I want you to keep in mind everything that I have talked about thus far as you read about the next thing Nehemiah taught me. I ask this because what I'm about to talk about seems (on the surface) to run counter to everything I've said thus far. But, the fact is: it's all Nehemiah's story; that is, Nehemiah sets us an example that presents us with what I call a "both/and" scenario, not an "either/or" situation. And this is the tension of leadership: how to balance grace and truth; how to challenge others to deeper devotion to God while at the same time acknowledging one's own need for mercy and grace. So, at the outset, I'd like to "set the record straight": do not even think about the "truth" side of leadership, without first understanding your need for grace. With that in mind, read on...
What happens when leaders don't lead
It began with just a small reference, but as I read further I discovered that the tiny anomaly was one of the major themes in the book of Nehemiah.
In chapter 3, Nehemiah details the commencement of work on the wall. Structurally, the chapter records how this work was organized. Verse one tells us that a certain group of people “went to work and rebuilt the Sheep Gate.” Verse two tells us the men of Jericho built the section next to that. Verse three tells us who rebuilt the Fish Gate. Verse four: who worked next to them—and next to them—and next to them. So far, so good. Nehemiah has everyone tracking with the work. But verse five comes and nestled in the middle of all this positive progress is one “small” exception:
“The next section was repaired by the men of Tekoa, but their nobles would not put their shoulders to the work under their supervisors.”
I find it interesting that the only people cited as not lending a hand were the leaders, the nobles. Kind of ironic, since one would expect leaders to…you know…um…lead the way in…um…”lending a hand”.
I found myself thinking, “What on earth are you doing? Why don’t you get your butt in gear and help out?” But, I tucked that little thought aside and read on, until I came to chapter five.
There, we read how the community’s leaders failed the people again: they were exploiting the poor. Nehemiah writes:
“Now the men and their wives raised a great outcry against their Jewish brothers. Some were saying, ‘We and our sons and daughters are numerous; in order for us to eat and stay alive, we must get grain.’
“Others were saying, ‘We are mortgaging our fields, our vineyards and our homes to get grain during the famine.’
“Still others were saying, ‘We have had to borrow money to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. Although we are of the same flesh and blood as our countrymen…we have to subject our sons and daughters to slavery. Some of our daughters have already been enslaved, but we are powerless, because our fields and our vineyards belong to others.’
“When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. I told them, ‘You are exacting usury from your own countrymen!’ So I called together a large meeting to deal with them.”
My, that took some guts—confronting your own leaders! And, as if that isn’t enough, Nehemiah records what he said to them, and when he gets done we read that the nobles and officials “kept quiet, because they could find nothing to say.”
A few notes about this, before I move on to the end of the story:
1. It’s sad. Think back: long ago, during the time of Moses, God rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. And for a time the Israelites were free. But, because they turned their backs on God, they went into slavery again. Now, during the time of Nehemiah, they were released from slavery by a “pagan” king, but then they enslaved one another once again with their greed and abuse of power. If it is true that it is for freedom that God has set us free (Gal. 5:1), then this turn of events in the story of God’s people is the greatest tragedy of all.
2. And, notice once again, the irony: the leaders—those whom you would least expect—were the perpetrators of this gross injustice.
Bear with me, but there is one more part to tell in the story: Nehemiah continues recording the events surrounding the rebuilding. In chapter six, we read of three men: Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem. These three men led the way in persecuting the Israelites during the rebuilding. Eventually, the conflict grew so intense that the Israelites had to work with their sword at their side. They also had to organize themselves in such a fashion that the people would be protected at night from invasion. It was a pretty intense affair. Eventually, Tobiah even got to some of Israel’s own leaders to join him in opposing the rebuilding. In chapter 6, we even read that many of Israel’s prophets were persuaded to oppose Nehemiah. Notice, once again, the theme: leaders gone bad. Now: Remember the intensity of this conflict and remember that Tobiah was one of the Big Three who spear-headed the opposition. Remember this because the crisis of leadership gets even worse!
After the wall was completed, Nehemiah appointed two men to take charge of the gates of Jerusalem. These two men were to see that the gates remained secure. In chapter seven, we are told that one of the men charged with this responsibility was Hananiah. Most significantly, we are told that Hananiah was selected “because he was a man of integrity and feared God more than most men do.”
I love that. Though it is important that we select leaders because they can “get the job done” and perform their work skillfully, it is more important that we select leaders because they are “people of integrity” and they “fear God more than most people do.” Nehemiah has it right (and let me just say that I can REALLY identify with that). But, before we go into this too deeply at this point, let’s finish the story.
Okay: the wall is finished. The Israelites celebrate. The entire Torah is read over the course of seven days, while the Israelites observe the Feast of Booths like never before. On the last day of the festival, the Israelites assemble, wearing sackcloth and covered in ashes, a sign of their sorrow for sin and of their desire to repent.
During this time, the Israelites rededicated themselves to observing the laws of God. Among other specific things, they said they would once again bring offerings to the temple and provide portions of their provisions for the priests. They also rededicated themselves to observing the Sabbath. Finally, the Israelites vowed to cease marrying their sons and daughters to people who did not believe in the One, True God. After all, that’s what started all their troubles in the first place.
Remember: generations before this, Solomon had several “pagan” wives. Through that, the Israelites were introduced to foreign gods and were tempted to follow those gods. After Solomon relinquished the throne, his son Jeroboam began worshipping Ashtoreth, Chemosh, and Molech—gods of Sidon, Moab and Ammon. From then on, the history of Israel reads like a soap opera: God’s people oscillating between worshipping God and worshipping other gods. In the end, idolatry proved to have too strong a grip on God’s people so, like a father who loves his children but knows they must be punished, God sent the Israelites into exile. A little more than a generation passed, during which the Israelites experienced slavery once again. But God, in his great mercy, set them free once again.
So Nehemiah—knowing the Israelites have gained their freedom only by God’s grace—encourages the Israelites to follow God’s ways by not giving leave to temptation again. And, in his mind, the best way to avoid the temptation to worship foreign gods is to refrain from marrying the people that worship those foreign gods. After all, that’s what started this whole mess in the first place.
So, at the end of Israel’s great feast, the Israelite’s rededicate themselves to walking in God’s ways once again. And Nehemiah appoints leaders once again, to encourage the Israelites to remain faithful to these commitments.
Thinking that all was restored and in order now, Nehemiah then goes back to Babylon. He is away for some time, but returns to Jerusalem to find the unthinkable—the people are wavering from their previous commitments. And it distresses him greatly.
For starters, he finds out that Eliashib, a man he put in charge of the temple, provided a room for—guess who? Tobiah. Yes, “Bad Guy No. 1” of the triumvirate of evil. Yes, Tobiah was living right there IN THE TEMPLE! And, what’s more, he had moved out many of the sacred articles and replaced them with his own household goods! The audacity!
And not only that, but Nehemiah found that the people were ignoring the Sabbath observance.
And not only that, but the people were not bringing their offerings to the temple.
And not only that, but the people were not making provision for the Levites.
And not only that, but the people were marrying others that worshipped false gods.
All I have to say is: OH MY GOODNESS! WHAT THE HECK ARE YOU PEOPLE DOING?!!! ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR FREAKING MINDS?!!!
And that’s just what Nehemiah said--um, sort of. In chapter thirteen we read how Nehemiah himself threw Tobiah and all his belongings out of the temple. Then, he gave orders to purify the rooms and put everything right again.
Next, he enforced the measures they previously instituted to make provision for the Levites. And, once again, Nehemiah appointed some men to oversee this. In chapter 13 we read he selected these particular men “because these men were considered trustworthy.” Notice once again the only qualification Nehemiah lists for leadership: trustworthiness.
After this, Nehemiah appoints people to help the Israelites resist the temptation to desecrate the Sabbath. Again, it’s interesting that in verse 13 we read that the people who were leading the way in this desecration were Israelite leaders. Once again, Nehemiah had to “rebuke the nobles of Judah”. And this is what he said to them: “What is this wicked thing you are doing—desecrating the Sabbath day? Didn’t your forefathers do the same things, so that our God brought all this calamity upon us and upon this city?”
Because of this: “When evening shadows fell on the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I [Nehemiah] ordered the doors to be shut and not opened until the Sabbath was over.” And, he selected leaders to help with this: “I stationed some of my own men at the gates so that no load could be brought in on the Sabbath day.” Yet, in spite of that, the nobles still tried to do business on the Sabbath. But, their plans were thwarted: “Once or twice the merchants…spent the night outside Jerusalem.”
Now: you’re gonna love this. When Nehemiah confronted the people for marrying those who worshipped foreign gods, he even grew so impassioned that he “beat some of the men and pulled out their hair.”
He made them take an oath that they would repent and he reminded them how even Solomon, in all his wisdom, acted foolishly in this matter, causing the Israelites to stray from their whole-hearted devotion to the One, True God.
With that, Nehemiah’s story concludes on kind of an eerie note. He purifies the priests and Levites once again, and sets things right. But he concludes his record with a prayer that he repeated several times throughout the book, asking God to “remember him” for his faithfulness, for his efforts to do the right thing, to put in place honorable men to lead Israel with fidelity and perseverance. Nehemiah’s story is a story of one leader’s tireless efforts to find and empower other leaders to help God’s people do the right thing.
The only problem with that is: Nehemiah discovers it’s difficult to find even ONE honorable, faithful, persevering leader.
Question: What is one to do when one can’t even look to what are supposed to be one’s leaders for basic leadership? What is one to do when those who should be leading others in the way of devotion, swerve and sway in their own basic devotion? Where is one to turn?
Nehemiah turns to God, and pleads with God to “remember him.” Perhaps this is Nehemiah’s way of saying, “God, you see that I’ve tried. You see that I have even risked my own life and reputation to remind leaders to do the right thing. Please remember me. Please have mercy on me and please move among your people. Please God, raise up an army of faithful men and women to lead the way in whole-hearted devotion to You.”
Having said that, I’ll put this in some blunt terms now. Brace yourselves, because I fear what I’m about to say might sound offensive to some, but I’m going to say it, anyway, because I think it needs to be said. So, here goes:
I’m sorry to say but Nehemiah was the only one who had the guts to do what was right.
Think about it:
In chapter five, during the rebuilding of the wall, he confronts the leaders.
Then, just before leaving for Babylon, after the wall’s completion, he confronts the leaders again and tries to restore faithful leadership.
Then, upon return, he has to confront them again. This time, he is so zealous for God that he personally throws Tobiah out of the temple; then he personally tells the merchants: ‘if you keep hovering at the gate like that, trying to desecrate the Sabbath, I will personally come down there and kick your butt myself!’; then, he gets in a cat-fight with guys who have all the self-control of a bitch in heat. They’re so horny they’ll take any girl who comes along, even if she could not care less about following Israel’s God. And, Nehemiah, seeing that there isn’t a single leader around who cares enough to do anything about this (the greatest tragedy of all tragedies), decides to model what’s needed: unwavering passion for God and his people. He puts his own life on the line for the sake of God.
I’m sorry to say: that’s leadership, folks. You do what it takes, even if it hurts you, even if you’re the only one who will stand up and do or say what’s right. Sadly, rarely have I seen this kind of leadership displayed in the church of today. More often leaders nowadays negotiate and compromise, bargain and barter, refusing to confront sin when it needs to be confronted. True, we do need to learn the art of balancing truth and grace, but many times I find we actually give out “ungrace” in the name of “grace”.
See, God in his graciousness, will not let us continue limping along, flirting with disaster. He longs for us to walk in His ways, because to do so is to walk in grace. It’s because of God’s grace that he comes to us and says, “Um…let’s work on this, shall we?” If God didn’t care, if he wasn’t gracious, he would say: “Oh, well, that’s okay. You can just keep on doing what you want to do. Go ahead, play with fire, it won’t hurt you.” You see? It’s because God cares that he has to confront us, challenging us to greater devotion to him, warning us of sin’s effects. At the end of the day, the leader who will not lovingly challenge sin is the leader who doesn’t care.
Let me bring this to a head now. Leaders: the world needs you to lead! By all means, do your job! Grieve over sin! Plead for God’s mercy! Stop abusing your authority, thinking of your position as an entitlement. It isn’t. It is a privilege. But, it isn’t going to be easy. You’ve got to use your authority to serve. And the world needs you to lead the way in devotion to God. Stop trying to play both sides. You can’t serve two Masters. And, if you see that others are swerving, come to their side; walk the journey with them; and when your traveling companions even think about walking another way, warn them. Don’t beat around the bush. Just tell it to them, straight. And when you see someone actually walking on a different path, shout to them or else they may not hear you. Oh, you don’t have to literally shout, but at least make it ‘loud and clear’ that something needs to change or someone will get hurt. Plead with people to plead for mercy, just as you plead with God to have mercy on you. And keep pleading with people to follow God and not look back, no matter the cost.
And, if you look around and see that the ones who are supposed to be leading the way aren’t leading the way, pray to God. Ask God to send you some people who will really lead, who have the balls to warn people of sin and challenge others to greater devotion to God. But, if God doesn’t answer that prayer right away, if you suddenly find yourself alone in doing the right thing, ask God for strength to do what needs to be done, even though no one else is doing it. Yes, pray to God. And don’t stop asking God to grant you his strength, because, believe me, you’re going to need it like crazy.