Background of Nehemiah
Author and Date
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. 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 (see chart, p. 652).
The theme of Nehemiah is the Lord’s protection of his people and their need to be faithful in worship and in keeping the Mosaic law.
Purpose and Background
The basic purpose and background of Nehemiah are the same as that for Ezra (see Introduction to Ezra). Ezra, “a scribe skilled in the Law of Moses” (Ezra 7:6), called the returning exiles back to covenant loyalty and obedience to the law. Nehemiah rebuilt the city walls so that the community could be protected from enemies who might take advantage of them.
1. The Lord hears prayer (Nehemiah 1:4–6).
2. The Lord works providentially, especially through powerful rulers, to bring about his greater purposes (e.g., Nehemiah 2:8).
3. The Lord protects his people. Because of this, they need not be afraid (Nehemiah 4:14).
4. The Lord is merciful and faithful to his promises despite his people’s ongoing sin (Nehemiah 9:32–35).
5. Worship is at the center of the life of God’s people. It includes the willing, joyful giving of resources (Nehemiah 10:32–39).
6. God’s people need to be on their guard against their own moral weakness (ch. 13).
I. Nehemiah Returns to Jerusalem to Rebuild Its Walls (1:1–2:20)
A. Nehemiah learns of Jerusalem’s dilapidation (1:1–11)
B. Nehemiah gains permission to return and inspects Jerusalem’s walls (2:1–16)
C. First signs of opposition (2:17–20)
II. The Wall Is Built, Despite Difficulties (3:1–7:4)
A. The people work systematically on the walls (3:1–32)
B. Opposition intensifies, but the people continue watchfully (4:1–23)
C. Nehemiah deals with injustices in the community; Nehemiah’s personal contribution to the project (5:1–19)
D. A conspiracy against Nehemiah, but the wall is finished (6:1–7:4)
III. A Record of Those Who Returned from Exile (7:5–73)
IV. The Reading of the Law, and Covenant Renewal (8:1–10:39)
A. The law is read (8:1–8)
B. The people are to be joyful (8:9–12)
C. The people keep the Feast of Booths (8:13–18)
D. A prayer of confession, penitence, and covenant commitment (9:1–38)
E. Signatories and specific commitments (10:1–39)
V. The Population of Jerusalem and the Villages; Priests and Levites (11:1–12:43)
A. Those who lived in Jerusalem and the villages of Judah (11:1–36)
B. High priests and leading Levites since the time of Zerubbabel (12:1–26)
C. Dedication of the walls (12:27–43)
VI. Nehemiah Deals with Problems in the Community (12:44–13:31)
A. The administration of offerings for the temple (12:44–47)
B. Ejection of Tobiah the Ammonite from the temple (13:1–9)
C. Dealing with neglect of the offerings (13:10–14)
D. Dealing with Sabbath breaking (13:15–22)
E. The problem of intermarriage again (13:23–29)
F. Summary of Nehemiah’s temple reforms (13:30–31)
The Persian Empire at the Time of Nehemiah
The Global Message of Nehemiah
The Big Picture of Nehemiah
The book of Nehemiah records the success and failure of visionary leadership among the exiles who returned to Jerusalem. Though the city wall in Jerusalem had been in ruins for almost 150 years (since Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC.), Nehemiah mobilized the Jews to rebuild the wall in only 52 days (Nehemiah 6:15)! He was an ordinary man whose preparation for ministry came in the Persian palace as the king’s cupbearer (Nehemiah 1:11–2:8). But he became an extraordinary leader through his diligence in prayer (Nehemiah 1:5–11; 2:4; 4:9; 6:9), great faith in God (Nehemiah 2:8, 20; 4:14, 20), and skill in organizing and managing people (ch. 3 and 5). Nehemiah’s perseverance in the face of opposition led to the defeat of his opponents (ch. 4 and 6) and the renewal of the temple as a place of worship (ch. 12).
God’s Global Purpose in Nehemiah
However, God’s global purposes can still be seen in Nehemiah—in two major ways.
Strategic International Influence
First, God reigns over the entire world as the “God of heaven” (Nehemiah 1:4, 5; 2:20; compare Nehemiah 9:5–6, 32). The book of Nehemiah begins, not in Jerusalem among God’s people, but with an account of Nehemiah fulfilling the role of a civil servant in the Persian royal court. In God’s sovereignty, the vocation of this cupbearer in exile provides the catalyst for the people of God to receive all that they need to revive their city (Nehemiah 1:1–2:8). Like Joseph, Daniel, and Esther, Nehemiah has been placed by God in a foreign palace to advocate with rulers and achieve breakthroughs for God’s people. This repeated pattern in the Old Testament shows that the exile played two complementary roles in God’s plan for the nations: God sent the nations to take Israel into exile, but he also used the exile to move his children into positions of international influence. Thus God showed himself sovereign over the affairs of both his own people and the nations.
Blessing the Nations
Second and related to this, the identity of God’s chosen people is closely bound up with his purposes for all peoples. The communal confession of the Levites (Nehemiah 9:5–37), for example, begins by linking God’s reign over creation with his special choice of Abraham and his descendants: “You are the Lord, you alone. You have made heaven, the heaven of heavens, with all their host, . . . You are the Lord, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans and gave him the name Abraham” (Nehemiah 9:6–7). God had blessed Israel so that they might bring divine blessing and righteousness to the nations (Nehemiah 9:8–15; see also Genesis 12:1–3; 17:6–8). Yet the later history of Israel reveals a people who rebelled “presumptuously” (Nehemiah 9:16, 29) against God, much as Pharaoh “arrogantly” (Nehemiah 9:10) opposed Israel. God’s response to human pride, whether from foreign nations or his own people, has always been to vindicate his reputation: “you made a name for yourself, as it is to this day” (Nehemiah 9:10). Thus God’s people were treated as his enemies when they became indistinguishable from the nations, as when Israel disobeyed God by mingling with the peoples of the land and adopting their customs (Nehemiah 13:4–29). The fulfillment of God’s global purposes always requires that his people be distinct from the other nations, so that they can be a blessing to those nations (Deuteronomy 26:16–19; 1 Peter 2:11–12).
Lessons for Global Leaders
The universal themes of Nehemiah gain particular relevance for today when we notice the book’s unique emphasis on the first-person “I,” that is, Nehemiah’s description of himself as a leader on the international stage of history. No other historical book of the Old Testament exhibits such a personal touch. This observation invites further reflections on Nehemiah as an example of both promise and peril in leading God’s people.
In the World But Not of It
Most significantly, our God chooses to place his servants in surprising yet strategic positions among the nations. Nehemiah was outwardly a steward of the Persian empire, yet inwardly he was a servant of God who was passionate for his people (Nehemiah 1:3–4), faithful in prayer (Nehemiah 1:5–7), and knowledgeable in God’s Word (Nehemiah 1:8–11). The dual identity of Nehemiah illustrates how a marketplace witness plays a legitimate and necessary role in accomplishing God’s global purposes. There is a great need today for faithful believers employed in so-called “secular” vocations who know God’s Word, pray before acting, and take calculated risks for the sake of God’s kingdom. Like Nehemiah, such individuals have a unique role to play in changing the course of history. While supporting and encouraging those like Ezra who are religious professionals by training, we must also encourage those like Nehemiah whose primary ministry is in the marketplace.
The book of Nehemiah also reminds us that, in a sinful world, God’s leaders can expect opposition to God’s work. Setbacks do not indicate that God has somehow lost control. Difficulty in ministry can frequently be God’s creative means of achieving breakthroughs that could not happen otherwise. By the same token, however, the conclusion of Nehemiah’s leadership career shows that the successes and failures of ministry are not ultimately in human hands. Those who overlook this principle, as Nehemiah apparently did toward the end of his ministry, run the risk of forgetting that caring for people matters more than the things they might accomplish.
Anticipating the Gospel of Jesus Christ
On a broader note, the unraveling of the Jewish community during Nehemiah’s trip to Persia (Nehemiah 13:6–7) points forward to the New Testament. The ending of the book of Nehemiah demonstrates how Israel’s various leaders among those who returned to Jerusalem remained unable to accomplish the lasting deliverance and restoration envisioned by the prophets (e.g., Isaiah 40–55). Here it is noteworthy that, chronologically speaking, Nehemiah 13 narrates the latest events in the Old Testament historical books (about 445 BC). By concluding Israel’s story on a bitter note, this chapter anticipates the need for the New Testament’s message of inner transformation for the human heart. No matter how sincere they are, our promises to God cannot be faithfully kept without the saving grace of Jesus Christ and the sustaining power of the Holy Spirit.