There are two “cities” in which men on earth may live. They must in fact live in one or the other.
—Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (1954)
By night and alone Nehemiah surveyed the broken walls of Jerusalem. He saw that his task was great. But he could encourage himself and the rest of his people with God’s remarkable providences. Nehemiah also had the emperor’s favor and support. He had the funding. The permits were signed. Now, finally, it was time to build.
Of course, there was the opposition. There had been since the first return. And there would be more. The enemies of Jerusalem would use lies, threats and military force to stall the reconstruction project. But at every point Nehemiah appealed to God and kept at the work. We’ve come to associate the image of sword and trowel with Nehemiah, because for a time the builders had to labor with their swords at their sides.
The civil necessities of a wall are obvious, or were for that age. Before gunpowder and aircraft, city walls effectively kept enemies out of a city. They protected life and property. They maintained political independence. They protected the culture within from disruption or destruction. It is clear from Nehemiah’s record that all these things were among his concerns. But Nehemiah had more in mind. He was building God’s holy city. And so, once the walls and gates were complete, Nehemiah arranged for a formal dedication ceremony.
Now at the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem they sought out the Levites in all their places, to bring them to Jerusalem to celebrate the dedication with gladness, both with thanksgivings and singing, with cymbals and stringed instruments and harps (Neh. 12:27, NKJV).
The priests and Levites purified themselves, the people, the gates and the wall (v. 30). Then Nehemiah “brought the leaders of Judah up on the wall, and appointed two large thanksgiving choirs” (v. 31, NKJV). There were trumpets and harps and cymbals. The choirs sang loudly and with great joy so that the celebration was heard afar off (vv. 42-43). In an odd expression Nehemiah says that these choirs were standing in “the house of God (v. 40). In other words, the whole city was now the house of God.
Sacred Walls Again
When God banished man from Paradise, He set cherubim and a flaming sword to guard the Eastern gate. Man was barred from the sanctuary… he lived outside its walls, as it were.
At Mt. Sinai God’s glory again descended to Earth and took up residence in the Holy of Holies of the new Tabernacle. Israel camped about the Tabernacle at some distance. The Levites camped immediately about it and guarded its precincts. Worshippers could come to the Tabernacle gate and worship at the altar. Priests ministered at the altar and in the Holy Place. And the high priest could enter the inner sanctuary once a year with atoning blood.
The same restrictions were played out in Solomon’s Temple. But the more elaborate architecture and adornments—the new Levitical choirs, the greater water basin, the stylized water-chariots, the multiplied lamps and tables, the greater size and glory — all pointed to a fuller revelation of God’s covenant mercies. And Solomon’s prayer of dedication underscored the same thought:
Moreover, concerning a foreigner, who is not of Your people Israel, but has come from a far country for Your name’s sake (for they will hear of Your great name and Your strong hand and Your outstretched arm), when he comes and prays toward this temple, hear in heaven Your dwelling place, and do according to all for which the foreigner calls to You, that all peoples of the earth may know Your name and fear You, as do Your people Israel . . . (1 Kings 8:41-43, NKJV).
Nehemiah’s walls were one more step in the revelation of God’s holiness and grace.
So they were more than just military protection. They were sacred barriers encompassing a holy people. They set apart Jerusalem as a holy city. They were part of the growing revelation of God’s saving grace. And, they bore witness to God’s eschatological end-game, the true Holy City, the New Jerusalem (Rev. 21).
The Walls Fall
Since the Fall, our sin and guilt have stood as a dark and horrible wall between us and God. From the beginning God promised that He would break through that wall in saving grace. But that promise was wrapped in types and shadows and dark sayings.
Plus, the promise itself was divisive. It raised barriers — more walls — between man and man. First, it separated mankind into those who believed the promise and those who didn’t. Second, on the level of externals, it separated Jew from Gentile, as God foreshadowed the great work He would do in history. The Jewish people became so comfortable with those secondary walls that they assumed they were eternal. They of course were wrong.
In the fullness of God’s time, Jesus the Son of God came into history to atone for man’s sin. By His death and resurrection He satisfied the justice of God and His wrath against sin. He became the Door and the Way by which man could return to God (John 10:7, 9; 14:6). He opened the gates of the Holy City to all who would believe. In the process He tore down the Temple veil, became Himself the sacrificial Lamb, and so broke down the wall between Jew and Gentile.
For he is our peace, who hath made both one, and hath broken down the middle wall of partition between us . . . . For through him we both have access by one Spirit unto the Father (Eph. 2:14, 18).
So Paul can write that in Christ, “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond norfree: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11). The New Jerusalem is catholic in the proper sense of the word.
The New Jerusalem
The New Jerusalem is that trans-temporal, international, eschatological community in which Paradise is and will be finally restored. It exists in history as the Church of Jesus Christ. When John sees the New Jerusalem at the close of Scripture, he sees great and high walls, denoting its separation from all that is wicked and defiled (21:12, 27; 22:14-15). Yet he also sees 12 gates positioned north, south, east and west, gates that always stand open for those who will come (21:13-26). Indeed, rivers of life flow out into all the world while the Spirit and the Bride call the lost to come (22:1, 17).
But there is still a wall. Not everyone will have a place in this heavenly community. “For without aredogs, and sorcerers, and whoremongers, and murderers, and idolaters, and whosoever loveth and maketh a lie” (22:15). Those who belong to the City have repented of their sins and trusted in the atoning blood of Jesus Christ. Those who are on the other side are enemies of God and of mankind. As history continues, that enmity will become progressively clearer. On the Day of Judgment, it will be crystal clear.
Walls separate. They divide those without from those within. They create an either/or division. City walls in the ancient world — like those of the New Jerusalem — made this division more than an issue of location or geography. The man who lived within the city walls belonged to the city. He belonged to its community. He shared in its fortunes. He benefited from its laws. He was defined by its religion. Those without were aliens and often enemies.
The ancient world had no solution to such religious barriers except military conquest or extermination. (The same may be said of groups like ISIS today.) The New Jerusalem, on the other hand, offers the Gospel of inner transformation as well as fellowship with God and man. In the end, every earthly community must choose one solution or the other. Every city-state, nation, or commonwealth must identify with God’s eternal City or with the self-destructive city of man. For now the gates of the holy City are open to all. But the gates will shut eventually.
Are you on the right side?
For Further Reading:
Numa Denis Fustel de Coulanges, The Ancient City (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1955).
Roderick Campbell, Israel and the New Covenant (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1954).
Augustine of Hippo, The City of God.