Cell wall antibiotics are crucial for combatting the emerging wave of resistant bacteria. Yet, our understanding of antibiotic action is limited, as many strains devoid of all resistance determinants display far higher antibiotic tolerance in vivo than suggested by the antibiotic-target binding affinity in vitro. To resolve this conflict, here we develop a comprehensive theory for the bacterial cell wall biosynthetic pathway and study its perturbation by antibiotics. We find that the closed-loop architecture of the lipid II cycle of wall biosynthesis features a highly asymmetric distribution of pathway intermediates, and show that antibiotic tolerance scales inversely with the abundance of the targeted pathway intermediate. We formalize this principle of minimal target exposure as intrinsic resistance mechanism and predict how cooperative drug-target interactions can mitigate resistance. The theory accurately predicts the in vivo efficacy for various cell wall antibiotics in different Gram-positive bacteria and contributes to a systems-level understanding of antibiotic action.