Nehemiah 3 has a significant set of actions taking place. As we wrapped up the last chapter, remember that Nehemiah had said “let us rise and build” which is not all that different than what Ezra had been attempting to get done for some time. But Nehemiah does a motivational approach and gets the people excited to work together to rebuild the city walls. And it starts at the top with the chief priest as “Eliashib the high priest rose up with his brothers the priests, and they built the Sheep Gate”.
This is important to note, that Nehemiah was able to motivate and engage all people in the process. The priests worked on the section of their wall that was most closely aligned to what they did – oversee worship and the sacrifices. The Sheep gate was where animals were brought to be sacrificed and Nehemiah wisely had people build the wall in proximity to their home or work. That is the most motivating place one could get up and work hard – right outside your house – and that is how he tried to assign the tasks. He wanted people to be bought in.
He rallied people from outside the city to come and assist as well as those living inside. This was a huge project of magnificent proportion, but by splitting the tasks into smaller pieces Nehemiah was able to assign someone to rebuild the walls. In many cases is was people that were working just outside their homes, but in some cases, outside laborers or skilled craftsmen working on specific areas. Nehemiah was a master at project management. He identified what had to be done and then skillfully delegated those responsibilities to leaders who took it and ran with the repairs.
Nehemiah was an effective leader because he made each man accountable for his work. Each man had a section of wall he was responsible for, and it was known he was responsible for it. By giving each man a sense of responsibility for the work, they helped ensure the work would be done right. It made each man accountable. Who wanted to be responsible for the weak area of the wall? It was like having your name on an “inspected by” tag – you were accountable for your work. Guzik defines Nehemiah’s leadership in this chapter with these points:
- Nehemiah was an effective leader because he noted who was doing the work and who wasn’t – the list demonstrates this
- Nehemiah was an effective leader because he organized the work for maximum efficiency. Everyone had their section, and the work was organized around the gates – the places most needful of the work
- Nehemiah was an effective leader because he knew where to start: with the spiritual aspect of the work (the high priest’s work is mentioned first), and consecrating all to God
- Nehemiah was an effective leader because he got both “high” and “low” to join together in doing the work – the leaders and the high priest worked together with the man who lived in a single room
- Nehemiah was an effective leader because he was willing to let people try new things – goldsmiths, priests, and perfumers all because construction workers!
- Nehemiah was an effective leader because he made people focus on their own house first
- Nehemiah was an effective leader because he didn’t disqualify people because of a past of sin and compromise
Nehemiah 2 has our leader carrying a burden for his people and the city of Jerusalem where he has learned the walls are still not rebuilt. As part of his job, he delivered food and wine to the king and as he did, the king noticed that Nehemiah was sad. “Why is your face sad, seeing you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of the heart”. This is some pretty astute observation, but it shows that the relationship was deep between them and Nehemiah finally was at the point of letting his guard down and being transparent.
So even though Nehemiah was afraid to really tell the reason, he finally does and asked that the king “send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ graves, that I may rebuild it”. This is a request that is certainly outside his job scope and a rather big ask as there weren’t a lot of people in the kingdom that the king could trust the way he did Nehemiah. So the response was pretty much what you might expect: “How long will you be gone, and when will you return”? The king and queen, who was also sitting there, wanted some idea of the length of Nehemiah’s request.
And the king agrees. Nehemiah goes further and asks the king to “let letters be given me to the governors of the province Beyond the River, that they may let me pass through until I come to Judah” but the king did even more than send letters to other rulers, he also sent officers of the army and horsemen to accompany Nehemiah. It was a valued relationship and the king wanted him back. There were three enemies that were not in favor of the walls being rebuilt. They wanted the kingdom to be vulnerable – “Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite servant and Geshem the Arab”. These three schemed and were enemies of Nehemiah’s efforts from start to finish.
Nehemiah gets to Jerusalem and is there three days before really deciding a course of action. He then took a few men with him at night to see what the status of the walls were. “Then I went up in the night by the valley and inspected the wall”. He “told no one what my God had put into my heart to do for Jerusalem”. Nehemiah wanted to inspect and create a plan before ever talking with any of the leaders in the city or people who would be necessary to do the work. He wanted to create the need. So he says “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins….let us build the wall….Let us rise up and build”. And the people responded. The enemies jeered and made fun of the people, but Nehemiah confronts them and reminds them that God is on His side. “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build”
Nehemiah is the next leader in the rebuilding of Jerusalem to show up in scripture. Ezra has taken a remnant back to begin the work, but they haven’t made a lot of progress. They have dealt with the distraction of sin and the walls were still in ruins. And now, Nehemiah learns of that situation as Hanani comes and gives him the report. “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”.
Nehemiah is in the capital of the kingdom and is cup bearer to the king – a place of high honor and responsibility in the kingdom. His job is to protect the king from those who may desire to kill him. Now as he hears these words, his heart breaks. “As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven”. Nehemiah knows that without the walls the people are unprotected and at risk. This is a serious situation and his concern is overwhelming.
So what does he do after recognizing their situation and how grave it is? He prays. He intercedes on behalf of his people. “O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel”. Nehemiah is consumed by the situation. He can’t just say a passing prayer. He is desperate to bring God’s hand upon the situation.
He too like Ezra is “confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Even I and my father’s house have sinned. We have acted very corruptly against you and have not kept the commandments, the statutes, and the rules that you commanded your servant Moses”. He is a high ranking official in a far away place and yet carries the burden of sin for his people. That is true intercession and leadership. But he also confidently calls on God to “be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name, and give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man”. He knew the power of prayer and lived it!
Ezra 10 has the prophet in quite a mess. The people had married foreign women against God’s direct commandment not to. They were in complete disobedience to God. “Ezra prayed and made confession, weeping and casting himself down before the house of God, a very great assembly of men, women, and children, gathered to him out of Israel, for the people wept bitterly”. Ezra as leader takes that sin and disobedience on himself and intercedes for the people. He realizes the gravity of the situation and seeks to make it right with God.
As he sets that example, he is surrounded by the people. This is a difficult thing, and yet people were drawn to his transparency and heart to get right with God, even if it was uncomfortable and certainly not fun. They came in droves and joined him in repentance. One of the leaders suggested doing more, “Therefore let us make a covenant with our God”. So they go beyond confession to repenting and making a covenant with God to correct the error of their ways.
They are going to correct the disobedience. Ezra agrees with the plan and says “Arise, for it is your task, and we are with you; be strong and do it”. He delegates the action to those in leadership around him and gives them the responsibility to communicate the plan and follow up with the action. Meanwhile Ezra “was mourning over the faithlessness of the exiles”. Ezra continues to do his task of intercession and seeking God’s forgiveness and mercy. He delivered the message of sin, and then allowed his leaders to work the plan to deal with it.
The plan included having everyone come to Jerusalem to hear the covenant and requirements. But the weather was bad as there was heavy rain, and it made it very challenging. So the plan came up to have “our officials stand for the whole assembly”. Don’t you love it when the masses want the leaders to stand in and take their place? Everyone wants to be a leader until there is a cost, then they flee quickly. So these guys stood in place before God as people corrected the sin they had committed and fulfilled the covenant that had been made. It is always much harder to undo sin than to commit it. This was quite a process for Ezra to lead his people through.
Ezra 9 has the prophet discovering that his remnant of people are off the path and “have taken some of their daughters to be wives for themselves and for their sons, so that the holy race has mixed itself with the peoples of the lands”. This is sin in Ezra’s time. God had specifically told His people not to intermarry with those who worshipped other gods. Ezra discovers what is going on when his officials came and told him, and he immediately begins to intercede. We can learn what it looks like for a leader to intercede for his people right here.
Check out what Ezra does as soon as he learns of this sin. “As soon as I heard this, I tore my garment and my cloak and pulled hair from my head and beard and sat appalled”. He immediately took action. He did it publicly and very obviously. This was a huge transgression before God and Ezra begins to work immediately to put the relationship back in place. But he extends the effort beyond himself as the key leader. “Then all who trembled at the words of the God of Israel, because of the faithlessness of the returned exiles, gathered around me while I sat appalled until the evening sacrifice”. He brought together all who feared God and were willing to join in making things right.
There was no blaming anyone else. There was no finger pointing. There was no deflection of the sin. Ezra confesses, and includes himself in that confession. “Our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has mounted up to the heavens. From the days of our fathers to this day we have been in great guilt”. Real leaders take responsibility for how their people act even when they are not involved at all. Bottom line is that Ezra is going to lead them to a restored relationship with God, beginning with confession and understanding of the sin they have committed (again).
He recalls the truth that they’ve been down this road before and it didn’t end well. Sin never does. There are not only consequences from the action directly, there is a long tail of pain because we violate God’s mark for us. Ezra says “we have forsaken your commandments” and knows that there will be a break in the relationship with God. That is what sin does – it creates a chasm between us and God. They had worked their way back to God and “for a brief moment favor has been shown by the Lord our God, to leave us a remnant and to give us a secure hold within his holy place, that our God may brighten our eyes and grant us a little reviving in our slavery”. Ezra doesn’t want to lose the progress that has been made. So he is on his face before God and confessing the sin of his people, and seeking God’s mercy and grace. Now he has to lead them to change their behavior and follow God.
Ezra 8 begins with a list of the heads of fathers’ houses and the number of men that were going to go with Ezra from Babylon. There are multiple lists in Ezra, and this one is similar to the one in chapter three. There is no exact number known, but estimates are that between 5,000 – 9,000 total people were going to make the trip as the lists capture the names of the family heads but don’t define the numbers in each family. No matter the exact count, it was a lot of folks leaving to go along.
The commentaries call out one name as most remarkable, that of Hattush the son of Schechaniah. It says “Beyond any reasonable doubt, he was the descendant of David (1 Chronicles 3:22), through Shemaiah; and he was Zerubbabel’s great-great-grandson.” So there was at least one on the list with a very strong genealogy to the past. Ezra has assembled a strong team to go with him. As they prepared to go, Ezra “proclaimed a fast there, at the river Ahava, that we might humble ourselves before our God, to seek from him a safe journey for ourselves, our children, and all our goods”.
Ezta was hesitant to ask the king for soldiers. “I was ashamed to ask the king for a band of soldiers and horsemen to protect us against the enemy on our way, since we had told the king, “The hand of our God is for good on all who seek him, and the power of his wrath is against all who forsake him.”” He didn’t want to say one thing and then go to the king acting like they didn’t trust God to do what they had said He would do. “So we fasted and implored our God for this, and he listened to our entreaty”. They fasted and prayed and put their words into action and trusted.
Ezra sets apart 12 priests and asked them to guard the funds that they were taking with them. And they headed out. God was faithful. “The hand of our God was on us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambushes by the way”. God is always faithful. That is His nature and character. They arrived safely in Jerusalem and offered burnt offerings to God and delivered the king’s letter and “aided the people and the house of God”.
Ezra 7 has King Artaxerxes sending Ezra off to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. “Ezra….. was a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses….the king granted him all that he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him”. God had selected Ezra to be at the center of restoring His people and the city of Jerusalem. So Ezra found favor with the king because “the good hand of his God was on him”. Ezra is being blessed. God has a plan for Him.
But beyond God’s hand being on him, “Ezra had set his heart to study the Law of the Lord, and to do it and to teach his statutes and rules”. Ezra was making a choice to walk with God and to follow His law. He was disciplined in his ways, and not only was learning it himself but teaching it to others. The king was all in and said “I make a decree that anyone of the people of Israel or their priests or Levites in my kingdom, who freely offers to go to Jerusalem, may go with you”. As Ezra prepares to head to Jerusalem, he gets the full support of the king. God’s hand is truly on Ezra.
But it wasn’t just allowing the people to leave, but also sending money, lots of it with him. “With this money, then, you shall with all diligence buy bulls, rams, and lambs, with their grain offerings and their drink offerings, and you shall offer them on the altar of the house of your God that is in Jerusalem. Whatever seems good to you and your brothers to do with the rest of the silver and gold, you may do, according to the will of your God”. Ezra has the green light to take what the king has and use it to worship and honor God. The leader is in all the way, leaving it up to Ezra to execute.
But it goes even further. The king tells him “those who do not know them, you shall teach”. Ezra is to instruct people in God’s ways. And further “Whoever will not obey the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be strictly executed on him, whether for death or for banishment or for confiscation of his goods or for imprisonment”. We see a leader who is bought into serving God. Educating the people, investing all the money, and enforcing how people were to live, it was all put in Ezra’s domain. Ezra is up for the task and says “I took courage, for the hand of the Lord my God was on me, and I gathered leading men from Israel to go up with me”. He is going to go get things done!
Esther 10 is three short verses about two things: taxes and Mordecai. The first is not one of my favorite things. I really dislike paying tax. I know it is something that must be done, and God instructs us to do that. Jesus was clear we need to give to Caesar’s what is his, and to God what is His. But I still struggle with the desire. King Ahasuerus imposed a tax. He did this for the well-being of his kingdom. And it is what funded the “acts of power and might” that were carried out by his number two – Mordecai.
So who is this man Mordecai who rose from sitting at the king’s gate to being second in command in the kingdom after nearly being killed by Haman. Mordecai lived in Susa and had adopted his uncle’s daughter – Esther – who went on to become queen. He raised her as if she were his own daughter and guided her as she was considered as the replacement to Queen Vashti who lost favor with the king. Mordecai also saved the kings life by uncovering and reporting a plot by a couple of his key men that planned to kill the king.
But the big story came as Haman was preparing to hang Mordecai in gallows he had prepared by his house. God directed a switcheroo and Haman ends up being the one hanged, along with all his sons because the king is reminded by God of Mordecai’s efforts to save him. Scripture tells us in this chapter that “Mordecai the Jew was second in rank to King Ahasuerus, and he was great among the Jews and popular with the multitude of his brothers”. He was a leader of leaders and a man who walked closely with God.
The final chapter has Mordecai undoing the edict to kill all of God’s people and turning the tables to kill all their enemies. God blesses the Jews as they face their enemies and they destroy them by the tens of thousands on the day that originally had been set to wipe out God’s people. Quite an irony to say the least but it is how God works. Scripture tells us that Mordecai is popular for two reasons:
- “he sought the welfare of his people
- He spoke peace to all his people.”
Want to be someone others will honor and follow – put them first and lead them well. That is what Mordecai did!
Esther 9 really shows how God is truly in control of all things. “Now in the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar, on the thirteenth day of the same, when the king’s command and edict were about to be carried out, on the very day when the enemies of the Jews hoped to gain the mastery over them, the reverse occurred: the Jews gained mastery over those who hated them”. There was a plan to kill all the Jews. The king had been deceived by Haman to issue that edict. God, through Esther, is turning over those plans and now, on the very day the destruction was to take place, the tables are turned and the opposite occurs.
God placed Esther in the role of queen for such a time as this. She carefully and respectfully followed the counsel of Mordecai to influence the king to change the plan from killing her people, to protecting them. “All the officials of the provinces and the satraps and the governors and the royal agents also helped the Jews, for the fear of Mordecai had fallen on them”. God used Esther and her place of prominence to bring justice to evil and also to place a godly man in control of the kingdom. It wasn’t enough to defeat evil at that time, but to place a man in charge that would continue to protect God’s people.
“Mordecai was great in the king’s house, and his fame spread throughout all the provinces, for the man Mordecai grew more and more powerful”. He came to power because of God’s design, and Esther’s obedience to follow God’s direction through Mordecai. This could have ended very differently had Esther not been willing to trust God and approach the king. But because she did, “the Jews struck all their enemies” and destroyed them. They went from the hunted to the hunters and from being removed from the kingdom to being in control. What a change because a woman believed she was in a place for such a time as this.
Mordecai doesn’t take credit for what has happened. He removes the evil and then reminds all God’s people that there needs to be a feat and holiday to remember God and what He has done. He obliges them to keep this day and remember it “as the days on which the Jews got relief from their enemies”. It was a time to celebrate God’s protection and faithfulness to His people. Haman and his evil men had planned things for evil, but God took those things and turned them for good. He brought His people together under a godly leader in Mordecai and an influential and powerful queen in Esther and took care of His people through their leadership.
Esther 8 has the tables being turned now that Haman is gone. The king gave Esther “the house of Haman” and brought Mordecai in after Esther explained who he really was. And the king took off his signet ring, and gave it to Mordecai. Esther made Mordecai the head of what used to be Haman’s house. So what had been intended for evil – hanging Mordecai and getting rid of the Jews – was not only stopped but God turned things completely around and puts Mordecai into the place Haman had for years, the number two man in the kingdom.
But there was one remaining piece of evil that remained – the edict Haman sent to kill all the Jews. “Esther spoke again to the king. She fell at his feet and wept and pleaded with him to avert the evil plan of Haman the Agagite and the plot that he had devised against the Jews”. She took another risk by going to the king without being summoned. It worked the first time, so she probably thought it would be a safe thing to do, but it was still potentially a life ending decision on her part. But she asked the king to “let an order be written to revoke the letters devised by Haman”.
The king receives her and the request well and gives the queen and Mordecai the authority to “write as you please with regard to the Jews, in the name of the king, and seal it with the king’s ring, for an edict written in the name of the king and sealed with the king’s ring cannot be revoked.” That is a pretty big concession considering just a while previous the king had empowered Haman to do the same thing. But God gave favor to Esther and they sent out a letter sealed with the signet ring the king had given Mordecai to leave the Jews alone.
The letter went out by courier to all 127 provinces from India to Ethiopia. It was sent to the leaders in each one. And a copy was to be displayed publicly for all to see. Mordecai is now the man in charge right below the king. There was celebration everywhere. And scripture tells us “the Jews had light and gladness and joy and honor….feast and a holiday”. What a story of trusting God and being obedient as He leads. The story would have ended very differently had Esther not seized the moment for such a time as this. Mordecai wisely counselled her, but she had to take the risk to be obedient and take advantage of the opportunity God gave her to change history. We need to walk as God leads. He is in control of all things!