Whereas the first half of chapter 5 showed the proper exercise of rightful authority, the second half describes the withholding of the same rightful authority. Leadership is not always about using power, but also the yielding of power. In the case of Nehemiah, he worked as governor for the next twelve years in Judah. During that time, Nehemiah did not exploit his people, nor use the power of the governor for personal gain (5:14–19). Even in the areas where he had “discretionary funds,” he did not use them. Nehemiah did not “moonlight,” nor buy other lands; he simply worked on the wall.
What makes a leader do this? Was it external accountability to an oversight committee that was watching his every financial transaction? No, the text reveals his motives. Through it all, Nehemiah’s primary motivations were made clear through two phrases that repeat in this section: “because of the fear of God” (v.15) and “because the bondage was heavy on this people” (v.18). These two parties were on the heart of Nehemiah: God and the people. He ultimately had to answer to God for his faithfulness to his mission and calling. And compassion overwhelms him as the community did not have enough to sustain themselves, so he uses the governor’s provisions for public consumption. Whereas good secular leadership may focus on the people, biblical leadership has God in mind first and then the community.
Doesn’t this remind you of the two great commandments of Christ?“‘ ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets’” (Matt. 22:37–40).
The commandments are not just some abstract code of ethics, but they are the foundation of the government of God. As such, Nehemiah did not just observe these laws, but so implemented them into his ethical matrix that it came out in his leadership style. Ultimately this reveals the leadership style and character of Christ, who exercised authority for mercy and justice’s sake, but also withheld His own rights for the sake of others.