Nehemiah, the ancient wall builder of Jerusalem, often finds himself far down the list of favorite Bible personalities. That’s understandable. There is much to commend the more popular names of Abraham, Paul, David, Peter, or Moses. But Nehemiah deserves to be in the conversation, too. Consider some of his admirable traits.
We are introduced to Nehemiah’s compassion for his people early in the first chapter of the book that bears his name. Though his hands were full being cupbearer to the Persian king (Neh. 1:11), he longed to know the welfare of his kinsman hundreds of miles away. “I asked them concerning the Jews who escaped, who had survived the exile, and concerning Jerusalem” (1:2). When he learned of their poverty and “great trouble” (1:3), his response reveals his heart. “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” (1:4). Great servants are moved by the circumstances of their fellow man.
Several times in the book of Nehemiah we find references to his prayers: when he was moved by the news of Jerusalem’s broken wall (1:4); when he stood before the Persian king with an open door to request help with the rebuilding of the wall (2:4); when the workers faced ridicule (4:4); and when they discovered an enemy’s plot to disrupt their work (4:9). Other references to his prayers are found in 5:19; 6:9, 14; 9:6-38; 13:14, 22, 29, 31. In the context of every major decision and activity in the book, Nehemiah prayed about it.
What undergirded Nehemiah’s work was an unwavering trust that God would bless him as long as he sought God’s glory and lived with proper respect for his will. Note these expressions of faith: “The God of heaven will make us prosper, and we his servants will arise and build” (2:20). “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes” (4:14). “In the place where you hear the sound of the trumpet, rally to us there. Our God will fight for us” (4:20). Great servants do not trust in themselves, but in the God who made them.
Nehemiah faced no small amount of opposition to his work. Chapters 4, 5, 6, and 13 attest to that. But Nehemiah did not cower before those who wanted nothing less than the complete destruction of him and his work. One example of his courage in chapter six involved a plot to ruin his reputation and thereby stop the people from following his leadership. His enemies wanted to make him afraid and trick him into entering the temple in violation of the law by having a false prophet convince him that he could only save his life from a murderous plot by hiding in the temple (6:13). Hear his response: “But I said, ‘Should such a man as I run away? And what man such as I could go into the temple and live? I will not go in’” (6:11). A more courageous man would be hard to find. Great servants do not shrink in the presence of difficulty.
Zealous for God’s Glory
This may be Nehemiah’s greatest trait. Three times he encouraged the people to complete the wall of Jerusalem so that their enemies would have no reason to ridicule them as followers of God (2:17; 4:4; 5:9). His desire for success grew out of his desire for upholding the reputation of God. The underlying reason that he wanted Jerusalem to be once more “beautiful in elevation, the joy of the whole earth” (Psa. 48:2) was his desire to see God praised. Great servants are servants who are motivated, not by personal agendas, but by a sincere desire that God be praised, honored, and glorified.
Today’s Christian would do well to emulate the good characteristics of this unsung hero of scripture: compassionate, prayerful, trusting, courageous, and zealous for the glory of God.