The book of Nehemiah tells how Nehemiah decided to return to Jerusalem to help the people rebuild the walls of the city. At the time Nehemiah returned, many of the Jewish exiles had already returned from Babylon and the temple had already been rebuilt. When Cyrus issued his decree allowing the Jewish people to return to their native land, a small group of people returned to Jerusalem. They were committed to rebuild the temple that was destroyed by the army of Nebuchadnezzar. The rebuilding of the temple was finished in 516 B.C., seventy years after the temple Solomon had built was destroyed by the Babylonians.
The people of Judah were taken into exile during Judah’s struggle with Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon. The first deportation of the people of Judah occurred in 597 B.C. According to 2 Kings 24:12-16, 10,000 people were taken into exile, including the royal family, their servants, and the palace officials. In addition, another 8,000 professional people were also taken to Babylon.
The second deportation took place in 587 B.C. At that time, thousands of people were taken into exile in Babylon. After Jerusalem fell, Nebuchadnezzar’s army burned the temple, the palace and the great houses of Jerusalem (2 Kings 25:8-12). Some of the religious and military leaders of Judah were executed after the city was conquered.
A third deportation of the citizens of Judah occurred in 582 B.C. According to Jer. 52:30, “in the twenty-third year of Nebuchadrezzar, Nebuzaradan the captain of the guard took into exile of the Judeans seven hundred forty-five persons.” However, the land was not left empty with the deportation of the people: “the captain of the guard left some of the poorest people of the land to be vinedressers and tillers of the soil” (2 Kings 25:12).
The people’s life in exile was difficult, but not unbearable. The Old Testament indicates that there was an integration of the people of Israel into Babylonian society, to the point that some people even took Babylonian names. For instance, Mordecai, a member of the Jewish community living in Susa, the capital of the Persian empire (Esther 2:5), was a descendant of the people who had been exiled from Judah, including king Jehoiachin, when the Babylonians invaded Jerusalem in 597 B.C. The name Mordecai is derived from Marduk, the name of the god of Babylon.
According to the prophet Ezekiel, there was a Jewish community on the Chebar canal, at Tel-Abib (Ezekiel 1:1). Ezekiel also says that there was free movement of people within the community. Many Israelites owned their own homes and the people had the freedom to congregate. Ezekiel’s house was used as a meeting place to talk about the political and religious situation of Jerusalem and Babylon (Ezekiel 8:1; 14:1).
In exile, many people had profitable employment and many people became rich. Daniel served in the place of the king of Babylon (Daniel 1:4). Nehemiah was a cupbearer to the king of Persia (Nehemiah 1:11). This move to upper mobility was possible because many people were quick to accept Babylonian customs and religion.
In October of 539 B.C., Cyrus, king of Persia, conquered Babylon without a fight. Cyrus entered Babylon as the liberator of the city. The people rejoiced over his victory and welcomed him as the savior of their nation. In the first year of his reign, Cyrus issued an edict allowing the Jews in Babylon to go home:
In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the LORD stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared: “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. Any of those among you who are of his people – may their God be with them! – are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the LORD, the God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem; and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem” (Ezra 1:1-4)..
The first return of the Jewish people to Jerusalem was in 537 B.C. under the leadership of Shesh-bazzar, a member of the royal family. According to Ezra, the number of people who returned with Shesh-bazzar was very small, that is, only those “whose spirit God had stirred” (Ezra 1:5). After the death of Shesh-bazzar, his nephew Zerubbabel became governor of Judah. He came from Babylon bringing with him thousands of people. According to Ezra, the number of people who returned with Zerubbabel “was forty-two thousand three hundred sixty” (Ezra 2:64). Because of economic hardship, the construction of the temple was stopped. With the prophetic encouragement of Haggai and Zechariah, the temple was finished in 516 B.C. with great rejoicing.
The Book of Nehemiah
When Christians read the historical books of the Bible, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah appear in their Bibles as two distinct books. Josephus, the Jewish historian said that there are twenty-two books in the Jewish Bible. This number is possible because Ezra and Nehemiah are counted as one book in the Hebrew Bible as are the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles.
The division of Ezra-Nehemiah into two books was done by the leaders of the Christian church in order to facilitate the reading of the books and in order to help in citing the books. According to church tradition, Origen was the first person to speak of two books, even though he emphasized that in the Hebrew Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah were one book.
The authorship of the book of Nehemiah is difficult to ascertain. According to Jewish tradition, Ezra wrote his own book, which would include the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Many Christians believe that Ezra wrote his book and that Nehemiah wrote his own book. Another view among scholars is that the author of the book of Chronicles, popularly known as the Chronicler, wrote the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to form what is called “The Chronicler History.”
It is possible that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were put together by an editor who combined what is called the Ezra Memoir with the Nehemiah Memoir to form one book. The Nehemiah Memoir is the section of the book of Nehemiah written in the first-person as an autobiographical narrative that recounts events in which the author was personally involved (Klein 1992: 733).
The book of Nehemiah can be divided into three sections (Redditt 2014: 214). The first section, Nehemiah 1:1-7:73a, introduces Nehemiah and his commission to repair the walls of Jerusalem (1:1-2:10), the work of rebuilding the walls (2:11-6:10), and a list of the people who returned from Babylon (7:1-73a).
The second section, Nehemiah 7:73b-10:39, includes the reading of the Torah by Ezra (7:73b- 8:18), a prayer of confession and petition (9:1-38), and an act of covenant commitment (10:1-39).
The third section includes a list of the people who settled in Jerusalem at the time of Nehemiah (11:1-36), a list of the Priests, Levites, and other leaders of the community (12:1-26), the dedication of the wall (12:27-43), and the dedication of the community (12:44-13:31).
Nehemiah was the son of Hacaliah (Nehemiah 1:1) and the brother of Hanani (Nehemiah 1:2). The name of Nehemiah’s father is given to distinguish him from two other Nehemiahs mentioned in the book of Ezra (Ezra 2:2) and in the book of Nehemiah (Nehemiah 3:16). Some commentators believe that Nehemiah was a priest. However, it is almost certain that he was from the tribe of Judah.
Nehemiah received a report of the dismal conditions in Jerusalem in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I, king of Persia (465-424 B.C.). Nehemiah was a cupbearer of Artaxerxes, serving the king in his palace, located in Susa, the capital of the Persian empire. Nehemiah’s position, “the cupbearer of the king” indicates that Nehemiah occupied a position of trust in the court.
When Nehemiah heard of the precarious situation of the people in Jerusalem, he received permission of the king to return to Jerusalem and lead in the rebuilding of the walls of the city. He arrived in Jerusalem in 444 B.C. and with Persians’ blessing, he became the new governor of the province of Yehud.
Nehemiah encouraged the people to undertake the rebuilding of the city’s defenses, but he found much opposition from the local leaders. The Samaritans opposed the work of rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, but with the Persians’ approval and encouragement, the project was completed in fifty-two days.
The book of Nehemiah has many lessons to teach people today. According to Christopher Wright, a major lesson that can be learned from the book of Nehemiah is that God never abandons his people even when they had abandoned him. In his prayer of confession, Nehemiah prayed, “Many years you were patient with them, and warned them by your spirit through your prophets; yet they would not listen. Nevertheless, in your great mercies you did not make an end of them or forsake them, for you are a gracious and merciful God” (Nehemiah 9:30-31).
The message of Nehemiah was addressed to a people who were being oppressed and who were discouraged by their situation. Nehemiah came to announce to the people of Jerusalem that they needed to work together in order to build the ruined walls of the city. The people needed to cooperate with each other in order to do God’s work and achieve the victory. Every family was assigned a portion of the wall to rebuild.
When the people united and worked to build the walls and defend the city, they achieved their goal. The work of rebuilding the wall was done with much opposition by those who were hostile against what Nehemiah was doing. Confronted with fierce opposition and the threat of violence, Nehemiah and the people persisted in their work and with much struggle, prayer, and determination, they were able to rebuild the wall in fifty-two days.
After their work was done, the people commemorated their accomplishment with a procession celebrating the dedication of the wall with much joy and with songs of thanksgiving and songs accompanied by cymbals, harps, and lyres (Nehemiah 12:27).
Sermons of Nehemiah
Next week I begin a series of studies on Nehemiah. This series of studies will be done in cooperation with my pastor, Jeff Griffin, Senior Pastor of The Compass Church in Naperville, Illinois. Jeff is a great preacher who loves archaeology and often uses archaeological discoveries to illustrate his sermons.
This series of studies on Nehemiah will proceed as follows: this post will introduce Nehemiah, the man and the book. Then, the next seven posts will be based on Jeff’s sermons on Nehemiah. Jeff will preach the sermon first, then I will write a post based on his sermon. My post will serve as a historical background for Jeff’s sermon and his sermon will be an application of the content of my post. A link to the video of each of Jeff’s sermons will be included with my posts.
I hope you enjoy Jeff’s sermons on Nehemiah.
Studies on Nehemiah
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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Klein, Ralph W. “Ezra-Nehemiah, Books of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary. Pages 2:733. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Redditt, Paul L. Ezra-Nehemiah. Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2014.