the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
Dr. Constable's Expository Notes Constable's Expository Notes
by Thomas Constable
This book, like so many others in the Old Testament, received its title from its principal character. The Septuagint (Greek) translation also had the same title, as does the Hebrew Bible. The Jews kept Ezra and Nehemiah together for many years. [Note: See my notes on the introduction to Ezra.] The reason was the historical continuity that flows from Ezra through Nehemiah.
WRITER AND DATE
The use of the first person identifies the author as Nehemiah, the governor of the Persian province of Judah (Neh_1:1 to Neh_2:20; Neh_13:4-31). His name means "Yahweh has comforted" or "Yahweh comforts."
The mention of Darius the Persian in Neh_12:22 probably refers to Darius II, the successor of Artaxerxes I (Longimanus). [Note: See my comments on 12:22.] Darius ruled from 423-404 B.C. The text refers to an event that took place in Darius’ reign (Neh_12:22). Therefore, Nehemiah must have written the book sometime after that reign began. Since there are no references to Nehemiah’s age in the text, it is hard to estimate how long he may have lived. When the book opens, he was second in command under King Artaxerxes (cf. Daniel). If he was 40 years old then and 41 when he reached Jerusalem in 444 B.C., he would have been 62 years old in 423 B.C. when Darius replaced Artaxerxes. Consequently he probably wrote the book not long after 423 B.C., most likely before 400 B.C. [Note: See Frank M. Cross, "A Reconstruction of the Judean Restoration," Journal of Biblical Literature 94:1 (March 1975):18.]
The years of history the book covers are 445-431 B.C., or perhaps a few years after that. In 445 B.C. (the twentieth year of Artaxerxes’ reign, Neh_1:1), Nehemiah learned of the conditions in Jerusalem that led him to request permission to return to Judah (Neh_2:5). He arrived in Jerusalem in 444 B.C. and within 52 days had completed the rebuilding of the city walls (Neh_6:15). In 432 B.C. Nehemiah returned to Artaxerxes (Neh_13:6). He came back to Jerusalem after that, probably in a year or so. The record of his reforms following that return is in the last chapter of this book. Apparently Nehemiah completed all of them in just a few weeks or months. Even though the book spans about 15 years, most of the activity Nehemiah recorded took place in 445-444 B.C. (chs. 1-12) and in 432-431 B.C. (ch. 13).
|Chronology of the Book of Nehemiah|
|445||Nehemiah learned of conditions in Jerusalem and requested a leave of absence from Artaxerxes.|
|444||He led the Jews to Jerusalem. Repairs on the wall of Jerusalem began. The Jews completed rebuilding the walls. Nehemiah promoted spiritual renewal among the returnees.|
|432||Nehemiah returned to Artaxerxes, ending his 12 years as governor of Judah. Malachi may have prophesied in Jerusalem.|
|431||Nehemiah may have returned to Jerusalem and begun his second term as governor. More religious reforms apparently began. [Note: Some scholars date Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem at about 425 B.C., e.g., John C. Whitcomb, "Nehemiah," in The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, pp.435, 445.]|
|423||Darius II began to reign.|
"The historicity of the book has been well established by the discovery of the Elephantine papyri, which mention Johanan (Neh_12:22-23) as high priest in Jerusalem, and the sons of Sanballat (Nehemiah’s great enemy) as governors of Samaria in 408 B.C. We also learn from these papyri that Nehemiah had ceased to be the governor of Judea before that year, for Bagoas is mentioned as holding that position." [Note: Ibid, p. 435.]
The Elephantine papyri are letters the Jews in Babylon sent to Jews who had fled to a colony in southern Egypt, called Elephantine, following the destruction of Jerusalem. They throw much light on Jewish life as it existed in Babylon during the exile.
I. The fortification of Jerusalem chs. 1-7
A. The return under Nehemiah chs. 1-2
1. The workers and their work ch. 3
2. The opposition to the workers ch. 4
3. The strife among the workers ch. 5
II. The restoration of the Jews chs. 8-13
A. The renewal of the Mosaic Covenant chs. 8-10
1. The gathering of the people ch. 8
2. The prayer of the people ch. 9
3. The renewed commitment of the people ch. 10
D. The reforms instituted by Nehemiah ch. 13
The Book of Nehemiah records the fortification of Jerusalem and the restoration of the Jews, two essential steps that were necessary to reestablish God’s people in His will and in their land.
Nehemiah continued the good work that Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and Ezra had begun. Zerubbabel’s great contribution had been the rebuilding of the temple, and Ezra’s was the reformation of the people. Ezra and Nehemiah worked together in this latter task. Ezra 7-10 records Ezra’s work in 458 B.C., and Nehemiah 8-13 describes Nehemiah’s work in 444 and probably 431 B.C.
Whereas Ezra was a priest and a scribe, a "professional" religious leader, Nehemiah was a "layman," an administrator who was responsible to a Persian king. Both had deep commitment to God’s will for Israel as Yahweh had revealed this in His Word. Both were true Jewish patriots in the best sense of that word.
The Book of Nehemiah provides a great illustration of how prayer and hard work can accomplish seemingly impossible things when a person determines to trust and obey God. As a leader Nehemiah was a man of responsibility, vision, prayer, action, cooperation, and compassion who triumphed over opposition with proper motivation. [Note: Yamauchi, "The Archaeological . . .," p. 304.]
"The books of Ezra and Nehemiah reflect some of the bleakest and most difficult days of Israel’s long Old Testament history. Though the Exile was over and a remnant people was in process of rebuilding the superstructures of national life, the prospects for success paled in comparison to the halcyon days of the past when the Davidic kingdom dominated the entire eastern Mediterranean world. What was needed was a word of encouragement, a message of hope in the God who had once blessed His people above all nations of the earth and who had promised to do so again.
"The great theological theme of the books lies, then, precisely in this nexus between the ancient promises of Yahweh and the present and future expectations of His chosen people. The postexilic community was small but its God is great. Reliance on such a God will assure a future more glorious than anything in the days gone by." [Note: Eugene H. Merrill, "A Theology of Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther," in A Biblical Theology of the Old Testament, pp. 200-201.]
Contrast the harsh conditions in Israel at this time with the glorious future that the writing prophets predicted for the nation. The restoration period did not fulfill the promised glories of the messianic age when Israel will again return to its land.
"It must be said, in conclusion, that no portion of the Old Testament provides us with a greater incentive to dedicated, discerning zeal for the work of God than the Book of Nehemiah. The example of Nehemiah’s passion for the truth of God’s Word, whatever the cost or consequences, is an example sorely needed in the present hour." [Note: Whitcomb, p. 435.]
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