Nehemiah: A Study in Decisive Leadership
John Peters, Godalming
One of the many valuable lessons to be learned from the book of Nehemiah is that the work of God requires decisive leaders. Nehemiah lived in a period of tremendous crisis for the nation of Israel. The Jews returned from their Babylonian captivity in three stages. In 538-7 B.C. the main party returned to Jerusalem led by Zerub-babel. Then there was Ezra's party in 458, which succeeded in rebuilding the temple and dedicating it. But between the end of the book of Ezra and the beginning of Nehemiah we must probably place the events of Ezra 4. 7-23 which ended with the destruction of the rising walls and the other buildings. To restore the situation, a resourceful and energetic leader was needed., and this man was Nehemiah, who returned with his party in 445. What qualities, then, did he exhibit as a leader? For the answer we can turn to the book that bears his name.
Firstly, we notice that when he heard of the disasters at Jerusalem he did not take a precipitate action; rather his approach was one of patient waiting, prayer and fasting. Nehemiah was clearly prepared to wait for God tospeak; indeed comparing 1.1 with 2. 1, a delay of between four and eight months is likely. Here then was God's man waiting for Him to provide the appropriate moment in which to take action. A similar thing is seen in the life of the apostle Paul. In Galatians 1 he gives an account of his being specially commissioned to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles (the heathen). In fulfilling this commission Paul did not follow the counsel of men, but waited instead for God to reveal Himself and to provide the next opportunity. Consequently he deliberately turned away from all human influence and spent three years in Arabia and then Damascus, during which time he waited upon God. Then when he felt that it was the right time, he moved out into triumphant service for his Master. What a lesson there is here for all leaders of assemblies.
Secondly, we notice that Nehemiah was a man of prayer. It is instructive to indicate the following aspects of his prayer-life: (1) It was persistent. He prayed for many months, in a systematic way, to obtain God's advice on the difficult situation confronting him; his life was in a very real sense prayer-orientated. (2) He had a true conception of God's greatness and character. To Nehemiah He is the "Lord God of heaven", "the great and terrible God", 1. 5, and he realizes that for God to listen to his prayer at all is an act of divine love and grace. (3) He frankly confesses that the children of Israel both personally and collectively had sinned against their God. (4) Nehemiah prayed with great earnestness—see 1. 11. (5) He prayed expectantly—see 1, 8-9. (6) Nehe-miah's prayer was based on the language of Scripture—on four occasions there are clear links with the book of Deuteronomy. Prayer changed the course of events in Nehemiah's day and strengthened him in the inner man.
The place of prayer in the lives of New Testament believers is equally apparent. There are numerous references, for example, in the Acts of the Apostles to the importance of prayer in the life of the growing church. Prayer was made in the following circumstances: (a) Before specific tasks: before the work of the deacons, 6. 6; Ananias prayed before going to meet Saul, 9. 13; before the first missionary journey, 13. 3. (b) Before miracles: the raising of the lame man, 3. 1; the raising of Tabitha, 9. 40; the miracle done on Publius' father, 28.8. (c) As part of the corporate fellowship: see 1. 14; 2. 42; 12. 5. (d) In extremely difficult situations: when Peter is in prison, 12. 1-17; when Paul and Silas are in prison, 16. 25. We can notice too that there are wonderful examples of answered prayer in the Acts; see 12.12; 16. 26. Also in the Acts Cornelius, Peter and Paul are all noted as men of prayer. The method of the Spirit is the prayer method. Prevailing prayer was seen in the days of Nehemiah and in the early church. It can still change the course of events today in local assemblies. May we long for "a prayer-power that prevails".
Thirdly, Nehemiah was a man of courage. He realized that to return to Jerusalem he needed the permission of the redoubtable and powerful Artaxerxes and so again he prayed before his request Neh. 2. 4. God-given wisdom enables him to be both polite and persuasive in his supplication to the king who grants Nehemiah his petition. Note too his reaction, "And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me", 2. 8. So off went Nehemiah to Jerusalem having proved God in a remarkable way. Similarly, men of courage abound in the New Testament, but none more so than the apostle Paul. The reality of his suffering is pin-pointed in 2 Corinthians 11. 23-28 and Galatians 6. 17. Indeed whether facing problems of principle (e.g., his dispute with Peter as described in Galatians 2), or of personalities (e.g., with Barnabas), or of persecution (as in the scriptures referred to above). Paul behaved with exemplary and God-given wisdom. His aim always was to bring glory to God by completing the work that He had given him to do.
Fourthly, Nehemiah had done everything humanly possible to prepare himself for the task ahead. This is most apparent in chapter 2, Not only did he work out a list of the required materials, but he also showed great determination in viewing the extent of the damage to the walls and in his desire to get on with the work as quickly as possible. If Nehemiah was the sort of leader who would not be precipitated into an unwise course of action, once he was certain of the right policy to follow he simply got on with it. Similarly in the Acts, Paul, having decided that it be better to leave Mark behind rather than allow him to go with them on the second missionary journey, simply got on with the job, despite the decision of Barnabas not to join him.
Finally, we can note that Nehemiah was a man of faith, and hence of vision. He saw God at work in the events at Jerusalem and consequently no amount of opposition whether by the world, 2. 19, the flesh, 4. 1, or the devil, 6. 2, could prevent him from carrying on with the work. He counted it a privilege to participate in the work of God, and it comes as no surprise therefore to read that the wall was completed successfully—see 7. 1. Equally wonderful was the behaviour of the people, for they were united in purpose, in joy and in worship. In 2 Corinthians, Paul outlines the new things that we have as believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, one of which is the walk of faith, 5. 7; compare Romans 14. 23. In Galatians 2. 20 he writes that he lives as a man of faith, "by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me". What Paul is saying is that the life of faith is not the life of his natural self, but the life of Christ breaking through into his by the Spirit. Christ lives in His followers and thus the life of faith is a Christ-orientated life. Without Him we could not live the life of faith. Equally Paul was a man of vision; he had a clear vision of God's grace, 2. 4-5; God's salvation, 1. 7; God's sovereign activity, Phil. 2. 13; God's Word, 2 Tim. 3. 15-17; God's holiness, 2 Cor. 7. 1; and of God's ultimate victory, Rom. 8. 38-39. Paul counted it a privilege to serve the living God; he could say with absolute confidence, "I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me . . .” 2 Tim. 4. 7-8. How different assemblies would be today if they were led by such dedicated, determined and decisive men as Paul or Nehemiah.