Anyone in a leadership position knows how challenging it is. Really, there is no end to the number and extent of challenges a leader could face. Thankfully, we have examples and principles in Scripture to guide us as we strive to lead well. One such example is Nehemiah as he led the returned exiles to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem. James Montgomery Boice highlights some of these leadership characteristics from Nehemiah in the Boice Expositional Commentary series. Keep reading to learn more about how Nehemiah demonstrated leadership in the midst of incredible opposition.

The Secret of His Success

Some time ago actor Michael J. Fox starred in a movie about New York business empires entitled The Secret of My Success. In these first chapters of Nehemiah, we learn something much more important than the secret of success in business. We learn the leadership secrets of Nehemiah’s success as a leader and man of God. This is a place to review these five leadership characteristics.

1. Nehemiah’s closeness to God and his prayerfulness.

Nothing is more characteristic of Nehemiah than his closeness to God, expressed most often by his praying to God on all occasions. We have seen it before. We see it two more times in this chapter (6:9, 14). Nehemiah saw everything that happened to him within a spiritual framework.

Nehemiah new that the messages he received from Sanballat and Geshem were intended to distract him from finishing his task. They wanted to distract him and even spread lies about his reasons for rebuilding the wall. In response to these distractions and false message he prayed (6:9). Why? Because although he denied Sanballat’s false rumor as directly and emphatically as possible, he did not know whether his denial would be believed or whether he would survive the assault. Sanballat might have denounced him to Artaxerxes, supporting the rumor. Artaxerxes might have believed Sanballat. Nehemiah might have been recalled and beheaded. So he turned to his only true source of strength, as he was accustomed to do.

“Now strengthen my hands,” Nehemiah prayed.

In the final analysis, that is all we can do also. We must commit our case to God and press forward.

2. Nehemiah’s sense of calling to a task.

In secular terms, it is a matter of objectives. Robert Townsend, author of Up the Organization and Further Up the Organization, writes that “one of the important functions of a leader is to make the organization concentrate on its objectives.” He cites the Roman senator Cato, who, by constantly repeating the three words delenda est Carthago (“Carthage must be destroyed”), eventually moved the Roman Empire to strike and destroy its North African rival. Nehemiah had a strong sense of his one great objective, which was to rebuild the wall, but it went beyond that. Above all, he knew himself to be God’s man and to have a call to God’s service.

A leader must know how to say no. Some people can’t seem to do that. Whether because of their own insecurity, an unbalanced desire always to please other people, or something else, they break down and give in—particularly if the request is repeated. Nehemiah said no four times.

“Shouldn’t I be available for others?” someone asks.

Yes, of course. But there is a difference between living as a servant of God and living to win the approval of man.

In what circumstances should I say no? When I am faced by temptation. Any time I am being asked to compromise the truth or morality. When a lesser good threatens to undermine a higher one.

To whom should I say no? To my enemies and Satan for sure. Often to my children. To friends who would distract me from God’s call.

When should I say no? Whenever necessary, and far more often than I do.

3. Nehemiah’s self-awareness and knowledge of his own worth.

This was not a vain self-assessment. The gifts Nehemiah had were from God; he would not have had them otherwise. He knew that he had these gifts and was not the least bit overawed by the task he was given or intimidated by his adversaries. We should have an equally strong sense of personal value. We should know that we are equipped by God for whatever task he has for us. Our leadership depends upon it.

Where did Nehemiah get his inner strength? Obviously from his relationship with God. And if it came from God in Nehemiah’s case, it can come from God for us as well.

Personal security … comes from our relationship to the three Persons of the Godhead. Our relationship to God the Father gives us a sense of belonging. We are members of his family and are secure in our Father-child relationship. Our union with Christ the Son gives us a sense of worth. God loved us so much that he sent his son to die for our sins. With our redemption accomplished, God has made us joint heirs with Christ. This shows our value. Finally, the Holy Spirit’s indwelling empowers us. We are made equal to every task (i.e., we are competent).

Maurice E. Wagner

4. Nehemiah’s extraordinary discernment.

Nehemiah’s reply to Sanballat and Geshem demonstrates his practical wisdom. We see it in how he receives the message and in how he replies to it. He was not taken in. Although the communication sounded plausible, Nehemiah knew that the governors were actually scheming to harm him. He says so in verse 2. Again, although he knew their intent, Nehemiah did not unnecessarily antagonize them. He did not denounce them for their perfidy. He merely said that he was too busy to go down to the plain of Ono. It would have taken him at least a day to get there, a day for the conference, and another day to get back. He was unwilling to spare those three days.

Nehemiah also showed great discernment. He was able to detect in every subterfuge of the enemy exactly what was going on. Where did he get such discernment? Some of it may have been a natural gift, of course, but a large part of it must have come from his spiritual experience and understanding.

Do you remember those words spoken about Jesus near the beginning of John’s Gospel? Jesus had cleansed the temple and was creating a great stir. Many who saw his miracles were believing on him. “But,” we are told, “Jesus would not entrust himself to them, for he knew all men. He did not need man’s testimony about man, for he knew what was in a man” (John 2:24–25). Jesus did not have exalted opinions of human beings. Therefore, he was able to keep his perspective and pursue his own course. It was the same with Nehemiah. He knew what was in man. Therefore, he was not beguiled even by the most subtle devices of his enemies. He was able to focus on the real issues and priorities.

5. Nehemiah’s great courage.

We must not forget this element, for many people have had other important gifts and yet have failed in times of testing because of a lack of courage. “Should a man like me run away?” Nehemiah asked (6:11). John White comments, “The words echo across the centuries to us. Like Nehemiah we live in days when we must let our courage be seen by the way we act and speak. It will help us, perhaps, to realize that true courage does not consist in the absence of fear but in doing what God wants even when we are afraid, disturbed and hurt.”

Who is not afraid at times or disturbed? Who is not hurt? We all are. Yet it is precisely when we yield those fears to God and press on that we show leadership.

His ability to see the issues clearly and stand firm under pressure safeguarded him from succumbing to the wiles of his adversaries.

Cyril Barber

More Expositional Sermons from James Montgomery Boice

James Montgomery Boice was the pastor of Tenth Presbyterian Church in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania for over thirty years. The Boice Expositional Commentary series contains sermons he preached during his ministry from over twenty-six books of the Bible. Follow the link below to learn more and add this exceptional resource to your Olive Tree library!


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