It was the hour for serving wine, and I knew the king would be waiting. But I couldn’t shake off the depression that enveloped me like a shroud. I couldn’t pretend to be happy.
I fulfilled my responsibilities, serving his wine as I always did. I believe in carrying out my duties cheerfully, so this depression was in marked contrast to my usual upbeat attitude. But despite my attempts to hide my mood, the king noticed.
“What is it?” He bellowed, staring down at me from the height of his royal throne, wine chalice halfway to his lips. “You aren’t sick, are you? Or depressed?”
A Great Leader is Bold
The king’s attention agitated me even more. I had hoped to return to my room and brood in private, but the emotions I’d been harboring welled up and spilled over; a tsunami of words I couldn’t stop.
“Long live the king! And why shouldn’t I be depressed when the city, the place where all my family is buried, the city gates have been reduced to ashes?” I trembled at my own boldness, but there was no way of halting my anguished response.
The king looked surprised. “So what do you want me to do about it?”
I imagine my dour presence dampened his enthusiasm for wine. His power was absolute and his word carried the authority to slay or save, free or enslave. Little wonder my heart was hammering like a runaway horse!
Praying under my breath for courage and for the king’s favor, I took a chance and plunged ahead. “If it please the king and the king thinks well of me, send me to Judah, where my family is buried, and allow me to rebuild it.”
The king, with the queen beside him, grew suddenly thoughtful. “How long will it take you to do this building project? When will you return?”
I gave him a time frame for the project and waited, heart knocking.
But praise of all praises, the king approved!
Somehow, in spite of my nervousness, I found the courage to press ahead with another request. I had gotten this far. Why not go a step further? “If it please the king, provide me with letters to the governors throughout my route authorizing me to travel. And could you also send a written order to supply me with the timber I’ll need?”
The Lord’s favor was with me and the king not only granted all my requests. He even provided a cavalry escort!
A Great Leader Exercises Discretion
I arrived in Jerusalem, but I knew enemies were everywhere and I needed to be discreet. Keeping quiet about my intentions, I waited three days, then selected a few trustworthy men. Under cover of darkness, we crept to the gate overlooking the walls of Jerusalem, which had been nearly destroyed. I took note of all that was ruined and all that would need to be rebuilt. When I had completed my assessment, we moved like shadows in the dark, slipping back to our rooms before sunrise.
The locals had no idea what I’d been up to. I hadn’t breathed a word to the Jews, priests, nobles, local officials or anybody else. I called a meeting and sprang it on them all at once, telling them they needed to face facts. Jerusalem was a mess, its gates burned up, and I gave them a detailed report outlining what needed to be done.
A Great Leader Builds Enthusiasm
As I presented the facts, I was filled with passion and resolve. “Let’s build the wall of Jerusalem and refuse to live under this disgrace! God supports this mission and we have the backing of the king himself!”
The town’s leaders were electrified! They gave me their 100 percent support! We weren’t without opposition, though. Some of the officials from other regions mocked us and asked us what we thought we were doing. But I had gotten this far and wasn’t backing down. I shot back at the naysayers, “Our God will make sure we succeed! We’re going to rebuild, and you get no say in the matter. It’s none of your business!”
A Great Leader Recognizes and Uses The Abilities of Others
As excited as I was about this project, I knew I couldn’t oversee every phase of it myself. I decided to delegate the work and let different groups be responsible for their own portion of the rebuilding. That way, each group could take ownership and have a vested interest in the outcome. With such a monumental task before us, there was something for everybody to do. The leaders of each building team rallied their workers and generated a lot of enthusiasm.
When some of our enemies heard about the rebuilding, they unleased a torrent of hateful criticism and tried to humiliate us into quitting. Other critics were emboldened to join in with their own negativity and discouragement.
“If a fox climbed that wall it would crumble. You’re living in a dream world, acting like you can make building stones out of thin air.” Their taunts were childish and endless, indicative to me of small minds and petty jealousies.
A Great Leader Is Not Discouraged By Opposition
I continued to pray, and we continued to ignore their threats and taunts. I have to hand it to the people of Jerusalem. They had a heart for the work! We kept at it, repairing and rebuilding until the wall was soon halfway to its intended height. When our enemies heard that construction was going so well they were furious. Instead of giving up, they hatched a plot to attack us and stir up as much trouble as possible.
I did two things at this point. I prayed, and I set up round-the-clock guards. The Jews were getting nervous and their hysterical cries became a constant refrain. “Our enemies have us surrounded! They’re going to kill us!”
I stationed armed guards at the most vulnerable places. Then I tried to put their minds at ease by telling them, “Don’t be afraid! Have faith in our awesome God, and then be ready to fight for your families and your homes!”
We went back to work and from then on we had half the young men working and the other half standing guard. Military officers served as backup. You’ve never seen anything like it! The laborers had a tool in one hand and a spear in the other! I kept a trumpeter close by in case I needed to sound an alert, and the work continued.
We slept in our clothes, and we didn’t even go to fetch water without carrying a spear. That shows how seriously we took the threats, and how determined we were to carry on.
Just when I thought we had thwarted an outside attack, I was blindsided by a protest from within. People, including the wives, were arguing against their fellow Jews. “We need food to survive. We’ve got big families! How do you expect us to feed them when we’re having to mortgage everything we own just to keep from starving!”
It seems certain rich people and government officials were gouging their fellow countrymen with extreme taxes and bullying demands. Some of the people had even sold their children into slavery to stay alive!
I was furious when I heard their complaints! Trying not to react immediately, I went off alone and took some time to think things through. Then I called a meeting of the nobles and officials. “What you’re doing is wrong,” I berated them. “Don’t you care what the other nations think? Don’t you even care what God thinks? You’re selling your own brothers and sisters into slavery.”
They didn’t try to defend themselves. What could they say?
“You’re gouging your own people with exorbitant interest rates and it has to stop. Give them back all the foreclosed fields, vineyards, homes and everything else you’ve seized. Forgive your claims on their money.”
A Great Leader Leads By Example
They agreed to do everything I said. They would give it all back. Next, I called the priests and made them promise to keep their word. Then I emptied my own pockets; turned them inside out, to show them I was doing this work without trying to take advantage of the people.
The crisis was avoided and everybody agreed to do what they had promised. From the time King Artaxerxes appointed me to undertake the work in Judah, I never used the governor’s allowance, even though I could have claimed it as my rightful reward.
Other governors had oppressed the people with unbearable taxes and bullied them relentlessly. I didn’t do any of this. I had work to do, and I didn’t have time to line my own pockets. The people had it hard enough as it was, without me taking advantage of my position.
The intimidation from our enemies didn’t let up, but I’m thrilled beyond words to be able to say we finished the wall. When our enemies in all the surrounding nations heard the news they totally lost their nerve because they knew God was behind this work.
“The joy of God is your strength!” Nehemiah 8:10
Nehemiah, a humble cupbearer, had obviously earned the king’s trust. He exhibited tremendous courage and faith, praying and taking the necessary actions to attain his goal. He was a hard worker and a man of integrity, inspiring the people and leading by example. Rather than trying to profit personally, he kept the greater good in mind. He did not separate his character from his daily work, because his character was an integral and indispensable part of whatever he did.
You can read about him in the book of Nehemiah. I used Eugene Peterson’s translation in The Message Bible as my resource for this story.