Exiled hundreds of miles from Jerusalem, Nehemiah was burdened for his city’s condition. In 586 BC, Babylon had ransacked the City of David, taking God’s people into captivity. Even after Cyrus and the Persians overthrew the Babylonians and allowed some of the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem, efforts to rebuild were precarious (Ezra 4:23)—so much so that the city remained in ruins even decades later. If they were to going to rebuild Jerusalem, Israel needed a vision, and a visionary leader—someone to bring God’s truth to bear on their circumstances. And that leader was Nehemiah.
Nehemiah’s pattern for visionary leadership began with a burden, moved to prayer, and culminated in action. With the vision established in his heart (Neh. 2:12), Nehemiah now had to bring that vision down to earth. If we’re going to be effective leaders, we must similarly be able to translate God-given vision into the most practical of terms for those we lead. God establishes the vision; we bring it down to earth.
Practically, how can today’s leaders share vision in a clear, compelling manner? What guidance does God’s Word offer on this matter? In Nehemiah 2:11–20, we can discern eight principles for making vision tangible to those we lead—what we may call “earthing” a vision.
Principle 1: Relaxation
So I went to Jerusalem and was there three days. (Neh. 2:11)
Upon arriving in Jerusalem and prior to beginning his work, Nehemiah seemingly took his time and rested. He recognized that rest was a necessary part of useful action. That Nehemiah rested makes sense, since the journey from Babylon to Jerusalem was in excess of five hundred miles along the shortest route. After so arduous a trek, and in light of the task he was preparing to tackle, it was imperative that he rest if he would be of any use at all.
If we’re going to be effective leaders, we must be able to translate God-given vision into the most practical of terms for those we lead.
In leadership, it’s possible to get tired. Some of us might talk about how tired we are without having ever experienced it. We must beware of talking too frequently and openly about that. But the fact remains: leadership is demanding. And when we operate in a perpetual state of tiredness, we diminish our ability to do effective ministry. Rather than shepherd people, we snap at them. We preach grace but don’t exhibit it.
Many of us wear the fact that we don’t have margin for time off as a badge of honor. But Nehemiah’s example proves the opposite: our work is too valuable to not set aside time for rest. If we would lead at our best, it’s imperative we prioritize healthy rhythms of relaxation.
Principle 2: Motivation
Then I arose in the night, I and a few men with me. And I told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem. There was no animal with me but the one on which I rode. (Neh. 2:12)
Why was Nehemiah involved in the Jerusalem building project in the first place? Because “God had put into [his] heart” (Neh. 2:12). His motivation was divine and internal. The apostle Paul’s ministry bore similar marks of a divine, internal calling: “The love of Christ controls us,” he said concerning his motive for preaching the Gospel (2 Cor. 5:14). What was true for Paul and Nehemiah is true for today’s leaders: our motivation in leadership, if it is to be authentic, must be God-given and God-centric.
Importantly, Nehemiah was careful not to tell his fellow Israelites what God had sent him to do right away. We could imagine the varied responses Nehemiah might have gotten if he shared too hastily. Some might have sneered, “Oh, here we go—another empire builder come to make a name for himself.” Others could have thought, “Why does Nehemiah think he is so significant? Do we really need him?”
In Christian living and leadership, the way to up is down.
Truth be told, under God, Israel did need him, and he didn’t think he was so significant. And it was because Nehemiah didn’t think he was significant that God would use him for His glory. Here’s the paradox of leadership: those of us who think we’re significant will live our lives in insignificance. In Christian living and leadership, the way to up is down. Making a name for ourselves is a poor and even dangerous motivator in ministry.
Principle 3: Examination
I went out by night by the Valley Gate to the Dragon Spring and to the Dung Gate, and I inspected the walls of Jerusalem that were broken down and its gates that had been destroyed by fire. (Neh. 2:13)
Clear in his mind about what needed to be done, sure in his heart concerning his motivation, Nehemiah then set out to examine the situation firsthand. It was a kind of reconnaissance mission. Nehemiah’s wisdom is evident here, for he didn’t begin implementing the vision too quickly.
Two hallmarks of Nehemiah’s reconnaissance are instructive for today’s leaders. First, according to the last part of verse 12, he did it quietly. There was no announcement of his arrival; he just rolled up his sleeves and put in the work. Next, he examined the walls secretly (2:12–16). In other words, he didn’t disclose too much with the officials in Jerusalem right away. When leaders disclose too much too soon, we risk speaking about things that we haven’t fully thought through. Consequently, rather than establishing a vision, we inadvertently establish chaos.
Like Nehemiah, are we willing to do the hard work of earthing vision quietly and in secret? Or are we concerned more with praise and approval from our fellow workers?
Principle 4: Exhortation
Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us build the wall of Jerusalem, that we may no longer suffer derision.” (Neh. 2:17)
As a good leader should, Nehemiah spoke candidly to the people about their circumstances: “You see the trouble we are in.” Ironically, Israel likely didn’t see the extent of their trouble. They would’ve grown accustomed to the mess, causing them to be apathetic toward renovation.
It would be hard to overstate the challenge that Nehemiah faced. Not only was Jerusalem in ruins, but also the people were in a state of spiritual ruin. They had become familiar with disgrace. He would be exhorting apathetic, discouraged, and disgruntled people through the rebuilding efforts.
What keeps us going when leadership becomes difficult? The same thing that preserved Nehemiah: A God-given vision put into our hearts. That’s it. There isn’t a salary large enough in the world to outweigh the difficulties of leadership. And so Nehemiah pressed on, the vision in his heart, speaking clearly about the circumstances and exhorting God’s people to do God’s work.
Principles 5 and 6: Information and Application
And I told them of the hand of my God that had been upon me for good, and also of the words that the king had spoken to me. And they said, “Let us rise up and build.” So they strengthened their hands for the good work. (Neh. 2:18)
Aware of their apathy, Nehemiah didn’t respond with an emotional appeal. He simply gave them the facts, filling the people in on the events that brought him to Jerusalem in the first place. (See Neh. 2:1–8.) And in recounting his journey, Nehemiah affirmed for the people that God in fact did move in the king’s heart—that God’s hand really was upon him for the work. He inspired confidence in those he led.
And the people responded favorably: “Let us rise up and build”. We could learn from Nehemiah on this point. He gave the people the facts and trusted that God would work in His people’s hearts as He deemed fit.
From the information that Nehemiah shared arose application. Strikingly, God put it into the people’s hearts to begin rebuilding. They didn’t wait for Nehemiah to get the project going; they got right to work. In principle, when leadership establishes this kind of vision at the grassroots level, the change will become obvious. God will plant the vision into the people’s hearts, and they will respond.
Principles 7 and 8: Opposition and Affirmation
But when Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab heard of it, they jeered at us and despised us and said, “What is this thing that you are doing? Are you rebelling against the king?” Then I replied to them, “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build, but you have no portion or right or claim in Jerusalem.” (Neh. 2:19–20)
Verse 19 illustrates an important truth: Whenever God’s work is done God’s way, opposition is inevitable. Many of us have undergone—and are presently enduring—serious opposition in our leadership. Those leading under God’s purview would do well to recount Paul’s words to Timothy: “Be sober-minded, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5).
In other words, as we lead through opposition, Paul would remind us of two truths: First, we are to remain collected. Second, we are to endure hardship with patience. This is the work to which God’s leaders are called.
Whenever God’s work is done God’s way, opposition is inevitable.
The eighth and final principle for leadership can be seen in verse 20: affirmation. Having encountered intense opposition, Nehemiah doubled down, affirming the work that God had set before him. In a phrase, Nehemiah believed, God will do it. As every good leader must, Nehemiah lifted his people’s troubled hearts above the opposition to lay hold of God’s faithfulness.
A Closing Question
Nehemiah’s exemplary leadership raises for us a question with which we must reckon: What are we trusting God to do that is so incredible that it cannot be achieved apart from divine enabling? Surely, the task to which God called Nehemiah was God-sized; it couldn’t be accomplished in his own strength. As He began with Nehemiah, so God continues this way with all His people. We cannot wish to do God’s work apart from His enabling.
We would do well to consider the late missionary Hudson Taylor’s words: “God’s work, done in God’s way, will never lack God’s supplies.”