A sermon by Dr Donald T. Williams - donaldtwilliams.com

Sermon Index

Presented in Uganda and Kenya, July 2006

Nehemiah 1:1-2:20

Nehemiah: An Example of Godly Leadership INTRODUCTION

In this series of studies we have seen that, while most books and seminars on leadership focus on techniques, the biggest problems in the Church do not come from leaders using inadequate techniques but from the wrong kind of people being in leadership, or from people being in leadership for the wrong reasons. So we have focused on the character of the Christian leader and the proper motivations for Christian leadership. The first requirement for Christian leadership is Christlike character. If we are to lead the people of Christ in the way of Christ, we must ourselves be men who have walked with Christ—on the Calvary Road. Thus in 1 Timothy 3, Paul says that if any man aspires the office of an overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do. Let him then be above reproach, the husband of one wife, temperate, gentle, able to teach, not a lover of money, not a new convert, etc. People are called to leadership when the inward and subjective desire implanted by God in their hearts meets an outward and objective recognition by the Church that they have the qualifications listed for service. And those qualifications are mostly concerned with character.

“If any man aspires to the office of an overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do.” We then looked at the nature of the desire to serve that God implanted in the hearts of the New Testament Apostles, so we might discern the proper motivations for Christian leadership. They had nothing to do with being the big fish in a small pond and everything to do with the experience of being called, an appreciation for the supreme excellence and worthiness in itself of the task to which we are called, the desire to please God rather than men, gratitude for his grace in our own lives, love for his people and compassion for their needs, and love for God and zeal for the glory of his name. It is such men leading for such reasons that we should follow; it is such men wanting to lead for such reasons that we should look for and raise up and call as the leaders of the next generation in the Church.

Now we need a concrete example of a person who put these principles into practice. What does such a man look like? To find one good example, let us turn to the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. We cannot technically call Nehemiah a Christian leader because he lived before the coming of Christ. But as we look at the life of this Old-Testament man, we will find a very New-Testament man in that he will remind us greatly of the characteristics and motivations of a good Christian leader that we have been seeing in the New Testament.


We are in the exilic period of Jewish history. As punishment for her idolatry, Judah had been carried into captivity in Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 or 587 BC. Later the Babylonian empire was taken over by the Persians in BC 539, and the Persian king Cyrus, in order to gain favor with his new subjects (and fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy), allowed a remnant of Babylonian exiles to return to their own countries. Many Jews still remained behind, and some, like Nehemiah, had prospered and even risen in government service. Nehemiah would lead another group of Jews to return to Jerusalem under Artexerxes in 445 BC. Appointed governor of Judah, he succeeded in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, in revitalizing the Jewish economy, and, along with the scribe Ezra, in stimulating a revival of true Jahweh worship. What then were the qualities that allowed God to use him as an effective leader of his people during this period of history? As we follow his career and observe his character, we will notice many of the same motivations for ministry that we have seen in the New Testament descriptions of effective Christian leadership.


In the first place, Nehemiah was a man of love. The book begins with a visit from his brother Hanani, who has been in Jerusalem and brings back a rather discouraging report about the condition of the people there. They are in great distress because the walls of the city are broken down and its gates burned with fire. No economic development would be possible in an ancient city without walls, for such a city would lie open and unprotected from raiders and bandits—from the ancient equivalents of your Karimajong cattle raiders. So the Jews there were in great trouble indeed.

What is interesting is Nehemiah’s reaction to this news, which we read in verse 4: “Now it came about when I heard these words that I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” The world is full of disaster stories. We have recently heard about he tremendous sufferings of the victims of the Tsunami last year in the far east, of the earthquake victims in Kashmir and China, of the victims of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, so many of whom lost their homes. Closer to home here in Africa we have the refugee situation in Darfur, or even closer to home those displaced and living in refugee camps because of the Lord’s Revolutionary Army in Northern Uganda. Well, how do you respond when you hear these accounts? “Oh, my,” you say, “That’s too bad.” You might even say a prayer for these people or sacrifice to send them some aid. But then you pretty much forget about it and go on about your business. But what if you had a close friend or loved one in one of those camps? Then you might sit down and weep and mourn and fast for days like Nehemiah did! His response shows that he was a man of love, a man motivated by love for God’s people and concern for their welfare and compassion for their needs. This alone would not have made him a great leader. He could have felt awful about the situation and still done nothing practical or effective to change it at all. But such love is where effective Christian leadership begins. Without it, nothing else we are going to read about would have happened.

There is a second way that Nehemiah shows the depths of his love for God’s people, and that is in the way he identified with them. In verse 6 he prays, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel “which we have sinned against thee.” Do you see the word “we”? It is a little surprising, is it not? For Nehemiah had not personally been guilty of the sin of idolatry, which was what led to the exile and to the depressed state of the nation at home. I think you or I would have been tempted to ask God to forgive Israel for the sins that they had sinned! I am not saying that we should make a habit of confessing other people’s sins, but I want you to notice the strong identification Nehemiah felt with the people he was going to serve. Do you think this attitude made a difference when he was appointed their governor and actually showed up to try to lead them? Imagine that a new provincial governor has just arrived on the scene. The people are probably pretty cynical about Persian politics and ready to roll their eyes at him in an instant. And he says, “You people have a problem—and I have the solution!” What kind of reaction do you think he would get? Well, if Nehemiah’s prayer is any indication, when he took office the scene would have been a little different. “WE have a problem. What can WE do together to help?” Which approach do you think would inspire the people to follow him? It is not all that is required for success in leadership, but it is absolutely essential to effectiveness as a Christian leader: Nehemiah truly loved the people and had compassion for their needs.


In the second place, Nehemiah was a man of prayer. He does not go immediately to the king full of plans for the relief of his suffering brethren in Jerusalem. His compassion for the people led him immediately into a long period of fasting and prayer. He had a plan, and that plan involved approaching the king. But first there was a period of at least several days of prayer. It has been said that when we work, we work; but when we pray, God works. Nehemiah understood that. He understood where the solution was to be found, and he knew that it was not in him.

He first has the long prayer that he prayed for days, summarized for us in 1:5-11, and then the very short and instantaneous one in 2:4. Both are instructive. Sustained prayer was a daily practice and habit, and instant prayer too short even for words was an immediate response. Both will be part of the life of a true person of prayer. The long prayer includes worship and adoration of God’s character (1:5), confession (1:6-7), a rehearsal of God’s promises (1:8-10), and supplication (1:6, 11) based on God’s character and his promises. The short prayer lasted for a split second between the king’s question and Nehemiah’s response. Both show that Nehemiah understood that a leader is not a person who thinks he has all the answers; he is a person who knows Who does. A good leader is not a person who is able to solve the problem; he is a person who knows the One who can. A good leader is a person who understands that when we work, we work; but when we pray, God works. A good Christian leader leads by example, and the first example he needs to set is this.


Nehemiah is, furthermore, a man of faith. He knows that the solution is not with himself, but with God. And he knows this in very specific ways that flow from Scripture believed and taken seriously. He shows this first in the fact that his very first impulse is to turn to God in prayer. But he also shows it in the way he prays. In 1:8-10, he reminds God—and thereby reminds himself—of the specific terms of the Deuteronomic covenant that God had established with his people. “Remember the word which thou didst command thy servant Moses, saying, ‘if you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though those of you who had been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place where I have chosen to establish my name.’” Faith is not just believing anything we want and expecting God to give it to us. “Name it and claim it!” say some American teachers who are gaining way too much influence in Africa. “Blab it and grab it!” would be a more accurate paraphrase, I think! This is not biblical faith at all. Biblical faith is always a response of belief that is very specific, a response to the Word of God. Being a man of faith means that Nehemiah has confidence in God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises as recorded in Scripture. It means that he not only has this faith but is prepared to act on it. So Nehemiah does not just up and say, “I’m believing God for new walls!” Where in Scripture does God promise any new walls? But he does believe that God will be faithful to his Word and that therefore if he can lead the people in a real return to faithfulness God will respond with blessings incalculable. Nehemiah is a man of faith, a man of faith rightly understood, and that is essential to faithfulness in Christian leadership.

He shows his faith not only in the content of his long prayer but also in the context of his short one. God has given him what he asked for, compassion before Artaxerxes, and the king asks him in 2: 4 what he would request. And what is his response? “So I prayed to the God of heaven.” Do you see? Nehemiah is not trusting in Artaxerxes to enable him to help the people. When the king asks him what he wants, his first thought is not “Send me to Judah.” His mind turns instantaneously to the One he is truly trusting in, the God of heaven. Now let’s make this very practical here in the African context. An American donor asks you, “What would you request?” What is the first thing that comes into your head? Iron sheets! Metal roofing! Is it not? I am not against American donors. I have been one, and as God enables I hope to be again. But I have run into a mentality here that is not good. A lot of Africans seem to think that nothing can be done without an American sponsor. In whom are we trusting? Nehemiah was a man of faith because he knew how to answer that question. When his big “American donor” asked, “What would you request,” he prayed to the God of heaven.


Nehemiah was not only a man of love motivated to help the people, and a man of prayer and a man of faith who knew where their real help must come from, but he was also a man of action and in that action a man of courage. We see that courage in the first verses of chapter 2; but to understand it, we have to know something about an ancient near-eastern court.

Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king. Now, we moderns have a hard time understanding exactly what that means. It does not mean that Nehemiah was just part of the kitchen staff. Ancient kings feared assassination for good reason: someone was always trying to replace them. And one of the most effective means of assassination was poison. And one of the easiest ways of administering poison was by slipping it into the wine. So the cupbearer would be one of the king’s most trusted servants. Part of his job was to guarantee that the wine had not been tampered with. Since he was among the most trusted servants, he usually had other responsibilities besides serving the wine. Often they functioned as prime ministers.

The next thing we need to know is that ancient near-eastern kings did not like people frowning around them. If people are sad, they must be dissatisfied, and maybe they are dissatisfied with the current administration! So, in our semi-paranoid obsession with power, we might suspect that they are plotting rebellion or planning a coup. We see this reflected as late as Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: “Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look. Such men are dangerous.” People in courts like the one Nehemiah served in had lost their heads more than once for nothing more than looking sad in the presence of the king.

Now all this time Nehemiah has been mourning, fasting, and praying, but he has lifted up his countenance in the court and the king has not seen any evidence that he is upset. But today apparently he has forgotten himself, and the king asks in 2:2, “Why is your face sad, though you are not sick.” And now we understand why Nehemiah says, “Then I was very much afraid.”

“Very much afraid? I thought you just said he was a man of courage!” And so I did. Courage does not mean the absence of fear. A man who is never afraid is not brave at all—he is just stupid! Courage is not the absence of fear, but the ability to master one’s fear. Courage is not the absence of fear but the commitment to do one’s duty in spite of one’s fear. And so we see Nehemiah’s courage in 2:3. What would a coward have said? “No, oh king, I am not sad. How could anyone be sad under your wise and benevolent administration? How could anyone be sad in your life-giving presence? Don’t you see my sudden forced smile? I am very happy. That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it!” But what does Nehemiah say? “Let the king live forever. Why should not my face be sad when the city, the place of my father’s tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed with fire?”

Nehemiah was a man of courage. I believe he was a man of courage because he was a man of prayer and a man of faith. But in any case, he would need that courage to be an effective leader. Without it he would never have been appointed governor and commissioned to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls. He would also need it when he got there, for there were people in the area who were not thrilled about these walls being rebuilt. Who were they? They were people who profited from their being down—the bandits and cattle raiders! Nehemiah would face serious opposition. Some of it was verbal. “See this wall they are building? Why, if even a fox should jump on it, it would fall down!” And some was more serious than that. For a while Nehemiah’s masons had to build with a sword in one hand and a trowel in the other. I don’t think anything worthwhile has ever been accomplished in the church without opposition. Just like Nehemiah, Christian leaders today are going to need to be men of courage.


Finally, Nehemiah was a man of vision. He had a vision of what he wanted to accomplish. But he also had a plan for how he was going to accomplish it. He had done his homework. He knew exactly what he needed to ask for; he had thought the whole thing through intelligently based on accurate information. “Vision” is a word that gets thrown around very loosely in talk of Christian leadership these days. I’ve heard more than one African pastor declare, “God has given me a vision to care for a thousand orphans!” Some of the people who talk most loudly about this vision haven’t started by caring for even one. Vision is not just having a grandiose scheme and attaching God’s name to it. A true man of vision like Nehemiah not only sees where he is going, he also has a serious and well thought out roadmap of how he is going to get there. He knows what it will take. He is trusting in God and not in man, he is a man of faith and a man of prayer, but he does not think those things are a substitute for doing his homework, for hard study and careful and responsible planning. Read Nehemiah’s answer when the king asks him what he requests, and you will see what I mean. Nehemiah was an effective leader because he was a man of vision.

One thing stands out to me as an illustration of the foresight Nehemiah built into his vision for Jerusalem’s new walls. In 2:7 he says to the king, “If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the river, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah.” Why does he ask for these letters? Because corruption was not invented by African governments! It was being practiced to perfection in ancient Persia. Nehemiah knew what was going to happen when he came traipsing through those provinces loaded down with building materials and money to pay the workmen. An awful lot of it was going to have to remain behind, so that when he finally got to Judah he would have nothing left! And so he had taken thought for this. He was an effective leader because he knew what he was doing. This was brought home to me powerfully in the airport at Entebbe a few weeks ago. When I came from America, I brought a large box containing two electronic keyboards that were gifts from a friend of mine to two churches in Kampala. Well, this box immediately caught the attention of a Ugandan customs agent. He was a very suspicious man! What did I have in the box? Two keyboards, I told him, gifts for churches in Kampala. Was I sure I didn’t plan to sell them? Yes, I was, but that did not reassure him! Did I have any documentation? Fortunately Rev. George Hutchinson, the director of Church Planting International, is a man who has the kind of foresight Nehemiah had. He had provided me with a very official letter on CPI stationery stating that the keyboards were gifts to the Ugandan church and not for resale. Rev. George’s wife is a notary, and she had stamped the letter with a very official-looking seal. This suspicious customs agent was very impressed by the seal. He tapped it with his finger, just like this, and said, “This is very good official document. You may pass.” [Roars of laughter from the African crowds] If you are going to be an effective leader in today’s world, you had better be like Rev. George and Nehemiah, not just a man of grandiose schemes but truly a man of vision! May God help us to be such leaders in his Church.


Nehemiah was a man of love: he loved God’s people and had compassion for their needs, and he loved God and was full of zeal for the glory of his name. He was a man of prayer and a man of faith: he knew where the solution lies, and he trusted God very specifically in terms of an accurate understanding of his covenant as revealed in his Word. He was a man of courage: he was willing to put his faith into action even at risk to himself. And he was a man of vision: he knew where he was going and he had done the planning necessary to know how he was going to get there. Take away any one of these qualities and he would not have succeeded in unifying the people, rebuilding the walls, and leading a revival of the true worship of Jahweh, the God of heaven. Without love, nothing would have even begun. Without prayer and true biblical faith, his love would have led only to mourning and self pity. Without courage and vision, his efforts, even if faithful, would have been ineffective. Can God raise up men like this again in our day? Can he enable us to be such men? What are the walls that need to be built in your churches? If we are to build them, let us ask God first to build us, to strengthen us where we are weak, so that we too can be men of love, of prayer, of faith, of courage, and of vision. May He use our study of Nehemiah, and your continuing study of the book after I am gone, to that end. Amen.

Here endeth the lesson. Dr. Donald T. Williams

Updated 10/25/2006