Scripture readings: Nehemiah 3:3-5a, Joshua 6:26
Sermon prepared by Rev. Andrew Zomerman, Brantford, Ontario
Keywords: Grace, saved by grace alone, humility/pride
Dear People of God,
In our world today it seems like you need a permit to do everything. A permit to drive a car, a permit to put up a shed, a permit to build a house, a permit to park in certain places. It seems that you need a permit to do a lot of things and sometimes it is very hard to get the right permit. Often red tape makes it a huge hassle to get a permit to construct or do anything.
In the chapter we just read today we read about the rebuilding of the walls of the city of Jericho. This construction project was carried out by a man named Hiel. But behind the scene there is someone issuing the permit and giving permission--and that is Ahab. In 1 Kings 16 we get our introduction to Ahab. And his introduction is similar to many of the other kings who ruled Israel and Judah around this time.
If you look back to your Bibles you see at the end of chapter 15 that Baasha was king of Israel and he reigned for twenty-four years. Nine verses record what he did. According to 1 Kings 16 Elah reigned for two years; he is recorded in six verses. Then we get Zimri. He reigned for seven days. He gets five verses. Ahab’s Dad, Omri, is king for twelve years and he gets seven verses. Ahab’s introduction is similar and yet there is something different about him. His account runs all the way from 1 Kings 15 to 1 Kings 22. That’s one-quarter of the book dedicated to this king’s reign.
Ahab gets six whole chapters for his reign. And why is that? In some ways Ahab is a remarkable king. Unfortunately his notoriety and renown were not for positive reasons. Look again to the verses we just read. Verse 30 starts it off. Ahab did more evil in the eyes of the Lord than any of those before him.
In fact, verse 31 goes further. He not only considered it trivial to commit the sins of King Jeroboam before him but he also married Jezebel who was a foreign princess who worshiped Baal. Soon enough Ahab began to serve Baal and worship him. Ahab also made Asherah poles. Verse 33 concludes it all saying again that Ahab “did more to provoke the Lord the God of Israel to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him.” Ahab takes the cake. This is why six chapters are spent on Ahab. His reign represented a new low for the people of Israel. Ahab set a new standard for evil. If this were a limbo contest Ahab sets the record low.
And one of the key marks of how low the kingdom has fallen is recorded for us in verse 34. The key indicator of the new low is the issuing of the permit and the removal of the inscription on the land that is marked by the rebuilding of Jericho’s defences.
Now, when the text talks about the rebuilding it only mentions one man, Hiel of Bethel. But in order to do this rebuilding it takes more than one man. In fact, in the book of Nehemiah when Nehemiah records that the walls of Jerusalem were rebuilt an entire chapter is given to list the names of the people who all worked on a particular section. Nehemiah 3:3-5 says, “The Fish Gate was rebuilt by the sons of Hassenaah. They laid its beams and put its doors and bolts and bars in place. Meremoth son of Uriah, the son of Hakkoz, repaired the next section. Next to him Meshullam son of Berekiah, the son of Meshezabel, made repairs, and next to him Zadok son of Baana also made repairs. The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa…” Lots of people helped rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. It is a big undertaking to rebuild the walls and gates of a city. Many were involved in the rebuilding of Jericho’s walls, but it was all under the supervision of the one man—Hiel of Bethel.
And just as today when you are looking to carry out a big construction project, you need a permit. And this permit to rebuild would have been given by the king.
Now from historical evidence we know there were probably people living in the city of Jericho at that time, but ever since the Israelite conquest of Canaan by Joshua, Jericho had remained an un-walled, and unfortified town. Jericho was not the private property of Hiel. No, all the cities were property of the government and the ruler, so without the command of the king or at least without his consent no fortress city could be built and no city walls erected.
So then why did Ahab give the building permit? Why did he want the walls rebuilt? Well, it fit with his overall policy of strengthening the kingdom. Ahab’s father was Omri, and before Omri became king he was the commander of the king’s army. As a military leader he had good military instincts. If you look back earlier in chapter 16:23 we read about Omri buying a hill. Well, that hill was important because he knew that a strong king needed a strong royal residence, one that could be easily defended. And so Omri built up a royal stronghold at Samaria a few months after becoming king.
Now, a shrewd military king after securing his throne and seat of power would understand the need for strong cities and borders. And that brings us again to Jericho. Jericho was of great strategic importance. The great trade route or highway that ran from the Dead Sea in the south all the way up to Damascus in Syria was connected to Jericho. In fact, in Numbers 20:17 this is referred to as “The King’s Highway.” It was not eight lanes and paved but it was still a major trade route. But besides its economic importance, Jericho was also a border city. Anyone who crossed into Israel from the east had to cross the Jordan at the location not too far from Jericho. After passing Jericho you would have access to the major highways and the centre of the land of Israel.
The earlier Canaanite rulers had utilized Jericho’s natural geographical position by making it a huge fortress city. And at the time of Israel’s capture the legend of the size of Jericho’s walls and strength were a formidable barrier and deterrent to anyone who wanted to enter into the land of Canaan.
Ahab’s father Omri was a military commander and Ahab probably learned from his father the importance of having strategic fortresses and defensible borders. So as he consolidated his rule he made a decision. He saw an unfortified city at the eastern entrance to his kingdom as a big weakness. To Ahab, a Jericho that was not fortified was a potential problem. So Ahab issued a building permit and had Jericho rebuilt.
But in giving his permit and in commanding the rebuilding of Jericho Ahab had made a decision, a big decision that no other king in over 200 years before him had dared to do. To Ahab the military commander, the fallen walls of Jericho made him seem week. To him it was a pile of rubble. But from God’s point of view the fallen walls of Jericho were more than just a pile of rubble. They were an inscription, a mark on the land.
When King Ahab gave his building permit to Hiel of Bethel, Hiel got right to work. But what a cost he paid for doing this work. He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram and he set up its gates at the cost of his youngest son Segub. When we first hear of this disaster that befell Heil for carrying out Ahab’s building plans we are shocked. If you read other accounts of different kings recorded in the book of kings you will notice that many of them rebuilt and fortified other cities. They didn’t suffer disasters like Heil. But then again none of them had touched Jericho. Why was that?
When Hiel carried out the kings orders and set to work with his building permit, he invoked a curse, a curse that the Lord himself had pronounced through Joshua in Joshua 6:26, “At that time Joshua pronounced this solemn oath: “Cursed before the Lord is the man who undertakes to rebuild this city, Jericho: “At the cost of his firstborn son will he lay its foundations; at the cost of his youngest will he set up its gates.” When these sons of Hiel died the word of the Lord was being fulfilled. The rebuilding of the walls of Jericho had a very different meaning than the rebuilding of any other city. This special meaning was due entirely to the word of the Lord.
The Lord saw fit to use this city and it’s torn down walls as an indication of the truth and living power of his word. This city had special significance to the Lord and to his people. What message had the fallen walls of Jericho proclaimed? Why had the Lord made Joshua speak out his curse to any who would rebuild this particular city?
Well, Jericho was the entrance into the Promised Land. When the Lord commanded Joshua to cross the Jordan into the Promised Land, the first thing the Israelites saw and encountered was the city and formidable walls of Jericho.
The song that children sing tells us that Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, “Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, ...and the walls came tumbling down!” Now, of course the truth is that it was not Joshua who made those walls come down. And it was not the people, even though they walked around the walls and shouted. It was the Lord who tore down the walls. Jericho’s fallen walls were a testimony to what the Lord had done for his people. The ruins of the walls were a sign, a memorial, a reminder to the people of what had happened there.
We too have things that remind us of what the Lord has done. I think of the Lord’s Supper table and the baptismal font. These are a visible reminder of Gods power and his promises and his love. Many churches have a cross. This too is a reminder of the walls that Christ tore down by his death and resurrection.
For the nation of Israel those ruined walls of Jericho testified to the great power of God and they spoke to all who saw them of Israel’s great God and his unlimited strength. The Lord had placed his special mark on Jericho and on this land. This land was the Promised Land—the land promised by the Lord to Abraham and his descendants. Jericho was the first place the Israelites had come to after crossing over the Jordan. Jericho was the gateway to the Promised Land and its walls were torn down by the Lord. This tearing down of Jericho’s walls was an act of sheer grace. The Israelites did not earn it, they did not deserve it, but the Lord tore down the walls for his people. It was not the people’s actions that had done this but the Lord. The fallen walls of Jericho were a showplace testifying to the Lords amazing provision for his people.
The heaps of stone of Jericho’s walls spoke of curse and blessings, of both judgement and grace, of the punishment of the law and the wealth of the gospel. The broken down walls spoke of God’s judgement and punishment on the Canaanites for all their sins. Those broken walls also testified to what the Lord thinks of human walls and mankind’s supposed strength when we trust in walls or armies. But the broken walls also spoke of grace in that this city was given to the Israelites as a gift of grace—not because they deserved it or had earned it. It was a gift given to them by grace. The Israelites could only receive this gift through faith. Jericho, and indeed the whole promised land, were given to them not through weapons or tactical cunning but only by grace through faith. It was by grace through faith that Jericho’s walls had fallen and the entrance door to the Promised Land was thrown open wide.
So when the Lord forbid the rebuilding of the walls of Jericho he was serving notice, he was making it known that his inscription of grace was upon this land. Jericho was Israel’s gateway into Canaan so this inscription was by the front door, as it were. Anytime anyone came into this land—anytime people passed by this place—they would see the broken walls as a sign, and as reminder, that this land was the Lord’s. By leaving the walls of Jericho torn down, the Israelites and their king testified that the Lord’s voice was heard throughout the land. It was a visible reminder that the land was theirs by grace alone.
Now, many of the kings of both Israel and Judah did much to anger the Lord but no one had dared to try to remove this inscription. Ahab, in issuing his building permit, represented a turning point in Israel’s history. Ahab, our text tells us, did more evil then any king before him. Ahab had become deaf to listening to the LORD. He had become deaf to the powerful message spoken by the ruins of those city walls. He did not want to hear the message they proclaimed and so he could not hear it. For him it became a no brainer to fix up the walls so that his border would be protected.
Of course, the kings of Israel were to rule by Gods grace. They were to uphold the Lord’s laws and obey his commands. A king who ruled as the Lord would want would not be safer than behind the broken down open walls of Jericho—for this showed that they relied on the Lord as their protector. But Ahab was not listening to the Lord and so Ahab with his building permit tried to substitute his own inscription. The entranceway to the kingdom, the front door as it were, could only be entered after passing by the great new walls of Jericho which were now to testify to the great power of Ahab, Israel’s king. But the Lord’s word is true and though Ahab tried to remove the inscription by rebuilding the walls, the Lord’s inscription remained, now through the death of Hiel’s two sons—saying, “Cursed be anyone who does not live by grace through faith.”
In trying to remove this inscription of grace Ahab deliberately disobeyed the Lord. He deliberately disobeyed God by marrying Jezebel. He disobeyed by serving Baal and by building Asherah poles. Although this curse on rebuilding Jericho’s walls was recorded back some 600 years in Israel’s history we cannot assume that both Ahab and Hiel were unaware of this curse. Ignorance was not an excuse. Ahab knew exactly what he was doing. He thought he could issue a permit to build and do as he pleased, but the Lord said NO!
Congregation, what we have here in 1 Kings 16 is a struggle between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness, between God and Satan. Satan, through Ahab, was trying to erase the inscription of grace that showed where the power was. By rebuilding the walls it appeared that the power lay with Ahab and not with Lord—this so-called God who Israel was supposed to worship. He was not the only God. In fact, the other gods, gods like Baal and Asherah were just as good as the LORD God, and Ahab worshiped them instead. He did more evil than any king before him.
That contest waged way back in the book of kings is still played out today. That same struggle remains. Satan is still working to turn people away from the LORD. Jericho’s fallen walls were a reminder to the Israelites that they were given the land and given life by grace through faith. God’s word tells us over and over again that we are saved by grace through faith. If the Apostle Paul hammers one thing home, it is that we are saved by grace through faith. It’s like a CD with a scratch on it, or stuck on ‘repeat’ saying: By grace through faith, by grace through faith, by grace through faith.
Congregation, we are saved by grace through faith. The question is, as it was in Ahab’s day, will the land and God’s covenant people bear the mark of God’s grace, or will we in our folly, like Ahab, seek to put up our own mark of human power and greatness. The tendency is for us to build monuments to ourselves. The examples are many: Ahab gave Hiel a permit to build his city. Think of King Nebuchadnezzar, who in the book of Daniel, built a golden image, “Look at how great I am! Worship me!” Or think of Genesis 11 and the story of the tower of Babel. The people there were out to make a name for themselves.
One commentator, M.B. Van’t Veer, whose insights helped shape this message said, “Mankind has often drunk itself stupid on the inebriating drink of self glorification.” How right he is! We are often busy building memorials to ourselves, trying to resist God and remove his inscription. “Grace through faith” can’t be right, we say, so we do things by our own power. We build up our own walls so we don’t have to rely on God.
Satan tempts us and says we don’t need to trust in God for protection and provision. He says, “You have done a good job.” Or, “You make enough money to protect yourself.” Satan tempts us to think, “Look at me! Look at what I can do!” The church and the world are full of this kind of thinking. Or maybe Satan tempts you saying that it’s not by grace that you are saved. You need to do more. So we join every club or Bible study or Christian group that we can, and eventually we burn out and we give up knowing that we can’t do enough to earn our own salvation.
Congregation, to what do our lives testify? Do they say, “By grace through faith?” Or are we trying to set up our own walls and gates? What is your defence? What inscription marks your heart?
Infant baptism is so beautiful because it testifies “By grace through faith.” A little child is too small to do anything. He needs to be held and clothed and fed. Yet we still claim God’s promises for our little ones. By grace through faith. And the Lord’s supper also testifies: By grace through faith. Dear people, both baptism and the Lord’s Supper point to the cross which is a reminder of the fact that Christ died and rose again and will one day come again. When we see the cross we are reminded that Christ died for sinners. We didn’t earn our salvation, we did not work hard to make ourselves worthy. We were lost sinners when God sent Christ. When Christ died for our sins, we were not deserving, but we have been given this free gift of grace—that all who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ can be saved and have eternal life. It is through Christ’s blood and righteousness that we have been saved. And this is a gift given to us by grace, and we may receive this by faith. May this be the inscription on our hearts and lives.
Prayer: Father, we thank you that you save us by grace through faith. May we see the reminders of your grace and remember not to rely on ourselves. Work in our hearts so that we truly follow you. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Order of Worship
GOD GATHERS US FOR WORSHIP
Welcome and announcements
Call to Worship: Psalm 95:6-7
Silent prayer concluded with hymn, “He is Lord” PsH #633
Prayer for God’s Greeting: “Grace to us and peace from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, through the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Amen”
Hymn: “Praise the LORD, Sing Hallelujah” PsH #188
WE DEDICATE OUR LIVES TO SERVE HIM
God’s Law: Exodus 20: 1-17
Hymn: "Lord, I Want to Be a Christian" PsH #264
Hymn: "Break Now the Bread of Life" PsH #282
WE HEAR HIS WORD
Bible Readings: Nehemiah 3:3-5a, Joshua 6:26
Text: 1 Kings 16: 29-34
Sermon: “The Inscription of Grace Removed”
Hymn: “Sing to the LORD, Sing His Praise” PsH #96: 1,2,5,6
WE DEPART WITH HIS BLESSING
Prayer for God’s Blessing: “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God the Father, in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all. Amen.”
Doxology: “To God Be the Glory” PsH #632