Read the Passage: Nehemiah 1-2
Author and Date: The book of Nehemiah was likely written by the priest-scribe Ezra. Observe that Ezra also wrote the books of 1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Esther. Given the personal details in this book, some scholars believe that Nehemiah may have written parts of this book himself, or that Ezra used Nehemiah’s diaries in his writing of the book. Observe that Ezra and Nehemiah, along with the prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi were all contemporaries. Originally, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were probably one book (or scroll) and many Jews refer to the book of Nehemiah as the book of Second Ezra. The book of Nehemiah details the account of the rebuilding of the city wall of Jerusalem. Given the importance of the return to Jerusalem, it is surprising that no New Testament author quotes from the book of Nehemiah. Furthermore, the name Nehemiah does not even appear in Scripture anywhere outside of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Interestingly, however, Nehemiah is mentioned by name in extra-biblical literature as being the governor of Jerusalem during this time-frame. It is probable that the book of Nehemiah was written around 420 BC.
Theme and Purpose: Just as the book of Ezra chronicles the rebuilding of the Temple, so the book of Nehemiah details the building of the city walls of Jerusalem. Note that it took roughly 100 years to rebuild Jerusalem, including its temple, dwellings, and the city wall. In contrast to Ezra, who was a priest-scribe, Nehemiah was a layman-politician, whose initial job was that of cup-bearer to the king of Persia. This book details how Ezra the priest, and Nehemiah the governor, were used by God to re-establish and re-build the city of Jerusalem and to settle many of God’s people back in the Promised Land. While this book largely narrates Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem and the re-building of the city wall, the last chapter details a second later return of Nehemiah to Jerusalem. Nehemiah’s first return likely lasted from about 445–433 BC and his second return was roughly between 424–410 BC. In the chronology of the biblical record, recall that Zerubbabel had returned to Jerusalem in 538 BC to rebuild the temple, and Ezra had led a second return to Jerusalem in 458 BC. Nehemiah’s two returns, then, were actually the third and fourth returns of Israel to the city.
Structure and Outline: Given the narrative nature of this biblical text, any outline of the book of Nehemiah will be somewhat subjective. Below is a suggested thematic outline of this text:
- Rebuilding of the Walls (1:1–7:73)
- Revival of Ezra (8:1–10:39)
- Restoring of the City (11:1–12:47)
- Return of Nehemiah (13:1–31)
Prayer of Nehemiah (1:1–11)
The book of Nehemiah begins in the twentieth year of the reign of Artaxerxes, which was 446 BC. Note that Esther was Artaxerxes’ stepmother, thus she may have influenced his positive view of the Jews. At this time Nehemiah received word of the state of Jerusalem, which was likely related to, or the result of, the events recorded in Ezra 4:7–23. Although he had likely never been to Jerusalem, Nehemiah loved the city, as well as God’s people. Indeed, the text records that Nehemiah spent “many days . . . fasting and praying before the God of heaven [for Israel]” (Neh. 1:4). Furthermore, Neh. 1:5–11 records Nehemiah’s lament before God. In this prayer Nehemiah recognizes God’s character (cf. Neh. 1:5–6), he admits the great sins of God’s people (cf. Neh. 1:7–8), he reminds God of His promises (cf. Neh. 1:9–10), and he petitions God for mercy and prosperity (cf. Neh. 1:11). As an aside, Nehemiah adds that he was the king’s cup-bearer.
Concern of Artaxerxes (2:1–10)
This chapter begins roughly four months after the events in chapter one. Since he was dismayed about the dilapidated state Jerusalem, Nehemiah unintentionally appeared sad in the king’s presence. Artaxerxes then asked about the reason for his grief, which greatly alarmed Nehemiah. This is because, as the cup-bearer, it was important that Nehemiah always appear before the king to be happy and healthy; yet, with his sorrow detected, Nehemiah silently prayed and asked King Artaxerxes for permission to return to Jerusalem (cf. Neh. 2:4–5). Furthermore, Nehemiah bravely asked the king to finance the rebuilding of the city (cf. Neh. 2:7–8). This request was quite bold, for earlier in his reign Artaxerxes had given a command that those who were rebuilding Jerusalem to cease their work (cf. Ezra 4:6–23). Nehemiah recognized the permission he received was “according to the good hand of my God upon me” (Neh. 2:8).
Wall of Jerusalem (2:11–20)
As could perhaps be expected, the local Samaritan leaders were not happy when Nehemiah’s party arrived with the king’s authority to rebuild the city walls (cf. Neh. 2:9–10). Indeed, they even tried to discourage Nehemiah from rebuilding (cf. Neh. 2:19). Nehemiah, however, remained focused as he deployed a simple rebuilding methodology. First, before he disclosed his reason for arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah surveyed the state of the walls of the city (cf. Neh. 2:11–16). Second, after processing the scope of the project, Nehemiah informed the people of his intent to rebuild the walls, noting, “I told [the people] of the hand of God which had been good upon me” (Neh. 2:18). Third, when the Samaritans and other local officials tried to discourage him, Nehemiah replied by confidently declaring his trust in God’s providential blessing, telling them, “You have no heritage . . . in Jerusalem” (Neh. 2:20).
- What do you know about the book of Nehemiah? What verses or passages from this book come to mind?
- Like Nehemiah, are you concerned with the plight of God’s people around the world? How can we better unify the Body of Christ?
- In a manner similar to Nehemiah, in what areas of your life have you experienced the good hand of God upon you?
- What does it take to discourage you in your ministry? How can believers maintain hope in ministerial trials?
- How can Nehemiah’s simply rebuilding methodology be adapted for use in our modern context?