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Introduction

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Authorship

Who is the author of the book of Nehemiah? The original book is anonymous and does not carry any name.1 Therefore, there is some controversy over the authorship. Traditionally, both Christians and Jews recognize Ezra, the scribe, as the author.2 This is based primarily on external evidence, as the books Ezra and Nehemiah are one book in the Hebrew Bible and probably were initially written that way. Because of this, both the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) and the Latin Vulgate also made them one book, calling Nehemiah “Second Ezra.”3 The book of Ezra details the first and second return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon. It talks about the rebuilding of the temple in Israel and the restoration of the ceremonies led by Ezra. The book of Nehemiah details the third return of the Jews, the rebuilding of the walls, and the restoration of covenant life led by Ezra.

The book of Nehemiah is a compilation of works. There are memoirs and lists in the letter. Though a compilation, it is very clear that Nehemiah, the cupbearer of King Artaxerxes, wrote large portions of the book. Verses 1:1-7:5, 12:27-43, 13:4-31 are Nehemiah’s personal memoirs, as they are written in first person.4 Other sections were probably written by another author, most likely Ezra. Therefore, the book of Nehemiah was written by both authors; however, it seems like Ezra was the compiler of the contents. He compiled the writings sometime after 432 BC but no later than 400 BC.5

What do we know about Ezra and Nehemiah? Ezra was a priest and scribe; Nehemiah was a layman and cupbearer to the king of Persia. Scripture teaches that Ezra devoted himself to the study and observance of the law and the teaching of its decrees to Israel (Ezra 7:10). We see his devotion to Scripture by looking at how he led Israel into spiritual revival both in the book of Ezra and Nehemiah. In Nehemiah 8, he led Israel in the reading of Scripture from morning till noon. During this time of observance, Ezra and some of the Levites also explained the meaning of the Scriptures to the people (8:8). Then the next day, Ezra met the fathers of the households, the Levites, and the priests to help them further understand the words of the Law (8:13). This led to a great spiritual revival in Israel and eventually to their recommitment to the Mosaic covenant as they bound themselves with a curse and an oath to obey its laws (10:29).

As for the person of Nehemiah, we don’t know much about him. He is only mentioned in the book of Nehemiah. He was probably born during the exile in Persia. He was a trusted cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. He, obviously, was a devout person of prayer as he prays eleven times throughout the book. He also had a strong awareness of God’s sovereignty over all events. After the king listened to Nehemiah’s plan and granted his request to go and rebuild Jerusalem, he did not boast in his business plan or favor with the king but humbly recognized God’s gracious hand over the whole situation (Nehemiah 2:8). In addition, He clearly was a man of great integrity. While he served as governor of Israel for twelve years, he never abused the people or even used the governor’s allowance for food. He declared that the reason he did not abuse his authority, as the previous governors had, was because of his “reverence for God” (Nehemiah 5:15). He was a man of great integrity who feared the Lord.

Nehemiah and Ezra were great leaders who God called to work together. Nehemiah handled the practical aspects, while Ezra handled the spiritual. As we consider them, we cannot but remember other great leaders who God called to work together throughout the narrative of Scripture. God called Moses and Aaron, David and Nathan, Hezekiah and Isaiah, Paul and Barnabas, and many others to help lead his people in reform. Nehemiah and Ezra had a lasting impact on the post-exilic community, and they are still having a great impact today.

Background

What is the background of the book of Nehemiah? The background is God’s faithfulness to his covenant promises with Israel. In the Mosaic Law, God promised Israel that if they obeyed his commands and worshiped him alone that he would bless them, but if they disobeyed him, he would bring nations to destroy Israel and exile them from the promised land (Deuteronomy 28). In the book of Kings, King Solomon led the nation into idolatry as he worshiped the gods of his foreign wives. This resulted in God judging the nation by splitting it in two. It split into the Northern Kingdom (Samaria), which had Jeroboam as king, and the Southern Kingdom (Judah), which followed Rehoboam, the son of Solomon.

The Northern Kingdom had many ungodly kings who continued to worship foreign gods in disobedience to God’s law, and as a consequence, the nation was conquered and scattered by the Assyrians in 722 BC. The Southern Kingdom fared a little better as they had more good kings, but they also fell into spiritual adultery, leading to God’s discipline. They went through several deportations by the nation of Babylon from 605 to 586 BC (2 Kings 25).6

The deportees from Israel lived in Babylon for seventy years (cf. Jeremiah 25:11), and the first return to Israel happened in 539 BC. This return, which resulted in the rebuilding of the Jewish temple, was led by Zerubbabel and Joshua. The details of this return and rebuilding are documented in Ezra chapters 1-6. The second return was led by the priest Ezra in 458 BC.7 Ezra, then, led Israel into the restoration of the covenant and the worship of God (Ezra 7-10). However, this renewal of worship was short lived. The final return happened in 445 BC and was led by Nehemiah, the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes of Persia.8 Nehemiah became the governor of Israel and accomplished the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem, as seen in Nehemiah chapters 1-7. In chapters 8-12, Ezra again led Israel into revival and covenant renewal. In chapter 13, it is clear that Nehemiah left for some unspecified amount of time to again serve the king in Persia (13:6); however, Nehemiah returned only to find Israel again in spiritual turmoil. They had married foreign wives and were no longer practicing the Sabbath. The book ends on a sour note. Israel would not be faithful to their covenant God, which was a foreshadowing of the later rejection of the messiah in the Gospels.

Purpose

What is the purpose of the book of Nehemiah? The primary purpose is to show God’s covenant faithfulness to Israel. Even though they had disobeyed God and were exiled from the land, God remained faithful to his covenant with Abraham. In Genesis 13, God promised to give Abraham’s seed the land of Israel “forever” (v. 15). Though Israel was unfaithful, the faithful God brought them back from exile, first by Zerubbabel, then by Ezra, and finally by Nehemiah. The book of Nehemiah documents the rebuilding of the walls amidst turmoil and persecution. It then documents a revival and restoration of Israel to God’s covenant. God still had plans for Israel. He was faithful, even when they were not.

The major themes of this letter include Nehemiah’s obedience. Nehemiah, who was serving in Persia under the king, developed a burden for the nation of Israel which was in turmoil. He gained favor from the king and returned to rebuild the walls around Jerusalem, the capital city. After rebuilding the wall, Nehemiah developed a plan to repopulate Jerusalem. He attributed this to God as he said, “Now the city was large and spacious, but there were few people in it, and the houses had not yet been rebuilt. So my God put it into my heart to assemble the nobles, the officials and the common people for registration by families” (7:4-5). Nehemiah was faithful to God’s plans throughout the narrative.

Another major theme in the book is opposition. As soon as Nehemiah came to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls, those who were profiting from Israel’s misfortune began to antagonize Nehemiah. They mocked him and the Israelites. They sent out rumors that Nehemiah was rebelling against the king of Persia. They plotted to come against Israel in battle. In fact, there was even division amongst the leaders of Israel, as the nobles in the tribe of Judah partnered with the enemy. Nehemiah received some type of opposition or persecution seven times throughout the book (Nehemiah 2:19; 4:1-3; 4:7-23; 6:1-4; 6:5-9; 6:10-14; 6:17-19).9 Faithfulness to God will always bring persecution and trials. However, Nehemiah and Israel still completed the rebuilding of the walls in only fifty-two days.

God’s sovereignty over Israel is also a resounding theme throughout the book. Nehemiah seeks favor from the king in chapter 2 in order to go and rebuild the wall. When the king granted his request, Nehemiah attributed this to God’s gracious hand over his life (Nehemiah 2:8). He says, “because the gracious hand of my God was upon me, the king granted my requests.” Also, when Nehemiah told the Israelites about his plan to rebuild the wall, he again attributed his success to God’s gracious hand guiding the process (2:18). Throughout the narrative, God continued to graciously prosper the restoration of Israel.

In addition, prayer is a major theme in the book of Nehemiah. Eleven times Nehemiah prays in this book (cf. 1:5-11; 2:4; 4:4, 9; 5:19; 6:9, 14;13:14, 22, 29, 31). In chapter 1, it was Nehemiah’s fasting and prayer which led to his plan to seek favor from the king. In chapter 2, when Nehemiah approached the king for permission to go to Israel, the text says that Nehemiah prayed right before asking the king (v. 4-5). Nehemiah records, “The king said to me, ‘What is it you want?’ Then I prayed to the God of heaven, and I answered the king.” Nehemiah was a man of prayer, and it was prayer that led to the rebuilding of the walls and the restoration of the people.

Finally, another major theme of the book is obviously leadership. Nehemiah coordinated and made plans on how to get to Israel and what would be needed for the building project before he left Persia. He motivated the Israelites to rebuild the wall that had been down for over 140 years. He encouraged them to be faithful in the midst of persecution from without and turmoil from within. Nehemiah even stands up to the Jews who were sinning against God by neglecting the house of God, breaking the Sabbath, and marrying foreign wives (Nehemiah 13). From Nehemiah’s example, we can learn a great deal about leadership.


1 Longman III, Tremper. Introducing the Old Testament: A Short Guide to Its History and Message. Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

2 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 3456-3457). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

3 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Location 3454). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

4 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Location 3456). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

5 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Locations 3464-3465). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

6 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Location 3468). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

7 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Location 3479). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

8 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Location 3480). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

9 MacArthur, John (2003-08-21). The MacArthur Bible Handbook (Kindle Location 3556). Thomas Nelson. Kindle Edition.

Related Topics: Leadership

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