A quick google search on “Nehemiah leadership” turns up such gems as Ten Leadership Lessons from Nehemiah, The Four Cs of Nehemiah’s Leadership, 6 Leadership Qualities of Nehemiah, and 15 Biblical Leadership Principles from Nehemiah. Undoubtedly, one could glean leadership principles from reading Nehemiah, just as you could from watching Shark Tank or The Apprentice. Unfortunately, such readings of the text completely miss the point.
As The Bible Project points out: “That’s because [Nehemiah] is not being offered as a model for successful leadership. Rather, his experience is telling the truth about the human condition. Apparently, the disaster of the exile did not accomplish the transformation of the human heart. Even grave consequences don’t bring about the deep level of healing required to change the human disposition. Israel’s problem before the exile was a hard heart that resulted in rebellion against the terms of their covenant with God. And Israel’s problem after the exile…well, it’s exactly the same.”
Nehemiah is a chapter in the unfolding story of God’s redemption of all creation. Because of its chronology in redemptive history, it serves the important function of pointing us toward Christ who is yet to come, who is the better leader, who leads his people home from spiritual exile, who builds a structure of living stones. It was never meant to be about Nehemiah, just as it was never meant to be about you and me; it’s all about Jesus.
We often hear sermons extolling the excellence of Nehemiah’s prayer life and his fasting and preparation for kingdom work. These things are true, but our reading should not stop here at the surface level. There is a lot more to see! The Christ in all of Scripture series points out: “As the book of Ezra closed, so Nehemiah opens: with the prayer of a godly intercessor. Nehemiah is the last in a progression of Old Testament leaders who in their faithfulness and their imperfection teach us to depend on God’s faithfulness, and who train us to look ahead to the true Intercessor who will represent God’s people perfectly before his Father.” For example, when Nehemiah prays in 1:10 thanking God for redeeming his people, he is referring to God’s redemption of the Israelites from Egypt, “but that rescue pictures the greater One to come, not through the blood of a sacrificed lamb but through the death and resurrection of Christ, our Passover lamb.” He calls God a “God who keeps covenant and steadfast love” with his people, recalling to mind the covenant God made with Abraham that through Abraham’s descendants the whole world would be blessed, a covenant promise that was fulfilled in Jesus, by whose death the whole world was able to be saved.
You see, God’s promises often unfold telescopically over time, with both a near and a far fulfillment, both a partial and a full fulfillment. The exiles’ return to Jerusalem from Babylon was a partial fulfillment, the rebuilding of the temple and the wall was a partial fulfillment. Christ is the ultimate fulfillment. The new covenant promises of Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36 have yet to be fully realized, and even though the Israelites are back in the land, they are still in exile, spiritually speaking.
Isaiah 60:18 tells us, “Violence shall no more be heard in your land, devastation or destruction within your borders; you shall call your walls Salvation, and your gates Praise.” As much as Nehemiah wanted these words to be true for his people, these prophetic words would not be fulfilled until Christ came as the only way to salvation. As inspiring as his story is, Nehemiah’s walls were just made of stones.
In Ephesians 2 we read, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit” (19-22). Here Paul is using as a metaphor the time God’s people have spent in exile but he is talking about spiritual exile, about separation from God, about the cold, dead hearts inside of us without Christ. In Christ we come home, we come alive, and we get to be a part of the building project of redemption.
Revelation 21 describes the new Jerusalem with its “great high wall” (12) and the city which has the glory of God. At the end of the book of Ezra, the elders of the people were distraught because the cloud of the Spirit of God did not fill the temple as it had in days of old. But in the new Jerusalem, there will be no temple at all for its temple will be the Lord God and the Lamb. A voice calls out from the throne, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (3).
What God’s people needed wasn’t a new temple building or a new city wall. They needed new hearts. The Bible Project continues: “And this is the purpose of Ezra-Nehemiah in the overarching storyline of the Bible. The story shows that the return of many Israelites to Jerusalem was only one step toward the fulfillment of the prophetic hope of the new covenant and the kingdom of God. The full realization of that hope came only when God himself entered personally into Israel’s story in the person of their messiah and king. Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and through the gift of the Spirit, the story took a quantum leap forward.
“Even the most capable leaders will tell you that the law of unintended consequences and inevitable human failure will compromise the best of our plans. But that doesn’t mean Ezra and Nehemiah shouldn’t have tried. Their stories give us hope and inspiration to keep pointing other people to God’s grace and to keep calling them (and ourselves!) to faithfulness and devotion. But after pondering Ezra-Nehemiah, our pointing and calling should be done with a sober awareness that our efforts will likely be compromised. This doesn’t mean God isn’t faithful or good. It means that we’re flawed humans whose fundamentally selfish nature can be transformed only by a generous gift of God’s grace. Leaders who know this will lead with a humility and self-awareness that is hard to come by these days. And it’s this kind of wisdom and ‘leadership lessons’ that Ezra-Nehemiah offers to us.
“And we’re better off for hearing this message, if we have ears to hear.”
Written By: Jess Glass