Lessons on Leadership from Nehemiah
We’ve reached the end of our February special. A month in Nehemiah. A month with one of the greatest leaders who’s walked this earth. What makes leaders like Nehemiah great is that they follow the wisdom and guidance of God. They are molded by compassion, touched by the needs and cares of people. They are driven by conviction, protectors of integrity, and most importantly they are people of faith.
The reason the leadership of Nehemiah is so impressive is because he points us to the greatest leader there is – to Jesus. It was Jesus who saw people as sheep without a shepherd. It was Jesus who predicated and punctuated each day in prayer. It was Jesus who provided the perfect example to follow – who lived in self-control. It was Jesus who invested His life in His Creation – in people.
Leadership is about people – and God is about people. He cares for people. Jesus came for people. His teaching was to instruct people. His miracles were to bless people, pointing people to the evidence of who He was. The cross was for the sins of people. The empty tomb provides living hope for people. “The word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 1:14) – among who? Among people.
Leadership is about people. All around us are people God has placed in our lives – our mates, our children, our brethren, our neighbors, our extend families, our coworkers. I may never hold a formal office or role, or be recognized in public ways, but my life and example will influence another. Where is my life leading others who see and hear me each day? What influence am I bringing into their life? Within each person is the potential for change, for maturing and for growth. Within each person is the potential to become more and more like Jesus. Though there are times and situations that require intentional planning and direction, much of our influence flows from the daily devotion to Christ, and commitment to walking the way that’s right.
May God bless the influence of our lives to point all who see it closer and closer to Jesus.
“Our Faithful Leader, You are our greatest influence. Your word guides our feet. Your Son is our pattern and example. Your praise and glory is our aim. Your home is our reward. Lead us onward Father. And bless the influence of our lives to impact another for You.”
Time has passed by the final chapter in this book. Nehemiah had returned to Babylon and “some time later” he returned to Jerusalem. Not only did time change, but the people had changed as well. And not for the better –
- Eliashib the Priest allowed an enemy to dwell in the Temple courts (v. 6-9)
- The Levites were not given their support and stopped their work (v. 10-14)
- The people were working on the Sabbath day, not respecting God’s law (v. 15-22)
- The people had married women of other nations, resulting in ungodly influences among the people (v. 23-27)
To each of these issues Nehemiah provided the proper response. He gave direction and guidance. He offered rebuke. He stayed and helped them fix what had changed in the time he had been gone.
There’s a lesson here. To quote Winston Churchill – “Never give up. Never, never, never give up.” The success of today doesn’t guarantee the success of tomorrow. The victories of the past doesn’t mean there won’t be failures in the future. If leadership is about people, people have good days and bad days. People succeed and people fail. People learn but then people forget. People grow, but people also shrink.
It can be that as one generation learns and grows and overcomes weaknesses and problems, there will arise a new generation to face those same challenges and problems. We might think, as leaders, “Didn’t we beat this? Didn’t we overcome this? Shouldn’t’ they know more by now?” I wonder how often God could think those thoughts about me?
Success as a leader is not determined by one moment, one issue, one challenge – but a lifetime. Yes, we live one day at a time. And yes, we face one issue at a time (brick by brick). But the measure of a leader is seen in the life they live – the influence of one’s life. It is the consistent, day by day living, the example set over years and years, the intentional relationships we form and teachings we provide spanning over years.
The final chapter in Nehemiah reminds us that not every follower will follow their leader. Despite how excellent a leader may be, and how pure their example, and how strong their voice, leadership is about people, and people choose who they will follow. I’m sure it could be easy, in Nehemiah’s shoes, to be discouraged finding the people he had worked so hard on, to be so far from where he left them. Parents of prodigals, mates of the spiritually uninterested, shepherds of the straying sheep, can all share those feelings. But notice the last words, “Remember me, O my God, for good.” It’s as if Nehemiah is saying: I did my best. I tried my hardest. I know I wasn’t perfect, but I gave all I had for these people, for their good, and for Your good. Remember the good I sought to do, O Lord. Isn’t that all we can do – we do our best, we try to provide a godly influence and direction over the people entrusted to us – whether or not they choose to follow.
Just do your best. Do all you can do. Never, ever give up. And when it’s all said and done, we hand our work and our efforts over to the Lord, departing this life with the same prayer on our lips, “Lord, in all we have done, we ask You remember us, the ways we tried our best, and You remember us for good.”
“Righteous God, You who are holy and good, we humbly ask You strengthen our hearts to never give up on the people You have placed in our lives. Help us day by day to do our best, knowing that’s all we can do. Bless our efforts. And when our work is completed, remember us for good.”
There are four aspects of a heart that is right before God.
First, a pure heart (Neh. 12:30). “When the priests and Levites had purified themselves ceremonially, they purified the people, the gates and the wall.” Before there was one moment of celebration there was purification. We have a lot of information about how in the Old Testament the Jews purified themselves through ceremonial washings. But God never thought that external washing would make somebody clean. God hoped that through the process of these external washings, the people would have time to reflect on their need for internal cleanliness. As they did that this day, they saw the solution was to set themselves apart for God.
Second, a worshipful heart (Neh. 12:27, 31-43). The dedication of the wall was a time to praise the Lord. Nehemiah organized two choirs to walk in opposite directions on top of the wall until they converged at the temple. They sang praises to the accompaniment of cymbals, harps, and lyres. God doesn’t want our work if He doesn’t have our worship. To worship God is to rejoice in and extol His great attributes and actions. It is to reverence God above all else. True worship is not just outward, but inward. It engages the mind, the heart, the will, and the emotions.
Third, a joyful heart (Neh.12:43). We get the distinct impression that these people were enjoying themselves! Note the emphasis on joy. It is mentioned four times in verse 43, and again in verse 44. It says, “The joy of Jerusalem was heard from afar.” “It wasn’t their song that was heard from afar, but their joy” (Swindoll, p. 188). Outsiders heard their joy! Have you ever been outside of a stadium when a ball game was going on inside, and suddenly the crowd roared? We know when that happens that something good happened inside! In the same way, people should be able to walk by the church and think, “Something good is going on in there!” In fact, God has hit a grand-slam homerun for us through Jesus Christ. We need to be so caught up with what God has done that His great joy radiates from this place!
Fourth, a giving heart (12:44-47). These people gave joyfully so that God’s work could go forward. They saw the importance of worship at the temple, and they were willing to give the necessary offerings to support the many priests, Levites, gatekeepers, and singers who served there. The people did it because they “rejoiced over the priests and Levites who served” (12:44).
We are attracted to warm, generous people who freely share what is theirs with others. One of the most reliable gauges of our heart before God is our giving. If God is going to use us to serve to others, we need to have a generous heart.
William Carey was a cobbler before he left for the mission field. He would keep a map of India before him in his shop, stopping every so often to study it. He longed to go there and preach the gospel.
He did a lot of preaching and teaching on the side, with the result that his trade dwindled. One day a friend admonished him for neglecting his business. “Neglecting my business?” Carey said. “My business is to extend the kingdom of God. I only cobble shoes to pay expenses.”
That should be the mindset of every Christian.
For us today, to be right with God, our heart must be right. When our heart is right our worship will flow from a joyful heart. Giving is no longer a burden but a privilege. Strict adherence to Bible truth does not mean we are a bunch of grumblers. Far from it! Bible truths teach us that it is a joy to worship God and give to Him and His people.
When we think of Jerusalem we think of a huge, massively populated city. And certainly there are times it was. But Nehemiah 7:4 tells us that the city was “large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt.” Without those large, protective walls, the people didn’t feel safe to dwell in Jerusalem. But now that the walls are rebuilt, and the people are on the right path of pursuing the Lord, how could Nehemiah go about repopulating Jerusalem.
What seems to take place in Nehemiah 11 is this leader’s steps to fill the city once again. The first step was the leaders moving into the newly walled city, no doubt at Nehemiah’s prompting. Afterwards the people cast their lots to select one out of every ten Israelites to join them. What we find through chapter 11 is the list of people who were moving back to the city.
What lessons of leadership can we learn from this chapter?
One Step at a Time – Nehemiah didn’t do everything at once. He didn’t hold the spiritual revival, the preaching of the Word, the humble confession in prayer, the repopulating of the city, while rebuilding the walls. First things first – he set his priorities in place and accomplished one thing at a time. Sometimes we can get to hasty. We try to pack on too much on our plates, placing impossible burdens on those under our influence. We expect too much without taking the time to prepare, to equip, to help others (or ourselves) succeed. A wall is built brick by brick. Habits are built one day at a time. Remember, leadership is about people. Inward growth and maturity takes time. It’s a process. It involves practice. It involves instruction. It involves mentoring. It involves time – it requires patience. Leadership is seeing the end goal, and setting reasonable, reachable steps to get there all along the way. “I want my kids to love the Lord with all their heart and serve Him, so we’re going to spend time every day in the Word, setting a foundation while they’re young, reading _______ books, and we’re going to worship as a family, and find ways to serve others each week…”.
People Need a Push – it’s hard to break out of the comfort zone. Leaving the plains of Judea to live in Jerusalem was risky. But it was the right move. As more and more people moved in, the city would grow, and with more people comes more revenue, comes more protection, comes greater growth. As a leader sometimes we need to push our people beyond their comfort. We don’t grow in the green pastures, but through following the Shepherd on the path of righteousness, a path that can take us new, even difficult, directions. The times we’re challenged are often the opportunities for maturing. It takes bravery to push past the fears and doubts that say “we can’t”, and to step out of the boat, onto the waves, and deepen our faith, keeping our eyes on the Savior.
“Precious Shepherd of our souls, we give you thanks for the list of names read in Nehemiah 11, of the brave souls who overcame comfort and fear and moved to Jerusalem. No matter how strong, how wise, how mature we believe we are today, give us the courage to pursue more, to continue to push and to grow, to become more and more like Jesus. And help our lives encourage others to follow on that same path.”
In Nehemiah chapter 10, Israel is not making a covenant with God. She is making a firm agreement to live according to the existing covenant that God had established through Moses. In essence, this was Israel’s way of saying that they were going to start taking God seriously. They showed they meant business in two ways.
First, by their willingness to write it down and sign their names. Second, by binding their promise with a curse and with an oath. In other words, they said in their agreement, “Lord, if we don’t keep this promise then may we receive the curses that are found in Your law for disobedience.”
Let’s look at the three specific promises they made to God.
Promise number one is when they say, “We will maintain our distinctness in personal relationships. We will stand out from the crowd when it comes to our choices about who we allow ourselves to be closely aligned with. We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the people around us or take their daughters for our sons” (Neh. 10:30). The concern here is not racial; it’s religious. The Law said specifically, “If you marry pagan peoples, it will affect your walk with God” (Ex. 34:15-16). When it comes to trusting God, isn’t that the real issue for many of us when it comes to our relationships? Are we willing to put our trust in God or in people?
Second, “We will maintain our distinctness in our money making.” They said to God in their agreement, “When the neighboring peoples bring merchandise or grain to sell on the Sabbath, we will not buy from them on the Sabbath or on any holy day. Every seventh year we will forgo working the land and will cancel all debts” (Neh. 10:31). There is a time for business and there is a time to forget about business. Israel was making a vow to be governed by a higher principle than profit. Once again, the real issue is trusting God. Are we going to trust God to make up what we give up?
Finally, they said, “We will maintain our distinctness in matters of faith” (Neh. 10:32-39). At the very end in verse 39 they close by saying, “We will not neglect the house of our God.” In other words, taking God seriously meant that Israel was going to be conscientious about the care and maintenance of the temple and its activities. Israel made promises to put God’s will first in their homes, business and in their faith. Once again, they were pledging to demonstrate their distinctness to the nations around them by showing how much they trusted God when those first fruits of harvest came in. They were saying we are going to trust God to bring in the rest of the harvest. We’re going to put Him first.
For us today, in Nehemiah’s day the place where God dwelled was the Temple, that is the place they said, “We will not neglect.” Where does God live now? Today the house of God is within you. Talk about a mind-boggling concept! This passage urges us to place the highest priority on the inner person where Jesus Christ resides, where the Holy Spirit has built His temple (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
God doesn’t try to trick us with fine print. We’ve all signed documents that we didn’t read closely, and we found out later that we wish we had because we didn’t read the fine print. God doesn’t put fine print in the terms of His covenant. He is honest and up front about what He wants.
“If you’re going to follow Me and come into My kingdom, you’re going to put Me before all other relationships. You’ll put Me ahead of all other agendas. You’ll put Me ahead of all other choices.” To be Lord at all, means He’s Lord of all. He wants to be taken seriously.