Fear is a powerful motivator. Even the reluctant student might memorize lists of data for fear of failing a class. Motorists maintain a more conservative driving speed in areas where police regularly patrol. Unfortunately, there is also the fear that paralyzes, that leads to irrational decisions and self-protective behaviors. Fear of God, however, is the supremely rational fear, because it is a response to God’s power, position, and person, and this God-inspired awe or reverence was Nehemiah’s continual default. This is evident in his prayer in Nehemiah 1:11:
“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name . . .”
It is lived out in his beyond-the-call-of-duty generosity in Nehemiah 5:15:
“The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people . . . but I did not do so, because of the fear of God.”
Nehemiah was being formed by his fear. This was a salutary thing in his case, because his fear was well-placed. In fact, Nehemiah’s fear of God prevented him from fearing his enemies and their threats. Thomas Chalmers might have described this as “the expulsive power” of a better fear. Exodus 20:20 finds Moses trying to reason with the people of Israel that if they would only fear God [with reverence and awe], they would not need to be afraid of God [with servile terror].
Again, I find myself returning to the prayer of the Southwell Litany:
“From fear of men and dread of responsibility, strengthen us with courage to speak the truth in love and in self-control; and alike from the weakness of hasty violence and moral cowardice, save us and help us we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.”
Fear of Men
Fear of God clearly had “expelled” fear of men from Nehemiah’s leadership style. He called a spade a spade — and a cheat a cheat, (5:9-11), and an imposter an imposter, (6:12). He refused serial invitations from neighboring dignitaries and called the local nobility on the carpet for treating people like possessions. By comparison, my life is positively devoid of politics, but you won’t find me sticking my neck out in a church business meeting when controversy is on the agenda.
Dread of Responsibility
It was Nehemiah’s fear of God that enabled him as governor to embrace his duty to love and care for the remnant in Jerusalem, (5:15). Far from “dreading” this responsibility, he provided for their material needs through days of famine at his own expense, and, recognizing his responsibility to uphold reverence for God before the people, he refused to shut himself into the Holy Place to escape his enemies’ threats. As governor, but NOT a priest, his entry into the Holy Place would have desecrated the house of God, causing Israel and the surrounding nations to question his reverence for God — as well as his courage. Nehemiah feared sin more than he feared death.
“Strengthen my hands,” was Nehemiah’s request in the midst of danger and intrigue. Sure beats, “Calgon, take me away!” I am more likely to pray for deliverance from a bad situation than to pray for diligence and mastery of it. Throughout my years of mothering, I’ve been drawn to the Southwell Litany because I see the potential dangers that come with the “dread of responsibility, ” such as:
over-using the t.v. as a babysitter;
side-stepping an essential confrontation with the hormonally crazed teen; or
having THAT conversation with the friend who has lapsed into husband bashing.
We, too, are always in the process of being formed by our fears.
Nehemiah prayed, “Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (5:19), because he was serving an audience of One. Likewise, may our primary concern be pleasing God, a salutary fear that will crowd out any tendency to play to the crowd.
This post is the sixteenth in a series in which I ponder “just one thing” each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, as I travel slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class. If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link: https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/.