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Introduction to the Book of Nehemiah

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General Info

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book, known in most canons as “Ezra-Nehemiah”.  See Ezra General Info for additional canon-related information.  The latter part of the Book is named for the book’s principle character, Nehemiah the cupbearer to the king of Persia.  Nehemiah’s name means “Yahweh consoles or comforts”.

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Brief Survey

The first volume (Ezra) ended with Ezra dealing with the problem of Jewish intermarriage with pagan foreigners.  He interceded with God on behalf of the nation, and dealt with the sins of the people.

The second volume (Nehemiah) opens in 446 BC, the 20th year of the Persian king Artaxerxes (464-423 BC).  When reports of Jerusalem's vulnerability reached Nehemiah, he prays to God for help on behalf of the Jewish people.  He then boldly approaches King Artaxerxes and obtains permission to return to Jerusalem with a group of exiles to rebuild and repair her destroyed walls.   Under his leadership, the wall is completed in only fifty-two days despite fierce opposition (chapters 2-6).

After the completion of the walls, the book focuses on various religious reforms led Ezra and Nehemiah (chapters 7-10).  Ezra begins a revival by reading for the books of Moses for hours while the people stood in reverence.  This is followed by celebration of the Fall Feast of Booths (aka Shelters or Tabernacles), fasting and long prayers of confession, and the people’s re-dedication to the Covenant.

In the books final section, we witness Nehemiah’s efforts to move some of the Israelites who had been living in surrounding villages (chapter 11) into Jerusalem.  Upon repopulation of the city, the walls are officially dedicated, the Priest and Levites organized, and Temple responsibilities assigned for continuation of worship (chapter 12).  At the end of the events in chapter 12, Nehemiah returns to Persia (~432 BC) for an unknown period of time (opinions range from a few months to several years).  Nevertheless, after returning to Jerusalem, he serves a second term as governor (chapter 13) in which he institutes additional reforms regarding the priests, foreigners in worship, intermarriage, and purity of the Temple.

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Key Verses

They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace.  The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.”  When I [Nehemiah] heard these things, I sat down and wept.  For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven.  (1:3-4)

The king said to me, “What is it you want?”  Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king, “If it pleases the king and if your servant has found favor in his sight, let him send me to the city in Judah where my ancestors are buried so that I can rebuild it.”  Then the king, with the queen sitting beside him, asked me, “How long will your journey take, and when will you get back?”  It pleased the king to send me; so I set a time.  (2:4-6)

Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in: Jerusalem lies in ruins, and its gates have been burned with fire.  Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace.”  (2:17)

After I looked things over, I stood up and said to the nobles, the officials and the rest of the people, “Don’t be afraid of them.  Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your families, your sons and your daughters, your wives and your homes.”  When our enemies heard that we were aware of their plot and that God had frustrated it, we all returned to the wall, each to our own work.  (4:14-15)

So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days.  When all our enemies heard about this, all the surrounding nations were afraid and lost their self-confidence, because they realized that this work had been done with the help of our God.  (6:15-16)

So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand.  He read it aloud from daybreak till noon as he faced the square before the Water Gate in the presence of the men, women and others who could understand.  And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law...  Ezra opened the book.  All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people all stood up.  Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, “Amen! Amen!”  Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground.  (8:2-3, 5-6)

The rest of the people—priests, Levites, gatekeepers, musicians, temple servants and all who separated themselves from the neighboring peoples for the sake of the Law of God, together with their wives and all their sons and daughters who are able to understand — all these now join their fellow Israelites the nobles, and bind themselves with a curse and an oath to follow the Law of God given through Moses the servant of God and to obey carefully all the commands, regulations and decrees of the Lord our Lord.  (10:28-29)

At the dedication of the wall of Jerusalem, the Levites were sought out from where they lived and were brought to Jerusalem to celebrate joyfully the dedication with songs of thanksgiving and with the music of cymbals, harps and lyres.  (12:27)

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Author and Date

Jewish tradition (the Babylonian Talmud) identifies the author as Ezra, the Priest and scribe who led the second group of returning exiles to Jerusalem.  See Author and Date of Ezra for additional information.  The majority of the book is drawn from Nehemiah’s first-person memoirs (chapters 1-7 and 12:27-13:31).  Ezra’s ministry is recorded in the third person (8:1-12:30).  Other material came from genealogical records (7:6-73 and 12:1-26), a covenant document (9:38-10:39), and a list of returning Jewish leaders (11:4-36).

Some scholars believe the Nehemiah was the author of the second volume (Ezra-Nehemiah was originally one book, or scroll) since his memoirs appear in the first person.  The majority position (including our own) is that Ezra incorporated Nehemiah’s memoirs along with his own and the other material, leaving Nehemiah's portion in the first person.  This would be consistent with the several diplomatic documents that he inserted into the first volume in their original Aramaic language rather than translating them into Hebrew.  In addition, Ezra most likely transposed his own shorter memoirs into third person to distinguish them from those of Nehemiah.

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Historical Background

See Historical Background of Ezra.

The events in Nehemiah began in 446 BC, the 20th year of the Persian king Artaxerxes (464-423 BC).  Artaxerxes was the step-son of the Esther, the Hebrew who became the Persian Queen and wife of King Xerxes as recorded in the Book of Esther.  This relationship likely inclined Artaxerxes to look favorably on the Jews, and Nehemiah his cupbearer in particular.  Nehemiah desired to be able to lead a group to Jerusalem to rebuild the city walls that were still in ruins from the Babylonian destruction.  When he approached the King, Artaxerxes granted all his requests, supplied the required timber from his forests, and sent letters to the local governors to guarantee a safe journey.

Chronologically, Nehemiah contains the last of the OT biblical history and canonical writings (the prophet Malachi, whose writings are recorded in the final book of the Protestant OT canon, was also active during this time).  Although there were some extra-biblical historical writings to follow, such as the Apocryphal books of the Maccabees, there would be no divinely inspired writings for the next four centuries.  After this time of silence, during which God was still working through history until, in the fullness of time, He would announce the coming births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ as recorded in the beginnings of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke that would eventually become part of our New Testament Canon.

For more Information:

See OT History Books for the position of the Exile and return to the land within the context of the OT historical periods.

See OT Historicity for Historicity of the OT History books.

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See OT History and Monarchy Chronology for timeline of additional historical events.

The original Book of Ezra-Nehemiah spans a period of over 100 years from Cyrus’s capture of Babylon (539 BC) through Nehemiah’s reforms just prior to returning to Babylon (432 BC).  Most dates in this list can be accurately fixed within a year or so.

586 BC Fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians, Exile of much of the Jewish Population
539 BC Cyrus II (Cyrus the Great) Captures Babylon and Establishes Persian Empire
538 BC First Return of Exiled Jews to Jerusalem under Zerubbabel
~ 516 BC Rebuilding of the Temple Completed
~ 478 BC Esther and Mordecai Foil a Plot to Exterminate Jews in Persia
458 BC Ezra and other Exiles Return to Jerusalem
445 BC Nehemiah Returns to Jerusalem, Begins Rebuilding the Walls
432 BC Nehemiah Recalled to Babylon
~430 - 410 BC Nehemiah’s Second Term as Governor of Jerusalem
~400 BC Writing of the Last Books of OT - Possibly assembled by Ezra

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Themes, Purpose and Theology

See Themes, Purpose and Theology of Ezra.

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Interpretation Hints and Challenges

Some have found it difficult to believe that the Persians would allow captive foreigners to return and re-settle their land.  Several letters and writings in Persian, Aramaic and Greek have been found supporting the return of the Jewish exiles as recorded in Ezra-Nehemiah.  The most common speculation it that it fostered loyalty of the surrounding nations to Persia.  In Judah's case, it probably also provided a friendly buffer zone against the Egyptian, with whom the Persians were still at war.

In addition, the aforementioned fact that God allowed the Hebrew Esther to become the Queen of Persia and step-mother of King Artaxerxes most likely predisposed the king to look favorably on the Jews.  This probably also explains how the foreigner Nehemiah could become the trusted cupbearer to the King.  So once again, we see the Sovereign God working to history to preserve and favor His chosen people.

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The Book of Nehemiah can be divided into two sections.  The first seven chapters details challenges and events related to the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem.  Chapters 8-13 focus on Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s ministry to the people.

1:1 - 2:10 Nehemiah’s Prayer and Journey to Jerusalem
2:11 - 3:32 Beginning of the Rebuilding of the Walls
4:1 - 5:19 Opposition and Economic Problems
6:1 - 6:19 Completion of the Walls
7:1 - 7:73 Genealogies of the Returned Exiles
8:1 - 8:18 Public Reading of the Book of the Law by Ezra; Celebration of the Feast
9:1 - 10:39 Outbreak of Revival and Establishment of a New Covenant
11:1 - 11:39 New Residents of Jerusalem
12:1 - 12:47 Dedication of the Walls
13:1 - 13:31 Nehemiah’s Final Reforms

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