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Nehemiah iii.

The Book of Nehemiah is our principal authority for the ancient topography of Jerusalem. But, as we have been already reminded, the sieges from which the city has suffered, and the repeated destruction of its walls and buildings, have obliterated many of the old landmarks beyond recovery. In some places the ground is now found to be raised sixty feet above the original surface; and in one spot it was even necessary to dig down a hundred and twenty feet to reach the level of the old pavement. It is therefore not at all wonderful that the attempt to identify the sites here named should have occasioned not a little perplexity. Still the explorations of underground Jerusalem have brought some important facts to light, and others can be fairly divined from a consideration of the historical record in the light of the more general features of the country, which no wars or works of man can alter.

The first, because the most obvious, thing to be noted in considering the site of Jerusalem is its mountainous character. Jerusalem is a mountain city, as high as a Dartmoor tor, some two thousand feet above the Mediterranean, with a drop of nearly four thousand feet on the farther side, beyond the Mount of Olives,224 towards the deep pit where the Dead Sea steams in tropical heat. Looked at from the wilderness, through a gap in the hills round Bethlehem, she soars above us, with her white domes and towers clean-cut against the burning sky, like a city of clouds. In spite of the blazing southern sunshine, the air bites keenly on that fine altitude. It would be only reasonable to suppose that the vigour of the highlanders who dwelt in Jerusalem was braced by the very atmosphere of their home. And yet we have had to trace every impulse of zeal and energy after the restoration to the relaxing plains of the Euphrates and the Tigris! In all history the moral element counts for more than the material. Race is more than habitat; and religion is more than race.

Closely associated with this mountainous character of Jerusalem is a second feature. It is clear that the site for the city was chosen because of its singularly valuable ready-made defences. Jerusalem is a natural fortress. Protected on three sides by deep ravines, it would seem that she could be easily made impregnable. How awful, then, is the irony of her destiny! This city, so rarely favoured by nature for security against attack, has been more often assaulted and captured, and has suffered more of the horrors of war, than any other spot on earth.

The next fact to be noticed is the small size of Jerusalem. The dimensions of the city have varied in different ages. Under the Herods the buildings extended far beyond the ancient limits, and villas were dotted about on the outlying hills. But in Nehemiah's day the city was confined within a surprisingly contracted area. The discovery of the "Siloam inscription," leading to the identification of the gorge known to the225 Romans as the Tyropœon with the ancient "Valley of Hinnom" or "Tophet," cuts off the whole of the modern Zion from the site of the ancient city, and points to the conclusion that the old Zion must have been nearer Moriah, and all Jerusalem crowded in the little space to the east of the chasm which was once thought to have run up through the middle of the city. No doubt the streets were narrow; the houses may have been high. Still the population was but slender, for after the walls had been built Nehemiah found the space he had enclosed too large for the inhabitants.173173   Neh. xi. 1. But our interest in Jerusalem is in no way determined by her size, or by the number of her citizens. A little town in a remote province, she was politically insignificant enough when viewed from the standpoint of Babylon, and in comparison with the many rich and populous cities of the vast Persian dominions. It is the more remarkable, then, that successive Persian sovereigns should have bestowed rare favours on her. From the day when Solomon built his temple, the unique glory of this city had begun to appear. Josiah's reformation in concentrating the national worship at Jerusalem advanced her peculiar privileges, which the rebuilding of the temple before the restoration of the city further promoted. Jerusalem is the religious metropolis of the world. To be first in religious honour it was not necessary that she should be spacious or populous. Size and numbers count for very little in religion. Its valuation is qualitative, not quantitative. Even the extent of its influence, even the size and mass of this, depends mainly on its character. Moreover, in Jerusalem, as a rule, the really effective religious life226 was confined to a small group of the "pious"; sometimes it was gathered up in a single individual—a Jeremiah, an Ezra, a Nehemiah. This is a fact replete with encouragement for faith. It is an instance of the way in which God chooses the weak things—weak as to this world—to confound the strong. If a small city could once take the unique position held by Jerusalem, then why should not a small Church now? And if a little knot of earnest men within the city could be the nucleus of her character and the source of her influence, why should not quite a small group of earnest people give a character to their Church, and, through the Church, work wonders in the world, as the grain of mustard seed could move a mountain? The secret of the miracle is, like the secret of nature, that God is in the city and the Church, as God is in the seed. When once we have discovered this truth as a certain fact of life and history, our estimate of the relative greatness of things is revolutionised. The map and the census then cease to answer our most pressing questions. The excellence we look for must be spiritual—vigour of faith, self-abnegation of love, passion of zeal.

As we follow Nehemiah round the circuit of the walls the more special features of the city are brought under our notice. He begins with the "Sheep Gate," which was evidently near the temple, and the construction of which was undertaken by the priests as the first piece of work in the great enterprise. The name of this gate agrees well with its situation. Opening on the Valley of the Kidron, and facing the Mount of Olives and the lonely pass over the hills towards Jericho, it would be the gate through which shepherds would bring in their flocks from the wide pasturage of the wilderness. Possibly there was a market at the open space just227 inside. The vicinity of the temple would make it easy to bring up the victims for the sacrifices by this way. As the Passover season approached, the whole neighbourhood would be alive with the bleating of thousands of lambs. Rich associations would thus cluster round the name of this gate. It would be suggestive of the pastoral life so much pursued by the men of Judah, whose favourite king had been a shepherd lad; and it would call up deeper thoughts of the mystery of sacrifice and the joy of the Paschal redemption of Israel. To us Christians the situation of the "Sheep Gate" has a far more touching significance. It seems to have stood near where the "St. Stephen's Gate" now stands; here, then, would be the way most used by our Lord in coming to and fro between Jerusalem and Bethany, the way by which He went out to Gethsemane on the last night, and probably the way by which He was brought back "as a sheep" among her shearers, "as a lamb" led to the slaughter.

Going round from this spot northwards, we have the part of the wall built by the men of Jericho, which would still look east, towards their own city, so that they would always see their work when they got their first glimpse of Jerusalem as they passed over the ridge of the Mount of Olives on their pilgrimages up to the feasts. The task of the men of Jericho ended at one of the northern gates, the construction of which, together with the fitting of its ponderous bolts and bars, was considered enough for another group of builders. This was called the "Fish Gate." Since it faced north, it would scarcely have been used by the traders who came up from the sea fisheries in the Mediterranean; it must have received the fish supply from the Jordan, and perhaps from as far as the Sea of Galilee. Still its228 name suggests a wider range of commerce than the "Sheep Gate," which let in flocks chiefly from neighbouring hills. Jerusalem was in a singularly isolated spot for the capital of a country, one chosen expressly on account of its inaccessibility—the very opposite requisite from that of most capitals, which are planted by navigable rivers. Nevertheless she maintained communication, both political and commercial, with distant towns all along the ages of her chequered history.

After passing the work of one or two Jewish families and that of the Tekoites, memorable for the painful fact of the abstention of the nobles, we come to the "Old Gate." That a gate should bear such a name would lead us to think that once gates had not been so numerous as they were at this time. Yet most probably the "Old Gate" was really new, because very little of the original city remained above ground. But men love to perpetuate memories of the past. Even what is new in fact may acquire a flavour of age by the force of association. The wise reformer will follow the example of Nehemiah in linking the new on to the old, and preserving the venerable associations of antiquity wherever these do not hinder present efficiency.

Next we come to the work of men from the northern Benjamite towns of Gibeon and Mizpah,174174   Neh. iii. 7. whose volunteer service was a mark of their own brotherly spirit. It should be remembered, however, that Jerusalem originally belonged to the tribe of Benjamin. Working at the northern wall, in accordance with the rule observed throughout that all the Jews from outlying places should build in the direction of their own cities, these Benjamites carried it on as far as the districts of the229 goldsmiths and apothecaries,175175   Neh. iii. 8. whose principal bazaars seem to have occupied the north quarter of the city—the quarter most suitable for trade, because first reached by most travellers. There, however—if we are to accept the generally received emendation of the text mentioned in the margin of the Revised Version—they found a bit of wall that had escaped destruction, and also probably the "Ephraim Gate," which is not named here, although it existed in the days of Nehemiah.176176   Neh. viii. 16. Inasmuch as the invasions had come from the north, and the recent Samaritan raid had also proceeded from the same quarter, it seems likely that the city had been taken on this side. If so, the enemy, after having got in through a gate which they had burnt, or through a breach in the wall, did not think it necessary to waste time in the heavy labour of tearing down the wall in their rear. Perhaps as this was the most exposed quarter, the wall was most solid here—it was known as "the broad wall." The wealthy goldsmiths would have been anxious that their bazaars should not be the first parts of the city to entertain a marauding host through any weakness in the defences. The next bit of wall was in the hands of a man of some importance, known as "the ruler of half the district of Jerusalem";177177   Neh. iii. 9. i.e., he had the management of half the land belonging to the city—either a sort of police supervision of private estates, or the direct control of land owned by the municipality, and possibly farmed for the time being on communal principles.

Still following the northern wall, we pass the work of several Jerusalem families, and so on to the potteries, as we may infer from the remark about "the tower230 of the furnaces."178178   Neh. iii. 11. Here we must be at the "Corner Gate,"179179   2 Chron. xxvi. 9; Jer. xxxi. 38. which, however, is not now named; "the tower of the furnaces" may have been part of its fortifications. Evidently this was an important position. The manager of the second half of the city estates and the villages on them—known as "his daughters"—had the charge of the work here. It was four hundred cubits from the "Ephraim Gate" to the corner.180180   2 Kings xiv. 13. At this point the long north wall ends, and the fortifications take a sharp turn southwards. Following the new direction, we pass by the course of the Valley of Hinnom, leaving it on our right. The next gate we meet is named after this ravine of evil omen the "Valley Gate." It would be here that the poor children, victims to the savage Moloch worship, had been led out to their fate. The name of the gate would be a perpetual reminder of the darkest passage in the old city's history of sin and shame. The gate would face west, and, in accordance with the arrangement throughout, the inhabitants of Zanoah, a town lying out from Jerusalem ten miles in that direction, undertook the erection of it. They also had charge of a thousand cubits of wall—an exceptionally long piece; but the gates were fewer on this side, and here possibly the steepness of the cliff rendered a slighter wall sufficient.

This long, unbroken stretch of wall ends at the "Dung Gate," through which the refuse of the city was flung out to the now degraded valley which once had been so famous for its pleasure gardens. Sanitary regulations are of course most necessary. We admire the minuteness with which they are attended to in the Pentateuch,231 and we regard the filthy condition of modern eastern cities as a sign of neglect and decay. Still the adornment of a grand gateway by the temple, or the solid building of a noble approach to the city along the main route from the north, would be a more popular undertaking than this construction of a "Dung Gate." It is to the credit of Nehemiah's admirable skill in organisation that no difficulty was found in filling up the less attractive parts of his programme, and it is even more to the credit of those who accepted the allotment of them that, as far as we know, they made no complaint. A common zeal for the public good overcame personal prejudices. The just and firm application of a universal rule is a great preventative of complaints in such a case. When the several bands of workers were to undertake the districts opposite their own houses if they were inhabitants of the city, or opposite their own towns if they were provincial Jews, it would be difficult for any of them to frame a complaint. The builders of the "Dung Gate" came, it would seem, from the most conspicuous eminence in the wilderness of Southern Judæa—that now known as the "Frank Mountain." The people who would take to such an out-of-the-world place of abode would hardly be such as we should look to for work requiring fineness of finish. Perhaps they were more suited to the unpretentious task which fell to their lot. Still this consideration does not detract from the credit of their good-natured acquiescence, for self-seeking people are the last to admit that they are not fit for the best places.

The next gate was in a very interesting position at the south-west corner, where the Tyropœon runs down to the Valley of the Kidron. It was called the "Fountain Gate," perhaps after the one natural spring232 which Jerusalem possesses—that now known as the "Virgin's Fountain," and near to the Pool of Siloam, where the precious water from this spring was stored. The very name of the gate would call up thoughts of the value of its site in times of siege, when the fountain had to be "sealed" or covered over, to save it from being tampered with by the enemy. Close by is a flight of steps, still extant, that formerly led down to the king's garden. We are now near to Zion, in what was once the favourite and most aristocratic portion of the town. The lowering of the top of Zion in the time of the Maccabees, that it might not overlook the temple on Mount Moriah, and the filling up of the ravines, considerably detract from the once imposing height of this quarter of the city. Here ancient Jerusalem had looked superb—like an eagle perched on a rock. With such a fortress as Zion her short-sighted citizens had thought her impregnable; but Nehemiah's contemporaries were humbler and wiser men than the infatuated Jews who had rejected the warnings of Jeremiah.

The adjoining piece of wall brings us round to the tombs of the kings, which, according to the custom of antiquity, as we learn from a cuneiform inscription at Babylon, were within the city walls, although the tombs of less important people were outside—just as to this day we bury our illustrious dead in the heart of the metropolis. Nehemiah had been moved at the first report of the ruin of Jerusalem by the thought that his fathers' sepulchres were there.

From this spot it is not so easy to trace the remainder of the wall. The mention of the Levites has given rise to the opinion that Nehemiah now takes us at once to the temple again; but this is hardly possible in view233 of his subsequent statements. We must first work round by Ophel, the "Water", the "East," and the "Horse" Gates—all of them apparently leading out towards the Valley of the Kidron. Levites and Priests, whose quarters we are gradually approaching, and other inhabitants of houses in this district, together with people from the Jordan Valley and the east country, carried out this last piece of work as far as a great tower standing out between Ophel and the corner of the temple wall, a tower so massive that some of its masonry can be seen still standing. But the narrative is here so obscure, and the sites have been so altered by the ravages of war and time, that the identification of most of them in this direction baffles inquiry.

"Mark ye well her bulwarks." Alas! they are buried in a desolation so huge that the utmost skill of engineering science fails to trace their course. The latest great discovery, which has simply revolutionised the map by identifying the Tyropœon with the Old Testament "Valley of Hinnom" or "Tophet," is the most striking sign of these topographical difficulties. The valley itself has been filled up with masses of rubbish, the sight of which to-day confirms the dreadful tragedy of the history of Jerusalem, the most tragic history on record. No city was ever more favoured by Heaven, and no city was ever more afflicted. Hers were the most magnificent endowments, the highest ideals, the fairest promises; hers too was the most miserable failure. Her beauty ravaged, her sanctity defiled, her light extinguished, her joy turned into bitterness, Heaven's bride has been treated as the scum of the streets. And now, after being abused by her own children, shattered by the Babylonian, outraged by the Syrian, demolished by the Roman, the city which234 stoned her prophets and clamoured successfully for the death of her Saviour has again revived in poverty and misery—the pale ghost of her past, still the victim of the oppressor. The witchery of this wonderful city fascinates us to-day, and the very syllables of her name "Jerusalem" sound strangely sweet and ineffably sad—

"Most musical, most melancholy."

It was fitting that the tenderest, most mournful lament ever uttered should have been called forth by our Lord's contemplation of such a city—a city which, deeming herself destined to be the joy of all the earth, became the plague-spot of history.

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