Principles of Leadership from Nehemiah: Crucial Concerns of Godly Leaders

Prosperity of God’s People

Godly leaders care about those things that are precious to God. Nothing is more precious to God than His people. Paul commended Timothy, “I have no one like him, who will be genuinely concerned for your welfare” (Php 2:20).[1] Nehemiah’s care is evident from the opening of the book as he asked “concerning the Jews who escaped … and concerning Jerusalem” (1:2). The city was important but was secondary to the people who lived there. Almost one fifth of the book comprises names, and although we are tempted to skip such lists, they bear witness to the value God places upon each individual.

Nehemiah cared deeply, particularly for the vulnerable and oppressed (5:1-5), and as governor he ensured that everyone was represented before the king himself (11:24). He also cared widely, not discriminating on the basis of gender, ethnicity, socio-economic status or other grounds, and with due regard to the people’s varied needs.

While repairing gates and building walls, he prioritized safety, appreciating that it would contribute positively to the people’s emotional well-being: “Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision” (2:17). He knew that while the reading of the law would prompt painful spiritual adjustment, in order to be effective such adjustment must emanate from joyful, worshipping hearts: “Go …. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine …. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength” (8:10).

The depth of overseers’ care will be revealed in coming months as we emerge from lockdown. Ministering to the varied and complex needs of God’s people, some of whom feel weak and vulnerable, overseers should consider that the reality of their care for God’s assembly will be evaluated by the sincerity of their care for His people.

Fidelity to God’s Word

Paul wrote about the importance of overseers being able (1Ti 3:2) and ready to teach “what accords with sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1). Nehemiah understood this – the strength of the work for God would be its foundation upon the Word of God.

Never underestimate the influence of a godly leader’s care. Within one week of completing the wall (6:15), the erstwhile disparate and discouraged population assembled with expectation to hear the Word of God (8:1). Surely Nehemiah was encouraged by the careful attention with which they listened (8:3). Impressed by how God had ensured their security and enjoying newfound liberty (5:1-13), they were eager to learn more.

The wooden tower built for the occasion was not just for acoustic effect. By elevating the Book, the people gave expression to their subjection, bowing and worshipping with their faces to the ground as it was read (8:6).

The responsibility of handling the Word of God was taken seriously. Demonstrating unity with Ezra, 13 key individuals accompanied him as he read and gave a faithful exposition so that “the people understood the reading” (8:8). It is no surprise that the people were moved to action, repenting of past failure (9:1-3) and committing themselves to renewed faithfulness (9:38).

Like Nehemiah, godly overseers appreciate the need when nursing sick Christians to patiently encourage an appetite for God’s Word, and when nourishing hungry Christians to diligently teach the authority of God’s Word with clarity and integrity.

Honesty in God’s Presence

Integrity does not just refer to the validity of what is taught but honesty in those who teach. The Lord Jesus was uncompromising in condemnation of religious hypocrites. Whereas persecution invariably makes the work of God blossom, hypocrisy makes it wither.

Nehemiah’s personal integrity is seen in his accountability for the people’s sacrificial contributions for the work (7:70-72). Equally noteworthy is his readiness to share responsibility for their sinful condition and its consequences. Privately, Nehemiah confessed, “I and my father’s house have sinned” (1:6), and publicly, he headed the signatories to the confession that the land’s “rich yield goes to the kings whom you have set over us because of our sins” (9:37). During the present crisis, many have prayed that the world will hear God’s voice. Overseers should pray that God’s people will reflect upon our own fruitlessness and failure, and not say as the hypocrites, “I thank thee that I am not as other men are.”

Sanctity of God’s House

The burned gates and broken walls caused the people to become demoralized and to compromise with the nations around them. Forgetting their identity, they inevitably forfeited their purpose, lost their song and left the service of God’s house.

The tragedy of this is accentuated when we recall God’s purpose for them. Isaiah’s portrait of Jehovah’s Perfect Servant is a description of everything Israel should have been – “a light for the nations” (49:6). Sadly, they had become a byword, bringing shame rather than honour upon God’s Name.

Having confessed collective failure, Nehemiah began the work of restoring both the people and place that were called by that Name. His approach to this is instructive but beyond the scope of this article. Sufficient to say that it addressed essential issues of Personal Sanctification and of Priestly Service.

Abandoning actions and attitudes which produce defilement and distress, and adopting others which promote discernment and devotion to the Lord, the outcome was impressive. “They offered great sacrifices that day and rejoiced, for God had made them rejoice with great joy …. And the joy of Jerusalem was heard far away” (12:43).

Continuity of God’s Work

Nehemiah was clearly concerned that the work of the Lord should continue after he was gone, seeing to it that the territory around Jerusalem was possessed (11:1) and ensuring that the service of the sanctuary was provided for – joyful hearts make for generous hands. Whereas the people would not support a corrupt and abusive system, now they gladly gave their tithes and offered their firstfruits to the Lord.

We’ve noted the many individual names. Nehemiah understood the importance of including and recognising all God’s people, not just necessary given the size and urgency of the task, but because it ensured everyone had a vested interest in the success of the endeavour. This thoroughly scriptural NT idea is embedded in the word koinonia (fellowship), used to express our communion with God and with each other. Sadly, assemblies have struggled and even failed because leaders favoured some and neglected others.

Finally, he recognised that the people and the work were God’s, not his, and as Paul exhorted Timothy, he ensured its continuity by sharing responsibility with others who were faithful (7:2) and able to do so (8:9). Let us pray to avoid the shame of a work that fails because men want to consolidate power.

[1] All Scripture quotations in this article are from the ESV.