Sheep gate 2: The Road to Christ. A New perspective on the meaning of the gates in Nehemiah (Nehemiah 12, John 11).
Sheep gate 2: The Road to Christ. A new perspective on the meaning of the gates in Nehemiah (Nehemiah 12, John 10).
27 At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres. …… 30 When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.
31 I had the leaders of Judah go up on top of the wall. I also assigned two large choirs to give thanks. One was to proceed on top of the wall to the right, toward the Dung Gate. 32 Hoshaiah and half the leaders of Judah followed them, 33 …..35 as well as some priests with trumpets, and also Zechariah son of Jonathan, the son of Shemaiah, the son of Mattaniah, the son of Micaiah, the son of Zaccur, the son of Asaph, 36 and his associates—Shemaiah, Azarel, Milalai, Gilalai, Maai, Nethanel, Judah and Hanani—with musical instruments prescribed by David the man of God. Ezra the scribe led the procession. 37 At the Fountain Gate they continued directly up the steps of the City of David on the ascent to the wall and passed above the house of David to the Water Gate on the east.
38 The second choir proceeded in the opposite direction. I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people—past the Tower of the Ovens to the Broad Wall, 39 over the Gate of Ephraim, the Jeshanah Gate, the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate. At the Gate of the Guard they stopped.
40 The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God; so did I, together with half the officials, 41 as well as the priests—Eliakim, Maaseiah, Miniamin, Micaiah, Elioenai, Zechariah and Hananiah with their trumpets— 42 and also Maaseiah, Shemaiah, Eleazar, Uzzi, Jehohanan, Malkijah, Elam and Ezer. The choirs sang under the direction of Jezrahiah. 43 And on that day they offered great sacrifices, rejoicing because God had given them great joy. The women and children also rejoiced. The sound of rejoicing in Jerusalem could be heard far away.
Last week we have already introduced the theme of the sheep gate….. (http://wopodsbb.wordpress.com/2011/11/16/sheep-gate-pt-1-through-to-our-place-in-the-house-of-god-nehemiah-3-12-john-10-vs-1-15/ )
We were looking at the statement of Jesus in John 10 vs 7 “I am the gate for the sheep” and last week we showed it has its basis in the history and geography of Jerusalem itself.
We saw that at the far north of the city lay the “sheep gate” – through which the sheep were taken en-route to the temple to be sacrificed. We saw therefore that as Christ proclaimed himself, the sheep gate he was indicating indeed that he would be the one himself to be led like a lamb to his own slaughter as a sacrifice for all believers – hallelujah! It would be (and now is) through that sacrifice alone that entrance may be gained into the house of God. We noted therefore the gate was not simply gained through Jesus person, it was Jesus work that provides us entrance. We gain entrance through his sacrifice/his death, not simply his life.
In that context we looked particularly in Nehemiah chapters 3 and 12. Today we want to focus a little deeper on Chapter 12 (particularly as I believe many people may be drawing the wrong conclusions by using Chapter 3 rather than chapter 12 as a metaphor of a spiritual journey).
So let’s look at Chapter 12. We had already made brief mention of the journey described above in Nehemiah 12. Today we want to have a little bit closer look at this theme.
Firstly let’s quote/précis last week’s blog….
“The Journey of Nehemiah 12 is every Christian’s journey from the open gate of hell to the open gate of heaven. The dung gate, where they began their journey, opened out to the valley of Hinnom at the far south of Jerusalem. Located in this valley was Jerusalem’s rubbish dump. The rubbish was taken through the dung gate to be thrown out. Many people have taken this further believing that it was at this place the rubbish was burnt and the fires burning the rubbish were kept continually lit. Many scholars have therefore suggested that this place was the biblically named “Ghenna” a word translated as “hell” in many of our English bibles.
We quoted from Matthew 5 vs 22 and Mark 9 vs 43 where Gnenna is used in just such a way. Matthew 5 vs 22 “the fire of hell (fire of Ghenna).”, Mark 9 vs 43 …”hell” (Ghenna), “where the fire never goes out.”
The NIV study bible comments…
“hell. The Greek word is ge(h)enna , which derives its name from a deep ravine south of Jerusalem, the “Valley of (the Sons of ) Hinnom” (Hebrew ge hin-nom). ….. It became a sort of perpetually burning city dump and later a figure for the place of final punishment.”
I have no real background to suggest whether this is an exaggeration of the situation or not, but either way there undoubtedly was a rubbish dump at this location to the far south and the rubbish was indeed cast through the dung gate into the outer darkness and, as such, it truly does provide us a picture of the hell.
We noted it is this gate, the dung gate not the sheep gate, that we all have automatic access to! This is the open gate for all humanity! The destiny of all sinful men and women is indeed to be thrown, as through the dung gate, “thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. (Matthew 8 vs 12)”.
Thus, as sinful men and women, we exist with the dung gate wide open and the sheep gate slammed firmly shut! Our entrance to hell unrestricted, but between us and a place in the house of God an impenetrable barrier remains! That barrier is sin, and for those still in their sin, the gate into the house of God remains sealed firmly shut!
Therefore we now want to pick up there and describe a little more the journey from the Dung gate to the sheep gate and what it represents……
The ‘Journey’ is Nehemiah 12 not Nehemiah 3!
Now at the outset I think many people have this a little backwards. If you do a google search on “the meaning of the gates of Nehemiah” most sites seem to describe the gates using Nehemiah 3 rather than Nehemiah 12. They use chapter 3 as a metaphor for the journey of the Christian. In this case, using Nehemiah 3, the journey starts at the sheep gate (Jesus) and moves round to Fish gate (Evangelism) to Jeshanah gate (Old gate – rediscovering old truths) etc, etc – heading round in order of the appearance of the gates in Nehemiah 3. The gates are used in this order to describe the journey of the Christian post conversion.
However the true ‘journey’ is described not in Nehemiah 3. In Nehemiah 3 different people are assigned to re-build build each different section simultaneously. It is in Nehemiah 12 were the whole community are led atop the walls themselves in a procession from south (near the Dung gate) to the far north … to the sheep gate. So we must note that whilst Nehemiah 3 is not a ‘journey’, Nehemiah 12 undoubtedly is.
A second point is that in Nehemiah 12 (As in John 10) the sheep gate is the entrance IN! In using Nehemiah 3, then from the sheep gate we begin skirting the outer walls of the city of God, but in Nehemiah 12 we proceed from the sheep gate directly into the city of God, into the temple of God, to take our place IN the very house of God……
I followed them on top of the wall, together with half the people—past the Tower of the Ovens to the Broad Wall, 39 over the Gate of Ephraim, the Jeshanah Gate, the Fish Gate, the Tower of Hananel and the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Sheep Gate. At the Gate of the Guard they stopped. 40 The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God;
The journey round the gates at the edge of the city wall, from dung gate to sheep gate, is therefore surely not one of a post conversion Christian pilgrimage. The Christian who comes to Christ enters directly through the sheep gate (through Christ) to take his place in the house of God! He does not skirt round the outside of the city – he enters into it! The Christian, having come all the way to believing and trusting in Christ, has not skirted the edge of the city, he has Entered Into It!
In Nehemiah 12, the very fact that they begin by skirting round the outskirts, where they can see into the city, view it from many angles, move step by step closer to the entrance (closer and closer to the sheep gate) indicates this journey is the journey of the unbeliever towards Christ – not a journey of the Christian who has already believed and trusted (already entered in).
The Journey Itself.
Now we clearly have two journeys described here not one. The first choir and half the leaders begin to head east past the Dung Gate. As they do so they almost immediately arrive at the nearby Fountain gate at the south east of the city. The fountain springs here were those feeding the pool of Siloam. They would have then proceeded north on the east side of the city, to the water gate. If indeed they did continue north to meet up with the second choir at the sheep gate then, en-route to the sheep gate, they would have also passed the Horse gate and East gate.
(Note: Both choirs meeting up at the sheep gate is implied but not explicit in Nehemiah 12. The narrative relating to the first choir/group actually cuts off at the water gate (vs 37). However the point and intent seems to be that the journey would not have been cut short there. The whole eastern wall would have been covered by group 1 just as the whole western wall was covered by group 2. The only entrance into the city described in Nehemiah 12 is exclusively related to the Sheep gate/ gate of the guard. This is presumably the entrance for both groups who reconvened there, having begun together at the most southern gate and meet up again, via eastern and western routes respectivly, at the northern gate (sheep gate). So through the sheep gate travels both groups, not just group 2. In suport of this note the transition from vs 39-40…. the context is two choirs, not just one.
39…..as far as the Sheep Gate. At the Gate of the Guard they stopped. 40 The two choirs that gave thanks then took their places in the house of God;)
For the second group, including Nehemiah himself, we have the full route description. They head west, away from the dung gate, and find a long hard trek before them to finally reach the valley gate in the mid-western wall (see Nehemiah 3 vs 13). Then comes the Gate of Ephraim which is not mentioned in Nehemiah 3. (Some say this is actually another name for the Jeshanah gate but there does not seem to be, in my quick internet search, a clear consensus on its exact location). What we do know is there seems to be another long distance trek for this group between the valley gate and the Jeshanah Gate (or ‘Old Gate’) on the west side of the city. They then finally reach the northwest corner and turn east past the fish gate to the sheep gate and entrance to the city.
Now, as mentioned, I believe we may take these journeys as metaphors of the journey of an unbeliever towards the savior. However, to provide a highly detailed and authoritative explanation of the exact meaning behind each gate is clearly beyond me. Maybe someone more acquainted with the Hebrew language/culture and history could make such an attempt but I dare not! What’s more, if you flip through such attempts in the aforementioned Google search you will see widely differing meanings/interpretations suggested for each of these gates! However we can begin to draw some broader observations from these different two routes to the sheep gate.
Two routes to Christ (East and West) [I recommend East!].
What we can say with greater certainty is that the eastern group (group 2) seem to have a much easier time of it! They are the group who, right at the outset of the journey, pass directly by the dung gate.
Now, the recognition/conviction of sin is the first work of the Holy Spirit prior to conversion…
“When he comes, he will convict the world of guilt in regard to sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16 vs 8)
The first step leading us towards the sheep gate, towards Christ, is the conviction of sin. If, for you, dear reader, that conviction is accepted – I think you may well be part of the eastern group! If it is resisted, I think you are in danger of heading west.
As a member of the eastern route, you begin your journey traveling towards, not away, from the Dung gate. Remember the Dung gate is a picture of the very gate of hell. It is the place through which rubbish is thrown out – the route to Jerusalem’s city dump in the Hinnom valley. Remember the description in the study bible…“a sort of perpetually burning city dump and later a figure for the place of final punishment”- the place through which, figuratively, sinful men and women are cast out into the outer darkness, – some even speak of it as the Hell (‘Ghenna’) of scripture, where ‘the fires never go out’ (see last blog)!
Heading towards that gate are those who recognize that this indeed is all and everything that we ourselves deserve as a sinful man or woman. You recognize and admit your sin, your guilt, your shame, your unworthiness, and the rightness of God’s judgment. You see yourself as a sinful man or women standing before a holy God, all together sinful and rightly deserving of this eternal punishment from the Lord God, who is altogether righteous. You know all too well..
…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, (Romans 3 vs 23)
…the wages of sin is death (Romans 6 vs 23)
…you hardly need to read such words because the Spirit has implanted those words on your very heart! You are not fighting the conviction of sin; not self justifying; not hiding your sin but admitting it freely; you have an attitude of humility not pride; you are not making comparisons with other sinful men (“at least I am better than him or her”) but you know the only comparison that counts is between you with an altogether righteous and holy God, before whom you have fallen far short!
This is the route east – where you face the Dung gate head on! You realize that the Dung gate, representing the very gate to hell, … that indeed is your lot and rightly so! Traveling east, such an idea is not avoided, it is embraced. In short – upon such a conviction, you head toward, and not away, from the Dung gate.
Yet this is the route that leads quickest to salvation! The eastern route was indeed far shorter than the western one and beyond the dung gate there comes an immediate arrival at a place of fountains….. and on to water….. and on to horses! Without too much detailed exegesis it becomes quickly apparent that immediate refreshment/encouragement is clearly spoken of in the shape of the fountain gate. The fountain gate was placed very close to the dung gate and the route between overlooks “the kings garden”. The Sprit that spoke so strongly about sin is now speaking so strongly about the savior! You are carried, as was Jesus on his own equine, as by Horses toward the savior, to enter through him, into the city itself to take your place in the house of God – Oh Praise the Lord!
The western route, in contrast, may well represent those who resist the conviction of sin. They start at the same point as the eastern group, just by the dung gate. The Spirit is doing the same work in all. But instead of heading towards the dung gate, they head away! They resist, they self justify, they refuse to be carried, they go their own way.
They may be very religious but in being so are trying to save themselves by their own religious effort, trying to cover over their sins by religious activity and good works etc. In contrast to the eastern route which immediately beyond the dung gate turns northwards – orientated towards the savior (the sheep gate at the north east), this eastern route leads them due west. The direct distance from these people to the sheep gate will actually increase for a time for this western group.
Likewise, remember the eastern group traveling from the dung gate to the Fountain gate in turning north had a view which overlooked the Kings garden… They were immediately traveling towards the savior. In complete contrast, what follows for the western group is a long trip overlooking the Hinnom valley stretching a good proportion of the way from the Dung gate to the Valley gate (at least in one version of the wall map). The first group would turn quickly north but for the western group, the place of Ghenna, the very smell of the very fires of hell continue to fill their nostrils as they journey west along the valley!
The valley gate speaks of valley experiences. It speaks of a long tiring journey. A tough and rough route, full of many trials and tribulations,… a tortuous journey. Valleys are dark places. Those dark places come when we resist God and His Spirit. We may know people ourselves who have gone or are going through such an experience prior to eventually bowing the knee. You, dear reader, may be one of them. We may council them (or you), “don’t do this to yourself!” “Bow the knee, surrender to the savior, come home!” “Why are you so intent on fighting God?” “Come to the fountain, come to the water, surrender and you will be carried to the savior!”…
…..but still they continue trudging wearily onward! Oh the distance traveled, the time wasted, such a thirst for the water that could have been theirs (yours) immediately! Trudging through the valley when they (you) could have been carried on horses! What a waste, what a waste what a waste!
And yet year upon year many still resist. And so, eventually, they arrive at the “Old Gate”. How many years can a human’s pride stand in defiance to a savior calling him home? How many years can a man or woman weary through the valley? Our churches are full of such people! These ‘half’ Christians are the most miserable bunch and rightly so. They are trudging through the valley – en-route, unless they are careful, to the ‘Old gate’ where in their dotage they finally surrender themselves to the savior, regretting the years the locusts have taken!
Many, still resisting, finally arrive at the fish gate. The gate where someone finally nets them and reels them in! Please note… fish resist! Fish are usually are not usually enthusiastic to come to the fishermen! The act being fished is aggressive – it’s not comfortable! You are yanked with a hook in your mouth out of the murky waters in which you were hiding, suddenly exposed to the light and to full view of all. You may even require a spiritual ‘bonk’ on the head with a big stick to quell your thrashing about in the boat! It’s not a comfortable entrance at all! But to such people, finally a word is spoken that breaks the hardness of their heart and shatters their remaining defenses against the Gospel. Even against themselves, they find themselves coming quivering to finally observe all those years of rebellion crumbling at the foot of the cross. How much better to be sheep (who hear and follow the masters call – John 10 vs 3) than a fish who requires hooking, netting and dragging into the kingdom! How much better to arrive at the sheep gate on a horse than in a net! In short…how much better to have headed East.
But heed the great warning to such ‘fish’. What if there is no fishermen in the vicinity? Not all of those who continue in rebellion will be so graciously dragged in! Some will be left to it and find, after all these years of striving, find themselves back at the dung gate to be… “thrown outside, into the darkness. (Matthew 8 vs 12)”.
Let us indeed choose the eastern path. You westerners….Let go of your rebellion! For one day, maybe today, it will be too late for you.
Remember the dung gate is far wider and more accommodating than the sheep gate……
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. (Matthew 7 vs 13)
Give this serious thought….. are you one of them? Am I?
More next week on this theme: Amen!