Lessons on Leadership from Nehemiah
After the incredible revival by the Water Gate, the work of rebuilding the spiritual strength in the people’s hearts continued. In Nehemiah 9 we find the longest record of a prayer found in Scripture. While the length is certainly impressive, the hearts and attitudes of the people are just as noticeable. They assembled, “with fasting, in sackcloth, and with dirt upon them” (v. 10).
The right attitude, the right heart, the right response – the people are taking the right steps towards rebuilding a right relationship with God. This is all indication of leadership. Leadership is about people, and when the people are in the wrong, hiding, ignoring, blame-shifting, only make things worse. They are selfish and arrogant responses to our sins. Remember Paul said that evil isn’t overcome by evil (ROM 12:21). It’s hard to admit our faults. It takes a humble spirit to confess our sins. But that’s the path to healing, to forgiveness, to a right relationship with God (1 JOHN 1:9; PS 32:5).
That’s where Nehemiah leads the people through this incredible prayer. It’s been broken down in different ways – one that stands out to me is the multi-directions found in this prayer:
- Looking up (v. 5-6) – the starting place of a great prayer is focused on the Lord
- Looking back (v. 7-31) – walking back through Israel’s history – a testimony to God’s faithfulness
- Looking in (v. 32-37) – the honest expression of where they stood in the present
- Looking ahead (v. 38) – the plan to pursue what is right before God going forward
This four directional prayer provides an excellent model to follow when we pray – focus on God, reflect on what He has done, honest admit where things are today, and express confident commitment and faith on what is to come.
When the people we lead stumble and fall, they’ll look to their leaders to help find the path back to the right. This chapter reminds me of what is said in 2 Chronicles 7:14 – “If my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.” How can we help the people under our sphere of influence pursue the Lord after having fallen?
- Humble Ourselves – pride blames. Pride covers. Pride dodges. Pride runs. Pride justifies. Pride excuses. Humility listens. Humility confesses. Humility honestly accepts where we are.
- Pray – don’t run from God, don’t give up, don’t quit. Bring the burdens, bring the pain, bring the charges, bring the sin to the Lord in prayer.
- Seek God’s Face – seek God’s favor, seek to be right with God, seek His forgiveness. Confess the sin, honestly, sincerely, fully, acknowledging our wrong, and pleading for His mercy and grace
- Turn from our Wicked Ways – that’s repentance. It’s not just a change in heart, but it’s a change of heart that results in a change in behavior. Breaking habits. Cutting off sinful influences. Being in control of one’s attitude. Mindful of our words. A clear, noticeable change in the way we live – no longer making those sinful decisions – now purposefully making choices that honor God.
What does this show us about leadership? It’s easy to lead on days of victory when the sun is shining. It’s hard to lead on days of defeat while in the dark. The greatness of our leadership is often defined by those hard moments. It’s hard as mates, as parents, as shepherds, as bosses or managers – when those under our influence stumble and fall. Our response to another’s failure can make the difference between victory or defeat, in clinging onto hope or sinking in despair, in turning from sin or plunging further into it. Are we harder than God on another’s fault? Do I offer any help or hope, or am I a voice of defeat and doom? Would I bend down to one who’s fallen, helping them rise, leading them in prayer, walking the path of repentance along side them, helping them find their way back to the Lord?
“Majestic Master, we stand in awe of You. You are perfect in power, in wisdom, in justice, in mercy, in love. You have been with Your people from the very beginning. You delivered them from evil. You rescued them from harm. You led them on the path of righteousness. You extended mercy and grace abundant for their sins. And you have done the same for us. For our every sin, our greatest shames, our countless failures, You have given Your Son, the perfect gift of mercy. In the ways we stand weak before You today we humbly confess. In the reasons we have to rejoice we give thanks. In whatever time remains until Your Son returns, it is our hope, prayer, and trust that You strengthen our weaknesses, refine our spirits, and help us to mature more and more to the perfect image of Jesus. And as we grow, use us in the lives of others to point them all the more to You.”
God wants His people to continually be spiritually refreshed. The wall is built, now the time had come for a revival among the people (Nehemiah 8). The day of revival had an incredible emotional impact on them. They cried out, “Amen, Amen!” They bowed with their faces to the ground and worshipped. They wept and they rejoiced greatly. Their emotional response was genuine and an essential factor in their renewal. But a revival will not be sustained based on emotions. They must be established on the word of God and a willingness to submit to God’s word. That is what happened at the Water Gate.
On the first day of the month the people gathered in front of the Water Gate. For six hours they stood and listened as Ezra read the law. Their hearts were broken as they realized all their sufferings were a direct result of their disobedience to God’s Word. Then, they were sent away to rejoice knowing that God was still their God. Now, we want to ask, “What happened the next day? How did they maintain their spiritual fervor? What do we do when God’s Word has a powerful effect on us?”
Notice, the heads of all the families along with all the priests decided they would come back the next day. They “gathered to Ezra the scribe, in order to understand the words of the Law” (Neh. 8:13). Notice, in verse 12, it says, “the people greatly rejoiced because they understood the words that were declared to them.” They came back the next day to gain a deeper understanding (Neh. 8:13). The NASV uses the word “insight.” On the first day they had absorbed an understanding of the facts of the Law. Their Bible knowledge was enlarged. They had received input, but not “insight.” That’s what they came seeking the second day.
The word translated “understanding” or “insight” is translated from a Hebrew word which means, “the ability to discern inner character or underlying truth. It is the ability to see and clearly understand the true nature of things.” We must seek that kind of insight, that kind of “beneath the surface” understanding. Insight is the ability to be discerning, to see principles and apply them in our daily affairs of life. “Insight” into God’s word is not just to find information, it is to fuel transformation. In other words, God has given us revelation of Himself so that He will make a difference in our lives. Also, that we might gain insight into how we are to live life. God gave us His word to change our lives. A surface knowledge of God’s word will not produce profound change.
What produces insight? Let me show you three things from Nehemiah 8:13.
The first thing it takes is the right amount of time. No one suddenly becomes wise. If the heads of the families of Israel were to gain insight into the words of the Law, they were going to have to invest themselves. In verse 18 it says, “Day after day Ezra read from the Book of the Law of God.” Insight, like anything else worth having, is going to require a commitment.
Next was the right kind of teacher. “They were gathered around Ezra the scribe in order to understand the words of the Law” (8:13). Ezra was a great teacher. He had genuine insight into God’s Words. “Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the LORD, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel” (Ezra 7:10).
Further, they needed the right type of attitude. Understanding requires effort on the part of the presenter and the listener. Again, in verse 13 we see who came to understand the Word. It was the head of all the families, priests, and the Levites. These men had the proper attitude of humility. We cannot gain understanding from God’s word unless we have a humble spirit. We must approach the word of God daily saying, “What can I learn today? How will this change me?”
The walls were rebuilt, but Nehemiah’s work was not finished. Upon rebuilding the walls Nehemiah shifts his focus to rebuild the nation. The people had proven they were willing to work, willing to listen, and willing to put the priority of God first. Nehemiah now directs that same passion and drive towards their relationship with God.
The majority of chapter 7 is an organization of God’s people (very similar to Ezra 2). There are 9 categories:
- The original leaders (v. 6-7)
- The Jews who were laymen (v. 8-38)
- The Priests (v. 39-42)
- The Levites (v. 43)
- The Singers (v. 44)
- The Gatekeepers (v. 45)
- The Temple Servants (v. 46-56)
- The Descendants of the servants of Solomon (v. 57-60)
- The One’s whose ancestry was questionable (v. 61-65)
In addition to the organization of the people and their service to God, Nehemiah sought to arrange the work that would take place in the Temple (v. 70-73). Not only were there servants in need to work in the Temple, but such work also required financial organization. The willingness of the people to give of their own funds for the sake of God and His Temple indicated the priority of God and His presence (and work) in their lives.
Leadership is important in all avenues of life – especially spiritually. Leadership is influence, and leadership is about people. As we lead those under our sphere of influence, remember that the greatest place we can lead them is to a stronger place spiritually. It can be through shining our light in the workplace (MATT 5:16; TIT 2:10). It can be through loving our spouses and caring for them to the best of our ability (1 PET 3:1-7). It can be through bringing the word of God into our everyday conversations with our children – tying every part of life back to God (DEUT 6:7-9). It can be imitating Christs before my brethren, refusing to complain, instead – we stir up one another to love and good works (HEB 10:24-25). Leading spiritually comes by remembering what the main purpose is. It’s not merely building good habits, forming good attitudes, or doing good deeds – all of which can be done apart from the main purpose in life. Our main goal is to lead others to Jesus – the example of good habits, the focus of good attitudes, the reason for good deeds. Nehemiah 7 reminds us that this path requires sacrifice – it’s not the path of ease. It’s a path that costs. It’s a path that works. But it’s a path that results in growth, inward maturity and increasing humility. It’s a path that contemplates the priority of God above all things. Think about the result of each day’s choices – where am I influencing others around me towards? Every word, every choice, every direction – make it about God. Leadership is about people, and bringing those people closer to the Lord.
“Glorious Creator, benevolent God, You have given us all that we have – every good thing – every blessing – they all come from You. May I give to You this day the first of my thoughts, the greater portion of my strength, the devotion of my time, the praise of my lips, the focus of my life. May the choices I make this day bring greater glory to You. And may the choices I make this day help those You have placed in my life, to see Your greatness and glory this day.”
We like to make a good impression. Most of us care about our appearance. Most of us want others to see us in the best possible light. That’s a natural thing; it’s a normal thing to want to be liked. At least, for me it is. I want people to like me. However, those who do great works for God will have to endure personal attacks. They did it to the prophets; they did it to Jesus; they did it to Nehemiah. From his example we can learn how to handle it when it happens to us.
“Now it happened when Sanballat, Tobiah, Geshem the Arab, and the rest of our enemies heard that I had rebuilt the wall, and that there were no breaks left in it (though at that time I had not hung the doors in the gates), that Sanballat and Geshem sent to me…” (Neh. 6:1-2)
The work is almost finished. All the bricks are in place. The only thing left is to put the gates in place. The reason that took longer is because the gates were made from wood and then covered with metal so that they wouldn’t burn up in case of an attack by fire. As soon as they hang those gates the wall will be finished.
I think it’s significant that the next attack came when Nehemiah had nearly finished his mission. Just as everybody was planning the ribbon cutting ceremony, Satan has fired his final attempt to derail the project. Satan loves to hit us again just when we think we have cleared all the major hurdles. Just when we think we have conquered all the obstacles and we are on the home stretch, he strikes.
This time that attack is personal. “But they thought to do me harm.” (Neh. 6:2b). The problem is that the enemies have been threatening Nehemiah and the people with violence. However, that’s not working anymore because the walls are almost completed. They have enough soldiers to guard the gates. So, they change their tactics from force to fraud.
Nehemiah resisted Satan’s intrigues by standing firm in his priorities. “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” He said, “Oh, no” to the invitation to visit Ono. He wasn’t being arrogant. He just knew that what God had given him to do was important for His sake and for His people’s sake. He was not quite finished. Walls without gates were ineffective. His priority was to finish the wall. He will not allow an unnecessary meeting with the enemy to distract him from that one aim.
Nehemiah stayed true to the dream God had put in his heart. But notice how Nehemiah handled this personal attack against his character. He said once, quickly, “It’s not true!” Then he prayed, “God, give me strength to handle this.” Then he just kept right on doing what he was supposed to do. Nehemiah felt that the truth would ultimately prevail and that he shouldn’t spend a lot of his time and energy trying to deal with rumors and accusations.
Nehemiah’s persistent resistance gained the victory for the Lord. When the enemies and surrounding nations saw that the wall was completed, they lost their confidence. They had to admit that this work had been accomplished because of God (6:15). Even though Nehemiah and the workers on the wall had worked hard, not even their enemies attributed their success to their hard work. Rather, they knew that it was from God.
Then we read, “So Satan gave up the battle and went home, and Nehemiah and the Jews lived happily ever after.” Not exactly!
For us today, Nehemiah is an example for us. We should work as hard as if success depended on us, but all the while we lean totally upon the Lord. We must never put confidence in our work, but only in the God who enables us to work.
Nehemiah couldn’t kick back and admire the wall because these ongoing problems forced him to keep fighting the battle and trusting in the Lord. Sometimes we mistakenly think that some program or building project or other accomplishment will solve all our problems in the church. But we no sooner achieve our goal than other problems erupt. The Lord uses these things to keep us looking to Him rather than kicking back and trusting our work.
When God’s people are at work for God’s purposes, the enemy won’t be far behind. Satan will do all he can do thwart the plan of God, and we certainly see that unfolding in the book of Nehemiah. He tried outward assaults, intimidation from neighboring enemies. But when Nehemiah shrugged those empty threats off, and bolstered the people’s courage, Satan shifted his approach and sought to attack from within. That’s the focus of Nehemiah 5.
The people came to Nehemiah with their problems. There was a famine in the land and some were hurting:
- Some had large families and no food to feed everyone (v. 2)
- Some had to mortgage their property just to afford the rising price of food (v. 3)
- Some were so heavily in debt they were being threatened by the lenders to even sell their children (v. 4-5)
Nehemiah’s response was anger, not merely over the hard circumstances the people faced, but over the unjust and cruel actions of Judah’s nobles that contributed to these difficult situations. The law of God gave specific guidance on lending to one another (Exodus 22:25; Leviticus 25:35-40; Deuteronomy 23:19-20). What these nobles were doing was selfish, wicked, and wrong. But notice v. 7 – there’s a crucial phrase found therein… “I consulted with myself.” Nehemiah was angry, but he thought before he spoke. Self-control is an indispensable quality for effective leadership. When we jump to conclusions, when we lash out in anger, when we explode out of frustration, more harm is done than good. Taking the moment to collect our thoughts, to contemplate our actions, to consider our words (and the tone by which we say them), can make all the difference between peace and war, between conflict and resolution, and in some cases, between pursuing righteousness or furthering sin. Remember what James said, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger…” (JAS 1:21)
After thinking things through Nehemiah confronted the nobles, addressed their sin (v. 7-9), provided the steps they needed to take going forward (v. 10-13). That would have been enough, but the power behind every message spoken is the message lived. Nehemiah is appointed as the governor in the land (v. 14), and in this position of influence he provided the proper example for the people. Though others who were governors before him ate the food allowance provided for the governors, Nehemiah did not. He wouldn’t indulge himself while the people suffered. While others governors told the people to do the work, Nehemiah led by example and worked alongside the people. While other governors horded their goods for themselves, Nehemiah opened his door and invited the people to eat at his table all at his expense. Why? “Because of the fear of God” (v. 15). When honoring God and caring for others becomes our highest priority, we won’t put money, possessions, positions, or projects over another’s wellbeing. Leadership is about people. The nobles forgot that. But Nehemiah reminded them, both in word and in example. What makes a good leader? One who remains in control, who leads by example, who is motivated by the fear of God and love for those we lead. May God mold that kind of heart in our own lives!
“Merciful King, we bow before You in prayer, recognizing You as the great leader. The excellent example set by Your servant Nehemiah is but a shadow pointing to the true leader, Jesus. We’re so thankful for the example He set, the righteous life He modeled, the self-control He possessed while on Earth, the priority He pursued of Your will and other’s needs. In our moments of anger, give us the strength to step away and consult with ourselves, and with You. In the moments we’re tempted to quickly lash out, help us to instead to slow our speech and our actions down. It is our desire to live lives that are worth imitating, lives that are striving to imitate Christ. We ask for greater mindfulness of our influence, and greater devotion to that perfect pattern of Your beloved Son. May our lives lead others to You.”