What is the Book of Ezra-Nehemiah About?

Read this 4-minute introduction to help you find your bearings in the Bible story, and be inspired to read Ezra-Nehemiah!


Historical Context

Ezra: The book of Ezra never declares its author.  

Nehemiah: Nehemiah is the central figure in the book. It contains some of his own records, but he is not the author of the entire book. The same author probably wrote Nehemiah and portions of Ezra.

From Remember that the ultimate author of every book of the Bible is the Holy Spirit (2 Peter 1:21). He has written this book to equip you for life, to help you know the true God, and to give you hope (2 Timothy 3:16; Romans 15:4). The Holy Spirit wrote Ezra-Nehemiah for your good and to lead you into joy.

Ezra’s contents make it difficult to determine when it was written.

Ezra 1–6 recounts events that occurred long before Ezra’s time.
Ezra 7:27–9:15 clearly comes from Ezra’s own hand, since it is written in the first person.
Ezra 7:1–26 and Ezra 10:1–44 describe events in Ezra’s time, but are written in the third person.

It is possible Ezra may have combined the other materials with his autobiographical writings to form the book. Or, a later historian may have collected all the portions to describe Israelite history from c. 538–433 BC. Many scholars believe that the same author wrote Ezra, Nehemiah, and 1–2 Chronicles. In ancient times, Ezra and Nehemiah were counted as one book.

The events narrated in Ezra–Nehemiah occur over a century: Ezra 1–6 covers 538–515 BC; Ezra 7–Nehemiah 13 covers 458–433 BC.

Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem in 445 BC, 13 years after Ezra arrived. He returned for a further visit sometime between 433 and 423 BC. He may have made several journeys between Persian capitals and Jerusalem in this period of 20 years.

The Persian Empire at the Time of Ezra and Nehemiah  

c. 458-450 BC

During the time of Ezra, the Persian Empire had reached its greatest extent, engulfing nearly the entire Near East.

In 539 BC the Persians under Cyrus the Great defeated the Babylonians and absorbed their territory into the empire, including the lands of Israel and Judah (known as Beyond the River). The next year Cyrus allowed the people of Judah (now called Jews) to return home under the leadership of Zerubbabel and rebuild the temple of the Lord.

Later, around 458 BC, another group of Judean exiles returned under Ezra’s leadership.

In about 445 BC, Nehemiah was granted permission to rebuild Jerusalem’s ruined walls.

Unless otherwise indicated, this content is adapted from the ESV Global Study Bible® (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright ©2012 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Message Series

Ezra-Nehemiah by Tim Mackie

Instead of giving you a teaching series, we want to point you to this all-in-one message by Tim Mackie. He spends four hours teaching pastors about the structure, message, and themes in Ezra-Nehemiah. Tim is a phenomenal Bible teacher, and you can work through these four hours overviewing Ezra-Nehemiah at whatever pace you like.

Ezra-Nehemiah Dictionary

As you read through Ezra-Nehemiah, you might come across words and ideas that are foreign to you. Here are a few definitions you will want to know! Note that this dictionary was created for the New International Version (NIV) Bible.

(1) Another name for the town of Bethlehem where David was born. (2) Part of the city of Jerusalem. (3) The entire walled city of Jerusalem.

An agreement. In the ancient Near East, sometimes covenants were made between two people or groups of people. Both sides decided what the agreement would be. However, in the Bible, the word usually refers to agreements between God and people, when God decides what will be done and the people agree to live by the covenant. The Old Covenant of law set standards of behavior in order to please God. The New Covenant of grace presents God’s forgiveness based on faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection.

An order or law given by a king or ruler. A decree was often read in a public place so that many people would hear the new law.

(1) In the Old Testament, an older man in a family, tribe, or town. (2) Also in the Old Testament, a member of a group of older men in a town. The town elders made major decisions for the town. (3) In the first four books of the New Testament, the Sanhedrin—the group of men who governed the Jewish people in Jesus’ time. (4) In the Early Church, the church leaders.

Someone who has been made to leave his or her country and live somewhere else. The Jews were exiles in Babylon for 70 years.

The most important priest of all the priests, who served God in the tabernacle and later in the temple. In the Old Testament, the high priest offered the most important sacrifices to God for the people. In New Testament times, he was also a powerful political leader. He was the head of the Sanhedrin—the group of men who governed the Jewish people. He even had a small army. The high priest wore special clothing described in Exodus 28:1-39. Aaron was the first high priest. All other high priests were his descendants. The New Testament says that Jesus Christ is now our high priest, the one who offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins (see Hebrews 8–9).

The most important city of Bible times. Jerusalem was the capital of the united kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Judah. The temple was built in Jerusalem, so many people traveled to the city to worship God. In 587 BC, Jerusalem was captured and mostly destroyed by Babylonian armies. The city was rebuilt when the Jews returned after 70 years of exile in Babylon. Jesus taught in the city of Jerusalem, was crucified outside the city wall, was buried near the city, and then rose again. The first Christian church began in Jerusalem after the Holy Spirit came to the believers there.

(1) At first in the Bible, anyone who was a member of the tribe of Judah. (2) By the return from exile in Babylon, anyone who was a descendant of Abraham or who was a follower of the Jewish religion.

(1) One of the sons of Jacob and Leah. (2) The descendants of Jacob and Leah’s son of the same name, who became the tribe of Judah. (3) The southern kingdom when the Israelites divided into two separate countries after the death of King Solomon. (The northern kingdom was called Israel.)

(1) All the rules God gave to help people to know and love Him and to live happily with each other. The Ten Commandments are part of God’s law. (2) The first five books of the Bible. These five books are often called the Law. (3) The entire Old Testament. Sometimes the Old Testament is referred to as the Law. (4) Any rule that must be obeyed, whether it was decided by God or by people. (5) God’s rules in the Old Testament plus other rules added by Jewish religious leaders. (6) The conscience of an unbeliever who knows he or she has not followed his or her own moral code (see Romans 2:14-16).

Descendants of Levi, one of the sons of Jacob and Leah. Some of the Levites were religious teachers. Others took care of the Tabernacle and, later, the Temple. Only Levites who were descendants of Moses’ brother Aaron could become priests.

A gift of money, time or other possessions given to God by a person who loves Him. In Old Testament times, people brought food and animals to the Tabernacle or Temple as offerings to God. The offerings were often burned on the altar. Animal offerings were always killed. Their blood symbolized sins being forgiven by death. Christians believe that offering sacrifices for the forgiveness of sins is no longer necessary because Jesus’ death was the once-for-all sacrifice through which our sins can be forgiven. See also Sacrifice.

The territory between the Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea, and the last of the Middle Eastern powers before the conquest by Alexander the Great. Until the mid-sixth century BC, the Persians were controlled by their northern neighbors, the Medes. Under Cyrus, the Persians became the dominant partners of the Babylonians to their west and then conquered Babylon. Cyrus then released the foreigners, including the Jews, who had been held captive by Babylon. Esther, as queen to one of Cyrus’s successors, foiled an attempt to destroy the Jews remaining in Persia.

Among the Jews, a man who offered prayers and sacrifices to God for the people. Priests led the public worship services at the tabernacle and later at the temple. Often the priests also taught the Law of God to the people. The priests of Israel were all descendants of Aaron’s family. All Christians are also priests (see 1 Peter 2:9). We are to help others learn about and worship God.

A small part that is left. In the Old Testament, remnant usually refers to the few Israelite people who remained faithful worshipers of God after their exile in Babylon.

The weekly day of rest and worship that God set apart for all people. In the Old Testament, it is the seventh day of the week (Saturday); and today for many Jews and some Christians Saturday is still observed as the Sabbath. For Jews, Sabbath starts at sundown on Friday and lasts until sunset on Saturday. Because Jesus rose from the dead on a Sunday, most Christians set aside Sunday as the day of rest and worship (see Acts 20:7).

A gift or offering given to God. A sacrifice usually involved killing an animal to pay for sin. The New Testament tells us that Jesus died as the once-for-all sacrifice for sinners, and that no further sacrifices for sin are necessary.

The permanent place in Jerusalem where the Jews worshiped God. The first temple was built by King Solomon and the people by following the instructions God had given Solomon’s father, King David. The temple was a very beautiful place. It was destroyed and rebuilt twice. In AD 64, the temple was destroyed again but was not rebuilt.

To give God one-tenth of what you earn. For example, if you had 10 dimes, you would tithe by giving one dime to God.

What the Bible Is All About NIV Henrietta Mears

Dictionary Source

This content is from What the Bible Is All About, written by Henrietta Mears. Copyright © 1953, 2011 by Gospel Light. Copyright assigned to Tyndale House Publishers, 2015. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved. 

Tough Questions

We have found answers to some tough questions that we anticipate may arise as you read this book of the Bible. We know we can’t answer every question you will have; therefore, we have written this article, so you know how to find answers for your kids: How Do I Answer Tough Questions About the Bible?


The following insights are from pastors and scholars who have spent significant time studying the book of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Ezra-Nehemiah, up until around the 1100s, was always written on one scroll. It’s a single literary work. It was divided up into two separate books in the medieval manuscript tradition. But it’s one book. Did you guys know that? You should know that—it’s vitally important. Because you never want to teach one without the other. 

—Tim Mackie

Source: Tim Mackie, quoted from his message, “Ezra-Nehemiah” published by Doxa Church on their Vimeo channel.

Apparently there’s some value in the storyline of the Hebrew Bible to say that after the exile happened God’s promises through the prophets—that people would return and rebuild— was part of the fulfillment of the big covenant storyline leading up to the messianic kingdom of God over all nations. These events are part of the fulfillment.

But are they the ultimate fulfillment of that storyline? No. And so the question is, “Why not?” What went wrong?

When we ask the question, “what went wrong with this reformation”—to put the question like that gets us to the heartbeat of what Ezra-Nehemiah is about. Ezra-Nehemiah tells a story of well-intentioned, godly leaders who are awesome. I mean they actually do a good job given the circumstances that they’re in to try and lead a structural renewal and a spiritual renewal among the people. But ultimately, the book is saying they were unsuccessful.

—Tim Mackie

Source: Tim Mackie, quoted from his message, “Ezra-Nehemiah” published by Doxa Church on their Vimeo channel.

The primary theme of Ezra and Nehemiah is that God has been faithful to his promises in bringing his people back from exile, reestablishing them in the land, and enabling them to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. The exile is not the last word. Redemption is proceeding apace. And yet, that is not the only point of Ezra and Nehemiah, as judged from the New Testament’s perspective. A second major theme must be that no matter how determined the people were to obey the Law and maintain their purity, they could not do so. The Law was simply too great a burden for them as sinful people (as the Apostle Peter points out in Acts 15). Their sinful proclivities (i.e., focus on ethnicity) clouded their interpretation of the Law and led them to seek their salvation through horrific practices (divorce and the abandonment of children). In the end, the exile did not solve the problem of sin. Given a sinful people needing a savior, the Law would continue to function as a curse, a ministry of judgment and death (2 Corinthians 3).

—Mark McDowell

Source: McDowell, Mark. “Casting Off of Foreign Wives and Children.” Reformation 21 (February 15, 2016). 

As with Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, we find that Ezra and Nehemiah were one book in the earliest Hebrew Bible. These books tell the story of one of the most important events in Jewish history—the return of God’s chosen people from exile in Babylon. 

The purposes of God may sometimes seem delayed, but they are never abandoned. “Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses,” prayed Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1:8 NIV). The books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of how God remembered and how he brought back his people from exile. Read Jeremiah 29:10-13, which tells us of this remembrance.

During the captivity, the prophets Jeremiah and Ezekiel told the Jews that they would be restored, and the prophets predicted that the people would return to their own land and rebuild Jerusalem. Jeremiah told them that this would happen at the end of 70 years: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place” (Jeremiah 29:10 NIV; see also Jeremiah 25:11-12).

—Henrietta Mears

Source: This content is from What the Bible Is All About, written by Henrietta Mears. Copyright © 1953, 2011 by Gospel Light. Copyright assigned to Tyndale House Publishers, 2015. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, a division of Tyndale House Ministries, Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

No one pays much attention to old athletic teams that seemed always to be in eclipse. One still hears talk of the old New York Yankees. But who mentions the old St. Louis Browns or Washington Senators (or the Atlanta Braves of the 1980s)? Why is this? Because the Browns and the Senators were, by and large, losers. Losers don’t stir attention. And in the days of Ezra-Nehemiah, Israel was a loser. The big powers were Babylon, then Persia. Who cares about a postage-stamp size kingdom in the political backwater of the Ancient Near East? Who cares about the people who used to live there? Answer: The covenant God does! God cares because he has made promises to these losers, and for this reason he moves history on their behalf. God moves history to give his people a future and a hope.

—Dale Ralph Davis

Source: Davis, Dale Ralph. “EZRA-NEHEMIAH, part 1 Introduction; God Moves History for his People (Ezra 1).” IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 43, October 23 to October 29, 2000.

The prophets Haggai and Zechariah “prophesied” (Ezra 5:1) and then Zerubbabel and Jeshua “arose and began to rebuild” (Ezra 5:2) the temple. That is what the word of God does. It enables God’s servants to do God’s will. The word packs power that moves and sustains obedience. This is especially necessary in light of the fear and intimidation that the community had endured (Ezra 4:24). We see the same theology in 1 Thessalonians 2:13, where Paul alluded to “the word of God, which also is at work in/among you who believe.” The word of God is not only a demanding force (see above), but also a driving one.

—Dale Ralph Davis

Source: Davis, Dale Ralph. “EZRA-NEHEMIAH, part 1 Introduction; God Moves History for his People (Ezra 1).” IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 43, October 23 to October 29, 2000.

Ezra-Nehemiah Playlist

Discover music inspired by the message and content of the book of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Brick by Brick
by Erik Nieder | Praise & Worship
Bye Bye Babylon
by Elevation Worship feat. Valley Boys | Praise & Worship
by Josh Baldwin | Praise & Worship
God Is for Us
by CityAlight | Praise & Worship
God of the Impossible
by Lincoln Brewster | Pop
Nehemiah’s Song
by Don Francisco | 70s 80s 90s
Listen To Our Hearts
by Steven Curtis Chapman | Contemporary
God of My Fathers
by Andrew Peterson | Folk
More Songs