Nehemiah is an outstanding character of the Old Testament. Let us take a sweeping glance at his life at the very outset. Nehemiah was a man of prayer and action. He held a high position of trust in a royal court as a cupbearer to the king.
He was a master-builder, an able administrator, a far-sighted reformer, a great motivator, and a courageous man. Moreover his great work of rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem and completing this monumental task in fifty-two days is an example of his perseverance in the midst of opposition from outside, and discontent and discouragement in his own camp.
Comment: “He [Nehemiah] saw clearly that if the city was to be restored as the centre of national life and worship, this [rebuilding of the city walls] was the first essential.” – J. Oswald Sanders
Nehemiah teaches us great spiritual truths. The greatest of which is that broken-down walls in our life are a disgrace. Like Nehemiah, let us weep and fast and pray over the broken-down condition of our relationship with God. And then trusting in our God, let us start rebuilding! START ACTION!
I Nehemiah—A Man of Prayer
The first thing that strikes us with force in Nehemiah is the total influence of prayer in his life. At the opening of the book, we find him hearing a report about the sad state of Jerusalem. He becomes concerned, sits down and weeps. Then he mourned and fasted and prayed before His God for some days. Some days here might refer to a period of four months judging by the time gap between 1:1 and 2:1.
In the prayer recorded in Chapter one we find many gems of great praying: He begins with who God is, saying, “O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God.” Then he refers to an attribute of God, saying, “who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands” (1:5). Did not Jesus also teach us to start with God in prayer, “Father, hallowed be your name” (Luke 11:2)?
Then Nehemiah asks God to be attentive to his prayer (v. 6). When we pray we have to approach God with the confidence that He listens to us and answers us when we pray. Then Nehemiah confesses the sins of his own people.
It is important to note that he includes himself and his sins in the confession (1:6b, 7). Nearness to God is always characterized by confession of sin in prayer. It takes time and great searching of one’s soul to confess sin.
Prayer also is our holding on to God’s promises. Unless we go to God in faith claiming the promises He has given, prayer will not be answered. To know God’s promises one has to be thoroughly soaked and immersed in the Scriptures.
Here Nehemiah quotes God’s promise from the Scriptures (1:8, 9. Compare Deuteronomy 30:4) and bases his prayer on it. Then Nehemiah reminds God of His relationship with them. They were His servants, His people and He their Redeemer (1:10). Finally, Nehemiah closes with a specific request to give him success that day by granting him favour in the sight of the Persian king (1:11).
A Prayer for Favour
Nehemiah’s prayer we just saw closes with a prayer for favour. This is a prayer each one of us can follow. Whenever we are about to make a request to our boss or someone superior we can first pray to God that we may be shown favour in their sight. This is a prayer that God often delights to honour. Remember that Joseph and Esther were shown favour like this.
II The Arrow Prayers of Nehemiah
Now let us look at another prayer style of Nehemiah. At first, he had spent four months in great praying. This was alongside his duty as cupbearer to the king. That job was a position of trust and great familiarity with the king. He had to taste wine first in front of the king to show that it was not poisoned. Nehemiah thus shows us by example that however important or risky be our job, it need not stop us from praying.
But on many other occasions we find Nehemiah using “Arrow Prayers.” This is a term used by some writers to describe his praying style. Whenever a need would confront him suddenly, Nehemiah would shoot a prayer upwards to God quickly in his heart and then go on ahead with his task.
This shows three things:
● One, his dependence on God at all times.
● Two, his knowledge that God was in absolute control of all circumstances.
● And three, his fullest confidence that God would answer his prayers.
Let us look at his arrow prayers:
2:4 He prayed just before answering the king.
4:4 He prayed when they were opposed and ridiculed.
4:9 He prayed when there was threat of a fight against Jerusalem.
5:19 He prayed to God to remember him for the good he had done for the people (see also 13:14, 22b, 31b).
6:9 He prayed when others tried to frighten him with false accusations against him.
6:14 He prayed against those people who tried to intimidate him (see also 13:29).
III Nehemiah—A Man with a Clear Vision, Mission, and Purpose
A sad face because of a sad heart! (2:2). Why? Nehemiah, shaped by his praying, wanted to rebuild Jerusalem and place its gates properly (2:3). His request to the king, even though he was very much afraid (2:2b), was made with prayer (2:4). That request was specific (2:5) and timebound (2:6) and also bold and decisive (2:7, 8).
But Nehemiah is clearly conscious of why his requests were granted. The secret: “And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests” (2:8).
Now he had a mission to fulfil. The first thing he does is to keep his mission secret. He told no one about what God had put in his heart to do for Jerusalem (2:12). God-given missions should be guarded with utmost care until the right time when it can be made public.
There are several practical reasons for this. If you make it public very early, people will try to discourage you, will laugh at you and even oppose you. So here we find Nehemiah doing a night inspection of the walls of Jerusalem in secret.
Imagine the city of Jerusalem as your heart. What is the condition of its walls? Is it in ruins today? Are you sad because of it? Is God asking you to do something about it? Have you prayed about it? Remember, Wisdom says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life” (Proverbs 4:23 NIV).
Now let us see how Nehemiah the Leader starts the action.
● The first step was prayer. This we’ve already seen.
● The second step is assessment of the situation. He had only heard about it before. Now he makes a tour and finds out for himself the real situation. (2:11—15).
● Then, he shares his concern, “Jerusalem lies in ruins!” (2:17).
● Next, he gives the call, “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem” (2:17).
● He then states his purpose, “We will no longer be in disgrace” (2:17).
● Finally, he encouraged their hearts by telling about the gracious hand of God upon him and the king’s favourable words (2:18).
● He also handles ridicule at the very outset with firm faith in God, and decisiveness against the mockers (2:20).
Go through the above process carefully. You’ll learn some priceless leadership communication lessons here.
IV Nehemiah’s Leadership
Nehemiah was a motivator.
When he motivated the people responded by saying, “Let’s start rebuilding” (2:18). Nehemiah motivated not only by his words (see 4:14) but by his actions as well. He not only provided them with a vision of rebuilding Jerusalem but also participated in the manual labour (see 4:15, “we all returned to the wall, each to his own work,” 4:21, “So we continued the work,” and 4:23, “Neither I nor my brothers nor my men nor the guards with me took off our clothes; each had his weapon, even when he went for water.”).
Delegation is the process of giving work to someone else and making them responsible for doing it. Delegation involves trust. You have to place your trust in the person to whom you delegate your work. Many leaders fail here. They are never sure about the persons to whom they assign the work.
For example, a teacher can ask the class leader to maintain discipline in the class. If he trusts the leader he will go and attend to other duties. But if he does not trust the leader he’ll constantly come back to the class to check if everything is all right. Such an attitude wastes precious time and energy.
Nehemiah, on the other hand, delegated the work and trusted the people to do their part of the work. John White comments on the list of people involved in the work (see Ch. 3), “At least thirty-nine different groups of workers were involved. The organizational task must have been as immense as the job itself.”
To Nehemiah, prayer and action went hand in hand.
Nehemiah was not a priest. Yet his actions were based on prayer. A classic example can be seen in 4:9, which reads, “But we prayed to our God and posted a guard day and night to meet this threat.” He prayed. But he also used his thinking power and common sense to handle the very real threat of opposition. His was a practical religion.
In Chapter 5 we find a record of how he went about to see that justice was done to the poor of the land. He was bold enough to accuse the nobles and officials of the wrong they were doing. He then challenged them to “walk in the fear of our God” (v. 9). Thus by his action on this matter, Nehemiah was able to calm the discontent in the Jewish camp.
Nehemiah never lost his focus.
Perhaps this one verse sums it up. “Instead, I devoted myself to the work on this wall” (5:16). Opposition and insults could not change his focus (4:1—3). Discouragement could not change his focus (4:10—12). His privileges as governor of the land (which he did not utilize out of reverence for God, see 5:15) could not change his focus (5:18).
When other methods had failed, those who were opposing Nehemiah tried to trap him by inviting him for discussions. But that could not change his focus. He replied, “I am carrying on a great project and cannot go down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and go down to you” (Nehemiah 6:3 NIV). Even threats on his life and false prophesy could not change his focus (6:10—13).
Modern research has found one thing that is common in great success stories of men and women: Single-minded aim and focus! You have a classic example of it in the life of Nehemiah.
Further Thought: Ever heard Satan saying to you: “Come down from those high standards … Be a Christian if you like, but don’t be so fanatical … Take things a little easier …”? Then give him this answer: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” Character by Character, by Selwyn Hughes & Trevor J. Partridge.
Nehemiah was a great finisher.
Finishing is an art. The Teacher said, “The end of a matter is better than its beginning” (Ecclesiastes 7:8a). Understanding this is absolutely important to Christian living. This is important because many begin well, often without counting the cost. Read Jesus’ words in Luke 14:28—30 for better understanding.
At the beginning of Chapter 6, there is a work progress report which said that even though all the gaps in the wall were closed, the doors had not been set in the gates (6:1). At that time opposition became strong. Yet in 6:15 it is recorded, “So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days.”
And what was its impact? The next verse records it for us, “When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God” (6:16).
Did you know God is your Nehemiah (Nehemiah means “God comforts”), who rebuilds your life and finishes it to perfection? Read Psalm 40:1—3 for better appreciation of this truth.
V Nehemiah the Reformer
● God put into the heart of Nehemiah the thought to assemble the people for registration by families (7:5). The reason was that the city of Jerusalem was large and spacious but not many people were there. The houses also had not been rebuilt (7:4). [The registration by families was an administrative reform of Nehemiah].
It is good to understand the context of the above-mentioned situation:
586 B.C. Destruction of the Jerusalem Temple
The southern kingdom of Judah was conquered by Babylonian armies in 586 B.C. The temple was completely destroyed.
539 B.C. Return of the Exiles Under Zerubbabel
In 539 B.C. Persians defeated the Babylonians and their king Cyrus (2 Chronicles 36:22, 23 & Ezra 1:1—5) allowed some Jews to return to their homeland under the leadership of Zerubbabel. Around 50,000 people left and started the task of rebuilding the temple. But they became discouraged and only the foundation was laid.
515 B.C. Dedication of the Rebuilt Temple Then God sent two prophets (about sixteen years later) Haggai and Zechariah to rebuke (see Haggai 1:3, 4) as well as encourage the people. As a result work started on the temple and it was completed and dedicated in 515 B.C.
458 B.C. The Arrival of Ezra
In 458 B. C. almost 58 years after the temple was rebuilt Ezra the priest came to Jerusalem with another group of Babylonian exiles. He taught the people the Law and reformed their religious life so the other nations around them could see they were God’s chosen nation. But he met with much discouragement.
445 B.C. Nehemiah Moves Into Action
Thirteen years after Ezra’s arrival Nehemiah comes into the scene as leader and governor of the people. He spearheads the reformation with bold decisions.
● Nehemiah excluded all those who could not find their names in the family records from the priesthood as unclean (7:64, 65). What was Nehemiah’s motive here? “Nehemiah knew that unless the priesthood was pure, it would soon destroy the moral and spiritual fibre of the people. Pray for your pastor or spiritual leader right now” — Character by Character, by Selwyn Hughes & Trevor J. Partridge. Later, according to the Word of God, people of foreign descent were excluded from Israel (13:1—3).
● Nehemiah made provision for music like how David had done in the past. For the dedication of the wall there were two large choirs appointed (12:31). They performed in the house of God (12:40) and it led to great joy the sound of which could be heard far away (12:43). Nehemiah saw to it that the singers were well provided for (12:46, 47). See also 13:10, 11.
● When Nehemiah had gone back to the Persian king, Eliashib the priest had given Tobiah (a man who opposed the rebuilding of the wall, see 2:19) a room in the courts of the house of God. When Nehemiah returned he came to know of this and boldly threw out his household goods out of the room and purified the rooms (13:8, 9). Our minds on imagining this scene will also be reminded of Jesus throwing out the merchants and cleansing the temple during His days on earth!
● Another great reform of Nehemiah was that he stopped all trade during the Sabbath day (13:15—22). Today we don’t have a strict Sabbath like how the Jews observed it. But God’s principles have not changed. He made Sabbath for man (Mark 2:27). Sabbath means rest.
God wanted people to use one day of the week to worship Him and rest from their labours. Christians observe the Sabbath on Sundays because it was on a Sunday morn that Jesus rose from the dead. It was known then as the Lord’s Day (see Revelation 1:10). How much focussed are we to worship God on Sundays? Or is it making money or our studies or entertainment our focus? The Church has lost much of its saltiness because we neglect worship on Sundays. Think about it.
● A final reform of Nehemiah was his stand against marriage with foreign people who worshipped idols (13:23—27). He quoted to the people the example of Solomon to prove his point: “Was it not because of marriages like these that Solomon king of Israel sinned? Among the many nations there was no king like him. He was loved by his God, and God make him king over all Israel, but even he was led into sin by foreign women” (Nehemiah 13:26 NIV).
Those who are getting ready to get married; the safest principle is not to enter into a marriage with an unbeliever. It will lead you away from God and into sin.
VI Revival Under Ezra’s Leadership
What is a revival? Revival refers to a great move of the Holy Spirit in the life of a believing community. It is often a result of months and years of waiting in prayer upon God, often with fasting.
Revival is accompanied by confession of sin, repentance, giving up of evil, and obedience to God’s Word. Revival is not just a happy feel experienced in a worship meeting. Instead true revival results in transformed lives and transformed living.
In the Book of Nehemiah we have the record of a great revival (Chapters 8 to 10). Let us look at its characteristics: First of all there was a public reading of the Book of the Law of Moses (8:1 3). The people listened attentively to its reading (8:3b).
Then there was teaching. The meaning of what was read was made clear to the people by the Levites (8:7, 8). The Lord was praised. The people responded in worship with their faces to the ground (8:6). There was great weeping (8:9b).
At this point we have one of the highlights of the Book of Nehemiah. Nehemiah said, “This day is sacred to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (8:10). Have you understood the secret of strength of a Christian? It is the joy of the Lord. Do you have this joy in your heart? If so, you are strong!
Now their weeping had turned to joy (8:12). Why? “Because they now understood the words that had been made known to them” (8:12b). And they, in obedience to God’s Word, celebrated the feast of the tabernacles with great joy (8:13—18).
“This Feast of Tabernacles was a memorial of their dwelling in tents in the wilderness, a representation of our tabernacle state in this world. The conversion of the nations to the faith of Christ is foretold under the figure of this feast (Zech. 14:16); they shall come to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles; as having here no continuing city”– Matthew Henry Commentary.
Revival can come only when the Word of God is given its rightful place in the Church, in our families and in our individual lives as well. It is not just to be read, but is to be meditated upon and obeyed. When you honour God’s Word by setting apart time to read and meditate on it daily, you’re opening the possibilities of revival in your life. And when revival comes it will bring great joy!
Halley in his Bible Handbook comments: “This public reading and exposition of God’s Book brought a great wave of repentance among the people, a great “revival,” and a solemn covenant to keep the Law, as noted in Chs. 9, 10. It was the finding of the Book of the Law that brought Josiah’s great Reformation, II Kings 22. It was Martin Luther’s finding of a Bible, which the Roman Papacy had driven out of circulation, that made the Protestant Reformation, and brought religious liberty to our modern world. . . . The grand need of today’s pulpit is Simple Expository Preaching.”
Chapter 9 records the reading of God’s Word, confession of sin and worship. Then follows a public prayer which is grand and lofty in its style and is one of the longest recorded prayers in the entire Bible (the lengthiest of all perhaps is the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the temple).
This prayer is a long record of the sin of God’s people and God’s compassionate and faithful dealings with them in spite of it. The opening of this prayer is lovely and it is good to memorize it. It can stir your heart to the very depths:
“Blessed be your glorious name, and may it be exalted above all blessing and praise. You alone are the LORD. You made the heavens, even the highest heavens, and all their starry host, the earth and all that is on it, the seas and all that is in them. You give life to everything, and the multitudes of heaven worship you” (Nehemiah 9:5b, 6 NIV).
At the end of this prayer all the people enter into a binding agreement (9:38). Its main thrust is recorded thus: “We will not neglect the house of our God.” (10:39b). Revival became practical.
VII Nehemiah’s Lasting Impact
Nehemiah was a man with a sensitive heart towards God and His people. He cared much about God’s honour. He was a visionary. At the same time he could realistically deal with situations. He was primarily a man of prayer.
At the same time he was a man of sound common sense, practical wisdom and a man of action. He was bold, decisive, and courageous when he had to take decisions or when he dealt with opposition from enemies or discouragement in his own camp.
He was not from the priestly line; yet his reforms paved the way for revival under Ezra.
John White comments on his leaderhsip: “Nehemiah was human. … The fact that he was shaped from ordinary clay to become the leader he was should surely encourage us. He has shown us the worthwhileness of waiting on God in prayer and that all real planning begins in God’s presence. His example has made it clear that true leadership must be consistent with an ongoing servanthood.
We have seen that his concern for God’s priorities and for the people of Jerusalem determined his leadership style. He taught us the value of keeping ultimate goals always in mind and rebuked us with his attitude towards money.
We have watched him move from stress to stress and from strength to strength as he walks through the doors of fear to ultimate triumph. And finally we have seen that he continued to run as well in the closing laps of the race as he had in the opening.
The same faith and obedience that led him to take huge risks in the presence of King Artaxerxes continued to motivate him toward the close of his life.”
J. Oswald Sanders sums up Nehemiah’s life thus: “Nehemiah emerges as a man calm in crisis, vigorous in administration, fearless in danger, courageous in decision, thorough in organisation, vigilant against intrigue, disinterested in leadership—an altogether remarkable man. He was humble enough to attribute his success to the good hand of God upon him.”
VIII The Gates
Some commentators find spiritual meaning in the gates of the wall of Jerusalem mentioned in Chapter 3 of Nehemiah. It is a fruitful exercise to meditate on them.
● The following table has been taken from Character by Character by Selwyn Hughes & Trevor J. Partridge.
The Gates of Nehemiah
Pictures of the Christian Life
|The Sheep Gate (3:1)||This speaks of the cross (John 10:11)|
|The Fish Gate (3:3)||This speaks of soulwinning (Matt 4:19)|
|The Jeshanah or Old Gate (3:6)||This speaks of our old nature (Rom. 6:1—23)|
|The Valley Gate (3:13)||This speaks of suffering and testing (2 Cor. 1:3—5)|
|The Dung Gate (3:14)||This speaks of the works of the flesh (Gal. 5:16—21)|
|The Fountain Gate (3:15)||This speaks of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37—39)|
|The Water Gate (3:26)||This speaks of the Word of God (John 4:10—14)|
|The Horse Gate (3:28)||This speaks of the believer’s warfare (Eph. 6:10—17)|
|The Inspection Gate (3:31)||This was thought to be the judgement gate and therefore speaks of the judgement seat of Christ (1 Cor. 3:9—15; 2 Cor. 5:10).|
One Final Thought: Prayer
The Book of Nehemiah opens and ends with prayer. And Nehemiah’s first impulse was always to pray. Would you dare be the leader that God wants you to be, always found strong in prayer?
“The outstanding impression of Nehemiah’s artless story is that of a man to whom prayer was fundamental, not supplemental. It was not a mere addendum to his work, his work grew out of his praying. . . .
It is instructive too, to note the part prayer played in the reconstruction of the city. Prayer secured the king’s favour and cooperation. It obtained the necessary supplies and protection. It endowed Nehemiah with courage and wisdom in dealing with adversaries.
It imparted to him business shrewdness and tact in adjusting problems of labour and wages. It equipped him to deal with wily and crafty officials. It afforded him peace in the midst of slander and lies. It renewed his faith and optimism. . . .
His prayers and tears were a reflection of his own devotional life. The true man is revealed when he is on his knees. He is what he is when he is alone with God—and no more. Tears are often the mark of power, not of weakness, and Nehemiah was no weakling. Patriotism, concern for the glory of God and the blessing of His people inspired his prayers.” — J. Oswald Sanders, People Just Like Us.
REBUILD YOUR WALLS (Write down a few important truths in your diary that you learned from the life of Nehemiah here and apply it to your life.)