Nehemiah Basics & Background
Theme: The Lord preserves and protects His people and accomplishes His redemptive purposes through responsible human agents at all levels of social position and power; His people have a special covenantal relationship with Him and need to reform in worship and daily living under His law.
Basic events: Nehemiah, a Jew, is the cupbearer of the Persian king Artaxerxes. His brother comes from Jerusalem to Susa, the Persian capital, and informs him of the city’s defenseless condition. Former Persian rulers had authorized the rebuilding of the Temple but not the walls of the city, which were broken down. Artaxerxes appoints Nehemiah governor and authorizes him to go and rebuild the walls. He goes and leads the people to rebuild the walls in the face of opposition. Along with Ezra, he also leads the people to renew their pledge of covenant faithfulness to God and reform their ways in worship and daily living under His law: stop excessive rates of lending to the poor, observe the sabbath and holy days, stop intermarrying with heathen, support Temple service financially.
Date: Covers approx 13 years, around 450 BC.
Author: Sequel to Ezra; early Jewish references treated Ezra & Nehemiah as one book. Includes some of Nehemiah’s own account, but another author writes the entirety. Includes a variety of material: a general’s diary, a governor’s report, a civil record, a management handbook, a memoir of conflict in wall-building, a covenant-renewal ceremony.
Chronological Backgound: Jews Return to Jerusalem after Captivity
– 586 BC: Nebuchadnezzar, Babylonian king, destroys temple, takes Jews into exile in Babylon (Daniel 5:30-31)
– 539: Cyrus the Great, Persian (Iran) king (550-530), defeats Nabonidus (later Babylonian king) and his son Belshazzar (Dan 5:30-31). Takes control of Judah, Israel (called by the Persians “Beyond the River” – it was east of the Euphrates). Persian empire was largest of ancient kingdoms, covering almost all Near East: Armenia/Macedonia, Turkey, Egypt, Israel, Iraq, Iran, southern Russia, India.
– 538: Cyrus issues decree (probably under influence of Daniel) allowing Jews to return to Jerusalem and rebuild temple; the book of Ezra (Ez 1-4:5,24);
– 537: Some Jews (42,360, plus 7,337 servants) return to Jerusalem from Babylon (Ez 1:11); Altar is rebuilt (Ez 3:1-2)
– 536: Temple rebuilding begins (Ez 3:8)
– 536-530: Adversaries oppose (Ez 4:1-5)
– 530-522: Cambyses succeeds his father Cyrus; conquest of Egypt.
– 530-520: Temple work is halted through Samaritan plots (Ez 4:24)
– 522-486: Darius I (the Mede) fights rivals and succeeds Cambyses (Ez 5,6); edict of Cyrus is rediscovered at Ecbatana/Achmetha, the summer residence (Ez 6:1ff.)
– 520: Zerubbabel & Joshua, encouraged by Haggai & Zechariah, resume work on Temple (Ez 5:2; Hag 1:14)
– 516: Temple completed and dedicated with sacrifices (Ez 6:15f.)
– 486-465: Xerxes/Ahasuerus succeeds his father Darius I (Ez 4:6); fights Greeks for control of eastern Mediterranean, fails to conquer Greece; false accusations filed against Jews; events in the book of Esther (Xerxes marries Esther, makes her uncle Mordecai adviser after Haman’s plot is exposed).
– 465-423: Artaxerxes succeeds his father Xerxes
– 464: Artaxerxes authorizes Ezra to rebuild (Ez 7-10)
– 458: Ezra goes from Babylon to Jerusalem; men of Judah and Benjamin assemble in Jerusalem (Ez 10:9)
– 445: Artaxerxes is ruling in his 20th year. It is 93 years after Jews under Cyrus the Great first return from Exile in 538 BC and 13 years after Ezra’s reforms. Nehemiah, a Jew, is serving as Artaxerxes’s cupbearer in the capital, Susa (where Esther’s beauty pageant was held under Xerxes, Artaxerxes’s father). Hanani, Nehemiah’ brother, comes to Susa and reports Jerusalem’s problems to him. (Neh 1:1) Previous Persian kings had allowed rebuilding of the Temple but not the city walls.