An overview of Nehemiah
Malcolm C. Davis, Leeds, England
The Book of Nehemiah is named after its main character and its opening words. In Old Testament canonical lists, it has been classified as a historical book. It is the natural sequel to the Book of Ezra. In both Hebrew and Greek Bibles of the earliest centuries, Ezra and Nehemiah were treated as one book. Their separation into two books can be traced back to the Latin Vulgate Bibles.
Purpose of the book
The Book of Nehemiah continues the theme of the preceding Book of Ezra, namely, the historical account of how the Lord sovereignly accomplished the gradual restoration of a remnant of Jews to their Promised Land, after their seventy years of exile in Babylon. In this restoration there were three stages altogether. First, in 536 BC Zerubbabel led a contingent of nearly 50,000 returnees, who rebuilt the temple at Jerusalem. Then, in 458 BC Ezra led back a much smaller group of 2,000 Jews to reinstruct the remnant in the commandments of the law of the Lord, and to regulate their lives according to it. Now, thirdly, in 445 BC, the Lord moved the Persian king, Artaxerxes I, to allow Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem with a further small group of exiles. This was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, which had been almost totally destroyed by their surrounding enemies, and to reinstruct the returnees in spiritual and moral matters. The account of the reconstruction of the city, and the restoration of the Jews’ spiritual life is, as in the Book of Ezra, a very chequered one, but one that was eventually marked by a measure of success and the Lord’s blessing on His people. The book demonstrates how the Lord raised up and used mainly one man to accomplish His purpose in the return of the exiles, although during part of the process of restoration Ezra again became involved in teaching the word of the Lord to the people.
Analysis of the book
Chapters 1-2: The events which led to Nehemiah’s appointment as Governor of Judah, and his initial survey of the damaged walls of Jerusalem, 445 BC.
Chapter 1: Nehemiah learns about the conditions of the Jews in Jerusalem, and then prays for the city.
Chapter 2: Nehemiah obtains permission from Artaxerxes to return to Jerusalem, then surveys the damaged walls privately at night.
Chapters 3-7: The rebuilding of the walls is finished in fifty-two days.
Chapter 3: List of people who rebuilt the walls.
Chapter 4: Opposition encountered, Nehemiah’s prayer, and the rebuilding continues.
Chapter 5: The problem of debt resolved.
Chapter 6: More opposition encountered, but the wall is finished.
Chapter 7: List of all returnees with Zerubbabel.
Chapters 8-13: The reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah, 444-432 BC.
Chapter 8: Ezra reads and explains the law of God, then the Feast of Tabernacles is celebrated.
Chapter 9: Confession and covenant made by the priests and Levites.
Chapter 10: List of those who sealed the covenant.
Chapters 11-12: List of priests and Levites who returned with Zerubbabel, followed by the dedication of the walls.
Chapter 13: The reforms of Nehemiah, including the expulsion of foreigners from the temple, the renewing of support for the Levites, the enforcement of Sabbath-keeping, and the annulling of mixed marriages.
Dates and historical setting of the book
445 BC Artaxerxes I permits Nehemiah to return to Jerusalem as Governor of Judah to rebuild the city walls.
444 BC The reforms of Ezra.
432 BC The reforms of Nehemiah after his return from a period away from Jerusalem in Babylon.
All these events are recorded in Nehemiah, which is a primary historical document for them.
The Book of Nehemiah records the third return of Jewish exiles from Babylon to the Promised Land, that is, after both Zerubbabel and Ezra. Artaxerxes I’s royal edict was issued in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of that king, see chapter 2 verse 1. It authorized Nehemiah to come to Jerusalem for the first time to repair the damage which the city had sustained. This has been demonstrated to be 14th March, 445 BC. Nehemiah’s second coming to Jerusalem, after his later brief visit to Babylon, was ‘in the two and thirtieth year of Artaxerxes’, or about twelve or thirteen years later than this, see chapter 13 verse 6. This was 432 BC. Therefore, Nehemiah could not have written this book before about 430 BC, but probably soon after then, since the unhappy events of chapter 13 were evidently still fresh in his mind when he wrote the record of them. Thus, this book is the latest of the historical books in the Old Testament. Esther, which follows it canonically, is to be dated in the reign of Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Xerxes I, who ruled the Persian Empire before the time of Nehemiah, but after the time of Zerubbabel. Esther is to be dated between the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. The latest prophetical book in the Old Testament, Malachi, was probably written about the time of Nehemiah’s reforms, or a little later, because it reflects conditions among the returned remnant, very similar to those which Nehemiah found in Jerusalem when he returned from his visit to Babylon.
Most commentators agree that Nehemiah himself was the author of the book that bears his name, since much of it is autobiographical, being written in the first person, see chapters 1 to 7, and chapter 12 verse 27 to chapter 13 verse 31. The intervening part of the book, which is written in the third person and largely concerns Ezra, could easily have been incorporated into the record by Nehemiah.
Nehemiah’s name means ‘the comfort of the Lord’, while his father’s name, Hachaliah, means ‘the darkness of the Lord’. Certainly, Nehemiah’s book tells how the Lord ministered comfort through him to his people, the Jews, following the long dark night of discipline that they had endured during their seventy years of exile in Babylon. Judging from the name which his parents gave him, perhaps we may gather that Nehemiah was brought up in a godly home. Certainly, at the beginning of the book, we find him enjoying a very favoured and responsible position in the king’s court, as the latter’s cupbearer. His circumstances in exile were comparatively comfortable. But Nehemiah was a true believer whose heart was really with his afflicted brethren in his home city of Jerusalem. He was a man of God, filled with the Spirit of God for the task which he most desired to accomplish. Therefore, when king Artaxerxes I gave him the opportunity to express his deepest desire for his fellow-countrymen, he took it with both hands, in complete dependence on God for the ability to do it. He was permitted to relinquish his role as the king’s cupbearer for a time, in order to become the Governor of Judah and oversee the reconstruction of Jerusalem with his people’s help.
At every stage of the work, he turned to his God in prayer, which punctuates the whole book. He had a very personal knowledge and appreciation of the Lord. He was not afraid of hard work and was an inspiring leader of his workforce. When confronted with opposition, whether from his enemies or his fellow-Jews, he stood courageously, firm and immoveable from his task until it was completed. He grieved deeply over the sins of his people and their distresses. His fear of God saved him from the fear of man. In his dealings with his countrymen he was transparently honest, just and fair, an exemplary leader of men. He was committed to enforcing the commandments of scripture, cost what it may, and showed no partiality towards those who were breaking the law of God and required disciplining. His ability to organize the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem in fifty-two days was remarkable. Finally, it is noticeable that he gave all glory to God for the success that he achieved. A truly remarkable servant of God, whom we should emulate today!
The book’s message for today
If the primary message of the book of Ezra is that of the restoration of the people of God from the results of their sinful ways and consequent divine discipline, then the primary lesson of the book is the need to re-establish their shattered testimony before the world around and reconstruct their spiritual life of worship and service. The reconstruction of Jerusalem’s protecting wall was absolutely necessary to separate the Lord’s people from the heathen nations around them, and their unhelpful influences. Only after this line of separation had been rebuilt could the Lord’s people once again worship Him acceptably and serve Him effectively.
A further lesson of the book is that the Lord Himself will sovereignly raise up suitable leaders to assist their fellow-saints in this work of reconstruction. Without such leaders, believers will tend to revert to their old sinful ways, which brought them into such distress and disgrace even before the world.
Every saint today should seek to emulate the characteristics of Nehemiah himself. All of us need to live our lives in the atmosphere of constant prayer and dependence on the Lord’s help and guidance day by day. Unlike Old Testament saints, Christians now have the Holy Spirit of God living permanently within them. Only He can enable us to become exemplary workers for our God, like Nehemiah in his day. May we yield our lives to Him in consecrated service every day of our witness here on earth!
[Extracted from Coming Back from Exile – Volume 7 of the Old Testament Overview series published by Precious Seed Publications]