Further Observations on Work from Nehemiah

(Note: This article was published on The Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog.)

I listened to the book of Nehemiah on the way to and from the town my wife and I recently moved from. I heard several things that grabbed my heart in this great story that highlights the connection between God’s presence and human work, which I call Immanuel labor. Let me summarize some new insights that will supplement what I wrote in a previous article on my blog and in my book.

Here are the topics I will discuss below:

  • Nehemiah was a spiritual leader, even though he was not in full-time ministry
  • Nehemiah was a man of prayer
  • God led Nehemiah to lead this great restoration project by putting ideas in his heart

Spiritual leadership at work

In the first chapter of this book, we meet Nehemiah. We don’t know anything about him. We are told in verse 1 that this book is in his own words. Right away, in verse 2, we see his leadership in action.

He asks his brother and some men about the Jewish remnant that returned to Jerusalem from their long exile. He learns that “those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace” (Neh. 1:3). The wall around the city and its gates were completely destroyed.

This devastating situation affected Nehemiah deeply, who reports that he “sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed” (Neh. 1:4). His heart was broken, which began to move him in the direction that Yahweh called him to get directly involved in repairing the broken wall.

This spiritual leader who God was working in to prepare him for this great work was an ordinary worker. The fact that Nehemiah is the cupbearer to the king was left to the end of the first chapter to set up the narrative by showing that it would be God’s power that was going to get this job done.

As this story develops over the next few chapters of this great book, we will see God begin to use this ordinary man as His co-worker to lead the Israelites to complete this project under His mighty hand. The team will stay focused on the task as long as Nehemiah stays focused on God, which he does.

Supplication and praise

As was mentioned above, one of Nehemiah’s first responses to hearing the news of the wall was to pray (Neh. 1:4-11). Nehemiah illustrated his spiritual leadership primarily by being a man of prayer. This first of several prayers that we will read starts with praise for God’s covenant love, then leads to confession of personal and national sins, followed by supplication asking for favor from the King. We see a variety of prayers offered by Nehemiah listed in Neh. 2:4-5, 4:4, 4:9, 5:19, and 6:9.

Brother Lawrence, a 17th century monk who is described in the classic book, The Practice of the Presence of God was someone just like Nehemiah in that he found it easy to pray. In one recorded conversation, he had stated quite simply “All we have to do is to recognize God as being intimately present within us. Then we may speak directly to Him every time we need to ask for help, to know His will in moments of uncertainty, and to do whatever He wants us to do in a way that pleases Him.”  

I read this book early in my Christian walk. So, I often send up a short prayer at work as needed like Nehemiah did with the king. As I head from the parking lot to my building, I pray that God will lead me and give me wisdom. Sometimes I pray audibly when I am alone in my office. I may shoot up a quick silent prayer in a meeting when my temper starts to rise. I confess my sins when I see them. I take time to praise God when He enables me to accomplish a challenging task. There are always plenty of opportunities throughout the day to connect with God.

I think Nehemiah had a sense of God’s presence modeled after David, the man after God’s own heart. (See 1 Sam 13:14.) He understood what David had said in Ps. 16:11, “you will fill me with joy in presence” when he proclaimed to the Israelites that “the joy of the Lord is your strength” (Neh. 8:10). 

Sensitivity to God’s leading

Because Nehemiah was gifted and called to be a spiritual leader and because he remained close to God in prayer, he was able to sense when God was leading him, whether it was something great or small. Nehemiah sought the Lord daily. He acted on God’s promises to lead him. (See Ps. 32:8.)

In Neh. 2:12, we get a first glimpse of how Nehemiah got his marching orders. He describes a secret recon mission after dark to scope out the damage to the walls around Jerusalem that he took with a few men. He did not reveal his true purpose for this tour. What drove him that night was that God had put it in his heart to become part of the solution to the overwhelming problem that his people faced.

I found a similar situation in Neh. 7:5. After the wall had been completed (see Neh. 6:15), Nehemiah gave credit to Yahweh for calling him to take on a follow-on project. He wrote that “God put it into my heart” to assemble the exiles who had returned and compile a list of those who lived in the city. This alludes to God’s command to be fruitful and increase in number (Gen. 1:28) and His promise to Abram that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars (Gen. 15:5).

Although OT believers were not indwelt with the Holy Spirit in the same way as NT believers are, Nehemiah did have God’s Spirit working in his life. God spoke to him as He speaks to us today.

I want to challenge Christ-followers to remember God’s dealings with Nehemiah. We cannot be just like him, but we can be spiritual leaders by becoming men and women of prayer. We can relate to God in the same way. We can seek God’s heart and let Him lead us through changing ours. When we do those things, expect God to do a “great work” in us, with us, and through us, for His kingdom.

(Note: I invite you to read a short article, published on the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics blog, that highlighted a discussion I had about Nehemiah from a radio interview that I did in January 2021.)

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 41 years, father of three, grandfather of five, and author of the bookImmanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. Russ received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth minister. He served 20 years on active duty. Russ works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. Since 2015, he has written 180 articles on faith and work topics. Ninety of these have been published on several Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, The Gospel Coalition, and Christian Grandfather Magazine. (See complete list of published articles on Linktree.)

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