Because of the faith and perspective of Nehemiah himself, the book of Nehemiah might well furnish sermon, reference, and planning material for a modern building program. Nehemiah furnished leadership which demonstrated the deep religious nature of his building task and that it was not just a “superficial and external” challenge “to get a job done.” Along with the fine religious stimulus, the book also supplies valuable historical information on the period after the return from the Exile. Information contained herein is not to be found elsewhere.

It has been customary to emphasize the differences in the perspectives of Ezra and Nehemiah, and to stress a large variation in purpose. Their personalities were different. Ezra was stern and somewhat harsh, while Nehemiah was more loving and understanding. Nevertheless it is wrong to classify Ezra as the “religious” reformer and Nehemiah as the “political” reformer. Nehemiah was interested in political reform but only as a means of making possible a covenant commitment of a religious nature. If the terms must be used, then Nehemiah was both a religious and a political reformer.

Title And Date

Lack of Massoretic notation after Ezra 10:44 and the use of the title “Second Esdras” in the Septuagint for Ezra-Nehemiah combined would suggest that the two were originally one work. Because of the striking similarity of 2 Chronicles 36:22 and Ezra 1:1–4, Chronicles too may have been part of the larger volume. However, a fifteenth century division definitely established “Nehemiah” as a book in its own right. If once it was part of the trilogy of Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, then the date can be easily ascertained. The genealogy of David extended six generations beyond Zerubbabel (1 Chron. 3:15–24). Allowing 30 years for each generation, there is a total of 180 years which, when subtracted from Zerubbabel’s date, gives us 340 B.C. as the earliest possible date of the writing. Mention of Jaddua as high priest in Nehemiah 12 is an aid to approximating the date since Josephus reports that Jaddua was high priest at the time of Alexander the Great, about the year 332 B. C.

Historical Setting

Though once mighty under Nebuchadnezzar (605–562 B.C.), the Babylonian empire reached a state of weakness and decay when Nabonidus became so engaged in his study of ancient history and archaeology that affairs were neglected and the kingdom itself was entrusted to his son Belshazzar. This aided the benevolent Cyrus of Persia in continuing his successes until in 539 B.C. he conquered even Babylon. By decree of Cyrus, conditioned upon their payment of taxes and continued loyalty, many Jews were then able to return to their homeland.

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It was because of the policy set by Cyrus and continued by his successors that both Ezra and Nehemiah were able to return home during the reign of a certain Artaxerxes. With Artaxerxes I dated in 464–423 B.C., a seventh year return of Ezra (Ezra 7:8) and a twentieth year return for Nehemiah (Neh. 2:1) would place the returns at 458 B.C. and 444 B.C., while Ezra may have returned in the seventh year of Artaxerxes II, or 397 B.C. Thus the tradition of return would be reversed with Nehemiah having preceded Ezra.

Nehemiah was contemporary with the high priest Eliashib (Neh. 3:1) while Ezra was contemporary with Johanan (Ezra 10:6) who was Eliashib’s grandson (Neh. 12:22). The Elephantine Papyri from the little island at the first cataract of the Nile point to 408 B.C. as the time when Johanan filled the priestly office. Sanballat was governor of Samaria during Nehemiah’s time (Neh. 6), while possibly his descendants were Ezra’s thorns (Ezra 2–6). Nehemiah 12:26 actually names Ezra after Nehemiah and while Nehemiah’s work was to rebuild the walls, there is some evidence that Ezra found them already rebuilt (Ezra 4:12; 9:9). Ezra found many people in Jerusalem while Nehemiah seems to have arrived there before things were built up very much (Neh. 7:3, 4). All of this would suggest that there was no chronological intent in the biblical arrangement of Ezra before Nehemiah.

But one must not be hasty in concluding that the chronology of Nehemiah-Ezra is established fact. It is still a matter of needed research. The Elephantine material which has played such a prominent part in the discussions is itself inconclusive. In a critical note on “Hanani-Hananiah,” C. G. Tuland of the University of Chicago (Journal of Biblical Literature, 77, June, 1958, pp. 157–161) makes a good case for equating the Hanani of papyri 30, 31, with the Hananiah of Nehemiah 1:2; 7:2, Nehemiah’s brother. Should this be true, it would again place Ezra prior to Nehemiah since the date of Hanani of Elephantine was 445–419 B.C. Furthermore, if the ministries of Ezra-Nehemiah were under an Artaxerxes of two periods, it is strange that the author did not distinguish them to avoid confusion. It is doubtful also that Ezra found the “walls” already built, for the word for that which Ezra found was “gader” (fence). The wall which Nehemiah rebuilt is generally spoken of by the term “chomah.” The question is far from settled.

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Perhaps the book can best be comprehended through a three-fold division: A. Survey of Jerusalem’s Walls and Initiation of Work (chaps. 1; 2); B. Building the Walls (chaps. 3–6); C. Preparation for a Great Revival (chaps. 7–13).

A. Survey of Jerusalem’s “Walls and Initiation of Work, Chapters 1; 2.

Through Hanani his kinsman, Nehemiah received word of the destruction of Jerusalem’s walls (1:1–4). It must have been a recent catastrophe, for certainly Nehemiah would not have broken into grief for walls that had been destroyed over a hundred years ago. Perhaps the walls, rebuilt with the temple in 516

B. C., had been newly attacked by Jerusalem’s troublesome neighbors.

His response through an earnest prayer of confession and petition speaks well for the character of Nehemiah. “To whom one prays” is to be identified as Yahweh, the covenant God (1:5). “How we should pray” (1:6), and for “what we should pray” (something specific) is to be seen in Nehemiah’s request that the Lord grant him success and mercy in the eyes of Artaxerxes concerning this important matter (1:11).

Because of faithfulness to his master, and under the guiding hand of God (2:8), Nehemiah received both the king’s blessing and the grant of some materials for his journey and mission. Upon arrival in Jerusalem, he began his work in interesting fashion.

To avoid arousing both external and internal opposition, Nehemiah surveyed the Jerusalem situation at nighttime. His was an effort to count the cost involved, and then at the right moment he would make the announcement of his task. A premature announcement could have hampered what he felt deeply to be God’s mission.

Nehemiah’s strategy was to stimulate the “initiative” of the people (2:17–18) by showing what was needed, and then wait until they themselves responded with the desire to build. With the support of his people, Nehemiah was ready for opposition (2:19–20), for he knew that the cause was right (tsedaqah), which implies that Sanballat’s was not (2:20). Furthermore, the cause would not fail, for it was God’s and not man’s (2:20a).

B. Building the Walls, Chapters 3–6.

Superficially reading the names of the peoples who participated in the work, one finds the pattern a little monotonous. However, chapter three is a specimen of a division of labor and efficient cooperation. The completion of the task through the harmonious labor of so many individuals and groups speaks well for Nehemiah’s ability as a genuine leader. The contagiousness of a fine spirit is evident. When the example was set of repairing that part opposite one’s house, others followed the pattern (3:28, 29).

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A willingness to work nullifies neither obstacles nor opposition. Nehemiah’s opposition presented itself in three ways: (1) External ridicule and conspiracy (chap. 4). Fearing their inability to control a walled city, Sanballat and his followers engineered a conspiracy that spread. But the turbulency of the hour was overcome through prayer (4:4), work (4:6), the cognizance of a noble goal (4:14), and through alertness (4:17). (2) Internal dissension (chap. 5). The difficulty of the work had already caused some to become faint-hearted (4:10), and the spark of complaint soon grew to a flame hitting against the task where it hurt most, namely, the people’s material means. They cried that the project was too costly (5:1 ff.). Complaint about financial affairs was increased by exorbitant interest rates charged by the wealthy class (5:4 f.). Discontent was more intense because of wives within the homes who were not dedicated to the necessity of their own important task (5:1). (3) Active opposition to the leader (chap. 6:1–14). The effort of Sanballat and Tobiah to stop the work soon gave way to a personal attack upon Nehemiah. The methods they used are the same employed today: deceit (6:2), feigned friendship (6:7), and the fabrication of false charges for the purpose of ruining Nehemiah’s reputation.

But the work was of God and so the project, started in the beginning of August, was completed in September (6:15). Less than one year had passed since in November of the previous year Nehemiah had received the very distressing news (1:1).

C. Preparation for a Great Revival, Chapters 7–13.

A sense of responsibility to consolidate the opportunities in a revived commitment to the covenant law resulted from the successful conclusion of the project. That the accomplishment of the building task was accompanied by a recognition of divine providence is to be seen in the part which various activities played in revival effort.

The recovered census of 7:5 is approximately the same as that of Ezra 2:1–70. Both for the purpose of ascertaining the population and dwelling of the city’s residents and of securing the purity and separateness of the new community (7:4, 5, 73), a new enrollment was needed.

Though placed with the book of Ezra in early Greek editions, chapter eight is more properly placed here just as one finds it in the Hebrew. The chronology involved is uncertain. It is the “seventh” month of which year? Had Nehemiah a long ministry before Ezra appeared, or was there a recall of Ezra from retirement? What consideration should be given to the fact that many scholars regard the three contexts where Nehemiah and Ezra appear together as suspect (Neh. 8:9; 12:26; 12:36)?

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At any rate, the words of the book commanded great reverence, so much so that the people stood (8:5) for a half day (8:3) to be reminded of its demands. Through the tediousness of a translation (8:8) they were attentive (8:3). Much reverence had been learned through the hardness of the years.

Such a conviction of their negligence ensued that sorrow was accompanied by a revival of the Feast of Tabernacles (8:14), the ancient festival commemorative of God’s providence (Lev. 23:34 f.). With this time of repentance (8:9; 9:1), their wise leader seized upon the occasion to remind them that repentance could lead to joy (8:11 f.).

Lest the occasion be but a passing emotion, Ezra took this as an opportunity for an historical reminder of God’s dealing with them. Major events of significance in Israel’s covenant history were reviewed. Israel’s theology was summarized as she was confronted with creation (9:6), election (9:7), redemption (9:9), covenant (9:13), providence as seen in the gift of Canaan (9:15), sin as viewed in the rebellion of the monarchy (9:26), judgment as stressed by the time of exile (9:27), and grace as represented by the fact that they were once again in the promised land (9:31). So graphic was the presentation that a renewed covenant was made. That this time of commitment was widespread can be ascertained from the fact that groups symbolic of all the peoples signed the covenant pledge. There were civil (10:1), religious (10:2 f.), and lay leaders (10:14 f.). This commitment bore fruit in work and spirit as evidenced by the resettlement of land and by the enlistments of the various registers as recorded in chapters 11 and 12.

Often the repentance of men is shallow and at times short. Thus, upon Nehemiah’s return to Persia (13:6) impurity developed in religion and life. Fearless man of conviction that he was, Nehemiah returned and manifested his godly concern and righteous indignation through the expulsion of the impure Tobiah (13:4–9), the restoration of levitical support (13:10–14), Sabbath reforms (13:15–22), and thorough mixed marriage reforms (13:23–29).

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Did ever a man work so diligently to accomplish reforms that would be pleasing to the living and righteous God of Israel? Regardless of loss of personal popularity Nehemiah worked hard and diligently to remove disobedience from the hearts and lives of the Israelites. Certainly he had cause to anticipate that God should remember him (13:31).


Introductions and commentaries of diverse backgrounds have much to offer: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (International Critical Commentary), by Loring W. Batten; Introduction to the Old Testament, II, by Aage Bentzen; Ezra and Nehemiah (Cambridge Bible), by H. E. Ryle, and An Introduction to the Old Testament, by Edward J. Young. Other helpful sources are the following: “The Date and Personality of the Chronicler,” Journal of Biblical Literature (40, 1921, 104–124), by W. F. Albright; A History of Israel, by W. O. E. Oesterley and Theodore H. Robinson; “The Chronological Order of Ezra and Nehemiah,” The Servant of the Lord and Other Essays in the Old Testament, by H. H. Rowley; and “Hanani-Hananiah,” Journal of Biblical Literature (77, 1958, 157–161), by C. G. Tuland.


Professor of Old Testament and Hebrew Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary

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