The Word: Nehemiah 1:1-4; 2:1-6, 16-18
Bookstores today are filled with books on leadership principles. Almost every profession that interacts with the public—business, education, ministry, medicine, law, social work—has its books on how to be an effective leader.
The Bible does not specifically discuss this topic, but it does provide many examples of good leaders—from Moses to Joshua, from David to Solomon, and from Jesus to Paul. One finds some excellent principles on leadership throughout the pages of Scripture. There are also numerous examples of bad leaders, especially among Israel’s and Judah’s kings, such as Saul, Ahab, and Manasseh. The book of Nehemiah gives us two examples of a good leader in action.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are our two main Old Testament sources for the history of the restoration period. They describe the return from Babylonia to Judah of several waves of migrant Jews.
The first wave was led by a man named Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:1-11). This was a quick return in 538 BC of a small number of exiles, immediately after King Cyrus’ edict permitting all captive people in the Persian Empire to return to their land of origin. We know they made plans to rebuild the temple, but nothing was accomplished.
A much larger delegation returned with Zerubbabel in 520 BC with the sole purpose of rebuilding the temple (2:1-70). With the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the people rebuilt the temple and dedicated it in 515 BC.
The third wave of immigrants was led by Ezra in 458 BC (7:1-10). Ezra was a priest and scribe whose primary focus was on structuring the community around the law of Moses. When he arrived in the land, he became alarmed at the spiritual apathy of the people. After much pleading, he succeeded in getting the Jews to agree to strictly observe the laws in the covenant, even to the extent of breaking up marriages with foreign women.
This brings us to the time of Nehemiah. His interest was in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, so as to give the people some security from hostile nations around them. Nehemiah’s date of return was about 445/444 BC, almost 100 years after the first wave of returnees. Even at that late date, there were still Jews living in other lands who felt a connection with the land of Israel because of God’s promises to their ancestor Abraham.
Today we look at a servant of God who exchanged a palace for a disaster site and a vocation of prestige for a dangerous construction job, all because of a vision to do God’s will.
Here are some questions to keep in mind as we continue with this lesson.
When you introduce yourself, what are the major things you name to identify who you are?
How many of you chose your vocation as your primary identifier?
Why might this be so common?
What if God led you out of your chosen profession and placed you in another?
How might this affect your identity?
Does your job define who you are?
What personal characteristics are needed in all vocations to make a person successful?
How could a person serve God and “do ministry” in any role?
A. Introduction of Nehemiah (Read Nehemiah 1:1-4)
Nehemiah continues the story of the Jews who returned to Judah after Babylonian captivity. Nehemiah was a high official in the Persian court of King Artaxerxes. He was the king’s cupbearer. (Cupbearer: highly trusted person who tasted the wine before serving it to the king. He was probably in charge of all food preparation.)
Nehemiah identifies himself by his occupation in the last—not the first—words of chapter 1. Knowing that this was a prominent position of personal service to the most powerful person in the Persian Empire, what does this say to you about Nehemiah’s character?
What is symbolic about the wall? About the gates? (Security, strength, access, and power. In the ancient world, cities were walled for protection. The people of Jerusalem were surrounded on every side by hostile people, and without walls they were defenseless.)
“Disgraced” means fallen from favor or a position of honor or power. Why is it a significant problem that Jerusalem and its inhabitants were in disgrace? (Because God’s people and His city were disgraced, God was also disgraced in the eyes of neighboring people. Nehemiah recognized that God’s honor was on the line.)
What was Nehemiah’s response to such bad news? (His immediate response was to fast and pray before the God of heaven. The words of his prayer are recorded in verses 5-11. They are an attempt to remind God of his covenantal obligations and a request for God to work through Nehemiah to achieve a change in Jerusalem’s condition. Take time to read verses 5-11) Why is it significant that he went to prayer first? For how long? (In his position of access to the king, he could have gone to this earthly leader immediately. Instead, he consulted the King of the Universe first and for an extended number of days. The date in Nehemiah 2:1 indicates about four months had passed.)
B. A Request to the King (Read Nehemiah 2:1-6)
Nehemiah’s sadness did not go unnoticed by King Artaxerxes. When the king inquired regarding his sadness, Nehemiah told him the bad news he had received from Jerusalem. Artaxerxes responded by asking, “What is it you want?” Nehemiah prayed as he answered the king, he asked for time to go to the city of his ancestors and rebuild it.
Who orchestrated the conversation about Jerusalem? Nehemiah? King Artaxerxes? Or God himself? (No doubt, Nehemiah had been praying that God would open a door for him to speak to the king. God answered that prayer by prompting the king to speak first. This was the perfect opportunity for Nehemiah to state his concerns regarding Jerusalem. However, he wisely avoided mentioning the name of the city, because he knew that Artaxerxes had refused to allow Jerusalem to be rebuilt some years earlier (Ezra 4:17-24).)
How would you handle four months of waiting without any natural opportunity to address a problem? Are you characteristically more likely to wait for a door to open or to push it open? Why is it sometimes so hard to put matters in the hands of the One who can handle everything?
C. A Challenge to Rebuild (Read Nehemiah 2:16-18)
Before the door of conversation opened with the king and before he ever set eyes on the conditions in Jerusalem, Nehemiah already had a plan in mind.
How did Nehemiah know which letters for which governors to ask the king to prepare? How did he know what kind or how many of the timbers would be needed to make beams for the gates and the wall?
Once he arrived in Jerusalem, he kept his mission secret from the local population. He knew that neighboring governors had contacts and relatives in Jerusalem who would report what he was up to. So he kept his mission secret. Further, he needed a few days to survey the situation.
He was aware that all his movements would be noticed, since he was an official of the Persian king. Thus, his first inspection of the city wall was carried out at night (vv. 11-15). Even in the darkness, he gained a sense of the enormous task of rebuilding that lay ahead of him.
How should godly leaders make plans?
A key characteristic of a good leader is the ability to motivate others. How does Nehemiah exemplify this? (Presenting a clear vision and a well thought-out plan to accomplish it. Displaying passion for the project. Invoking the graciousness of God by sharing the story of His faithfulness in gaining the king’s favor.)
Apparently, the next day he gathered the leaders and citizens together and informed them of the real purpose of his visit. He believed they should rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He appealed to his listeners with three strong motivations. The first was the disgrace of their city. It was an eyesore that reflected badly not only on themselves but also on God (since His temple was located in the city). Second, he had official letters from the Persian king that approved of this project and provided resources for rebuilding. Third, he had received his inspiration for this project from God himself. The response from his listeners was immediate: Let us start rebuilding. So the good work of restoring Jerusalem to a respectable city began in earnest.
D. Connect to My Life and the World
Working in God’s kingdom is not done through our own energy and insight, but through His power. Psalm 127:1 says, “Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain.” Nehemiah models dependency on the Lord’s strength and passion for God’s work.
Nehemiah prayed first, then focused on rebuilding. How does this relate to the statement: “Pray, but then be prepared to work”?
Nehemiah saw a problem and heard the commissioning voice of God. What area of your life is lying in disrepair or even ruins today? What is God’s commissioning voice saying to you today?
Nehemiah left a position of prominence in a palace of power to be used by God.
What is He calling you to give up in order to take up something new?
Ask God to use us to accomplish His task, regardless how humanly daunting it may be.
Sing “Spirit of the Living God.” Hymn 297
“The place where they were meeting was shaken. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit.” Acts 4:31
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Melt me, mold me, fill me, use me.
Spirit of the living God, fall fresh on me.
Words and Music: Daniel Iverson, 1926
Material for this lesson is found in:
Faith Connections Leaders Guide Summer 20
Illustrated Bible Life Summer 20 (Jim Edlin lesson writer)
Reflecting God Summer 20 (Kevin Mellish lesson writer)
Holy Bible (various translations)