The book of Nehemiah picks up the stories in the book of Ezra and takes them further. The people had returned to the land following the decree of King Cyrus of Persia in 538 BC that all captives should return home. Chapters 1-7 tell of the rebuilding of the walls under Nehemiah despite opposition from the people living in the land. The middle of the book (7.73b–10.39) recounts a ceremony which renewed the covenant between God and his people and celebrated the law. The final part of the book tells of Nehemiah’s return to Judah as governor for a second time, including some of the reforms he undertook.
I said, 'O Lord God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments.' (Nehemiah 1.5)
Then he said to them, 'Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.' (Nehemiah 8.10)
They refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt. But you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them. (Nehemiah 9.17)
There are long lists of names that don't make exciting reading – though they do indicate just how important rebuilding the walls and effectively refounding the city was to the Jews. Like Ezra, Nehemiah was very concerned for the purity of the nation. The people 'excluded from Israel all who were of foreign descent' (13.3), which can read uncomfortably today.
Jewish tradition states that Ezra wrote all of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah.
Most recent explorations of the book, however, have concluded that it is more complex than that. All four books (1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah) seem to have been collected together from a wide variety of sources. If you look carefully while you read you might be able to notice some of the joins in the text.
We know very little about which people finally put all the strands together in these four books.
We do know a little about the main character of the book – Nehemiah. His name is the long version of the name Nahum and means 'God comforts'. He had risen to a position of influence in Persia as a civil servant and used these skills to help rebuild his beloved Jerusalem. In 2.6 he appeared before the queen. Since only eunuchs were allowed in the presence of the queen some wonder whether Nehemiah was also a eunuch.
This was a tumultuous time in Judah’s history. The king and nearly everyone influential from the land had been taken away into exile in Babylon between around 598 BC and 586 BC. In 538 BC King Cyrus decreed that everyone could go home. The problem was that they had been away for around 60 years – most of the people ‘returning’ had never lived there in the first place.
The challenges of the return from exile made identity a key question in this period. What did it mean to be the people of God, and what did they need to rebuild in order for them to be able to be God’s people once more?
2 Chronicles, Ezra, Haggai, Zechariah, Joel
This is a history book, but it falls into the category of what you might call theological history – history with a purpose. It is not telling the story just so that you can know what happened, but so that you can understand why it happened. Many of the historical books of the Bible are like this.
There are also several long lists of names.
1.1–7.73a Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem to rebuild its walls (which he did despite heavy opposition)
7.73b–10.39 Ezra read the law and led the people in renewing their covenant with God
11.1–13.31 Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem for a second time as governor and instituted a number of reforms
There will be lots of names you will not know; don’t worry if you can’t place them all. The key ones are given below.
Samaria, AI, Ammon, Ashdod, Assyria, Babylon, Bashan, Beer-sheba, Ephraim, Gibeon, Israel, Jerusalem, Judah, Lachish, Mizpah, Moab, Mount Sinai, Ramah, Susa, Ur, Ziklag
Tyrians, Ammonites, Artaxerxes, Balaam, Baruch, Benjamin, Benjaminite, Canaanites, Chaldeans, Darius, Eliakim, Hezekiah, Hittites, Iddo, Levi, Levites, Moses, Nebuchadnezzar II, Zedekiah, Zerubbabel
Altar, Chislev, Nisan, post exilic period, atonement, burnt offering, Cherubim, Elul, golden calf, High Priest, priest, Urim and Thummim, tithe
One of the key themes in Nehemiah is community action – Nehemiah and Ezra led the people back into relationship with God but also encouraged them to work together for the good of the city. Keep an eye out for the importance of community throughout the book.
As in Ezra, the phrase the ‘hand of God’ occurs more than once. Reflect on the use of this phrase when you see it (it comes in the first few chapters).
Prayer is very important both in this book and in Ezra. Notice the prayer when it comes, and what it says.
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah deal practically with the theme of recovery after an utter disaster. One of the themes in Nehemiah is the need for the people to be united and self-sacrificing. Can you find examples of this in the book? How would this look today?