Nehemiah: A Biblical Model for Leaders
This article seeks to derive and apply lessons on leadership from the life of Nehemiah as they are recorded in the book bearing his name in the Old Testament. It focuses only on the first six chapters, since that is where Nehemiah’s leadership role is most prominent. The plan of each lesson will be (1) to explain the events described in the passage, and (2) to distill principles of leadership from the passage.
Nehemiah was a Jew who had risen to a prominent position in the court of the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes I. As cupbearer, it was his duty to taste the wine from the king’s cup before handing the cup to the king, a personal guarantee that the wine was not poisoned.
Almost 150 years before (587 B.C.), the Babylonians had sacked Jerusalem and the southern kingdom of Judah and exiled its citizens. After Babylon fell to the Persians, King Cyrus reversed Babylonian policy and allowed more Jewish groups to return to Jerusalem in 538 B.C. Their first acts were to build an altar and rebuild the Temple. Their next concern was to make the city defensible again. Thus, in 445 B.C., Nehemiah came to Jerusalem to complete this task (i.e., to build the city walls).
The account of his leadership role in this venture, recorded in Nehemiah 1–6, forms the basis of our study. The reader is strongly encouraged to read the biblical text in conjunction with each lesson.
The Leader znd His Concern for Others (Nehemiah 1)
The book opens with Hanani a kinsman of Nehemiah, coming from distant Jerusalem to see Nehemiah. He brought news of destroyed walls, burned gates and distress among Jerusalem’s inhabitants (vv. 1–3). The news rocked Nehemiah so much that he wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed (v. 4). His prayer completes the remainder of the chapter (vv. 5–11).
His emotional prayer acknowledged that the Israelites had sinned grievously against the Lord and deserved their punishment. However, he reminded the Lord of His additional promise to restore the fortunes of His people if they returned to Him in heart and action.
He concluded his prayer by asking God to grant him favor as he appeared in the presence of Artaxerxes.
Principles of Leadership
- A leader must draw upon strength which is outside of himself.
Nehemiah recognized that he was totally dependent upon the Lord for success. Nine of his prayers are recorded in his book (the longest and most substantial is recorded here). While an unbeliever may still be a good leader, the leader who humbly recognizes his own limitations is more apt to find strength than the proud, self-made man.
- A good leader identifies with those whom he leads.
Nehemiah confessed other people’s sins as though they were his own (note the “we” in verses 6–7). While our culture stresses individuality, only leaders who identify with the failings, fears, and triumphs of their people will lead them sensitively and effectively.
- A good leader assumes responsibility for accomplishing his vision.
By desiring to stand before the king, Nehemiah wanted to become part of the answer to his prayer. “Pray as if everything depended on God, work as if everything depended on you,” is an old saying. Only a person who works in this dependent attitude will find ultimate success in his labors.
The Leader and Organization (Nehemiah 2)
In a respectful manner Nehemiah placed his request before the king, which resulted in his being sent to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. However, Sanballat and Tobiah, two non-Jewish leaders of the area around Jerusalem, planned resistance to his endeavor. Nehemiah carefully inspected the walls of Jerusalem by night and urged immediate rebuilding. Geshem, an Arab, joined the opposition, and the seeds of difficulty that would be encountered later were planted.
Principles of Leadership
- A good leader carefully surveys the situation beforehand (see vv. 11–16).
While some champion efficiency and organization as the answer to all managerial problems, there are others who recognize that elaborate machinery running without the oil of the Spirit will soon break down. If organization is simply defined as the orderly way to go about a task, Nehemiah certainly was organized ahead of time.
- A good leader motivates people before delegating the work (see vv. 17–18).
Nehemiah’s charge to Jerusalem’s citizens contained four elements: a sense of identification, an acknowledgment of Jerusalem’s plight, an appeal to a specific action, and a personal testimony. People do not follow programs but leaders who inspire them. They act when a leader stirs in them a hope of something greater than themselves—a hope to which they dare to aspire.
The Leader and the Work (Nehemiah 3–4)
This passage clearly delineates the manner in which Nehemiah laid out the work before him (building the wall) by delegating tasks to specific groups. There were all kinds of workers—priests, Levites, Temple servants, goldsmiths, merchants, officials, private citizens, masters, servants, men, and women. Some worked close to their homes while others served in an official capacity. Although some members of the aristocracy avoided the work (3:5), all who did work knew their assigned task and accepted responsibility for it.
The result was simply amazing! The work evidently proceeded with enthusiasm and harmony (4:6). Nehemiah had no military power to enforce his directions. His approach was to inspire a desire to work rather than enforce his own wishes. It is important to note that he also inspired others by engaging in the same sweaty, dirty work that everyone else did (4:21, 23).
When rubble got in the way of the work, a roadblock to the plan seemed inevitable. Nehemiah, however, did not evade difficulties or unpleasantness. He stared the rubble in the face and planned in his mind how to shift it. Through his example, hundreds labored, without equipment, harassed by foes, and plagued with setbacks (see next lessons), and rebuilt a city wall in 52 days (6:15).
Principles of Leadership
- A good leader sees work as a means of achieving a specific goal.
Good leaders are not workaholics. They work hard without being in bondage to work itself. All work is valued by its necessity in achieving the goal.
- A good leader is not frightened by delegating work.
If a leader does not delegate, it is either because he suffers from a need to cling to power or he cannot trust others. Thus, needed tasks do not get done, and people who could have carried them out grow bored and feel useless.
- A good leader must be able to spot roadblocks and clear them.
Therefore, real leaders have eliminated the tendency to procrastinate. We often think that problems will eventually disappear if we ignore them. While this may be true in a few minor situations, those little stones may soon develop into mounds of rubble if they are too long ignored.
The Leader and Opposition (Nehemiah 4)
As soon as the work commenced, opposition to the project arose. Sanballat, governor of Samaria to the north, along with other ancient foes of Israel—Arabs, Ammonites, and Ashdodites—renewed their complaints, the first rumblings of which had appeared in 2:9–20. There Nehemiah dealt with their hatred by an unbounded confidence in God. Here they relaunched their hate campaign with mockery and public ridicule (vv. 1–3). Then came news of plans for an armed attack by a formidable alliance (vv. 7–12).
Nehemiah again responded in prayer (vv. 4–5) and channeled his evident anger into a renewal of work. “So we rebuilt the wall … for the people had a mind to work” (v. 6). Sanballat’s taunts only fueled the determination of the laborers.
When the threat of attack was discovered, Nehemiah organized a well-planned defense of each section of the rising wall. Instead of abandoning the project, he met the crisis with renewed building as soon as the immediate danger passed.
Principles of Leadership
- A good leader never loses sight of his ultimate goal in the face of opposition.
- A good leader does not allow himself to get sidetracked from his ultimate task.
These two similar principles kept Nehemiah from intimidation and fear in the presence of his enemies. While depending on God, he organized the defense. He kept one eye open for the possible attack but always kept the other; eye on the wall. He did not allow those under him to lose heart. He was realistic with them, yet he made them feel a part of the ultimate task.
The Leader And Internal Conflict (Nehemiah 5:1–13)
Up to this point Nehemiah’s challenges as a leader were from those outside the Jewish community. Here he encountered the most difficult problem a leader has to face—problems from within.
There were four such inside difficulties: (1) the people faced a food shortage (v. 2); (2) some got food by mortgaging their homes and possessions (v. 3); (3) others borrowed money and were being charged exorbitant interest by their Jewish brothers (v. 4); and (4) to repay their creditors some had to sell their children into slavery (v. 5). Morale had taken a plunge because of these internal problems.
Nehemiah’s initial response was deep anger (v. 6), but after spending time reflecting on the problem, he calmed himself and decided on a course of action (v. 7). He took three basic steps: (1) He confronted those who violated the command not to charge their own people interest (cf. Ex. 22:25); (2) he called a large meeting and confronted the tragedy of selling fellow Jews, contrasting it with his own opposite behavior (cf. Lev. 25:47–55), since immoral practice was bringing reproach on the God who had delivered His people from Egyptian bondage and Babylonian captivity (v. 83; (3) he referred to his own personal example of helping those in need (v. 10). Thus he was not asking the people to do something he was not already doing! He then asked those guilty of exploitation to return what they had taken from others (v. 11).
The people responded positively to Nehemiah’s exhortations. He then asked the guilty leaders to take an oath that they would not do what they had said (vv. 12–13).
Principles of Leadership
- A good leader handles his emotions by quiet reflection on the situation before taking any unwise action.
How often leaders allow initial anger over a situation to dictate their response. Nehemiah’s anger was channeled into action—not destructive action, but positive constructive deeds.
- A good leader is willing to confront problem causers rather than allow the problems to infect and destroy the group.
Confronting others is not easy, but when a leader knows that he has truth and that the right is on his side, he must firmly deal with negative thinkers before they infect others.
- A good leader does not settle for promises but transforms resolutions into actions.
Nehemiah sought substantive changes and mapped out a strategy for change that involved a commitment from those under his authority.
The Leader and Personal Attacks (Nehemiah 6:1–16)
When the old enemies, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem (see 2:19), heard that the wall was completed and that the only task remaining was to set the doors in the gates, they again attempted to halt the work. This time, however, they were more subtle—the sole object of their hatred was Nehemiah himself. Whereas, in their previous attacks they had focused on opposing the Jews’ entire venture, now they sought to remove Nehemiah from the scene or to discredit his effectiveness as a leader. Their first scheme was an assassination plot (vv. 1–4). They invited Nehemiah to a peace conference about 25 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Nehemiah, however, suspected foul play and issued his oft-quoted response: He was involved in a great project and didn’t believe that meeting with them was worth halting it (v. 3).
Their second scheme took the form of slander (vv. 5–9). They sent a letter supposedly revealing that Nehemiah was trying to set himself up as king of the Jews, thus threatening sedition against Artaxerxes. Nehemiah’s bold response demonstrated his trust in God and his confidence in his position of strength (vv. 8–9).
Their third scheme was outright treachery (vv. 10–14). They tried to destroy his credibility by luring him into the Temple, even hiring a false prophet to issue a message from the Lord to lend authority to the scheme. Nehemiah’s discernment was evident when he recognized that no true prophet would ask someone to violate God’s law—only true priests were allowed into the sanctuary (see Num. 3:10; 18:7). Once again he committed the matter to God in prayer (v. 14).
Finally, after 52 days of steady labor, the walls were completed. The enemies’ self-confidence dissipated as they saw that the work was done with God’s help. Opposing Him, they were fighting a losing battle!
Principles of Leadership
- A good leader is not discouraged by unjust personal attacks.
A leader recognizes that he will not and cannot please everyone. With confidence in God and in his own position, a good leader confidently fends off attacks and continues to move forward toward the completion of the goal.
- A good leader sees a task through to its completion.
So many leaders launch a multitude of projects only to let them fizzle by neglecting to follow up with those assigned to carry out the plans. Those serving under such poor leaders recognize that it does not matter how hard they work since the project will probably never be completed anyway.
This article is an abbreviated version of a project presented in a Leadership course at Temple University. Feel free to utilize it for your own personal or group study. A set of Questions to Ponder for each lesson is available from the author.