How leaders react to challenging circumstances reveals their characters and sets the tone for the reactions of others. As Alistair Begg demonstrates, Nehemiah is an excellent model of God-centered leadership. In prayerful dependence on God, Nehemiah established a vision and a practical plan for rebuilding the dilapidated wall around Jerusalem. Through his example, we see how God equips ordinary people with extraordinary gifts to meet out-of-the-ordinary challenges for His glory.
Nehemiah chapter 1:
“The words of Nehemiah son of Hacaliah:
“In the month of Kislev in the twentieth year, while I was in the citadel of Susa, Hanani, one of my brothers, came from Judah with some other men, and I questioned them about the Jewish remnant that survived the exile, and also about Jerusalem.
“They said to me, ‘Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.’
“When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. Then I said:
“‘O Lord, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.
“‘Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.”
“‘They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of this your servant and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.’
“I was cupbearer to the king.
“In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was brought [before] him, I took the wine and gave it to the king. I had not been sad in his presence before; so the king asked me, ‘Why does your face look … sad when [you’re] not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.’
“I was very much afraid, but I said to the king, ‘May the king live forever! Why should my face not look sad when the city where my fathers are buried lies in ruins, and its gates have been destroyed by fire?’
“The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’
“Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, ‘If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my fathers are buried so that I can rebuild it.’
“Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, ‘How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?’ It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time.
“I also said to him, ‘If it pleases the king, may I have letters to the governors of Trans-Euphrates, so that they will provide me safe-conduct until I arrive in Judah? And may I have a letter to Asaph, keeper of the king’s forest, so he will give me timber to make beams for the gates of the citadel by the temple and for the city wall and for the residence I will occupy?’ And because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests. So I went to the governors of Trans-Euphrates and gave them the king’s letters. The king had also sent army officers and cavalry with me.
“When Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite official heard about this, they were very much disturbed that someone had come to promote the welfare of the Israelites.”
Father, we pray that, with our Bibles on our laps, you will speak to us as we come from a variety of circumstances and places today. We ask that you will show us afresh what it means to engage in the work to which you have called us, in the way in which you desire. Grant to us clarity of thought and of expression, and give to us hearts that are open to your truth and feet that are ready to walk in the pathway of obedience. For we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
There’s probably little doubt that you could say that Nehemiah lived on the edge. His job essentially demanded it. To be the cupbearer to the king possessed immense clarity. You drank the stuff: if it was poisoned you were a goner—good-bye, Nehemiah, and long live the king. So you needed to be the kind of individual who was shrewd, the kind of individual that had an eye for detail. You would need to be able to gauge character and pay careful attention to those who were around, especially since the position that one fulfilled was of such strategic importance. He had a big job, and with the big job there were big returns. He lived in a fairly nice place, and he had not only access to people in authority, but he also in himself possessed a significant measure of influence.
He’s introduced to us in a matter of few words. In the opening of the book, we are told who he is: “Nehemiah [the] son of Hacaliah,” and there it ends. He had no great pedigree of which we’re told, he was essentially a no-name—like some of us; like most of us; ultimately, like all of us.
When is it? Well, it’s wintertime, we’re told. It’s in December, the twentieth year of the king’s reign. It’s the second half of the fifth century BC. It’s quite a while ago. And where is he? Well, he’s eight hundred miles, we’re told, from the deepest concerns of his heart. His great longing and concern was far removed from the place of his employment. He was in Susa, the capital of the Medo-Persian Empire, a place that was central to the activities of the then-known world. He was in a strategic spot, but he was a long way away from what he ultimately really cared about.
And he receives, we’re told here, a visit from one of his brothers and some of his friends, and if you have lived in exile, you will know just how welcome that is: glad to get immediate news when they come to you—perhaps they’ll bring you the newspapers, you’ll find out about your sports teams, you’ll be able to ask about any of the strategic people in the community that you’ve left behind, and it is a wonderful occasion. For fourteen years, I have looked forward with great anticipation to people getting off planes and carrying with them copies of the London Times and the Daily Telegraph for just these reasons. It means a great deal when one of my family comes to visit, because it immediately transports me back to an area with which not only do I have roots but a continued deep concern.
And so it is that he reads, he learns, of what’s going on amongst God’s people in God’s place; neither time nor distance has eroded the deep-seated concerns of his life. And the news wasn’t good; we read that there. The information was described with words like “surviv[al],” “trouble,” “disgrace,” “burned,” “broken.” Safe to say that he could have taken blows to his body with a greater sense of deference than he was able to sustain these blows to his heart and mind as he thought about the people that he had left behind in the situation.
Now, the historical significance of these events I’m going to largely assume, because you will have studied this. But for those of you who have forgotten, I’ll give you a thumbnail and brief refresher course—and very quickly. I don’t want you to get the thought that somehow or another I am an Old Testament historian, nor even that I am a historian at all. I love history, and I read history at grammar school, and my history teacher was a fine man called Norman Salmon, and he instilled certain things in me, one of which was that I should never forget that in 1911 Bradford City won the FA Cup. And of all that I learned in five years under his tutelage, the only thing that I haven’t forgotten is what I’ve just recounted to you. So I’m not trying to impress you. You can find this information out as well.
Remember, it was 722 BC the Assyrians raided Israel. That was in the North. As a result of the invasion in the North, a bunch of people in the North decided to hightail it to the South—that was to Judah. So there was a big immigration, a big influx of people. They settle in Judah, but Judah does not do well in relationship to God’s word. They mocked his messengers, they despised his words, and they scoffed at his prophets. And therefore, in response to the promise of God, in 586 BC we have judgment, invasion, chains, bondage, and an eight-hundred-mile route march into the Babylonian captivity. And once again the people of God are in exile; they are living under a foreign power, as their forefathers had been in Egypt. It’s during this period that some of the Psalms are written—for example, Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat down and wept. How could we possibly sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” And they were writing that in this experience of exile.
Then, in 539, Babylon was overrun by Cyrus; he instituted a policy of repatriation, allowing a number of people to return to the country of origin. That’s described for us in the first six chapters of the book of Ezra. And there you read of how a small company went back; they began to rebuild the ruins, only to have their project come to a grinding halt all over again as a result of the intervention of Artaxerxes. And you can read that in Ezra 4:23.
Now, it was news—I believe, at least—of this second desolation which was being brought to Nehemiah: that the possibilities that had been represented by the small band that had gone back had now been brought to this crashing halt. And in response to discovering what was happening with the work of God, if you like, in Jerusalem, he, Nehemiah, was overwhelmed by sorrow.
Now, people can respond to circumstances simply by rehearsing them or bemoaning them, and that is largely the case in moving amongst people who do God’s work in our day. It’s not difficult to find a group of people who are able to describe the circumstances and lament them: “Oh dear, isn’t this dreadful?” and “Oh, are we not in a sorry predicament here?” and “Oh, I never imagined that it would be like this.” And you’re only in these people’s company for four or five minutes till you find yourself thoroughly depressed. They are poor souls, and we are poor souls to the degree that we engage in that kind of thing.
Not that we are triumphalistic, not that we are jingoistic or unrealistic, but that we must always come to the circumstances which confront us—within the church, within our churches, within the work to which God has called us—in light of the fact of who God is. And in seeing God in all of his glory, we then look at man in all of his predicament. And every so often on the stage of human history, when the light seems to be most extinguished and when circumstances appear to be at their darkest, God, having fashioned somebody unbeknown to others, raises them up in that moment in time. And what was needed in this circumstance was a man who could make a difference. “The world,” someone said, “will always make way for the individual that knows where they’re going.” And it is clear, as we’re about to see, that Nehemiah was someone who could cope in the midst of ruin and despair—and who could not simply cope but who could also forge ahead. Somebody who could establish a vision. And when I say “establish a vision,” I do not mean an individual who could talk in sort of dramatic possibility terms, but somebody who could bring the truth of God to bear upon the circumstances of the now in such a way that he was able to encourage those around him to become partners in the very work of God.
And we could illustrate this—we won’t take time to—but we can illustrate it not only from the biblical record but also, clearly, from church history. So many of our churches are lacking dreadfully in vision. We trot out pleasantries and clichés, but if you ever really try to get down to what we’re doing, we’re not sure we know. We’re a bit like the church that decided it was going to build a new building and got together and established its resolutions as a congregation—a fourfold resolution: “One, we will build a new church building. Two, the new building will be on the site of the old building. Three, the material from the old building will be used in the construction of the new building. And four, we will continue to use the old building until the new building is complete.” You wonder why we’re not going anywhere?
And so God puts his hand on an ordinary man with an extraordinary gift for an out-of-the-ordinary responsibility. That’s the way he chooses to do it: ordinary people to whom he gives extraordinary gifts for out-of-the-ordinary challenges. That’s probably where most of us are living our lives. And therefore, we do well to consider the pattern that is established here by Nehemiah.
Now, I want to trace a line through this by encouraging you to notice, first of all, his reaction—his reaction. “When I heard these things…” he says in verse 4. The way in which you and I react to circumstances tells a great deal about us. And especially those of us who have been entrusted with positions of responsibility, we have unique challenges in this area because of the way in which our reactions will affect the reactions of other people. Nobody lives to themselves, no one dies to themselves, and certainly, in leadership, we have a real challenge there.
It may be that there are some airline pilots here who fly commercially, and I always marvel when we have encountered some of the severest turbulence that you think a plane can stand, when you finally hear the captain’s voice over the intercom, it is always with such poise: “Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sorry about that little bump.” I mean, coffee has been going off the ceiling, people have been screaming, and prayer meetings have been happening instantaneously with people who don’t even believe in God. And finally, he comes on and he says, “I’m sorry about that little bump,” you know.
Or when we did a go-around in a 747 coming out of London into Pittsburgh, we were wheels down and within three miles of the runway, and he pulled it out. And the child in front of me started to shout, “I don’t want to die, Mommy! I don’t want to die!” Which was really bad, because I wanted to shout the same thing. And eventually, when we went back into the nether darkness, his voice came on again, and he said, “I’m sorry to have to give you the scenic tour of Pittsburgh this evening.” It was very reassuring to me. If he’d come on and started shouted, “Whoa-ho, ah hey, whew!” I’d be with the kid, you know?
Now, when you take the people going up to examine the circumstances, as dispatched by the leadership in the book of Numbers—the twelve men who went to spy in Canaan, as the children’s song says: “Ten were bad, and two were good.” They all saw the same stuff, they all experienced the same place, they all encountered the same challenges, they were all aware of the same opportunities, and ten of them said, “Shut it down. We shouldn’t do this; it can’t be done; there are giants in the land.” And two said, “With God we can take the place over”: Caleb and Joshua. The proportion is largely the same, it would seem to me, whether it’s in your session or wherever it is: you got twelve guys, there’ll be ten of them that know why it can’t possibly be done, and leadership is going to have to be prepared to stand up and react in a different way.
And so the reaction of Nehemiah is illustrative for us. Notice the depth of his devotion, the extent of his compassion. This is no formalized mourning on his part. This is not a concern on Nehemiah’s part about buildings and walls and gates, as we will see. He wasn’t weeping because the walls had broken down. He was weeping because of what the broken-down walls represented. Because the glory of God was being dragged in the dust of a Judean hillside, and people were looking on that and saying, “So where is your God now?” And that is exactly what men and women are doing.
I was just back in my own city last week, and in Glasgow, and coming on church buildings again and again and again that are Islamic temples—in the city in which I grew up with the motto “Let Glasgow flourish by the preaching of his Word and by the praising of his name.” And the churches! Now, I’m not so concerned about the buildings, I don’t mind about the buildings, but it’s what it represents.
If you’ve read Stott on Acts, when he describes Paul going into Athens, do you remember—I’m assuming you’ve read it now, and if you haven’t, you should read this section on Acts 17; it is wonderful—and he talks about how he goes into this magnificent city, and yet how it is not the aesthetics of the city, it’s not the architectural dimensions of it, that bring the paroxysms to his heart; it is the fact of the idolatry of the place, and the godlessness of it, and the abject poverty of spiritual reality that distresses him to the very core of his being. And Stott says from his book, “When is the last time any of us went into a contemporary Western city and were grieved to the very core of our being for the tragic emptiness of the church of God in our day and generation?”
You see, it takes the Spirit of God to create that kind of reaction in the life of a man or a woman. It is not a natural response; it is a supernatural response. And that, you see, is what marked Nehemiah out as a man of vision amongst people who encountered the same circumstances but did not react in the same way: he sat down, and he wept. Who will weep for the twenty-two-minute service? It would be funny, were it not so tragic, huh? I don’t want to come to you as the prophet Amos, but I do believe that without a real significant move of the Spirit of God in this country, we’re probably less than a quarter of a century away from duplicating the demise of Western Europe. And the deadness and emptiness of a bereft evangelicalism may then, if we’re alive, grant us tears.
See, the key thing is that we need that dimension of understanding, like the men of Issachar, that we would understand the times in which we live, and we would understand the God who rules over those times.
So, his reaction is one of devotion, it is one of compassion, it is to cry, it is to weep, it is to mourn. But notice that his counteraction is also vitally important. He doesn’t simply dissolve into a bucket of tears, but he fasts. He sets aside his normal intake of food, the routine that is attached to it, for the express purpose of seeking God. And in the experience of that, he comes to him in prayer. He knew that none other than God could accomplish what was necessary. If the city was to rise again, if the gates were to be restored, if the glory of God was to reign, then it would all be as a result of God’s intervention. “[Unless] the Lord build[s] the house, they labour in vain that build it.”
Here we are at the third point of the last talk: the foundational element of prayer. What do you find the hardest part of gospel ministry? Is prayer not close to that? It is for me: the challenge of public prayer, in really praying; the challenge of personal prayer, in really praying; the challenge of believing that if I were to spend significantly more time seeking God on my knees than scribbling about God in my notes, that, in actual fact, God may yet be magnified to a far greater degree than has ever happened.
“If,” said someone, “[our] prayer is meager, it is because we [regard] it [as being] supplemental and not fundamental”—that we can do more than pray, after we’ve prayed, but we can’t do more than pray until we’ve prayed. One of the commentators—I think a man by the name of Barber, although even looking at my notes, I can’t think who he is—he says this in a little trilogy: “The self-sufficient do not pray, they merely talk to themselves. The self-satisfied [do] not pray; they have no [awareness] of their need. The self-righteous cannot pray; they have no basis upon which to approach God.” And therefore, any attempt to explain the visionary impact of Nehemiah, or of others like Nehemiah, that fails to see this essential element as being namely that—an essential element—will in itself be flawed.
The little phrase there in verse 4, “for some days,” actually is a significant phrase: “For some days I mourned and fasted.” If you check the time gap between the first verse of chapter 1 and the first verse of chapter 2, the time gap is approximately three or four months. It’s not immediately apparent until you go and check it. If you check it, you’ll find that what I’m telling you is accurate. Interestingly, when you get to 6:15, you discover then that the time that it actually took for the construction itself was 52 days. So if you have four months, it’s approximately 120 days—and 52 days—so more than twice was spent in praying, and in realigning his heart and mind and will with that of Almighty God, of gaining perspective, of thinking. We ought not to think of him in some kind of trance. I imagine him praying, sometimes walking, sometimes including others, sometimes alone, often with a notebook, as it were, and writing down the things that were coming to his mind. I don’t think you can understand chapter 2 except for the fact that in the experience of prayer he was fashioning and forming certain convictions and practical factors that would be necessary if this sense of prayerful dependence upon God was going to be turned into reality amongst those with whom he was going to minister.
I don’t want to take time to go through the prayer; I simply want you to note that if ever you want to preach through it, I think it falls nicely into the little acrostic ACTS, you know, which we often use with our young people. And we tell them, “Your praying should involve some adoration; it should begin with God.” That’s what you have in verse 5: “O Lord, the great and awesome God of heaven, who keeps his love,” and so on. It should involve confession. That’s exactly what it has: “We acknowledge,” he says, “that we have acted very wickedly towards you,” verse 7. “The Israelites have committed sin, and I myself have committed sin.” It involves thanksgiving, in verses 8–10, as he rehearses God’s promises. And then it involves supplication—specific, reverent, and clear: “Give your servant success today by granting him favor in the presence of this man.”
There would have been no doubt, if we had been in the company of Nehemiah, exactly what was going on. If we had observed him receive the news, and we had seen his heart broken, if we had been around him in those intervening days, we would have found him a man almost with an otherworldly dimension to his experience. And if we’d had the privilege of sitting and learning how to pray with him, we would have been made clearly aware of the fact that he was not tied up in any kind of theological knots about being absolutely specific in approaching God: “Grant your servant success today.”
You say, “Well, we don’t believe in success, you know. Success is a dirty word.” No, success is not a dirty word! Success that is self-focused, earthbound, man-centered, is futility. But the kind of success about which he was concerned was a success that would redound to the glory of God. It wasn’t a success that would attach significance to the person of Nehemiah. That’s where we don’t want to be praying for success. It is important that the work of God succeeds—as it will.
Incidentally, you can always pray with faith about that which God has promised. “I will build my church,” said Jesus, “and the gates of hell [will] not prevail against it.” That sounds successful to me. Does that sound successful to you? Does that sound like absolute victory at the end of the day? That “the earth will be filled with the … glory of [God], as the waters cover the sea”? Some of us are limited—not by what Scripture lays before us as a possibility, but by the tyranny of our own small-mindedness, theologically.
Reaction, counterreaction. Number three, into action—into action. He had a God-centered perspective that was going to manifest itself in a quite striking way: by him being bold in his initiative taking. Chapter 2 begins, “One day in April four month later…” That’s my paraphrase of it: “In the month of Nisan in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes.” But it is one day, four months later. If it was December, then it has to be April.
He’d been biding his time, waiting the right moment when the door opened—of opportunity—then he would be ready to enter. And open it did, there in verse 1. He’s taking his wine in, the normal routine—“Here’s your wine, King”—but he hadn’t been sad in his presence before, and so the king said, “Why does your face look so sad when you’re not ill?” Very perceptive. Of course, the king needed to be to perceptive as well, because any indication like this on the part of his cupbearer would tip him the nod that maybe he was going down with him. And so you would learn to read your eyes, and you would want a very happy cupbearer on every occasion that he was bearing your cup. And any possibility of him looking squeamish may be on account of the fact that your enemies had got to him, and maybe he was seeking to cover up something that was deep down inside. “Why does your face look so sad when you’re not ill? This can be nothing but sadness of heart.”
Now, I love the final phrase of verse 2. I love how realistic and honest it is: “I was very much afraid.” “I was very much afraid.” This is maybe one of the most encouraging lines so far in the story of Nehemiah, to me. Because usually as I read the story of Nehemiah, I immediately have him in almost deified terms, you know: “This guy is awesome. I mean, he was praying and fasting for 120 days; I’ve never done that in my life. He was just broken over the situation, and I was thinking about the museums. He was concerned about all these things; I don’t even approximate to that. I don’t know, I’m so far removed from Nehemiah.” But when he says, “I was very much afraid,” there’s an immediate point of identification. I said, “Oh, I’m beginning to like this chap! I can identify here!” “I was very much afraid.”
I remember—just thinking obliquely about this, in terms of people who are our heroes and our models—Eric Alexander, who is no stranger to these events, has been a mentor and a friend over many years in Glasgow. And I remember him speaking at a conference similar to this in the borders of Scotland. And in a question and answer session, I said to him, “Mr. Alexander, can you tell me how you spend your morning hours? Tell me about when you get up in the morning and what you do.”
And you see, I thought that he was going to say—because of the kind of books that I’d been reading, O. Hallesby and E. M. Bounds—I thought that he was going to say that he got up around four o’clock and he prayed for two hours, and then, you know, he took down a map of the world, and he prayed for another hour, and so on. And man was I encouraged when he told me. He said, “Well,” he said, “you know, I set my alarm”—I can’t remember the time, but it was favorable for sleeping. He said, “You know, I set my alarm, I get up, and I have a shower, and I drive my children to school, and I come back home, and Greta makes me a cup of coffee. I grab the mail, I read that; I have a quick look at the Glasgow Herald, and then I get going on my study.”
“Oh,” I said, “I like this man. This is good.” Because, you see, we often imagine—and I don’t mean that in any sense to denigrate Eric—I’m saying it to acknowledge the rightness of it, the spiritual ordinariness of it, if you like. Because that’s where we live our lives. I mean, we live our lives in humdrum days. We live our lives in routine experiences. And we must explode for those under our care the mythology of some drama that attends us. ’Cause it doesn’t!
And Nehemiah’s ordinariness comes out here, as any good leader’s ordinariness must: “I was very much afraid.” The Pharisee in us is saying, “Oh, I don’t think I would have been afraid, not if I had been praying for 120 days. I would have been bold; I wouldn’t have been afraid.” Well, fine, you just go on by yourself; the rest of you can stay over here with me in the afraid camp.
“What do you want?” he says. “What do you want?” Can you imagine, he’s been, for three or four months, waiting for the day when the guy would ask this question? “What do you want?” And it’s now or never. You may only get one opportunity like this in your life, and here it is. Reaction: overwhelmed. Counteraction: prayer. Into action: “Well, thank you for asking.”
And recognizing God’s hand in it all and praying to the God of heaven—verse 5—he answers the king. Notice his intense practicality, wonderful: in verse 7, if he could have some letters of safe-conduct. And you can probably see the king’s eyes in this, you know, going, “Eh, it’s not a problem.” And so he advances it a little further, goes on a bit of a roll: “And by the way, how about a letter to Asaph, the keeper of the king’s forest, because, you know, we’ve got some construction; it would be nice to have some wood.” And he’s gauging the king’s eyes, that he knows well. And he says, “And it’d be nice to have safe passage,” and so they throw in the officers and the cavalry, and Nehemiah is discovering that God is able to do exceedingly abundantly beyond all that we can ask or even imagine. It was a pipe dream that he would get to go back. It was a mystery that he would ever be able to make an impact. He would have been lucky, as it were—providentially overruled, as it were—if he (that’s the influence of fourteen years in America, if you’ll forgive me), if he had (the rot is setting in), if he had simply been able to make the journey on his own. But here he’s advancing and putting together all the bits and the pieces.
Now, let’s just pause and ask the question: in establishing a vision of doing God’s work in God’s way, it seems to me that there’s a great danger that is represented in the circles in which many of us move, and it’s the classic danger of the pendulum swing. Most of the things that we have observed that have to do with methodology and strategy and vision setting and planning have emerged out of a theological seedbed with which many of us do not find ourselves immediately in harmony. But instead of recognizing that there is an essential place to thinking not only biblically but strategically, we allow the pendulum to swing way out on the other end, and we give up ground to the pragmatists, embracing a sort of unearthed theological posture.
And I don’t think that’s the way of Scripture. I certainly don’t believe that to be the way of Nehemiah. Nehemiah is in absolutely no doubt about who does what. He would have understood 1 Corinthians 3: it is God who gives the task, it is God who gives the growth, and it is God who gets the glory. But that did not prevent the apostles from thinking strategically about the way in which they reached a city for Christ. Nor should it us.
And, indeed, we who would want to come from a very biblical foundation need to take seriously the responsibility of establishing models in our day to which other young men and women can come in observation and then can implement in following our example. And perhaps we’ll come to this later on, in the question and answer session. Judging by the glaze that’s over some of your eyes, maybe we won’t. So let me just move on.
If there’s going to be the establishing of vision, then first it has to be planted in our hearts by God’s Spirit and through his Word. The ultimate vision for us, if you like, is Revelation 7: “[And] after this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” That is the ultimate vision, that’s the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham: “In your seed will all the nations of the earth be blessed.” This is what we look forward to, and everything else is ultimately subservient to that amazing day when God will gather to himself those who are his own. And we live along the continuum of God’s unfolding plan.
God put this in Nehemiah’s heart. It wasn’t dreamed up; it was prayed down. He wasn’t a member of the “Bright Ideas Society.” He didn’t go in his room and just think for a while. He actually was in touch with God, he was in touch with his community, and then he was prepared to establish for those who were around him, as we will see, the parameters in which he could do God’s work.
“I went to Jerusalem”—verse 11—“and after staying there three days I set out during the night with a few men. I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do for Jerusalem.”
Now, we don’t need to be in any doubt about what God puts in the hearts of his servants to do in our day. We don’t have to go and find special literature to try and answer the question for us; it’s all given to us here in the apostolic precept and in the apostolic pattern. We know what we’re to do: we’re to edify the saints so that they might do the works of ministry. We are—in his words of Paul to Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:5—we are to “keep [our] head[s] in all situations.” We’re to “endure hardship,” we are to “do the work of an evangelist,” and we’re to “discharge all the duties of [our] ministry.” So it’s not as if we have to cast around to find out what it is that’s supposed to be in the heart of a pastor. Within the heart of the pastor has got to be the intense longing for God and his glory, for the sheep under his care, for those as yet who have not been added to the fold, as with Jesus in John 17: “There are other sheep who are not yet added to this group, and O God, I pray for them too.”
What’s in your heart in these days? What are we doing? Keeping the doors open? “Doing church”? Fulfilling established routines? Is there anything of vision that our elders catch from us? Is there any sense of forging a trail?
I think where it’s lacking in my life, it lacks first because I don’t react properly. Who will weep—which of us will weep—for the state of the contemporary church? It’s easy to stand up and point fingers and say, “This person, and this, and that.” But in the private place? To drive to worship on Sunday evenings, after building after building after building in total darkness, not a light in the place, not a soul on the property, not a car in the car park? It ought to break our hearts.
And then, the counteraction: “Oh God, wouldn’t you rend the heavens and come down? Wouldn’t you do in our day what you’ve done in another day? Would you come, as it were, back on horseback, through these fair towns and cities, as in the Great Awakening? Will you fashion in our churches young boys, brought up within the framework of godly instruction, and stirred in their hearts in ways they can’t fully understand, so that they might rise up in their day with a fire in their bellies concerning God and his glory and a desire to preach the Bible in all of its fullness? Will you surprise us? And God, if all that we do in our generation is keep our feet in the door for another generation to come, will you make us prepared to live just with that, so that we see no dramatic fulfillment of the vision? If we see nothing, if we are nothing other than faithful to that which you’ve made known to us, that we would keep our heads when others are losing theirs, that we would endure hardship when people are bailing out and taking soft options, that we would be serious about the responsibility of evangelism, and that we would discharge all the duties of our ministries?” And all in the conviction that I can’t, but God can.
See, many of us are suffering from the illusion that we can, and it’s only when we face the fact that we can’t, then that we can. It’s that delicious paradox, isn’t it? The man with the withered hand could not stretch it out. And Jesus asked him to do what he couldn’t do, and he did it, because his word is not only a life-giving word; it is a life-changing word.
Now, just a final bizarre illustration. First time I saw an American football game was at an air force base in Hertfordshire in England, in a place called Bushey. I went there with this girl that I really liked a lot, and she’s at home looking after my children just now. And I had not a clue in my mind what was happening in front of me in this very dramatic experience of American football. I wasn’t opposed to it in any way; I just couldn’t fathom it. And she was absolutely no help to me at all, at least in terms of understanding what was going on. But the one indelibly fastened recollection that I have is of the cheerleaders.
Now, gentlemen, this is not because of how they looked, and may the Lord forgive you for that being your initial thought, for impugning the purity of my own heart. (It’s a joke.) I don’t remember anything about that. But I had never seen cheerleaders in my life before; you got to understand, I lived a very sheltered life. We had not been introduced to some of these American extravagances. It was only to be found on air force bases, etc.
But as the game proceeded, the particular team that we were there to support—which I think was the American School of London or something like that—they were being annihilated. The scoreboard did not have sufficient spaces on it to deal with the hiding they were sustaining. But this is it: the cheerleaders proceeded with the one dramatic refrain. Went like this: they had these things, went, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can! You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” Now, the problem was, they couldn’t! And no matter how dressed up they were, and no matter how loud that tuba guy went at it, no matter how that big fat guy banged that drum, they could not for one moment reverse the sad tale of what was happening on the field.
And here we sit, and in terms of the work of God, it seems that we’re sustaining a significant defeat. So what do we do? We take the methods of the world, we take the wisdom of the world, we bring in the cheerleaders to stand on the sidelines and make us feel better, to blur the reality of what’s going on: “You can do it, you can do it!” No, you can’t!
Now then, at that moment of self-awareness for us as leaders and as pastors and as churches—at that moment, the door of opportunity swings wide. Because what did Jesus say? “Apart from me you can do nothing.” He didn’t say that our need was partial; he said that our need was total. And to the degree that I believe that my need is partial, I will not react as Nehemiah reacted, I will not counterrespond as he responded, and I will not be able to go into action as he went into action.
Well, let’s have a prayer, and we’ll proceed:
O God our Father, we thank you that we’re not left to our own devices when we think about doing your work in your way. We thank you that the pages of Scripture are littered with wonderful examples of those upon whose life you set your hand. Thank you for that lovely phrase that recurs again and again: “And I told them,” said Nehemiah, “of the hand of God which rested on me.” We do pray that we might know that experience again in these days, of your hand upon us for good.
Bless us, Lord, in the lunchtime hour. Help those of us who are downhearted to be picked up by the genuine concerns of others, some of us who need encouragement and answers to our questions—may these days surprise us with the evidences of your grace. And we pray that you would give us grateful hearts as we eat in a variety of circumstances as well. For we pray to the glory of your great name, through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
 Psalm 137:1, 4 (paraphrased).
 See Romans 14:7.
 See Numbers 13:1–33.
 Saint Mungo, inscription on bell, Tron Church on Trongate, 1637. Paraphrased.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church, and the World, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1994), 291. Paraphrased.
 See 1 Chronicles 12:32.
 Psalm 127:1 (KJV).
 J. Oswald Sanders, Cultivation of Christian Character (1965; repr., Chicago: Moody, 2019).
 S. D. Gordon, Quiet Talks on Prayer (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1904), 16.
 Cyril J. Barber, Nehemiah and the Dynamics of Effective Leadership (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Bros., 1976), 22–23.
 Matthew 16:18 (KJV).
 Habakkuk 2:14 (NIV 1984).
 Ephesians 3:20 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 3:5–7 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 7:9 (NIV 1984).
 Genesis 22:18 (paraphrased).
 See Ephesians 4:11–12.
 John 17:20 (paraphrased).
 See Isaiah 64:1.
 See Habakkuk 3:2.
 See Mark 3:1–5.
 John 15:5 (NIV 1984).
 Nehemiah 2:8, 18 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.