(HBH) - The Book of Nehemiah is named for its principal character. In the postexilic period Nehemiah refortified Jerusalem, established civil authority, and began religious reforms.
Ezra and Nehemiah were one book in the Hebrew Bible until the fifteenth century A.D. The English versions follow the tradition of the Greek church fathers and Latin Old Testament by separating them. In the Septuagint, the pre-Christian version of the Old testament, Ezra and Nehemiah form one book.
The English arrangement of Old Testament books follows the Greek tradition by placing Nehemiah in the proper chronological sequence. Here Nehemiah follows Chronicles and Ezra as the eleventh historical book. In the Hebrew Bible, Nehemiah appears in the third and final section known as the Writings. There Ezra-Nehemiah precedes Chronicles, which ends the Hebrew Bible.
Some scholars believe that Ezra-Nehemiah was formerly the second half of a larger history known as the "Chronicler's History". This history consisted of I and II Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. This reconstruction has been rejected by many scholars, both evangelical and critical, and continues to be disputed (see introduction to "The Historic Books" and "Ezra"). The Jewish Talmud names Ezra as the author of Chronicles and names Ezra and Nehemiah as joint authors of Ezra-Nehemiah. In any event, the identity of the compiler, who would have used a number of written sources, such as Nehemiah's first-person account, cannot be known. Ezra-Nehemiah dates to the latter half of the fifth century B.C., no earlier than 430 B.C.
The majority of the book is Nehemiah's first-person memoirs (1:1-7:73; 12:27-13:31). Ezra's ministry is reported in the third person (Neh. 8:1-12:30). Among the sources used were genealogical records (Neh. 7:6-73 and Ezra 2; Neh. 12:1-26, especially v.23), a covenant document (9:38-10:39), and a residency list (11:4-36).
Author: The book takes its real title from the first verse (see the section "Occasion and Date"). Nehemiah is identified as cupbearer in the court of Artaxerxes. A cupbearer held a position of trust as counselor to the king and was responsible for keeping him from being poisoned. Although Nehemiah undoubtedly enjoyed the luxuries of the palace, his heart was in Jerusalem, a small city on the outskirts of the empire.
Nehemiah's prayers and help, his qualities of leadership, powerful eloquence, organizational skills, trust in GOD's purposes and clever response to problems made him a great leader and man of GOD. And more important, Nehemiah offers us an example of his spirit of sacrifice, whose only concern is summed up in the prayer that he constantly repeated: "Remember me for good, my GOD".
Occasion and Date: In the Hebrew Scriptures, the Book of Nehemiah originally appeared along with Ezra. Many experts consider Ezra to be the compiler/author of Ezra-Nehemiah, as well as I and II Chronicles. Although we aren't sure, it seems that Nehemiah himself produced a part of the material that appears in the book that bears his name (chapt. 1-7; 11-13).
Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin, honored Nehemiah, putting the name of the Jewish leader on the book that he translated, citing him in the first verse. Nehemiah means "Jehovah comforts". The history that is narrated here begins in the book of Ezra and is completed in Nehemiah. This man, who twice served as governor of Judea, came from Persia for his first mission in the twentieth year of Artaxerxes I, who reigned from 465 to 424 B.C. (2:1). He returned to Persian during the 32nd year of that king (13:6) and, "after certain days", went to Jerusalem again.
The content of the book indicates that the work couldn't have been written until some time after Nehemiah's return to Jerusalem from Persia. Perhaps its definitive writing took place before the death of Artaxerxes I, in the year 424 B.C.; otherwise, the death of such a magnificent monarch would have been mentioned in the Book of Nehemiah.
The historical period covered by the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is approximately 110 years. The reconstruction of the temple under Zerubbabel, inspired by the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah, lasted 21 years. Sixty years later, Ezra brought revival and a necessary message about the temple worship. Thirty years later, Nehemiah came to rebuild the walls. Malachi may have also prophesied during this time. If so, Nehemiah and Malachi worked together to eradicate politheistic worship, and attacked the Israelites' promiscuity with the other peoples established in Judah forcefully by the Assyrians 200 years earlier. They were so successful in their endeavor that, during the intertestamental period, GOD's people didn't relapse into idolatry. Thus, when the Messiah came, people like Zachariah, Elisabeth, Mary and Joseph, Simeon and Anna, shepherds and others, were devout people with whom GOD could communicate.
Content: Nehemiah refers to the practical and daily aspects of our faith in GOD. Ezra had led the people to a spiritual revival, while Nehemiah was the James of the Old Testament who challenged the people to show their faith through works, or rather, their daily behavior.
The first section of the book (chaps. 1-7) deals with the city wall. To maintain their integrity with people, Judah and Benjamin had to protect themselves from those who lived outside of the city. In the period in which the wall was built, the believers who labored under the direction of this dynamic leader, overcame discouragement (4:6), taunts (2:20), conspiracies (3:9), and threats and physical aggressions (4:17).
The second section of the book (chaps. 8-10) is directed to the people within the city. The covenant was renewed, and enemies outside were denounced and rigorously condemned. To lead his people, GOD chose a man of upright hears and clear vision, put him in the precise place at the precise moment, endowed him with his Spirit and sent him to achieve wonders.
In the final section (chaps. 11-13), the people had been restored in order to obey the Word of GOD, by Nehemiah working as laic leader as well as Ezra as priest. During this period Nehemiah, in his position of governor, used his influence to help Ezra's work and guide the people. It deals with an energetic man who thought before acting.
Theme: (HBH) GOD encircled His people with protection by the walls Nehemiah built and the law Ezra reestablished.
Purpose and Theology: (HBH)
But GOD is not just awesome in might. He is also depicted as a GOD of covenant steadfastness who dealt faithfully with Israel on the basis of its election (1:5-7; 9:7-37). He is holy and demands a righteous people, a sanctified priesthood, and a hallowed place of worship (12:30; 13:9,23-28,30).
Theological Contribution: (IBD) Nehemiah is an excellent case study in courageous, resourceful leadership. Against overwhelming odds, he encouraged the people to "rise up and build" (2:18). Their rapid completion of the wall has been an inspiration to countless Christians across the centuries who have faced the challenge of completing some major task to the glory of GOD.
Nehemiah also teaches that prayer is an important part of the faith of every follower of GOD. At several crucial points in his book, he prayed for GOD's direction (1:5-11; 2:1-20; 4:1-14; 6:9-14). If this courageous leader needed to claim GOD's strength and guidance through prayer, how much more fervently should we pray for GOD's will to be done through us as we face the important decisions of life? Nehemiah is an excellent object lesson on the power of prayer for all believers.
Special Considerations: (IBD) Scholars have debated who returned to Jerusalem first, Ezra or Nehemiah. But the Bible makes it plain that Ezra arrived about 13 years before Nehemiah. Ezra went back to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes' reign (Ezra 7:8), while Nehemiah returned during this Persian kings' 20th year (Neh. 2:1). The debate arises because of the account of the religious revival under Ezra, which is inserted as chapters 8-10 of Nehemiah.
Perhaps there is a simple reason why this "Ezra story" was included in the Book of Nehemiah. It was used to emphasize the truth that rebuilding the Law of GOD in the hearts of the people was just as important as rebuilding a wall of stone around the nation's capital city. This was a spiritual, life-sustaining wall that no enemy could batter down.
Personal Application: Four important principles are derived from Nehemiah. First, obedience to GOD's will is often born from compassion. Second, cooperation with others is required to accomplish GOD's will. Third, trust is a fruit of fervent prayer and the proclamation of the Word of GOD, in which his will is revealed. Fourth, courage should manifest itself as tenacity that refuses all compromise in regards to GOD's will.
Christ Revealed: Nehemiah, along with his associate Ezra, gathered the people of GOD to remind them of the Law. By doing so, he became one of the inspired authors of the Sacred Scripture who placed the people into the hands of their "schoolmaster" (Gal. 3:23,24) to keep them until the coming of Christ.
Although Christ is not directly alluded to in Nehemiah, this personage anticipates him through the example of his life. He was a courageous leader who defied danger and exhorted the people to do Jehovah's work (2:18), as Christ himself challenged those who opposed him and encouraged his disciples to persevere (John 15:18-27). He prayed ardently (2:1-20; 6:9-14) as Christ did (Luke 6:12). Finally, he was dedicated to the Law of GOD (8:9,10), and important element in the life of Christ also (Matt. 5:17).
The Holy Spirit in Action: From the creation, the Holy Spirit has been GOD's executive arm on Earth. Elihu had reason when he said to Job, "The spirit of GOD made me" (Job. 33:4). The question consists in how the Spirit of GOD is the one who works to make of us all that GOD wants us to be. Nehemiah 2:18 affirms, "Then I declared to them how the hand of my GOD had been good upon me". The hand of GOD, that is, his action upon earth, are references to the Holy Spirit. Ezekiel, one of the captives in Babylon before the return of GOD's people to Jerusalem, wrote, "I will give you a new heart, and put a new spirit within you; and I will take away the stony heart out of your flesh, and I will give you an heart of flesh. And I will put within you my Spirit, and he will make you walk in my statues, and keep my precepts, and put them to work. You will dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you will be a people for me, and I will be your GOD" (Ezek. 36:26-28). Nehemiah, whose name means "Jehovah comforts", acted clearly as an instrument of the Holy Spirit. Under the power of the Spirit of GOD, he constituted a model of how the Holy Spirit works and was one of those who fulfilled that notable prophecy, even in Old Testament times.
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