebuilding the Walls of Jerusalem
CARL H. CORNILL
Extract from History of the People of Israel (Second Edition, 1899)


         In April, 444 B.C., we suddenly learn that the walls of Jerusalem are torn down and its gates burned with fire. Ezra had probably recognized that he must first of all be master in his own house before he could take any energetic measures. Jerusalem was an exposed and thinly populated city, defenceless against any sudden attack, open to any surprise. Relying, therefore, upon his royal authority, Ezra had proceeded to build city walls and fortify the place.

         The neighbors, suspicious and offended most deeply by the recent occurrences in Jerusalem, now publicly denounced this last proceeding to the Persian Government, attributing to Ezra's action a political motive.

         We must recall that Egypt had shortly before freed itself from Persian rule. True it had been again subjected, but not by any means pacified; there are still commotions in Egypt as late as 449 and 443 B.C. Accordingly the Persians were naturally very anxious regarding the neighboring countries, and therefore a command actually arrived from Artaxerxes to desist forthwith from the building of the wall. The enemies of the Jews translated this royal command into action and destroyed the work that had been begun. This probably happened in the year 445 B.C.

         But just at the moment when Ezra's cause seemed hopelessly lost there came to him unexpected assistance. A Babylonian Jew named Nehemiah had won the favor of King Artaxerxes and his wife, Damaspia, and had become royal cup-bearer. He heard of the depressing occurrences in Jerusalem and could not conceal his distress. The king, whom he was serving at the time, made sympathetic inquiries, and when Nehemiah was directed to ask a royal favor he applied for and received the position of governor in Jerusalem, which was evidently vacant at the time. The king gave him leave of absence for twelve years and actually appointed him Persian governor in Judea.

         Well provided with royal privileges and credentials, he sets out in order to assume his new office forthwith. Now the civil arm is at the disposal of the work of reform, and Nehemiah is the man to make use with all energy of the authority given him.

         In Nehemiah we have one of the most characteristic and attractive figures in the whole of Israelitish history. He owes his success above all things to the moral nobility of his personality. Entirely unselfish, inspired only by consecrated zeal for the cause, he has the power of carrying all along with him, of encouraging the timid and unenthusiastic by his own belief and confidence, and of lifting plodding and lukewarm souls out of and above themselves by his own idealism and enthusiasm. His is at the same time the soul and arm of the whole work, taking hold everywhere himself and leading. But he proceeds in this openly and honorably, scorning all petty means and evasions: friends and foes alike know where to find him. . . .What Ezra attempted, Nehemiah achieved; the establishment and consolidation of the Jewish community is essentially his work and his merit.

         The new governor had been but three days in Jerusalem when he undertook, with but a few companions, a night ride about the ruined walls in order to get, by the pale light of the moon, a complete survey of the damage. He had not proceeded far when his animal was checked by rubbish and ruins, and he was obliged to turn back.

         Now he called together the whole people and the priests and elders, painted for them in vivid words the shameful condition of Jerusalem, and presented to them the authority and the privileges which he had received from the king. They proceed to work forthwith and the task is apportioned in an extremely practical way. To each family was assigned a certain part of the wall, which it was to construct, and thus the whole wall rose from the ground at once.

         The whole time Nehemiah did not have his clothes off. Day and night he was on the ground, taking hold everywhere himself like the commonest laborer, supervising all and carrying great and small with him by his pattern and example.

         The enemies of the Jews, among whom Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite, and Geshem the Arabian are especially mentioned, behold with wrath and dismay what is going on in Jerusalem, and try in every way to hinder the work. When their ridicule and mockery prove of no avail they try to use force; but Nehemiah makes his arrangements so that the work need not be interrupted, and yet the whole force is at any moment ready for defence. Now the enemy try cunning; they undertake to lure Nehemiah away from the work under pretext of a conference; but Nehemiah, who immediately sees through the clumsy plan, answers with delicate irony that he unfortunately could not leave Jerusalem at the moment, being occupied with an important task which urgently demanded his personal presence.

         Then the enemy hit upon the plan of causing him difficulty in his own camp. There were certainly many who had but half a heart in the matter, and to whom any pretext for withdrawing in good order was welcome. And now Nehemiah's enemies hire the pitiful remnants of the prophetic class in Jerusalem, who actually sell themselves for money and work against Nehemiah by means of alleged prophetic oracles, and try to mislead and alienate the people; but Nehemiah overcomes these difficulties also.

         But now he is met by the most dangerous obstacle. By reason of the work upon the wall the common man has been deprived of the opportunity to follow his regular business; moreover the taxes have to be collected afterwards as before, and there seem to have been in addition crop failures and dearth. Thus the poor had become deeply in debt: they had been obliged to mortgage their fields, vineyards, and houses, and even in some cases sell their children into serfdom. Now they bring their complaints before the governor, who forthwith calls a general assembly and with all the pathos of virtuous indignation rebukes the rich usurers for their unfraternal behavior. By referring to his own unselfishness in resigning all the income that belonged to the office of governor in order not to oppress the people, but instead paying for everything out of his own pocket and besides keeping open table daily for a hundred and fifty persons, he brings such a moral pressure to bear upon the rich that they swear solemnly to cancel all their claims and return all property held in pledge.

         Now the work advances with giant strides: on the 25th of September, 444 B.C., after fifty-two days' labor, the wall was finished and the gates set in place. A solemn procession, which marched about with psalm-singing and music upon the top of the newly erected wall, expressed thanks to God for the success of the work and proclaimed to all the world its completion.

         Thus protected against interference from without, they now proceed to the greater and more important task which Ezra had been obliged to drop. For the very next week 1st of October, 444 B.C., the whole people is summoned to Jerusalem. From the midst of the assembly itself comes the proposal that Ezra shall read from the book of the law of Moses. Ezra mounts a pulpit already erected for this purpose; on either side of it stand seven of the most prominent men, and a number of Levites are on hand to explain to the people what Ezra has read. Again the people break out into loud weeping; but Ezra says they are not to weep, but sit down to a joyous meal and give a share to those who have brought nothing, for this day is a sacred jubilee for Israel.

 

Extract from "History of the People of Israel" (Second Edition, 1899)
by Carl H. Cornill
 

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