Last year, when I read through my chronological Bible, I got quite fascinated by the book of Nehemiah. And of course by the man Nehemiah. He’s quite the character, I must tell you! So I’ve done a bit of reading and research on this book of the Bible and would like to start a series for the next few Mondays.
Here is an interesting piece of info: “Nehemiah and Ezra were one book in the ancient Hebrew and Greek Old Testament and probably were not divided until after the interbiblical period. Jewish tradition says Ezra or Nehemiah was the author. Because of the close connection between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, one person might have written or compiled all three books. Those who follow this argument refer to the author as the Chronicler.” (c)
God had told the people of Israel to “fully obey the LORD your God and carefully keep all his commands…” (Deuteronomy 28:1) But if they would refuse to listen to the LORD and would not obey His commands and decrees, God would – among other things – exile them and their king to an unknown nation. (See the chapter of Deut. 28) And this is exactly what happened to the people of Israel. They were not obedient, they did not follow God’s commands, and so the kingdom of Israel was divided in 931 B.C. The ten northern tribes formed one kingdom, and the two southern tribes (Judah & Benjamin) formed another kingdom. First the Northern Kingdom fell and the people were taken captive by the Assyrians in 722 B.C. The Southern Kingdom was defeated by the Babylonians in 586 B.C.
“The Israelites of the Northern Kingdom were absorbed into Assyria and eventually into other cultures. However, the Southern Kingdom remained intact in Babylon, and after the power of Babylon was broken by the Medes and Persians in 539 B.C., many Jews returned to their homeland.” (a)
We know from the book of Daniel that the Babylonian kings were not very tolerant when it came to different religions. Daniel and his friends were threatened a few times with death if they would not worship the Babylonian king and their gods. But they stood their ground and God honored their faithfulness. However, the Persian king Cyrus was different. He was a lot more tolerant toward the people living in exile, and once he captured Babylon he announced an edict that would allow the exiles to return to their homeland. They were also allowed to rebuild their temples to worship their gods. His goal was to “create maximum amount of contentment among the people under the jurisdiction of the Persians. This created an excellent occasion for the exiled Jews in Babylon to return to Judah and to rebuild the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem.” (b)
“Not all the Jews in Babylonia went back to Judah. A significant group stayed behind, because they had become prosperous and were satisfied with conditions in that country. They enjoyed a great amount of freedom and some of them concentrated with success on business… Although financially assisted by their rich Jewish compatriots, the Jewish returnees were poor and ill equipped to shoulder their responsibilities in Judah.” (b)
Three groups that had returned back from exile are mentioned in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. There was the first group of people that returned with Zerubbabel as their leader in 538 B.C. (See Ezra chapter 1 and 2) This group’s priority was to rebuild the temple and after some difficulties, opposition and a standstill (Ezra 4:24) the temple was finally finished in 515 B.C.
Some time later (458 B.C.), another group of Jews returns with Ezra as their leader (Ezra 7:1-10). “This Ezra was a scribe who was well versed in the Law of Moses, which the LORD, the God of Israel, had given to the people of Israel. He came up to Jerusalem from Babylon, and the king gave him everything he asked for, because the gracious hand of the LORD his God was on him… This was because Ezra had determined to study and obey the Law of the LORD and to teach those decrees and regulations to the people of Israel.” (Ezra 7:6 and 10) Because of Ezra’s faithfulness, the people living now in Jerusalem got taught the Word of God and once again they were following God’s commands and decrees.
So, now we come to Nehemiah, who returned to Jerusalem 14 years after Ezra, in 444 B.C. Who was Nehemiah? Why did he come to Jerusalem? Come back next week and find out!
(a) The Bible Knowledge Commentary – Old Testament
(b) The New International Commentary on the Old Testament – The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah by F. Charles Fensham
(c) Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary