Free Online Bible Library | Book of Nehemiah

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Book of Nehemiah

NEHEMIAH, BOOK OF. The Book of Nehemiah closes the history of the biblical period. Closely allied to the Book of Ezra, it was attached to it in the old Jewish reckoning. It gives the history and reforms of Nehemiah the governor from 444 to about 420 b.c.


I. Nehemiah Returns to Jerusalem (1:1-2:20).

II. Building Despite Opposition (3:1-7:4).

III. Genealogy of the First Returning Exiles (7:5-73 [= Ezra.2.2-Ezra.2.70]).

IV. The Revival and Covenant Sealing (8:1-10:39).

V. Dwellers at Jerusalem and Genealogies (11:1-12:26).

VI. Final Reforms (13:1-31).

Nehemiah’s great work of restoring the wall of Jerusalem depended basically on securing permission from the king. Ezra had returned to Jerusalem with a sizable group of people and much gold and silver only a dozen years previously (see Nehemiah), but had been hindered in his work by adverse royal decrees secured by his enemies. In God’s providence Nehemiah secured the restoration of royal favor.

The actual building of the wall was parceled out among different leaders. Various cities of the province of Judea sent contingents of workers, and we can here learn something of the extent of Nehemiah’s domain. The rapidity of building may have been due to preliminary work that Ezra might have accomplished. Most of the gates and sections of the wall mentioned in chapter 3 cannot be identified with certainty. Perhaps the wall enclosed only the eastern hill of Jerusalem.

The opposition to Nehemiah by Sanballat and others combined ridicule, threat, and craft. Sanballat is called the governor of Samaria in the Elephantine Papyri. He was apparently not anxious to see a rival province strengthened, and there was religious antagonism as well to Nehemiah’s strict reform program.

Internal difficulties also developed. The rich charged interest of one percent (per month, apparently, Neh.5.10), whereas the Mosaic Law required outright charity to the poor. But against all opposition the wall was built by men who used both sword and trowel in the work of the Lord.

The genealogy of Neh.7.1-Neh.7.73, which is a duplicate of the list in Ezra.2.1-Ezra.2.70, is of interest. There are unimportant differences between the lists such as might be expected in the copying of detailed data like this. It is instructive to note that the record of Zerubbabel’s returnees that Nehemiah used was a written record—not preserved by oral tradition as many have suggested was the method used for the passing on of Israel’s histories.

Nehemiah’s reform involved the teaching of Moses’ Law by Ezra and others at the Feast of Tabernacles (as commanded in Deut.31.10). This led to the great prayer of confession of Neh.9.1-Neh.9.38, redolent with quotations from and allusions to the Pentateuch. A covenant was solemnly sealed to walk in the Law of the Lord as given by Moses (Neh.10.29).

Nehemiah’s final reform included the removal of Tobiah from the temple precincts. Tobiah had entered through friendship with Eliashib the high priest while Nehemiah was back in Persia. Also a grandson of Eliashib had married Sanballat’s daughter (Neh.13.28). Evidently Eliashib was followed by his son Johanan in the reign of Darius II (423-404 b.c.). This Johanan is mentioned in the Elephantine Papyri as high priest in Jerusalem. The mention of him seems to indicate that Nehemiah’s history continued until at least 423 b.c.

Bibliography: J. M. Myers, Ezra, Nehemiah (AB), 1965; D. Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah (TOTC), 1979; F. C. Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah (NIC), 1982.——RLH

NEHEMIAH, BOOK OF. In the original Heb. Bible the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah are one. For general introductory material, see Book of Ezra.


Nehemiah held the important position of cupbearer to Artaxerxes I. It seems that an attempt to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem had come to a violent end by orders of the king (Ezra 4:21, 22), and the Jews were in great distress. Nehemiah was appointed governor, and built up the nation again. The new city walls made it possible to have a capital in which people would want to settle.

Special problems.

The only serious problem is the presence of Ezra in the book. As the book stands, Ezra came to Jerusalem in the seventh year of Artaxerxes I (Ezra 7:7) i.e. 458, and Nehemiah in the twentieth year of the same king (Neh 2:1) i.e. 445. The two men were associated in the reading of the law and the subsequent covenant (8:1, 9; 9:6; 10:1), and in the processions at the dedication of the walls (12:31-36).

This order of events has been attacked in recent years, and two main alternatives have been proposed for the coming of Ezra, i.e. the seventh year of Artaxerxes II (398) or, by emending the text, the thirty-seventh year of Artaxerxes I (428).

Before manipulating an alleged sequence of history, a scholar must show that this sequence is impossible, or unlikely, as it stands. Only then may he proceed with his reconstruction as being more likely.

There are three passages which are quoted as evidence that Ezra must have come after Nehemiah.

1. Ezra 10:1 speaks of a great congregation in Jerusalem, whereas in Nehemiah’s day the city was sparsely inhabited (Neh 7:4). The context shows that Ezra’s large congregation was collected from outside the city (Ezra 10:1, 7) without mentioning many houses in Jerusalem.

2. The KJV of Ezra 9:9 makes Ezra give thanks for a wall. The RSV trs. this metaphorically as “protection,” and puts “wall” in the margin. Ezra 4:12, dated in the reign of Artaxerxes I, shows that a wall was being built before the coming of Nehemiah, although it was destroyed again (Neh 1:3).

3. Ezra 10:6 mentions Jehohanan, or Jonathan, as the contemporary of Ezra. He is described here as “the son of Eliashib.” Eliashib was the high priest in the time of Nehemiah (Neh 3:1). So far there is no problem. But in Nehemiah 12:10, 11 Jonathan appears as the grandson of Eliashib, and the Elephantine papyri show this grandson as high priest in 408. Therefore it is argued that Ezra came to Jerusalem long after Nehemiah.

There are, however, some unproved assumptions here. Ezra’s Jehohanan is not described as high priest, nor is he necessarily to be identified with Eliashib’s grandson. Jehohanan or Jonathan were common names, and Eliashib may have had a son, who did not become high priest, and a grandson, who did, both bearing the same name, as uncle and nephew might.

A positive reason against identifying Ezra’s Jehohanan with the later high priest is that the latter murdered his own brother in the Temple (Jos. Antiq. XI. vii. 1). The incident had almost certainly occurred before 398, and, if Ezra had arrived then, he would not have risked his reputation by accepting friendly hospitality from such a man.

4. It is thought that, if Ezra had dealt with mixed marriages, Nehemiah would not have needed to deal with them again so soon afterward (Neh 13). In fact Ezra’s reform was in 457, and Nehemiah’s in 433. Considering that other abuses had crept in so soon after the making of the solemn covenant in Nehemiah 10, it is not surprising that mixed marriages began to come back also. Moreover some Jews could have escaped detection in Ezra’s day through being in heathen territory, as Nehemiah 13:23, 24 suggests. If they had been in Jewish territory, the children would have been at least bilingual. Nehemiah dealt with them on one of their visits to Jerusalem.

5. If Ezra had been commissioned to teach the law (Ezra 7:14, 25, 26) he surely would not have waited for thirteen years before he read it to the people. Therefore some prefer to attach Nehemiah 8, with the account of Ezra’s reading of the law, to the end of the present Book of Ezra, as 1 Esdras does, and remove it from the period of Nehemiah. It is not known how long Ezra remained when he first came. He would have returned to Persia to make his report to the king, and his commission was to inquire and to appoint magistrates to enforce the law. After dealing with the specific abuse of mixed marriages, he may not have been able to gather the people together for joint instruction in the whole law, before having to return to Persia.

There is, therefore, no necessity to rewrite history, and there is one strong positive argument against the 398 redating of Ezra’s coming. If the Chronicler wrote not later than 300, as is commonly supposed, he could not have confused the relative order of Ezra and Nehemiah, for there would have been many people living whose parents had seen Ezra and who would have told stories about him, but none whose parents had seen Nehemiah.

The alternative date of 428 meets the Biblical requirement of having the two men as contemporaries and removes objections 1, 2, and 4 above. But, since these objections are not substantial, there is no need to make the textual alteration which would change the date.

Contents and outline.

News of disaster at Jerusalem sends Nehemiah, the king’s cupbearer, to prayer (1:1-11).

The king gives him permission to rebuild the city and its walls, and sends him to Jerusalem as governor (2:1-11).

He examines the work, and is opposed by local officials (2:12-20).

The list of builders and their areas of work (3:1-32).

Attempts by outsiders to stop the work by sarcasm and armed threats (4:1-23).

Trouble through the poor having mortgaged themselves and their property to the rich (5:1-9).

Nehemiah is accused of setting himself up as king (6:1-14).

The completion of the wall in fifty-two days. Material would have been on the spot after the abortive attempt of Ezra 4:12 (6:15-7:4).

Register of returned exiles, similar to that in Ezra 2. Nehemiah consults it before working out plans for the resettlement of the city (7:5-73).

Ezra and the Levites read and teach the law (8:1-18).

A prayer of national repentance, followed by a specific covenant (9:1-10:39).

A register of the inhabitants of Jerusalem and neighborhood (11:1-36).

A list of priests and Levites from the return until the end of the Pers. empire (12:1-26).

The ritual dedication of the wall, and arrangements for regular worship (12:27-13:3).

Nehemiah’s further reforms after his return from a visit to Persia (13:4-31).


For primary works see under Ezra, Book of; J. Stafford Wright, The Date of Ezra’s Coming to Jerusalem (1947, 1958); H. H. Rowley, “The Chronological Order of Ezra and Nehemiah,” included in The Servant of the Lord (1952); “Nehemiah’s Mission and its Background,” included in Men of God (1963).

See also

  • Ezra-nehemiah
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