Background

The historical setting for Nehemiah and his work was also touched on in the introductory information provided for the book of Ezra. Nehemiah led the third major return of exiles back to Jerusalem in 445 BC (Neh 2:1). A former cupbearer to the Persian king Artaxerxes I and a man of obvious social standing and administrative skill, Nehemiah successfully organized and supervised the task of rebuilding the city walls. After a period of absence from Jerusalem, Nehemiah returns a second time (cf. Neh 5:14, 13:6ff.) to contribute to additional efforts at reorganization and moral reform. In addition to the scribe Ezra, whose reforming activities are especially highlighted in chapters 8 and 9, the prophet Malachi served the Lord and the Lord’s people at the same time that Nehemiah did.

Authorship

The name of the book, Nehemiah, is that of its main character and primary author. The meaning of Nehemiah is “The Lord comforts” or “The comfort of the Lord.”  The consistent use of the first person pronoun throughout the book shows Nehemiah’s authorship.

Most scholars see this book and the book of Ezra as wholly or partially the work of the so-called Chronicler. Negative critics invariably assume that this anonymous writer/compiler/editor lived centuries after Nehemiah and fabricated the material into a product that has varying degrees of reliability and historical accuracy. Conservative scholars see Nehemiah’s personal memoirs as the core of the book but allow final editing and fusion with the book of Ezra at the hands of an early chronicler (420-400 BC). Perhaps that editor was Ezra himself, and perhaps he also wrote the books of Chronicles.

Purpose for Writing

Concerning the purpose and theological content of the Nehemiah, most of what was said in regard to Ezra applies. Additional lessons may be noted, however. One may add the observation that sometimes even the finest reforms are comparatively short-lived. Between the time of the events of Ezra and those recorded in Nehemiah, and similarly between the time of Nehemiah’s first and second tour of duty as governor of Jerusalem, much good had apparently been undone, and the people of Jerusalem repeatedly came under the influence and oppression of foreigners. Another useful observation has to do with the fact that Nehemiah was a “layman” rather than holder of a prophetic or priestly office. The chosen instruments of the Lord, then and now, are drawn from various vocations.

Date of Writing

Historically, Ezra and Nehemiah are also close companions. The NIV Study Bible shows this while sharing this information: “According to the traditional view, Ezra arrived in Jerusalem in the seventh year (Ezra 7:8) of Artaxerxes I (458 BC), followed by Nehemiah, who arrived in the king’s 20th year (445 BC; Neh 2:1). Some have proposed a reverse order in which Nehemiah arrived in 445 BC, while Ezra arrived in the seventh year of Artaxerxes II (398 BC). By amending ‘seventh’ (Ezra 7:8) to either ‘27th’ or ‘37th,’ others place Ezra after Nehemiah but maintain they were contemporaries.”1Zondervan Publishing. Zondervan NIV Study Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.

We hold the traditional view of chronology since it presents fewer problems and reflects a straightforward understanding of the text. Placing Ezra’s ministry in the reign of Artaxerxes I (464-424 BC) also uses evidence from the Elephantine papyri. We also note that both Ezra and Nehemiah are together in Nehemiah 8:9 and Nehemiah 12:26, 36, and we usually date the writing of the books as approximately 440 BC for Ezra and 430 BC for Nehemiah.

Christ Connection

The connection between Christ and the book of Nehemiah is very similar to the connection with the book of Ezra. God returned his people to the land of Israel and was preparing world history for the coming Savior. A major part of this was rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem, which helped give the Israelites back their national character. The effects of this would last until the coming of Christ less than 450 years later.

Notable Passages

  • Nehemiah 1:5-11
  • Nehemiah 2:12
  • Nehemiah 2:17-18
  • Nehemiah 6:9
  • Nehemiah 6:16
  • Nehemiah 8:2-3
  • Nehemiah 9:5-37

Outline

Nehemiah is usually divided into two main sections, chapters 1-7 and 8-13. The first portion centers in the work of rebuilding the city walls while the second focuses more on the various tasks related to rebuilding the people’s spiritual and moral lives. Here are typical and functional outlines that express this progression of thought:

  1. Nehemiah rebuilds the city walls (Neh 1-7)
  2. Ezra and Nehemiah restore the people (Neh 8-13)
  1. The physical rebuilding of Jerusalem (Neh 1-7)
  2. The spiritual rebuilding of Jerusalem (Neh 8-13)

References   [ + ]

1. Zondervan Publishing. Zondervan NIV Study Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002.