Reading Ezra and Nehemiah
The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are really one book that describes the period after the exile from the perspective of the return to Jerusalem. Ezra 1–6 speaks about the early return beginning with the Cyrus Decree (539 bc) through the building of the second temple (515 bc). The key figures are Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel.
Ezra 7&endash;Nehemiah 13 focuses on Ezra (who returns to Jerusalem in 458 bc) and Nehemiah (who returns in 445 bc). God uses them to restore the Law of Moses and then rebuild the wall. Their story is told largely through the memoirs of Ezra (Ezra 7–10; Nehemiah 8–10) and Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1–7 and 11–13). After the temple and wall are rebuilt and the law restored, they renew the covenant (Nehemiah 9–12).
One might think that at this point the book would end on a harmonious note. But no, it concludes with continuing unfaithfulness among the people of God. In the final chapter (13), Nehemiah comes back to Jerusalem from Persia where he had returned for a period of time. What he finds is deeply disturbing. A room at the temple had been given to a dubious man named Tobiah. The Levites had not been paid. People were working on the Sabbath. And more! Nehemiah works hard to set things right, but the people of God are still sinning. Not only that, but in a very important sense the exile is not really over. While the people of God can return home if they choose, Judah with its capital in Jerusalem is not an independent kingdom with a descendant of David on the throne. They still live under the thumb of an oppressive empire, namely Persia. This cannot be the conclusion of the story begun in Genesis. More must be coming. And we will see that that “more” is Jesus.
When we read Ezra and Nehemiah in their historical context, we learn something amazing about how God works in history. Notice how King Cyrus encourages the Jewish people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple (ezra 1:1–4) and how later King Artaxerxes instructs Ezra to go back to Judah and reestablish the law (ezra 7:11–28). Even later he urges his cupbearer Nehemiah to go back to rebuild the fallen wall of Jerusalem (nehemiah 1–2). Why do these pagan kings care? Persian records (like the Cyrus Cylinder that speaks of that king’s great deeds) mention that he was interested in creating loyal subjects by telling all of them, not just the Jewish people, to rebuild their temples destroyed by the Babylonians. Isn’t it encouraging to know that our God is not blocked in his purposes but even uses pagan kings to accomplish them in spite of their different motives?
The depictions of Ezra and Nehemiah also inform us that God has more than one model for leadership among his people. Study both of them closely and we notice that Ezra is a reflective and sensitive leader, while Nehemiah is a take-charge person who acts intuitively and decisively. God uses them both in dramatic ways and shows us that he can use our personality traits to lead his people to great accomplishments for the glory of God.
Ezra and Nehemiah show us that God continues to love and work with his people even after the judgment of the Babylonian empire. At the beginning of the book, the exiles begin trickling back to Jerusalem. In the face of local hostility, they rebuild the temple under Zerubbabel. Decades later they reestablish the law under Ezra and finally restore the wall under Nehemiah. The book ends with celebration (nehemiah 9–12), but also disappointment (nehemiah 13).