Ezra-Nehemiah (Overview)

Subscribe to the Bible Reading Challenge Podcast


A:  Zerubbabel’s Return (Ezra 1-2)
B:  Building of Temple & Opposition (Ezra 3-6)
C:  Ezra’s Return (Ezra 7-8)
D:  Purification of the People (Ezra 9-10)
C′:  Nehemiah’s Return (Nehemiah 1-2)
B′:  Building of Walls & Opposition (Nehemiah 3-7:3)
A′:  Nehemiah’s Return & Final Reforms (Nehemiah 7:4-13)

Alternative Outline
A:  Zerubbabel’s Return (Ezra 1-2)
B:  Zerubbabel’s Accomplishment (Ezra 3-6)
C:  Ezra’s Return (Ezra 7-8)
D:  Ezra’s Accomplishment (Ezra 9-10)
E:  Nehemiah’s Return (Nehemiah 1-2)
F:  Nehemiah’s Accomplishment (Nehemiah 3:1-7:3)
G:  Final Reforms and Lists (Nehemiah 7:4-13)

Timeline (537-489 BC)
539-531 BC – Cyrus/Darius The Mede
530-523 BC – Cambyses II
522-487 BC – Darius/Artaxerxes/Ahasuerus

Historical Context of Ezra-Nehemiah

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are together one book that continue the history of Israel that began in 1-2 Chronicles. In this sense, we might call Ezra-Nehemiah “3rd Chronicles” as it focuses on the priestly work surrounding the temple and the reconstruction of Jerusalem. From the beginning of Ezra to the end of Nehemiah spans a period of 48 years, this takes us from the decree of Cyrus in 537 BC to Nehemiah’s final reforms in 489 BC (according to the shorter chronology). At the beginning of this time period, Daniel is an old man and has visions of the future as recorded in Daniel 10-12. In the same year that the temple was completed (516 BC), Esther was 1,400 miles away in the Persian capital being selected as a replacement for Queen Vashti. This means that 13 years later, when Nehemiah, who was cupbearer for Artaxerxes, requested leave to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (503 BC), Esther was likely the queen sitting beside him (Neh. 2:6).

Ezra-Nehemiah takes us to the very end of the inspired Old Testament history. Together with the prophet Malachi, these are God’s final words before a 400+ year silence from His prophets. This silence is a fulfillment of Amos 8:11-12:

 “Behold, the days are coming,” says the Lord God,
“That I will send a famine on the land,
Not a famine of bread,
Nor a thirst for water,
But of hearing the words of the Lord.
They shall wander from sea to sea,
And from north to east;
They shall run to and fro, seeking the word of the Lord,
But shall not find it.”

To summarize the historical situation of Ezra-Nehemiah:

  • The monarchies of both Israel and Judah are no more.
  • God’s people have been living scattered throughout the Babylonian and then Persian empire for about 70 years.
  • Although there are still tribal distinctions, all of them go by the name “Jew” (from Judahite) after the exile. And this will continue until the coming of the Christian age. This progression in the naming of God’s people goes from Hebrews, to Israelites, to Jews, and then to Christians.
  • Now during this time of exile, God has raised up people like Daniel and his three friends to be advisors to the king and magistrates in the empire. Esther and Mordecai are also examples of this, so despite being scattered and without any central place of worship, God is still preserving and even blessing those who are faithful. This culminates with the decree of Cyrus King of Persia to go and rebuild the temple at Jerusalem, and then Ezra-Nehemiah is going to record three different trips to go and do this work.

There are three main figures that God uses to lead His project of reformation: 1) Zerubbabel, 2) Ezra, and 3) Nehemiah. The book can also be structured around these three figures:

Alternative Outline
A:  Zerubbabel’s Return (Ezra 1-2)
B:  Zerubbabel’s Accomplishment (Ezra 3-6)
C:  Ezra’s Return (Ezra 7-8)
D:  Ezra’s Accomplishment (Ezra 9-10)
E:  Nehemiah’s Return (Nehemiah 1-2)
F:  Nehemiah’s Accomplishment (Nehemiah 3:1-7:3)
G:  Final Reforms and Lists (Nehemiah 7:4-13)

Who Was Zerubbabel?

Zerubbabel, the son of Shealtiel, was the prince and governor of Judah. His name means seed or offspring of Babel, and he appears to also have the Persian name of Sheshbazzar (Ezra 1:8, Ezra 5:14-16). As the civil leader of the Jews, Zerubbabel was appointed by Cyrus king of Persia to lead the return of the Jews to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple. The prophets Haggai and Zechariah encouraged him in this work, and God says that He has chosen him to be a signet ring, that is a promise of the Messiah who is to come. Zerubbabel was in the royal line of David, and he is included in both Matthew and Luke’s genealogy of Jesus. In terms of Old Testament history, Zerubbabel is the last of the Davidic rulers that we read about.

Zerubbabel’s Return (537 BC)

The first 6 chapters of Ezra describe the return of the Jews under Zerubbabel, and among them are Jeshua/Joshua the high priest, Nehemiah (future cupbearer of the king), and Mordecai (future advisor to the king). And if you remember how the genealogies in Chronicles are structured, there is an emphasis on the priestly and kingly lines. One of the signs of reformation is that both Priest and King are working together and we will see this play out in Ezra-Nehemiah.

So under Zerubbabel’s leadership as civil magistrate, and Joshua’s leadership as high priest, the Jews return to Jerusalem to fulfill the great commission of King Cyrus. We read in Ezra 2:64-65 that, “The whole assembly together was forty-two thousand three hundred and sixty, besides their male and female servants, of whom there were seven thousand three hundred and thirty-seven; and they had two hundred men and women singers.” So this is a group of almost 50,000 people traveling to Jerusalem as a new Exodus community. In Ezra 3 they gather together as one man and build the altar of God, they offer burnt offerings, and keep the Feast of Tabernacles. We are told that they did this in the 7th month, and it’s a good idea to remember what we know about the 7th month (Tishri). On the first day of the seventh month is the Feast of Trumpets and this is the beginning of the civil/kingly new year. This would be when a year of Jubilee would start. On the tenth day of the seventh month is the Day of Atonement, and then after that is the Feast of Ingathering/Tabernacles/Booths. So there are a lot of festival days in the seventh month, and this was when the Jews restarted the daily offerings in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:6). By this time all they have is an altar, and that’s it. But there is something significant here for us to observe: worship is central, worship is essential, and worship comes prior to the building up of everything else. The prophet Haggai will later criticize the Jews for working on their own houses while God’s house lies in ruins. So there is a biblical order to how reformation takes place. Worship first, then cultural dominion and prosperity, this is a major theme in Ezra-Nehemiah. Ezra 3 ends with them laying the foundation for the temple, but the response is mixture of celebration and sadness. Joy for breaking ground on a new temple, but sorrow for those old enough to remember the glory of what was once there.

In Ezra 4, the building project hits resistance. Samaritans attempt to join the building efforts but are rightly rejected by Zerubbabel because of their idolatrous heritage. They complain to the king, who I take to be Cambyses who became co-regent with Cyrus for a time and stood against the Jews (I infer this from Daniel 10:1-14). The Samaritans convince the king to halt the building project, and so about 15 years go by until the project resumes under King Darius. It is here that it would be worthwhile to read the prophets Haggai and Zechariah because their prophesies deal directly with the Jews situation at this time. You will notice that the same old sins are still prevalent among these people: selfishness, injustice, uncleanness, and oppression. So just as Israel sinned in the wilderness after the Exodus, here now the Jews are doing similarly. God still used the faithful to build the tabernacle, and here now the people will repent and build up the temple. God says in Zechariah 4:9, “The hands of Zerubbabel have laid the foundation of this temple, His hands shall also finish it.” And thus it is so. In Ezra 6, Darius decrees the temple be finished and he pays for it. So in 516 BC, seventy years after the burning of Solomon’s temple, the second temple is completed and dedicated, and this marks the end of the Zerubbabel section of the book.

Ezra’s Return (515 BC)

Shortly after the temple’s dedication, Ezra is sent by Artaxerxes to teach and enforce the law of God in Jerusalem. The king also sends with Ezra a letter that includes what is basically a blank check for whatever they need at the temple (Ezra 7:14-23). This is a form of tribute that Artaxerxes is offering to God, for he says, “Whatever is commanded by the God of heaven, let it diligently be done for the house of the God of heaven. For why should there be wrath against the realm of the king and his sons?” (Ezra 7:23). In addition to this support, the king also declares, “Whoever will not observe the law of your God and the law of the king, let judgment be executed speedily on him, whether it be death, or banishment, or confiscation of goods, or imprisonment.” (Ezra 7:26). This is the king giving jurisdiction to the Jews to obey and enforce their own laws, a freedom that will be taken from them by the time of the Romans in Jesus’ day.

On Divorcing Pagan Women

Chapters 8-10 record Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem and the enforcement of God’s law against those who had married pagan women. And here some people have questioned whether divorcing these foreign women was the righteous thing to do or not? How does this square with the Apostle Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 7:10-16?

Well we are told in Ezra 10:3, that this was all done “according to the law,” and so this means these were lawful divorces and met the biblical conditions for carrying them out. In Leviticus 21, the priests are forbidden from marrying a harlot or any woman who was not a virgin, this was a unique law for priests because of their holy status. In Exodus 34:11-16 and Deuteronomy 7:1-4, God gives a command to all Israelites not to intermarry with pagan women. And one thing we need to remember here is that if these women wanted to, they could have repented and been joined to God’s people, they could have become Jews. This was true of Rahab the harlot, and Ruth the Moabitess. So the only women who were divorced were those who were idolatrous, immoral, and unrepentant.

Now when Jesus is questioned about the biblical grounds for divorce, he says, “whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery” (Matt. 19:9). And since Ezra 9:1-2 says that these foreign women were amongst those who committed “the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites,” I take this to mean that these foreign women were guilty of sexual immorality (as part of their religious practices), and/or would not be willing to live with their believing husband (violating 1 Cor. 7:12). So because these divorces are represented as according to God’s law, I take these women to have been unrepentant pagans who met the threshold for the biblical grounds of divorce. Nonetheless, this is still a sad situation because there were children involved and families were divided by God’s Word (Luke 12:53). It’s likely that these women and children were taken care of financially by the husbands, but they were disinherited because of their sins. This is the price of holiness and the consequences of unlawful marriages. You cannot unscramble the egg. Altogether there were 117 divorces, (17 of the Priests, 10 of the Levites, and 86 of the Israelites).

Something worth pondering that contrasts with how we modern Christians operate today, is how the Jews considered these unlawful marriages to be a whole-community problem, not just the responsibility of the individual man who had intermarried. This is what covenant community means. Your neighbor’s sins affect God’s disposition towards the group of which you are apart. In a community of around 50,000 people, 117 unlawful marriages is less than 1% of that population, and yet we see men, women, and children weeping bitterly because of these sins (Ezra 10:1-2). This is what reformation and revival looks like, repentance, restitution, and making things right, no matter the cost.

That’s how Ezra ends, but we will see a similar pattern in Nehemiah.

Nehemiah’s Return (502 BC)

Who was Nehemiah? If we piece together what we are told about him, and assuming this is the same Nehemiah who was mentioned earlier in Zerubbabel’s list (Ezra 2:2), Nehemiah went from Babylon to Jerusalem as probably a young man in 537 BC. At some point over the course of the next 34 years, he went back to the capital city of Shushan (perhaps with Mordecai) where he was cupbearer to the king. Now I am just speculating here but it is possible that Mordecai and Nehemiah went back to Persia because when the construction of the temple was halted (from 535-520 BC), both of them thought they could do more good for the Jews in the capital, and maybe even persuade the king to change his mind. Of course, God uses both of them in powerful ways to save and preserve His people. Mordecai becomes chief advisor to Artaxerxes, and Nehemiah is his cupbearer.

At the beginning of Nehemiah, he receives word from one of his brothers that the walls of Jerusalem are in ruins. So although the temple has been rebuilt, the city itself is still in bad shape. Nehemiah then prays a great prayer of repentance and asks God that the king would be merciful to him. Three months later, the king grants Nehemiah’s request for letters and supplies to go and rebuild the walls. Nehemiah 3 describes all the gates and walls they rebuilt. Nehemiah 4 describes how adversaries arise to try and stop them, but their plot fails. From that time on the men worked with a weapon in one hand and a tool in the other. Nehemiah 5 describes another violation of God’s law in that the Jews are enslaving and oppressing one another financially. Nehemiah rebukes them for this sin and crime of usury, and commands them to make restoration; the people agree. We are then told that during Nehemiah’s 12 years as governor, he did not eat the governor’s provisions or use his power for his own personal gain, but rather generously provided for the people. This is godly leadership.

Now you might think that because of Nehemiah’s good deeds that God would not give him any troubles. But in the next chapter, Sanballat, Tobiah, and Geshem the Arab attempt to assassinate him. Nehemiah sees through their plot, he does not compromise to save his life, and God delivers him. Finally, the walls are completed, the doors are hung, and Nehemiah hands off the leadership to his brother Hanani (Neh. 7:2). Nehemiah 8-13 records the reformation and re-establishment of God’s law in Jerusalem. Ezra reads the law (Neh. 8), the people confess their sins (Neh. 9), they then swear a new covenant with God (Neh. 10), and then the names are recorded of those who are part of this community (Neh. 11-12). Nehemiah then returns to Darius in Persia (Neh. 13:6), and while he is gone, the Jews start sinning again, breaking the covenant they had previously sworn. A couple years go by and Nehemiah travels back to Jerusalem and literally cleans house (Neh. 13:6-9). Tobiah, one of the guys who had previously tried to kill him, was living in one of the rooms in the temple court. The people had stopped tithing and so the Levites were back in their fields. The Sabbath was being profaned through commerce, and some of them had intermarried with pagan women again. Nehemiah then says, “So I contended with them and cursed them, struck some of them and pulled out their hair, and made them swear by God, saying, ‘You shall not give your daughters as wives to their sons, nor take their daughters for your sons or yourselves’” (Neh. 13:25). This was not a sinful outburst of wrath on Nehemiah’s part, this was zeal for the holiness of God and the punishment he doles out is part of Nehemiah’s job as a civil magistrate. Nehemiah is enforcing the laws of the land and the covenant the Jews had sworn. Throughout this final chapter, Nehemiah calls upon God to remember him, and the book ends with the words, “Remember me, O my God, for good!” This prayer is emblematic of the state of God’s people as the Old Testament draws to a close. There are faithful Jews and unfaithful Jews. There are righteous priests and wicked priests, generous governors and selfish ones. The cry of the faithful is that God would remember His covenant promises to Abraham and to David, and raise up a new king and new priest to save them from their sins. Almost 500 years will pass before the coming of Jesus Christ to destroy the temple and setup a new one. This is what Ezra-Nehemiah are ultimately about, the building of Christ’s kingdom in the midst of our enemies. And Amen!