Nehemiah is the last historical book of the Old Testament. Although the Book of Esther appears after Nehemiah in the canon, the events in Esther occurred in the time period between Ezra 6 and 7, between the first and second returns of the people to Israel. The prophet Malachi was a contemporary of Nehemiah. Ezra was also Nehemiah’s contemporary. Some believe that the two books were originally a single unit, and that Ezra wrote both accounts. The use of the first-person in Nehemiah favors identifying him as the author. It is also possible that Ezra used Nehemiah’s diary, quoting directly from it, in compiling the books.
The story of Nehemiah occurs around 446 BC. Although God’s people had lived in the Promised Land for centuries, Judah was no longer in the land by the time Nehemiah was born. Because of the nation’s disobedience, God allowed the Babylonians to conquer Judah in 586 BC. The enemy empire destroyed the city of Jerusalem, captured most of the citizens, and took them 1,000 miles away to Babylon.
During the 140 years between the destruction of Jerusalem and the story of Nehemiah, the events in the books of Daniel and Esther took place. The Babylonian Empire itself was conquered by the Persians. Some Jews were allowed to return and try to fix up the temple and the city of Jerusalem. That’s where Nehemiah’s story begins. He has grown up as a captive in an enemy kingdom. He lived in the royal city of Susa, under the rule of Artaxerxes, king of Persia. He has a position of responsibility and trust as the cupbearer to the king. When one of Nehemiah’s brothers and some friends return from a trip to the homeland, Nehemiah asks about the condition of Jerusalem. He wanted to hear about the success of the group who had returned to restore and rebuild. But the news was not good.
In my doctoral project on the hermeneutics of Hebrew narrative, I note the danger of forcing a methodology on narrative material that is better suited for other genres. Narrative demands unique treatment; a method that is not necessarily linear or syllogistic. Several common mistakes made by preachers include: obscuring the story with embellishments, suppositions, and unnecessary conjecture; inappropriate emphasis on a minor detail, character, or theme; and failing to select enough text. The failure to select enough text often gives birth to the other mistakes. It fragments the story and leads to wrong assumptions of the point of the story. While chapter divisions do not always follow narrative flow perfectly, they are frequently a good guide to scene and subject changes. With that in mind, these outline examples largely reflect Nehemiah’s 13 chapter divisions.
Text: Nehemiah 1:1-11
Title: Your Part in God’s Plans
Big Idea: Continually ask God what he wants you to do.
Text: Nehemiah 2:1-20
Title: Serving God Successfully
Big Idea: Make plans you pray about.
Text: Nehmeiah 3:1-32
Title: Part of the Team
Big Idea: God chooses to operate through teams more than through individual talent.
Text: Nehemiah 4:1-23
Title: Responding to Attacks
Big Idea: Never lose sight of the awesome power of your sovereign God.
Text: Nehemiah 5:1-19
Title: Loving God by Loving Others
Big Idea: If you truly fear God, it will show in how you treat each other.
Text: Nehemiah 6:1-19
Title: Dealing with Intimidation
Big Idea: The antidote to gossip, innuendo, lies, and threats is uprightness.
Text: Nehemiah 7:1-73
Title: Necessary People
Big Idea: To be part of what God wants to accomplish you must move from “crowd” to “team.”
Text: Nehemiah 8:1-18
Title: The Power of God’s Word
Big Idea: Reverence the truth, develop a hunger for it, and God will do a work in you.
Text: Nehemiah 9:1-38
Title: Getting Right with God
Big Idea: Don’t bother to ask God to deliver you from the mess you are in if you aren’t willing to repent of the sin that made the mess.
Text: Nehemiah 10:1-39
Title: Signs of Spiritual Distinction
Big Idea: Your spiritual identity should be seen in your everyday life.
Text: Nehemiah 11:1-12:26
Title: Sacrificing for God’s Glory
Big Idea: Through the sacrifices of his people, God accomplishes his purpose.
Text: Nehemiah 12:27-47
Title: Celebrating what God Has Done
Big Idea: Through joyful music, moral cleansing, symbolic actions, exuberant praise, and tangible offerings you express thanks to God.
Text: Nehemiah 13:1-31
Title: Spiritual Thermodynamics
Big Idea: The loss of passion for God is a danger you must confront.
Text: Nehemiah 1:1-11
Title: A Godly Leader Prays
Big Idea: Before doing anything, pour your heart out to God. (The book begins and ends with prayer. Enduring ministry can never be separated from prayer.)
Text: Nehemiah 2:1-3:32
Title: A Godly Leader Acts
Big Idea: When you are in awe of God, no other fear will stop you from doing what he wants you to do.
Text: Nehemiah 4:1-6:19
Title: A Godly Leader Faces Opposition
Big Idea: When you are criticized, channel your emotion back to God.
Text: Nehemiah 7:1-73
Title: A Godly Leader Organizes
Big Idea: When you understand how important people are to God, you realize that everyone has value in accomplishing his purpose.
Text: Nehemiah 8:1-9:38
Title: A Godly Leader Points People to the Lord
Big Idea: When you experience success, turn your attention to God and give him glory.
Text: Nehemiah 10:1-12:47
Title: A Godly Leader Formalizes Commitment
Big Idea: When there are clear spiritual responsibilities, you call people to specific action.
Text: Nehemiah 13:1-31
Title: A Godly Leader Never Gives Up
Big Idea: When people lose their spiritual passion, you faithfully confront it.
Text: Nehemiah 1:1-2:20
Title: Restoring the Vision
Big Idea: Look for an area of passionate frustration, ask for divine direction, and know that God has put you here for a reason.
Text: Nehemiah 3:1-32
Title: Rebuilding the Walls
Big Idea: God does not want us to carry out his plan in isolation.
Text: Nehemiah 4:1-6:19
Title: Responding to Trouble
Big Idea: It is possible to love your enemies and still pray against their success.
Text: Nehemiah 7:1-73
Title: Reorganizing the Team
Big Idea: In God’s economy, everyone should do something, and everyone has something to contribute.
Text: Nehemiah 8:1-18
Title: Reading the Word
Big Idea: Through the power of his Word, God brings about change in your life.
Text: Nehemiah 9:1-12:47
Title: Recommitting to the Lord
Big Idea: Spiritual life must include a willingness to reveal and repent of your sin, and celebrate God’s faithfulness.
Text: Nehemiah 13:1-31
Title: Reforming the People
Big Idea: Complacency and conformity are enemies of spiritual passion.
Chapter 1—The God who loved you enough to save you, has a purpose for your life.
Chapter 2—Prayer without a plan is faithless; planning without prayer is arrogance.
Chapter 3—Fulfilling God’s dream requires a team.
Chapter 4—God has called you to both build and defend.
Chapter 5—Use money and help people out of respect for God.
Chapter 6—You can be fearless, knowing God is in control.
Chapter 7—Whenever God builds something, people matter.
Chapter 8—God changes you through the power of his Word.
Chapter 9—Confession is indispensable to a godly life.
Chapter 10—Your commitment to God makes you spiritually distinctive.
Chapter 11—God uses your sacrifices to accomplish great things.
Chapter 12—God’s mighty acts deserve your joyous celebration.
Chapter 13—You must guard against the loss of spiritual passion.
I love Nehemiah and I am inspired by him, but it is easy to misuse his example. He has lessons to teach us about leadership. But what about those of us who aren’t leaders? He has lessons to teach us about big projects. But what about those of us who won’t ever have a project of that size?
Don’t forget that these first few chapters are just about the building of a wall. It was an enormous task, done in an incredibly short period of time, under tremendous limitations, only by the power of God (even the enemy conceded that much). But it’s just a wall. Not the most magnificent project. The wall was not the ultimate dream. It was something God put in Nehemiah’s heart to do. You could say that the wall was Nehemiah’s dream for the nation that God enabled him to carry out. But the grand scheme was much larger than a wall.
The overall dream was for the nation to respond to God’s Word, repent, and restore their relationship with him. We see that happen in Nehemiah 8-9. The overarching dream is always God’s. The wall was the practical starting point for that spiritual agenda.
Applying Nehemiah appropriately means giving priority to the spiritual agenda, and keeping it there. While building programs can be God-sized challenges that energize a congregation, they can all too easily become an end in themselves. Nehemiah helps to guard against that in several ways:
Prayer dependence. Although a classic activist, Nehemiah exemplifies intensive, lengthy prayer in advance (1:4), and emergency prayer in the moment (2:4). Every ministry, project, meeting, or program must make prayer a priority.
Team orientation. Chapters 3, 7, 11 are necessary reminders that every person has value and giftedness that benefits others. In a building project, one can give too much attention to the largest contributors or the most skilled or the greatest influencers. God designed his work to engage the body, every part of it working together to accomplish his purpose. A building project that relies on a single donor or a solitary leader is likely spiritually askew. Emphasizing that every one of God’s people has a part to play is significant, even in a building project. A motto I have used in more than one fund-raising campaign is “Not equal gifts, but equal sacrifice.” In other words, we cannot all give the same amount of money, but we can all give sacrificially. That is what God asks of us. We don’t all have the same spiritual gifts (or financial resources), but we all have a part to play.
Divine Sovereignty. The account of Nehemiah provides one of the greatest examples of the paradox of God’s absolute sovereignty and human responsibility. The tension between these two truths often shows itself when it comes to building programs. To be overbalanced on the human side is to forge ahead in our own strength, counting on our own resources and determination. To the other extreme, it is possible to have the attitude that if God wants this to happen, it will happen. The outcome is to pray and do nothing. Nehemiah is a perfect balance to that. He offers humble and desperate prayers, yet he also makes plans (chapter 2), organizes the work (chapter 3), and takes action against opposition, oppression, and conspiracy (chapters 4-6). He maintains the focus on God’s glory and honor, while leading the effort to make it happen. Anything God is doing involves this trust that he is in control, and the understanding that he also uses us to carry out his purpose.
Bold Faith. There is a common tendency among some Christians to always interpret a lack of resources, or the presence of conflict, or slow results as absolute evidence of being out of God’s will. Nehemiah confronts all of these things and more, providing a tremendous example for us. Negative circumstances are not the test of God’s will. When God’s people are doing his work, he provides whatever is needed, whether it is resources, victory against overwhelming odds, or strength to endure challenges.
From the start, Nehemiah refers to “the God of heaven” (1:4, 5). All nine times this phrase occurs in the Old Testament, it refers to Yahweh. The expression points to God’s creative power as well as to his awesome character. This God hears prayer (1:6, 11; 2:4) and forgives sin (1:7; 9:17). Nehemiah testifies that God blesses, protects, and provides (2:8; 2:18). God’s calling, inspiring, equipping for ministry is evident (2:12, 20). God is sovereign in accomplishing his plan and frustrating the enemy’s plan (4:15). Nehemiah’s prayer in chapter 9 affirms God as: Eternal (9:5); Creator (9:6); Faithful (9:7-8); Miraculous Deliverer (9:9-11); Guiding Sustainer (9:12-21); and Merciful (9:22-31). Nehemiah’s high view of God evokes prayer, informs worship, inspires confession, and instills confidence. Nehemiah’s theology informs his entire approach to building the wall.
Chapter 3 and chapter 7 both emphasize the variety of people and diversity of responsibilities in the project. This is an incredible example of the body of Christ and the different gifts we have been given (Rom. 12, 1 Cor. 12). It demonstrates one way in which God’s people can be prepared for works of service (Eph. 4). Nehemiah also surfaces issues of confronting inequality and injustice among God’s people (chapter 5); and confronting the need for revival (chapter 13).
The authority and inspiration of Scripture is referenced in that God is the author of the Law (8:1, 14). The reading of the law prompted worship (8:6) and confession (9:3).
Nehemiah shows us the sinful human condition. As is repeatedly mentioned in the prayer of chapter 9, the disobedience, arrogance, and rebellion of previous generations of God’s people brought divine discipline (Heb. 12:1-11). Nehemiah’s people are convicted over their sin and take responsibility (chapters 8-10), understanding the need to restore their relationship with a holy God. The Lord is merciful, and yet human frailties make it possible for those who have experienced forgiveness to fall into the same patterns of sin again (chapter 13). Living in a fallen world, we encounter sinful conflict and evil acted out against us by others. Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem (chapters 4 and 6) are such who oppose God’s people and God’s plan. While all have sinned and are in need of a Savior, we continue to live in a world that is under the control of the evil one (1 John 5:19).
My Encounter with Nehemiah
I have preached through Nehemiah three times. Predictably, two of these occurred during a building campaign. The lessons of Nehemiah were critical to me as a leader, because they shaped my approach to projects and people, and challenged my personal motivations. For example, 20 years ago, the church I pastored in suburban Chicago began a 6 million dollar building campaign. At the time it was an enormous project for us. One concern I began to grapple with was my own motivation. Why was I initiating this? Was this simply my dream or was this from God? Timothy Lane and Paul Tripp are insightful here:
Dreaming is never morally neutral … our ability to dream is easily kidnapped by our sin … While our dreams can reveal our faith, they also expose the lust, greed, selfishness, fear, anger, doubt, hopelessness, and materialism of our hearts … The dreams we envision are often more about our own agenda than they are about our Lord’s. [How People Change, New Growth Press, p.33]
Nehemiah provided the spiritual truth and example I needed to test my dream. From chapter 1, I was able to see the triangulation of Nehemiah’s passionate frustration, desperate search for divine direction, and his God-given opportunity. This confirmed God’s leading for Nehemiah, and it defined God’s leading for me. This prompted me to title the series “Destiny: God’s Dream for You.”
My struggle in leading that building project, is the same struggle every believer can have—Is what I’m doing something God put in my heart to do or is it not? Since my tendency is to be a planner, Nehemiah pushed me to prayer. Nehemiah inspired me to build many teams and spread out the responsibility to as many people as possible. Nehemiah kept me focused on God’s greater purpose for his people and the building up of his church, more than on the construction of a building.
The series title was Destiny: God’s Dream for You.
Nehemiah 1—Why Am I Here? Three signposts to help you discover God’s purpose for your life. Look for an area of passionate frustration where God’s will is not being done on earth as it is in heaven. Ask for divine direction because your effectiveness will be linked to his leadership. Consider your present opportunity, because God put you where you are for a reason. When you ask God to empower you to fix what is broken, you enter into his dream for you.
Nehemiah 2—What Should I Do? After God puts his plan in your heart, prepare to make it happen. Success comes from God. When you are doing what he put in your heart to do, you can be confident of his help. Just keep on doing what he’s called you to do. I’m not responsible for success. God is. When God has put something in your heart to do, make plans you pray about.
Nehemiah 3—Where Do I Fit In? God’s dream for you might be to fix a broken home, broken business, broken church, broken community, broken relationship, or some area of life where God’s will is not being done on earth. No one listed in this chapter is in the construction trade. The skilled labor needed wasn’t available. Great things were accomplished anyway, because God created a team. You were not made to carry out your destiny alone. To be part of what God wants you to accomplish involves moving from crowd to team.
Nehemiah 4—When Should I Quit? The hard truth is that whenever you attempt to carry out God’s dream, you will encounter opposition. Somewhere along the way you will face enough conflict that you begin to ask if you should quit. An immediate response to adversity is prayer. Channel your emotion to your heavenly father. After praying, Nehemiah posted a guard. Avoid the trap of praying but doing nothing, or staying busy without seeking God. You face the constant challenge to quit constructing or quit protecting or both. When you are engaged in what God put in your heart to do, keep building with one hand and keep defending with the other, and never give up.
Nehemiah 5—Who Will Stand with Me? Need and greed can be obstacles in fulfilling God’s dream for your life. Either you have a need that gets in the way of being the person God wants you to be, or your greed interferes with what God wants for you. Your destiny involves using money and helping people out of respect for God.
Nehemiah 6—How Do I Respond? A righteous cause does not mean an absence of opposition. Conflict can even come from insiders. Only when you are upright, can you deny false charges and pray with sincerity. Only if you have a right relationship with God can you stand against intimidation and pray for help. You can be fearless knowing God is in control.
Nehemiah 7—Who Do I Count? The majority of this chapter is an almost exact copy of Ezra 2. A few numbers are different. A few names have a variant spelling. The two accounts are written 10 years apart, and some details could have changed. The listing is important. As Kidner comments: Nehemiah’s “immediate concern was to get his people rightly oriented, sure both of their inheritance and their calling.” All God’s people have a part in his plan. To be part of what God wants to accomplish you must move from “crowd” to “team.”
Nehemiah 8—What Do I Need? When God’s people get away from reading, celebrating, and obeying God’s Word, they lose his blessing. Scripture needs to be reverenced, desired, and followed by God’s people. Spiritual shaping occurs when there is hunger for truth. God changes you through the power of his Word.
Nehemiah 9—What Should I Admit? To get right with God requires recognition of several important truths: the depths of my sin; the glory of the Lord; God’s mighty acts; and my absolute dependence on him. Readiness to declare and acknowledge these things is crucial to your spiritual destiny. Your readiness to confess is indispensable to a godly life.
Nehemiah 10—Why Should I Stand Out? A new commitment to God was written and sealed. The agreement specifies three signs of spiritual distinction: fitting in is less important than obeying God; making money is less important than honoring God; personal comfort is less important than serving God. Your commitment to God makes you spiritually distinctive.
Nehemiah 11—How Do I Contribute? Elizabeth Elliott wrote, “Personal sacrifice paves the way for God’s miracles.” The kinds of sacrifices Nehemiah’s people were called to make are still valid today. Here are three contributions you can make: be where God wants you to be; do what God gifted you to do; respond when God calls you to respond. God uses your sacrifices to accomplish great things.
Nehemiah 12—How Should I Celebrate? In spite of heavy opposition from outside and inside the walls, Nehemiah led his volunteers to complete the project in 52 days. It was such an enormous project, against great odds that even Nehemiah’s enemies recognize that God must have been involved. The dedication was a time to honor what the Lord had done. Worship is expressed through joyful music, moral cleansing, symbolic actions, exuberant praise, and tangible offerings. God’s mighty acts deserve your joyous celebration.
Nehemiah 13—When Am I Losing Ground? All natural systems degenerate when left to themselves. You enter into spiritual entropy and decline when you: partner with the enemy; neglect ministry needs; conform to the world; abandon spiritual distinctions. The loss of spiritual passion is a danger you must confront.
When I last preached this a decade ago, I was surprised by what happened as a result of the application of chapter 5. I invited the congregation to use money to help people out of reverence for God. To facilitate, I offered $50 of my own money to each of the first two people who asked after every service. The only request was that they report back to me how they used it. Although my wife had agreed to this $400 output from our personal budget, I wondered if it would produce anything positive and was concerned it would be perceived as hokey. The results shocked me. Three new ministries were started from ideas people put into practice with the money they received. Those ministries helped hundreds of people. The other gifts were directed at specific individual needs.
The series accomplished a number of important purposes. Even though the sermon titles used individualistic language, the focus was on God’s larger purpose, God’s character, and God’s people.
It urged people to discover their spiritual giftedness and serve God.
It called people to become part of a ministry team.
It encouraged exuberant worship of an extraordinary God.
It inspired faithfulness in those who faced opposition.
It kept us from focusing simply on a building project for God and turned our attention more to God building his people.