Princesses are supposed to behave conventionally. The classic princess story goes something like this. A good, sweet girl falls on hard times, and then meets a rich, powerful boy who rescues her. She lives the rest of her princess life in happily ever after—private luxury, ease, and privilege. Every now and again, however, princesses don’t follow this story line. Great Britain’s Princess Diana was one of these. She started out with a traditional story, but once she got to the happily-ever-after part she wasn’t content. She defied expectations and started working to change wrongs in the world, like AIDS (unmentionable in polite society) and land mines (no place for a lady). People still call her “the people’s princess.“
The book of Nehemiah spares one small sentence for a couple of unusual princesses. Their story starts out with the nation of Israel in exile. The city of Jerusalem was in ruins, flattened to nothing but rubble, and its people scattered across the continent, many enslaved. After many generations of this, God moved on the heart of the ruling emperor. He gave two Jewish leaders permission to go rebuild their hometown, Jerusalem. Ezra was a priest, and Nehemiah, a politician. They gathered Jewish exiles and resources and moved their families back to this rock pile that used to be Jerusalem. Right away, they got to work rebuilding this once-beautiful city, starting with the walls. Many naysayers and enemies of their cause threatened the fragile reconstruction, so the protection of this wall was vital. For these people, building a wall was the first step in rebuilding their community. This step reestablished their national identity as a people group and a culture—a kingdom.
Nehemiah was a great leader and a gifted administrator; so much of the book of Nehemiah describes his detailed records of families, resources, and the process of rebuilding. In good administrator fashion, Nehemiah divvied up the work between the families. Nehemiah assigned a section of the wall to every family that came with him. It was their job to make sure their part of the wall was rebuilt completely and solidly. Nehemiah recorded every family that helped rebuild the wall. Reading these lists can be brutally boring, but If you don’t mentally check out in the monotony of these records, there are some stories in the cracks. Most of the families get a simple mention, but a few stick out because they are described a little bit differently.
Not everyone had the same attitude toward building. One family had members that just wouldn’t build at all. “The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to work under their supervisors.” (Nehemiah 3:5) Nehemiah didn’t explain why they wouldn’t help, but we can read between the lines. Maybe they had other things to do, things they considered to be more important. Perhaps they didn’t like the supervisors and felt like it would be degrading to take direction from these guys. Maybe they were lazy, or wanted to put their efforts into rebuilding their own homes rather than the wall. Whatever the reason, they come off as selfish.
Nehemiah also described a family that built for their own self-interest. “Jedaiah son of Harumpah made repairs opposite his house.” (Nehemiah 3:10) This guy only worked on the wall where it provided a direct benefit to him. This was the place the wall protected his home and family. Interestingly, Nehemiah offers no judgment about either one of these families, and he didn’t exclude Jedaiah from building because of his selfish motive. Both families benefitted from what everyone else worked to build.
It was a third family that caught my attention. “Shallum son of Hallohesh, ruler of a half-district of Jerusalem, repaired the next section with the help of his daughters.” (Nehemiah 3:12) Apparently, these were the only girls who worked on the wall. All the other many workers Nehemiah mentioned were men. Construction work today is still pretty much a dude’s world, and as far as I’m concerned, more power to them. I have no desire to jump in there. What’s so interesting to me is that these girls would not have been used to this kind of work, or even expected to do this kind of work. They weren’t tomboys; they were princesses—daughters of a ruler. What possessed them to take ownership of rebuilding a section of the wall with their father? Did he have sons? If he didn’t, surely he could have afforded to hire builders to help him as a ruler in Jerusalem.
These dainty, well-manicured girls were used to quiet life behind walls with attendants who catered to their every need. They would have enjoyed fine fabrics, good food, and a cool life in the shade. They were valuable simply by who they were. They didn’t need to do anything to earn respect. They were the daughters of a ruler, and so had high value for strategic alliances through marriage, and for nurturing small children into future leadership.
These pampered ladies heard Nehemiah’s appeal for families to rebuild a portion of the wall and something stirred on the inside of them. They put aside their comfort and stepped outside of their carefully orchestrated life. They took their place next to their father, and picked up chisel and hammer. Small arms, unused to heavy labor, strained to shift heavy stones. Fine brown dust sifted into every crevice of their beautiful clothing and into their carefully arranged hair. As the hours passed, blisters began to swell in their sandals and where their delicate hands gripped unfamiliar tools. Muscles trembled with effort. The sun must have scorched their gentle faces, burning skin accustomed to shady breezes. What determination kept them at these exhausting efforts? How great a cause kept them at the wall?
The Bible doesn’t tell us anything more about these girls, but what it doesn’t tell us says as much as what it does. These girls must have recognized the significance of that moment. They wanted to be part of this work, to contribute what they could. This was no ordinary wall for them. And they were right—millions of people around the globe, thousands of years later, are still reading about rebuilding this wall. These princesses had the ability to recognize the significance of what they were building. This was so valuable that they couldn’t resist jumping in to help, even though it was not expected and well outside their comfort zone. They worked because they loved the outcome.
Saying yes to building the wall meant saying no to other things. I wonder what these girls set aside to be part of this work. Would they have endured the criticism of the other ladies of the community? Would coarse men have mocked their efforts? Did they have small children who waited with nannies? Did they have responsibilities in their own home that had to wait? Whatever their usual occupation, it was left behind. They put all their passion into this work, with an undivided heart. “The people worked with all their hearts.” (Nehemiah 4:6)
Not only did these girls jump in helping with manual labor, they also had to be prepared to fight to defend themselves when the locals got hostile. “Each of the builders wore his sword at his side as he worked.” (Nehemiah 4:18) I can only imagine the anxiety these girls must have felt, awkwardly building while knocking into things with the sword at their side. Perhaps they were trained to handle a weapon, perhaps not, but they did not even let the threat of violence deter their efforts.
The nobles of Tekoa must have heard about this and felt ashamed. What was happening at this little section of the wall was so unusual that every other family must have talked it about as they worked. I can imagine men casually walking past, sneaking a look over their shoulder to check out the princesses with mud all over their arms as they filled in the chinks. What a story to tell around the dinner table!
People are basically the same as they were thousands of years ago. We have the same the same attitudes when it comes time to roll up our sleeves and build. Nehemiah was rebuilding a wall around the city of Jerusalem. We build churches that provide walls of protection around our communities, our homes, and around the hearts of people—places of refuge. We can choose what kind of attitude we build with.
For many who enjoy the protection the church provides, to ask them for help building those walls is too much. They hesitate to contribute their finances, their time or efforts because of the other things on their calendar. Their own businesses and homes are more important. Some hesitate because they don’t like the people that they would have to take direction from, or they don’t feel any connection to the team already working. Others get in and help but only where it benefits them. Some parents will serve in children’s ministry as long as their children are in the classes. Some singers will serve as long as they get the opportunities they want. Their motives are for themselves.
I want to have the spirit of the daughters of Shallum. They caught a vision for building, and they were so passionate that they would do anything to help! I want to have a heart that says yes, no matter what the attitudes of everyone else are. These girls worked hard to build and they were willing to go to battle to defend what they were building. When we catch a vision for how important our churches are for our families and our communities, being part of the work isn’t just our priority; it’s our privilege. These are the kind of people our churches need. This is the kind of person I want to be.
For leaders, it’s so easy for us to pigeonhole people where we meet them. We tend to view people’s contribution around what we know they are capable of. It’s a faith stretch for us to keep pushing those limits. It’s always risky to give someone new responsibilities, but it is our responsibility as leaders. Good leaders identify potential, and believe that someone is capable before they believe in themselves. Let’s think bigger, and ask a princess to pick up a sword and a shovel. You never know—they might be just waiting for someone to ask them. The right help can come where we least expect it!
For me to be like these girls means I won’t hesitate to work hard when the season requires it. I don’t have to be afraid to jump into something I don’t feel confident or comfortable doing. Nehemiah didn’t comment on how good at building these girls were or weren’t. What matters is not how well I perform, but that I am getting involved, part of something bigger than my own world. My value doesn’t come from my talents or my work, but from whom I am as a daughter of the king. We don’t know these girls’ names, but they had significance in this story because of who their father was—the same place we find our value. Shallum’s daughters were unconventional princesses.