Messengers from Jerusalem came to Babylon, and Nehemiah questioned them about the state of things in Israel.  Nehemiah tells us, “And they said to me, ‘The remnant there in the province who had survived the exile is in great trouble and shame. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates are destroyed by fire.’ As soon as I heard these words I sat down and wept and mourned for days, and I continued fasting and praying before the God of heaven.” Nehemiah was a patriot! His heart was for his country and his people. It crushed him to hear the bad report about Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s grief was so great that he sat down, wept, and mourned for days. But he felt that he had to act.

What should he do? Drucker, the great leadership guru, talks a lot about prioritizing one’s projects and making sure you start with the right thing. The chapter on this is called “First things First.” This, he argues, is the secret of effectiveness. You have to make sure you do the right thing first, and you must focus on just one thing at a time. Don’t let other things, lesser things, distract you. What things really are “first things”?[1] Nehemiah’s idea of “first things” are not the same as Druckers. Boice says, “Some managers would put relationships with people first. Others would stress personal thought time and time for planning. These are important, but it is significant that when the problem of the broken walls of Jerusalem was presented to Nehemiah, the first priority of this great and (later) very successful leader was prayer. The first thing he did was unburden his heart to God. Why do you suppose Nehemiah started here? There may be several reasons. For one thing, he was a man who prayed frequently about everything. Prayer was a habit for him, as we will see. But I suspect also that, in this case at least, Nehemiah prayed for the simple reason that no one but God could accomplish what needed to be accomplished if the walls of the city were to rise again.”[2]

I usually wait until I’ve messed things up so bad that I have no choice but to turn to God. When advised to pray about something, have you ever heard someone say, “has it come to that?” Don’t you think it should start with that? Whenever we find ourselves in circumstances that appear to require our action, we should stop and pray about it. Sometimes I’ve found that the best thing one can do is nothing. Just wait and trust God to work. Sometimes God will take care of the problem before I have time to act. Grieving and praying, however should not be used as excuses for inaction. When Joshua faced defeat at AI, he fell down on his face and wept. God said to him, “wherefore liest though thus upon thy face? Get thee up!” I’ve always loved that phrase “get thee up.” Nehemiah was indeed preparing to act, but first things first. He needed to seek God. Boice concludes his remarks on the leadership style of Nehemiah by saying, “Prayer made Abraham Lincoln the man he was, and for the same reason. He said on one occasion, ‘I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go. My own wisdom and that of those about me seemed insufficient for the day.’ Is this what makes a leader? The world may not think so, but the Bible teaches that this is the first and greatest dynamic: the leader and God.”

[1] Peter F. Drucker, The Effective Executive (New York: Harper & Row, 1985), 100.

[2] Boice, James Montgomery. 2005. Nehemiah: An Expositional Commentary. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks.