The 42 Work Gangs
Mr. Nathaniel Reed of Swastika, Ontario, fellowships at Kirkland Lake Bible Chapel and is a longtime reader of “Food for the Flock.” His first article appeared in the March-April, 1986 issue. We welcome from his pen this further helpful study in the book of Nehemiah.
The book of Nehemiah is one of the most exciting narratives of the Old Testament. Among other things, it records a great historic enterprise for the glory of God —namely, the building of the great wall of Jerusalem, and this, in the midst of overwhelming opposition.
However, just as the reader gets nicely into the story, almost immediately he runs headlong into chapter 3. Here we have 32 verses chuck-full of four-syllable, impossible-to-pronounce proper nouns — the roll call of faithful wall-builders.
“Just like eatin’ straw,” was how such a passage was described by a Mississippi preacher. Yet many pearls of insight can be gleaned from a careful reading of this portion.
One might note the trades of some of the builders (vv. 8, 31, 32); the women that are mentioned (vv. 12); the reluctant nobles of Tekoa (vv. 5), and the double duty of their more ambitious citizens (vv. 27). But what I found to be especially intriguing in this chapter was the exact number of work crews assigned to the wall by Nehemiah — 42. Certainly, like the men of Tekoa, some workers might have been involved in the construction of more than one part of the wall, but Scripture lists 42 specific divisions.
E. W. Bullinger, in his classic work, Numbers in Scripture, makes specific reference to the number 42. Like so many numbers in Scripture, 42 illustrates an important spiritual truth.
“Being a multiple of seven, it might be supposed that it would be connected with spiritual perfection. But it is the product of 6 x 7. Six, therefore, being the number of Man, and of man’s opposition to God, 42 becomes significant of the working out of man’s opposition to God.
“…when man is mixed up with the things of God, and when religious ‘flesh’ engages in spiritual things” (pp. 268).
Certainly the building of the wall of Jerusalem was a task accomplished by a people with a heart for God and His will. Few Old Testament leaders were as spiritually devout as Ezra and Nehemiah. How then did the work of the flesh engage the labourer on the Jerusalem wall?
From the outset of the project we see tremendous opposition directed at Nehemiah and the builders from Sanballat, Tobiah, and others from ‘outside the camp,’ but where is there evidence of corruption from within?
I think it has been the experience of many Christians that the most devistating opposition which Satan confronts us with is not the slings and arrows of the world. Persecution, characteristically, strengthens resolve. It is the subtle enemy from within the camp that is more often the most destructive foe.
Pogo Possum wisely said, “We have seen the enemy, and he is us.” Whether it be the cynical remarks of other Christians, or the discouragement resulting from looking to others rather than to the Author and Finisher of our faith, we must “put on the whole armour of God” before doing battle for Him.
Even a cursory examination of the book of Nehemiah reveals how evident the flesh was in the construction of the Jerusalem wall — right from the first two words in Chapter 3 —“Then Eliashib.” Eliashib, whose name means, “God will restore,” was the high priest of the Jews in the time of Nehemiah. Overtly, the man and his fellow priests appear to be fine examples as they set about to work rebuilding the Sheep Gate. We soon perceive, however, that all is not well when we compare the construction of the Sheep Gate with the descriptions of the building of the other gates. We note that in every other case the additional details, “They laid its beams and put its doors and bars in place,” is mentioned (vv. 3, 6, 13, 14, 15). This important security measure was apparently omitted on the Sheep Gate. Why? The Sheep Gate was in proximity to Eliashib’s own house.
Further light is shed on the subject in Nehemiah 13:28: “One of the sons of Joiada, the son of Eliashib, the high priest, was son-in-law to Sanballat, the Horonite; therefore I drove him away from me.” Here is revealed the fact that the daughter of the great protaganist, Sanballat, was married to the very grandson of Eliashib.
Exhibit three: In verse four of the same chapter (13) another startling fact is revealed. We learn here that Eliashib was also closely associated with none other than Tobiah, another great enemy of Nehemiah and the people of God — the ones labouring so sacrificially on the wall.
“He (Eliashib) makes a profession of separation by building the gate and the wall, to keep in with a separate people, but is careful to put no locks or bars on the gate, to keep in with the man of the corrupt and mixed religion of Samaria, and leave room for the access of such among the people of God” (Nehemiah, Hamilton Smith, pp. 23).
We see that even in the highest echelons of rule — in the spiritual leadership of Israel itself — in the corrupt household of the high priest, the things of the flesh and that of God are mixed.
“Come out from among them, and be ye separate saith the Lord …” (2 Cor. 6:17). We must keep ourselves pure and separate from the things of the world (1 John 2:15).
The corruption is unfortunately not restricted to the household of the high priest alone. Chapter five unveils another sordid story amongst the people themselves.
A severe famine hit the area. As the famine, and the work on the wall continued, the people found it necessary to mortgage their lands and borrow money. Now unable to repay their debts, their very children were taken into bondage. To make matters even worse, it was their own kinsmen who were subjecting them to this.
Nehemiah, when he learned of the situation, rebuked the rulers, and things were immediately rectified, but what a tragic situation — initiated by the powerful fleshly motivator, greed.
Forty-two — the number of work gangs assigned to building the wall —a number representing the mixing of the flesh with the things of God. Tragic indeed are the consequences, whether they are brought on by the world’s ungodly influence or by man’s own sinful, fallen nature, but we rejoice as we read in the later chapters of Nehemiah of the spiritual revival which takes place amongst the people. The Word of God is opened and taught, and the people open their hearts to its truth.
There are lessons to learn from the study of these portions of Scripture. Surely, if a task for the Lord is undertaken, whether spiritual or physical in nature, each member should be spiritually equipped even before the task begins. And how thankful we can be at the equipping available to the child of God (Eph. 6:13-20): the very indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit of God; and daily access to His Word wherein lies the example of our Lord Jesus. How wondrous our spiritual privileges; how sobering our responsibilities! Let us equip ourselves for the mighty work before us, and in so doing, draw near to Him.