Book Background: Nehemiah

Written by Heather Zempel | July 31, 2010 | Ezra 9,10 - Nehemiah 1,2

Let’s review some history.

In 586 BC, the Hebrews were conquered by the Babylonians, and God’s people were taken captive and scattered across the Babylonian Empire. This is called the period of the “Exile.” In 539 BC, the Babylonians were conquered by the Medes and the Persians.

Emperor Cyrus of Persia reversed the exile and, in 538 BC, released about 43,000 Hebrews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple. But the temple didn’t get built very fast. Eighteen years later, the second crew of exiles returned to Jerusalem, and the temple was completed in 516 BC. In 458 BC, Ezra led a national revival and recorded all of these events in his book. In 445 BC, Nehemiah and others were allowed to breturn to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls around the city.

The book of Nehemiah was probably written sometime around 430 BC while Malachi was prophesying. Nehemiah means “Yahweh Comforts,” and his book is divided into 3 main sections:

  * The first section of the book (Nehemiah 1-7) focuses on Nehemiah’s visionary leadership and the rebuilding of the wall.
  * The second section of the book (Nehemiah 8-10) focuses on the people inside the wall. Nehemiah and Ezra worked together to remind the people of their history and to re-establish the Law.
  * In the final section of the book (Nehemiah 11-13), Nehemiah continued to support Ezra, serves as governor, and institutes new reforms.

Our scene begins in the Persian court of King Artaxerxes. As cupbearer to the king, Nehemiah held a position of great trust and importance. When he learned that the city walls of his ancestors lay in ruins, he requested a leave of absence and was granted an armed escort and resources to rebuild the wall.

Nehemiah led himself well and allowed his vision to be directed by God. He surrounded himself with a skilled team and together they began to rebuild the wall. They faced tremendous opposition from Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem.

When Nehemiah discovered a plot against Jerusalem, he prayed and posted a guard (in NCC language, he prayed like it depended on God and worked like it depended on him).

The walls were completed in a record-breaking 52 days, and a time of celebration began. First, Ezra read the Law of Moses. Some had never heard these words of God before. Then, they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, a festival to remember God’s guidance and provision of the Hebrew people during their journey through the wilderness to the Promised Land. This celebration took on greater meaning for these newly returned and restored exiles as they had personally witnessed God’s guidance and provision in their own lives. People continued to rejoice as the wall was dedicated.

After serving as governor for one term, Nehemiah returned to the Persian court for a while. In 431 BC, he visited his hometown again and found that the people had slipped back into their old ways. He served another term as governor, instituted new reforms, and pointed people back to the ways of God.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Nehemiah was actually included in the book of Ezra. Many scholars believe that Ezra was actually the compiler/author of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. However, it does appear that Nehemiah wrote at least some if not all of the material in the book that bears his name. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, split the books and named Nehemiah after its main character.

As you read this book, think about the theme of restoration. What has God restored in your life? What do you need him to restore? How might you be influential in restoring something in the life of another?