Walls and Gates, Part 1


#34 of a Series on Psalm 50 –  Walls and Gates   Part 1

“Do good in Your good pleasure to Zion;  [Re]build the walls of Jerusalem.”

As these final verses wind down David’s hopeful outlook after his repentance, he takes something of a left turn.  I remember maybe five decades ago when I first cracked open my New American bible[i] and read this psalm, I came across this footnote:

“These two verses were added to the psalm sometime after the destruction ff Jerusalem by the Babylonians.”

Now it would seem that the biblical scholars saw these verses as tacked onto David’s original hymn at a later date, after the exile of the Hebrews to Babylon and the fall of Jerusalem beginning in 597BC, when the walls of Jerusalem were literally torn down and their subsequent return in about 445BC as led by Nehemiah.

City Walls for Defense

We hear about the walls of Jerusalem in the founding of the city by David – in no small way was it that the site, previously a Canaan city, would be rebuilt with fortified walls, and become the ‘City of David’:

And the king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites, the inhabitants of the land, who said to David, “You will not come in here, but the blind and the lame will ward you off”—thinking, “David cannot come in here.” Nevertheless, David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David… And David built the city all around from the Millo inward. And David became greater and greater, for the Lord, the God of hosts, was with him.

2 Samuel 5:6–10

Now the walls of the ancient cities of civilized lands were the critical to their very existence.  In siege warfare, invading armies would be kept out of cities literally by the walls – the bigger and stronger, the better.  The gates of entry were few and very well defended.  Sentries were placed at key points on the walls to keep watch for invaders in the distance. When under siege, the defense of the walls and their strengthening of their ramparts was essential.  A small failure, somewhere, anywhere, providing access of the enemy to the city, was enough to bring it all tumbling down[ii].  In short, the walls were essential to the protection and survival of the city.

The walls[iii] symbolized Jerusalem’s integrity. When breached, the enemy’s presence meant that the locus of the heart of the Hebrew people’s integrity had been violated. The enemies overcoming the temple of the Lord were a great spiritual burden to the faith and hearts of the people. When enemies were approaching, the people in surrounding areas would flee to the city were supplies were stored for just such an occasion.  The entire populace surrounding the city depended on the strength and unity of the walls.

I mentioned that the walls have to have portals for entry and exit, and these were invariably weaker, and could be splintered by weapons like battering rams because of their wooden construction. These weak spots of the wall needed much more fortification when the siege came, and strength to push back the intruders when they came. To give the sentry assigned the watch help in his task, he often climbed a high point, called the watch tower enabling him to see farther over the horizon for signs of an approaching enemy – all the while, when the people working the surrounding land could be assured with a good watchman on the wall, that they would be safe, because if an enemy approached, the sound of the horn/alarm would summon all back to the city for its defense.  If the city collapsed and was overrun, the invading army could subjugate or completely slaughter the trapped residents.  The only other option was to flee to the hills[iv] during the ensuing chaos.

The history of Jerusalem and its strength is reflected in its walls, and the great leaders of the Hebrews were men who built, rebuilt and strengthened them. In addition to David, we hear of the work of Solomon and, Hezekiah.  The ‘rebuilding of the Walls’ of Jerusalem referred to in the psalm was realized in the time of Artaxerxes, when Nehemiah was charged to begin the restoration of the wall.

The Book of Ezra reports it this way,

“He extended mercy to us in the sight of the kings of Persia, to revive us, to repair the house of our God, to rebuild its ruins, and to give us a wall in Judah and Jerusalem” (Ezra 9:9)

Nehemiah only had a handful of men remaining in the area yet accomplished this work, which was deemed miraculous.  The Lord had begun the restoration of His people from exile and the walls were a visible sign of this renewal.  The Hebrew people would again become a ‘people’ with their own place and identity – both spiritually and politically. Herod the Great would do one more big project of wall-building in Jerusalem, finishing it just before it all came tumbling down in 70AD during the attack by the Romans. 

Except for Herod, the other Kings who did the work of shoring up the walls of Jerusalem displayed not only a civic zeal but a spiritual zeal as well.  The names above – David, Solomon, Hezekiah, Nehemiah, the Maccabees – are all regarded as heroes and saints. They were wise in their provision of the people practically as the direct outcome of their spiritual zeal or the Covenant which was the source of their Hebrew identity.  The preservation and restoration of the walls also allowed for the integrity of the Temple, which even Herod[v] sought to rebuild in his own strange way.

Ancient walls and buildings were often engineering marvels. One can see this in that so many are still standing – it’s almost impossible to get rid of them if you wanted to  – from the ancient Egyptian marvels like the pyramids, or the Babylonian ziggurats, or in our case the city of Jerusalem.  The destruction of Jerusalem was prophesied by Christ, to be so complete that ‘no stone will be left upon another’ (Mt. 24:1f)  While this was not true in its totality, as one can see in the fragment of the Wailing wall at the site of the Temple Mount, it is for all intents and purposes absolutely true.[vi] And the real ‘temple’ of which Jesus was speaking was that temple ‘not made by human hands’ which was fashioned in the body of Mary in the Incarnation.

While this reflection is not a study of ancient buildings (!) I thought it helpful to toss out some of these practical aspects to life in the ancient world, which are so different from our own.  As I write this, there are cities in Ukraine experiencing a similar siege – not from catapulted boulders and fiery darts, but high tech missiles and aerial bombardment.  Yet, the walls still can be effective in keeping an enemy out of the city especially if the number of entry points is limited.

But they have very rich, important meaning because of the use of the wall imagery not only in this psalm, but other psalms of David as well as the rest of both Old and New Testament scripture and Orthodox writings as well. Our appreciation of these walls, what it took to build them, the strength and protection that they engendered in the hearts and minds of the people were all important in understanding the spirit of the psalm as it has come to us. We’ll begin to explore that meaning in the next reflection.

[i] First edition, 1970.

[ii] I’ve always marveled at how, for centuries the city of Constantinople had incredible resilience to multiple attacks from all sides because of its walls.  The eventual fall of Constantinople after almost a millennium, finally fell to new weaponry – cannons not available to other intruders.

[iii] We intuitively understand how walls protect – but the language of siege warfare, flaming arrows, etc. we run into in the bible is foreign to us. 

[iv] This was notable in the prophecies of Jesus concerning the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans and the fate of the Jews he fled to Masada, but ultimately died there as well, preferring suicide to slaughter. https://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/biblical-archaeology-sites/the-masada-siege/  

[v] Here’s an interesting report on Herod’s work.  Note however that Herod’s ‘spirituality’ also included bring pagan practices into the temple area. https://www.biblestudy.org/bibleref/antiquities-of-jews/herod-rebuilds-temple.html

[vi] And a good warning against a biblical fundamentalism that insists that every absolute word must be literally so, or else it’s false. But’s also interesting to note that the article on the above footnote points to how the rocks were pried apart to recover gold that was melted from the burning of the temple, running in between the rocks themselves! But at the wailing wall a few stones remain.

Author: Fr Robert Holet - UOC of USA Office of Stewardship

A semi-retired Priest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA.

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