The books of Ezra & Nehemiah pick up where 2 Chronicles left off (compare 2 Chronicles 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4). They record the restoration of the Jews to their land after the captivity in Babylon.
The return to Judah happened in three phases. The first was led by Zerubbabel, the second by Ezra and the third by Nehemiah. There is a pattern which can be seen throughout the books with each of these men.
- Each one had a distinct, yet unrelated position and purpose in their phase of the return;
- Each one was sent by a Persian king who acknowledged God and the importance of Jerusalem to His people;
- Each one faced challenges in the commission of their duties;
- Each one had opponents rise up against them adding further difficulty to their mission.
Zerubbabel (Ezra 1-6) was a political leader sent by Cyrus the king of Persia to get the temple of God rebuilt. He would serve as the first governor of the province of Judah. He was charged with keeping order, keeping the people motivated, and keeping the work going. There were a number of challenges which he faced, not the least of which was a 16 year pause in the reconstruction process of the temple caused by opposition leaders in and around the land. When they did finally get the temple finished, they had a dedication ceremony much like what we see in Exodus 40 (the tabernacle) and 1 Kings 8 (Solomon’s temple). Some of the Gentiles sought to be involved in the building process, but Zerubbabel would not allow it, saying, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God” (Ezra 4:3).
Ezra (Ezra 7-10) was a priest, sent to be a spiritual leader in Judah and to re-establish worship among God’s people according to the Law of Moses. He was sent by Artaxerxes, the grandson of Cyrus, who had sent the first group. Ezra was well acquainted with the law and was zealous to share his knowledge with the people. Sadly what he found was that after their return, the people had begun to intermarry with the Gentiles. It wasn’t a problem confined to the average Jew, but the trouble affected the leadership of the people as well. That made the Jewish leaders of Ezra’s day his opponents, for by their shameful actions they “added to the guilt of Israel” (Ezra 10:10).
Nehemiah (Nehemiah 1-7) did not take up politics as Zerubbabel did, nor was he a spiritual leader, at least not in the capacity which Ezra was. Nehemiah was a general leader among the people, charged with getting the wall of the city rebuilt. Like Ezra, he was sent by Artaxerxes (in fact, Nehemiah, who was the king’s cupbearer, specifically asked permission to go to deal with the wall). The pagan governors who lived and ruled in neighbouring areas were a huge challenge for Nehemiah and the rebuilding project. In particular, Sanballat, Tobiah and Geshem are mentioned with some frequency. He defended the work planned to rebuild the wall and let them know in no uncertain terms, “…you have no heritage or right or memorial in Jerusalem” (Nehemiah 2:20).
The books begin with hope—rebuilding and restoring what had been broken down. A new temple, a renewed focus on the law, and a new city wall to secure and restore the city to a portion of it’s former glory. Despite the challenges faced, it seemed things were headed in the right direction. In Nehemiah 8-12, there was a 7-day festival focused on reading the Law. They observed the feast of Tabernacles, they reaffirmed the covenant and celebrated their commitment to God.
Sadly in chapter 13, we find the work of Zerubbabel compromised, as the temple was neglected and the storehouses were misused. The work of Ezra was compromised, as the Sabbath was profaned and the people continued to marry pagans. The work of Nehemiah was compromised, as he had to set up enforced closures of the city gates to keep merchants from selling their wares on the Sabbath. Much to Nehemiah’s chagrin, the merchants lodged outside the wall rather than observe the Sabbath. The book began with hope, it ends with disappointment.
Next week we continue with Esther…