Lessons on Leadership from Nehemiah
The enthusiasm with which we begin a project is often not the same with which we end. Nehemiah got the work started. The people were working on the wall with all their heart, and they got the wall up to “half its height” (4:6). Halfway is a very critical and difficult place. It’s easy to get people excited about doing good work, but when the sweat begins to roll off their face, and their muscles begin to hurt, and they see they’ve still got a long way to go, it’s hard to keep them excited.
“So, we rebuilt the wall till all of it reached half its height, for the people worked with all their heart.” (4:6). Then the very next verse begins with a word of contrast, “But.” Things are about to change. The enemy shows up and in verse 10 we learn that the builders become discouraged and say, “We cannot rebuild the wall.” They went from working with all their heart to being half-hearted about their work. What did Nehemiah do to help them overcome their discouragement?
He changed their focus. Nehemiah knew that the real problem was not that there was too much rubble. The real problem was not that they were worn out. The real problem was that they failed to remember the Lord, Who is “great and awesome,” and they got afraid. So, he says to the people, “Get your eyes off the rubble, and get your eyes off our enemies, and get your eyes back on God” (4:14).
He concentrated on their safety. He armed all the workers. He posted 24-hour guards. He put extra people in the exposed places. “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard.” Remember in the face of ridicule, Nehemiah prayed, but now in the face of threat, Nehemiah prays and acts—he posts a guard!
Vision! – He Challenged Their Future. He said in verse 14, “Fight for your brothers, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.” In other words, he says, “We’re not just building a wall here, we are building a future.” Discouraged people need to see hope for the future.
Unity! – He Consolidated Their Forces (see 4:19-23). He said, “Do you know what the problem is? We’re so spread out that we can’t be there for each other.” So, he had a man stand beside him with a trumpet, and he said, “If I ever blow this trumpet, I want everyone to come to the sound and we’re going to stand beside the person in trouble.” Then he said, “Some of you are staying outside the city at night, and that’s not going to happen anymore. I want everybody to move inside the city.”
For us today, Nehemiah accomplished two things by consolidating his forces.
First, he increased their dependence on one other. If somebody was being attacked, everyone would run to their side to help. Nehemiah knew that fellowship with fellow believers is a great remedy for discouragement. What does this say to us? We need to listen. When someone says, “I need help,” we run to help. Sometimes it’s not so straight forward. Someone’s in trouble and we need to see the signs and run to their side. We need to encourage them and fight with them.
Second, he insulated them from the enemy. Some people were walking to their homes outside of Jerusalem every night . Along the way they could easily be ambushed by the enemy. If they weren’t ambushed, the enemy would certainly try to tell them a bunch of lies that were meant to scare them. Look at that word “near” in verse 12. It was precisely because some Jews were living so close to the enemy, that the rumors began, and the discouragement set in.
Usually, discouraged disciples have taken their eyes off the Lord, or they’ve forgotten their future, or they haven’t been around brothers and sisters in a while. To build for God, we need people pulling for each other. It will be hard to win the battle unless we care a lot about the person next to us.
With the city inspected and the people properly motivated, Nehemiah sets a plan to start the work. The chapter is fairly easily to follow – the work follows the seven gates of the city, starting with the sheep gate on the north side of the city and moving in a counterclockwise direction until eventually returning to it. Described through this chapter is Nehemiah’s detailed plan on how the people were to pursue this work. What’s clear about Nehemiah’s plan is that he didn’t underestimate the task, he didn’t put off getting the work started, nor did he try to get too much done at once.
One of the brilliance of Nehemiah’s plan is that he got everyone involved. We find mentioned several groupings of people – priests, men of Jericho, union men, city officials, women, bachelors, temple servants, city guards, merchants – and that doesn’t include the vast number of individuals who would offer their talents and strengths to this massive project.
Nehemiah had the mammoth project of rebuilding the walls organized. If everyone built where they were assigned, there would be no gaps in the wall. They all worked close to one another. There was also a sense of convenience and motivation to where each built. There’s a phrase found all through this chapter, “in front of their house.” Not only would this be convenient, no time would be lost commuting to a different work site, but building the protective wall in front of where one lived would ensure they built it well.
What do we learn about leadership from this week’s reading? Leaders get everyone involved. The old way of thinking is, “If you want something done right you’ve got to do it yourself.” The Biblical way of thinking is that we are better when we work together (ECC 4:9). Within every person is a talent God has given, a strength that can be used, an ability that can be utilized and developed, the potential for greatness. Paul taught that the body of Christ grows which each member does their part (EPH 4:11-16). In every home, in every office, in every congregation, the leaders seek to utilize every single person. Everyone has a job. Everyone has a role. Everyone has something to contribute. Everyone is important. Everyone has potential to grow and learn. Everyone can make a difference. The walls wouldn’t have been completed were it not for the work of every single person. Leaders aren’t focused on the best and brightest – they’re focused on their people. Every one.
Nehemiah 3 is a recognition of the workers who helped to restore the walls of Jerusalem. It’s neat reading through the chapter and thinking about each name, each person, each section of the wall. Did they do something special on those bricks as a reminder of their work – leaving their initials or their fingerprints? Did they take personal pride in knowing the walls in front of their house would keep their family safe for generations? There’s one important detail in this chapter – it’s what is missing. Did you notice the name missing from this chapter? Nehemiah’s name is not found among the workers on the wall. That’s not because he didn’t work, in fact he did just as much as the rest of the people, if not more so. The reason his name is not found in this chapter is because leaders don’t lead for recognition and praise. Nehemiah gave credit to others, put the focus on the people, and ultimately on God (NEH 6:16). Remember, leadership isn’t about products and projects, nor is it about recognition and praise – leadership is about people. “With the people God has entrusted under my influence, how can I bring them to a better place” or from today’s reading, “how can I help every person get involved?”
“Righteous God and Father, thank You this day for the wisdom recorded in this section of Your words. What a blessing You’ve given through the combined efforts of every person. You have given us families, brethren, communities and groups that enjoy great success collectively and individually when we all work towards the common goal. When pride would creep into my heart against another, help me to see the value of others, and to keep Your purpose as my own, to help each person under my influence come to know You, and grow to become more and more like You. Just as You gave Jesus for every single person, help me to pursue what is best for every single person in my sphere of influence, for Your name’s sake.”
Clearly, one of the great characteristics of Nehemiah is his dependence on prayer. He was far away from the temple, but he continually turned to the God of heaven who needs no temple to hear from His servants. Nehemiah often offered brief “arrow prayers”; short, and shot straight into heaven, “The king said to me, ‘What would you request?’ So, I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said to the king...” (Nehemiah 2:4-5). Also, Nehemiah was a great man of penitent prayers. He knew how to weep in prayer. He was a man of dependent prayers, putting himself in the hands of God. One of the things that made Nehemiah’s prayers so powerful is, they were full of Scripture. This young man raised in exile, was also raised in Scripture, for he often prayed the promises of God. Nothing is more powerful than asking God to do what He has promised to do.
Doors of opportunity are built by patient prayer. One reason we often fail to seize our opportunities is because we will not wait for God to act. So, we rush out with our plans, and we begin to force it when the time isn’t ready yet. When we think we know what God wants, it’s hard to wait for the doors to open.
One version starts chapter two saying, “One day four months later.” That is what it means. In Chapter one he said this whole thing started in the month of Kislev, that’s December on our calendar. Then chapter two says, “In the month of Nisan,” that’s the month of April on our calendar. So, Nehemiah is saying every day from December to April he prayed constantly for God to open a door, and nothing happened. Every day for four months he wrote the same thing in his journal, “Prayed again today, nothing happened.” Yet, he remained patient and persistent in prayer and waited for God to make the opportunity. Nehemiah patiently waited on the Lord for directions.
When we wait on the Lord in prayer, we are not wasting our time; we are investing it. God is preparing both us and our circumstances so that His purposes will be accomplished. However, when the right time arrives for us to act by faith, we dare not delay.
For today, we need to stop the frantic pace of life long enough to pray, even if it is a short prayer. Though it may be short, don’t rush to get done. Also, we must be persistent beyond what we might think is a reasonable time for God to answer. Time is what we live by, not God.
The book of Nehemiah provides lessons not merely about faith, or about trust in God; the book of Nehemiah is one of the greatest books on leadership that’s ever been written. While that may not be the primary purpose of the book, the example this humble servant of the Lord provides helps us to see what true God-focused leadership looks like. Every one of us are leaders in some capacity. It may not be in a formal role or setting. It could be at home, or in the neighborhood, or in a congregation. Leadership simply defined is influence – an influence that provides direction and guidance for another.
The book of Nehemiah begins setting the context in place – the people of God had been in Babylonian captivity for the past 70 years. After which, through God’s providence and the defeat of the Babylonians, the Persians allowed God’s people to return to their homeland. Some did, and some remained. Nehemiah is one who remained. Scripture reveals he lived in Susa, the capital of the Persian empire, and worked as a cupbearer for the king. That may not sound like an important position from our modern contexts, but in the ancient world a cupbearer was one who would taste the king’s wine to make sure it was safe before he drank it. Only someone of utmost trustworthiness would be allowed such a position. Because of his consistent close interactions with the king, he acquired an influence far beyond most.
The first chapter opens with one of Nehemiah’s brothers visit to Susa from Jerusalem. Nehemiah asks about the status of their homeland, and is told the crippling news – it is still vulnerable and unprotected. The once safe and stable capital of God’s people now so weak and feeble. The fallen state of Jerusalem is but a visual picture of Proverbs 14:34 – “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin is a disgrace to any people.”
Nehemiah’s response to the news of Jerusalem provides us two power principles of leadership:
- Leaders Recognize the Seriousness of the Situation (v. 2-4) – Susa was safe, his job was secure, his life was in good shape – so why ask? To ask is to get involved. To ask is to convey interest and concern. Though living in Susa Nehemiah was still a child of God and cared for His people and God’s city. And when told about the city his response told it all – he didn’t sugarcoat it, downplay it, or ignore it. For days he mourned, wept, and fasted. The serious situation in Jerusalem demanded a serious response from it’s citizens. Do you know the condition of those you are leading (PROV 27:23)? How’s the spiritual, mental, emotional, physical condition of your mate, your children, your brethren, your coworkers – those under your care?
- Leaders Know Where to Begin (v. 5-11) – first things first, the highest priority for Nehemiah was to bring these burdens to the Lord. Before crafting his plan to repair the wall, and preparing his speech to the king, his first step was to talk with God. In reading Nehemiah’s prayer it’s obvious this isn’t new or out of the ordinary for him, rather we get a glimpse of a man who had built the habit of praying often with his God. Great leaders are great prayer(er)s. In reading through his prayer we see the building blocks of how to pray well – the acronym ACTS – adoration, confession, thanksgiving, and supplication. And it all flowed from such a humble heart – a heart that cared enough to ask, a heart that placed himself in the fault of the problem, as well as placing himself as part of the solution. Are things not well at home, with the brethren, at work, with your people? Pray. Pray. Pray. Pray deep. Pray often.
If leadership is about influence, the greatest influence comes from the greatest influencer – the one who holds even the hearts of kings in His hands (PROV 21:1). Nehemiah understood something we tend to forget – leadership isn’t about products and projects, it even wasn’t truly about a wall that remained broken down. Leadership is about people. Leaders know about their people, and leaders pray often about their people.
“Almighty God, You are our highest motivation, our strongest influence. We seek to know Your will and to follow Your ways above and before all else, because Your ways and Your plans are always perfect and good. As leaders, in whatever capacity we fill, we ask for your blessing. Help us have hearts molded with compassion, filled with concern for those whom we are over. Help us to remember that leadership is more than products and service, even in the rebuilding of the walls, leadership is about people. We are thankful for each person you have placed under our influence, and ask you use us, the instruction of our words and the example of our lives to lead others closer and closer to You. May this prayer be but one of many moments shared with You this day.”
Nehemiah is the story of a man who built up the people of God by returning to Jerusalem to build up the walls around the city of God. When he arrived in the city, he saw it was in ruins. A lot of people are very interested in ruins, and they will go all over the world to see certain ruins. The Acropolis in Athens is one of the most famous ruins in the world. Thousands of tourists visit that notable hill every year, and secretly steal small marble pieces from among the ruins. Yet there continues to be enough ruins left, because the people of Athens understand that people love ruins, so every couple of months a large dump truck comes by at a quiet time and pours a whole new load of marble chunks across the face of that mountain.
In Nehemiah, we find that God has a little different attitude about ruins than we do. He isn’t nearly as enamored with them as we are. God would rather build, than sight see. Building up spiritual houses is what the book of Nehemiah is all about. As one author has put it, “Survival has replaced revival as the plan for the future.” Nehemiah was one of God’s great builders, and from this God-lead man we can learn how to leave behind the ruins of our past and learn how to be used by God as living stones to build up His kingdom.
The one God used to build up His people, is truly a remarkable man. The Book of Nehemiah opens with these words: “The words of Nehemiah, the son of Hacaliah.” The book appears to be largely, if not entirely, based on the personal memoirs of this governor of Judea. Much of the book is written in the first person. Therefore, we have an opportunity to get an intimate, inside-look into the life of this man. His story is a continuation of the thrilling history portrayed in Ezra. The lives of Ezra and Nehemiah overlapped. In fact, their two books were considered a single unity for centuries. While Ezra deals primarily with the religious restoration of Judah, Nehemiah is concerned with Judah’s political and geographical restoration. The first seven chapters are devoted to the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls because Jerusalem was the spiritual and political center of Judah. Without walls, Jerusalem could hardly be considered a city at all. As governor, Nehemiah also established firm civil authority. Ezra and Nehemiah worked together to build the people spiritually and morally so that the restoration would be complete.
For the month of February, we want to consider Nehemiah’s life from the book that bears his name. We will learn many lessons useful for us today.
In this reading, we learn the need to have a heart for God’s business. Nehemiah did not have to go to Jerusalem. But Jerusalem was the place God had recorded His name. As far as he was concerned, he had no other option than to go.
We must have that same kind of mind toward God’s business today. It probably won’t be building walls, but we will see he also built up the people. Yes, somebody else could do it, but we must personally feel the need to help.