In the latter part of the Old Testament, some of the characters and dates start to run together, and it is sometimes hard to keep the details straight. Today we will be telling the story of Nehemiah, along with some details about his contemporary Ezra. But before we can really tell this story, we have to back up a few paces and briefly tell the story of their surrounding times. As we do, please keep in mind that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were probably one book originally, and the two of them together may even have been part of Chronicles.
The great prophet Jeremiah had predicted that the exile in Babylon would last for seventy years. This prophecy began to come to fulfillment when the city of Babylon fell to the Medes and the Persians in 539 B.C. Inside the city was the elderly Daniel, prophesying to the arrogant Belshazzar. The city fell that night, and after the Persians were in control, the new ruler Cyrus was stirred up by the Lord and issued a proclamation that the Temple in Jerusalem was to be rebuilt. The altar is set up and the foundations were laid in 536 B.C. The governor overseeing this work was Zerubbabel, and the high priest was named Joshua. The work was begun, but then the effort fell apart. God raised up two prophets to stir up the people about 16 years later—Haggai and Zechariah—and work on the Temple resumed. The Temple was finished about four years later, around 516 B.C. during the reign of Darius I. The next ruler of Persia after him was Xerxes (486-464), the husband of Esther. It was during the reign of his successor, Artaxerxes I, that we must locate the ministries of Ezra and Nehemiah.
Artaxerxes I sent Ezra to Jerusalem in 458 B.C. It is likely that Ezra held some sort of office within the Persian empire, a sort of Minister of Jewish Affairs. He brought valuable gifts for the Temple and the Jews still living in exile. When he arrived, he was asked to deal with the problem of mixed marriages. He and a select committee dealt with the problem by blacklisting the offenders, and inducing many of them to put away their pagan wives. We do not hear from Ezra again until 444 B.C. when he reads the law publicly in Neh. 8. He probably had returned to the Persian king between these two incidents, and had come back again when the walls were completed. Nehemiah recounts (Neh. 12:36) how he led one procession around the walls during their dedication, while Ezra led the other.
Nehemiah was a cup-bearer to the king, and upon hearing of the sad state of affairs in Jerusalem, the king sent him there to serve as governor in 445. He was probably called back to Babylon from 433 to 420(?). The text says “after certain days,” and so the absence may have been significantly less than this. But supposing the longer absence, the bulk of Malachi’s ministry occurred when Nehemiah was gone. During his absence, some of the abuses of the law among the Jews resurfaced, and so Nehemiah had to institute fresh reforms when he came back.
CONFESSION AND REFORM
Nehemiah was a reformer, one who labored at repairing the ruins. He was of a repentant mind before he left Babylon (1:7). He was serving Artaxerxes as cup-bearer, and the king noticed he was sorrowful, and asked about it. Nehemiah was afraid, but he prayed, and answered the king. Given permission to go serve his people, when he arrived in Jerusalem, it is important to note that one of the things he arranged for was the reading of the law by Ezra (Neh. 8).
EAT THE FAT, DRINK THE SWEET
When the people heard the words of the law, they were sorely convicted, and they wept. And Nehemiah, a great leader of men, encouraged them. “Go your way, eat the fat, and drink the sweet, and send portions unto them for whom nothing is prepared: for this day is holy unto our Lord: neither be ye sorry; for the joy of the Lord is your strength” (8:10). The Levites followed up on this, and so the people had “great mirth” because, it says, “they understood the words that were declared unto them” (v. 12).
THE PEOPLE HAD A MIND TO WORK
The task of Nehemiah was to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. When they did it, it occurred under the blessing of God, because the “people had a mind to work” (4:6).
Nehemiah was the leader of this great work of reformation, and he was able to ask God in his memoirs to remember his work. He did not have much use for the nobles, who, it is said, did not put their necks to the work of their Lord (3:5). When we consider the labors of many faithful saints throughout the history of God’s people in Scripture, we should pay special mind to the life of Nehemiah, for his circumstances approximate ours in many particular ways.
SHORT CATECHISM FOR LITTLE SAINTS
Rebuilding is often harder than building in the first place.
What do we learn from the life of Jeremiah?
We learn to be faithful, regardless of the cost.
How was Nehemiah faithful?
He was faithful in work, and in joy.