Introduction to Ezra and Nehemiah

By James M. Rochford

Ezra and Nehemiah served in Israel after the Exile at the same time.

Ezra: He was a priest and scribe. He led the spiritual revival in Israel. Because he was a Levitical scribe, he may have “held a position akin to secretary or counsel for Jewish affairs in the royal cabinet (cf. Ezra 7:1-6).”[1] He arrived in Israel 12 years before Nehemiah in 457 BC (the seventh year of Artaxerxes; Ezra 7:8).

Nehemiah: He was an administrator. He was responsible for physical protection of Israel, rebuilding the protective walls. He was a cupbearer in King Artaxerxes’ court (Neh. 2:1-2). He arrived 13 years after Ezra in 444 BC (the twentieth year of Artaxerxes; Neh. 2:1). Nehemiah knew of Ezra, and he is mentioned in his book (Neh. 8:2).

Originally, Ezra and Nehemiah was one book in the Hebrew Bible. Later, the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the OT) split these up into two separate books, calling them “Ezra” and “Nehemiah.”[2]

Authorship

Jewish tradition held that Ezra wrote 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah (Baba Bathra 15a). Of course, Ezra is a likely author of this book. He was the descendant of Aaron the high priest, and therefore, he was from priestly class (Ezra 7:5). He was “well versed” in the Bible, and therefore, literate and scholarly (v.6). Ezra probably wrote most of this book. Notice his use of the first person “I” in Ezra 7-10. He was also the writer of 1 and 2 Chronicles during this same time.

Who was King Cyrus?

It is helpful to understand the context in which this book was written. Ezra 1:1 states that the Persian King Cyrus gave orders for the Jews to rebuild their Temple. The Harper’s Bible Dictionary has this to say about King Cyrus:

Cyrus II (sīʹruhs; Hebrew kōreš, Akkadian kuraš, Persian kuruš; etymology unknown), a Persian emperor and founder of the Achaemenid dynasty (ruled Babylonia 539-530 b.c.). His name occurs twenty-two times in the Bible, in the books of Daniel, Ezra, 1 and 2 Chronicles, and Isaiah. Extrabiblical evidence comes from the classical Greek authors Herodotus and Xenophon (though their reports are often encrusted with legend) as well as cuneiform records. From the latter we learn that Cyrus’s ancestor was Teispes of Anshan. Cyrus’s grandfather was named Cyrus (I); his father, Cambyses (I); his mother, Mandane, was the daughter of Median king Astyages. Cyrus is therefore known to moderns as Cyrus II; Cyrus II’s son, who ruled Babylonia from 530 to 522 b.c., was Cambyses II. Cyrus’s capital was Pasargadae, in what is now southern Iran.

Cyrus’s military victories eventually put him in possession of the largest empire the world at that time had yet seen. They began with the conquest of Media (549), followed by Lydia (546) and Babylonia (539). It would seem that the Babylonian provinces of Eber nāri (today’s Syria, Lebanon, and Israel) fell to him after the conquest of Babylonia, although no specific mention of them is extant in contemporary records.

Cyrus’s policy toward the peoples of his empire was one of tolerance and understanding. His authorization of the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple by returning Judeans (end of 2 Chronicles; beginning of Ezra) accords well with what we know from contemporaneous documents. Isaiah (45:1-3) speaks with enthusiasm of Cyrus as the anointed one (messiah) of the Lord. Because of these achievements, Cyrus II’s reign has been characterized as ‘a great turning point in ancient history’ by the modern historian Richard N. Frye.

A co-regency with his son, Cambyses, ran for a short while in 530 and ended in the same year with the death of Cyrus in battle. Achaemenid rule in Babylonia continued for two hundred years until another ‘great turning point in ancient history,’ the coming of Alexander III, the Great.[3]

Archaeological evidence for the deportation

Is there any evidence that the Jewish people were removed from their land, as the Bible records? Saul Weinberg writes, “A rapid review of the archaeological evidence from Judah of the sixth century BCE thus gives a picture wholly in keeping with the literary evidence: thorough destruction of all fortified towns and cities by Nebuchadnezzar’s forces in 586, a great decrease in population due to slaughter, deportation, collapse of the economy, which continued, but at a very low ebb, through the efforts of those who remained behind and those who slowly drifted back, so rudimentary must this existence have been that it has proved extremely difficult to pick up its traces in material remains.”[4]

What is Ezra and Nehemiah all about?

While Nehemiah describes how God restored his physical kingdom to Israel (the wall, the defenses, the city, etc.), Ezra describes how God restored his spiritual kingdom to Israel (the Temple, the scribes, etc.). These books explain how the Jews got back into their land, restored their collective faith, and repaired their city walls from their enemies.

Teaching Schedule

(Ezra 1-6) The rebuilding of the Temple. These are short chapters, and we can also skip chapter 2 and summarize chapter 6. So, it’s really only four, short chapters.

(Ezra 7-10) The person of Ezra. What can we learn about Ezra’s faith in these chapters? What was Ezra’s legacy for us as a spiritual leader?

Ezra 1 (God moves Cyrus)

God’s sovereignty is shown here—both in his fulfilled prediction and his ability to move the heart of this Pagan king (v.1). Cyrus believed that God have given him his empire, and he called for the rebuilding of the Temple (vv.2-3). People chipped in to help out the Jewish people (v.6). Cyrus returned the materials captured by Nebuchadnezzar (v.7).

Application

God is sovereign. He can stir the heart of the king to do whatever he wants. God is in charge of the world, and he will direct history and individuals sovereignly, as he wishes for his good purposes. In the book of Daniel, God made Nebuchadnezzar moo like a cow out in the wilderness (Dan. 4). Solomon writes, “The king’s heart is like channels of water in the hand of the LORD; He turns it wherever He wishes” (Prov. 21:1).

The people were helpless. They couldn’t rebuild their Temple. Instead, this was a sovereign act of God.

God will fulfill his promises literally. Daniel, Chronicles, and Ezra all believed that God would literally fulfill his promise to bring his people back into the land, and he made good on this promise. We trust God to fulfill his promises literally.

Ezra 2 (Lists, lists, and more lists!)

Since Ezra was a scribe, he meticulously notes the individuals who made the return. A few families do not have their genealogical registration, so they are asked to wait on a priest to confirm them. They had just been kicked out of the land for disobeying the covenant. They wanted to make sure that their first few days back in the land were not already breaching it!

Ezra 3 (Jeshua and Zerubbabel)

The people were united (v.1) under the leadership of Jeshua and Zerubbabel (v.2). They rebuilt the altar on its old foundation (v.3). They celebrated the festival of Tabernacles (v.4) and other sacrifices (v.5). They all pitched in to rebuild the Temple (v.9). They sang as they rebuilt the Temple (v.11). The older men who had seen the original were depressed (v.12). It was bittersweet.

Application

Why are half of the people cheering and half crying? This is the mixed emotion of repentance. On the one hand, you’re happy to see that God cares for you and accepts you, but you’re sad that the Temple is such a shabby version of what existed before.

They based their joy and happiness off of God’s promises in the word (v.11).

Ezra 4 (Temple building is Halted)

These Gentiles came in to help (vv.1-2), but Zerubbabel shut them down (v.3). He had discernment, but he knew that they were trying to stop them (v.4). They were enemies (v.1). They wrote letters to Artaxerxes to stop them (v.7). They told him that the Jews were restoring the walls and Temple of Jerusalem (v.12). They told him that the Jews wouldn’t pay Artaxerxes taxes if they rebuilt the city (v.13). Artaxerxes investigated their claims (v.19), and he believed that it was true. He ordered the Jews to stop building (v.21). The Jews had to stop (v.23).

Just imagine being a contractor on a building contract. As you gather your workers and break ground, brown-noser from the city comes in and demands building permits and everything comes to a halt! How frustrating!

Application

Sometimes in ministry, it seems expedient to allow carnal people to do what they want in the work of God (e.g. teach, lead, get their way, etc.). Don’t give in! This is not the way to lead the people of God! Often, you’ll pay a price for doing what’s right. That’s okay. Don’t take short cuts.

Ezra 5 (Haggai and Zechariah)

Even though Artaxerxes told the Jews not to build, Haggai and Zechariah prophesied over the people and urged them forward (v.1). Zerubbabel took charge, and he and the prophets worked in concert to get the Temple built (v.2).

Tattenai asked them for their authorization (v.3). Tattenai seems to have a better attitude toward the Jewish people, and seems to approve of their work. He wrote a letter to King Darius (v.7ff). They based their authorization on God (first) and King Cyrus (second). Tattenai asked Darius to investigate if Cyrus ever made this decree (v.17).

Application

They based their authorization on God. Since the prophets told them to rebuild the Temple, they went ahead with it.

Compare God’s role versus the people’s role. They just had to be responsive to God and pick up the bricks and rebuild. They couldn’t protect themselves against Cyrus or Darius. Instead, they just had to act in faith. Similarly, we can’t change people’s hearts, battle Satan, etc. We have to trust in faith that God is going to do the heavy lifting.

Even though the people didn’t have all of the political authorization perfectly in order, they tried to work with Tattenai. Also, they didn’t let this stop them from moving forward on God’s work.

Ezra 6 (Darius confirms the Decree)

Darius investigated this (vv.1-2), and he found Cyrus’ decree (v.3). Darius commanded the men to let the Jews build the Temple (vv.6-7), and he fully funded their operation (vv.8-10). He gave capital punishment for anyone who disobeyed (v.11). They continued to build the Temple, and Haggai and Zechariah continued to preach (v.14). They reinstalled the priests (v.18), and celebrated the festivals (vv.19-22).

Application

God plays an active role in changing Darius’ attitude (v.22).

Ezra 7 (Enter Ezra)

Ezra enters into the story (v.1). He is a descendent of Aaron the first high priest (v.5), so he has a priestly lineage (vv.2-5). He was a good teacher (v.6), and he was close with the king (v.6). He worked for Artaxerxes (v.7). He came up from Babylon (v.6). God was backing him (v.9), because he was a man of the word (v.10).

Artaxerxes permits Ezra and the priests to return to Jerusalem (vv.12-14), and he gives him silver and gold to take with him (vv.15-16). He did this because he was worried about incurring the wrath of God, if he didn’t (v.23). So he gives them a ton of supplies and refuses to tax them (vv.23-24). Ezra comments that he was able to do this, because he knew God was with him (v.28).

Application

God backed this guy because he was a man of the word (v.10). We get our spiritual strength by understanding (and teaching!) the word. Ezra was a strong teacher.

God changed the king’s heart (v.27).

Ezra had courage because he knew God’s power was with him (v.28).

Ezra 8 (Ezra Enters the Land)

Ezra lists the families that came with him (vv.1-14). There must have been three Elnathans! He called for a fast before they crossed in (v.21). The purpose was for personal humility. God protected them (vv.22-23, 31). They brought the goods with them.

Application

Ezra didn’t want to bring armed men to guard him, because he told the Pagans there that God would protect them (vv.21-23). This seems like testing God. Is it? Should we not allow material protection in situations like this? It seems like he was more concerned about God’s reputation, than he was of losing his money. He didn’t want to ruin his witness to these guys who didn’t know God.

As it turns out, God protected them from bandits and thieves (v.31).

Ezra 9 (Priests Intermarry)

The priests were immediately blending in with the neighboring peoples (v.1), and they have intermarried (v.2). These were the people God had put under “the ban” in Joshua! Ezra mourned when he heard this (v.3). He prays to God and prays for forgiveness (v.6ff). He basically acknowledges how evil this was when the people have just recently returned from Exile! Yet God always works through a remnant (v.8). Yamauchi writes, “Verses 10–12 are not drawn from a single quotation but from many passages (Deut 11:8–9; Prov 10:27; Isa 1:19; Ezek 37:25).”[5]

This was how Ezra led the people powerfully. Remember: Ezra was a spiritual leader, so he focused on the spiritual needs of the group.

Application

Leadership can be a power for good or bad.

Ezra 10 (Corporate Divorces)

The people repented (v.2), sending the women away (v.3). They took an oath to divorce their wives (v.5). He gave them three days to do this; otherwise, he would pull away their property (vv.9-10). After Ezra rebuked them (v.11), the people had a corporate repentance (v.12).

Application

Ezra’s model of leadership influenced the other people (v.1). He speaks later (v.10), but they followed his example first.

They took a radical solution to this mistake.

[1] Hill, Andrew, & Walton, John. A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (2nd Ed.). Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan. 2000. 267.

[2] Yamauchi writes, “The books now called Ezra and Nehemiah were known under the single title of Ezra in the earliest Hebrew MSS from the tenth century till the fifteenth century… Josephus (Contra Apion I, 40 [8]) and the Talmud (Baba Bathra 15a) also refer to the Book of Ezra, but not to a separate Book of Nehemiah.” Yamauchi, Edwin. Ezra-Nehemiah. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1988. 572.

[3] Achtemeier, P. J., Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature. (1985). In Harper’s Bible dictionary. San Francisco: Harper & Row.

[4] Weinberg, Saul. Post-Exilic Palestine: An Archaeological Report (Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humani ties, 1969), pp. 6–7. Cited in Yamauchi, Edwin. Ezra-Nehemiah. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House. 1988. 568.

[5] Yamauchi, E. (1988). Ezra-Nehemiah. In F. E. Gaebelein (Ed.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: 1 & 2 Kings, 1 & 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job (Vol. 4, p. 667). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House.