The Character of Greatness - Part 1

In this lesson, Mike examines what Nehemiah's prayer says about his character.
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The biblical character that we are studying in regard to greatness is Nehemiah. In the previous chapter we compared what elements were necessary to be great in this world (fame, wealth, skilll, victory) to the elements that are necessary to make one great in the Kingdom of God (obedience to God's word, ministry of God's word and humility of spirit).

The point, therefore, was that the criteria for greatness in the world is very different than what is necessary for greatness in the Kingdom of God. People err when they try to measure spiritual greatness using worldly standards.

Dr. Raymond Kelcy was a Bible professor at Oklahoma Christian University for many years and often participated in the Q&A sessions which were a feature of the annual Lectureships held at the college. During one of these sessions a man asked Dr. Kelcy the following question," Who do you think is the greatest preacher in our brotherhood?"

Brother Kelcy showed his own wisdom and spiritual perception when he answered the following, "Probably someone we have never heard of, from an obscure place, doing the Lord's work quietly and effectively week after week with no fanfare."

The point, I believe that he was making, was that God knows who are the greatest in His kingdom, however, He gives everyone the way to arrive at that greatness through obedience, ministry and humility. He also provides the examples of great spiritual lives recorded in the Bible in order to give us a first-hand view of what great spiritual living is like in the real world - not just the theory.

Nehemiah is one such biblical character who demonstrated obedience, ministry/service, humility and other virtues that easily made him great in the Kingdom of God and a wonderful example for us to observe and emulate today.

Background on Nehemiah

Before we study Nehemiah's life, I'd like to do a quick review of Jewish history to help us situate Nehemiah in the timeline.

Old Testament Survey






5000+ B.C.

Creation, Fall, Promise of Redemption, Increasing Sin, Noah, Flood

Genesis 1-8


3000 B.C.

Genealogies of Man Idolatry (Babel)

Genesis 9-11


2000 B.C.

Abraham, Isaac, Jacob (12 Tribes)

Genesis 12-50 Job


1600 B.C.

400 years in Egypt, Moses, the Passover, Exodus

Exodus 1-12


1400 B.C.

40 years in the desert, Arrival in Promised Land, Judges govern the 12 tribes, Samuel is the first of these judges

Exodus 13-40, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Ruth, I Samuel 1-10


1000 B.C.

Tribes Ruled by One King, Saul, David, Solomon

I Samuel 11-31, II Samuel, I Kings 1-11, I Chronicles, II Chronicles 1-9, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Solomon, Ecclesiastes


800 B.C.

Establishment of North and South Kingdom, Apostasy, Destruction of Northern Kingdom, | Emergence of Prophets

I Kings 12-22, II Kings, II Chronicles 10-36, Isaiah, Hosea, Micah, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Jeremiah, Zephaniah


600 B.C.

Destruction of Jerusalem, 70-year exile in Babylon

Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Lamentations


500 B.C.

Return of Remnant from Babylon, The End of Idolatry

Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, Malachi


400 B.C. to Jesus

Intertestamentary Period, Production of Apocryphal (Hidden) Writings

Esdras, Judith, Maccabees

Nehemiah was not a prophet, he did no miracles, he was not a priest, a teacher or a judge - he was a servant to a foreign king, and yet through him, God did great things and Nehemiah became a great man in the eyes of the Lord.

Nehemiah's Situation - 1:11; 1:1-3

Now I was the cupbearer to the king.
- Nehemiah 1:11b

Note that Nehemiah's role was that of a slave. He was a servant to a king in a foreign land where his people had been taken captive. He was a cupbearer, meaning that he was the wine taster who assigned to him the task of guarding the king against food poisoning. He also served as one of the king's counselors.

1The words of Nehemiah the son of Hacaliah. Now it happened in the month Chislev, in the twentieth year, while I was in Susa the capitol, 2that Hanani, one of my brothers, and some men from Judah came; and I asked them concerning the Jews who had escaped and had survived the captivity, and about Jerusalem. 3They said to me, "The remnant there in the province who survived the captivity are in great distress and reproach, and the wall of Jerusalem is broken down and its gates are burned with fire."
- Nehemiah 1:1-3

Here, Nehemiah introduces himself and his family (Jews). The month of Chislev is the period of November and December. It was the 20th year of the reign of Artaxerxes (465-424 = 445 BC).

Susa was the winter capital of Persian kings who had taken over the Babylonian empire which had originally conquered and deported the Jews. The Jews were deported in 606 B.C. by the Babylonians and then the Babylonians returned to finish destroying the city and the temple 19 years later in 587 BC.

In verses two and three, we note that there were several groups that returned from foreign captivity in order to rebuild and repopulate the city of Jerusalem. The order of return was as follows:

1. 70 years after the original deportation (606 BC) a man named Zerubbabel led approximately 50,000 people back to Jerusalem to settle the land and rebuild the city and temple (536 BC). This fulfilled Jeremiah's prophecy made 100 years before that time.

11This whole land will be a desolation and a horror, and these nations will serve the king of Babylon seventy years. 12'Then it will be when seventy years are completed I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation,' declares the Lord, 'for their iniquity, and the land of the Chaldeans; and I will make it an everlasting desolation.
- Jeremiah 25:11-12

The building program had many stops and starts, but the city and a much smaller version of the temple were rebuilt by 516 B.C.

2. Ezra was then chosen by the king to lead the next group back in 457 BC. He was in charge of Jewish affairs for the royal court. He served very much like a Secretary of State today but was in charge of Jewish affairs for the foreign leaders. He benefited from the influence of Esther, who was still reigning at that time. Aside from the continuing work of rebuilding the temple, Ezra reinstated temple worship and appointed priests and Levites to their specific tasks.

3. The third return is the one described by Nehemiah in 444 BC.

We note that in verses 2-3 Nehemiah receives the news concerning the condition of the city, temple and people who had returned from captivity. One of the gravest problems was that the neighboring countries did not want the Jews to rebuild their city and nation for fear that they would dominate them once again as they had done in the past. These people continually waged a diplomatic war by sending delegations to the court of Artaxerxes, the Persian king, in order to spread lies and accusations against the Jews. In modern terms, we would say that they were lobbyists sent to spread fake news. For example, they accused the Jews of plotting a rebellion against the king.

Because of this, the king had decreed that the building in Jerusalem was to stop. This, of course, was demoralizing to the people and left them vulnerable to the surrounding nations bent on destroying them. The city was partly built but had no protecting walls or gates to provide security against their enemies. This was the situation as a few years later a group from Jerusalem came to Nehemiah to see if he would intervene with the king on their behalf. They described the plight of the city and its people as desperate and dangerous.

This was a difficult request to grant for Nehemiah because pleading a cause that contradicted the king's order could mean arrest and execution for him personally. At once we see that Nehemiah is caught between the desire to obey his God and help his people, and the threat of banishment from the royal court or death.

However, in this very difficult dilemma, we see one of Nehemiah's spiritual qualities that set him apart from ordinary men with ordinary problems. He was an ordinary man, but he had an extraordinary problem to solve.

He was a man with problems, but we learn that he was also a man that faced his problems with prayer. Yes, we're told to face danger or problems with courage and determination, even cunning, but the great men of God go directly to prayer when faced with a challenge.

B. Nehemiah's Prayer - 1:4-11; 2:1

We can confidently say that a great man of God is first and foremost a man of prayer. In this story, we also learn that you can tell a lot about a man and about the nature of his greatness by examining his prayer. When we examine Nehemiah's prayer, this is what we find out about his character:

1. He was sincere

When I heard these words, I sat down and wept and mourned for days; and I was fasting and praying before the God of heaven.
- Nehemiah 1:4

Nehemiah wept over the ruins. He was emotionally involved with the problem of his people. His prayer was from the heart. He was in earnest prayer (days of prayer and fasting). He truly was seeking the Lord's will with all of his spiritual and emotional strength.

2. He was respectful

I said, "I beseech You, O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who preserves the covenant and lovingkindness for those who love Him and keep His commandments,
- Nehemiah 1:5

He began his prayer with proper respect and honor to God. He was emotional but maintained his sense of deference and reverence for God.

3. He was honest

6let Your ear now be attentive and Your eyes open to hear the prayer of Your servant which I am praying before You now, day and night, on behalf of the sons of Israel Your servants, confessing the sins of the sons of Israel which we have sinned against You; I and my father's house have sinned. 7We have acted very corruptly against You and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the ordinances which You commanded Your servant Moses.
- Nehemiah 1:6-7

Nehemiah was quick to recognize and admit where and what the problem was. Sin was the problem and his people were guilty of it, and this is what caused their destruction in the first place. They wouldn't be in exile or have to rebuild their city if they had not fallen into idolatry even after repeated warnings from God.

4. Hew was intelligent

8Remember the word which You commanded Your servant Moses, saying, 'If you are unfaithful I will scatter you among the peoples; 9but if you return to Me and keep My commandments and do them, though those of you who have been scattered were in the most remote part of the heavens, I will gather them from there and will bring them to the place where I have chosen to cause My name to dwell.' 10They are Your servants and Your people whom You redeemed by Your great power and by Your strong hand.
- Nehemiah 1:8-10

Nehemiah knew God's promise regarding punishment and restoration (Jeremiah's prophecy). His prayer was in line with God's word and God's will.

5. He was specific

O Lord, I beseech You, may Your ear be attentive to the prayer of Your servant and the prayer of Your servants who delight to revere Your name, and make Your servant successful today and grant him compassion before this man."
- Nehemiah 1:11

He knew exactly what he wanted (to go to the king) and prayed for God to give him success. He may have found out that we often discover what the will of the Lord is while we are in prayer.

6. He was patient

And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence.
- Nehemiah 2:1

Nisan is the month of April. Four months had gone by between the time that the people came to see him and said, "we need your help" which moved him to prayer, and the opportunity he searched for appeared.

From his prayer we see a variety of qualities cultivated and practiced by those who would be great in the kingdom of God.

C. God's Answer to Nehemiah's Prayer - 2:2-8

2So the king said to me, "Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart." Then I was very much afraid. 3I said to the king, "Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers' tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?" 4Then the king said to me, "What would you request?" So I prayed to the God of heaven. 5I said to the king, "If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers' tombs, that I may rebuild it." 6Then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, "How long will your journey be, and when will you return?" So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time. 7And I said to the king, "If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah, 8and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king's forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go." And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me.
- Nehemiah 2:2-8

We've seen that Nehemiah first prayed to God for help and nothing more. There is another reason why Nehemiah was limited in his actions concerning the request of his brethren from Jerusalem.

  • Under the law of that time, it was forbidden for him to speak to the king unless the king spoke to him first. It was the same dilemma as Esther. Addressing the king without being called upon merited the death penalty.
  • Notice in verse 1 that Nehemiah had not been sad in the king's presence, but in verse 2 the king discerned that Nehemiah was sad.
  • Who do you think worked in the heart of the most powerful man in the world to note this condition? God, of course.
  • This demonstrates clearly that the prayer of a great man of God is able to affect even the greatest man in the world at that time.
  • Note also that the prayer was answered in great detail
    • The old order to stop building was canceled
    • The project gained the blessing of both the king and the queen
    • All the materials were supplied by the king
    • Nehemiah was guaranteed safe passage

All of this because of prayer; not action, strength, wisdom or wealth, but the prayer of a great man of God.


Here are a few lessons on greatness we learn from this episode:

A. Greatness in the kingdom is not measured by accomplishments because those in the kingdom know that nothing is accomplished without God's resources, God's power or God's permission.

B. All we, in the Kingdom, can say is:

  • If the Lord wills, this will be done
  • Praise God for accomplishing such and such
  • Thank you God for using me to accomplish this task or achievement no matter how small or how great.

C. We will accomplish great things only if we become:

  • obedient to God's word
  • involved in its ministry somehow
  • humbled before God

Of course, Nehemiah offered prayers that were sincere, reverent, honest, intelligent and specific. If we pray in this way and wait patiently for His response, God will do great things through us, even greater than we could ever accomplish or even imagine on our own. Remember, however, that all of these things begin with sincere prayer.

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