Principles of Leadership from Nehemiah: Essential Characteristics of Godly Leadership

Nehemiah was God’s man to lead God’s people in crisis. What kind of qualities does God require in those who lead for Him?

His Relationship with God

A strong relationship with God is key to successful leadership for God. That Nehemiah had such a relationship is clear – God is referenced over 90 times in this relatively short book, punctuated by Nehemiah’s frequent and legendary prayers.

This emanated from a sound appreciation of God’s worth. In the opening prayer of the book, he addresses the “Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God” (1:5 ESV), and frequent, similar veneration of God’s glorious Person is equalled by his valuation of God’s chosen Place, the city of Jerusalem. Godly leaders cherish what is precious to God.

His appreciation was established upon commitment to God’s Word. When asked the reason for his sad countenance, Nehemiah’s answer, “Why should not my countenance be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ sepulchres, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?” (2:3),[1] was not mere nostalgia, but an appreciation that God’s covenant with His ancient people had been broken, and that the devastation of the city was a result of generations’ having flaunted the commandments associated with it (1:5,7).

However, Nehemiah’s knowledge of Jehovah’s past dealings in grace with Israel – “ready to pardon, gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and of great kindness” (9:17) – motivated his present prayerful dependence upon that same gracious God. Pleading with God for his people, he cried, “Remember … the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses … if ye turn unto me … yet will I gather them … and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there” (1:8-9). Godly leaders prevail in prayer, as Nehemiah did, because their petitions are motivated by His Word and impelled by an understanding of God’s ways.

His Relationship with Himself

Godly leaders are known for personal integrity, courage and self-discipline.

Nehemiah was faithful. His position in the court was one of national importance. We would be doing him a great disservice if we thought that as royal cupbearer his only responsibility was to procure the king’s favourite tipple. He was likely a close companion, confidant and counsellor of the king, with considerable influence over access to the sovereign and the affairs of state. Such responsibility would have been earned by years of reliable service in the palace, which explains the king’s willingness to grant Nehemiah’s request, his concern that he should return at the appointed time, and his confidence that Nehemiah’s word on that could be trusted (2:6).

The king’s father had been murdered by his bodyguard, and although there are conflicting accounts of what followed, Artaxerxes either killed his eldest brother, who had been framed for the murder, or discovered the plot and killed the rogue bodyguard himself. Either way, during days of murderous political infighting, it took considerable courage to ask for something which would later be misconstrued as rebellion against the king (2:19).

Nehemiah was fearless, and his mettle was repeatedly tested in the face of sustained discouragement and opposition.

Nehemiah was focused. That he was not easily distracted nor diverted is evident from the outset. Note that his famed, instantaneous prayer, “So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king …” (2:4-5), came as the climax of six months of supplicating the throne of heaven for this precise opportunity at the throne in Susa. Nehemiah had no pause before an earthly king because he had been persistent in the presence of the Lord God of heaven.

This prayerful focus characterised his entire mission. For example, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem made repeated attempts to do mischief to him and to frustrate the “great work” he was doing. On the fifth occasion, when they “made [them] afraid, saying, Their hands shall be weakened from the work,” in almost conversational style, Nehemiah, unperturbed, simply prayed, “Now therefore, O God, strengthen my hands” (6:9).

Sadly, there is nothing more debilitating to God’s people than leaders who lack such integrity, bravery and clarity to execute God’s purpose.

His Relationship with the Lord’s People

The importance of these qualities is manifest when we consider how they influenced his relations with God’s people, issuing in care that was selfless, sympathetic and steadfast.

Just as the Apostle Paul often laboured with his own hands, forgoing his rights to be financially supported in the work, so Nehemiah did not use his legitimate authority as governor to raise taxes to run his own considerable household. By contrast, moved with real compassion, he introduced reforms to alleviate the hardship of the poor, towards whom his own generosity was exemplary. Notwithstanding, as necessary, he was not afraid to be forthright when sin and departure called for repentance, nor did he self-righteously distance himself from the people’s faults and failures, confessing, “Both I and my father’s house have sinned” (1:6).

His Relationship with the Lord’s Work

One of Nehemiah’s key strengths was his ability to honestly assess the situation, personally surveying the city (2:12) and compiling detailed inventories of all the resources available. Although conscious of the divine dimension, as leaders of God’s people should be, he familiarised himself with the people’s relative strengths and weaknesses and was not unaware of the opportunities and threats which presented themselves. Nehemiah did not believe that it was spiritual to leave such things to chance, using this knowledge to build and motivate strong teams.

Furthermore, Nehemiah understood how important it was to clearly communicate the vision and then effectively model dedication to the Lord and His work. He did not consolidate power by jealously guarding information, but at every opportunity involved others, sharing and delegating responsibility where possible.

Nehemiah’s positive influence is evidenced in the climax of the book. The rubble, reproach and routine gave way to devotion and delight as the people celebrated the dedication of themselves and the wall, joyfully gathering to, enthusiastically glorying in, and gladly giving to their Lord. “They offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy; the women and children also rejoiced. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (12:43 ESV).

This is a time for godly leadership. The risk of irreparable damage to God’s people has never been greater. We need those who know and love their God, His Word and His ways to take stock prayerfully and lead clearly and courageously. May they exemplify that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10).


[1] All Scripture quotations are from the KJV unless otherwise noted.