I recently listened to the book of Nehemiah on a road trip with my wife. There were several things that grabbed my heart in this great story which highlight the connection between God’s presence and human work, which I call Immanuel labor. Let me summarize these new insights to supplement what I wrote in a previous article on my blog and in my book.
Spiritual Leadership at Work
In the first chapter of this book, we meet Nehemiah. We don’t know anything about him. We are told in verse 1 that this book is in his own words. Right away in verse 2, we see his leadership in action.
He asks his brother and some other men about the Jewish remnant that returned to Jerusalem from their long exile. He learns that “those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace” (Neh. 1:3). The wall around the city and its gates were completely destroyed.
This devastating situation affected Nehemiah deeply, who reports that he “sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed” (Neh. 1:4). His heart was broken, which began to move him in the direction where God was calling him, to get directly involved in repairing the broken wall.
This spiritual leader, who God was working in to prepare for this great work, was an ordinary worker. The fact that Nehemiah is the cupbearer to the king was left to the end of the first chapter, setting up the narrative by showing that only God’s power was going to get this job done.
As the story develops over the next few chapters, we see God begin to use this ordinary man as his co-worker to lead the Israelites to complete this project under his mighty hand. The team will stay focused on the task as long as Nehemiah stays focused on God.
Supplication and Praise
As was mentioned above, one of Nehemiah’s first responses to hearing the news of the wall was to pray (Neh. 1:4-11). Nehemiah illustrated his spiritual leadership primarily by being a man of prayer. This first of several prayers that we read starts with praise for God’s covenant love, then lead to confession of personal and national sins, followed by supplication and asking for favor from the King. We read a variety of prayers offered by Nehemiah later in the book (Neh. 2:4-5, 4:4, 4:9, 5:19, 6:9).
Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk described in the classic book, The Practice of the Presence of God, was someone just like Nehemiah in that he found it easy to pray. In one recorded conversation, he had stated quite simply,
All we have to do is to recognize God as being intimately present within us. Then we may speak directly to him every time we need to ask for help, to know his will in moments of uncertainty, and to do whatever he wants us to do in a way that pleases him.
Since I read this book early in my Christian walk, I’ve often found myself sending up a short prayer at work like Nehemiah did with the king. As I head from the parking lot to my building, I pray that God will lead me and give me wisdom for the day. Sometimes I pray audibly when I am alone in my office. I may shoot up a quick silent prayer in a meeting when my temper starts to rise. I confess my sins when I see them. I take time to praise him when he enables me to accomplish a challenging task. There are always plenty of opportunities throughout the day to connect with God.
I think Nehemiah had a sense of God’s presence modeled after David, the man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14). He understood what David had said in Psalm 16:11, “You will fill me with joy in your presence” when he proclaimed to the Israelites that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10).
Sensitivity to God’s Leading
Because Nehemiah was gifted and called to be a spiritual leader and remained close to God in prayer, he was able to sense when God was leading him, whether it was something great or small. Nehemiah sought the Lord daily. He acted on God’s promises to lead him (Ps. 32:8).
In Nehemiah 2:12, we get a first glimpse of how Nehemiah received his marching orders. He describes a secret recon mission after dark, accompanied by a few other men, to scope out the damaged walls around Jerusalem. He did not reveal his true purpose for this tour. What drove him that night was that God had put it in his heart to become part of the solution to the overwhelming problem that his people faced.
There is a similar situation that in Nehemiah 7:5. After the wall had been completed (Neh. 6:15), Nehemiah gave credit to God for calling him to take on another project. He wrote that “God put it into my heart” to assemble the exiles who had returned and compile a list of those who lived in the city. This alludes to God’s command to be fruitful and increase in number (Gen. 1:28) and his promise to Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5).
Although Old Testament believers were not indwelt with the Holy Spirit in the same way as New Testament believers are, Nehemiah did have God’s Spirit working in his life. God spoke to him as he speaks to us today.
I want to challenge Christ-followers to remember God’s dealings with Nehemiah. We cannot be just like him, but we can be spiritual leaders by becoming men and women of prayer. We can relate to God in the same way. We can seek God’s heart and let him lead us by changing ours. When we do those things, expect God to do a “great work” in us, with us, and through us, for his kingdom.