Overview 
Nehemiah is one of the Old Testament’s most captivating leaders, whose historic achievement was the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem in the time after the exile. Few books in the bible give us such insights into the thinking of a leader, since whole sections of the book of Nehemiah are his personal diary detailing his prayers, plans and reflections.

Historical Background 
Jerusalem fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC who took their nobles and rulers as captives to Babylon. Not long after the Persians sacked Babylon and moved some of the exiles to their capital Susa. A small group of the exiles returned under Zerubbabel and rebuilt the temple in 516 BC yet the walls of Jerusalem still laid in ruins. We find Nehemiah in the palace of King Artaxerxes around 445 BC when he hears of the devastation of Jerusalem.

INTEGRITY – The Foundation of Leadership 
Nehemiah 1:1-4 and 11 

Nehemiah’s role was that of a cupbearer. As one of approximately 15,000 servants to the king he had the key role of protecting the king against an assassination. Historical records show that cupbearers were trusted servants that often held key positions such as chief of staff or minister in the government. Nehemiah’s request was granted by the king because he had found Nehemiah to be a person of integrity. The same king Artaxerxes had previously refused the rebuilding of the walls (see Ezra 4:18-22), but he knew Nehemiah’s heart and motive and therefore supported him in his mission.

Integrity has been defined as “behavior and decisions which are consistently in line with my principles” meaning that people of integrity align their words and actions with their beliefs and convictions. The bible consistently teaches leaders to put “Character First” as demonstrated in the requirements for elders and volunteers in the church (see 1 Tim 3). Any ministry needs to be based on a life of healthy family relationships, self discipline and reflecting a positive testimony at the workplace.

How do we live a life of integrity? As New Testament Christians we can draw on the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us life in line with the Word of God: “Live by the Spirit and you will not fulfill the desires of the sinful nature (flesh)” (Gal 5:16)

VISION - The Fuel of Leadership 
Nehemiah 2:11-18

Nehemiah made a revolutionary statement: “Come, let us rebuild the wall!” We only appreciate the magnitude of this declaration when we consider that the walls of Jerusalem had been destroyed 141 years before Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem. When he encouraged the people of Israel to rebuild the wall he painted the picture that they would finally be able to find security, identity and prosperity within their own city fortification. He set out a vision that gave them the strength to go about a task that had not been done for generations.

A strong vision is key to the success of a mission: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum the men to gather wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them the longing for the vast and endless sea.” (Antoine de St. Exupery)

Nehemiah’s vision was simple, bold and based on the promises of God – all hallmarks of a vision of a Godly leader.

Vision’s “friend” is passion. Once the people grasped what God had put before them, they got to work. The vision evoked the passion required to go about this massive task.

OPPOSITION - The Testing Fire of Leadership 
Nehemiah 4:1-9 and 15 

When we think of leadership, we first think of all the positives that come with it such as recognition, influence and fame (maybe!). But often we don’t think of the fact that leadership comes with an inbuilt “handicap” called opposition. Leadership and the “testing fire” of opposition go hand in hand.

Especially when we are new to leadership we are sometimes surprised and wonder “what has gone wrong”, while in reality we simply experience the essence of leadership: Bringing about change in people’s lives and in organizations rarely happens without pain.

Nehemiah had his fair share of opposition to deal with: Mockery and public ridicule (4:1-3), plans for an armed attack (4:7-10), a murder plot (6:1-3), an open letter with libelous charges accusing him of treason (6:5-6), a move to discredit him and lead him into sin (6:10)… and more!

There are two things that we can learn from Nehemiah on how to deal with opposition:

  1. STAND FIRM
    Everything thrown in Nehemiah’s way could not stop him doing the one thing he was called to do. He never stopped building the wall. They took tools and swords, they placed guards, but they never stopped. He stood firm in his calling. More often than not, this is half the battle. Ephesians 6:13 tells us: “Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.”

    As a result, the Jews completed in 52 days what had not been done in 141 years!

    Admiral Mahon of the American Navy during the war of independence is said to have insisted on a dictum when teaching his officers: “Gentlemen, whenever you set out to accomplish anything, make up your mind at the outset about your ultimate objective. Once you have decided on it, take care never to lose sight of it.” Nehemiah was not distracted but remained focused on building the wall… and before his opponents realized, the wall was complete.

  2. PRAY 
    Nehemiah was more than a brilliant strategist and people manager. He knew that ultimately all opposition needed to be dealt with in prayer. We find nine prayers of Nehemiah recorded in the bible. He prayed – acted – prayed again. The bible teaches us that we have both natural and spiritual opposition (Satan literally means “adversary”) that need to be confronted through the power of prayer. 

Conclusion 

The book of Nehemiah teaches us about the challenges and the rewards of leadership. Most importantly, it shows that it needs many builders taking their place to make the impossible possible (see chapter 3). It encourages us to take up our positions in our workplace, our school, our home, our ministry to see the kingdom built.

Sample Discussion Questions 

  1. Which area of responsibility are you involved in? 
  2. How have you been challenged in keeping your integrity? What has helped you to stand firm? 
  3. What is the vision that you have for your own life, for your family, for your workplace, for your ministry? 
  4. Which opposition have you experienced in relation to your leadership? How have you handled it? What is the main thing you learnt from it? What would you do differently next time?
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