Ezra & Nehemiah
Posted by Josh Kirby on June 6, 2012
Ezra-Nehemiah resumes where Chronicles finishes, by telling the story of the return of the Israelites from exile to the Promised Land. The book features the carrying out of the decrees of Cyrus, and other Persian officials, which authorized the return of the exiles, the reformation of the Jewish religious system, and the restoration of Jerusalem.
Ezra-Nehemiah was originally one book. The authorship of the book is unknown.
Ezra-Nehemiah can be a little confusing on first read. The chronology of the book is somewhat jumbled (cf. Ezra 4). It contains copies of royal decrees and letters (Ezra 1:2-4; 4:11-16, 17-22; 5:7-17; 6:2-5, 6-22; 7:12-26), legal censuses and lists (Ezra 1:9-11; 2:7; 8:1-14; Nehemiah 3; 10:18-43; 11:3-36; 12:1-26), and the memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah, which are often written in the first person (Ezra 7:27-28; 8:1-34; 9:1-15; Nehemiah 1:1-7:5; 12:27-43; 13:1-31). Like all Old Testament history (and all history, in general), Ezra-Nehemiah is selective and subjective. The purpose of the book is not to give a detailed account of the return from exile, but to legitimize the return from a legal and covenantal perspective.
Chronologically, Ezra-Nehemiah is the end of the Old Testament. Following Ezra-Nehemiah the biblical record skips roughly 400 years, resuming with the Gospels of Jesus Christ.
Ezra-Nehemiah can be outlined as follows:
- Ezra 1-2 – First return from exile
- Ezra 3-6 – Temple rebuilt
- Ezra 7-8 – Second return from exile
- Ezra 9-10 – Reformation movement
- Nehemiah 1-2 – Third return from exile
- Nehemiah 3-7 – Wall rebuilt
- Nehemiah 8-10 – Covenant renewal
- Nehemiah 11-13 – Reformation movement
Ezra-Nehemiah opens with the decree of Cyrus, king of Persia, authorizing the exiled Israelites to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. A few months before this decree Cyrus had defeated the Babylonians, who had exiled the Israelites. Cyrus was a brilliant politician. He was viewed as a liberator by his subjects for allowing them to rebuild their religious sanctuaries and reinstitute their religious practices. God worked through Cyrus, and other Persian officials, to liberate and restore the national and spiritual identity of his people.
Ezra-Nehemiah records three returns to the Promised Land following the exile. The first return was led by two men – Zerubbabel, the grandson of the Jehoiakim, the final king of Israel, and Jeshua, the grandson of the final high priest of the first temple. The primary aim of the first return was to restore the temple. The temple project proved to be a long and arduous process. The Israelites were opposed by local officials and other peoples of the land, a diplomatic battle ensued, and the Israelites became idle, so it took some time for the temple to be completed (Ezra 4-6). Upon completion the temple was dedicated (6:13-18) and the Passover and Feast of the Unleavened Bread celebrated (6:19-22), linking the return from exile to the exodus from Egypt.
The second return of exiles to the Promised Land was led by Ezra, several decades after the temple was rebuilt. Ezra returned under the authorization of a new Persian king, Artaxerxes, to restore the religious structure of Israel. Ezra’s return was filled with prayer, fasting, and reliance on God. He taught the people, called them to be pure, and took drastic measures to purge the Israelites of pagan influences, including instituting a mandatory divorce of all pagan women (Ezra 9-10).
Ezra was followed by Nehemiah, the cup-bearer to Artaxerxes, who was given authorization to rebuild Jerusalem, specifically the wall (ch.1). Like Zerubbabel and Jeshua before him, Nehemiah met significant challenges. He, and the Jews, were mocked (2:19), received angry threats (4:1), and were conspired against by local officials and other peoples of the land (6:1-14). But “the people had a mind to work” (4:6) and the wall of Jerusalem was rebuilt in 52 days (6:15-19) and dedicated to God. In addition to organizing the reconstruction of the wall, Nehemiah initiated social and religious reforms.
Perhaps the most significant scene in Ezra-Nehemiah is recorded in Nehemiah 8-10, in which Ezra reads the Book of the Law of Moses before the entire congregation of Israel and, with the priests, explains the law to the people. The people weep as they feel the weight of their sins but are told to celebrate the goodness of God. Ch.9 contains a poignant prayer of confession, likely offered by Ezra on behalf of the people. The prayer begins at creation and traces the faithfulness of God and failures of the Israelites throughout the history of their covenant. Following the prayer of confession the covenant is renewed. This scene is critical to understanding the mentality of the leaders and the people during the return from exile. The leaders explained to the people the exile was a result of the sins of their ancestors and that the future of Israel depended on a return to the past – the restoration of the Jewish religious system and the promotion of holiness.
Ezra-Nehemiah has many important themes.
Faithfulness to the Law of Moses is a primary concern of the leaders of the return from exile. The Law is consistently mentioned in the books. It is read publically and a premium is placed on the understanding of the Law. It was important to the post-exilic leaders that the remnant fully understand the Law of God.
Proper temple worship – including sacrifices, burnt offerings, and religious festivals – is a priority in Ezra-Nehemiah. Before the temple was destroyed and rebuilt, many of the Israelites had worshiped at pagan high places either in addition to or instead of the temple. The post-exilic community was committed to worshiping God alone at the temple in Jerusalem as he had commanded.
Community is a major concern during the return from exile. The people are often gathered “as one man.” The temple is dedicated, the festivals are celebrated, and the wall is built by the whole congregation. Before the exile the people were spread out, divided, and even warred against each other. The post-exilic community, however, valued solidarity, both in their inclusiveness of one another and their separation from sin and pagan influences. The rebuilt wall of Jerusalem symbolizes their social and spiritual separation.
Zerubbabel is the Messianic hint in Ezra-Nehemiah. His presence subtly informs the reader that the line of David has not been extinguished by the exile. Zerubbabel is listed in the genealogy of the Christ recorded in Matthew 1.
It is impressive to see God’s faithfulness to his covenant with his people throughout the Old Testament. He always keeps his promises – blessing obedience, cursing disobedience. The exile was a result of the people’s unfaithfulness, but God remained faithful. Ezra-Nehemiah records the fulfillment of God’s promise to return a remnant to the Promised Land following the exile. God is gracious. His “good hand” is said to be working in the events of the post-exile, behind the scenes and in the hearts of people, even those who are not his.