The traditional view of the Book of Nehemiah is that it was written by Ezra the scribe as a sequel to the Book of Ezra. Nehemiah contains two main sections: the Nehemiah Memoir (chapters 1-7, 12-13) and the Ezra Memoir (chapters 8-10). These memoirs appear to be first-hand accounts of the activities of Ezra and Nehemiah during the years of 445 – 433 BC.
According to Barrett Duke in The Apologetics Study Bible, the Book of Nehemiah
relates the continuing efforts of the Jewish people who returned from 70 years of captivity in the Babylonian Empire to reestablish themselves in their homeland. The principal person in this part of the history is Nehemiah, a Jew who had attained the influential position of cupbearer in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes. Nehemiah was the last in a succession of Jewish leaders in the biblical record to help the people achieve a stable and vibrant life in the Persian province known as Yehud, or Judah. Nehemiah followed Sheshbazzar (who led the first return), Zerubbabel (who led the temple rebuilding project), and Ezra the priest and scribe (who led the spiritual renewal of the people). Nehemiah’s principal contribution to the emerging community was the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall, which had been destroyed in 586 b.c. by the Babylonians.
Prior to the beginning of events recorded in the Book of Nehemiah, the Persian king Artaxerxes had ordered work on the walls of Jerusalem to be halted, citing the rebellious history of Jerusalem. However, he did allow Ezra, a prominent Jewish scholar, to lead another group of Jews back to Jerusalem from Babylon in 458 BC. The Chronological Study Bible (NKJV) explains the significance of Ezra:
Ezra’s focus and authority was Scripture, which at that time meant the Books of Moses. In the years before the Exile, Scripture had not been treated as particularly significant. Indeed, when a part of the Law of Moses was found and read during King Josiah’s reign, the king and people had evidently never heard such a message before (2 Kin. 22: 8– 13). Israelite worship had been concentrated on the temple, not the law. During the Exile, though, that changed. Without a temple, the Jews had to find a new center for their faith. They became the people of the Book. In this context, a new kind of religious leader arose. The Hebrew word for these leaders, usually translated ‘scribes,’ means in a sense ‘bookmen,’ learned men who were able to read and write. Ezra represents this new sort of leader. Although he is from the high priestly line of Aaron (Ezra 7: 1– 5), his true authority comes from his standing as ‘a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses’ (7: 6).
Ezra was more concerned with the spiritual condition of the returned exile community than repairs to Jerusalem itself. In fact, even though a new temple had been completed in 515 BC, the walls and gates protecting Jerusalem were still in disrepair due to Artaxerxes’ earlier decree. This brings us to the year 445 BC and the Book of Nehemiah.
In chapter one, verses 1-3, Nehemiah hears from his brother Hanani that the walls and gates of Jerusalem are still destroyed. Nehemiah is living in Susa, the winter capital of the Persian Empire. We soon learn that Nehemiah is one of the most trusted aides to Artaxerxes, king of Persia.
Upon hearing this news, Nehemiah mourns and prays to God. Nehemiah’s prayer consists of: 1) acknowledgment of and praise for who God is, 2) confession of his sins and the sins of Israel, 3) reminder of God’s promises to Israel if they will repent, and 4) a request to help Nehemiah when he approaches King Artaxerxes.
Mervin Breneman, in vol. 10, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, The New American Commentary, writes:
Nehemiah’s prayer was based on God’s Word. As Kidner notes, even though Nehemiah, like all of us, had to come before God empty-handed, with nothing deserving the Lord’s favor or even attention (indeed, just the opposite), he nevertheless did not come uninvited. Most of this prayer is based on Deuteronomy, many phrases of which are practically the same. Nehemiah realized that God justly punished Israel, but he reminded God that this very situation had been anticipated in Deut 4:25–31 and of his promise of mercy, faithfulness, and forgiveness.
Nehemiah realized that God had fulfilled much of Deut 30:1–10; but he was convinced that God’s promise included more than the situation in which the Jerusalem community found itself at that moment. Thus, Nehemiah’s prayer shows a profound understanding and faith in what God had promised in his Word. Nehemiah challenges us to prayer based on an understanding of God’s purpose and will as found in his Word. He also reminds us that we can always begin again in our relationship with God if we return to him in humility.
Approximately four months later, after much prayer and planning, Nehemiah is ready to speak to Artaxerxes. As Nehemiah is tasting wine and then giving it to Artaxerxes (his job was to taste everything before the king did so that the king could not be poisoned), the king notices a profound sadness in Nehemiah and asks him what is the matter. With great tact and humility, Nehemiah asks the king to allow him to return to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. He also asks for letters to be given to the rulers of the provinces Nehemiah must travel through, as well as orders to provide timber from the forests under Artaxerxes’ control. The timber would be used to construct the walls of Jerusalem. Due to God’s intercession, Artaxerxes grants Nehemiah everything he requests! Artaxerxes’ permission to rebuild the city of Jerusalem fulfills the decree Daniel had prophesied 95 years earlier in 539 BC (see Dan 9:25).
About a month after Nehemiah is given permission to return to Jerusalem, he departs. The journey lasts 2-3 months, which puts Nehemiah in Jerusalem in the June-July timeframe. Immediately upon arrival he inspects the walls around Jerusalem, devises a plan to rebuild, and rallies the people of Judah to do the work.
In chapter four, verse 6, we learn that the wall has been rebuilt to almost half of its original height in just a few weeks! The progress on the wall has greatly upset the leaders of the provinces surrounding Judah. Sanballat is governor of Samaria, the province just north of Judah. Tobiah is likely the governor of Ammon, a province just east of Judah on the other side of the Jordan River. The Arabians border Judah to the south and the province of Ashdod borders them on the west. The leaders of these provinces plot to attack Jerusalem, but first spread rumors about their plan in the hope that the Judahites will abandon their plans to complete the wall out of fear.
Nehemiah prays to God and then continues to rebuild the wall. In order to protect the people of Jerusalem, he institutes safety measures. To prevent their enemies from breaching and/or destroying the walls at night, he stations family units at low points in the wall to guard it. His reasoning is that family members will fight to protect each other more so than if family members are spread out around different portions of the wall. During the day, while construction is going on, he assigns half of the people to stand guard with weapons and the other half to build. Those who could work with only one hand would hold a weapon in their other hand.
Nehemiah reminds the people in verse 14, “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes.” Gene A. Getz, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, writes,
After praying, Nehemiah and the Jews continued with the work. Some Christians pray and then wait for things to happen, but not Nehemiah! As in all his efforts, he blended the divine perspective with the human. He faced Sanballat’s opposition with both prayer and hard work. Once he committed the problem to the Lord, he trusted God to help them achieve their goal.
Finally, in chapter six, verses 15-16, we read that the wall is completed in just fifty-two days! Against all the odds, Nehemiah and the people of Judah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in a very short period of time. The text concludes that the surrounding provinces had to admit that God was with the Judahites, because there was no other way they could have accomplished such a feat.
Mervin Breneman writes,
Judah’s enemies tried to make Nehemiah and the Jews afraid; but in the end they were the ones who feared (cf. Deut 2:25; 1 Chr 14:17; Ps 126:2; Mal 1:11, 14) because they realized God had done something astonishing in this community. The phrase ‘and lost their self-confidence’ is literally ‘and they fell very much in their eyes,’ an unfamiliar idiom but one suggesting their pride had suddenly vanished (cf. Prov 16:18–19; 29:23). Though the enemies increased because of Sanballat, the result was that more people were impressed with God’s power (4:1, 7).
The historical narrative contained in the Old Testament ends in the Book of Nehemiah around 433 BC. Zondervan’s NIV, The Story, provides a quick summary of the events which occurred after 400 BC, leading up to the birth of the Messiah:
For 400 years after Malachi’s prophecies, no prophets or leaders rose to the level of inclusion in the record of Holy Scripture. For this reason, the period is sometimes referred to as the ‘silent years.’ In actuality, these years of social and political upheaval were anything but silent for the Jewish people.
The Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids during the second century BC was one of the most heroic eras of Jewish history. During these 400 years numerous significant writings were produced as well. The Qumran community copied the books of Isaiah, the Psalms, Deuteronomy and other sacred writings. These ancient manuscripts were discovered by a shepherd boy in AD 1947 near the Dead Sea and are known today as the ‘Dead Sea Scrolls.’
The Deuterocanonical books, or books of the Apocrypha, accepted as Holy Scripture by the Roman and Eastern churches, were written in the years between the Old and New Testament. The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the old Testament, was also an important product of the period. It became the Bible for Greek-speaking Jews outside Palestine and later for the early church.
But God’s story wasn’t finished. ‘When the set time had fully come,’ as the apostle Paul put it, God spoke again— this time in the person of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, whose birth, life, death and resurrection changed everything.”
The story continues!