Leaders in Israel
Both Ezra and Nehemiah are examples of great leaders who were dedicated to God and to fulfilling the tasks that the Lord had called them to do. Their love for God inspired in them a desire to be faithful servants. In fact, their faithfulness has been a central part of our study.
This week we will look at examples of leadership found in the Bible, including the examples of Ezra and Nehemiah. These are not exhaustive lessons, for sure, as there are many more that could be discussed. However, the lessons that were chosen are essential for any leader. You may not consider yourself a leader at this specific time in your life, but we all have influence with some people; therefore, the lessons are applicable to everyone.
Central to the story of these leaders is the Word of God. The Word transformed their thinking and life and resulted in the whole program for revival and reformation. They were totally indebted to God’s Word and His instruction that they found in it. In the same way, no matter who we are, and whatever our role is, we must keep the Word of God central to how we live as Seventh-day Adventist Christians.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, December 28.
All through the Bible, we can find examples of leadership, both good and bad, and sometimes even a mixture of both. Bad leaders, at times, have done some good things, while good leaders, at times, have done some bad things. After all, all leaders are human beings and, as such, are capable of both good and evil, of doing right and wrong. Who hasn’t experienced this reality in their own lives?
The problem, however, is that when you are a leader, you exert great influence, either for good or bad. It’s bad enough to be a negative influence in your own home or workplace or wherever your presence is felt. But when you are in a leadership position, be it spiritual, political, or both, the influence is greatly multiplied. How crucial then that in whatever your role, but especially as a leader, you reflect the principles and teachings of Scripture.
Rehoboam (1 Kings 12:1–16)
Peter (Acts 15:7–11)
Josiah (2 Kings 23:1–10)
Deborah (Judg. 4:1–16)
Ahab (1 Kings 21:1–16)
1 King 15:26, 34
2 Kings 13:1–3
It is a sobering thought to many of us who hold positions of leadership in any capacity that our leadership has the potential to bring people down or up spiritually. And, in all the cases here, the effect was devastatingly negative.
More specifically, our character and dedication to Christ make a difference to those with whom we interact. Spiritual leaders influence others, either toward God if they themselves seek God, or toward evil if they do not.
In contrast to what we have seen today, the fact that Ezra and Nehemiah had a strong relationship with God is undeniable. The amount of fasting and praying that is recorded in these books about Ezra and Nehemiah exceeds what the Bible reports for other great leaders. The nation was walking with God under their leadership, even if everything wasn’t perfect. Their direction in life was toward God. On the other hand, the fact that there were those who were not impacted or changed by the influences of Ezra and Nehemiah testifies that no one else’s faith but our own ultimately makes the difference for us. After all, look at the people who had the chance to see Jesus in the flesh, to hear Him preach, and even to witness or hear about His miracles, and yet who in the end rejected Him. Yes, we have a role to play, whatever our position in life is, and we can be an influence for good or evil. But in the end, each person will have to answer for himself or herself before God.
Nehemiah stood up against their enemies, who tried to intimidate the Jews. Nehemiah responded by taking the initiative to get the people ready to fight. Nehemiah did not just say “All right, God, You do it all.” Instead, he had the people do their part. They picked up swords and other weapons while at the same time working to build the wall. The Jews, under the leadership of Nehemiah, did not cower in fear, but rather boldly picked up arms to defend themselves. Nehemiah encouraged the people, believed in them, worked with them, and gave them the responsibility to act. He empowered them to do the work as he delegated and assigned responsibilities. However, Nehemiah didn’t just tell the people what to do and then go to hide in his room. He stood alongside them and did the hard work that needed to be done.
There are times in the Bible when God told people to stand still and watch Him fight, and then there are many other instances when God said, “Prepare to act, and I will give you victory.” We must do our part if we want to see God’s deliverance and blessings.
“In Nehemiah’s firm devotion to the work of God, and his equally firm reliance on God, lay the reason of the failure of his enemies to draw him into their power. The soul that is indolent falls an easy prey to temptation; but in the life that has a noble aim, an absorbing purpose, evil finds little foothold. The faith of him who is constantly advancing does not weaken; for above, beneath, beyond, he recognizes Infinite Love, working out all things to accomplish His good purpose. God’s true servants work with a determination that will not fail because the throne of grace is their constant dependence.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 660.
In the end, Nehemiah drew his courage from his understanding of the reality and power of God. And yet, as we have seen, his knowledge of God caused him to act in accordance with his faith.
In all that they did, Ezra and Nehemiah were seeking to see God’s will done in the lives of His people. Yes, the people had messed up; yes, they were punished for it. But God, faithful to His promises of restoration, opened the way for His people to return to the Promised Land and, if faithful, to fulfill the goals that He had set for them. And the Lord, in His wisdom, chose two very dedicated men, men somewhat in the likeness of Moses, to play a central role in this restoration, just as He had used Moses generations earlier for a special task, as well.
Great leaders like these two men have a goal. They have a purpose for living that drives their every action. It could be said that both Ezra and Nehemiah had a purpose in life. They had a vision of where they wanted the people of God to be, and then they put everything into accomplishing the goal.
Ezra did this through studying the Scriptures and teaching the people the Word. Nehemiah encouraged the people to do what was right and to stand up boldly for God. Both men wanted to see a restored Jerusalem, but not just a material restoration. They also wanted to see a revival and reformation in the spiritual lives of its inhabitants. That is why they corrected, reproved, and sometimes demanded a certain course of action. Great leaders believe in something greater than the ordinary and the mediocre. Ezra and Nehemiah believed in a loving, powerful God, a God who could do miracles—and they wanted everyone to have a deep connection with Him.
Beginning with the first chapter of Nehemiah, the reader is impressed by Nehemiah’s dedication to God’s cause and also his distress over the plight of his people. In chapter 1, he weeps when he is told of the hardships of the Israelites in Judah. He gets on his knees and pledges to do whatever God calls him to do. Nehemiah appears to be driven by the idea of making a difference in the world. He was a man of action, action for God. It was not by making the highest salary or having the preeminent position that Nehemiah chose to make a difference (although he had both in Persia), but by going to Judah, to a not-so-prosperous nation, with opposition at every step. He stepped out in faith, regardless of the obstacles before him.
Sometime later, Nehemiah accepted the king’s entourage for protection. But in Ezra’s instance, he believed that God could show Himself best if they did not ask anything of the king. Thus, when they reached Judah without harm, it was attributed to their God. Perhaps in certain situations, we may rely too much on other people and not enough on letting God show Himself. Ezra chose to let God do the work in this situation and proved to the king that indeed God was a powerful God. However, Ezra didn’t act with presumption. He called the people together, and they fasted and prayed over the situation. They didn’t engage in their journey until they had spent serious time with God. They came before God humbly, requesting that His protection become a sign of His power, and God answered.
True leaders must be willing to humble themselves and be servants. Competent leaders do not require or need a “title” to gain honor. Nehemiah had his doors open and generously gave to the people. He demonstrated his faith in God, and his incredible dedication to God was an example to the people. He had a strong personality and a nononsense temperament, but he didn’t put himself above anyone else as superior. He had the highest position in the Jewish nation at that time, and yet he was unstinting. In this way, he reflected the life and teachings of Jesus, who taught us that the best way to lead is to serve others. Jesus did it, and thus we, regardless of our position, are to do the same.
Further Thought: Read Ellen G. White, “The Privilege of Prayer,” pp. 93–104, in Steps to Christ.
“The work of restoration and reform carried on by the returned exiles, under the leadership of Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, presents a picture of a work of spiritual restoration that is to be wrought in the closing days of this earth’s history. The remnant of Israel were a feeble people, exposed to the ravages of their enemies; but through them God purposed to preserve in the earth a knowledge of Himself and of His law. They were the guardians of the true worship, the keepers of the holy oracles. Varied were the experiences that came to them as they rebuilt the temple and the wall of Jerusalem; strong was the opposition that they had to meet. Heavy were the burdens borne by the leaders in this work; but these men moved forward in unwavering confidence, in humility of spirit, and in firm reliance upon God, believing that He would cause His truth to triumph. Like King Hezekiah, Nehemiah ‘clave to the Lord, and departed not from following Him, but kept His commandments. . . . And the Lord was with him.’ 2 Kings 18:6, 7.”—Ellen G. White, Prophets and Kings, p. 677.