The three books of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther close the section of the Old Testament that we have called the History Books. These three books cover the last 100 years of Old Testament Jewish history. They tell of events between the years 539-433 B.C. You will remember that 2 Chronicles ended with the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 B.C and the Exile in Babylon under King Nebuchadnezzar. The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell about the three-stage return of the Jews from Babylon: 1) in 538 B.C. the main group of Jews returned with Zerubbabel; 2) in 458 B.C. a second group returned with Ezra; 3) and in 445 B.C. a third group returned with Nehemiah. The story of Esther takes place in the land of Persia between the return under Zerubbabel and the return under Ezra. A little history will help us understand better the times and events recorded in these three books. The Jews were exiled in three stages by the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar: 605 B.C., 597 B.C. and 587 B.C. when the final destruction of Jerusalem took place. The Jews were settled in colonies in Babylonia and were not mistreated as long as they were quiet subjects to the King of Babylon. Many of them prospered in Babylonia and chose to live there permanently, even after they were granted permission to return to their homeland. The great Babylonian Empire came to an end in 539 B.C. when Cyrus, King of Persia, defeated the Babylonians. As we learn in the opening verses of Ezra, Cyrus gave the Jews permission to return to Judah. The return from exile did not mean that the Jews were completely politically free. They remained a part of the Persian Empire, but were generally treated well. The events of Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther all take place during the Persian Empire, which ruled from 539 B.C. until it was defeated by the Greeks in 331 B.C.
The human writer of the Book of Nehemiah was Nehemiah himself. This is clear from the use of the first person pronoun. (“I was in the citadel of Susa … When I heard these things, I sat down and wept,” etc.) Unlike Ezra, Nehemiah was a layman. Yet God used him in a big way in the work of reestablishing the Jewish nation after the exile.
IMPORTANCE OF THE BOOK
The Book of Nehemiah is important for us since it is the last of the inspired books to tell us of Old Testament Jewish history. Though some of the books of the Apocrypha continue the story of the Old Testament Jews, they cannot be completely trusted even for history since they are not God-inspired. In our Bibles, the Book of Esther follows the Book of Nehemiah, but it tells of events which took place before Nehemiah.
GENERAL OUTLINE OF NEHEMIAH
- Nehemiah Restores the City Walls of Jerusalem (1-7)
- The Reforms of Ezra and Nehemiah (8-13)
A BRIEF SURVEY OF THE CONTENTS
Word reaches Nehemiah in the city of Susa in Persia that the Jews in Palestine are in great trouble. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, he is told. Nehemiah weeps when he hears this sad news; then he fasts and prays to God. After his prayer, he introduces himself as the cupbearer of King Artaxerxes of Persia. By God’s mercy, Nehemiah’s prayer for the Jews is answered, and King Artaxerxes allows Nehemiah to go to Jerusalem to repair the city. Three days after arriving in Jerusalem, Nehemiah makes an inspection tour of the city walls (1-2). The work on the city walls and gates begins. Chapter 3 gives a list of the various people who had a hand in the repairs. Soon enemies of the Jews oppose the wall building project. Sanballat mocks the Jews in their work. Tobiah the Ammonite makes fun of the builders and says that even if a fox were to climb on the wall, it would break down. Nevertheless, Nehemiah pleads to God for help and encourages the builders in their work. Some build while some serve as guards. Finally the wall is completed after 52 days of hard work (3-6). Nehemiah now puts two men in charge of Jerusalem and instructs them on when to open and close the city gates for safety. The rest of chapter 7 gives a list of the exiles who returned to Jerusalem and Judah (7). Ezra reads the Law of Moses to all the assembled people at the Water Gate in Jerusalem. The people confess their sins before God and confirm the covenant. Chapter 11 contains a list of the residents of Jerusalem. In chapter 12 a list of the priests and Levites is given together with an account of the happy dedication of the wall of Jerusalem. In chapter 13 we are told of a second visit of Nehemiah to Jerusalem after he had returned to King Artaxerxes (8-13).
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