After the crushing Babylonian invasion, the spirit of the Jews lay in ruins like the walls of the city. They had their memories of the grandeur and power of Jerusalem, but that was all. Without walls, the city was defenseless, naked. Without walls, the city was not Jerusalem.
The task to rebuild was so monumental that even the optimists shook their heads. They needed a leader who could give them a plan and spark a flame of hope that had long been extinguished. That leader had to be just the right person; someone who had connections, someone who had vision, someone who had faith. That someone was Nehemiah.
With the king’s approval, Nehemiah launches an aggressive plan to rebuild the walls. However, no sooner does he begin to put his plans into action than the seeds of opposition sprout in the hearts of his enemies. But there is no turning back now. He has put down his cupbearer’s hat and reached for his hardhat. Opposition or not, the walls must be built!
When Nehemiah arrives at Jerusalem, he waits three days. He secretly and systematically examines the ruined walls, evaluating the task ahead (Neh. 1: 11-16). Only after he is sure of his strategy does he speak to the people (Neh. 1: 17-18).
Rather than forcing them into action, Nehemiah masterfully motivates the people from within. As he waves the flag of Israel that has been at half-staff for decades, the people rally around it. Their hearts catch fire for Nehemiah’s vision as he tells them how the Lord has answered his prayers and moved the heart of King Artaxerxes to send him to them. If God could move a pagan king, He can help them move these stones. So the work begins and so does the opposition.
“But when Sanballat the Horonite, Tobiah the Ammonite official, and Geshem the Arab heard it, they mocked us and despised us and said, ‘What is this thing you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?’” (2:19)
But Nehemiah deflects this criticism saying, “The God of heaven will give us success…” (2:20). The opposition, however, does not lessen. In fact, it increases when word passes through the region that the walls of Jerusalem are slowly rising out of the rubble, stone by stone (4:1-3). But again, the praying Nehemiah stands firm in the Lord and even encourages the people to defend themselves and fight, if necessary, for their city (4: 4-14).
First, his critics try a nice polite letter. But Nehemiah sees through their intentions. Second, they try to slander his integrity. Nehemiah prays to God. Finally, they use one of Nehemiah’s friends to try and scare him. Nehemiah’s enemies knew that if they could frighten him into sinning by entering the temple, they would have reason to accuse him (6:13). But Nehemiah exercises his God-given intuition, perceives their evil plan, and refuses to enter the temple. Nehemiah is not dissuaded from his task. He drops to his knees, praying for God’s strength. God had overcome tremendous obstacles in bringing him this far, so He can overcome this obstacle as well.
Amid the fierce opposition, Nehemiah relies on God’s power, and the walls are completed in only 52 days (6:15). That achievement is a tribute to God’s strength and impresses even Israel’s enemies. But they continue to needle Nehemiah, never giving up their attempts to frighten him (6:14-19). Nehemiah’s role as builder, however, is finished. He removes his hardhat, but continues to lead the nation in his other role, that of governor.
Governor Nehemiah is selfless and generous in his position of power (5:14-19), and he builds Israel into a Godly nation—a people who treasure the Scriptures (chapter 8), who humble themselves in repentance (chapter 9), and who dedicate the walls and themselves to God (chapters 10 and 12). The walls and the people become two fitting tributes to Nehemiah’s God-honoring leadership. He is a man who, even in the final chapter of his life, is seen building values into the people and seeking God’s strength through prayer (chapter 13). In the end, we leave Nehemiah right where we first met him—on his knees, praying (13: 31).
What can we learn? First, dealing with problems begins with careful observation. Nehemiah had to solve a complex problem—organizing volunteer workers to perform a backbreaking job that had been left undone for decades. It is an example for confronting difficult situations; it begins with careful observation and wise planning.
Second, correcting what is carefully observed demands fearless conviction. The Lord was in Nehemiah’s plan; that was why he exhibited such unshakable conviction. Likewise, when we’ve sought wise counsel and formulated a God-honoring plan, we can and should feel as confident and fearless as Nehemiah, even in the face of opposition.
Third, observation and conviction must be tempered with authentic devotion. We need to devote ourselves to pleasing the Lord through our task. Otherwise, it can become consuming, and we can become cranky and hard-nosed bosses. But by relying on God through prayer, as Nehemiah did, we can maintain our perspective and love for people.
When we are faced with an enormous task but feel pinned down by chronic critics, remember Nehemiah, whose attitude is best summarized by the inspiring words of Teddy Roosevelt:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, and comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.”
by Rickie Jenkins