Ezra and Nehemiah

Read the Bible in a Year

This week, read: Ezra and Nehemiah



At Least Know This

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah recount what happened when the people came back from Babylon. They rebuilt the city, the temple, and they ignored what the prophets said.


Author and Date

The people return from the Babylonian Exile and rebuild. They return in a series of groups. 

·      The first group was under the leadership of Sheshbazzar, probably returning in 538 BC. 

·      The second group was under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, probably a year later, around 537 BC.

·      The third group, under the leadership of Nehemiah, came about 444 BC.

·      The fourth group came under the leadership of Ezra, about 397 BC.


The books of Ezra and Nehemiah are intertwined, and should be thought of as a single book. The stories are out of chronological order. Below is the correct chronology.

·     Ezra 1:1–4:5… The King of Persia sends exiles home (538 BC), and they begin to rebuild the temple and the city.  

·     Ezra 4:24–6:22… There is a temporary Persian opposition to rebuilding.

·     Ezra 4:6–4:23… The King of Persia stops the rebuilding.

·     Nehemiah 1:1–7:3… Nehemiah returns, 444 BC, and the rebuilding begins again. But now the Samaritans and Ammonites oppose the rebuilding.

·     Nehemiah 11:1–13:31… They finish rebuilding the Temple and city wall.

·     Ezra 7:1–10:44… Ezra returns (397 BC) and enforces the Law. There is an exclusion of foreigners.

·     Nehemiah 8:1–10:39… The Law (the first five books of the Bible, and the priests’ interpretation of the law) becomes all-important.



Historical Situation 

Being in Babylon for five decades was a cultural trauma for the people. While they were not slaves, Babylon was not where they wanted to be. They longed to be back in the land that they believed God gave them, offering sacrifices at the temple, where they believed God dwelt. 

While they were in Babylon, they asked themselves, “Why did God let this happen?” The prophets responded that they were unfaithful, had chased idols, and they had played games with the covenant. The priests had a different answer. The priests said that they were exiled in Babylon because we didn’t follow the law enough, and didn’t worship in the temple enough.

The people listened to the priests, not the prophets. 

So, in 538 BC, the Babylonian Empire fell, and the Persians took over. King Cyrus of Persia said that the people could go home. 

And they decided that when they got back to Judah, they would follow the law to the letter. They would obey every law, follow every commandment, and follow everything the priests told them to do. They believed this would prevent another disaster like the Babylonian Exile.

So they came back, and under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they followed this plan: Obey every law from the first five books of the Old Testament. 

They kicked out every foreigner. Only Jews could live in the city of Jerusalem—and you had to have your genealogy papers to prove you were a Jew, in order to live in the city. The prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel told them to welcome foreigners, but they didn’t listen.

They believed they had to rebuild and maintain the temple, even though Jeremiah said it was worthless. Jeremiah told them to forget the temple and take care of the fatherless and the widow.

They believed that their place as the chosen people meant that that they should stay separate from foreigners, despite what the prophets said. 

They worked hard to maintain the Sabbath, avoid foreigners, not intermarry, wear the right clothes, maintain the temple, and follow the religious festivals. This despite what the prophets Amos and Micah said, that the important thing was to “do justice, love mercy, and to walk humbly with God.”





Important Passages

Chapter 2:62. Priests who could not find their family records to prove they were Jewish, were fired because they were unclean. 

Chapter 4:1-3. The Samaritans offered to help them build the temple. But the Jews regarded them as impure. Zerubbabel says, “We alone will build it for the Lord, the God of Israel,” and today we could add the line, “And never mind what Ezekiel said.” 

Nehemiah 1:11. Nehemiah was the cupbearer to the king. This was a very trusted position. Cupbearers had to taste the wine to make sure it wasn’t poisoned. 

Nehemiah 2:19-20. The Ammonites, Arabs, and Horonites wanted to help build the city walls, but were rejected. Nehemiah tells them, “We, God’s servants, will start rebuilding, but as for you, you have no share in Jerusalem.” And today we might add, “And never mind what Isaiah said.”

Nehemiah 10:1. “We will not neglect the house of our God.” And never mind what Jeremiah said.


Faith Insights 

Throughout the Old Testament, we see two voices: the voice of the priests, who cared about the temple, and wanted people to obey the law. And we also have the voice of the prophets, who exhorted people to take care of the most vulnerable, to be faithful to God, and to walk in justice and mercy.

Ezra and Nehemiah’s work closes off the prophetic movement. There were a few minor prophetic voices after this period, but no one like Amos, or Isaiah, or Jeremiah. The prophets were gone. From now on, they studied the law, discussed the law, and obeyed the law. They became singularly focused on the law for the next 500 years. 

And then Jesus came. 

Jesus walked into a culture that was singularly focused on the law. And Jesus ignored most of the laws, to the horror of the priests and Pharisees.

Jesus’s message was to take care of the most vulnerable, be faithful to God, and to walk in justice and mercy. But he also added another teaching: That the Kingdom of God is here. And with that came the forgiveness of sins and the relentless call of grace.






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