He was one of the Bible's greatest leaders. A man of action who took on the incredible task of rebuilding ancient Jerusalem. He was dedicated. Wise. A zealous man who saturated himself with prayer. In all of this he helped set the standard for godly leadership. And yet you probably know nothing about him. He was Nehemiah.
Indeed, his Old Testament book reads like the memoirs of a pastoral leader and politician par excellence. In it Nehemiah tells how, with God's help and blessing, he went about rebuilding the city of Jerusalem and renewing her people. It is a spirited, first-person account of spiritual renewal. Yet Nehemiah can equally be read as a testimony to God's involvement with man. Using a Bible-study approach J. I. Packer looks at how Nehemiah led the people and how God led Nehemiah—all to ultimately build up His Kingdom. Through this book you will discover a model for revival in your own church.
A Passion for Faithfulness should be read by church and business leaders for its in-depth look at Nehemiah's example in these particular arenas. But anyone who thirsts for God and a sense of His presence in their everyday responsibilities will also be inspired by this book. Whether you're a stay-at-home mom trying to raise godly children or an employee who longs for God to make Himself real in even the most mundane task, this book will be a trusted help and a welcome reminder of God's desire to be involved in every facet of your life.
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I like him; he was a construction man," the old Texan housebuilder told me. I was glad to hear him say it, for, frankly, I like Nehemiah too, and I hope when I get to heaven I shall be able to meet him and tell him so. What I would like him to know is that during the half-century that I have been a Christian he has helped me enormously, more perhaps than any other Bible character apart from the Lord Jesus himself. When at nineteen I began to wonder if God wanted me in the professional ministry, it was Nehemiah's experience that showed me how vocational guidance is given and set me on the road to being sure. When I was put in charge of a study center committed to outflanking and defusing liberal theology, it was Nehemiah who gave me the clues I needed about leading enterprises for God and dealing with entrenched opposition. When after that I became principal of a theological college that was in low water, it was once again Nehemiah whose example of leadership showed me how to do my job. Since what you can see you can also say, when I have been asked to speak on vocation and/or leadership I have often taken my hearers on a trek through parts of Nehemiah's story. Naturally one has warm feelings towards those to whom one is indebted, and I am very deeply indebted to Nehemiah; no one should wonder, therefore, that now I regard him as a particular friend.
Nor am I the only one so to regard him. A book published in 1986 began like this:
The details of my first meeting with him are hazy in my mind. God sent him to me during my early university years to help me overcome some formidable challenges. He has been a close companion ever since....
Nehemiah put his very being into his journal, which is incorporated into the book we now call by his name. As I read I can feel his heartbeats, sense the trembling of his fingers, know the heaviness of his groans.... What wisdom he had! And how he drummed the basic lessons of leadership into me! I have forgotten none of them and have gone back to him time and again for reassurance.
As a medical student I had a special need of him. He was a leader. And so, whether I wanted to be or not, was
I.... I became, in a relatively short time, the national chairman of British Inter-Varsity.... During this period Nehemiah comforted and instructed me.... I chose to expound the book of Nehemiah at the first Latin American Fellowship of Evangelical Students.... Nehemiah became a sort of patron saint of the new movement — or at least a guiding light to young student leaders facing the awesome task of evangelizing a continent....
As one responsibility replaced another, I continued to be fascinated and instructed by the life and words of this man of action. And as I grew older I gleaned more from him. It was the man, not the book, that held me.... He has become my model for leadership.
When first I read these words of John White, I laughed out loud, as sometimes one cannot help doing in face of the delightful things that God does. John White and I are almost contemporaries and have several things in common (a British Inter-Varsity nurture; British genes tied to Canadian citizenship; an evangelical theology, a pastoral constraint, and a call to authorship; plus homes in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia). But not till 1986 did I know that we shared a parallel relationship with Nehemiah. The paragraphs quoted, however, take words right out of my heart. I wonder how many more there are who have been mentored by Nehemiah in this way.
Yet Nehemiah does not appear in everyone's list of favorite Bible characters, and that, I guess, is for at least two reasons. To start with, many Christians know very little about him. Their Old Testament reading is sketchy at best, and the book of Nehemiah is one that they never go near. Knowing that Nehemiah is not mentioned in the New Testament, they infer that he is not important, and so take no interest in him. If they were told how strong is the case for bracketing him with Moses, as the re-founder under God of the nation that God used Moses to create, they would be surprised.
Moreover, some of those who know something about him have formed an unappealing image of him that keeps them from taking him seriously as a man of God. They see him as a rather savage person who habitually threw his weight about and would never have been pleasant company under any circumstances at all. They note the imprecations in his prayers — "Give them over as plunder in a land of captivity. Do not cover up their guilt or blot out their sins from your sight" (Neh. 4:4-5; compare 6:14 and 13:29, where "remember" means "remember for judgment"). They observe that on at least one occasion he cursed and beat some of his compatriots and pulled out their hair (13:25). They conclude that he was hardly a good man; certainly not a man of great spiritual stature, from whom precious lessons can be learned.
What is the appropriate comment on such an estimate? First, there was indeed a rough edge to Nehemiah; there is to most leaders. In terms of the classic four temperaments, he appears to have been a choleric, a robust, restless, forthright man who was happiest when plowing energy into a challenging project and who found it easier (as we say nowadays) to do than to be. People of that sort are often found frightening, particularly when their zeal leads them, as sometimes it does, to speak and act in a way that is excessively emphatic. But, second, horses for courses; God had prepared Nehemiah for a task that a less forthright man could not have done. And, third, Jesus' cleansing of the temple and denouncing of the Pharisees was rougher than anything recorded of Nehemiah; if we think that Jesus' violence was justified, we should grant the possibility that Nehemiah's was too. I shall say more about this in the appropriate place.
I do not, however, contend that Nehemiah was sinless. I should be foolish to the point of blasphemy if I did. Jesus Christ is the only sinless person whom we meet in the Bible story; he is the only sinless person there ever was. All the rest of God's servants have been fallen creatures, sinners saved by grace, and sometimes their sinfulness shows. Whether Nehemiah had red hair I do not know, but he certainly had a red-headed intensity about him that expressed itself in a somewhat un-Christlike ferocity of style. This was the defect of his quality, the limitation that went with his strength. Every servant of God fails one way or another to be flawless, and Nehemiah was no exception to that rule. Yet his strengths were marvelous; so I hope that no one will lose interest in him simply because we have agreed that he was not perfect.
What special strengths do we see in Nehemiah? Three, at least. First, he is a model of personal zeal — zeal, that is, for the honor and glory of God. As he says in one of his prayers, he is one of those "who delight in revering your name" (1:11), and the strength of his passion to magnify the Lord is very great. Such zeal, though matched by Jesus and the psalmists and Paul (to look no further), is rarer today than it should be; most of us are more like the lukewarm Laodiceans, drifting along very cheerfully in becalmed churches, feeling confident that everything is all right, and thereby disgusting our Lord Jesus, who sees that, spiritually speaking, nothing is right (see Rev. 3:14-22). The rough language of our Lord's threat to spit out the Laodicean church — that is, to repudiate and reject it — shows that zeal for God's house still constrains him in his glory, just as it did on earth when he cleansed the temple (Jn. 2:17). Back in the days when God used his own people as his executioners, not only in holy war with pagans but also in the disciplining of the church, Phinehas the priest had speared an Israelite and his Midianite whore together, and God through Moses had commended him for a zeal that matched God's own: "he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them ... tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him ... because he was zealous for the honor of his God" (Num. 25:11-13). As God himself is zealous, so must his servants be.
Are we clear what zeal is? It is not fanaticism; it is not wildness; it is not irresponsible enthusiasm; it is not any form of pushy egoism. It is, rather, a humble, reverent, businesslike, single-minded commitment to the hallowing of God's name and the doing of his will.
A zealous man in religion is pre-eminently a man of one thing. It is not enough to say that he is earnest, hearty, uncompromising, thorough-going, wholehearted, fervent in spirit. He only sees one thing, he cares for one thing, he lives for one thing, he is swallowed up in one thing; and that one thing is to please God. Whether he lives, or whether he dies — whether he has health, or whether he has sickness — whether he is rich, or whether he is poor — whether he pleases men, or whether he gives offence — whether he is thought wise, or whether he is thought foolish — whether he gets honour, or whether he gets shame — for all this the zealous man cares nothing at all. He burns for one thing; and that one thing is, to please God, and to advance God's glory.
Zealous folk are sensitive to situations in which God's truth and honor are in one way or another being jeopardized, and rather than let the matter go by default they will force the issue on people's attention in order to compel if possible a change of heart about it — even at personal risk. Nehemiah was zealous in this sense, as we shall see, and his zeal is an example to us all.
The second strength that we find in Nehemiah is pastoral commitment: the commitment of a leader, a natural mover and shaker, to compassionate service for the needy. A leader is a person who can persuade others to embrace and pursue his or her own purpose; as (I think) Harry Truman once expressed it, the leader's business is to get other people to do what they do not want to do and to make them like doing it. One is only a leader if one is actually followed, just as one is only a teacher if others actually learn from one; so to be a leader, one has to be able to motivate others. But then one is in danger of becoming a dictator, using one's persuasive power to manipulate and exploit those whom one leads. Nehemiah, however, was not like that. He was no more a dictator than he was a doormat; he did not ride roughshod over people any more than he allowed people to ride roughshod over him. As he expressed love for God by his concentrated zeal, so he expressed love for neighbor by his compassionate care. He consciously shouldered responsibility for others' well-being: he saw the restoring of Jerusalem as a welfare operation, no less than an honoring of God, and he took time out at least once from the building of the walls to help the poor (see 5:1-13), in addition to permanently forgoing his right to claim support from those he governed (5:14-18).
Nehemiah slips a number of his prayers into his memoirs, and some of these have generated puzzlement. "Remember me with favor, O my God, for all I have done for these people" (5:19, following the account of his social service) is a case in point. More such "remember me" prayers appear in 13:14, 22, 31. What goes on here? we ask. Is Nehemiah aiming to build up a merit balance in God's ledger? Is he asking to be justified by his works? Not at all. He refers to what he has done simply as a token of his integrity and sincerity in ministry, a proof of his genuineness as a servant of the servants of God — in other words, as evidence of his living out the pastoral commitment of which I have been speaking.
The third strength that Nehemiah displays is practical wisdom, the ability to make realistic plans and get things done. From this standpoint, Nehemiah's memoirs constitute a crash course in managerial skills. Once he has succeeded in exchanging his comfortable life as a high-level palace lackey (royal cupbearer) for the problematical role of governor of Judah, with malcontents constantly yapping at his heels as he seeks to rebuild and reorganize Jerusalem, we see him rising to the challenge of every situation with truly masterful insight and ingenuity. We watch him securing a safe-conduct and chits for building materials from the king; organizing and overseeing the building of the wall; arranging Jerusalem's defenses while the building went on; defusing discontent and averting a threatened strike within the work force; maintaining morale till the job was done; conducting tricky negotiations with both friend and foe; and finally imposing and reimposing unappreciated rules about race, temple services, and Sabbath observance. Nehemiah's headaches as top man were many, and the sanctified versatility with which he handles all these things is wonderful to watch.
And his achievements were as outstanding as his gifts. He rebuilt the ruined wall of Jerusalem in fifty-two days, when nobody else thought it could be rebuilt at all. He restored regular temple worship, regular instruction from God's Law, serious Sabbath keeping, and godly family life. He was the true re-founder of Israel's corporate life after the exile, following the relative failure to restore it during the previous hundred years. He takes his place, by right, as it seems to me, with the greatest leaders of God's people in the Bible story — with Moses and David and Paul. Nehemiah was a truly marvelous man.
Yet Nehemiah himself would be the first to rebuke me if I left the matter there, for he knew, and insists in his book, that what he accomplished was no mere human achievement and would be misunderstood if it were treated as such. The prayers for help with which he punctuates his story show where he believed that his strength lay, and where on a day-to-day basis he looked for support (see 1:4-11; 2:4; 4:4, 9; 6:9). His references to what God "put in [his] heart" (2:12; 7:5) show where he thought his vision and wisdom came from. And his statement "the wall was completed ... in fifty-two days ... our enemies ... realized that this work had been done with the help of our God" (6:15-16) really says it all. "Don't give me the credit," protests Nehemiah in effect; "what is done through human agents like me is done by God, and he must have the praise for it." I agree, and I hope my readers do too. Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be glory)!
What makes a man of God is first and foremost his vision of God, and it will help us to know Nehemiah better if at this point we look at his beliefs about God, as his book reveals them. I assume, as must by now be obvious, the unity of the book as a product of Nehemiah's own mind. We have already seen that its core is the personal memoirs of this man of action (chapters 1–7 and 13), to which has been added what reads like an official record of the inaugural exercises of worship in restored Jerusalem (chapters 8–12). The list of builders in chapter 3, the census list of chapter 7, the signatories list in 10:1-27, and the lists of residents in and around Jerusalem, with priests and Levites, that fill chapters 11:3–12:26 are the kind of material that nowadays would be put in appendices; but the ancient way was simply to incorporate everything in the text. The natural guess is that, like a modern politician who suspects, or hopes, that he belongs in future history books, Nehemiah devoted some part of his retirement to composing what is in effect his political testament and personal testimony rolled into one; and to this end he drew on the journal he had kept during his years as a public figure, plus official sources to which, as an ex-governor of Judah, he had direct access.
Ezra's book, on this view, would naturally then have been written as a companion volume, to link Nehemiah's achievement with what had preceded since the end of the exile.
However that may be — and none of it, I grant, can be proved for certain — Nehemiah's book is a unity, and we are not therefore wrong to proceed on the basis that by writing chapters 8–12 into his text Nehemiah endorsed and made his own all that they declare about God and his ways, even if he did not originally draft them.
What Nehemiah gives us from his journal tells us, as Matthew Henry the Puritan put it, not only about the works of his hands but also about the workings of his heart; in fact, it tells us almost more about the latter than about the former. But the workings of Nehemiah's heart in faith and prayer and hope and confidence and acceptance of sanctified risk and waging spiritual war against what we can recognize as demonically-driven discouragements and distractions all express and reflect his knowledge of God. And this began for him, as it must for everyone, with knowledge about God: the conceptual knowledge that we call theology. Theology, meaning truths about God in the mind, is not the same thing as a relationship with God, as the orthodoxy of the devils demonstrates (see Jas. 2:19). But without true theology, though there may be a strong sense of God's reality (as in Hinduism and animism and the New Age), entry into the covenant bond whereby we know that God is truly and eternally ours is not possible. So, if we want to come close to Nehemiah and enrich our relationship with God from his, we must get a grip on his theology.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "A Passion for Faithfulness"
Copyright © 1995 J. I. Packer.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Preface to the Series, ix,
Prologue: Church-Building, xi,
1 Meet Nehemiah, 29,
2 Called to Serve, 51,
3 Man-Management I: Getting Going, 69,
4 Man-Management II: Keeping Going, 91,
5 Tested for Destruction, 113,
6 Times of Refreshing, 139,
7 Back to Square One, 169,
Epilogue: Two Imposters, 199,
Scripture Index, 219,