The Babylonian Empire had conquered Judah as well as the majority of the then-known world, bringing captives to its capital city. After the death of its king Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon fell to the rising Medo-Persian Empire. Their more lenient government allowed exiles to return to their homelands. The book of Ezra (which was once bound together with the book of Nehemiah) recalls this edict and describes the progression of the Judean reconstruction. At this time, we find Nehemiah did not return back to his homeland. Instead, he served in the royal courts of Susa.
The books of Ezra, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi, and possibly others, also called post-exilic, take place after the Babylonian invasion of Judah and the Babylonian Exile. Be mindful that these books do not appear in chronological order. By the time of Nehemiah, reconstruction and rebuilding had already occurred in Jerusalem, but due to opposition and internal conflicts, the work was not finished.
In the opening of the account of the book, Nehemiah is found to be in the Medo-Persian winter citadel palace of Shushan, or Susa (the same place as the Ahasuerus’s great feast in Esther 1 and the vision of Daniel 8). The year is the twentieth into the reign of King Artaxerxes and the month is Chisleu, around December/January. Though these background details seem unimportant, they are crucial in understanding the narrative and extracting principles of leadership for our individual spheres.
While the majority of the Jews had returned to their homeland, Nehemiah remained in the courts of Medo-Persia. Being content in his position and place in life, he could have ignored the men of Judah. Instead, with personal investment, he asks his brethren about two things: (1) the status of his people: “the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity” and (2) the condition of Jerusalem: the capital of his people as well as the city where God had chosen to place His presence in the past.
The report is negative: (1) the status of the people:“in great affliction and reproach” and (2) the condition of Jerusalem:“wall…is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire.”
Biblical leadership is not only concerned with achieving an objective, goal, or project, but also considers the state of the people. When it comes to people, we have issues that are internal (“great affliction,” or troubles) and/or external (“reproach,” or shame). Nehemiah adeptly ministers by using the task at hand (the broken infrastructure and protective barrier of the wall) to minister to deeper social and spiritual problems associated with it (the burned visage of their entrance, embarrassment, dishonor, humiliation, indignity, God’s seeming silence).
Leaders today have much to glean from this passage. Problems range not only in political, intellectual, philosophical, economic, and/or structural spheres, but it could be argued that the most important area is spiritual. This is where the most amount of light, compassion, and grace are needed. This is where Christians are called, ultimately, to impact.
As soon as Nehemiah heard the report, he wept, mourned, fasted, and prayed. More than an impersonal project, Nehemiah had emotional, physical, mental, and spiritual energy invested. A biblical leader is not one who starts their task with glory in mind, but rather with a burden placed upon the heart.
The work of Jerusalem’s reconstruction started before, but was not completed due to political maneuvers (Ezra 4:4–24). Upon hearing the discouraging report, Nehemiah saw the larger picture. Not only was the reputation of God’s people at stake, but God’s reputation was at stake. The walls provided a defensive barrier against enemies. If these walls were inferior, not only did it reflect upon the engineering capabilities of the Jews, but also the protective ability of their God.
We must ask questions about the spiritual condition of individuals around us as well as larger organizations like the church. Sloppy results and the lack of excellence reflect our ideas about, as well as relationship, with God. When His reputation and people are at stake, we may very well be called to repair these “walls” for His glory.
Although Nehemiah was far away and the status of the project was discouraging, he was not content with mediocrity. His courage and desire for God’s glory ultimately drove him to his knees. The secret to Nehemiah’s leadership and courage was his dependence on prayer. The first chapter’s prayer has four components.
Nehemiah addresses God with many titles (“Lord God of heaven,” “the great and terrible God,” the One “that keepeth covenant and mercy”). These titles contextualize the greatness of God for us, and the smallness of our own problems.
Throughout the prayer, the second-person pronouns “you/thee,” “your/thy,” etc. overshadow the first-person pronouns “I,” “we,” and “my.” The prayer is theocentric (God-centered), not anthropocentric (or “pray-er-centric”) In fact, the only time Nehemiah uses the first person is in confessing sins.
Sin is a barrier to God (Isa. 59:1, 2). Nehemiah makes sure that his sins and all of Israel’s sins are forgiven. Though Jesus will not arrive for hundreds of years, his faith stands upon this future contingency.
As evidenced by Nehemiah’s prayer, confession can be general as well as specific. Interestingly, he places himself in the category of sinning against God. He could have been confessing his sins of indifference, personal disregard of God’s commandments, or perhaps ignoring the call to return to Jerusalem and remaining in the courts of Susa. Regardless, Nehemiah seeks pure motives and identifies personally with the corporate sin of Israel. This act of a godly leader taking on the spiritual liability of the people is found also in other Bible greats.
Believing that God would be faithful to His Word, Nehemiah repeats to God what He stated in the past (1:8). Jesus did likewise, quoting the Old Testament during His temptations. With assurance in God’s faithfulness, one can be bold with God Himself regarding His promises.
In chapter 1:8, 9, Nehemiah summarizes the blessings and curses of the promises found in Deuteronomy 30 and Leviticus 26. Though these seem incompatible with modern sensibilities, it is clear that obedience is the basis for God’s blessings. Paul later emphasizes that it is Christ’s obedience that became the basis for God’s promises of blessing and that “in Him” we can partake in the same blessings while enjoying the removal of the curses. Whether looking forward as did Nehemiah or as we today look backward, the point is to look toward Christ as the Promise-keeper.
Through prayer, priorities are reestablished and a purpose forms in Nehemiah’s heart. He realizes that God has sent him to the palace for this purpose. Through prayer, Nehemiah understood his role as cupbearer to the King and a vision to meet the need started to form in his mind.
The Medes and Persians had a very high view for law—once passed, it was impossible to change (Dan. 6:15). With laws that prevented the restoration of Jerusalem (Ezra 4:17–24), reconstruction seemed impossible. However, rather than focusing on impossibilities, Nehemiah looked to God for answers. Nehemiah prayed for days (1:4) until something happened. It was four months before he received an answer (from Chisleu (December/January) to Nisan (April/May) in chapter 2:1).
What God says, comes to be: this is the nature of God’s Word and the basis for creation, salvation, and redemption—it is foundational to Scripture. What God says becomes reality (Ps. 33:6, 9). The soundwaves that came out of God’s mouth became light particles, energy, and matter. Philosophers have debated from antiquity on the nature of being. The Bible clearly points to the Word of God as the basis for reality.
This is why God cannot lie (Heb. 6:18; Titus 1:2). If He were to attempt a lie, reality would contort itself to comply with or obey with God’s Word.
And yet He gives humanity the freedom to choose whether or not they will align themselves with His Word. Unlike matter which has to abide according to God’s Word, humanity through God-given choice, based out of God’s love, does not have to. We can choose life, defined by the reality of God’s Word, or death if do not want to be part of God’s reality. Every day we make decisions to obey God’s Word or not. But when we choose to align ourselves with God’s Word, amazing results occur.
God seeks to speak to us again. He did it in the past. He did in the incarnation and life of Christ. He became the living Word. When we have stored up the Word of God in our minds and then claim them, God’s Word continues to speak to and through us.
While His promises took place in biblical history, studying them in their context will help us how to claim the same promises. The basis of these claims is rooted in faith: not a mere faith in His existence—for even the demons believe He exist (James 2:19). Our faith should be based on His goodness and His power (Heb. 11:6). Crises of faith derive from believing in God’s power, but not His goodness, thereby resulting in believing in a cruel, indifferent, powerful, fearful God. Or the other extreme is to believe in a good God who lacks power. This results in a Santa Claus–type of benevolent watcher who desires but cannot intervene in human affairs. Both are corruptions of our vision of God and damage our faith. History attests to complicated and complex philosophies and theologies that seek to portray and articulate these versions of God.
But God is both powerful and good. This God is accessible through the power of His Word. This is made most evident by Jesus Christ at creation, at the cross, through the church, and again through the crises and testimonies of our lives. What words of Jesus have you claimed today?
Nehemiah, a Hebrew exile, occupied a position of influence and honor in the Persian court. As cup-bearer of the king, he was familiarly admitted to the royal presence; and by virtue of this intimacy, and his own high abilities and tried fidelity, he became the monarch’s counselor. Yet in that heathen land, surrounded by royal pomp and splendor, he did not forget the God of his fathers or the people who had been entrusted with the holy oracles. With deepest interest, his heart turned toward Jerusalem, and his hopes and joys were bound up with her prosperity. Days of peculiar trial and affliction had come to the chosen city. Messengers from Judah described to Nehemiah its condition. The second temple had been reared, and portions of the city rebuilt; but the work of restoration was imperiled, the temple services were disturbed, and the people were kept in constant alarm, by the fact that the walls of the city were in ruins, and the gates burned with fire. The capital of Judah was fast becoming a desolate place, and the few inhabitants remaining were daily embittered by the taunts of their idolatrous assailants, “Where is your God?”
The soul of the Hebrew patriot was overwhelmed by these evil tidings. So great was his sorrow that he could not eat or drink. He “wept and mourned certain days, and fasted.” But when the first outburst of grief was over, he turned to the sure Helper. “I prayed,” he said, “before the God of heaven.” He knew that all this ruin had come because of the transgression of Israel; and in deep humiliation he came before God for pardon of sin and a renewal of the divine favor…
God had been faithful to His threatenings when His people separated from Him; He had scattered them abroad among the nations, according to His word. And Nehemiah found in this very fact an assurance that He would be equally faithful in fulfilling his promises. His people had now returned in penitence and faith to keep His commandments: and God Himself had said that if they would do this, even though they were cast out into the uttermost part of the earth, He would gather them thence, and would cause the light of His countenance again to shine upon them. This promise had been given more than a thousand years before; but through all the centuries it stood unchanged. God’s word cannot fail…
Nehemiah had often poured out his soul thus before God in behalf of his people. And as he prayed, a holy purpose had been forming in his mind, that if he could obtain the consent of the king, and the necessary aid in procuring implements and material, he would himself undertake the arduous task of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, and seeking to restore the national strength. And now, in closing his prayer, he entreated the Lord to grant him favor in the sight of the king, that this cherished plan might be carried out.
Lessons from the Life of Nehemiah by Mrs. E. G. White, pp. 5–7 (SW March 1, 1904, Art. A)