Leadership Lessons From the Life of Nehemiah
Jan 03, 2016
What is the biggest project you have ever done? Maybe it took a few months to complete or even longer. Now imagine God has given you a stirring vision for the rebuilding of an entire city... How long do you think it would take? 10 years? 50 years? What about 52 days! That is how long it took Nehemiah to rally the demoralized Jewish people and to re-build the walls of Jerusalem and many of the broken down structures inside.1 We would expect that such an amazing feat must require excellent leadership executed perfectly, and indeed, that is what we find in the man Nehemiah. This is what makes him such a fascinating person to study on leadership.
Most likely Nehemiah had never visited Jerusalem in his life 2, but he had heard so much good about the city. Undoubtedly, he had a picture in his mind of how beautiful Jerusalem was; a center of commerce, the beautiful temple, the walls and gates, and everything that made Jerusalem a world-class city. But, upon hearing from Hanani that in reality Jerusalem was in ruins (Nehemiah 1:2-3) Nehemiah was heartbroken.
Recently I watched the two Divergent movies that came out this past year. The series is set in post-apocalyptic Chicago. In the movie, the city is literally in ruins. Everything that makes the city beautiful now is a thing of the past. This CGI-rich movie painted a powerful picture in my mind of how the beautiful city I live in could look after only a few years of desertion (such as was the case with Jerusalem). When reading Nehemiah, I could see how he felt when hearing that his homeland city was in ruins.
So what did Nehemiah do? The average person would have said, “I’m only one person, what can I do?” But Nehemiah did what every great leader must first do: Fast and Pray. In fact, this is a good time to mention that Nehemiah was a leader in prayer, all throughout his book, he tells of his prayers: Nehemiah 1:4; 2:4; 4:4, 9 (just to name a few)
“When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven.” – Nehemiah 1:4
“The king asked, “Well, how can I help you?”With a prayer to the God of heaven.” ” – Nehemiah 2:4
“Then I prayed, “Hear us, our God, for we are being mocked. May their scoffing fall back on their own heads, and may they themselves become captives in a foreign land!” – Nehemiah 4:4
“But we prayed to our God and guarded the city day and night to protect ourselves.” – Nehemiah 4:9
When Nehemiah heard news about Jerusalem (1:4), replied to the king’s question (2:4), and struggled with opposition (4:4, 9), he responded to each situation with prayer. A godly leader looks to and relies on God for strength and direction. Prayer is one of the ways that a godly leader allows God to strengthen him and guide his steps.
Now back to Nehemiah’s plight: For the four months following Hanani’s bad news Nehemiah was silent in his memoirs. All we know is that it was a time of seeking the Lord and preparation. See, Nehemiah was not ready to leave his cushy job as cup-bearer to the king just yet. He had to first develop the skills necessary to lead a group of people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
And this did not take long. Four months passed, yet Nehemiah stood firm in believing God. At this point the narrative kicks into full gear. Nehemiah gets to tell (through an amazing act of Favor) the King of his desire to return to his Father’s homeland and re-build the walls. In order to do this Nehemiah had to be ready with all his facts. He only had one chance to win over the King. Nehemiah 2:4–8:
“The king asked, “Well, how can I help you?” With a prayer to the God of heaven, I replied, “If it please the king, and if you are pleased with me, your servant, send me to Judah to rebuild the city where my ancestors are buried.” The king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked, “How long will you be gone? When will you return?” After I told him how long I would be gone, the king agreed to my request. I also said to the king, “If it please the king, let me have letters addressed to the governors of the province west of the Euphrates River,* instructing them to let me travel safely through their territories on my way to Judah. And please give me a letter addressed to Asaph, the manager of the king’s forest, instructing him to give me timber. I will need it to make beams for the gates of the Temple fortress, for the city walls, and for a house for myself.” And the king granted these requests, because the gracious hand of God was on me.”
Nehemiah was really prepared for the opportunity presented to him in 2:4-8! When the opportunity came to tell the king about why he was sad and what he hoped to do, Nehemiah was ready with every detail and every item he would need for not only the rebuilding, but also the over 900 mile trip to Jerusalem. 3
See, a leader must be prepared and ready when his opportunity comes. When an opportunity arises a leader is only able to take advantage of it if he has adequately prepared for it. That is not to say that just because Nehemiah was flawlessly prepared for his journey that there were not bumps along the way. But because of Nehemiah’s preparation the delays were rendered meaningless.
Despite being so passionate about rebuilding the walls himself, he still had many Jews who were struggling to get into line with his vision. Nehemiah understood that in order to be successful, he must not “go-it- alone” instead he was effective at casting a vision.4 The Bible says that, “Without vision, the people perish (or cast of restraint).” This is what happened to the Jewish people, they had no vision, so they lost the drive to fix their situation. Nehemiah was the antidote to that. For example, one time when the people thought they would be overcome by their enemies. Look how Nehemiah responds:
“Then as I looked over the situation, I called together the nobles and the rest of the people and said to them, “Don’t be afraid of the enemy! Remember the Lord, who is great and glorious, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes!”
- Nehemiah 4:14
When Nehemiah encountered opposition he called together the people and told them not to be afraid and to keep persisting toward the goal. He placed the vision back before them. A godly leader doing God’s work will not be stopped by earthly opposition. He may be delayed or slowed down but not stopped. Furthermore, as we can see, a godly leader takes initiative to prevent the people he leads from being discouraged.
One of the biggest things that stuck out to me about Nehemiah was his servanthood... in other words, Nehemiah led the entire project with a servant’s heart. While the phrase may seem cliché today, Nehemiah was literally a servant leader. As part of the king’s court, he was essentially the chief servant in charge of serving drinks to the king’s table. As the new leader of the rebuilding project and eventual governor of Judea, Nehemiah took the challenge and lead as a servant.
But now I said to them, “You know very well what trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire. Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and end this disgrace!” Then I told them about how the gracious hand of God had been on me, and about my conversation with the king. They replied at once, “Yes, let’s rebuild the wall!” So they began the good work”
Nehemiah said, “let us” rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He included himself and the people he was talking to in the work to be done. A leader realizes that work is a team effort. No leader can accomplish great things alone. Similarly, a leader also does not say, “you do it” because he knows that he also should be involved in the work.
Even when Nehemiah became governor, he was unlike other governors, Nehemiah refused to collect taxes from the poor who had been burdened by famine and economic stress. He also refused to take any land as payment while governing Judah, showing the nation of Israel that his priorities weren’t self centered but outwardly focused.
The final leadership skill I want to highlight was that of Nehemiah’s excellent delegating skills. During the whole building process Nehemiah demonstrated a remarkable skill that leaders often fail at. That is the skill of delegation. Everyone wants a say as at how things should be done, right? When it comes to rebuilding miles of city walls around Jerusalem, there had to be some opinions thrown to Nehemiah.
While we don’t know how many opinions were given during the build, we do know that Nehemiah divided the labor into segments to rebuild sections of the wall. In fact, this is one of the most incredible stories in the Bible that highlights the concept of the division of labor. Nehemiah was able to communicate to the groups of Israelites that the wall would be built faster if teams focused on making their section the best possible.
That theme holds true even in the New Testament when Paul speaks about the body of Christ and how it’s made up of many parts. Israel needed direction and Nehemiah delivered from a management perspective.
Under the leadership of Nehemiah, the walls of the city of Jerusalem were rebuilt in 52 days. A task that had been left undone for 140 years was completed in just 52 days 5 through the leadership of a former cupbearer who approached everything in prayer and careful planning.
How many times have you told yourself, “I’m just a [fill in the blank with your current job].” Nehemiah was just a cupbearer but God used him to do great things because he was willing to lead with integrity and with a servant’s heart.
1 (Hurt, no date)
2 (Gardner, 1996, pp. 491 – 492)
3 (Getz, 1995)
4 (Winston, 1999, pg 30)
5 (Lessons from Nehemiah, no date)
Barber, C. J. and Cyril, B. (2004) The dynamics of effective leadership: Learning
from Nehemiah. 3rd edn. Scotland, U.K.: Christian Focus Publications. Gardner, P. D. (1996) Complete who’s who in the bible, the. Grand Rapids, MI:
Getz, G. A. (1995) Nehemiah: Becoming a disciplined leader (men of character). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
Hurt, M. (no date) Nehemiah - bible study book. Available at: http:// www.lifeway.com/Article/leadership-more-about-availability-than-ability (Accessed: 19 December 2015).
Lessons from Nehemiah: Unexpected leadership - church hiring articles, tips, and resources (no date) Available at: http://www.churchstaffing.com/articles/ employer/lessons-from-nehemiah-unexpected-leadership/ (Accessed: 19 December 2015).
Winston, B. (1999) The spirit of leadership. United States: Bill Winston Ministries.
Nathaniel Spiers is a minister, business owner, and eternal student of the Word of God. He has been called as a teacher to the Body of Christ around the world. His commission is to prepare the church to be the bride Jesus deserves. He is passionate about seeing Christians become Believers and Males become Men.