Nehemiah is viewed as a precursor to Jesus Christ. Certainly he did exhibit many Christ-like qualities, and the view also conforms to the idea expressed by the author of Hebrews in Chapter 1 Verse 1: In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.
However, when we cast Nehemiah in just a prophetic role, we miss the amazing and intriguing story: how a person could be taken prisoner of war from his home to a place a thousand miles away, rise to a position of trust and respect in a foreign land, obtain the favor of one of the most powerful kings in history, in order to be an inspiring leader to his own people.
To the ancient Jews, achieving greatness from lowliness and persecution resonated strongly with their history beginning with the captivity and rise of Joseph, great-grandson of Abraham and ending with the Exodus from Egypt and the establishment of the nation of Israel. Many elements of Nehemiah’s story line spoke very powerfully to the Jewish identity.
For those of us who, thousands of years later, follow this story, this is the central theme that speaks to us: if we are willing to allow God to use us, and if we surrender passionately to his will, no matter where we are, in our home country or in a foreign land, we can be useful. Our influence would probably not be as dramatic or revolutionary as Nehemiah’s, but it could be effective and meaningful, if only to a single person.
A map of the Ancient Middle East gives geographical context to the story. For historical context, check out these sites.
Here is a brief introduction to the history of those times.
The Middle East of Biblical times was swept by several forces. Israel, situated midway between the major powers of the times (Egypt, Greece and Persia) was always being tossed around like flotsam in a turbulent sea.
Between 925BC and 538BC, these were the major invasions:
bc 925 Egypt (Pharaoh Shashank)
bc 854 Assyria
bc 608 Egypt
bc 597 Medes/Chaldeans.
Check this site for Timelines mentioned above. http://www.biblehistory.webcentral.com.au/Table5.htm
First group of captives taken from Jerusalem,the capital to Persia. bc 586 Medes/Chaldeans.
Second group of captives taken from Jerusalem to Persia after an uprising.Walls of Jerusalem destroyed.
bc 538 Persians, helped by Chaldeans(Cyrus). Some captives are returned to Israel.
For Information on Artaxerxes, king during the time of Cyrus see this site
The 6th century BC saw the rise of the Greeks as a world power.
bc 538 Greeks(Athens and Sparta battle with Persia)
bc 449 Persia makes a peace treaty with Greece.
One of the terms of the peace treaty was that the Persian army was not to approach within 3 days march of the Mediterranean Sea. Since Jerusalem was exactly this far from the sea, it was in a very politically sensitive zone. The Persian king would not tolerate even a hint of an uprising here, since an army movement in the area would arouse Greek suspicions. King Ahasuerus, the king just before Nehemiah’s time, had destroyed the walls of Jerusalem to prevent any pretensions to independence.
The political situation was as contentious as it is today. Things haven’t changed in 3 millenia!
The destruction of the walls demoralized the Jews and others still living in the area after the captivity – the ‘remnant’ as they were called. There had been a famine, and some even had to sell their children into slavery in order to repay their debts and survive, a practice the more enlightened nations of the area, Greece and Persia, had banned. The brightest, the young and the intelligent, the most capable, had been taken away to work in the Persian civil service, and the locals were helpless and paralysed.
Greece was at the height of its classical period, a time of intellectual, literary and artistic flowering that was the forbear of modern Western civilization. Persia was the largest empire ever upto that time, stretching from India to Ethiopia. Israel, however, was a ‘reproach to the nations’, in other words, a disgrace. As its spiritual commitment to God Jehovah had declined, so had its political and economic importance.
At this time, Nehemiah was cupbearer to King at the Persian city of Susa (Biblical Shushan). The story begins with Nehemiah’s brother, Hanani arriving with friends to bear the bad news of what’s happening in the homeland.
In the text that follows we explore Nehemiah’s character through a series of short drama scenes. These are followed by a few questions for discussion and a summary of the discussion. We hope that these will make the story come alive.
Nehemiah hears the news based on Neh 1:5-11
Nehemiah: Hail Hanani, hello. Nice to meet you after such a long time.
Hanani: Long journey too. Eight hundred miles from Judah to Susa as the falcon flies.
Nehemiah: How are you my brother? What brings you here? How are things back home?
Hanani: Bad and worse – thats the answer to the all the questions.
Nehemiah: Bad and worse? What happened to our those who returned from captivity? Did they make it? What of those left behind? Hanani: They are suffering and cursing their fate…They just sitting around doing nothing.
Nehemiah: Oh..and what of my beloved Jerusalem?
Hanani: The walls are broken down. The gates have been burned. Anyone can walk in and out of our holy city. We are defenceless. No nation respects us.
Nehemiah: (breaking down) Oh my beloved city .. O my people .. how did we fall so low?
Q1: Who were the different kinds of players in this scene? How were they different?
Survivors(those who get by, just cursing their fate),
Messengers (those who are concerned and try to do something are limited by their resources and abilities) and
Doers(those who have both the concern and the resources to accomplish)
Q2: How do we relate this story to our personal situations?
All of us are enabled to be doers. In Ephesians 4: 11-13 Paul writes:
It was [Christ] who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers … to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
If we are to be constructive in our spheres of influence, we must go beyond fatalism and newsbearing. We have been called and enabled to ACT. The story does not stop here. Nehemiah continues to agonize and pours out his heart to God. Read Nehemiah Chapter 2 for an example of a heartfelt prayer.
Nehemiah plans to succeed (Nehemiah 2 and 3)
King: Here comes the wine. Wonder how this year’s vintage will be.. Can’t wait to taste it..Nehemiah, my man, check it out. Hope it doesn’t kill you.
Nehemiah tastes it and hands it over to the king.
King: Why the long face, that was only a joke. You look sad, but you don’t seem sick..
Are you sorrowful? Is there something I should know about?
Nehemiah(afraid): O king,live forever. Why should I not be sad.. When the city of my father’s tombs is destroyed, and the gates are burned down?
King: Hmm.. it happened to Susa too. I know how you feel. What do you want to do?
Nehemiah(prays first,then hesitantly): If it pleases you, my King, And if I have your favor, Please send me to Judah, to the place of my father’s tombs That I may rebuild it
King: How long will this journey be? And when will you return?
Nehemiah: It will take a while my king.
King: A while…no wine for a while.. ah, the sacrifices we make for our servants. You can go.
Nehemiah: Also, my king, could you give me letters to the governors across the Tigris,so they will give me safe conduct to Judah. And a letter to Asaph, the warden of my lord’s forest, for timber for the gates of the palace, the gates in the wall and the house where I will live
King: Take what you need,do what you have to do. Now where do I find another cupbearer as good as you?
Q1: What were the details of Nehemiah’s approach? How can we learn from him?
First, Nehemiah recognizes God’s sovereingty in the situation. He does not lose his faith. He goes to God before he goes to the king.
Second, he accepts responsibility and does not blame others for the problem. Uses ‘we’ instead of ‘them’ in his prayer.
Third, he does not stop with concern. He forms a plan of action and approaches the king.
In his approach to the king we see:
* Sadness, he does not cover up his need
* Boldness, is persistent and clear with his request
* Tactfulness, does not overwhelm the king with his needs
* Preparedness, he knows what he needs
CONCLUSION: In Nehemiah’s action we see two leadership qualities demonstrated.
LAW OF COMPASS: Vision is like a compass- it gives us a sense of direction. Prov 29:18 Where there is no vision, the people perish. Note that a compass does not show the way, it only points in a given direction. We need to figure out the way based on its constancy. In a similar way, a vision helps us to maintain focus and direction, but we need to act on it to get to where we want to go.
LAW OF PRICE TAG: We have to be prepared to pay a price in order to get results. Nehemiah took a risk with the king. Things could have gone badly if he had met with the king’s displeasure. But to be the leader, he had to take a risk.
Matthew 10:16: Behold I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves; there be ye wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.
A good comparison can be made between Nehemiah’s approach to the king and Paul’s message to the Athenians on Mars Hill.
Nehemiah faces opposition
Actors:Nehemiah, a few men, the Jews, Sanballat, Tobiah
Nehemiah: You see the distress we are in, how Jerusalem lies waste and the gates are burned.Let us build the wall, so we need not be a disgrace to ourselves. Our God Jehovah’s hand is with me And the king supports me
Everyone: Let us rise and build. Need to start exercising for this.
Sanballat and Tobiah walk in, laughing scornfully
Together: Do you even know what you’re doing? You’re crazy! Are you trying to start a rebellion?
Nehemiah: Our God will prosper us, we will rise up and build. But you two will have nothing to do with our city. The city does not owe you anything. You will soon be forgotten. But we will be remembered.
Q1: How did Nehemiah handle adversity?
* He used his discretion – examined the walls at night
* Avoided open conflict
* Kept his silence, did not talk too much
Q2: How did Nehemiah handle opportunity?
* Understood the situation
* Communicated – shared information about king’s support
SUMMARY: Here we see two aspects of Nehemiah’s leadership.
First, he “played his cards right” – mentioned the king without dragging him into the dispute. See Matthew 10:16 again.
Second, he demonstrated the “LAW of MOUNT EVEREST” – as challenge increases so must our teamwork. Nehemiah used his opportunities instead of exploding in frustration.
Third, Nehemiah does not try to do everything himself. He enlists the help of supporters. We can accomplish a little in isolation, but a lot more with teamwork. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Hebrews 10:24: Do not forsake the assembling of yourselves TOGETHER .. not isolated God’s Spirit is one of unity notcontention.
Nehemiah the Wise
ACTORS:Nehemiah, persons 1,2,3, nobles 1,2, priest
Person 1: We, have many children. We have no food from to eat. They are starving to death.
Person 2: We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses. We need to buy grain because of the famine.
Person 3: We have borrowed money on our lands and vineyards for the king’s tax.
Person 1: These are our own people we are in debt to. Our children have become slaves to them. Our daughters are their unpaid servants. We have nothing because they have taken everything we own
Nehmemiah gets angry.
Nehemiah to the nobles and rulers: You should be ashamed of yourselves, charging interest on the loans to your own brothers. Let us meet and talk about this.
Nehemiah: With our own money we bought the freedom of our people from foreign nations. But you sell your own brothers into slavery?
Nobles and rulers are ashamed.
Nehemiah: What you do is not good. Should you not walk in the fear of our God because of the shamefulness of our country among the nations our enemies? Please let us leave this lending at interest. Please even today give back to them their lands, their vineyards, their olive-yards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money and of the grain, the wine, and the oil, that you take from them.
Nobles and rulers: We will restore, and will ask nothing from them. So we will do as you say.
Nehemiah calls the priest.
Nehemiah: Take an oath now from these people that they will keep their promise.
Nobles and rulers: We do solemnly swear….
Nehemiah shaking his lap: So let God shake out every man from his house, and from his produce,who does not keep this promise. May he be shaken out this way and emptied.
Everyone: Amen, praise the LORD.
Q1: How does success in one area foster respect in another?
In Nehemiah’s story, we see that people listened to him because they had seen what he could do. They knew he was not working out of selfish motives, but because he honored God above all. Him that honoreth me I will honor.
Q2: Why should we be concerned about our reputation?
We see from his standing among the people that Nehemiah’s reputation preceded him. He was known as one who could get things done. He was known as one who was not selfish, but fair. He was known as one who above all sought to regain Israel’s honor not to enrich or elevate himself but because he believed Israel’s condition was dishonoring to God Jehovah.
As human beings, we all have limitations. We cannot look into the future, nor can we be perfect – we are still being perfected. But inspite of our weaknesses and challenges we can be effective and influential, and depending on God’s will and our commitment there is no limit.
However, we need to understand that each of us has a role to play and we have all been empowered to play the role. On our own we cannot accomplish much but together we can. This, among other things means respect for the ability of others(Nehemiah used at least 30 teams to rebuild the walls) and tact in the face of opposition. It also means that we call upon the greatest Power on heaven and earth rather than rely on our own strength.
Credits: Laws of Leadership taken from writings of John Maxwell.