Summary: Nehemiah's life is a lesson in leadership. Nehemiah did more than rebuild a wall; he helped restore a people from ruin and despair to new hope and a renewed walk with God.
Nehemiah is an appropriate book to study as we get into a new year. It is the story of a new beginning. Nehemiah saw the heart-breaking plight of Jerusalem and determined to be part of the solution. His life is a lesson in leadership. Nehemiah did more than rebuild a wall; he helped restore a people from ruin and despair to new hope and a renewed walk with God.
Nehemiah was a Hebrew, taken captive by the Babylonian Exile. In spite of his bondage, he held an important position in the Persian court. While being a “cupbearer” sounds rather menial, it carried influence. If you’ve been following Downton Abbey, you might compare Nehemiah to Mr. Carson, the butler, who serves the Earl of Grantham, and who is much more than a servant; he is a trusted advisor and his concerns are of great concern to the Lord of the manor.
Nehemiah had the ear of the king. As cupbearer, he was the wine-taster; not just to determine if the wine was a quality vintage, but to insure the king wasn’t poisoned! His responsibilities included guarding the entrance to the king’s royal chambers. Nehemiah’s name means “the Lord comforts”, and he found first-hand that this was so. The story begins in 446 B.C. in the citadel of Susa, the winter resort of the Persian kings. Nehemiah set in motion a plan that would take him from the comfort of the seat of power to a desperate, powerless land struggling for survival.
Nehemiah was concerned about the condition of fellow Jews who’d been released from captivity. The people didn’t all return at once, but in stages; some went with Ezra, more would return with Nehemiah. But things weren’t going well back home for the returned exiles. Nehemiah’s kinsmen painted a bleak picture of the unprotected condition of Jerusalem--verse 3. They described a fallen land in ruin. The destruction caused by Nebuchadnezzar had not been repaired. The Temple was rebuilt under the leadership of Ezra, along with the homes of the returning exiles. But the walls remained in shambles; thus the city was defenseless and vulnerable to attack. The Holy City which represented Israel’s spiritual and national identity was in a shameful state.
We all of know people whose “walls” are crumbling. Sometimes it’s us. Proverbs 25: 28 observes, “Like a city whose walls are broken down is a person who lacks self-control.” When our lives are falling apart, where do we turn?
Nehemiah felt solidarity with his people and resolved to do something to fix their dire situation. He prayed. Prayer is taking on the pain of others. A man with access to the halls of power, he surprisingly did not first run to the king for help. His was a unique position of access and influence, yet he began by appealing to Heaven with prayer and fasting, God’s primary means of resolving dire situations--verses 5-11. Nehemiah faced the facts, wept over them, and spoke to God about them. Leaders are people of vision: “Saints see farther on their knees than politicians on their tiptoes” (Anon). Prayer gives us courage to make decisions in critical times, and the confidence to leave the results to God. We turn to God before we face the world.
Chuck Swindoll notes that prayer “makes us wait, clears our vision, quiets our hearts and activates our faith.” Prayer was Nehemiah’s priority. The first thing he did was to pour out his heart to God. Abraham Lincoln followed this path as well. He stated: “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of those about me seemed insufficient for the day.”
One commentator has observed: “The self-sufficient do not pray; they merely talk to themselves. The self-satisfied will not pray; they have no knowledge of their need. The self-righteous cannot pray; they have no basis on which to approach God” (Cyril Barber). Nehemiah was a leader, and as Billy Graham pointed out, “The price of leadership is prayer.”
Nehemiah’s prayer has a simple structure, one that is known by the acrostic A-C-T-S: Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication…
A- Nehemiah begins with adoration, by calling on God, praising His Person and might, verses 5-6. He extols the character of God and reminds Him of His covenant love. God is ready to forgive and restore His people.
When we adore God, N.T. Wright observes, we “become like what we worship; we take on the character of our object of worship. Those who worship money become, eventually, human calculating machines. Those who worship sex become obsessed with their own attractiveness or prowess. Those who worship power become more and more ruthless. Those who worship God discover what it means to be fully alive.”
C- Next Nehemiah confesses both his and his nation’s sins, verses 6-7. The restoration of Israel must come by way of admitting its failure. He personalizes the national guilt of Israel--their sins are his. Psalm 66:18 cautions, “If I regard iniquity in my heart, the Lord will not hear me.” It’s easy to watch the news and condemn all that’s wrong in our culture; and by so doing we elevate ourselves. Nehemiah saw himself as part of the problem. He confessed his own guilt before God. Instead of drowning in self-pity or self-righteousness he honestly faced his part of his people’s plight without offering excuses. He “owned the problem.”