“You didn’t build that” (Nehemiah 3:1-12)

No one gets anywhere alone.  There’s simply no such thing as the “self-made man.”

Literally everything we create is dependent on those who came before us.  Think about the technology in front of you right now.  You’re reading this on a device you didn’t create, relying on a data transmitted to you wirelessly across a world-wide information network.  Even the English language itself is an invention that has been shaped by culture and time.

In short, nothing you see before you is something you can take credit for—yet everything you see before you is something you can take joy in.


As human beings, we are created in the image of a Creator.  Creativity is in us deep down, all the way to our souls.  But because God exists as an eternal network of persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), we are equally made for community.

Creativity and community must go together.  You can’t have one without the other.

Five hundred-odd years ago Michelangelo completed his work on the Sistine Chapel.  It’s a masterpiece.  One can hardly imagine the creation of Adam without also picturing the famous scene splashed across the ceiling.

But according to  William Wallace, professor of art at Washington University, we should think of Michelangelo less as a lonely artist and more of a CEO:

“The romantic myth that Michelangelo worked by himself fits our notion of the lonely, self-sacrificing genius — conditions that presumably are necessary for creating art. Actually, he was never alone. He lived with two male assistants and always had a female housekeeper. Thirteen people helped him paint the Sistine ceiling; about 20 helped carve the marble tombs in the Medici Chapel in Florence, with its allegories of Day and Night, Dawn and Dusk. And to build the Laurentian Library in Florence, he supervised a crew of at least 200.”[1]

Wallace envisions Michelangelo as something of a thought-leader, helping the vision come to life through the efforts of the community:

“For these projects, he personally selected a work force of friends, associates and trained professionals. He imposed a flexible organization that permitted talented individuals to find a place on one or more teams. He encouraged creative competition and initiative in design and execution. He reprogrammed the hacker elite (marble carvers) so they could realize his vision. A trouble-shooter, he made alterations and solved problems as they arose. He darted in and out of the assembly line daily, and worked almost every Saturday and most holidays. His employees benefited from flexible leave, good pay and job security — except when the deaths of his papal patrons interrupted the cash flow.”[2]

No one gets anywhere alone.  We’re just not built that way.


Nehemiah was very much the same way.  His God-given task was to build the wall, but it wasn’t a project he could complete on his own.

In Nehemiah 3, we see that he calls a whole team of people together to help achieve this task:

Then Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brothers the priests, and they built the Sheep Gate. They consecrated it and set its doors. They consecrated it as far as the Tower of the Hundred, as far as the Tower of Hananel. 2 And next to him the men of Jericho built. And next to them Zaccur the son of Imri built.

3 The sons of Hassenaah built the Fish Gate. They laid its beams and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars. 4 And next to them Meremoth the son of Uriah, son of Hakkoz repaired. And next to them Meshullam the son of Berechiah, son of Meshezabel repaired. And next to them Zadok the son of Baana repaired. 5 And next to them the Tekoites repaired, but their nobles would not stoop to serve their Lord. (Nehemiah 3:1-5)

We might stop and wonder how it was that Nehemiah could expect to build these walls in the first place.  Surely the task must have seemed unbearably daunting.

We know from history—and even archeology—a few things about the wall that might be helpful:

  • Jerusalem was smaller than generally accepted—perhaps between 1.6—2.5 miles in circumference.
  • Only the eastern wall was built from the foundation; Nehemiah used the existing ruins to build the walls at the north, south, and west. This makes the project more of a re-modeling effort than a full-scale construction project.
  • The people were motivated—by God’s purpose as well as the threat of attackers. We have little difficulty imagining that these workers could find it in themselves to work on the wall.

Surely with these things in mind the task must have seemed more feasible, though still a task to place in God’s sovereign hands.

6 Joiada the son of Paseah and Meshullam the son of Besodeiah repaired the Gate of Yeshanah. They laid its beams and set its doors, its bolts, and its bars. 7 And next to them repaired Melatiah the Gibeonite and Jadon the Meronothite, the men of Gibeon and of Mizpah, the seat of the governor of the province Beyond the River. 8 Next to them Uzziel the son of Harhaiah, goldsmiths, repaired. Next to him Hananiah, one of the perfumers, repaired, and they restored Jerusalem as far as the Broad Wall. 9 Next to them Rephaiah the son of Hur, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, repaired. 10 Next to them Jedaiah the son of Harumaph repaired opposite his house. And next to him Hattush the son of Hashabneiah repaired. 11 Malchijah the son of Harim and Hasshub the son of Pahath-moab repaired another section and the Tower of the Ovens. 12 Next to him Shallum the son of Hallohesh, ruler of half the district of Jerusalem, repaired, he and his daughters. (Nehemiah 3:6-12)


Not long ago President Obama ruffled feathers by telling entrepreneurs and businessmen that “you didn’t build that.”  Many took this as a slight against the sweat equity they had sunk into their life’s work, or a possible endorsement of the necessity of dependence on big government.

These concerns aren’t without warrant.  I agree that we should never dismiss the work that we put into our accomplishments, nor should we allow our dependence on one another to excuse unrestrained governmental regulation.  But let us never assume that we built it all ourselves.  I appreciate David Brooks’ more balanced assessment of the situation.  When a businessman wrote into the New York Times wrestling with how he should view himself in light of his accomplishments, Brooks responded by saying that “as an ambitious executive, it’s important that you believe that you will deserve credit for everything you achieve. As a human being, it’s important for you to know that’s nonsense.”[3]

If we are to be for our city, we may honor what God has done through us by taking joy in what we build and what we accomplish.  But we must never, ever assume that we have done it all ourselves.  This is the difference between gratitude and entitlement, and it is likewise the way in which God’s image-bearers reflect both creativity and community.


[1] William B. Wallace, “Michaelangelo, CEO,” The New York Times, April 16, 1994.

[2] Ibid.

[3] David Brooks, “The Credit Illusion,” The New York Times, August 2, 2012.

1 thought on ““You didn’t build that” (Nehemiah 3:1-12)

  1. I am just done!

    So we are in class today talking and my favorit topic, ‘grace’ comes up! I just start smirking because I always feel special if grace is mentioned.
    And they start discussing it as it pertains to the homeless, but how about for a moment we talk about how it pertains to me? Because after I heard what grace really is I think I’m gonna burst!
    So I understand imputed righteousness. Do I grasp it fully, no… because there seems to be so many layers to it, to grace I mean. I’m just so, I don’t deserve this and GOD just hands it out with love. And today the young man said grace means I look past and I look over what you’ve done… he said because you can’t give grace and consider past sins.
    We, I guess like the children of Israel have sinned. I believe many of my sins are larger in comparison to most but God takes all of that sin and tosses it aside. This is proof HE doesn’t remember our sins because HE couldn’t and be gracious. But HE doesn’t see me, but like Chris said, HE sees HIS son. I just feel like we will come back next week and there will be another layer of grace that I didn’t know about and I will be shocked again.

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