The Biblical prophet Nehemiah provides modern-day leaders with a wonderful model of visionary leadership. When we first meet Nehemiah, he is asking God to provide him with a vision. He believed that a true vision must come from God.
In leadership seminars all over the world, leaders are often asked, “What’s your vision? What’s your dream?” The vision is an anchor that must be realised through collective effort. Many leaders do not live long enough to see their all efforts materialise. But that’s not quite the point.
Every task, every effort and every endeavour is always an inter-generational one. Sometimes we don’t even know whose work we’re destined to continue. It is through asking for the vision and seeing it that we’re able to begin the labour of actualising it.
The Gates of Nehemiah
A gate is a structure that controls the entrance or exit through an opening or a closing. In the context of Biblical scripture, restoring the gates was a necessary element in rebuilding the walls and securing the city from its enemies.
Nehemiah, chapter 3, describes the reconstruction of the ten walls and gates surrounding Jerusalem. It provides the names of the individuals and families who did the work as well as the portion of the wall or gates on which they were employed.
Joiada the son of Paseah and Meshullam the son of Besodeiah repaired the Old Gate; they laid its beams and hung its doors with its bolts and its bars.Nehemiah 3:6
Each family employed was to use all of its available talent. It was a household project, a community project and a city project. It benefited the individual, the community as well as the collective. In addition, the local residents of the area, many of whom resided outside Jerusalem, were assigned to work on sections of the wall where homes were sparse.
When the repairs were completed, the work had come full circle back to the first gate at which the reconstruction had begun. The project was now complete.
When ‘the work’ was complete and the wall had been rebuilt, Sanballat and Gershem sent a message to Nehemiah to say, “Come, let us meet.” This message was sent to Nehemiah four times; and he ignored it all four times.
By the fifth message, however, the enemy had started to become aggressive as they believed that they were under threat. Nehemiah then responded by saying, “Such things as you are saying have not been done, but you are inventing them in your own mind (Nehemiah 6:8).”
At this point, Nehemiah astutely notes that the enemy is trying to frighten them. He asks God to strengthen his hands. Nehemiah persists and completes the work that he has been tasked with.
An Unclaimed Identity
In the Book of Exodus, Moses is tasked with guiding people towards a new home and onto a new destiny. By the time of Nehemiah and Ezra, however, the destiny and the task is different. They are now in the process of trying to regain and reconstruct what they once had; and then had lost.
It is easy for people to forget the purpose behind the vision even as they work to fulfil it. The vision was to rebuild the wall, but the wall was not ‘the important part’ of the vision. The wall was a means to a larger purpose of which everyone had a part to play.
Nehemiah and his people were reclaiming their identity as a collective. What was at stake was not a wall, but their identity. The wall was a part of that collective and intergenerational mission. Nehemiah had to make sure the people were reminded of the vision of their ancestors and how they fit into it. But because their task was tied to a larger purpose, they were able put their hearts into their work and were able to complete the task in 52 days.
Reclaiming a lost identity is not easy when people have been scattered. Through Nehemiah’s leadership, the people not only remembered the vision that was given to their forebears, but reclaimed a vision that was theirs all along.
Through their work and their labours, the city gates were rebuilt and reconstructed. They had actualised their vision.
The Leadership Legacy
Nehemiah was a layman. He was not a priest like Ezra. He served the Persian king in a secular position before he led his tribe to Jerusalem.
Nehemiah’s leadership legacy can be described as a renaissance. He reinstated numerous laws that had not been followed by his predecessors. He also revitalised the holiday of Sukkot which had not been celebrated for sometime.