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Nehemiah ... a failed leader!

By Anonymous - Posted on 01 November 2010

One the best loved books in the Old Testament would have to be the book of Nehemiah.

It’s a great read.

It’s also an inspiring story, the way Nehemiah manages to get together a disheartened and dispirited group of people and lead them in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

Jamie Newans shares his insights into this remarkable man.


As a result Nehemiah is a very popular book to go to for a Biblical model of leadership. Nehemiah is well organised, he has to deal with opposition and personal attacks and he is a godly man of prayer. One book that takes this approach to Nehemiah is the old classic 'Excellence in Leadership' by John White. However, look at what John White says in his preface about his book:

The chapters that follow are really a series of essays about him (Nehemiah), not an exposition of the book that bears his name.... Each essay is based on a passage in Nehemiah... the Scripture passages are drawn from Nehemiah’s personal records and are those best suited to illustrate his character.

Quite clearly what White is actually doing is using Nehemiah as an illustration of leadership rather than actually explaining what the book of Nehemiah is about. As a result, John White’s book is really his ideas on what makes a good leader with some examples from Nehemiah’s life thrown in.

Now the most significant aspect of all this is, if you read the book of Nehemiah right to the end, Nehemiah’s leadership actually fails! So it’s a bit hard to hold him out as a model leader when you read the whole book!

The other way preachers and pastors tend to use Nehemiah is when their church is about to undertake a church building program! But again, if you read to the end of the book, all Nehemiah’s efforts have been in vain.

So if Nehemiah is not a book about leadership and management principles and it’s not a handbook for church building programs, then how do we understand it? What are we meant to learn from this wonderful little book?

This is precisely where we see the importance of Biblical Theology. Biblical Theology is about understanding how the whole Bible fits together and reveals for us God’s unfolding plan of salvation. So to understand Nehemiah we need to understand what has happened so far in Biblical history. Here’s a brief overview.

The history of God’s people, Israel begins with the call of Abraham and God’s promises to him. In Genesis 12 God promises Abraham 3 things: land, a great nation and his blessing, a special relationship with him. The rest of Israel’s history is all about how these promises are fulfilled. When God’s people are in slavery in Egypt they become a great nation (In Exodus 1 we’re told they are too numerous to count). Under Moses we see God’s blessing as God rescues his people from slavery and creates a special relationship with them as he gives them his Law. They will be his people and he will be their God. Under Joshua, Israel finally enters the Promised Land.

With the land, the nation and the blessing all looking good, Israel’s history reaches a high point under King David. They are at peace and are prosperous - it’s all good, all God’s promises seem to be fulfilled! However, under Solomon, the people turned away from God and the kingdom is divided in two - the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

After this there is a long period under various kings where God’s people consistently turn their backs on God. Although there are some good kings in this period eventually the people have just gone too far. In 722 BC the Northern Kingdom of Israel is destroyed by the Assyrians and in 586 BC the city of Jerusalem is attacked and destroyed by the Babylonians. The leaders and officials are taken into exile in Babylon and the city is left in ruins. In 538 BC the Babylonians are conquered by the Persians and the king of Persia, King Cyrus, allows the exiles to return home. In 458 BC a second group of exiles return to Jerusalem under Ezra and in about 445 BC we come to the time of the events of the book of Nehemiah.

And so the big question at the time of Nehemiah is, “What is happening with God’s promises?” Will God’s people get back into the land and re-establish and rebuild the kingdom that had been destroyed so long ago?

It is on this basis, the basis of God’s promises, that book of Nehemiah begins. In Nehemiah 1, Nehemiah prays to the Lord, wanting to see God’s people renewed and restored and he prays on the basis of God’s promises right back in Deuteronomy 30:2-4
...when you and your children return to the LORD your God and obey him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today, then the LORD your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where he scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back.

Nehemiah knows God’s promises. He prays based on what God has promised and he acts on what God has promised. As the book of Nehemiah continues, Nehemiah manages to rally the people together and they rebuild the walls of Jerusalem in only 52 days (Nehemiah 6:12. Many preachers read a lot into the significance of 52 days but the main point is simply that God is at work!)

In Nehemiah 10, with the walls rebuilt, the people now commit themselves to faithfully following the Lord. As a sign of their commitment the people make 3 key promises. They promise not to intermarry with other nations, they promise to keep the Sabbath day and they promise to look after the Temple and those who serve there.

By the end on Nehemiah 12 we are thinking “This could be it!” Here is God’s people, living in God’s land and faithfully living under his rule and blessing. And if the book of Nehemiah was primarily a book about leadership and management or running building programs this would make a wonderful conclusion to the story. But there’s a problem! This is not the end. There is more to come, and it’s not a happy ending.

After 12 years of hard work, rebuilding the city and rebuilding the people, Nehemiah figures he should go back to the king of Persia as he promised he would. Nehemiah goes back to Babylon for maybe 2 or 3 years (we don’t know how long he’s away) but when he returns the city of Jerusalem is a very different place. In Nehemiah’s absence, the people have neglected the temple, are again trading on the Sabbath and have intermarried with other nations.

The people are repeating all the sins of their past. They haven’t learned any lessons at all! They have again shown a complete lack of faithfulness. Nehemiah has rebuilt the walls and all yet his efforts to rebuild the people lay in ruins, completely destroyed. Despite Nehemiah’s best efforts and his faithful godly leadership the people haven’t changed at all.

If there is one thing the book of Nehemiah shows us, it is that it is going to take a lot more than even a great man like Nehemiah to change people, to see people transformed and all God’s promises fulfilled. Despite all Nehemiah’s great qualities, his faithful leadership, his attempts to rebuild and reform and all the good strategies he puts in place, Nehemiah failed.

Only one man in all of Scripture, one man in all of history, has succeeded in dealing with the persistent problem of human sin and fulfills God’s promises completely. Only one man has been able to go to the very heart of the issue and that’s Jesus!

Nehemiah couldn’t take the punishment for sin, but Jesus could. Nehemiah couldn’t fill us with God’s Spirit, but Jesus does. Nehemiah couldn’t change people from within and give them new hearts, but Jesus can. He is the only one who can break the cycle of sin and change and transform people from the inside.

The book of Nehemiah shows us just how much we need Jesus!

However good the structures and programs that we might put in place are, however good our welfare programs, our education and our legal system might be, they are no substitute for a renewed heart. God’s plan is ultimately not to build an earthly city, but a heavenly city.
A city where there will be no sin and death and corruption. At that time we will see all God’s promises fulfilled - God’s people, in God’s place, living under his rule and blessing.

If the book of Nehemiah shows us nothing else it shows us that we need a New Covenant with God, with his law written on our hearts. Like all of the Old Testament, Nehemiah points forward to Jesus and our need for him, (Matt 5:17, Luke 24:44, 2 Cor 1:20). In Jesus we see that God is at work now to rebuild and renovate and restore people to himself as part of his eternal kingdom.

Jamie Newans is the Senior Pastor at Coffs Harbour Presbyterian Church.



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