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Lessons in Leadership from Nehemiah

Gregory E. Reynolds

Introduction

Nothing is more necessary in the church and its witness to the world than godly male leadership, including church officers, husbands, fathers, and any man in a position of influence. Nehemiah gives us a sterling example from God’s Word of what faithful leadership looks like. He oversaw the temporary restoration of the City of God, looking forward to the ultimate heavenly city described in Hebrews 11:16: “They desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”

The Problem Faced by Nehemiah

The temple worship, law, and city of Jerusalem needed to be restored. The walls of Jerusalem had been destroyed in 586 BC at the beginning of the exile, and again in 446 BC, ninety years after the return from seventy years of captivity in Babylon. High priest Joshua and ruler Zerrubabel restored the Temple; Ezra re-established the authority of the Mosaic Covenant and God’s law; and Nehemiah restored the City of Jerusalem as the center of God’s kingdom. After Ezra’s reform, the Jews in Jerusalem had begun to rebuild the walls, but the Samaritans agitated to have King Artaxerxes (464–424 BC) of Persia order the rebuilding halted.

Nehemiah: Priest and Cupbearer

Nehemiah was the son of Hacaliah (Neh. 1:1) and one of his brothers was called Hanani (Neh. 1:2; 7:2). He was probably a priest, since Nehemiah 10:1–8 lists him first in list of names ending “these are the priests.” In 2 Maccabees 1:21 he is called “Nehemiah the priest,” (DRA)[1] and possibly by 2 Maccabees 1:18, where it is said that Nehemiah “offered sacrifices, after that he had builded the temple and the altar” (KJV). He must have been raised by godly Jewish parents in exile in Babylon. His integrity and giftedness lead to his being appointed by Artaxerxes to the responsible position of cupbearer to the king.

Cupbearer to the king was an office of “no trifling honor.”[2] One of the chief duties was to taste the wine for the king to see that it was not poisoned. He was even admitted into the king’s presence while the queen was present (Neh. 2:6). “It was on account of this position of close intimacy with the king that Nehemiah was able to obtain his commission as governor of Judea and the letters and edicts which enabled him to restore the walls of Jerusalem.”[3] So he was not only a sommelier, but a trusted counselor.

Nehemiah: Governor of Judea[4]

Hanani and other men of Judah visited Nehemiah in Susa in the ninth month of the twentieth year of Artaxerxes (445 BC). They told him that the walls of Jerusalem were broken down and its gates burned. The Jews were enduring a great trial. So, Nehemiah grieved, fasted, and prayed that the Lord would grant him favor with the king in order to engage in restoration. In the first month of the following year (444 BC) Nehemiah was granted permission to go to restore Jerusalem. In order to do this he was given letters of introduction to the governors of Syria and Palestine and especially to Asaph, the keeper of the king's forest, who provided materials for rebuilding. He was also appointed governor, and given authority over the province of which Jerusalem was the capital.

As Nehemiah began the restoration of the walls he was opposed by Sanballat, the governor of Samaria. Eventually, with God’s help and the exercise of faith and diligence, the restoration was completed.

He then instituted a number of social reforms among God’s people.

He appointed the officers necessary for better government, caused the people to be instructed in the Law by public readings, and expositions; celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles; and observed a national fast, at which the sins of the people were confessed and the covenant with Yahweh was renewed. The people agreed to avoid marriages with the heathen, to keep the Sabbath, and to contribute to the support of the temple. He also provide for the safety and prosperity of the city.[5]

In this work of reformation he was assisted by Ezra, who had gone up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes (458 BC).

The Covenantal Context

In the Mosaic covenant, as an administration of the covenant of grace, Israel’s continuance in the promised land was conditioned on their obedience to the law. The exile resulted from disobedience (Neh. 1:8–9; Neh. 9:26–27). In Ezra the Levites took an oath to keep the law of Moses (Ezra 10:3–5). So, Nehemiah was a believer in exile, seeking faithfulness to the Mosaic covenant, undergirded by the covenant of grace and looking forward by faith to the new covenant, prophesied by Jeremiah.

Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. (Jer. 31:31–32)

This new covenant would be different in the way Paul explains in Romans:

Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness that is based on the law, that the person who does the commandments shall live by them. But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’” (that is, to bring Christ down) or “Who will descend into the abyss?” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim); because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Rom. 10:1–9)

So too at the present time there is a remnant, chosen by grace. But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. (Rom. 11:5–6)

Principles of Leadership

From Nehemiah we learn the nature of the covenant commitment that fortified him to perform his God-given task in restoring the walls of Jerusalem and restoring integrity to the government of God’s people according to the law of God.

Nehemiah’s Covenant Commitment

Because of Nehemiah’s covenant commitment, graciously given to him by Yahweh’s commitment to his people, based on the underlying covenant of grace, he learned to overcome fear with faith. Not that he didn’t struggle with fear, “Then I was very much afraid” (Neh. 2:2), but he overcame it by faith.

1. Nehemiah Had Trusted God’s Agenda

God’s agenda was Nehemiah’s agenda. Nehemiah was thoroughly committed to the building of God’s kingdom. This was his chief motivation: to glorify his Lord. Nehemiah practiced the answer to Shorter Catechism question 1. He knew how to genuinely motivate God’s people to assist in following God’s agenda because he knew that God was at work: “I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. . . . the God of heaven will make us prosper” (Neh. 2:17–20). He was not afraid to confront the sin of God’s people, because he feared God more than men. “You are exacting interest, each from his brother. . . . The thing that you are doing is not good” (Neh. 5:6–13).

2. Nehemiah Believed in the Power of Prayer

Nehemiah regularly availed himself of his connection with heaven via prayer. He recognized that the LORD dwells in the invisible heavenly realm to which he had access by grace through prayer. He made all his plans to rebuild Jerusalem prayerfully, depending on the Lord to bring his plans to fruition (Neh. 1:4–11; 2:4). His example was followed by others around him (Neh. 4:9). He had a healthy sense of his own inadequacy and God’s adequacy. As he planned to protect the city against God’s enemies he reminded the people: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome” (Neh. 4:10–17).

3. Nehemiah Had Faith in God’s Sovereignty

Nehemiah trusted God’s sovereign control of history. Nehemiah respected God’s providential authority structure in the common grace order. He knew that ultimately God controls the “powers that be” since they are, wittingly or unwittingly, his “ministers,” as Paul teaches in Romans 13:1–7.

4. Nehemiah Trusted God’s Word and Worship

Nehemiah called God’s people to return to the Mosaic covenant. In Nehemiah 8, Ezra read the law at the Feast of Tabernacles and the people repented and renewed their commitment to the LORD and his covenant. This was the first such renewal since Joshua’s day. Covenant renewal looks forward to the new covenant. Meanwhile, Nehemiah promoted the means of grace by restoring true worship according the Mosaic regulations (Neh. 9:1ff), so the people “made confession and worshiped the LORD their God” (v. 3b). Their worship was heartfelt: “they cried out with a loud voice to the LORD their God” (v. 4b). Repenting of idolatry, they acknowledged their covenant LORD as the Creator and only true God: “You are the LORD, you alone” (v. 6).

Nehemiah’s Covenant Practice

5. Nehemiah was Wise and Careful in his Decision-Making and Communications

Nehemiah was wise and thoughtful in decision-making, unlike Moses, who was hasty in defending God’s people in murdering an Egyptian. God sent Moses for Shepherd training in the wilderness for forty years. He learned patience and covenantal deliberation.

Nehemiah understood the need to consult wise counselors, so, he worked with a group of trusted leaders, not independently. As Proverbs teaches, “in an abundance of counselors there is safety. . . . victory” (Prov. 11:14, 24:6).

But Nehemiah was careful not to reveal his plans until he could identify trustworthy people. He did not broadcast his plans to everyone, but was wise in his communications. Early on, only the king knew of his plans in Jerusalem. He wanted to survey the situation prior to making his plans known to the Jerusalem leaders (Neh. 2:11–16).

Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. . . . And the officials did not know where I had gone or what I was doing, and I had not yet told the Jews, the priests, the nobles, the officials, and the rest who were to do the work. Then I said to them . . . (Neh. 2:11, 16–17a).

Later he took the same approach regarding the problem of usury mentioned above: “I took counsel with myself” (v. 7a).

On every session confidentiality and unanimity are essential in order to preserve the peace and unity of the church (Eph. 4:1–6). In Acts 15 an important issue was debated by the church leaders at the Jerusalem Council; after debate the decision was supported by all.

6. Nehemiah Made Definite Plans Prayerfully

Prayer is the most fundamental exercise of faith. Nehemiah knew that he needed to use this essential means of grace to rebuild the City of God. But this did not preclude planning. He planned prayerfully. But he never wavered in his God-given purpose. He was not hasty in making his plans or presenting them to the king. Once prayerfully planned, he was deliberate and unwavering in his execution. He knew how to organize God’s people to achieve godly plans. Human planning and God’s purposes work together in Scripture: “The plans of the heart belong to man, but the answer of the tongue is from the LORD. . . . Commit your work to the LORD, and your plans will be established. . . . The heart of man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps” (Prov. 16:1, 3, 9).

7. Nehemiah Faced Opposition with Spiritual Weapons

Nehemiah’s determination can only be explained because, like Paul, he employed spiritual weapons, understanding that his God-given enterprise involved spiritual warfare. “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God and take every thought captive to obey Christ” (2 Cor. 10:4–5).

So, Nehemiah was willing to risk his life in seeking the king’s aid and in facing down the enemies of the kingdom.

But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant heard this, it displeased them greatly that someone had come to seek the welfare of the people of Israel. . . . But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.” (Neh. 2:10, 19–20)

And I looked and arose and said to the nobles and to the officials and to the rest of the people, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” (Neh. 4:14)

Nehemiah was not intimidated by the threats of these enemies of the kingdom (Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem). He did not give in to the counsel of fear and the opposition of the enemy. He responded to their intimidating letters: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Neh. 6:3).

Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.” For they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, “Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done.” But now, O God, strengthen my hands. (Neh. 6:8–9)

Nehemiah was unflustered by leaks (Neh. 6:1) and false accusations that he was seeking to be king, usurping the authority of King Artaxerxes.

What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king? . . . And you have also set up prophets to proclaim concerning you in Jerusalem, “There is a king in Judah.” And now the king will hear of these reports. So now come and let us take counsel together.” (Neh. 2:19, 6:7)

Nehemiah responded affirming God’s power to rebuild and a wise assessment of the nature of their plot:

Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.” . . . Then I sent to him, saying, “No such things as you say have been done, for you are inventing them out of your own mind.” (Neh. 2:20, 6:8)

He dealt firmly and gently with internal complaints (5:1–14). The rich had caused some Jewish debtors to sell children into slavery; to sell possession; and take out equity loans to pay their debts. Nehemiah confronted the rich with God’s law (Neh. 5:6–13). He was not afraid to deal with those who were divisive or sinful. This was also Paul’s approach and should be ours.

I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them. For such persons do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the naive. For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil. The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you. (Rom. 16:17–20)

Nehemiah promoted godly discipline (Neh. 13:1ff; cf. Gal. 6:1, Matt. 18).

He did not quit under pressure. This is a great temptation in the midst of spiritual battle. But, he persevered as a good soldier of Christ as Paul did: “Share in suffering as a good soldier of Christ Jesus. No soldier gets entangled in civilian pursuits, since his aim is to please the one who enlisted him” (2 Tim. 2:3–4, Neh. 4:1ff.). Only the employment of spiritual weapons and the wisdom of God’s Word and patient, pleading prayer will keep leaders from quitting.

8. Nehemiah Trusted God to Provide all of the Resources for His Plan

Nehemiah trusted God to provide all human and material means to fulfill his plans. Prayer and faith are not incompatible with ordinary means. He used wise planning in gathering people and materials (Neh. 2:7–8); and in taking precautions in all of his activities, such as the king’s escort (2:9), and guards (4:22–23, 7:3) on the walls.

9. Nehemiah Made His Trust in God and His Plans Known in All of His Communications

Nehemiah took responsibility for God’s declared mission: “what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem” (Neh. 2:12b). So, in the new covenant, leaders must take responsibility for the mission of the whole church: local, presbytery, national, international. We must take to heart God’s revealed will in the commission of our risen Lord to us (Matt. 28:16–20).

10. Nehemiah Exemplified Jesus Christ as a Self-sacrificing Leader of God’s People

Nehemiah pleaded his own righteousness. “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (Neh. 5:19). Thank God that Nehemiah and we are united to an obedient Christ, whose active obedience has been imputed to us: “just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works” (Rom. 4:6). He recognized that God would achieve the ultimate victory over sin and death: “by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:14–15).

Nehemiah possessed Christ-like character as set forth in the qualifications/qualities of the elder (1 Tim. 3 and Titus 1). Nehemiah entered into the experience of his Savior, suffering for the sake of God’s people. Paul says, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col. 1:24). Nehemiah denied himself by refusing remuneration and spending his own allowance (Neh. 5:14–19).

He faced the enemy with calm trust in God’s deliverance and determination to fulfill his plan. Ultimate deliverance was always within Nehemiah’s purview: “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25–26).

Only Christ can keep the promises of covenant obedience in Nehemiah 8.

For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Rom. 5:19–21)

Nehemiah as a type of Christ restored the ruins of people and places, of bodies and souls. He helped the poor, and called for reformation and discipline in Sabbath keeping, mixed marriages, and tithing.

Nehemiah trusted Jesus Christ as Savior. “Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love” (Neh. 13:22). He knew himself to be a sinner in need of God’s grace. He confessed his own sin in 1:6, “Even I and my father’s house have sinned.” God’s tenaciously faithful love was his ultimate hope (Neh. 1:5, 9:17, 32, 13:22).

Conclusion

Nehemiah faithfully used God-provided resources, worked with God’s people in community, and trusted God to bless every activity in his service. As leaders and officers in the church of Jesus Christ we are called to be kingdom builders, waging spiritual warfare to build the church with trust in God, prayerfully, wisely, and with moral integrity.

Endnotes

[1] Douay-Rheims 1899 American Edition.

[2] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (1939), s.v. “Nehemiah,” from Herodotus iii.34.

[3] International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, (1939), s.v. “Nehemiah.”

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

Gregory E. Reynolds is pastor emeritus of Amoskeag Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Manchester, New Hampshire, and is the editor of Ordained Servant. Ordained Servant, August–September 2018.

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