Nehemiah: leadership guru from the 5th century (BC)?

It’s good for Bible readers to ask why a particular book is included in the sixty-six books that make up the Old and New Testaments of our Bible. Not to attempt to disqualify them for some reason, but to try to find out what role the book has in the overall story of the Bible. After all there are sixty-six books, not seventy, or fifty. Why these ones?

Take Nehemiah. Judging from the way he and his book are written about and preached about, you’d be forgiven that he owes his place in the Bible to his role as an Old Testament model of leadership. That is how he is often approached.

A classic book on these lines is Charles Swindoll’s Hand me another brick. “A biblical manual for potential leaders,” is how Swindoll describes it.

You have to say that Nehemiah is rich in leadership lessons. The heart of a leader, broken at the disrepair of God’s city. The growing conviction that he has to act. His vision. His praying. His ability to communicate the right information at the right time. Organisational skills. The ability to keep going in the face of opposition. It’s all there. Leaders would do well to spend some time learning from this great leader.

But is that it? Or is there more to the book than that?

Don Carson asks a pertinent question:

The book of Nehemiah is often treated as a manual on godly leadership. I wonder if this does justice to the book. Did Nehemiah intend to write a manual on godly leadership? Is the book included in the canon for that purpose – as if we turn, say, to Acts to discover the history of the early church and to Nehemiah to discover the principles of leadership?

Other people have found Nehemiah speaking in various ways. An anthropologist wrote about the Nehemiah model for Christian missions. A rural sociologist wrote about him as a model for community building. An anonymous author has published The Nehemiah Diet. It’s not based on the list of  items that adorned Nehemiah’s table in chapter 5 (one ox, six choice sheep and birds, and every ten days all kinds of wine in abundance): it’s more an attempt to see Nehemiah as an inspiration for people who want to tackle their diet. Nehemiah saw the need for change and pursued it against the odds: so must the dieter.

It’s also fascinating to realise how a reader’s own context influences the reading of the book. For example, someone from the developing world is more likely to be sensitive to the themes of poverty and injustice in chapter 5 than someone living in the relatively wealthy West.

So what are we to make of it?

It’s important in reading Nehemiah (which scholars tell us was originally the second part of Ezra-Nehemiah) that our understanding does justice both to the things that the author chooses to emphasise and to where the story comes in the overall Big Story of God’s plan.

That’s not just true of Nehemiah: it’s true of any book.

So we have to notice that Nehemiah is rebuilding Jerusalem. He is not just building a random city, it is the city of God. This is the city that houses the temple. Later, it is from Jerusalem that Jesus will be crucified and it is in Jerusalem that the New Testament church will be born. And we mustn’t miss the New Jerusalem terminology in the New Testament. Perhaps we should say that, before this is a book about leadership, it is a book about Jerusalem.

And it is a book about God’s people. God’s Old Testament promises were tied up with this people who at the time were a struggling remnant in a ruined city. Both city and people needed to be restored. We mustn’t miss the reading of the Law and the renewal of the covenant. There was a call to renewed holiness among the people.

As the old city is restored, the old law is read, the old covenant is renewed, an old festival is celebrated and as genealogies are examined, the book emphasises continuity with the past. Nehemiah is a vital link with the past – the promises, priests and patriarchs. He and his contemporaries were part of a bigger picture.

And Nehemiah was not the last person to come on a rescue mission to Jerusalem. About four and half centuries later Jesus would come. He is the centre of the story. Nehemiah played his part in getting that story back on track.

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