Learning from the OT Leaders : Nehemiah – A Cupbearer and A Reformer

Series: General | Title: Learning from the OT Leaders : Nehemiah – A Cupbearer and A Reformer | Sermon by: Pastor Balan Swaminathan | Location: House of Intercessory Prayer Ministries, Halifax, NS Canada | Date: Sunday February 04, 2018

Nehemiah – A Cupbearer and A Reformer

Another great leader from the Old Testament is Nehemiah.  This sermon will focus on this great man of God and the leadership qualities that the Bible teaches about Nehemiah.  As we know the history of God’s children in the land of Babylon – children of Israel were taken as captives in the year 605 BC to Babylon by king Nebuchadnezzar.  They lived in the captivity for 70 long years and God orchestrated the return very well and he did everything in a supernatural way.

  • The first batch of captives returned under the leadership of Zerubbabel in the year 538 BC. God stirred up the mind of a king by name Cyrus to build the temple of God and he released Zerubbabel to go back to Jerusalem so that he could start the building work.
  • The second batch of exiles were released 80 years after the return of the first batch of the children of Israel. This happened in the year 458 BC under the leadership of Ezra, a scribe and priest.  Under his leadership the second batch of the children of Israel returned to Jerusalem from Babylon.
  • 14 years down the line since Ezra brought the second batch of exiles, the third batch of exiles were returning to Jerusalem from Babylon in the year 444 BC. God called a man by name Nehemiah to bring the remnants of the children of Israel who were left in Babylon to bring them back to Jerusalem.

Quick run-through of the book of Nehemiah

There are 13 chapters in the book of Nehemiah, in this Scripture reading there will be a quick run-through of these chapters.

Nehemiah 1:1-4  The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah.  It came to pass in the month of Chislev, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the citadel, that Hanani one of my brethren came with men from Judah;  and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped, who had survived the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem.  And they said to me, “The survivors who are left from the captivity in the province are there in great distress and reproach.  The wall of Jerusalem is also broken down, and its gates are burned with fire.” So it was, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned for many days;  I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven. 

Chapter 1

In those days, the wall of the city was extremely important.  A city without a wall is vulnerable to the attack of the enemy at any point of time.  The citizens of a city without any wall is the same as no citizens without any protection – they are not safe.  The Bible says that when Nehemiah heard the report, he sat down and wept for several days.   He was mourning, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.  All that was told to Nehemiah was that the wall is broken down.  The children of Israel who returned from the first and second batch are not doing good, they are not very safe as the wall is broken down.  When Nehemiah heard about this, he was crying to God.

Chapter 2

In Nehemiah Chapter 2, the Bible says that Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king.  Many kings in those days were poisoned by people who serve the kings.  Because of that reason, the kings wanted to appoint someone who is trustworthy and here we see King Artaxerxes appointed Nehemiah as a cupbearer.  Nehemiah is not just a cupbearer; he is in a powerful position – it is the same as being a prime minister of that nation.  One fine morning, when Nehemiah came with a cup of wine, the king asked him why his face looked so sad.  You are not so often, but something is wrong with you.  The king realized that it is not a physical sickness, but it is the sickness of the heart.  Nehemiah was scared when he heard this from the king and said, “May the king live forever! Why should my face not be sad, when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies waste, and its gates are burned with fire?” He says he was very sick in his heart when he heard this message.

The king asked Nehemiah – “What is it that you want?” Nehemiah then silently prayed in his heart before answering the king.  He then asked to be sent to the city of Judah.  Nehemiah is in Babylon serving a foreign king and he is asking him to send him back to his nation because the nation is buried.  He wants to rebuild the walls.  The Bible says that God worked in the mind of king Artaxerxes and it pleased the king to send Nehemiah.  Nehemiah now arrived in the city of Jerusalem and he spent three nights just to see the condition of the wall and he found that all the walls were ruined, shattered and brought to the ground.  Nehemiah challenged the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.  The scriptures say, at the end of Chapter 2, as he challenged, they all come in agreement and said – Let us rise up and build the wall.  They set their hands on the job immediately.

Chapter 3

Here the building work started, each group was assigned a specific job and a specific section.  They built the gates, repaired them and they started building the wall, making repairs and finding all the gaps.

Chapter 4

As we move further to Chapter 4, there is a lot of opposition from the people living there.  First of all, there was opposition from the people who were ungodly, who did not follow the God of Israel.  When they heard that the wall is being restored, there are a couple of names that the word of God mentions – Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites – they all came to Nehemiah to fight against the Jews who were already in the business of building the wall.

The enemies did not like the progression of God’s work.  Do you think he likes it today?  They were against Nehemiah.  Nehemiah had to protect the work of God.  The Bible says he protected the work of God by two means:

  1. He was praying against all the oppositions that were against them.
  2. He set watch against them day and night so that nobody can destroy the building work that Nehemiah had started.

Chapter 5
(Discouragement from their own people Nehemiah 5:1-5)

There is a great discouragement among their own people as they were building the wall.  The builders were discouraged.  There was opposition from non-believers and now there was opposition from their own people.  Their fellow Jews became cruel task masters, they were not paying money for the work that they were doing.  The people who were involved in building the wall had to mortgage their houses and pledge their land for food.  They did not have anything to eat and had to sell their houses.  They borrowed money to pay high taxes.  The Bible says they sold their sons and daughters to slavery, so that they can pay the heavy taxes that were laid on them.  Nehemiah was angered and he spoke to the authorities and told them not to charge any interest.  He even  demanded them to return their property to the building workers so that the building work of the Lord can be continued.

Chapter 6
A trap was set to kill Nehemiah

If you go further to Chapter 6, people set traps to kill Nehemiah.  Non-Jews and enemies laid traps – Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites they all conspired together to kill Nehemiah.  They arranged for a discussion to kill him.  Nehemiah realized this and replied that he could not come in for a meeting during the building of the wall.  It was not an ordinary meeting; it was a time when Nehemiah would have been killed had he gone to attend it.

Tobiah and Sanballat even hired prophets to prophecy to Nehemiah asking him to come to the temple of God.  Nehemiah, a man of God, with such great discernment in his mind, understood that it is not from God.  Not all the prophets are from God.  He escaped.

False Accusation

There were false accusations against Nehemiah by the non-Jewish enemies.  He was accused of trying to become a King over them, that is the reason he came from Babylon to Jerusalem.  But in the midst of all this, the work of God was completed.  The Bible says the wall was completed in 52 days.  It did not take a long time.  History says the length of the wall is four thousand eighteen meters – around 2. 5 miles.  The average height is 12 meters – 40 feet.  The average thickness is around 2. 5 meters.  We can imagine the size of the wall.  The wall contained 34 watchtowers and 8 gates.  Such a huge work was done in 52 days.

Nehemiah came to Jerusalem;  appointed people and they were all in agreement in the midst of opposition and built the wall.  The enemies of the Jews knew that it is the work of God and it is the hand of God that they cannot stand against.

  • Nehemiah went ahead and started registering all the people those who came from exile and called the priest Ezra.  Nehemiah 7:5
  • He asked Ezra to read the Word of God – the book of the Law in front of them.  Nehemiah 8:2, 5-6
  • They started observing the feast of tabernacle – the feast of the Old testament.  Nehemiah 8:17
  • People started confessing their sins. Nehemiah 9
  • People made covenants and ordinances before God.  Nehemiah  10
  • The land was divided and disturbed among all the 12 tribes. Nehemiah  11
  • Sabbath was brought back in order. Nehemiah  13:15, 19
  • Nehemiah stopped the inter-marriages and brought purity to marriage.  Nehemiah  13:23-25

Its all happening under the leadership of Nehemiah.  The wall was dedicated finally.  There was great joy in the city.

Chapter 13

The sabbath is brought back in order.  Similarly bring the sabbath back in your life too.  Sunday is the day for God and sometimes we need to work.  But try your level best to keep that day aside for God.  God will honor you.  After all this hard work Nehemiah went there and the Bible says in Chapter 13 verses 15 and 19, he brought back the sabbath.  If that was not important Nehemiah would not have done it.  He has done such a thing that pleases God and God expects us to honor Him.  At times we may not be able to go to Church on a Sunday, but we need to try our level best.  If you pray eagerly and earnestly saying, Lord somehow give me freedom to worship you on Sunday.  I’m sure God will do that.  Can you start praying about it? It is such a blessing to set this day aside for God and to stand and be found in the presence of God.

Nehemiah finally put a stop to all the inter-marriages.  There were inter-marriages between the godly and the ungodly people and Nehemiah put a stop to everything.  He did not neglect the cry of his own people.  He had boldness to stand before the king and to represent his own nation.  He was bold enough to ask him for permission to go back because his people needed him.

He prayed to God and God favored Nehemiah.  There were ridicules, mockeries, confusion and misunderstanding, yet in the middle of all this Nehemiah was very keen for the job that God has called him for.  God has called you to this nation as a missionary, there is nothing else apart from that.  If you have come to this nation with all the efforts, you have come to this nation as a missionary.  Because this nation needs God.  Nehemiah was willing to listen to the voice of God.  There were attacks and lands and houses were taken for mortgage, but he could get them back for his own people.  Finally, when the work of God was accomplished God’s law was brought back in the government, sacrifices and offerings started in the temple of God, the temple of God started functioning on the Sabbath day and we see everybody rushing to the temple of God, and inter-marriages were stopped.  Everything was brought back to normal.  There was great joy in the city.  Can you imagine when people start serving God and the government turns to God, God brings great joy in the cities of God.

That is what we need today.  You and I have a responsibility in this nation, we are here like Nehemiah.  God wants us to build something in this nation.  We are talking about the great leader Nehemiah, who was concerned about the spiritual condition of the people.  He did not just come to build the wall.  His main objective was to bring that nation back to God.

Nehemiah – though his position was a cupbearer, he was also a Jewish reformer.  These are the three main leadership qualities of Nehemiah:

  1. Leaders take the initiative – it is always “I”

    There is no record of God calling Nehemiah and asking him to do the work of God.  Nobody called him to do it, of course the call of God was upon him.  But Nehemiah started it: in the first and second chapters we can see the number of times Nehemiah said “I” – Nehemiah says,

    • “I asked them concerning the Jews”
    • “When I heard these words that I sat down”
    •  “I was fasting and praying”
    • “I pray”
    • “I have sinned”
    • He surrendered himself to God as “Your servant”, he is coming to God and says, “Lord look at me, I am your servant.
    • “I was the king’s cupbearer”
    • “I had never been sat in the presence before”
    • “I became dreadfully afraid”
    • “I said to the king – I may rebuild it”
    • “I went to the governors”
    • “I came to Jerusalem”
    • “I arose in the night”
    • “I went out by night”
    • “I went on the fountain gate”
    • “I went up in the night by the valley to view the wall then I said to them come and let us build the wall of Jerusalem so they said let us rise and build it”

    How many “I”’s?  Leaders take the initiative.  As a leader, at times we are not asked, but we are expected to do it.  Do you know the difference?  Nehemiah was such a great leader, he was not asked to do it, but he took the initiative.  Good leaders take the initiative and say, “I will do it”.  Paul says in Philippians 3:14 “I press towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus”,  and he again says in verse 13 “I can do all things through Christ Jesus”.  Nehemiah is not boasting by saying “I”.  But he is saying that I just want to do it for God.  Nehemiah took the burden and the risk on himself because leaders take the initiate.

    The question that we need to ask is – are we taking certain steps that God wants us to take? Or are we hiding behind others? Good leaders take the initiative and we know that we are all called to lead.  We are all called to lead somebody or are called in leading something.  Leading families, workplace, church, etc.  Are we taking the initiative?  There are burdens, ideas, desires that God has put in our heart.  Where are those things?  Are they buried somewhere?  We are waiting for somebody to tell us to do what we need to do.  Good leaders have to take the initiative.

  2. Good leaders handle opposition.

    Nehemiah had to handle numerous oppositions before he built the wall.  At times it is not easy, every time they were advancing, they had a setback.  Every time they went a step forward, they were brought back by two steps.  That is how it is going to be in our spiritual walk with God.  How many of you wanted to walk with God?  How many of you took a covenant at the beginning of the year?  How many of you decided to follow their new year’s resolution?  We want to move one step forward, but we are pushed back every time.  This was the same in Nehemiah’s life as well.  Sanballat, Tobiah, the Arabs, the Ammonites, and the Ashdodites – they mocked Nehemiah.  They ridiculed him saying that even if a fox walks on the wall, the wall is going to fall down.  The fellow Jews were very discouraged because they lost everything and were struggling to even pay taxes.  Nehemiah was falsely accused of trying to become a king over them.  But that was not the situation.  Nehemiah was so burdened, and his heart was broken because he was not trying to become a King.

    As a great leader he wanted to do the work of God, he was able to handle the opposition.  Do we handle opposition today?  If nobody is really opposing us, we need to worry about what we do.  Something is wrong if we do not face opposition.  We need to have opposition because it does great things in our lives, it disciplines us, rectifies us, corrects us and makes us the vessels God wants us to be.  Sometimes we face opposition within our family, in our workplace, there is opposition in sharing about Christ, and there is opposition within our self.  There is opposition from the devil – some say they keep hearing voices, and bad dreams that keep them awake at night, I am so afraid and confused, I don’t know how to move forward.  Remember this, leaders don’t move behind and neither do they stand and stare at the opposition, they move forward.  Great leaders know how to handle opposition, they walk away from those things as if nothing happened.  Think about our Lord Jesus Christ, he faced so many oppositions while He was on this Earth.  The gospel of the kingdom suffers opposition in various parts of the globe.  Nehemiah handled the oppositions in a great manner and got the job done.  Whatever kinds of opposition you may face, think about Nehemiah and set your eyes on Jesus and move forward.

  3. Leaders drive towards spiritual.

    Great leaders don’t work for fame in this world, they work in the name of reaching souls to eternity.  Great leaders do not work for popularity, they are eternity minded like Nehemiah.  All the effort that Nehemiah invested from talking to the king, viewing the broken wall three nights, walking around the city, raising people to support the work and handling all this opposition – not for material gain.  His objection was not to become the king.  He was not running a political campaign.  Nehemiah was building the right surroundings for the children of God so that they can start following God.  Great leaders drive things around them with a spiritual mind.

    Today whatever we do for our children, let us have that spiritual mind so that we will know if we are able to lead them to Christ by doing what we are doing.  When Nehemiah built the wall, he ensured physical protection, but now he worries about their spiritual protection.  Now when we do all this for our children and don’t tell them about Christ, eternity and the eternal punishment, everything will go to waste.  People were made to listen to Ezra read the book of the Law.  The book was found somewhere in the debris, it was dusted off and brought in front of the people and Ezra started reading it.  The feast of the tabernacle was brought by children of Israel.  They confessed their sins and said that the reason they were captives is because they walked away from God, did not observe Sabbath and they said that they will never do it.  Temple responsibilities were assigned, somebody was in charge of the house of God.  Some were responsible for the offerings, some as gatekeepers, some for cleansing and the purification of the church.  Some were called to serve God Almighty.

    Nehemiah started purifying the house.  He went into the temple and he did something similar to what Jesus did in the temple of God.  Nehemiah found that people had allowed their uncovenanted relatives into the temple.  Remember this is the Old Testament and it is important for anyone who is ungodly to walk into the temple of God.  But that is not true in the New Testament, we need sinners at the church today to worship God.  We need the ungodly people to worship God, they need Christ more than us to wash away their sins.  In the Old Testament days, the ungodly could not enter the temple of God but the people allowed everybody in.  Eliashib the priest, who was allied with Tobiah had a large room with a big round table and this man was occupying the place.  Nehemiah threw everything out of the temple of God.  He also noticed that many people were making money by selling things, he rebuked them, warned them and threatened them to not enter the temple of God.  Today our life is the temple of God, we need to be against everything that defiles our life.  Nehemiah said to the people – if you don’t fear God, at least fear me.  He was very strict and rude.  Seeing the ungodly things happening in the temple angered him.  He also learned that some Jewish people married non-Jewish people, Nehemiah contended with them, he cursed them, slapped them, he pulled their hair and he even pulled their beard.  Why?  Because he had such a great zeal for God.  God speaks to us here.  Do we have the zeal for the house of God?  For the word of God?  He even made them to swear to never give their children in marriage to non-Jewish people again.  He brought the purity.  Great leaders drive towards the spiritual, not just building the wall but there were so many other things that needed to be accomplished.

    Nehemiah did not come just to build the wall.  Building the wall was the first thing, but once that is done, he started leading people to God.  God wants us to lead people to Christ.  Building the wall helped people to serve God.  It is about bringing the right surrounding to God.  We should be willing to change the surrounding in order to bring the people to God.  If we don’t invite people, they cannot hear.  Nehemiah was building the wall around so that people can have the right environment to worship God.  Whatever it may be, it may be good sound, good lighting, air conditioning, heating system – so that people can come to Christ.  Nehemiah was not hesitating to do all these things and he was not satisfied until the wall was built.  God wants us to lead people to Christ.  Leaders are willing not just to build wall, but to drive people to God once the wall is built.

The life of Nehemiah speaks to us.


  1. Leaders take initiative, it is always “I”
  2. Leaders handle opposition
  3. Leaders drive towards spiritual

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