Principles of Leadership from Nehemiah: The Urgent Call to Godly Leadership

Leadership is foundational to God’s creatorial order. At the beginning of His creative work, God first dispelled darkness, and on the fourth day proceeded to establish lights in the heavens – to illuminate, differentiate and dominate (“rule” KJV). In completing His work, He formed Adam, whom He placed in the Garden of Eden as His personal representative, expanding on the responsibilities of his role, with the instruction to be fruitful, multiply, replenish and subdue the earth.

Similarly, leadership is key to His eschatological purpose. In the end, Christ, the last Adam, will deliver up the kingdom to God: “For he must reign, till he hath put all enemies under his feet …. And when all things shall be subdued unto him, then shall the Son also himself be subject unto him that put all things under him, that God may be all in all” (1Co 15:25-28 KJV).

When we consider how God’s plan for the ages is bookended in this way, we begin to see the inalienable principle established that those who lead for God must do so in a way that allows His work to develop and flourish, realising that their rule is a sacred stewardship and should be motivated by the ultimate aim of bringing glory to Him.

That God considers this important is evident from the wealth and variety of both positive and negative examples in His Word. The OT is chock-full of the exploits of heroic examples like Moses, Joshua and Caleb; Deborah, Samson and Samuel; David, Solomon and Hezekiah, whose feats and failures had such a profound impact upon the material and spiritual prosperity of God’s people. Meanwhile, the NT’s expositions on leadership are both extensive and explicit. Expanding upon the noble work of a godly overseer, the Apostle Paul observed, “If any man aspires to the office of overseer, it is a fine work he desires to do” (1Ti 3:1 NASB95).

King Solomon lamented the farce of an ineffective and obstinate ruler: “Better was a poor and wise youth than an old and foolish king who no longer knew how to take advice” (Ecc 4:13 ESV). Satan also appreciates the potential of effective leadership, and this is evident from his consistent and concerted efforts to make good leaders fail.

Sadly, Solomon’s words were not just proverbial but prophetic. Though endowed with unrivalled wisdom, he failed to heed his own advice. Successive generations of leaders became increasingly dull of hearing and hard of heart, until at last King Jehoiakim warmed himself in his winter palace at a fire fueled with leaves he was cutting from the scroll of Jeremiah’s prophecy. He was apparently unperturbed by the judgment God had brought upon his equally defiant northern neighbours just a few years earlier when the fearsome Assyrian army invaded. In less than 20 years Jehoiakim was gone, and his son Zedekiah, who succeeded him, had been ignominiously deposed and deported to Babylon, but not until his eyes had been gouged out, his two sons having been mercilessly executed in his sight. The Davidic dynasty had apparently come to an inglorious end.

Just as God had not forsaken them in the wilderness when they had refused to listen and had become stubborn (Neh 9:17), so He did not abandon them in their Babylonian captivity. Engineering world history, God overturned kingdoms and powers and raised up Cyrus the Persian to shepherd the people of God (Isa 44:28), immediately putting it into his heart to initiate a program to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. So in 536 B.C., according to God’s prophetic plan enacted by the decree of Cyrus, Zerubbabel led an expedition of almost 50,000 people to Jerusalem to begin this great and noble work. Heartened when Cyrus returned the temple vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had plundered, they wasted no time in restoring the altar and its associated service.

The reconstruction work had begun in Jerusalem just over a year after their return and continued for the next 15 years, until the persistent attempts by their adversaries to frustrate it finally brought the work to a standstill. Then, after a delay of around a year, building resumed, stimulated by the diverse yet complementary ministries of vocal Haggai and visionary Zechariah. That phase of the project was finally completed, and the temple was dedicated in 515 B.C., around 20 years after it began. Tellingly, the wall was not rebuilt at that time.

With burned gates and broken-down bulwarks, the people’s security had been compromised and their identity confused. Cheated of dignity and surrounded by debris – constant reminders of previous defeat and unrealised ambition – they felt defenceless and demoralised. With mounting opposition and increasingly impossible circumstances, instead of turning to God, they had become selfish, godless & joyless – a people in deep crisis.

Nehemiah could show you the spot. The moment was etched in his mind. Susa the Palace. The month Chislev. That fateful day.

It was the fall of 446 B.C., but it was the chilling tidings, not the cooling temperature, that made him shudder to his soul and sent him to his knees.

Warren Wiersbe wrote, “Like large doors, great life-changing events can swing on very small hinges.” Nehemiah (meaning “the aid of the Lord”) was going about his usual business as the king’s cupbearer when he happened upon his brother, recently returned from Jerusalem.

“Hanani! How was Jerusalem? How are God’s people there?” he asked.

Hanani (meaning “the mercy of God”) hung his head.

“Awful!” was his heavy reply.

As Hanani poured out his heart for his beleaguered brothers in the homeland, Nehemiah was as broken as the walls of Jerusalem – and God had His man.

These are crisis days – socially, economically, physically and spiritually. As the COVID-19 pandemic terrorises the globe, the unimaginable is unfolding daily before our eyes. There are real, existential threats to Christian testimony, and there is the grave danger that the Lord’s people will become confused, vulnerable and demoralised. In our generation, there has likely never been a more urgent need for godly men of prayer to feel the burden to lead and care for God’s dear people – for their good, and His glory.

Who will heed the urgent call? Who will cry, “Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand. O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy” (Neh 1:10-11 KJV)?