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Bailey Sadler Class
SUNDAY SCHOOL LESSON STUDY GUIDE – 2015
The Call to a Renewed Life
What This Study Is About:
Return To Your
Return To Prayer
Return To The
forward by retreating into prayer.
Prayer and Fasting (Neh. 1:3-4)
Prayer Includes Confession (Neh. 1:5-7)
Concludes With Commitment (Neh. 1:8-10)
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
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
Advanced Bible Study; LifeWay Christian
Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; One LifeWay Plaza,
Bible Handbook; General
Editor David S. Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville,
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
The Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by
Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist
Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.
Prayer and Fasting (Neh.
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.
was Nehemiah when he received information about the city of Jerusalem?
(See Neb. 1:1.)
were the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem referred to as the remnant (v. 3)?
was the situation concerning the remnant
in Jerusalem (v. 3)? (See The Setting.)
were the Jews living in Jerusalem in great trouble and disgrace (v. 3)?
What are some examples of great trouble and
disgrace among God’s people today?
What do you think is
the spiritual equivalent of a broken down wall and a burned gate in the life of
a believer today?
What are some things
we can do to help a believer restore their broken down walls and burned gates?
did Nehemiah respond to the news about the distress of the Jews in Jerusalem (v.
How would you
describe the relationship between fasting and prayer?
Nehemiah responded with mourning, praying, and
fasting. When should we incorporate these practices in our lives?
do you think he was so sadden by this news?
does Nehemiah’s response to this sad news tell us about his character?
How do you typically respond to bad news?
your response any different if the bad news concerns other believers?
If so, how is it different?
would you rate the response of your church in meeting the needs of a fellow
do you think your rating is what it is?
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.
do you think is the significance of Nehemiah’s use of Yahweh in addressing God in his prayer? (See Digging Deeper.)
characteristics did Nehemiah assign to Yahweh,
the God of heaven (v. 5)?
is the relationship between God’s gracious
covenant and those who love Him and keep His commands (v. 5)?
can the people who love the Lord and obey His Word expect from Him (v. 5)?
on verses 6 and 7, what do you think is the focal point of Nehemiah’s prayer
at this point?
you think confession of one’s sin is necessary before requesting God’s help?
Why, or why not?
did Nehemiah need to confess his own sin?
are some things you think confession of
sin does for the believer?
was the last time you began your prayer time with a confession of sin?
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?
you think that the needs of fellow believers are sometimes easy to ignore?
If so, why?
Do you believe prayer should be our first
response, not our last resort? If
Do you think prayer helps us to establish who
God really is? If so, why?
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?
Lessons in Neh. 1:5-7:
we have needs, we should take them to God in prayer.
believers, prayer is a vital part of our relationship with God.
of sin is vital to forgiveness and spiritual renewal.
we obtain through prayer is a result of God’s grace.
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.”
did God command Moses (v. 8)?
what promise of God did Nehemiah base his appeal for restoration (v. 8)?
this an “if—then” command?
did God say would happen to the people of Israel if they were unfaithful (v. 8)?
did God promise He would do if they returned to Him (v. 9)?
what basis could the people be called God’s servants
and His people (v. 10)?
did God redeem Israel with His great power
and strong hand (v. 10)?
would be the steps for a believer to return to God after unfaithfulness today?
do you think restoration is viewed in most churches today?
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.”?
What role should confession play in a
If your prayer life need improvement what’s
one step you could take to improve it?
Why do you think
Nehemiah was confessing his own sin when other people were in trouble?
What is the most
important prayer a person can pray?
Lessons in Neh. 1:8-10:
disciplines His people when they are disobedient to His laws.
restore those who disobey Him if they confess and repent of their sins.
The basis of
our restoration and spiritual renewal is God’s mercy.
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.
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:
Ventures-Bible Studies for Life; Leader Guide; LifeWay Christian Resources
of the Southern Baptist Convention; Nashville, TN.
Herschel Hobbs Commentary; Family Bible Study; by
Robert J. Dean; LifeWay Christian
Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention; 1 LifeWay Plaza, Nashville,
Bible Study; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist
Convention; One LifeWay Plaza, Nashville, TN.
Passage from three different translations of God’s Word:
King James Version: Nehemiah 1:3-10
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)
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
Prayer and Fasting (Neh.
Heartfelt Prayer Includes Confession (Neh.
Prayer Concludes With Commitment (Neh. 1:8-10)
Commentary for the focal passage comes from three sources: “The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Old
“The New American Commentary,” and “The 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
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.
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
1:1; Amos 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.
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 (2:3, 5)
may mean that Nehemiah came from a prominent family.
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.
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.
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
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.
“sat down” (cf. Ezra 9:3). Slotki (p. 183)
comments: “The custom of mourners being seated (cf. Ps. 137:1; Job
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
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 4:16; Dan 9:3; 10:3; Zech
2. Nehemiah’s prayer (1:5-11)
(nora) is a Niphal participle from the verb yare (“to fear,
revere”). He is the one to be feared (cf. Deut 7:21; Dan 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.
often use anthropomorphic figures of speech—e.g., “let your ear be
attentive”—without sharing in the anthropomorphic concepts of pagan
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 6:1-5; Luke
(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 3:2; 7:6;
Nehemiah 1:8; 8:1, 14; 9:14; 10:29; 13:1.
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 7:35; Acts
2:9-11; James 1:1; 1
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.”
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
SOURCE: The Expositor’s Bible Commentary New
Testament; Frank E. Gaebelein; General Editor;
Zondervan Publishing House; A Division of Harper Collins Publishers
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
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. 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
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;
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
New American Commentary; Volume
10; Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther; Mervin Breneman; General Editor: E.
Ray Clendenen; © Copyright 1993 • Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville,
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.
Complete Biblical Library Commentary – Ezra-Job. Database
© 2009 WORDsearch Corp.; World Library Press, Inc.
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
New American Commentary; Volume
10; Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther; Mervin Breneman; General Editor: E.
Ray Clendenen; © Copyright 1993 • Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville,
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
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
SOURCE: Holman Bible Dictionary; General Editor, David S.
Dockery; Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, Tennessee.
By Kevin C. Peacock
C. Peacock is professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Canadian Southern Baptist
Seminary, Cochrane, Alberta, Canada.
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;
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.
(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.
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
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.
All dates given will be BC.
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.
“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.
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).
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.
Robert L. Cate, These Sought a Country: A History of Israel in Old Testament Times
(Nashville: Broadman Press, 1985), 365-66.
Thomas Brisco, Holman Bible Atlas (Nashville:
Broadman & Holman, 1998), 167.
“Zerubbabel” in New International
Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, gen. ed. Willem A.
VanGemeren (Grand Rapids: Zondervan,1997), 4:1313.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr. Malachi: God’s Unchanging Love (Grand Rapids: Baker Book
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.
Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper
Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville:
Westminster John Knox Press, 2003), 299-300.
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),
Nehemiah as a Governor
By Leon Hyatt, Jr.
Hyatt, Jr. is retired director of missions development, Louisiana Baptist
Convention, and interim pastor, First Baptist Church, Oakdale, Louisiana.
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.
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
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
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 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
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).
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
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.
Nehemiah spent his life in government service, but the driving force of
his life was obedience to God.
“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.
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,
George Rawlinson and G. Wood, “Nehemiah” in
The Pulpit Commentary, vol.
15 (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, n.d.), 132.
Nehemiah’s Life in the Palace
By Bill Patterson
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
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
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
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.
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).
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.
John Curtis and Shahrokh Razmjou, “The
Palace” in FEWAP, 50-51. Fibers
from carpets and perhaps draperies have been discovered.
Herodotus, vol. 4 in The Loeb Classical Library, trans. A. D. Godley (London:
William Heinemann, 1925), 9.81-83 (pp. 254-59).
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).
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).
Curtis and Razmjou, 55-56.
St. John Simpson, “The Royal Table” in
Shahrokh Razmjou, “Religion and Burial
Customs,” in FEWAP, 174-77.
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?
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
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
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”
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
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?
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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).
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
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 ).
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.
“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
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
Chron. 36:20,22,23; Ezra 1:1,2,8; Esther 1:3,14,18; Ezekiel 27:10; Dan.
Kuhrt, “The Cyrus Cylinder and Achaemenid Imperial Policy,’ Journal
for the Study of the Old Testament (JSOT) 25, (Fall 1983), 83.
“Persia,” New Bible Dictionary, 3rd
ed. (Leicester, England: Inter-Varsity Press, 1962), 903.
Holman Bible Atlas (Nashville:
Broadman & Holman Pub., 1998), 165.
ancient and modern world knew this region as “Persia” until 1935, when its
name became Iran.
(Persia and the Bible [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1990],20)
the Persian King Xerxes I lost naval supremacy.
of Judaism in the Biblical Period 450 BCE to 600 CE, Neusner, ed. in chief,
Green, ed. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2002), 473-475.
Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible (BEB) (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 1650.
was a province in the satrapy of Babylon.
Israel Under Babylon and Persia (Oxford, Oxford Univ. 1970), 197.
Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Pritchard, ed., 3rd
Ed. (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1969), 31 6.
Illustrator; LifeWay Christian Resources of the Southern Baptist Convention;
Nashville, TN 37234; Vol. 41, No. 3; Spring 2015.
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. Psalm 2 (Acts 13:33; Ps. 2:7).
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?
Three of David’s mighty men; (2) A well of Bethlehem; 2 Sam. 23:15-16