We’ve all been on the receiving end of bad news. It can be tragic, often producing feelings of despair, worry, or burden. This was true for Nehemiah, who lived as an exile in a foreign land far from Jerusalem. Indeed, the book of Nehemiah, which tells in first person the story of the titular figure’s effort to rebuild to the walls Jerusalem after the Jews’ sojourn in Babylon, opens with this startling bit of information:
Now it happened in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Susa the citadel, that Hanani, one of my brothers, came with certain men from Judah. And I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem. And they said to me, “The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.” (Neh. 1:1–3)
In 722 BC, Assyria had raided the Northern Kingdom of Israel. Not even two centuries later, in 586 BC, the Southern Kingdom of Judah had been exiled because of their idolatry. Jerusalem had been ransacked, and God’s people had been led into Babylonian captivity (2 Kings 25:8–13). Then, in 539 BC, Cyrus and the Persians had assumed leadership on the world stage, overthrowing Babylon. Providentially, and incredibly, God had moved Cyrus’s heart to allow a number of Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their city (Ezra 1:1–11)—only to have their project come to a grinding halt soon after it began (Ezra 4:23).
It was news of this opposition that Nehemiah received in chapter 1. Who would lead God’s people through this trial? How would they overcome the opposition and begin the work anew? They needed someone who could bring God’s truth to bear on their circumstances. They needed a vision and a visionary leader. And that leader was Nehemiah.
Like God’s people of old, our churches today face many challenges. We need leaders who will bring God’s Word to bear on our circumstances, leading us to faithful service (Heb. 10:24–25). In short, our churches need vision—and contemporary leaders can discern a pattern for establishing such a vision in Nehemiah’s reaction, his counteraction, and his action in response to the devastation in Jerusalem.
Nehemiah’s Reaction: Rightly Burdened
As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days… (Neh. 1:4)
Nehemiah’s reaction to the news that Jerusalem’s walls had fallen to ruin is illustrative for us. In it, we can see the depth of his devotion and the extent of his compassion. His concern wasn’t ultimately for the actual buildings and walls that had been destroyed; it was for what those structures represented. Upon receiving the bad report, Nehemiah was overwhelmed—and rightfully so, for God’s glory had been dragged in the dust of a Judean hillside. Foreign nations were looking at Israel, God’s chosen people, taunting, “Where is your God now?” (See Ps. 137:3.)
Leaders bring God’s truth to bear on their people’s circumstances.
Do we share in Nehemiah’s burden for the spiritual condition of our own churches? John Stott, commenting on Acts 17, writes, “Jesus wept over the impenitent city of Jerusalem. Paul was deeply pained by the idolatrous city of Athens. Have we ever been provoked by the idolatrous cities of the contemporary world?”1
It takes God’s Spirit to create that kind of reaction in us. It’s not a natural response; it’s a supernatural response. And it’s this kind of burden that distinguishes a man or woman of vision from the rest, as it did Nehemiah. Do we understand the times in which we live? And, as it suits what we see, have we mourned properly for them before God’s face?
Nehemiah’s Counteraction: Prayerfully Dependent
… and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven. (Neh. 1:4)
Nehemiah’s reaction was one of devotion and compassion. But his counteraction is equally instructive for us: burdened to despair, Nehemiah went to the Lord in prayer. If Jerusalem was to rise again, its gates restored and God’s glory realized, then it would only be as a result of God’s intervention. Nehemiah recognized the Jews’ dependence, knowing that “unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labor in vain” (Ps. 127:1).
Any attempt to explain Nehemiah’s visionary impact that fails to recognize the centrality of prayer in it will be flawed. Cyril J. Barber draws a parallel between Nehemiah’s prayerfulness and our own: “The self-sufficient do not pray, they merely talk to themselves. The self-satisfied will not pray; they have no knowledge of their need. The self-righteous cannot pray; they have no basis on which to approach God.”2 Indeed, Nehemiah was neither self-sufficient nor self-satisfied, nor was he self-righteous. He was God-dependent. And if we wish to do great things for God, we must be men and women of prayer.
Knowing he would soon approach the king and request his leave to go to Jerusalem, Nehemiah petitioned God with specificity. Notice his appeal in verse 11: “Give success to your servant today.” Some of us view the word success as one that doesn’t belong in a Christian’s vocabulary. We see it as self-focused and man-centered. But the success with which Nehemiah was concerned was a kind that would resound to God’s glory. Nehemiah’s petition for success was attached not to his own work but to God’s work.
If we wish to do great things for God, then we must pray.
As we seek to establish vision, it’s this kind of success for which we ought to pray. We should learn to approach the Lord boldly, pleading with Him to bless our plans to the extent to which they bring Him glory. We can—and should—bring faith’s claim to bear on God’s promises in prayer.
Nehemiah into Action
In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, when wine was before him, I took up the wine and gave it to the king. … Then I was very much afraid. (Neh. 2:1–2)
Burdened, prayerful, and now active. Nehemiah had a God-centered perspective regarding Jerusalem that led him to take initiative. Following his reaction and counteraction in chapter 1, we can glean three wisdom principles regarding visionary leadership from Nehemiah’s action in chapter 2.
Visionary Leadership Is Ordinary
Nehemiah’s initiative came with a price. As he stood before the king, we’re told that Nehemiah was “very much afraid.” He didn’t downplay his weakness; rather, he leaned into it. The principle for today’s leaders is clear: leaders must be transparent, revealing their ordinariness to those whom they lead.
Prayer involves bringing faith’s claim to bear on God’s promises.
If we’re not careful, when faced with fears and inadequacies in leadership, our attitudes can reflect that of a modern-day Pharisee. We can look at Nehemiah’s circumstance and think, “Oh, I don’t think I would have been afraid. If I were him, I would have been bold!” But when we think along these lines, we deceive ourselves, and we rob ourselves and those under our care of the opportunity for God’s power to be displayed in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9).
Effective leaders are ordinary people with God-given, extraordinary gifts, given so they may lead through challenges both ordinary and out of the ordinary. They are nothing more and nothing less.
Visionary Leadership Is Strategic
As he stood before the king, Nehemiah experienced the opportunity of a lifetime. After months of prayer, he now had the king’s full attention. “What are you requesting?” the king asked (Neh. 2:4).
That Nehemiah had given thought to what he was about to say is evident. His requests included permission to return to Judah (v. 5) as well as letters for both safe passage and for soliciting building materials along the way (vv. 7–8). Nehemiah had foresight, piecing together his plan to rebuild the city. And what was the outcome? “The king granted me what I asked,” Nehemiah recorded, “for the good hand of my God was upon me” (v. 8). God worked through Nehemiah’s praying and planning, not in spite of it.
As we lead others, we must recognize the place for thinking not only biblically but also strategically. If we aren’t careful, we can swing too far on the pendulum to one side or the other: on the one side, dismissing helpful methodology and planning in the name of doctrinal purity; on the other, prioritizing strategic planning over biblical wisdom, producing unbiblical pragmaticism.
Praying and strategizing—Nehemiah showed the place for both in his leadership.
Visionary Leadership Is God-Given
If we’re going to establish vision in our churches and leadership contexts, then it must first be planted in our hearts by God’s Spirit and through His Word. Nehemiah’s vision to rebuild the city wasn’t dreamt up; it was prayed down. God put it into Nehemiah’s heart (Neh. 2:12). Nehemiah was in touch with God and his community, prepared to lead His people to do His work.
We must recognize the place for thinking both biblically and strategically.
As leaders today, we don’t have to wonder about the vision God has put into His servants’ hearts. Scripture reveals His will: “Be sober-minded,” Paul instructs Timothy, “endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry” (2 Tim. 4:5). In other words, within the heart of every leader must be an intense longing for God and His glory, for those under his care, and for the lost.
Following Nehemiah’s Pattern
From burden to prayer to action—this was Nehemiah’s pattern for visionary leadership. As we reflect on our own contexts, is there anything of vision in our hearts? Is there any sense of forging a trail upon which others can follow?
We may begin with burden: for the state of the church, for the sinfulness of our world, for our own failures. And from that sorrow we might be driven to our knees in prayer: “Lord, wouldn’t You rend the heavens and come down? Wouldn’t You do again what You’ve done before?” (See Isa. 64:1; Hab. 3:2.) And finally, we can act, fully realizing that we’re insufficient in ourselves to accomplish God’s purposes—but, like Nehemiah, marching forward in faith, trusting that God’s good hand will go before us (Neh. 2:9).
This article was adapted from the sermon “Establishing a Vision” by Alistair Begg.