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This Sunday School Study Guide is provided free of cost for personal study and as an aid for Sunday School teachers.  It contains copyright material and may not be reproduced in any form for sale, without permission from the copyright holders.  


Bailey Sadler Class

SUNDAY SCHOOL LESSON STUDY GUIDE – 2015

 

Study Theme: Awake: The Call to a Renewed Life

What This Study Is About:

Week of:

Lesson Title:

 

 

July 19

Return To God

 

July 26

Return To Your First Love

X

Aug. 2

Return To Prayer

 

Aug. 9

Return To God’s Word

 

Aug. 16

Return To Unity

 

Aug. 23

Return To The Task

 

LIFE IMPACT:

Move forward by retreating into prayer.

FOCAL PASSAGE:

Nehemiah 1:3-10

LESSON OUTLINE:

I.    

II.

III.  

Prayer and Fasting (Neh. 1:3-4)

Heartfelt Prayer Includes Confession (Neh. 1:5-7)

Prayer Concludes With Commitment (Neh. 1:8-10)

THE SETTING:  Nehemiah 1:3-10

Following many years of disobedience and rebellion, the Southern Kingdom of Judah fell to the Babylonians in 586 BC.  Many of the inhabitants of Judah were taken into exile and scattered throughout the Babylonian Empire.  After Babylon fell to the Medes and Persians, some Jews were allowed to return in 538 BC.  Under the leadership of Zerubbabel, the people rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem in 516 BC.  A second group returned under Ezra’s leadership in 458 BC.  Ezra found the people dispirited and morally compromised.  He led a revival based on a call for repentance and a return to God’s laws.  In 444 BC, a third party returned under Nehemiah’s leadership.  He too, issued a call for spiritual renewal and led the people to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem that had been destroyed in the Babylonian invasion nearly a century and a half before.1

Nehemiah received a delegation of Jews led by Hanani in modern southwestern Iran, the winter palace of the Persian kings (Esth 1:2,5; Dan 8:2). The visit was made in the month of Kislev (Nov.-Dec.) in the twentieth year (445 B.C.) of Artaxerxes I (464-424 B.C.; Neh 1:1-3). When Nehemiah heard Jerusalem was unprotected, he sought God’s help through fasting and prayer (1:4-11a). His appeal was based on God’s covenant with Israel as given in Deuteronomy. There the Lord threatened the unfaithful but also promised to assist the repentant (compare Deut 28:14; 30:1-4; 9:29). As the king’s cupbearer, Nehemiah ended his petition by anticipating an audience with Artaxerxes (“this man,” 1:11). Nehemiah’s burden for Jerusalem required his personal involvement. The “cupbearer” was a personal butler who functioned as the king’s wine taster (1:11).2

1.  SOURCE: SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

2.  SOURCE: Holman Bible Handbook; General Editor David S. Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee.

INTRODUCTION:

Americans are praying people. Over 84 percent of Christians pray at least once a day,* but what are we praying about? Most prayers are tied to something we need or want, but what would happen if Christians began to pray and earnestly seek what God wants?  God’s call to return to Him means we humble ourselves before Him and pray. The Old Testament leader Nehemiah gives us a great example of what it looks like to pray and fast.

*(“U.S. News & Beliefnet Prayer Survey Results,” [cited 16 December 2014]. Available from the Internet: www.beliefnet.com.)

SOURCE: The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

I.

Prayer and Fasting (Neh. 1:3-4)

3 They said to me, “The remnant in the province, who survived the exile, are in great trouble and disgrace. Jerusalem’s wall has been broken down, and its gates have been burned down.”  4 When I heard these words, I sat down and wept. I mourned for a number of days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1.   Where was Nehemiah when he received information about the city of Jerusalem?  (See Neb. 1:1.)

2.   Why were the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem referred to as the remnant (v. 3)?

3.   What was the situation concerning the remnant in Jerusalem (v. 3)? (See The Setting.)

4.   Why were the Jews living in Jerusalem in great trouble and disgrace (v. 3)?

5.   What are some examples of great trouble and disgrace among God’s people today?

6.   What do you think is the spiritual equivalent of a broken down wall and a burned gate in the life of a believer today?

7.   What are some things we can do to help a believer restore their broken down walls and burned gates?

8.   How did Nehemiah respond to the news about the distress of the Jews in Jerusalem (v. 4)?

9.   How would you describe the relationship between fasting and prayer?

10.   Nehemiah responded with mourning, praying, and fasting. When should we incorporate these practices in our lives?

11.   Why do you think he was so sadden by this news?

12.   What does Nehemiah’s response to this sad news tell us about his character?

13.   How do you typically respond to bad news?

14.   Is your response any different if the bad news concerns other believers?  If so, how is it different?

15.   How would you rate the response of your church in meeting the needs of a fellow believer?

16.   Why do you think your rating is what it is?

 

Lasting Lessons in Neh. 1:3-4:

1.  Faithful believers are concerned about the needs of others.

2.  Faithful believers respond to the needs of others.

3.  We should humble ourselves, pray, and fast when seeking God’s help in important tasks.

 

II.

Heartfelt Prayer Includes Confession (Neh. 1:5-7)

5 I said, “Yahweh, the God of heaven, the great and awe-inspiring God who keeps His gracious covenant with those who love Him and keep His commands, 6 let Your eyes be open and Your ears be attentive to hear Your servant’s prayer that I now pray to You day and night for Your servants, the Israelites. I confess the sins we have committed against You. Both I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have acted corruptly toward You and have not kept the commands, statutes, and ordinances You gave Your servant Moses.

1.   What do you think is the significance of Nehemiah’s use of Yahweh in addressing God in his prayer? (See Digging Deeper.)

2.   What characteristics did Nehemiah assign to Yahweh, the God of heaven (v. 5)?

3.   What is the relationship between God’s gracious covenant and those who love Him and keep His commands (v. 5)?

4.   What can the people who love the Lord and obey His Word expect from Him (v. 5)?

5.   Based on verses 6 and 7, what do you think is the focal point of Nehemiah’s prayer at this point?

6.   Do you think confession of one’s sin is necessary before requesting God’s help?  Why, or why not?

7.   Why did Nehemiah need to confess his own sin?

8.   What are some things you think confession of sin does for the believer?

9.   When was the last time you began your prayer time with a confession of sin?

10.   Do you think that we can sometimes deceive ourselves into thinking our spiritual lives are fine even though we have no intimate walk with Jesus, no fellowship with others, and no sense of being on mission with Jesus to make disciples?  Why, or why not?

11.   Do you think that the needs of fellow believers are sometimes easy to ignore?  If so, why?

12.   Do you believe prayer should be our first response, not our last resort?  If so, why?

13.   Do you think prayer helps us to establish who God really is?  If so, why?

14.   Do you think prayer also causes us to realize what else is happening in our lives and what needs to be done? Why, or why not?

 

Lasting Lessons in Neh. 1:5-7:

1.  When we have needs, we should take them to God in prayer.

2.  As believers, prayer is a vital part of our relationship with God.

3.  Confession of sin is vital to forgiveness and spiritual renewal.

4.  Anything we obtain through prayer is a result of God’s grace.

 

III.

Prayer Concludes With Commitment (Neh. 1:8-10)

8 Please remember what You commanded Your servant Moses: “If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples. 9 But if you return to Me and carefully observe My commands, even though your exiles were banished to the ends of the earth, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place where I chose to have My name dwell.” 10 They are Your servants and Your people. You redeemed them by Your great power and strong hand.”

1.   What did God command Moses (v. 8)?

2.   Upon what promise of God did Nehemiah base his appeal for restoration (v. 8)?

3.   What this an “if—then” command?

4.   What did God say would happen to the people of Israel if they were unfaithful (v. 8)?

5.   What did God promise He would do if they returned to Him (v. 9)?

6.   On what basis could the people be called God’s servants and His people (v. 10)?

7.   When did God redeem Israel with His great power and strong hand (v. 10)?

8.   What would be the steps for a believer to return to God after unfaithfulness today?

9.   How do you think restoration is viewed in most churches today?

10.   Where does this statement rate in your life:  “My own individual confession and repentance can be the spark that fires a great spiritual awakening whether in me, my church, or my nation.”?

11.   What role should confession play in a Christian’s life?

12.   If your prayer life need improvement what’s one step you could take to improve it?

13.   Why do you think Nehemiah was confessing his own sin when other people were in trouble?

14.   What is the most important prayer a person can pray?

 

Lasting Lessons in Neh. 1:8-10:

1.  God disciplines His people when they are disobedient to His laws.

2.  God will restore those who disobey Him if they confess and repent of their sins.

3.  The basis of our restoration and spiritual renewal is God’s mercy.

 

CONCLUSION:

This lesson about Nehemiah should remind us of several vital truths about prayer.  During times of trouble and distress, we can approach the Lord in prayer to seek His strength and consolation.  We should begin our prayers by praising and glorifying the name of the Lord.  Confessing our sin is a key element of prayer.  Prayer provides an opportunity to claim the promises of God.  During prayer we renew our commitment to serve Him as His servants and to obey His Word as His people.  In prayer we can make our petitions known to the Lord with confidence that He hears, sees, and is able to provide us with what we need.

How meaningful is prayer in your daily walk?  How often do you pray?  Do you have a “set-a-side” prayer time? Is prayer your first response to all things that arise in your daily walk?  So, where does prayer rate in your life?  On a scale of 1 (not at all) to 10 (constantly), how would you rate your daily prayer life?  Based on your rating, how committed to prayer are you?  If you need to improve you prayer life, ask God to guide you through your improvement effort—He Will!  All you need do is ask Him.

What are the implications of these truths for your life?  THE CHOICE IS YOURS, ISN’T IT!

REMEMBER, the safest place for a believer is in the center of God’s will.

 

Lesson Outline, Introduction, Discussion Questions, and Conclusion adapted from the following sources:

SOURCE: Life Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

SOURCE: Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.

 

FOCAL PASSAGE: 

Focal Passage from three different translations of God’s Word:

King James Version: Nehemiah 1:3-10

 3And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire. 4And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven, 5And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments: 6Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. 7We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses. 8Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: 9But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there. 10Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand. (KJV)

New International Version: Nehemiah 1:3-10

3They said to me, “Those who survived the exile and are back in the province are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem is broken down, and its gates have been burned with fire.” 4When I heard these things, I sat down and wept. For some days I mourned and fasted and prayed before the God of heaven. 5Then I said: “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s house, have committed against you. 7We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses. 8“Remember the instruction you gave your servant Moses, saying, ‘If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the nations, 9but if you return to me and obey my commands, then even if your exiled people are at the farthest horizon, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place I have chosen as a dwelling for my Name.’ 10“They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great strength and your mighty hand. (NIV)

New Living Translation: Nehemiah 1:3-10

3They said to me, “Things are not going well for those who returned to the province of Judah. They are in great trouble and disgrace. The wall of Jerusalem has been torn down, and the gates have been destroyed by fire.”  4When I heard this, I sat down and wept. In fact, for days I mourned, fasted, and prayed to the God of heaven. 5Then I said, “O LORD, God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps his covenant of unfailing love with those who love him and obey his commands, 6listen to my prayer! Look down and see me praying night and day for your people Israel. I confess that we have sinned against you. Yes, even my own family and I have sinned! 7We have sinned terribly by not obeying the commands, decrees, and regulations that you gave us through your servant Moses. 8“Please remember what you told your servant Moses: ‘If you are unfaithful to me, I will scatter you among the nations. 9But if you return to me and obey my commands and live by them, then even if you are exiled to the ends of the earth, I will bring you back to the place I have chosen for my name to be honored.’ 10“The people you rescued by your great power and strong hand are your servants. (NLT)

 

Lesson Outline — “Return To Prayer” — Nehemiah 1:3-10

I.

II.

III.

Prayer and Fasting (Neh. 1:3-4)

Heartfelt Prayer Includes Confession (Neh. 1:5-7)

Prayer Concludes With Commitment (Neh. 1:8-10)

COMMENTARY:

(NOTE:  Commentary for the focal passage comes from three sources: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Old Testament,The New American Commentary,” andThe Complete Biblical Library Commentary,” and is provided for your study.)

The Expositor’s Bible Commentary New Testament: Nehemiah 1:3-10

I. Nehemiah’s First Administration (1:1-12:47)

A. Nehemiah’s Response to the Situation in Jerusalem (1:1-11)

1. News of the plight of Jerusalem (1:1-4)

The walls of Jerusalem that had been destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, despite abortive attempts to rebuild them (Ezra 4:6-23), remained in ruins for almost a century and a half. Such a lamentable situation obviously made Jerusalem vulnerable to her numerous enemies. Yet from a mixture of apathy and fear the Jews failed to rectify this glaring deficiency. They needed the dynamic catalyst of an inspired leader, a man named Nehemiah.

1:1.  Though the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were bound together from the earliest times, “The words of” indicate the title of a separate composition (cf. Jer 1:1Amos 1:1; see Introduction: Canon).

The name “Nehemiah” means “the comfort of Yahweh” or “Yahweh has comforted”; it contains the same verbal root found in the names Nahum and Menahem. The name appears as Nehemyahu on an ostracon from Arad dated to the seventh century B.C.

 “Hacaliah” is contracted from “wait for Yahweh” (cf. Zeph 3:8). Such an imperative form is highly unusual. The name occurs only here and in 10:1-2. The reference to his paternal sepulchers in Jerusalem (2:35) may mean that Nehemiah came from a prominent family.

 “Susa” was the major city of Elam, the area of southwestern Iran. Susa was located in a fertile alluvial plain 150 miles north of the Persian Gulf. In the Achaemenid period it served as a winter palace for the kings (Kislev = Nov.-Dec.), but the area became intolerably hot during the summer months.

Daniel (Dan 8:2) saw himself in a vision at Susa. It was the site of the story of Esther. Ezra 4:9-10 refers to the men of Susa who were deported to Samaria. At Susa, Artaxerxes I received the embassy of Callias (449 B.C.) that ended Greek-Persian hostilities. In his reign the palace that Darius I had built at Susa burned to the ground. Though no inscription attests to the building activity of Artaxerxes I, he may have begun the small palace in the Donjon area of the Ville Royale completed by his successor, Darius II. From this small hypostyle hall have come all the fragments of stone bas reliefs now on display at the Louvre.

1:2.  “Hanani” is the shortened form of “Hananiah” (“Yahweh is gracious”). Here and in 7:2 it designates the brother of Nehemiah. The Elephantine papyri mention a Hananiah who was the head of Jewish affairs in Jerusalem. Many scholars believe that this Hananiah can be identified with Nehemiah’s brother and assume that he succeeded Nehemiah. Rowley, however, cautions against this identification.

“The Jewish remnant” is literally “Jews who had escaped” (cf. Ezra 4:12). “Jews” became the name of the people of Israel after the Exile.

1:3.  The lack of a city wall meant that the people were defenseless against their enemies. Kenyon notes: “The effect on Jerusalem was much more disastrous and far-reaching than merely to render the city defenseless.... The whole system of terraces down the (eastern) slope, dependent on retaining walls buttressed in turn by the fill of the next lower terrace, was ultimately dependent on the town wall at the base, forming the lowest and most substantial of the retaining walls.”

Most scholars, however, do not believe that Nehemiah’s distress was caused by the condition of walls torn down 140 years before his time but rather by the episode of Ezra 4:7-23. According to this passage Jews had attempted to rebuild the walls earlier, in the reign of Artaxerxes I. But after the protest of Rehum and Shimshai, the king ordered the Jews to desist. There was considerable suspicion of such attempts because of the revolt of Megabyzus.

1:4.  Nehemiah “sat down” (cf. Ezra 9:3). Slotki (p. 183) comments: “The custom of mourners being seated (cf. Ps. 137:1Job 2:13) has survived among Jews, the bereaved sitting on low stools during the seven days of mourning.”

Nehemiah “mourned.” Daniel mourned three weeks for the sins of his people (Dan 10:2).

Nehemiah also “fasted.” During the Exile fasting became a common practice, including solemn fasts to commemorate the taking of Jerusalem and the murder of Gedaliah (Esth 4:16Dan 9:310:3Zech 7:3-78:19).

2. Nehemiah’s prayer (1:5-11)

1:5.  “Awesome” (nora) is a Niphal participle from the verb yare (“to fear, revere”). He is the one to be feared (cf. Deut 7:21Dan 9:4).

“Who keeps his covenant of love” is literally “who keeps covenant and steadfast love.” The latter word, hesed, means the quality that honors a covenant through thick and thin.

1:6.  Scriptures often use anthropomorphic figures of speech—e.g., “let your ear be attentive”—without sharing in the anthropomorphic concepts of pagan mythology.

Nehemiah did not exclude himself or members of his own family in his confession of sins. A true sense of the awesomeness of God reveals the depths of our own sinfulness (Isa 6:1-5Luke 5:8).

1:7.  “Commands” (miswot, used 180 times in the OT, including 43 in Deut) is the usual word for commandment, as in the Ten Commandments (Exod 24:12).

“Decrees” (huqqim) indicates something prescribed as the statute of Joshua (Josh 24:25) and the commandment to keep the Passover (Exod 12:24).

“Laws” (mispatim) indicates legal decisions or judgments.  On the prominence of Moses in Ezra-Nehemiah, see Ezra 3:27:6Nehemiah 1:88:1149:1410:2913:1.

1:8.  “Remember,” a key word, recurs frequently in the book (4:14; 5:19; 6:14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31).

On “if you are unfaithful,” Slotki comments: “The original does not include if and is more forceful: ‘you will deal treacherously, I will scatter you,’ expressing an inescapable sequel.” In the centuries following the Babylonian conquest, Jews were scattered farther and farther. In the NT period there were more Jews in the Diaspora than in Palestine (John 7:35Acts 2:9-11James 1:11 Peter 1:1).

1:9.  “I will gather them” is a frequently made promise (Deut 30:1-5; Isa 11:12; Jer 23:3; 29:14; 31:8-10; Ezek 11:17; 16:37; 20:34, 41; 36:24; Mic 2:12).

The phrase “a dwelling for my Name” recalls Deuteronomy 12:5: “the place the LORD your God will choose ... to put his Name there for his dwelling.” Parallels are found in extrabiblical sources, e.g., in the Amarna Letters: “Behold the king has set his name  in the land of Jerusalem.” Shamshi-Adad I of Assyria boasted: “Thus I placed my great name ... in the land of Lebanon.”

1:10.  Though they had sinned and failed, they were still God’s people and his “peculiar” possession, a people for his treasure by virtue of his redemption (cf. Deut 4:349:29).

SOURCE: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary New Testament; Frank E. Gaebelein; General Editor; Zondervan Publishing House; A Division of Harper Collins Publishers

 

The New American Commentary; Volume  10; Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther

PROPHECY FULFILLED: FIRST RETURN FROM EXILE (1:1–2:70)

The first six chapters of Ezra describe the first return (or returns) from exile and the reconstruction of the temple. Ezra does not appear on the scene until chap. 7, some eighty years after the events of the first chapter and fifty-eight years after the completion of the temple (chap. 6).

Although the small Jewish community faced many problems, we must commend them for putting first things first. In emphasizing worship, they built the altar and then the temple. Their efforts to rebuild the temple, however, were stalled by opposition. After nearly two decades, in 520 B.C., God used the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to stir up the people by stimulating them to faith, to overcome the opposition, and to action, to finish the temple.

According to Dan 1:1, some Jews had been deported to Babylon in 605 B.C. In 597 others had been exiled, among them Ezekiel. Jerusalem had been destroyed in 587 B.C., and many more of the Jews had been carried to Babylon. It was a hard time for the Jews to maintain their faith. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel had explained that these calamities came upon them as punishment for disobedience and because they had not returned to God. Their messages called the people to repentance and warned them of God’s severe judgment by death and exile. But they also had prophesied a message of hope, the promise of a return to their own land. God used these prophecies to keep Israel’s faith alive during these years.

Although many Jews in Babylon were comfortably settled and had little desire to return to Judah, others prayed for and desired to return. They longed to worship God together and offer sacrifices in their own temple according to their own law and traditions. So the first chapters of Ezra tell the story of a second exodus, one of the most important events in Jewish history and thus in the history of God’s redemptive plan.

The Providence of God: The Decree of Cyrus (1:1–4)

Introduction (1:1)

1:1. Typical of biblical history, the author explained events in terms of the divine will. Neutral “objective” history free from “prejudices” and “presuppositions” does not exist. A person’s view of history, which is part of one’s whole worldview, is important. It is formed, at least partly, by one’s theological convictions. It affects how one understands historical events and determines how one understands biblical events. Ezra helps us form a biblical view of history; at the same time, a biblical view of history enables us to understand Ezra. We have here, then, a theological interpretation of events.

The author of Ezra-Nehemiah presented his material in a chronological framework. The author was concerned about history but did not pretend to give a complete history of postexilic times. Rather, he chose events that were significant in the reestablishment, continuity, and reorganization of the covenant community. This whole section (Ezra 1–6) emphasizes God’s sovereignty and his providence; God works in history to fulfill his will. God has preserved the covenant community; he has brought the Jews back to their land; he has even used the rulers of other nations to fulfill his purposes.

Cyrus’s decision did not just happen. At a specific time, 538 B.C.,  the Lord caused Cyrus to act in a way that fulfilled specific prophecies. Jeremiah (25:11–12; 29:10) had predicted that the Babylonian captivity would last for seventy years and then God would fulfill his “gracious promise to bring [them] back to this place.”  The Hebrew word used in Ezra 1:1 suggests that the author was also familiar with Jer 51:1, 11 and the remarkable prophecies of Isa 41:2, 25; 44:28; 45:1, 13. 

As noted in the Introduction, the author of Ezra-Nehemiah understood this as a fulfillment of prophecy, but not necessarily a complete fulfillment. Judah was not completely restored (Jer 29:14; 30:18–21), the Jews did not have their own king (Jer 30:8–9), the palace was not rebuilt (Jer 30:18), and Israel did not rule over other nations (Isa 45:14; 49:22–23). 

The “proclamation” is the famous “Edict of Cyrus.” A secular historian would not have seen God’s hand in this. The Cyrus Cylinder, a clay barrel inscription found in Hormuzd Rassam’s excavations at Babylon (1879–82), shows that this king made similar proclamations concerning other people’s gods.  But our author saw here the providence of God, a theme that is prominent throughout the book. The author of Ezra-Nehemiah, with his biblical view of history, challenges us also to believe that God works within a specific time frame, that he has a plan, that he keeps his word, and that his prophecies will be fulfilled. God does influence people to accomplish his will. J. G. McConville explains that “behind this opening verse … lies the affirmation that all the might of the ancient world was in subjection to God, and put at the disposal of his people for their salvation.” 

The last phrase, “and to put it in writing,” is significant; for in the ancient Near East important matters were put in writing. Thousands of clay tablets containing laws, receipts, decrees, and covenants give evidence of this. Later in Ezra (chap. 6) we will see why the written document again became significant for the Jewish community.

The word “writing” is a somewhat technical term used of writings or inscriptions designated for the public eye. The Edict of Cyrus was announced orally and also displayed publicly in writing.

The Proclamation of Freedom (1:2–4)

1:2. This is the Edict of Cyrus or the Cyrus Decree. The decree sounds as though Cyrus were a true believer in the God of Israel. But other inscriptions indicate that Cyrus followed a consistent policy of honoring the religions and customs of his different subject peoples.

In Ezra 6:3–5 we find an Aramaic version of the decree to rebuild the temple. It is often said to be the same decree, but there are some differences. In 6:3–5 only the rebuilding of the temple is referred to, not the return. Also it includes the return of the vessels. Ezra 1:2–4 and 6:3–5 could be shorter versions of a longer decree. E. Bickerman says they are two independent records concerning the same case. Ezra 6:3–5, he says, is a memorandum or record of the decree. “It is an instruction for the royal treasury concerned with the expenses for building anew the temple in Jerusalem.”  It was a document stored in Ecbatana, where Cyrus stayed in the summer of his first year. What we have in Ezra 1 is the “royal proclamation” announced throughout the kingdom. “Thus there were (at least) two orders of Cyrus relevant to the return from captivity; a royal proclamation addressed to the Jews and published by the heralds everywhere in many languages, including Hebrew (Ezra 1), and on the other hand, a Memorandum to the royal treasurer, in Aramaic, which was not made public at this time.” 

The decree shows familiarity with biblical terms and themes.  Some suggest that the author was giving a free rendering of the decree; however, Cyrus more likely conferred with the Jews in making the proclamation because in other decrees he used the language of the people involved.

1:3. Certainly God’s providence is evident here. “Let him go up” should be understood as permission, even encouragement to go, but not a command. The Jews were free to decide. A major theme of the book is introduced as their purpose for going: to “build the temple of the Lord, the God of Israel.”

1:4. Verse 4 is somewhat ambiguous about whether “survivors” refers to the Jews or to all the people in these areas. It likely refers primarily to the Jews who decided to stay in Babylon, but it may also include other neighbors.  Notice that those who went had to decide to go. This decision would result in insecurity, hardship, and suffering as the returnees started a new, precarious community. But they had a purpose: they were concerned that the faith of their community continue. Their faith, decision, and action were of great importance in the continuation of God’s plan of redemption, both in providing the Scriptures and in preparing the way for the Redeemer.

The “survivors,” or the ones who remained, were encouraged to provide goods, gifts, and offerings for those who returned to Jerusalem. God’s work is best accomplished with the freewill offerings of those who worship him.

Moved by God to Return (1:5–11)

1:5. The ones who responded to Cyrus’s decree and began preparations to return to Jerusalem were those “whose heart God had moved.” God sovereignly uses his own people as well as foreign rulers (v. 1) to accomplish his will. Their purpose in going to Jerusalem also was God-centered; they went to build the house of the Lord. The author made clear that the return from the exile was God’s work; God took the initiative, and the people responded.

The author emphasized the rebuilding of the temple and the vessels that belonged in it. From the beginning he made clear that he considered the restoration and rebuilding of the worshiping community as the most significant event in this history. Here is a parallel with the exodus. The large section of the Book of Exodus dedicated to the construction of the tabernacle and the establishment of worship (chaps. 25–40) is often given little attention by the modern reader. Perhaps Ezra-Nehemiah is often neglected because it deals with the same theme. However, “It must not be overlooked that revelatory events only continue to be revelatory through the formation of some kind of community structure which ‘remembers’ the event and reflects on its implications for life.”  Religious traditions and “institutionalization” may sometimes become obstacles to true faith if they become the objects of faith, but they are also necessary to the survival of faith and faithfulness to God’s word. 

“Family heads” (v. 5; lit. “the heads of the fathers” ) refers to the extended family, the normal sociological division of the people. The community of families made the important decisions. The Jews who returned to Jerusalem returned by family units. The biblical pattern emphasized the family unit as the basis of society. Modern tendencies to revoke this only lead to sociological confusion.

The author of Ezra-Nehemiah was careful to emphasize the continuity of the postexilic community with the preexilic Judean community. He included everyone under four genealogical headings: Judah, Benjamin, priests, and Levites. We do not hear of a return of the exiles from the Northern Kingdom, Israel. Thus in Jewish legend they are spoken of as the ten lost tribes. However, the author of Chronicles noted that some from the northern tribes went to live in Judah after the division of the kingdom (2 Chr 11:16) and even included some from Ephraim and Manasseh among those who resettled after the Babylonian captivity. Thus some descendants from other tribes were among those who returned from captivity (see 1 Chr 9:3). 

Behind the decision to go was God’s work in the heart.  God raises up leaders and gives them responsibility, and God works in others to respond and participate in his work. Revivals are a result of God’s work in the whole community and in each individual.

God’s work requires decision and faith, but it also calls for planning and preparation and demands a specific goal. The establishment of the Jewish community in their land was important; but here the immediate, realizable goal was the construction of the temple. We can imagine the intense discussion in the villages where Jews lived, the difficulty of making such a momentous decision, and the packing of clothes and household essentials. No doubt those who were leaving had to sell or give away some of their possessions.

1:6. “All their neighbors assisted them” does not seem to have in mind primarily their Jewish neighbors, as was the case in the decree (v. 4). Throughout the book the author included motifs of the exodus. Here he remembered how the Israelites borrowed goods from their neighbors when they left Egypt and later gave abundant freewill offerings for the tabernacle. The people gave or “loaned” to the Israelites so much that Exod 12:36 says they “plundered” the Egyptians. This aspect of the exodus is also remembered in Israel’s poetry: “He brought out Israel, laden with silver and gold” (Ps 105:37). As has been true throughout history, God moves people to provide for his work.

1:7 The fact that “King Cyrus brought out the articles” is significant. When a king captured a nation, he would take that nation’s gods (images) and cult objects to his own capital. This symbolized the victory of his gods over the gods of the subject peoples. So in addition to their great value as beautiful and costly objects, they symbolized religious values. In 587 Nebuchadnezzar had carried these objects to Babylon. Cyrus’s decision to return the objects used in Israelite worship (of course there were no images of God) shows his seriousness in respecting his subjects’ religion and customs. The memorandum of Cyrus’s decree in Ezra 6:5 specifically mentions that these objects were to be returned to the temple in Jerusalem.

1:8 Both the name “Mithredath” and his title “treasurer” are Persian words, confirming the book’s Persian context. “Sheshbazzar” was a Jew with a Babylonian name.  Although he disappeared from the scene, he led the first group of returnees.  The articles were handled seriously and carefully: the treasurer “counted them out” to Sheshbazzar.

1:9–10 The author apparently had a copy of the memorandum or inventory list of the objects, but it is not clear to us what each article represents. Ibn Ezra, the Jewish commentator, said the “gold dishes” were the vessels used to collect the blood of the slaughtered lambs.  The translation of the word for “silver pans” is uncertain; some have related it to a Hebrew word used for the knife used in the ritual slaughter of animals. 

SOURCE:  The New American Commentary; Volume  10; Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther; Mervin Breneman; General Editor: E. Ray Clendenen; © Copyright 1993 • Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee.

 

The Complete Biblical Library Commentary: Nehemiah 1:3-10

1:1-3. Little is known of Nehemiah’s ancestry except that he was a son of Hacaliah, also otherwise unknown (v. 1; cf. 10:1). Nehemiah establishes the earliest setting of his account as the month Chislev (December in the modern calendar) in the twentieth year. This is clarified in 2:1 as being the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes I, who reigned from 464-424 B.C. (Yamauchi, 242). Most likely, then, Nehemiah is speaking of the year 445 B.C. He says he was in “Shushan the palace,” that is, in the glorious city of Susa. First attested as the capital of Elam, in Nehemiah’s day, it was reconstructed by the Persian king Darius I (521-486 B.C.) and then by Artaxerxes I, Nehemiah’s own contemporary. The “palace” (, HED #1038) refers, most likely, to a castle or stronghold in the city where the king could enjoy protection and security.

Having established the setting of his account, Nehemiah turned to the issue that gave rise to it, namely, a visit from his brother Hanani (1:2). Though “brother” (HED #250) can often refer to someone other than a sibling, here it seems that Nehemiah refers to his own blood brother. When Nehemiah later became governor of the Jewish state, he appointed Hanani as coadministrator of Jerusalem, again referring to him, and to him alone, as “brother” (7:2).

Hanani had either been living in Judea at the time or, with other Jews, had recently traveled there from Susa and had now returned. In any case, Nehemiah asked about conditions back in the Jewish homeland and, to his great distress, learned that the “remnant” (, HED #8080, “the leftovers”) of the Jewish “captives” (, HED #8104) were in desperate straits in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem’s walls and gates (1:3). Jews had begun to return to Judea from Babylon as early as 538 B.C., nearly a century before Nehemiah’s time, so the remnant referred to must have included these few thousand returnees (Ezra 2; Neh. 7:6-73), as well as those Jews who had not gone into exile in the first place (2 Ki. 25:12; Jer. 40:7).

News about the collapse of the walls could not refer to the Babylonian conquest of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., 140 years earlier, for surely Nehemiah was well aware of that catastrophe. Nor can the text mean that the walls remained in ruin through all that time and that Nehemiah is merely lamenting the indifference of the Jews in leaving them unreconstructed. In fact, Ezra had returned to Jerusalem thirteen years earlier (458 B.C.; Ezra 7:7) and found the walls rebuilt in the days of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (520-500 B.C.; 5:9; cf. 4:12). In a prayer, Ezra made reference to the fact that they still stood in his time (9:9). Hanani, it seems, must have reported to Nehemiah a very recent destruction of the walls.

1:4-11.  A sign of a person’s spiritual maturity is his or her response to crisis. Hearing his brother’s devastating report, Nehemiah did five things: he sat, he wept, he “mourned” (an intensive form of the Hebrew verb , HED #57), he fasted, and he “prayed” (, HED #6663, “prostrate oneself”). He did not turn first to human help, even that of a mighty king like Artaxerxes, for this was heavenly and not earthly business. Using a favorite epithet for his God, Nehemiah addressed the “God of heaven” (Neh. 1:4ff; cf. 2:4, 20; Ezra 1:2; 5:11, 12; 6:9, 10; 7:12, 21, 23; Dan. 2:18f, 28, 37). In a day of Persian imperialism, it was comforting to know that the Lord was God over all things.

Nehemiah’s prayer is a model of theological propriety. He first acknowledged God’s sovereignty and covenant grace and faithfulness (Neh. 1:5). He then petitioned the Lord to hear his confession of national and personal sins (v. 6), covenant violations (v. 7) which had resulted in the dispersion of the chosen people to the ends of the earth (v. 8; cf. Lev. 26:27-33; Deut. 28:25, 36, 47-57). Such confession, accompanied by sincere repentance, would prompt the Lord to forgive his people and restore them to the land once again (Neh. 1:9; cf. Deut. 30:1-10).

Returning to the present situation, Nehemiah reminded the Lord that the suffering Jews of Jerusalem were those very ones to whom the redemptive promises pertained (Neh. 1:10). He now interceded for them, but also for himself. May God respond to the needs of his obedient and desperate people, he pled (v. 11), and may He also listen to his servant Nehemiah and give him favor before his human lord, King Artaxerxes, the one who would have to grant him leave of absence (cf. 2:5). The brief notation that Nehemiah was cupbearer to the king is not without significance. It speaks of his privileged role in the royal court but, at the same time, of his indispensability. The cupbearer, among other things, sampled the food and drink of the king to determine whether or not it was safe for his consumption. Such a man must enjoy the king’s trust. But this very uniqueness of responsibility made it unlikely that the king could do without him, even for a brief time. Hence, Nehemiah’s prayer for divine intervention.

SOURCE: The Complete Biblical Library Commentary – Ezra-Job.  Database © 2009 WORDsearch Corp.; World Library Press, Inc.

 

DIGGING DEEPER:

EZRA, BOOK OF (ehz' ruh):  The name Ezra means “Yahweh helps.” Several had the name: a family head in Judah (1 Chron. 4:17), a priest in the return with Zerubbabel (Neh. 12:1, 13), and a prince at the dedication of Jerusalem’s walls built by Nehemiah (Neh. 12:32-33). The most famous is the chief character in the Book of Ezra.

The Book of Ezra is intimately connected with Chronicles and Nehemiah. The connection is so obvious that possibly one person wrote and compiled all three. This unknown person is referred to as the Chronicler.

Ezra and Nehemiah were actually one book in the ancient Hebrew and Greek Old Testament. Each book contains materials found in the other (e.g., the list in Ezra 2 is also in Neh. 7). Each book completes the other; Ezra’s story is continued in Nehemiah (chs. 8-10). Both are necessary to the history of Israel. A whole century would be unknown (538-432 B.C.), historically, apart from Ezra and Nehemiah. They are the next chapter of the history recorded in Chronicles. Ezra lived during the reign of Artaxerxes (7:1), king of Persia, but which one? Artaxerxes I (Longimanus), 465-425 B.C., or Artaxerxes II (Mnemon) 404-359 B.C.? If it is Longimanus, then “the seventh year of Artaxerxes the king” (7:7) was 458 B.C.; but if Mnemon, it was 398 B.C. Scripture possibly intimates that Nehemiah preceded Ezra to Jerusalem. For example, Ezra prayed as though walls were already in place in Jerusalem (9:9), yet they were built by Nehemiah. Also Nehemiah’s reforms (Neh. 13) seem to have preceded Ezra’s teaching the law and his reforms. There are real problems either way, but it seems logical to stay with the biblical order and date Ezra’s journey to Jerusalem in 458 B.C.

Ezra was a priest and a scribe. He descended from Aaron through Phinehas and later Zadok (Ezra 7:1-5; 1 Chron. 6:4-14). His purpose for going to Jerusalem was “to study the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach the statutes and ordinances in Israel” (7:10 NRSV). He was well equipped for this task as a priest and scribe. Jerusalem needed the law of God. The permanence of the Jews was threatened by opposition from non-Jews and by the Jews’ careless disregard for the things of God. Ezra’s teaching was needed to give solidity and strength to the Jewish community struggling against pressures to surrender its ethnic and theological identity.

Ezra was written from this kind of perspective. A variety of sources was used, either by Ezra or by another who gave the book its present form. Jewish tradition is strong that Ezra was the actual author of the entire book, as well as Chronicles and Nehemiah. Vivid details and the use of the first person pronoun permit scholars to speak of the Ezra Memoirs (7:27-9:15).

The book has two major stories, that of Zerubbabel and the group of returnees who rebuilt the Temple (chs. 1-6), and that of Ezra (chs. 7-10, completed in Neh. 8-10). Peculiarities in the book include the naming of Sheshbazzar (ch. 1) as the leader of the first group to return and not Zerubbabel. Two approaches are possible. One is that Sheshbazzar was a real historical person who actually led a small group of anxious Jews to Jerusalem. The other is that Sheshbazzar might have been another name for Zerubbabel. But it seems unlikely that a Jew would have two Babylonian names.

Another peculiarity, found in both Ezra and Nehemiah, is the use of lists. The list in Ezra 2 of those who returned with Zerubbabel is in Nehemiah 7. Other lists include those who returned with Ezra (Ezra 8:1-14); “the sons of the priests there were found who had taken strange wives” (Ezra 10:18-43); those who helped rebuild Jerusalem’s walls (Neh. 3); signers of the covenant (Neh. 10); residents in Jerusalem at the time of Nehemiah (Neh. 11); and another list of “the priests and the Levites that went up with Zerubbabel” (Neh. 12:1-26).

Another peculiarity is the Aramaic in Ezra. This was a widely used language of Ezra’s era, related to Hebrew, used by Jews and Gentiles alike. Most of the book is written in Hebrew, but there are two large sections of Aramaic (Ezra 4:7-6:18; 7:12-26). The Aramaic generally deals with official correspondence between Palestine and Persia.

The lists and the Aramaic show that the author was determined to use official documents where possible. Establishing the legitimacy of the Jews was an important objective, and these helped do that.

Ezra begins with the story of Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel and the first Jews to return to Jerusalem from captivity in 538 B.C. Their main objective was to rebuild the Temple. Its foundation was laid in 536 B.C. Then there was a long delay. Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5:1) in 520 B.C. had encouraged the people to finish the project, which they did in 515 B.C. (6:14-15), and they “celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy” (6:16 NRSV). Almost sixty years passed before Ezra went to Jerusalem (458 B.C.), six decades of silence. He left Persia with “the letter that the king Artaxerxes gave unto Ezra the priest, the scribe” (7:11), giving him unusual power and authority (7:12-26). As he “viewed the people, and the priests, and [he] found there none of the sons of Levi” (8:15). These were essential for his teaching program to implement the law of God in Jerusalem. During a three-day delay more than 200 “ministers for the house of our God” (8:17) were enlisted. Four months later the group, probably less than 2,000, arrived in the Holy City.

Soon Ezra was informed of the most glaring sin of the Jews, intermarriage with non-Jews, those not in covenant relation with Yahweh (9:2). Ezra was greatly upset (9:3-4). He prayed (9:6-15). In assembly people reached what must have been a heartrending decision: “Let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them” (10:3). The book concludes with the carrying out of this decision (ch. 10).

Ezra’s story reaches its climax in Nehemiah (Neh. 8-10). There he read from “the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had commanded to Israel” (Neh. 8:1). A great revival resulted. Ezra is not heard of again. Ezra’s greatest contribution was his teaching, establishing, and implementing “the book of the law of the Lord” (Neh. 9:3) among the Jews. Other things have been attributed to him. Jewish tradition says he authored Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah. Ancient rabbis said that if Moses had not received the law from God, Ezra would have. Ezra is often called “the father of Judaism,” though others offer a different opinion. This is because he did most to codify, emphasize, and sent up the law of Moses. Also, he is credited with initiating what became Jewish isolationism and separatism, seen graphically in the New Testament. He led Jews to divorce their foreign wives and send them and their children away.

Ezra evidenced strong theology. He believed in the sovereignty of God, who could use a Cyrus, an Artaxerxes, and a Darius to accomplish His purposes. He believed in the faithfulness of God, who brought home as many exiles as He could. He believed in the sacredness and practicality of the Scriptures; he read them to his people and insisted that their teachings be carried out. He was a person of prayer; note his long confessional prayers (Ezra 9:5-15; Neh. 9:6-37). He was a preacher: he used a pulpit (Neh. 8:4); he publicly read the Scriptures; and he helped to interpret them to his congregation (8:8).

The value of the contributions of Ezra to the Jews is immeasurable. What he did probably saved them from disintegration. His efforts helped guarantee the ethnic and theological continuance of descendants of Abraham. He might not have been the father of Judaism, but he contributed greatly to saving the Jews’ identity as a people of God.

SOURCE: Holman Bible Dictionary; General Editor, David S. Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee.

NEHEMIAH (Nee huh mi' uh):  Personal name meaning, “Yah comforts or encourages” and name of Old Testament book featuring work of Nehemiah.

Nehemiah, the son of Hachaliah, is the main character in the book which bears his name. Two other Nehemiahs appear in the OT: one in the group who returned with Sheshbazzar (Ezra 2:2; Neh 7:7), and the other was the son of Azbuk, “the ruler of the half part of Bethzur” (Neh. 3:16), a helper with rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem.

Nehemiah and Ezra were one book in the ancient Hebrew and Greek OT, and probably were not divided until after the Interbiblical Period (see Ezra for more details). Jewish tradition says Ezra or Nehemiah was the author. Because of the close connection between Chronicles and Ezra-Nehemiah, one person might have written or compiled all three books. Those who follow this argument refer to the author as the Chronicler.

The literary style of Nehemiah is similar to that in Ezra. There are many lists (ch. 3; 10:1-27; ch. 11; 12:1-26). The author/compiler wove Ezra’s and Nehemiah’s stories together, Ezra being featured in Nehemiah 8.

The book has four major sections: the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s walls (chs. 1-7), the Great Revival (chs. 8-10), population and census information (chs. 11-12), and the reforms of Nehemiah (ch. 13). Nehemiah made two visits from King Artaxerxes to Jerusalem (2:1-6; 13:6-7). His first, 445 B.C., was to repair the walls; they were in a state of disrepair almost a century after the first arrival from Exile in 538 B.C. The second was a problem-solving trip in the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes (13:6), 432 B.C. Nehemiah was a contemporary of Ezra and Malachi, and also Socrates in Greece (470-339 B.C.), and only a few decades later than Gautama Buddha in India (560-480 B.C.) and Confucius in China (551-479 B.C.).

Nehemiah held the distinguished position of cupbearer to the king (1:11). This was an office of trust; tasting the king’s wine and food, the cupbearer stood between the king and death. That Nehemiah, a Jew and a captive, served this Gentile king in such a strategic capacity was an unusual credit and honor to this man of strong character.

Nehemiah’s Memoirs include first person accounts (1:1-7:5; 12:27-47; 13:4-31), and the other material uses the third person pronoun (chs. 8-10). Thus his story is both autobiographical and biographical. Visitors to Susa informed him of the dilapidation of Jerusalem’s walls. He was so upset that he cried and mourned for days” (1:4). He prayed a confession (1:5-11). His grief became apparent to Artaxerxes who permitted him to go to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah’s first act there was to inspect the walls at night (2:15). He then called an assembly and convinced the people of the need for a building program. He was an excellent leader who demonstrated engineering knowledge and brilliant organizing ability (ch. 3). The work began.

Trouble arose from without and from within. Sanballat and his friends tried to stop the work, but without success (ch. 4). Trouble from within was economic. Building the walls caused a labor shortage; farms were mortgaged, and high rates of interest were charged. Nehemiah said, “The thing you are doing is not good” (5:9 NRSV). He corrected the problem and even gave financial aid to those in need (ch. 5). Again Sanballat and other non-Jews made several attempts to lure Nehemiah away from the job and shut it down. They failed. Nehemiah proved to be a person of strong will and unusual boldness. “So the wall was finished ... in fifty and two days” (6:15). The dedication of the wall is described later in 12:27-43.

The theological climax of the Book of Nehemiah and of the life of Ezra is the Great Revival (Neh 8-10). It was a grand experience. It warrants close study for revival attempts today. People assembled. They requested Ezra to read from the book of the law of Moses (8:1). The book was probably the Pentateuch (Torah) or some part of it. Ezra read, and others helped by giving “the sense, so that the people understood the reading” (8:8 NRSV). This probably included translating the Hebrew scripture into Aramaic, the commonly spoken language.

A great celebration occurred, and they observed the Feast of Tabernacles. Results were impressive: “They made confession and worshiped the Lord” (9:3 NRSV) and “separated themselves from all strangers” (9:2) that is, they divorced their foreign spouses. They prayed a long prayer of confession (9:6-37). The people responded, “Because of all this, we make a sure covenant and write it” (9:38). The signers and terms of the covenant were then recorded (ch. 10). Nehemiah was dissatisfied with the small size of the population of Jerusalem. He made an ingenious proposal: to “cast lots to bring one out of ten to live in the holy city Jerusalem, while nine-tenths remained in the other towns” (11:1 NRSV). Nehemiah’s last chapter cites his reforms made during his second visit to Jerusalem in 432 B.C. He threw out a Gentile who was permitted to live in the Temple; he restored the practice of tithing to support the Levites; he corrected sabbath wrongs by those who bought and sold on the sabbath; and he dealt forthrightly with those who had married foreigners, those not in covenant relation with God.

Nehemiah was indeed an outstanding person. His theology was very practical; it affected every area of life. Note his prayers and how practical they were (1:4-11; 2:4; 4:4-5, 9; 5:19; 6:9, 14; 13:14, 22, 29, 31). He boldly asked, “Remember for my good, O my God, all that I have done for this people” (5:19 NRSV; compare 13:14, 31). His faith was practical: “and the king granted me what I asked, for the gracious hand of my God was upon me” (2:8 NRSV; compare 2:18 for a practical application of this concept). He believed “the God of heaven is the one who will give us success” (2:20 NRSV) and that “our God will fight for us” (4:20 NRSV). He had respect for the sabbath, the Temple and its institutions, the Levites, and tithing.

Nehemiah was an unusual person. He was a man of action; he got things done. He knew how to use persuasion but also force. One may properly call him the father of Judaism. Because of Nehemiah, Judaism had a fortified city, a purified people, a dedicated and unified nation, renewed economic stability, and a new commitment to God’s law.

SOURCE: Holman Bible Dictionary; General Editor, David S. Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee.

The Relation of Ezra-Nehemiah to Chronicles:

Many scholars think that the same author who wrote 1, 2 Chronicles also wrote Ezra-Nehemiah.  According to the Jewish tradition found in the Talmud (Baba Bathra 15a), Ezra was the author of both Ezra-Nehemiah and 1, 2 Chronicles. In modern times this view was followed by such authors as W. F. Albright,  J. Bright,  J. Myers,  and G. L. Archer, Jr.  Yamauchi, however, argues that the genealogies of Chronicles date its completion to about 400 B.C., which makes it unlikely that Ezra was the author if we assume he was at least forty years old when he returned to Jerusalem in 458 B.C.  The more commonly held view is that both works were produced by an anonymous person or group of persons called “the Chronicler.” As Fensham notes, “This view is generally accepted today by conservative as well as critical scholars.”  Of course, this view includes many divergent ideas about the influence of the Chronicler on the sources he used, such as the first-person Ezra Memoir and the Nehemiah Memoir.

F. M. Cross developed a three stage theory of compilation. The first stage (Chr1) was written by the Chronicler shortly after the foundation of the temple in 520 B.C. and consisted of 1 Chr 10 to 2 Chr 36 plus Ezra 1:1–3:13 (2 Chr 35-Ezra 3:13 being the Vorlage of 1 Esdr 1:1–5:65). The second stage (Chr2) written by a disciple of the Chronicler in 450 shortly after Ezra’s mission added Ezra 5:1–6:19 in Aramaic followed by the Ezra Narrative in chaps. 7–10. Finally, about 400 B.C. (Chr3) the Nehemiah Memoir, having been composed and circulated independently (accounting for the repetition of Ezra 2 in Neh 7), was attached along with the genealogies of 1 Chr 1–9. This last stage omitted some material that exalted Zerubbabel and made Ezra and Nehemiah contemporaries by interlacing the two accounts. 

As T. Eskenazi explains, “The general consensus … has come apart in recent decades.”  S. Japhet lists the four main arguments are used to maintain single authorship: (1) the repetition of the ending of Chronicles at the beginning of Ezra; (2) 1 Esdras continuing from 2 Chr 35 through Ezra; (3) “common vocabulary, syntactic phenomena and stylistic peculiarities”; and (4) “theological conceptions, expressed both in the material and its selection.”  She then presents a thorough analysis of the third argument and thirty-six significant linguistic and stylistic differences between the two works. Linguistic similarities, she explains, are to be expected if both writings come from the same general period of history. In conclusion Japhet states, “Our investigation … has proven that the books could not have been written or compiled by the same author.” 

The issue, however, cannot be decided on the basis of linguistic evidence alone.  R. Braun has compared the ideology of Chronicles with that of Ezra-Nehemiah. Although there are certain themes found in both, he finds differences in the concept of retribution (clear in Chronicles but not in Ezra-Nehemiah), in the attitude toward Samaritans and foreigners (Chronicles is inclusive while Ezra-Nehemiah is exclusive), and in the strong emphasis in Chronicles on the Davidic monarchy. 

Regarding the repetition of Ezra 1:1–3 in 2 Chr 36:22–23, there are many explanations besides common authorship. Eskenazi believes the author of Chronicles included the verses from Ezra so that his work would end on a hopeful note. 

While recognizing that there is still room for discussion, in this commentary we will assume that the final author of Ezra-Nehemiah was not the Chronicler.

SOURCE:  The New American Commentary; Volume  10; Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther; Mervin Breneman; General Editor: E. Ray Clendenen; © Copyright 1993 • Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee.

YHWH:  God’s name in Hebrew known by the technical term “Tetragrammaton” (Greek, meaning four letters), these are the four consonants which make up the divine name (Ex. 3:15; found more than 6,000 times in the Old Testament). The written Hebrew language did not include vowels, only the consonants were used; thus readers supplied the vowels as they read (this is true even today in Hebrew newspapers). Reverence for the divine name led to the practice of avoiding its use lest one run afoul of Commandments such as Exodus 20:7 or Leviticus 24:16. In time it was thought that the divine name was too holy to pronounce at all. Thus the practice arose of using the word Adonai: “Lord.” Many translations of the Bible followed this practice. In most English translations YHWH is recognizable where the word Lord appears in all caps.

In the course of the centuries the actual pronunciation of YHWH was lost. In the Middle Ages Jewish scholars developed a system of symbols placed under and beside the consonants to indicate the vowels. YHWH appeared with the vowels from “Adonai” as a device to remind them to say “Adonai” in their reading of the text. A latinized form of this was pronounced “Jehovah,” but it was actually not a real word at all. From the study of the structure of the Hebrew language most scholars today believe that YHWH was probably pronounced Yahweh (Yah weh).

SOURCE: Holman Bible Dictionary; General Editor, David S. Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee.

 

ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND READING:

 

NEHEMIAH  A Historical Setting

By Kevin C. Peacock

Kevin C. Peacock is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary, Cochrane, Alberta, Canada.

A

LL PEOPLE are affected by the course of history.  In turn, people affect history’s course—some more than others. Nehemiah, a cupbearer to the king of Persia, lived in a historically significant time and was used by God to dramatically affect Israel’s history.  Nehemiah was certainly a man for his time.

Life in the Exile

When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC,1 Judah’s political independence had vanished and the Davidic monarchy had all but disappeared (2 Kings 24:15-16).  Many citizens were exiled to Babylon (v. 14), while others fled to Egypt and surrounding areas (25:26).  The holy city was in ruins, and the temple had been burned and plundered (vv.9-17).  Communities of Israelites formed during the exile in Babylon and in Egypt (Jer. 43:1-7; 44:1).  The Babylonian exilic communities were located mainly between Babylon and Nippur (Ezek. 1:1; 3:15).

Conditions in Babylon were favorable for many deportees.  They were able to maintain fairly normal lives, their Jewish identity and worship of God.  Some acquired their own businesses and houses (Jer. 29:4-9).  Some rose to prominence in the royal court (Dan.1:3-7).2 As a result, many exiles did not want to return to Judah (Ezra 8:15-20).

We have little information of the population that remained in Judah. Some continued to worship at the altar of the ruined temple (Jer. 41:4-5).  This group was comprised mostly of the “poorest of the land” (2 Kings 25:12, HCSB) plus some refugee Israelites who drifted back to their homeland (Jer. 40:11-12).  In spite of the Babylonians inflicting harsh treatment and forced labor conditions, these persons were still able to eke out a meager existence (Lam. 5:2-5, 11-13).  Foreign peoples moved into the land—Edomites and Arabians from the south, Ammonites from the east, Samaritans from the north, and the Phoenicians into the west.  Judah eventually became a society of foreign peoples living among and intermixing with Jews.  Intermarriage with pagans became a serious problem (Ezra 10:18-44; Neh. 13:23-28).  Children grew up without religious guidance, and many lost the ability to speak Hebrew and read from the Scriptures (Neh. 13:24).  Aramaic became the common language of the people of the Diaspora, and knowledge of God’s law was limited.3

The Persian Period

Cyrus II “the Great”—Babylon’s King Nebuchadnezzar died in 562.  Just over two decades later (539), the Persians defeated the Babylonian Empire.  Persia’s King Cyrus extended the Medo-Persian Empire from the Aegean Sea to India in less than 10 years.  A wise and humane leader seeking loyal subjects, Cyrus sought to uphold human dignity.  He brought as little destruction as possible on a city, not allowing his soldiers to loot, rape, or terrorize the conquered people.  His main policy for rule was “return to normalcy.”4 To do this, he allowed the conquered people to rebuild and reestablish their worship systems, including temples and gods the Babylonians had destroyed or taken.5 He allowed deported peoples to return to their homelands.  With the “Edict of Cyrus” (539), the Jewish exiles could return home and rebuild their temple (Ezra 1:2-4; 6:3-5; 2 Chron. 36:23). Cyrus thus won great respect from his subjects and solidified his reign.

Sheshbazzar, “prince of Judah,” led the first group of exiles back to Judah, returning some temple vessels.  Appointed governor of “Yhud” (the Persian province of Judah), he began rebuilding the temple around 538-537 (Ezra 1:7-11; 5:14-16).  Zerubbabel continued the building project until work ceased because of local opposition (3:7-4:5).  The work lay unfinished for over a decade until the reign of Darius.6

The Jews born and raised in exile faced opposition from many who had remained in Judah (Ezek. 11:14-16).  Those who continued to worship at the temple ruins probably felt no need for a new altar or temple.  Having possessed the land for a significant length of time (a generation or two), they considered it theirs and were reticent to share (33:24).

The people of Samaria, pagan foreigners who had intermarried with Israelites, offered to help with the rebuilding project (2 Kings 17:29; Ezra 4:1-2). Their rejected offer (Ezra 4:3) may have contributed to later tensions.  While the returnees found land, built homes, and reestablished themselves in Judah, “the land was devastated by a series of droughts and crop failures (Hag. 1:10-ll; 2:16-17).”7 This work on the temple came to a halt.

Cambyses II (530-522)—Persia’s next ruler added Egypt to the empire, making the Persian Empire the greatest the world had ever known and making him the first Persian ruler over Egypt.  Throughout his reign the returned exiles faced ongoing opposition in rebuilding (Ezra 4:5; Hag. 1:2-4).

Darius I “the Great” (522-486)—The best-known ruler of Persia brought the empire to its pinnacle.  He organized it into 20 regional provinces or “satrapies,” each governed by a satrap (Dan. 6:1-4; Ezra 7:21; Neh. 2:7).  The fifth satrapy, called “Beyond the River,”  included Yehud.  Local governors (such as later Nehemiah) served under the satrap.  Darius built a sophisticated road system and developed postal delivery to advance his government throughout the empire.  Starting a war with the Greeks, he expanded into the west, sought to strengthen his control of Asia Minor, and moved into Macedonia.  Though he was able to punish Athens and Sparta, he was unable to subdue the Greeks.8

Zerubbabel, a descendant of David (1 Chron. 3:19), was appointed governor (Hag. 2:21).  Haggai and Zechariah encouraged him to rebuild the temple (Ezra 5:1-2; 6:14; Hag.1—2; Zech. 4:1-14), resuming the work 18 years after the Cyrus Decree (520). Darius ordered the satrap and people to leave the workers alone and to pay for the building project with local tax revenues (Ezra 5:3; 6:1-13).  The Bible does not mention Zerubbabel at the completion or dedication of the temple in 515 (Ezra 6:14-18).9

Xerxes I “Ahasuerus” (486-465)—Though prominent in the Book of Esther, Xerxes did not trouble himself with Judah’s problems, but Diaspora Jews became his concern in the Esther story. Malachi’s ministry likely took place during Xerxes’ reign, several decades after the temple was rebuilt.  Malachi encountered problems similar to those Nehemiah faced: mixed-faith marriages (Mal. 2:11-15), failure to tithe (3:8-10), contemptible worship and corrupt priests (1:6—2:9), and social problems (3:5).10

Artaxerxes I  (465-424)—Persia’s next ruler faced much unrest during his reign.  The Greeks had defeated the Persian army at Memphis in Egypt (459).  Artaxerxes knew that a strong Jewish community in and around Israel would serve as a buffer and would serve as a buffer and would serve as a buffer and would hinder Greek advancement especially from Egypt.  Artaxerxes thus sent Ezra to Judah (458) immediately after the fall of Memphis and strongly supported him.11 When Artaxerxes made a treaty with Greeks (449) he had no need for a buffer zone, so he ceased the generous privileges to Yehud.12

Apparently, in the roughly 60 years after its completion, the temple had fallen into disrepair, and the people had abandoned sacrificial law.  “Artaxerxes”13 sent Ezra in 458 to Judah to repair and renovate the temple and reestablish the sacrificial system.  A priest and scribe, Ezra was to train the Jewish people in the Mosaic law (Ezra 7:6-8,11), establishing it as the law of the community.  Those claiming the privileges of Jews in Persian society had to accept the obligations of their religion.  Artaxerxes authorized Ezra to demand help from local officials and to appoint judges in the land (vv. 21-26).

Sometime early in Artaxerxes’ reign the people tried to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls.  Their enemies accused them of fortifying for rebellion, and Artaxerxes ordered the builders to stop.  The opposition intervened forcefully (4:7-23), and they apparently destroyed anything that had been repaired.  News of this destruction spurred Nehemiah to resume the building project (Neh. 1:3; 2:5-8).  As the king’s cupbearer, Nehemiah held strong influence (1:11).  God moved Artaxerxes to allow Nehemiah  to return (2:8).  Thus Nehemiah arrived in Judah about 7o years after the temple rededication and 13 years after Ezra began his ministry (445).  He had Artaxerxes’ authority to rebuild the walls and serve as local governor over a depressed and defeated community that was morally and spiritually anemic. 

Nehemiah faced major opposition from Sanballat, governor of Samaria (2:10), who probably sensed he was losing influence over Judah.  Despite the opposition, the workers completed the wall in 52 days (6:15).  Nehemiah spent 12 years in Jerusalem as governor, returning to Artaxerxes around 433, then returning to govern Jerusalem a second time (13:6-7).

Nehemiah brought significant social and religious reforms during his two administrations (5:1-19; 13:15-31). With Nehemiah’s ministry the history of the Old Testament came to a close.

1.    All dates given will be BC.

2.    Allen P. Ross, “Exile,” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, gen. ed. Willem A VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1997), 4:599.

3.    Edwin Yamauchi, “Ezra-Nehemiah” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. 4 (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 568, 570; Charles F. Pfeiffer, Old Testament History (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1973), 416-17.

4.    Pfeiffer, 505-506.

5.    Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews in The Works of Josephus: Complete and Unabridged, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1987), 11.1.2 (p. 286).

6.    Jack Finegan, Handbook of Biblical Chronology: Principles of Time Reckoning in the Ancient World and Problems of Chronology in the Bible, rev. ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1998), 267.

7.    Robert L. Cate, These Sought a Country: A History of Israel in Old Testament Times (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985), 365-66.

8.    Thomas Brisco,  Holman Bible Atlas (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1998), 167.

9.    Rex. Mason, “Zerubbabel” in New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, gen. ed. Willem A. VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1997), 4:1313.

10.   Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Malachi: God’s Unchanging Love (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House,1984), 16.

11.   Tremper Longman III, “History of Israel7: Persian Period,” in Dictionary of the Old Testament: Historical Books, eds. Bill T. Arnold and H. G. M. Williamson (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2005), 490.

12.   Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel  (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 299-300.

13.   Ezra returned to Jerusalem in Artaxerxes’ 7th year (Ezra 7:1,7).  This is supposedly Artaxerxes I, so the date would be 458.  Nehemiah arrived in Artaxerxes’ 20th year (Neh. 2:1), 13 years after Ezra (445).  Nehemiah served in Jerusalem until 433, Artaxerxes’ 32nd year (Neh. 5:14).  He built the city wall, celebrated the Feast of Booths (8:13-18) and dedicated the city wall with Ezra (12:27-43). Although some scholars debate if Ezra and Nehemiah indeed served side by side, none of the arguments against the traditional order and chronology are compelling.  For a further explanation, see Derek Kidner, Ezra and Nehemiah: An Introduction and Commentary (Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979), 146-58.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 35, No. 2; Winter 2008-09.

 

Nehemiah as a Governor

By Leon Hyatt, Jr.

Leon Hyatt, Jr. is retired director of missions development, Louisiana Baptist Convention, and interim pastor, First Baptist Church, Oakdale, Louisiana.

W

HEN NEHEMIAH WAS APPOINTED GOVERNOR OF JUDAH, he faced a daunting task.  The land had been sparsely populated and loosely governed between Nebuchadnezzar’s conquest of Jerusalem, the flight of many Jews to Egypt, and Cyrus’s edict allowing the Jews to return to their homeland (582-538 BC).1 (See 2 Kings 25:1-26; Ezra 1:1-4.)  Two small groups, led by Zerubbabel and Ezra, returned to Judah before Nehemiah returned.  Zerubbabel led in rebuilding the temple (Ezra 1:5—6:22), and Ezra began reestablishing the Mosaic law (Ezra 7—10).  Still, the government was weak, and the land was defenseless against the enemy nations that surrounded it (Neh. 1:2-3).  Only God could have devised the plan of raising up one of the most powerful leaders of the Persian Empire to meet Judah’s need in that dark hour.

Nehemiah’s Appointment

Artaxerxes, king of Persia, ruled all the lands between his nation and the Mediterranean Sea.  Nehemiah was his cupbearer, a position of high trust and influence.  Nehemiah must have been a man of outstanding ability and dedication to hold such a position, especially since he was a descendant of captives from Judah. 

Nehemiah’s brother visited Judah and returned with sad news about the deplorable conditions there.  Nehemiah was heartbroken and begged God to allow him to go to Judah to strengthen and stabilize the nation (Neh. 1:4-11).  When the right opportunity arose, he asked Artaxerxes for permission to return to Judah with authority to rebuild the nation’s defenses.  Artaxerxes granted all Nehemiah asked and more (Neh. 2:1-9).

Nehemiah showed his primary interest when he appealed to Artaxerxes.  He did not ask to be made governor.  Rather, Nehemiah asked to be given authority and resources to construct a fortress to protect the temple, to rebuild the city wall, and to provide a house for himself (Neh. 2:8).  Artaxerxes knew Nehemiah would need the authority of the governorship to achieve these purposes and appointed him to that position (Neh. 5:14).  Nehemiah was unselfish in accepting this responsibility.  He already had a much more powerful and lucrative position than governor of a small province in the Persian Empire.  He had to make great sacrifices to undertake rebuilding a defenseless and destitute land.

Nehemiah’s Authority

The Persian government had established a regional governor over the provinces west of the Euphrates River (Ezra 5:3; 6:6,13; 8:36; Neh. 3:7).2 The regional governor apparently had authority over the provinces only to prevent any rebellion.  Nehemiah ruled one province under the regional governor.  He did not record a single occasion when he consulted with the regional governor about Judah’s internal affairs. (See Ezra 5:3—6:13 and Neh. 6:5-9.)

Nehemiah exercised lawmaking, administrative, and judicial authority.  As lawmaker, he was free to establish Israelite law as God had commanded it at Sinai (Neh. 8—9).  He made no mention of being hampered by Persian laws.  As government administrator, he organized the nation’s defenses (Neh. 7:1-2), and moved people from the countryside into the city (Neh. 7:4-5; 11:1-2) without any restraint from higher authority.  As supreme judge of the nation, he passed judgment on lawbreakers with equal freedom (Neh. 13:4-31).

Nehemiah’s Foreign Policy

Nehemiah was extremely careful to recognize the authority of the Persian king.  He profusely expressed his submissiveness when he requested permission to go to Judah (Neh. 2:3-8).  He promptly presented his authorization letters from Artaxerxes to the regional authorities on the west side of the river (Neh. 2:9).  He returned to the Persian capital at least once to report to the king and to consult with him (Neh. 13:6).  Unless we rearrange the chronology of events from the order that the Book of Nehemiah describes them, Nehemiah held the dedication of the temple about 13 years after the wall was completed (Neh. 12:27-43).3 The likely reason is that he waited until he was sure he had the approval of the Persian king.  He did not want to give the slightest impression that he was leading a rebellion.

Nehemiah’s relationships with the governors of the other Persian provinces around Judah were entirely different.  When they laughed at him, he plainly told them, “ye have no portion, nor right, nor memorial, in Jerusalem” (Neh. 2:20, KJV).  When they belittled Israel’s efforts, he prayed for God to punish them they belittled Israel’s efforts, he prayed for God to punish them (Neh. 4:1-6).  When they sought to attack Judah, he organized an effective defense (Neh. 4:7-23).  When they invited him to meet with them, he recognized they were plotting to do him harm.  He told them he was too busy building the wall to have time to stop and talk (Neh. 6:1-4).  When they accused him of rebellion, he simply denied their claims and went on with the work (Neh. 6:5-10).  He knew he had the approval of Artaxerxes and the protection of God, so he yielded them no influence over Judah or himself (Neh. 2:18).

Nehemiah’s Domestic Policy

Though Nehemiah had absolute authority over the internal affairs of Judah, he was benevolent and compassionate in exercising that authority.  Because of the poverty of the nation and its people, he accepted no salary or benefits.  Instead, he spent his own money to maintain himself and to support 150 officials in his government, plus a number of Israelite refugees who had come from neighboring lands (Neh. 5:14o-18).  He also spent his own money to redeem from slavery as many Israelites as he could (Neh. 5:8).  When he saw wealthy Israelites oppressing the poor, he appealed to them to stop.  When they would not heed his plea, he called a great assembly and publicly condemned the guilty until they promised to stop their offensive behavior (Neh. 5:1-13).  He used his power and spent his great wealth, not to oppress, but to benefit all of Judah’s people.

As a lawmaker, Nehemiah did not seek to innovate.  He supported and established the laws God had given through Moses.  He firmly believed that the nation had been destroyed because the people had disobeyed God’s laws and that the nation would be restored only if they began to obey those laws again (Neh. 1:4-11; 13:17-22,26-31).

Nehemiah was an energetic and persuasive administrator.  The construction of the wall around Jerusalem provides a good example.  He planned carefully before he announced the project (Neh. 2:12-16).  He challenged the people with the need, the benefits, the Lord’s power, and the king’s support (Neh. 2:17-18).  He gained their participation by inspiration rather than by command.  He organized the people so that each person or group had a specific assignment (Neh. 3).  He pressed the construction with great energy and refused to slacken the pace for any problem or obstacle (Neh. 4:6).  He gave recognition to all who assisted the construction (Neh. 3:1-23).

Nehemiah was especially good at giving recognition. (See Neh. 3; 7:5-65; 8:1-8; 9:3-5; 10:1-27; 11:3-36; 12:1-42).  The lists may seem boring to the casual reader.  They were not boring to those who participated in rebuilding the nation.  When they read their names, they knew Nehemiah and God appreciated their efforts.

As Judah’s supreme judicial authority, Nehemiah’s judgments were swift and stern.  When Eliashib, the high priest, desecrated the temple by preparing a spacious room in it for Tobiah, governor of Ammon, Nehemiah cast out all of Tobiah’s furniture and restored the room to its proper use (Neh. 13:4-9).  When Nehemiah saw that the law of the tithe was being disobeyed, he gathered the rulers, charged them with unfaithfulness, and found them guilty.  Afterward all the people brought their tithes, and Nehemiah appointed officers to distribute the tithes properly (Neh. 13:10-14).  He took firm action against those who disobeyed the Sabbath laws and against those who broke laws against intermarriage to worshipers of other gods (Neh. 13:15-31).

Nehemiah spent his life in government service, but the driving force of his life was obedience to God.

1.   “Exile” in Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible, vol. 1, ed. Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1988), 732-36;  Gary Hardin, “Exile” in Holman Bible Dictionary  (Nashville: Holman Bible Publishers, 1991), 449-51.

2.   George Rawlinson and W. S. Lewis, “Ezra” in The Pulpit Commentary,  vol. 15 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, n.d.), 71; Jacob M. Myers, “Ezra, Nehemiah” in The Anchor Bible, vol. 14 (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday and Company, 1983), 44-45.

3.   George Rawlinson and G. Wood, “Nehemiah” in The Pulpit Commentary,  vol. 15 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, n.d.), 132.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Fall 1995.

Nehemiah’s Life in the Palace

By Bill Patterson

Bill Patterson is pastor of First Baptist Church, Richland, Mississippi.

AVE YOU EVER felt God was leading you to do something requiring great personal sacrifice?  Nehemiah was the personal attendant and advisor to the most powerful man in the world in his time, King Artaxerxes of Persia. Nehemiah was surrounded by luxury in the winter palace at Susa.

A problem existed, however, Jews returning from exile had rebuilt and dedicated the temple at Jerusalem in 515 BC.  Nehemiah was astonished, though, to find the walls around Jerusalem were still in ruins 70 years later.  After praying and fasting Nehemiah believed God was leading him to risk his life on a dangerous journey to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls and gates.

What we know of Nehemiah we learn from Scripture.  We know from the Book of Nehemiah, for example, that he was the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes, the first of several Persian kings by that name, a man who ruled 465-424 B C.

Cupbearers in ancient times were wine tasters for the king.  Xenophon, the ancient Greek historian, described in detail how the cupbearer for a Persian king always ladled a little into his own left hand and drank it, thus ensuring the contents were not poison before he put the cup into the king’s hand.1

Cupbearers were more than simple butlers, however.  They became personal advisors, too.  We see that when the Rabshakeh (chief cupbearer), along with the Tartan (an Assyrian general), led a delegation and a large army for Assyria’s King Sennacherib.  The Rabshakeh had the authority to deliver a vital message to Jerusalem in behalf of the king (see 2 Kings 18—19).

Additionally, a relief cut into the stones of the palace at Susa shows a line of servants waiting on the king.  The cupbearer was first in line.  In other displays in Persia’s palaces, the cupbearer was always the one who—except for the king’s son—stood closest to the king.  Like a modern secretary of state, Nehemiah’s role of cupbearer was much more powerful than a personal aide, since he had the ear and trust of King Artaxerxes.

History and archaeology have revealed much about the palace at Susa where Nehemiah served. Susa was an important administrative capital located at one end of the 1,600 mile-long road which ran from Sardis (in modern Turkey) to Susa (in modern western Iran).  For the construction of his palace, Darius (522-486 BC)described how he brought materials and workmen from all parts of the Persian Empire.  The massive palace consisted of two parts: on the south was a sprawling mud brick building with four courtyards.  The other part, a great audience hall, or the Apadana, had 36 columns on square bases. On three sides of the central hall were porticoes with columns on bell-shaped bases.  The columns were topped with large, double-bull capitals.2

Gold, silver, ebony, ivory, gems, bronze, jewels, and various types of stones were imported for decorating the palace.  Fine carpets covered the floors, which were red-polished lime plaster or a brick and stone pavement.  Cedar beams from Lebanon rested atop the massive columns and supported other timbers along with matting sealed by mud plaster for the ceiling.3

The courtyards were decorated with friezes of glazed bricks showing lines of guards, lions, and a pair of sphinxes.  Other multi-colored, glazed brick panels showed figures in Median and Persian dress bearing food and animals.  Nehemiah likely saw these scenes numerous times a week.

The ancient Greek historian Herodotus wrote a telling account of the wealth and extravagance of Persia’s royal household.  After experiencing a humiliating naval defeat by Greek and allied forces, Xerxes retreated from Greece in 479 BC and returned to Persia.  He left his general, Mardonius, behind and in charge of defending Persia against lingering Greek threats.  Mardonius took up residence in the tent Xerxes had left behind.  Greek forces attacked and were victorious.  Coming into the now-abandoned tent that had belonged to Xerxes, the Greek commander Pausanias reportedly was astounded at the embroidered hangings and lavish decorations of gold and silver.  He summoned Mardonius’s cooks and had them prepare a meal as they would have for the Persian general.  He could hardly believe his eyes when he saw gold and silver couches and tables, beautifully draped, and a magnificent meal.4 While not written of Susa, the scene is nevertheless expressive of the opulence Nehemiah witnessed.

Xenophon, who was a Greek soldier and historian, described the wealth displayed at the tables of Persian royalty.  He wrote of the Persian’ insatiable culinary desires.  “Again, whatever sorts of bread and pastry for the table had been discovered before, none of all those have fallen into disuse, but they keep on always inventing something new besides; and it is the same way with meats; for in both branches of cookery they actually have artists to invent new dishes.”5 He further wrote of the display of Persian wealth in their drinking cups, personal adornment, and furniture, including silver-footed couches.6

British archaeologist W. K. Loftis led the chief excavations of the palace of Susa in 1850-52.  His finds included columns, glazed brick work, and double-bull capitals plus decorative and utilitarian objects make of stoneware, ivory, ebony, jewelry, and alabaster.  He also discovered fragments of gold leafing that evidently had been used as gilding for the palace furniture.7

Nehemiah may have poured wine for Artaxerxes from a gold or silver trumpet-shaped horn with the metal head of a lion or other animal inserted at a right angle.  Such vessels, called rhytons, were common in the places of ancient Persia.  The spout typically was in the muzzle or chest of the animal.  The drink was poured from a rhyton into a cup made of granite, basalt, slate, hematite, calcite, banded marble, limestone, jasper, gypsum, or rock crystal.8  Cups of each of these materials have been found in the palace excavations.  Silver duck-headed spoons also have been uncovered.

Bracelets were among the highly esteemed Persian gifts. Archaeologists have found animal-headed bracelets, armlets, necklaces, earrings, clothing ornaments beads of pearl, beads of several types of precious and semi-precious stones, and gold rings dating to the time of the Persian kings.  They have also unearthed both glass and bronze bottles containing kohl for eye make-up.

On February 6, 1901, French archaeologist Jacques de Morgan discovered a grave in Susa containing a skeleton in an unadorned bronze coffin.  The deceased had been buried wearing a pair of gold bracelets, a pair of gold earrings, a gold neckband, a pair of gold decorative medallions, and five necklaces.  The necklaces contained fine pearls, precious stones, and gold beads inlaid with colored stones.  Archaeologist de Morgan also discovered a silver bowl and two alabaster jars in the tomb.9 The find dated to the close of Persia’s Achaemenid Period (550-330 BC).  Although this was just over a hundred years after Nehemiah’s journeys, the tomb’s furnishings show the wealth to which Nehemiah was accustomed.

Nehemiah would have seen numerous peoples from the provinces of ancient Persia bring gifts to and request advice from Artaxerxes.  Reliefs carved into the walls at the palace at Persepolis show people from 23 provinces bearing gifts for the king.  As a trusted attendant, Nehemiah could have been privy to the conversations of foreign dignitaries.

Educated in the palace, Nehemiah was likely multi-lingual.  Examples of writing in Old Persian, Babylonian, Elamite, and Egyptian hieroglyphs have been found, sometimes side by side.  Not only would Nehemiah have lived among wealth, but he also probably possessed personal wealth.  That is shown by his refusing the wages of a governor at the time  he would have been expected to entertain extensively.  Also he loaned money to the needy.

Nehemiah gave up the riches of Susa for the pull of the Lord.  He spent most of his life training and then working as a staff member of a king.  He left the wealth and privileges of serving Artaxerxes, though, to serve the Almighty.  Like Esther, who lived in the palace of Susa during the reign of Xerxes I, Artaxerxes’ father, Nehemiah also came into the kingdom “for such a time as this”  (Esther 4:14).  Nehemiah’s sacrifice still inspires us to pray, give, go, and surrender to a higher calling.

1.      Xenophon, vol. 5, Cyropaedia: Books I-IV  in The Loeb Classical Library, trans. Walter Miller (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914), 1.3.8-9 (pp. 32-35).

2.      John Curtis, “The Archaeology of the Achaemenid Period” in Forgotten Empire: The World of Ancient Persia (FEWAP), ed. John Curtis and Nigel Tallis (London: British Museum Press, 2005), 36-37.

3.      John Curtis and Shahrokh Razmjou, “The Palace” in FEWAP, 50-51.  Fibers from carpets and perhaps draperies have been discovered.

4.      Herodotus, vol. 4 in The Loeb Classical Library, trans. A. D. Godley (London: William Heinemann, 1925), 9.81-83 (pp. 254-59).

5.      Xenophon, vol. 6, Cyropaedia II  in The Loeb Classical Library, trans. Walter Miller (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1914), 8.8.16 (pp. 448-49).

6.      Xenophon, vol. 3, Anabasis  in The Loeb Classical Library, trans. Carleton L. Brownson, rev. ed. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 4.4.21(pp. 330-33).

7.      Curtis and Razmjou, 55-56.

8.      St. John Simpson, “The Royal Table” in FEWAP, 107-109.

9.      Shahrokh Razmjou, “Religion and Burial Customs,” in FEWAP, 174-77.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 35, No. 2; Winter 2008-09.

 

The Persian Empire

By Kelvin Moore

Kelvin Moore is professor of Christian studies, Union University, Jackson, Tennessee and pastor of Idlewild Baptist Church, Idlewild, Tennessee.

THE PERSIAN EMPIRE!  The name “Persian” ranks among the great empires of the ancient world, with Egyptian, Assyrian, and Babylonian.  The Books of 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Esther, Ezekiel, and Daniel make reference to the Persian Empire.1  Most readers of the Old Testament recognize the names of the Persian kings such as Darius, Artaxerxes, and especially Cyrus.  But what do we know about the Persian Empire?  How did this mighty empire originate?  What factors led to the empire’s collapse?  How did Persian kings organize the empire politically?  And where did the empire intersect with biblical history and events?

The structure of the Middle East changed dramatically in the third quarter of the sixth century BC (550-525 BC).  Prior to the Persian conquest, the kingdoms of Babylon, Egypt, Media, and Lydia ruled a divided Middle East.  All of that changed with the rise of the Persian Empire under the admirable leadership of Cyrus II, the Great (559-530 BC).  Beginning with Cyrus, the Persian Empire began rapid expansion in every direction.2

Persia’s Rise and Fall

Originally, the ancient world knew Persia as “Fars” (also spelled “Pars”) or “Farsistan,” a name derived from the chief province.  Historical documentation regarding the early Persians is almost nonexistent.  Historians assume the Persians originated from central Asia around 1000 BC,3 about the time David solidified his reign over Israel.  After the collapse of an Elamite culture in 1050 BC, several groups entered the region.  Achaemenes, the great-great grandfather of Cyrus II, ruled one of these groups.  The term “Achaemenids was used to describe the later Persian royal line.”4  Eventually, from this small group, the powerful and colossal Persian Empire evolved.  Assyrian texts of the ninth century BC record the first appearance of the name “Parsua” (Persia).

In the Old Testament world, “Persia” referred to a country laying to the east of modern-day Iraq, in the region of Iran.5  The Persian Empire covered a vast area from the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers to India and into central Asia.6  At the height of power, Persia included territories currently found in  Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Syria, Turkey, Russia, Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.  The Persian Empire stretched across deserts and mountains with a variety of climatic and geographical extremes.

Generally speaking, the Persian Empire began with the victories of Cyrus II over Babylon in 539 BC and ended with defeats to the Greeks under Alexander the Great (356-323 BC).  What events served as the catalysts for the rise of the Persian Empire?

The Babylonian Empire began to decay after the death of King Nebuchadnezzar (605-562 BC).  The Babylonian army and capital city were costly to support and thus took their toll on the stability of Babylonia.  Additionally, an internal rebellion further eroded the strength of the Babylonian Empire.  Cyrus recognized Babylon’s weaknesses and instability and decided to attack.  Daniel’s account of the “handwriting on the wall” tells of the night when Cyrus’s army entered Babylon, killing King Belshazzar (5:1-30).  Cyrus’s conquering of the Babylonians (and King Belshazzar) in 539 BC raised Persia to the position of a world empire.  Persia, now powerful and expansive, encompassed the entire Near East.

Early indications of Persia’s waning power, though, came 40 years later, in 499 BC.  The Greek city states of Anatolia and Cyprus rebelled against their Persian overlord.  Although Persia squelched the rebellion quickly, hostilities continued.  Such hostilities resulted in Persia’s first serious defeat, which occurred at Marathon in 490 B C.  Ten years later, the Persians suffered major defeats at Salamis7 and Mycale.

What ultimately led to the disintegration of the Persian Empire began during the reign of Artaxerxes II (404-358 BC).  When Artaxerxes II became king, a civil war ensued when Cyrus the Younger (424-401 BC), Artaxerxes’ brother, challenged the right of Artaxerxes to reign.  The two brothers battled at Cunaxa for the sovereign right to rule Persia.  The battle ended with the death of Cyrus.  Although Artaxerxes was victorious, the civil war extracted a toll on him and Persia.  In addition to civil war between Artaxerxes and Cyrus, an internal rebellion threatened the empire.  Historians refer to this internal rebellion as “the revolt of the satraps.”

To exacerbate Persia’s problems, Egypt, which was then part of the empire, also rebelled.  With Persia already engulfed in a civil war, the Egyptians rightfully interpreted the time ripe for insurrection.  The Egyptians successfully, and for some 60 years (until 343 BC), threw off their Persian oppressors.  Thus, both internal and external issues led to the collapse of the Persian Empire.  Ultimately, the Greek army, under the capable leadership of Alexander the Great, conquered the entire Persian Empire in 332 BC, ushering in the Hellenistic age.8

Persia’s Rulers and Religions

While kings were not regarded as gods, the Persians viewed their kings as earthly lieutenants of the deities of the empire.  Many of these kings possessed notable administrative skills.  Persian kings made the empire the best organized the world had ever witnessed.  In addition to building an impressive capital at Pasargadae, Cyrus II (559-530 BC) divided the empire into 20 large districts known as “satrapies,” each ruled by a “satrap.”9  Kings normally appointed satraps, who were directly responsible to the king himself, from Persian or Median nobles.  Satraps, then, ordinarily appointed native officers: Jews in Judah, Samaritans in Samaria, and Arabs in the south.  Daniel 6:1-3 lists Daniel as a native officer under Darius and calls him a “president” (KJV; HCSB lists Daniel as an “administrator”).  Additionally, Persian kings divided satrapies into provinces.10  These provinces had their own administrative organizations and small military garrisons.

Good organization needed a means of communication, which in turn needed a good road system.  The Persians developed an excellent road system.  Such highways allowed the free flow of merchandise, which created a wealthy empire.  Such highways also allowed for the free flow of ideas.  Roads created a “universal awareness” among the Persians, or the idea of a larger world.  Additionally, Persian kings introduced coinage and postal systems.

The Persians committed themselves to rule by law.  But the kings did not impose an imperial law.  Instead, the Persian kings gave support and authority to local law and its enforcement.

Persian kings had more than one royal city.  Some kings, on taking the throne, named a different city as the Persian capital or built an entirely new city.  Darius named Susa one of his royal cities and built a new palace there (521 BC).  Queen Esther lived in Susa (1:2).  Darius built Persepolis in 518 BC.  Both Kings Artaxerxes and Xerxes carried out official activities from Persepolis.

Persian religion remains mystifying and passionately debated.  Early Persians revered gods of nature, fertility, and the heavens.  Some believed that the religious leader Zoroaster lived in the seventh century BC and influenced Persian belief.  Zoroaster proclaimed a religion based on the principle “do good, hate evil.”  For Zoroaster, the good god Ahura-Mazda, represented by fire and water, stood opposite to a dark power of evil.  Other historians deny the widespread influence of Zoroaster.

Persia and the Bible

Although Persia is not mentioned in the New Testament, the Old Testament records numerous points of intersection between the Persians and Hebrews.  Isaiah 44:28—45:1 records an early reference to King Cyrus II, the Great.  In contrast to the Assyrians and Babylonians, Cyrus adopted a much more lenient policy toward his captives.  Cyrus allowed exiled Jews to return to their native land and rebuild their homes.  Cyrus encouraged the returning Jews to rebuild their place of worship: “This is what King Cyrus of Persia says: ‘The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and has appointed me to build Him a house at Jerusalem in Judah.  Whoever is among His people, may his God be with him, and may he go to Jerusalem in Judah and build the house of the Lord, the God of Israel, the God who is in Jerusalem.’”11  Additionally, Cyrus generously authorized the Hebrews to draw funds from the imperial treasury to finance temple reconstruction (Ezra 6:8).  Cyrus’s humanitarian policy gained him the good will of almost all the ancient world—so much so, in fact, that Isaiah hailed Cyrus as God’s “shepherd” (44:28, NIV).  Isaiah also referred to Cyrus as God’s chosen instrument (“His anointed”), anointed to deliver the Hebrews from Babylonian captivity (45:1, HCSB).

After the decree of Cyrus, the returning Jews managed to lay the temple’s foundation.  But due to opposition, work on the temple ceased for the next 15 or 16 years.  Encouraged by the minor prophets Haggai and Zechariah (Ezra 5), the Jews again began work on the temple, during the reign of Darius I (“the Great,” 522-486 BC ).  Evidently unaware of Cyrus’s edict, the governor of Jerusalem’s province on the other side of the river, that is, west of the Euphrates River, attempted to delay the temple’s reconstruction in 520 BC.  The governor sent a letter to the satrap requesting an inquiry as to Jewish authorization to rebuild the temple.  The ensuing search found nothing in the archives of Babylon.  But further examination in Ecbatana, Cyrus’s residence during his first year, uncovered the decree.  Ezra 6 records that Persia’s King Darius I verified Cyrus’s declaration and allowed work on the temple to resume.  The work promptly resumed.  Ezra dated the completion of the temple, “on the third day of the month of Adar in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius” (6:15, HCSB).12

The Book of Esther records the crisis and subsequent miraculous deliverance that took place during the reign of Persia’s King Ahasuerus (1:1-2).  King Ahasuerus became displeased with Queen Vashti and dismissed her from the throne.  A search throughout the kingdom led King Ahasuerus to marry Esther, who was a Jew.  Most likely, Ahasuerus, Hebrew for “Xerxes,” referred to King Xerxes I (486-465 BC ).

Ezekiel named Persia among the armies of Tyre (27:10) and as an ally of Gog in the invasion against Israel (38:5).  The prophet Daniel recorded numerous references to Persia (8:20;; 10:1; 11:2).  Elsewhere, Nehemiah’s efforts to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls date tot eh reign of Persian King Artaxerxes I Longimanus (about 465-424 BC ).  Nehemiah requested permission to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild its walls “in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes” (2:1).  Artaxerxes I Longimanus’s 20th year dates 445 BC.  History offers no information about relations between Persian kings and Jews after the time of Nehemiah.

The “Cyrus Cylinder” warrants special mention.  Archaeologist Hormuzd Rassam discovered this 9-inch-long clay cylinder in 1879 in Babylon.  Inscribed in Akkadian cuneiform, the cylinder tells of the conquest of Babylon’s King Cyrus II—with the  assistance of the Babylonian god Marduk.  But the most significant passage of the inscription refers to the fact that Cyrus issued a decree that allowed captives to return to their lands and restore their temples.  The cylinder reveals that Cyrus “averted hardship” toward his captives.13  The cylinder reports of foreign sanctuaries destroyed by the Babylonians and the fact that, “I [Cyrus] returned to (these) sacred cities . . . and established for them permanent sanctuaries.  I (also) gathered all their former inhabitants and returned (to them) their habitations.”14  With Cyrus, the world witnessed an enlightened and benevolent ruler.  Some historians acclaim Cyrus as one of the world’s greatest liberators and humanitarians.  With love and admiration, the Persians referred to King Cyrus as “father.”  Although debated, some describe the Cyrus Cylinder as the “first declaration of Human Rights.”15  The Cyrus Cylinder remains one of the most prized objects in the British Museum.                                                                                                                                 Bi

1.      2 Chron. 36:20,22,23; Ezra 1:1,2,8; Esther 1:3,14,18; Ezekiel 27:10; Dan. 10:13,20.

2.      Amelie Kuhrt, “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy,’ Journal for the Study of the Old Testament (JSOT) 25, (Fall 1983), 83.

3.      Millard, “Persia,” New Bible Dictionary, 3rd ed. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), 903.

4.      Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Pub., 1998), 165.

5.      The ancient and modern world knew this region as “Persia” until 1935, when its name became Iran.

6.      Yamauchi (Persia and the Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990],20)

7.      Here, the Persian King Xerxes I lost naval supremacy.

8.      Dictionary of Judaism in the Biblical Period 450 BCE to 600 CE, Neusner, ed. in chief, Green, ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 473-475.

9.      DeVries, Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (BEB) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 1650.

10.    Judah was a province in the satrapy of Babylon.

11.    Ezra 1:2-3, HCSB.

12.    BEB, 1651,

13.    Ackroyd, Israel Under Babylon and Persia (Oxford, Oxford Univ. 1970), 197.

14.    Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Pritchard, ed., 3rd Ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), 31 6.

15.    JSOT, 84.

SOURCE: Biblical Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 41, No. 3; Spring 2015.

 

BIBLE CHARACTER TRIVIA

 

(986)  What Is The Answer To & Where In The Bible Is This Week’s Trivia Question Found? (07/26/15) From which Psalm does the Apostle Paul quote in his exhortation at Antioch?  Answer Next Week.

The answer to last week’s question:  (07/26/15)  Two-part Question: (1) Who risked their lives against the Philistines to get David a drink of water from (2) where?    Answer: (1) Three of David’s mighty men; (2) A well of Bethlehem; 2 Sam. 23:15-16