Chronologically, Nehemiah picks up slightly after the book of Ezra and over a century after the conclusion of Second Kings and Second Chronicles. The books of Esther and Daniel give us some insight into what happened during this time, when the people lived in Babylonian captivity.
Nehemiah led the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. In addition to heading up a building project, Nehemiah also became the leader of a group of returning expatriates, a project manager, a military strategist, a spokesperson for God, a spiritual leader, and he ended up being governor. As such, Nehemiah was an extraordinary man who was called by God to do many things for which he had no skill or training. Yet by relying and depending on God, Nehemiah was exceedingly successful. At each step, Nehemiah sought God, was led by him, and obeyed him.
(Ezra was a contemporary of Nehemiah and led in the rebuilding the temple in Jerusalem and restoring worship.)
You’ve heard about Hananiah, right? How about Shelemiah? Zadok? Perhaps Pedaiah? Or Hanan?
Although these men are all mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, don’t feel bad if they’re not familiar to you. They did not accomplish great feats, rule a kingdom, lead an army, spark a revival, or do anything seemingly notable. They appear to be a mere footnote in the pages of history.
Even so, they are remarkable for one thing — a most important trait — their character.
Hananiah was asked to be a leader because he was a man of integrity.
Shelemiah, Zadok, Pedaiah, and Hanan were given responsibility because they were trustworthy.
Integrity and trustworthiness are two traits that seem to be in short supply nowadays, but they are characteristics that produce promotion and responsibility — perhaps not in grand and glorious ways, but subtly and humbly.
These are the kind of leaders, I think, that God delights in.
So, Moses receives ten commandments from God and teaches them to the people. God gives other directions and instructions, too, which Moses also passes on.
But the people begin to disregard and then forget what God told them to do. This displeases him, so eventually he sends a series of wake-up calls, first in the form of judges and later through prophets. Sometimes a foreign power is used to get their attention. (There’s nothing like a crisis to send us scurrying back to God.)
This happens gradually, over time, right? Not necessarily.
Several hundred years after Moses, Nehemiah comes along and reinstates the “festival of booths” — which had not been practiced since the days of Joshua, Moses’ immediate successor. (It is unclear if it is disregarded fully or partially or if it happens during Joshua’s watch or after, but either way, Joshua drops the ball for not perpetuating it.)
It didn’t take hundreds of years for the festival to be dismissed, but less than one generation.
In only one generation, a people can turn away from God — or turn towards him.
In Nehemiah and the Wall, we saw Nehemiah’s great leadership at work, stirring up a passive and floundering people to act, quickly accomplishing what had long been languishing. He also ushered in numerous reforms and ignited a spiritual revival.
Yet he lacked one thing. He did not train a replacement.
After leading his people for 12 years, Nehemiah returned to Babylon. The people quickly forgot all he had taught them and reverted to their old ways. Specifically:
They allowed foreigners access to the temple
The Levites were not receiving their assigned portions of food and provision, so they left Jerusalem (effectively, they quit their job)
The people were working and trading on the Sabbath
The men married foreign wives
These were all prohibited by the Law of Moses, which under Nehemiah’s leadership, the people had agreed to follow. But he left and they forget.
Although they still enjoyed the physical protection of the city wall that they had rebuilt, they retained little else. Nehemiah needed to return and straighten them out – again. Even then, there is no mention that he trained a successor.
Sometimes, even the best of people fail to learn from their mistakes.
Nehemiah was in exile. Though some of his people had been repatriated, he remained in Babylon. Those who returned, had rebuilt the temple, but the city walls (their protection from attack) were still in ruins. Nehemiah sought the king’s permission and blessing to return and rebuild the wall.
So Nehemiah goes home, surveys the situation, and tells the people the self-obvious: The walls are in shambles; we are in danger. Let’s rebuild the walls.
The people readily agree and begin working. Fifty-two days later, they finish.
They had lived there for years, but without walls and they were vulnerable as a result. Yet in 52 days, less than two months, the walls were rebuilt and they were much safer.
Why did is take so long to act? Quite simply, there was a lack of leadership. The need was there, the solution was there, the resources were there, but leadership was not. It took Nehemiah’s leadership to make it happen.
The next time you hear, “Someone should do something about that,” recognize that as a lack of leadership. Might you be that leader?