Times of trial require godly leadership. This book is principally the story of such gifted leadership in the person of Nehemiah. Facing criticism and opposition, Nehemiah resolutely led the small Israelite community as they rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem for its physical protection. But he also did not hesitate to guide the Israelites spiritually. By demanding that the Israelites obey God’s law, Nehemiah pursued their spiritual as well as their physical welfare.

Author • Many readers naturally conclude that the book was written by Nehemiah because of the words of the first verse, “The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah.” In fact, it is widely believed that Nehemiah originated the following passages: 1:1–7:5; 12:27–43; 13:4–31. But there are two different views about the authorship of the rest of Nehemiah. Some believe that Nehemiah wrote the whole book, relying on his own memories. Others believe that Ezra wrote the book, using Nehemiah’s memoirs, for the passages listed above. As evidence for the second view, it is noted that Neh. 7:5–73 and Ezra 2:1–70 are almost identical.

The similarities of Nehemiah and Ezra can be explained partly by the fact that they are only one book in the Hebrew Bible (see the Introduction for Ezra). In fact, many scholars argue that Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah were compiled by the same person. All these books exhibit similar themes, such as a focus on the Levites, the temple, and extensive lists. With such priestly interests, the one who masterminded this long document may well have been a priest—like Ezra (see the Introduction to 1 Chronicles).

Historical Background • The historical setting of Nehemiah is the setting of the second half of the Hebrew book of Ezra–Nehemiah (458–420 B.C.). During this period, the Persian Emperor Artaxerxes I Longimanus allowed the Jews to return to their land and rebuild Jerusalem.

At that time Nehemiah occupied a prominent position in the emperor’s court: He was the trusted cupbearer of Artaxerxes I. In Artaxerxes’s twentieth year on the throne (444 B.C.), he allowed Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem and rebuild its walls. Nehemiah stayed in Jerusalem for 12 years and then returned to Persia in Artaxerxes’s thirty-second year (432 B.C.). Around 425 B.C., Nehemiah left Persia and returned to Jerusalem for the last time (13:6). Nehemiah’s memoirs could not have been completed until after his second visit to Jerusalem. Thus the earliest that the Book of Nehemiah could have been completed would be around 425 B.C.

The Order of Ezra and Nehemiah • There has been considerable discussion of the question of the order of the returns of Ezra and Nehemiah to Jerusalem. The Bible clearly presents the return of Ezra as preceding that of Nehemiah: Ezra returned in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:8) while Nehemiah returned in the twentieth year (2:1). However, based on the way the revival of Ezra appears in the middle of the story of Nehemiah (chs. 8–10), many have argued that Nehemiah returned before Ezra.

The arguments for reversing Ezra and Nehemiah in this way are generally not convincing. Nevertheless, the inclusion of part of the Ezra story in the middle of the Nehemiah memoirs still needs explanation. It could be that Nehemiah’s rebuilding the walls of the city was only part of the reconstruction needed among God’s people. Even more necessary was the reinstitution of the Law. Certainly Ezra had used the Law previously in his dealings with the people, but at this time the great priest and scribe Ezra partnered with Nehemiah in order to thoroughly teach the people God’s law (8:9). Apparently, the compiler of Nehemiah wanted to show that the wall of the city would mean nothing without the wall of the Law surrounding the people.

Purpose • In His covenant with Israel, God had spoken of a place where He would establish His name. In fact, Moses had told the Israelites to “seek the place where the LORD your God chooses, out of all your tribes, to put His name for His dwelling place” (Deut. 12:5). Later, it was revealed that this place was Jerusalem. When the temple was built during Solomon’s reign, Jerusalem was at the height of its glory. Its fame helped to spread the glory of God’s name throughout the nations. But God allowed Jerusalem to be destroyed because of the faithlessness of the Israelites. Even though Jerusalem lay in ruins during Nehemiah’s time, it was still God’s purpose to establish His name there.

The Book of Nehemiah records the restoration of Jerusalem under the leadership of Nehemiah. In the book, the returning Jews showed spiritual lethargy and a coldhearted indifference toward God. This problem continued, for the Book of Malachi denounces the Israelites for the same attitudes. It took a determined, godly leader like Nehemiah to motivate this group to act on God’s promises and rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.

However, the completion of Jerusalem’s walls is only half the story of Nehemiah. The walls are rebuilt by chapter 6, but the book has seven more chapters. These last chapters record a revival and describe the repopulation of the city. The subject of the book is not merely the rebuilding of the walls, but the complete restoration of the people of Jerusalem.

The Book of Nehemiah makes it clear that God did not restore His people only one time; rather, He repeatedly, constantly, and continually restored His people. He sent a number of prophets and leaders to teach, motivate, and guide the people into righteousness. Zerubbabel led a group of exiles to Jerusalem and began to rebuild the temple (see Ezra 1–6). Then Ezra led a second group of exiles back to Jerusalem and helped restore the people to obedience to the Mosaic law (see Ezra 7–10). Then Nehemiah returned and motivated the people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (chs. 1–6). Finally, Nehemiah returned a second time and exhorted the people to adhere closely to God’s law (ch. 13). The pattern is clear: God continually restored His people. In spite of their unfaithfulness, God accomplished His will. The restored walls of Jerusalem, the repopulation of Jerusalem, and the repeated reformation of the Israelites were clearly God’s work. In the end, His name would be glorified.

The NKJV Study Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2007), Ne.

Josh Hunt ● www.joshhunt.com ● josh@joshhunt.com ● 575.650.4564 ● 1964 Sedona Hills Parkway, Las Cruces, NM 88011
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