Zechariah 2:1-5 Then I looked up, and there before me was a man with a measuring line in his hand. I asked, “Where are you going?” He answered me, “To measure Jerusalem, to find out how wide and how long it is.” While the angel who was speaking to me was leaving, another angel came to meet him and said to him: “Run, tell that young man, ‘Jerusalem will be a city without walls because of the great number of people and animals in it. And I myself will be a wall of fire around it,’ declares the Lord, ‘and I will be its glory within.’
This vision is of someone like a surveyor measuring the land and planning a new housing estate, or town – such as is happening in many parts of Britain. Brown and green-field sites are being developed to house our growing population; but, thankfully, in most places we don’t try to enclose them behind security fences or defensive walls. In ancient times city walls were commonplace, providing protection against enemy invaders. A limited number of gateways ensured that checks could be made on the comings and goings of both members of the community and visitors to it. The returned exiles might naturally have envisaged a restored Jerusalem around which its ruined walls would be rebuilt alongside rebuilding the temple and their homes.
But no! – the divine command is that there shall be no city walls. Two reasons are given: first, because walls would limit the number of people and animals returning to live in Jerusalem. Secondly, God will provide all the protection needed as a fiery presence surrounding the city. Zechariah’s message is working on two levels, referring to the actual rebuilding project being undertaken by the community; but also alluding to the ‘end times’ and envisaging a ‘new Jerusalem’ as the heavenly dwelling place of God come on earth. Fire is a common symbol of divine presence in the Hebrew Bible (think ‘burning bush’ and the pillar of fire guiding Israel through the wilderness in Exodus) and a ring can expand to embrace an ever growing population. God’s powerful presence will keep the city safe.
Actual walls were unnecessary, anyway, as Judah was a small territory within the Persian Empire – Jerusalem wasn’t under threat from any external force. Walls might even have implied that Judah was preparing to rebel and seek independence from Persia (a somewhat foolhardy move considering their relative power!).
Things need to be different in God’s coming world; don’t try to reinstate the past.
Holy God, we know that we sometimes build walls to protect ourselves instead of trusting in your saving power. We sometimes build walls to segregate ourselves from others, disobeying your command to love our neighbour as ourselves. We are sorry.
Help us to make our communities expansive places of welcome for all whom you draw into them; and in so doing may we discover your living presence in our midst. Amen
The Rev’d Dr Janet Tollington is a retired minister living in Cambridgeshire; she is a member of Downing Place URC in Cambridge.