The book of Nehemiah is about the restoration of the physical and spiritual life of the nation of Judah in Jerusalem. In recent years many books have been written about leadership using the book of Nehemiah as a source to develop leadership principles. This post will explain the primary message of the book of Nehemiah and then use that primary message to evaluate leadership principles written by others.
Photo Credit: Marcus Hansson
The book of Nehemiah tells the story of restoration of the city of Jerusalem. When examining the book of Nehemiah as a single unit of material one will notice that it is a book which focuses on “lists.” Fifty-three percent (214 verses) of the material in Nehemiah are lists, 25 percent (146 verses) is historical narrative, and 11 percent (46 verses) are recorded prayers. 1
The book of Nehemiah has 13 chapters and six of those chapters tell about the rebuilding of the walls of Judah. In addition to those six chapters, seven chapters are dedicated to tell about life after the walls had been rebuilt. Nehemiah was concerned about the spiritual health and welfare of the Jews in Jerusalem.
Spiritual repair was his main focus and rebuilding the walls of the city was how he accomplished that spiritual repair. That is why seven chapters of the thirteen are dedicated to telling about the social and religious reforms Nehemiah organized, participated in, or directly administered after the walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt.
5 Themes That Support The Primary Message of Nehemiah
1) Restoration for the City of Jerusalem
Ezra 6:14b-15 tells the story of the completion of the Temple in Jerusalem, “The Temple was finally finished, as had been commanded by the God of Israel and decreed by Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, the kings of Persia. The Temple was completed on March 12, during the sixth year of King Darius’s reign” (Ezra 6:14b-15, NLT).
The temple being completed did not mean that the reforms and rebuilding within the city of Jerusalem were complete. Having a temple to worship at was significant and an important element, but the people also needed walls and gates to complete their restoration of Judah was a province under the Persian Empire.
Evidence of this is seen in how Nehemiah reacted when he heard that the city walls had been torn down and that the gates had been burnt with fire. Nehemiah responded with mourning, fasting, and prayer (1:4). Even though the people living in Jerusalem had been allowed to return to their city and managed to rebuild a temple, they had now been there for 80 years and still had not rebuilt the walls around the city.
For Jews living in Jerusalem purity and dedication to worshipping God was important because they had just spent 70 years in exile becoming mixed with the people of Babylon and Persia. After 70 years of exile in Babylon and Persia, they were able to worship God again. Yet this return to Judah and Jerusalem was certainly not a return to “what once was.”
The people returning to Judah in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah arrived to a “province” of Persia, not their own country. But because of this they had the opportunity to set up the altar, rebuild the Temple, restore proper worship of God, and be able to present themselves as holy to God. Restoration for the entire city of Jerusalem was necessary for this to happen.
This is why Nehemiah “after inspecting the walls upon his arrival, he [Nehemiah] realized that their repair was to be his prime task. This repair would guarantee the security of the city and could provide a focal point for the Jewish community scattered throughout Judah.” 2
Nehemiah was focused on restoration for the entire city of Jerusalem so that the people could focus on their worship to God and maintain the spiritual standards He desired for them.
Eleven different prayers are mentioned in the book of Nehemiah.
However, these are not all prayers spoken by Nehemiah. Four times Nehemiah prayed to God when the people of Israel were being mocked or opposed in their work (4:4,9; 5:19; 6:14). Four times Nehemiah prayed when seeking to restore the spiritual health and practices of the people of Israel (13:14, 22, 29, 31). Two times Nehemiah prayed for the nation of Judah while he was still in Persia (1:4; 2:4). The overall message of Nehemiah’s prayers, according to David Howard in his book, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books, show that his heart was attuned to God.
One of these prayers is a prayer by the people of Judah in chapter nine when they prayed to God about their past history of unfaithfulness and about the mighty things God had done for them. Gary Smith, in his great commentary Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, tells that it is important to note that throughout their prayers, Nehemiah and the people of Judah “recognize the sovereign power of God to control their lives and the lives of those around them” (p. 21).
In these prayers Nehemiah shared his burden and responsibility with God, and God answered in the end. Therefore “these prayers are an encouragement to all readers to follow the example of Nehemiah, for prayer brings God’s power to bear on the difficult situations in life.” 3 This theme of prayer is woven throughout the book.
3) Reverence for Scripture
The reverence the people of Judah had for God and His Scripture is also a theme in Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 8:1-12 tells of Ezra (Ezra was “a Scribe ‘well versed’ in the Law of Moses” 4) opening the book of the law, the people rising to their feet, and listening to him and the Levites explain what the law meant.
Two things are worth noting.
- The length of time. The text tells that Ezra read “from early morning till noon” (8:3). This would have been a maximum of six hours during that time of year 5 which was a long time to stand and listen to the book of the Law of Moses.
- The people wanted to hear the book read. “They asked Ezra the scribe to bring out the Book of the Law of Moses, which the LORD had given to Israel to obey” (8:1).
This was something that the people wanted. It was customary for people of Israel to gather together to celebrate the new year, but asking to hear the law was something they decided to do on their own initiative. 6 Because of this many parts of “Nehemiah suggest a strong concern to do things in accordance with the Mosaic Law.
Since the exile had befallen the nation because of its unfaithfulness to God, strict obedience to the law now was a visible demonstration of the people’s faithfulness.” 7 This strong focus on the Law of Moses shows the people of Judah’s desire to “get it right this time.” They appear to want to live according to God’s will, and the Law of Moses was God’s will.
4) Physical Protection
The importance of physical protection before religious reform is shown when Nehemiah wrote, “After the wall was finished and I had set up the doors in the gates, the gatekeepers, singers, and Levites were appointed” (7:1).
It was when the wall was finished and the doors of the gates were completed that Nehemiah started to appoint servants for the temple and religious services. The overall goal of Nehemiah was to establish religious reform in Judah, but that could not be done until the walls were rebuilt and the city was safe. Therefore, Nehemiah’s first order of business, his number one priority, was to get the wall rebuilt so that other activities could occur within in the walls of the city.
Why was a wall around the city so important? It was important because Nehemiah knew that the religious reforms he and Ezra wanted for the nation of Judah could only be maintained by a wall. He wanted to keep the people of Jerusalem and Judah separate from the foreigners living nearby.
In Nehemiah’s time, it was important to ensure that Judah and its people remained distinct and “uncontaminated” from their neighbors, because contact with neighboring nations in the pre-exilic community had caused past generations to enter into sin and eventually be exiled because of it. Nehemiah was determined to ensure that did not happen again. Therefore, the city of Jerusalem needed a wall not just only to protect the people against enemies (a common reason for a wall) but also to maintain separation from foreigners.
5) Spiritual Protection
The fifth and final theme that supports the primary message of Nehemiah (i.e. that the book of Nehemiah is about the restoration of the physical and spiritual life of the nation of Judah in Jerusalem) is the fact that the wall provided spiritual protection. Not having a wall around the city meant that anyone could enter the city on any day.
This was a vital issue that had to be addressed because foreigners entering into the city on the Sabbath to conduct business was a serious violation of the Law of Moses. A wall with gates that could be closed at the beginning of the Sabbath and raised again when the Sabbath ended was an essential element to maintaining the spiritual health of the people of the city of Jerusalem. This is supported by evidence in Nehemiah 13 where Nehemiah declares that the gates of the city were to be shut from the beginning of the Sabbath to the end of the Sabbath in order to keep foreigners out of the city.
In addition to Nehemiah’s concern for the physical protection of the walls of Jerusalem, he was interested in the maintenance of worship at the temple. Nehemiah was involved in producing a document that the Jewish community of Jerusalem pledged to in order to care for and support the temple personnel. However, chapter 13 of the book of Nehemiah tells about the sin of the people when they neglected the temple (vv. 4-14), did not keep the Sabbath (vv. 15-22), and allowed intermarriage (vv. 23-31).
This shows that the spiritual protection the walls provided could not always overcome the sin in the hearts of the people who were supposed to enforce the Law of Moses.
5 Leadership Principles Evaluated in Light of The Primary Message of Nehemiah
As was shared in the introduction to this blog post, many books have been written on the topic of leadership centered on the book of Nehemiah.
However, even though leadership is a topic displayed in the book of Nehemiah, leadership is not the main topic nor the main message of the book of Nehemiah. 8
Therefore I will evaluate leadership principles based on Nehemiah with a strict view that the book of Nehemiah is about the restoration of the physical and spiritual life of the nation of Judah in Jerusalem (not leadership). (My desire is to be considerate and respectful in evaluating the ideas of other authors. It is important to remember that I am only evaluating the ideas of these authors, not criticizing the authors as persons.)
In Andy Stanley’s book, Visioneering God’s Blueprint for Developing and Maintaining Vision, he writes that leaders need to “communicate your vision as a solution to a problem that must be addressed immediately” (p. 86).
The “vision” Andy Stanley refers to is a major purpose of Nehemiah being included in Scripture because Nehemiah had a vision to rebuild the walls of the city of Jerusalem. Today, leaders also have a vision birthed by God. The book of Nehemiah tells of Nehemiah as the leader God used to bring His people to a place of restoration and worship. Andy Stanley is referring to a vision that also seeks to build the kingdom of God.
The “A solution to a problem” Andy Stanley refers to is a major purpose of Nehemiah being included in Scripture because the problem Nehemiah and the fifth century Jews faced was clear (as has already been explainer earlier in this paper). Nehemiah shared the solution to a problem in 2:17, “You know every well what trouble we are in. Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire. Let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem and end this disgrace!”
The idea of rebuilding the walls proposed by Nehemiah is a solution to a problem which the people have faced for the past 80 years since they first returned to Jerusalem from exile. Nehemiah shared a vision that was of God and was a solution to a problem. In Andy Stanley’s principle, he encourages godly leaders to state their vision of building God’s kingdom as a solution to a current problem that is preventing God and His mercy from being shared.
The concept of a problem “that must be addressed immediately” as shared by Andy Stanley is a major purpose for Nehemiah being included in Scripture because Jerusalem’s situation required an immediate solution. The walls needed to be rebuilt so that proper temple worship could be adhered to. Stanley believes, leaders too, can present their vision as something that must be addressed immediately if the work pertains to bringing people closer to God.
2) “Protect your organization’s core and culture with a thick wall built by people who want to save their own skin.”
In Tom Harper’s book, Leading from the Lions’ Den: Leadership Principles from Every Book of the Bible, he writes that it is important to “protect your organization’s core and culture with a thick wall” (p. 52).
This idea shared by Tom Harper is a major purpose of Nehemiah being included in Scripture because the wall around Jerusalem was destined to preserve and protect the people of Jerusalem physically and spiritually. It was to protect the people of Jerusalem from foreigners, wars, and to keep their Sabbath days sacred from commerce brought in from farms and other cities. Harper argues that businesses need to have a “wall” to project their core and culture from outside negative forces. This was also a goal of Nehemiah and a major purpose that it was included in Scripture.
The idea of a “wall built by people who want to save their own skin” as shared by Tom Harper is not a major purpose for Nehemiah being included in Scripture. The message of Nehemiah is about the restoration of the physical and spiritual life of the nation of Judah in Jerusalem, not selfishly trying to “save your own skin” as a business person might try to do in order to preserve what was created or done regardless of its validity or honor for God. Saving your own skin also implies that you would do what you have to do regardless of principles and values that God might desire. In the book of Nehemiah, the people were not trying to save their own skin. They were trying to rebuild their city and return to faithful worship of God.
In Donald Campbell’s book, Nehemiah: Man in Charge. How God chooses and develops leaders for His work, he writes, “The nation that prays together stays together” (p. 79).
This idea shared by Donald Campbell is a major purpose for Nehemiah being included in Scripture because of the strong emphasis on the prayers not just of Nehemiah, but particularly of the people in chapter nine. There are a total of 11 prayers in the book of Nehemiah. The longest of these prayers is a prayer by the people in chapter nine. In chapter nine the people prayed to God
- Praising Him and expressing gratitude (vv. 6-15).
- Acknowledging disobedience in the past and praising God’s mercy (vv. 16-21).
- Thanking Him for help to conquer the promised land (vv. 22-25).
- About how they failed to obey in the promised land (vv. 26-31).
- That His punishments were just (vv. 32-35).
- Expressing pleasure to serve other kings while in the land of Judah (vv. 36-37).
This is a prayer the people did together to acknowledge what God had done and what He would be doing in their lives in the future. This prayer leads them into the allegiance they declare in chapter ten. Later in the story of Nehemiah when people rebel and fail to maintain the temple, keep the Sabbath holy, and marry only Jews, this collective prayer could have been referenced as support that what was being done was not right.
4) “The task leader must be able to coordinate the efforts of the group, insure cooperation, commend honest effort, see that each task is completed satisfactorily, and provide for open lines of communication between employee and employer.”
In Cyril Barber’s book, Nehemiah: and the dynamics of effective leadership, he shares that “the task leader must be able to coordinate the efforts of the group, insure cooperation, commend honest effort, see that each task is completed satisfactorily, and provide for open lines of communication between employee and employer” (p. 83).
This idea shared by Cyril Barber is not a major purpose for Nehemiah being included in Scripture because the book’s emphasis is not on how Nehemiah did the work. The book of Nehemiah is about the physical and spiritual restoration of the nation of Judah in Jerusalem. There are observations which can be made about how to lead people based on Nehemiah’s example, but these observations are not important themes nor necessary elements to the story of Nehemiah rebuilding the walls and religious reform in Jerusalem.
In Donald Jacobs’s book, From Rubble to Rejoicing: A Study in Effective Christian Leadership Based on Nehemiah, he tells that “a leader must assure that the planning gets done” (p. 50).
This idea shared by Donald Jacobs is a major purpose for Nehemiah being included in Scriptures because it shows the intensity and desire that Nehemiah possessed in attempting to restore the physical and spiritual health of the nation of Judah. For 80 years the people had been back in Jerusalem yet they had only been able to barely complete the temple.
For years they knew that they needed to get the walls rebuilt around the city. Nehemiah arrived and displayed the extensiveness of effort that it took to rebuild the walls. This account in Scripture stands as witness to early Jews about how hard it was to get the city and temple back to the way that God wanted them to be and shows how far one man had to go to ensure that it was done.
For 80 years people looked at those walls laying flat on the ground and thought that it would need to be fixed. Some people probably had ideas on how to get parts of the wall finished. However, they failed to ensure that the planning was done. Nehemiah showed that even if you are not the one to do all of the work or all of the planning, when God has a plan and a will, it is important to make sure that that His will is executed.
The Primary Message of Nehemiah and Leadership Principles
The book of Nehemiah is about the physical and spiritual restoration of the nation of Judah in Jerusalem.
Even though the book of Nehemiah is about Judah it does not mean that biblical leadership principles cannot be observed and applied to the life of a believer. The important distinction that readers of the book of Nehemiah need to make is between individual, observable biblical truths and the message from the book of Nehemiah as a whole. The book was given to readers to tell about significant historical events and life in post-exilic Jerusalem. The book was not given to be a prescriptive text for business leaders.
It can be used to glean leadership principles, but this should only be done within the view of the book’s primary message about the physical and spiritual restoration of the nation of Judah in Jerusalem.
Question: What do you believe is the main theme or main message of the book of Nehemiah? How do themes relate to leadership principles contained within the book?
- Stehpen Bramer, “Nehemiah, ” unpublished class notes for BE103 Old Testament History II and Poetry (Dallas Theological Seminary, Winter Term, 2013), 3. Quoted from Robert Bell, “The Theology of Nehemiah” in Biblical Viewpoint, 56. ↩
- Philip W. Comfort and Walter A. Elwell, eds., Tyndale Bible Dictionary: A comprehensive guide to the people, places, and important words of the Bible (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 2001), 942. Whether this statement, “The wall in Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire” (Neh. 1:3) refers to Nebuchadnezzar’s conquests in 605, 597, and in 586 or a more recent attack is not clear, but the important element is that Nehemiah is clearly moved and emotional disturbed by this news. ↩
- Gary Smith, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, 21. ↩
- David Howard, Intro to Old Testament, 336. ↩
- Gary Smith, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, 163. ↩
- Gary Smith, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, 164. ↩
- David Howard, Intro to Old Testament, 349-350. ↩
- Stephen Bramer, “Nehemiah, ” unpublished class notes for BE103 Old Testament History II and Poetry (Dallas Theological Seminary, Winter Term, 2013), 1. ↩