Biblical Examples of Godly Character: Nehemiah
What does it mean to be servant of the Most High?
O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man.” Now I was cupbearer to the king.
The book of Nehemiah is the true story of how Jerusalem was rebuilt after the Jews returned from the Babylonian Captivity. It’s about leadership, hard work and organization. It shows a servant who understood his own role, and would not allow himself to be discouraged or distracted from his mission.
Direction for the Discouraged
Critics of the rebuilding project made many attempts to discourage Nehemiah from the work. One accusation was that Nehemiah’s true mission was a rebellion against King Artaxerxes. If they could make Persia’s leadership believe that, all would be lost. Nehemiah wrote, “…they all wanted to frighten us, thinking, ‘Their hands will drop from the work, and it will not be done.’” Nehemiah confronted them in his answer, but addressed his main attention to the Lord: “But now, O God, strengthen my hands.” (Nehemiah 6:9)
Direction for the Doubting
Nehemiah talks about the mockery, the criticisms and challenges he encounters. He writes his prayers with his own comments. Here is one: “Hear, O our God, for we are despised. Turn back their taunt on their own heads…” (Nehemiah 4:4)
But so that we do not get the impression it was an easy victory or that his people had unshakable faith, he admits: “In Judah it was said, ‘The strength of those who bear the burdens is failing. There is too much rubble. By ourselves we will not be able to rebuild the wall.’” (Nehemiah 4:10) Nehemiah also reports the strategy he and the people used for safety. We must not assume their success was due to a clever method either. Nehemiah points out that it was God who frustrated the plans of their enemies: “When our enemies heard that it was known to us and that God had frustrated their plan, we all returned to the wall, each to his work.” (Nehemiah 4:15)
Direction for the Distracted
Nehemiah dealt with a striking variety of side-issues. In addition to the enemies’ taunts, accusations and threats, he had to correct or manage:
- An indifferent nobility (Nehemiah 3:5),
- Oppression of the poor by the wealthy (Nehemiah 5:1-13),
- Concerns of genealogy and inheritance (Nehemiah 7:5-65),
- A lottery to solve the overpopulation within the city walls (Nehemiah 11:1-2),
- The eviction of an enemy from quarters provided for him in the temple (Nehemiah 13:4-9),
- The people withholding wages from the Levites (Nehemiah 13:10-14),
- The people profaning the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15-22), and
- Intermarriage with pagan people (Nehemiah 13:23-28).
Nehemiah’s attitude toward distractions from his calling can be summed up in his response to initial attempts to divert his attention: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down. Why should the work stop while I leave it and come down to you?” (Nehemiah 6:3) As a result, the wall was finished quickly: “So the wall was finished… in fifty-two days.” (Nehemiah 6:15) This was a great victory. It was also an important defense from the enemies outside the gates.
Even so, Nehemiah’s concern to straighten out these internal problems shows that he knew his people’s biggest threat was inside those gates. It had been disregard for God’s rule which brought about Jerusalem’s destruction and captivity to Babylon. Nehemiah’s people needed to be reminded that this kind of indifference is more than a distraction. It’s actually rebellion against God’s rule. He told them that God had “…dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. Our kings, our princes, our priests, and our fathers have not kept your law or paid attention to your commandments and your warnings that you gave them.” (Nehemiah 9:33-34)
Think about what Nehemiah’s people accomplished under his leadership. Is it surprising that a domestic servant became such a decisive leader? It had been his job to wait on the king, serving and tasting his drinks. How, then, did Nehemiah manage to cultivate such authority, sharp thinking and initiative? Nehemiah may have been a servant. But he was the servant of a king of kings: Artaxerxes I, ruler of the Persian world empire, which encompassed the kingdoms of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and much of Asia Minor. The first chapter closes with the note that he is cupbearer to the king, but when he prays, it is not as a servant of Artaxerxes, but servant of God.
“O Lord… give success to your servant today” (Nehemiah 1:11)
A study of Nehemiah’s brief prayers throughout his book would be helpful to any believer looking for direction and wisdom from God. He was a leader who never forgot that God was the source of his authority and success. This reminds me of Matthew 8:9, in which a Roman Centurion made a similar statement to Jesus Himself. He was a man “under authority” but he had authority of his own because of that. If you are willing to humble yourself enough to adopt the identity of a servant of God, like Nehemiah, you will see the great dignity which goes along with being servant of the King of Kings. May it give you Nehemiah’s confidence that God will enable you to do everything He calls you to do!
Pray this week:
Father, I humble myself before you. Your mission is what matters. Show me how to please you.
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