Ezra and Nehemiah were originally one book in the Hebrew text, because they tell the three-part story of Israel’s return from captivity in Persia. When the Hebrew text was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), this was retained as one book, called Esdras B (or 2 Esdras). It was not until Origen and, finally, Jerome in the 4th century A.D. that the book was finally split into two, each carrying the name of the respective writers.
In a similar manner to how Babylon took Israel captive in three sets (605, 597, 586 B.C.), Israel returned to her land under Persian permission in three sets as well (539, 457, 455 B.C.), each with a major person leading them – Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah.
Nehemiah is the last of the historical books of the Old Testament. Whereas the book of Ezra addresses the spiritual restoration of Israel – the initial return from captivity and the rebuilding of the Temple – Nehemiah focuses more on the political restoration, reestablishing Israel as a nation.
The dating of Nehemiah is important for at least a couple of reasons. First, there has been some dispute regarding which Persian king Nehemiah served. He should be understood as Artaxerxes I, the same man as in Ezra 7. Second, this helps interpret the 70 weeks of Daniel. Of all of the commands and allowances for the Jews to return to Israel after their captivity, only the command in Nehemiah 2 fits the Daniel 9:25 description “to restore and rebuild Jerusalem… with plaza and moat, but in distressful times.” This took place in 444 B.C. The rest of Daniel’s prophecy (e.g., the cutting off of Messiah) occurred in A.D. 33, just as promised.
Most of Nehemiah was written in the first person, that is, Nehemiah used the pronouns I, me, and my as he wrote of his experiences. He provided a firsthand account of the balance between his leadership skills and personality and God’s grace at work in and through him, as he led the Israelites in obedience to God, along with godly men like Ezra and Malachi.
Chapter one opens with a specific date, “in the month of Kislev, in the twentieth year” (Nehemiah 1:1). This would have been 445-444 B.C., about 13 years after Ezra had gone to Jerusalem (Ezra 7:7). When his brother, Hanani, and some others made their way back from Jerusalem to Susa, Nehemiah naturally inquired about the status of his people and the holy city. Zerubbabel had gone there 539 B.C., almost a hundred years earlier (Ezra 1:1), in order to begin the restoration, but there was much trouble, and they did not do much beyond building the Temple. 1 Ezra brought another group back to Jerusalem in 458 B.C. (Ezra 7:7), but his time was spent purifying the people again and restoring the proper worship in the Temple.
Nehemiah was crushed at the news that “the wall of Jerusalem lies breached, and its gates have been burned down!” (Nehemiah 1:3) After nearly 100 years since Zerubbabel, he expected that Jerusalem would have been a strong, fully functioning city again. Like Daniel so many years before and Ezra just a dozen years earlier, Nehemiah fell down before God in prayer, confessing sin on behalf of his nation (Nehemiah 1:4-11).
In addition to his confession, his prayer included two other key points. First, he quoted from the Land Covenant God made with Israel in Deuteronomy 30, knowing that God had obligated himself to fulfill those promises (Nehemiah 1:8-10). Second, Nehemiah already had a plan to confront the king, so he asked God for success in that meeting (Nehemiah 1:11). He was not afraid to use the secular connections he had to accomplish God’s work.
- The books of Ezra and Haggai recount some of the issues they had to deal with when helping the people build the Temple. ↩