Introduction to Nehemiah


As I mentioned in the Introduction to Ezra, Ezra and Nehemiah were originally considered to be a single book. While Nehemiah can certainly be read as a stand alone book, it would certainly be helpful for the interested reader to review Ezra’s introduction material in order to better understand the context and events of Nehemiah. ESV Archaeology Study Bible points out, “In fact, for most of the history of the biblical text, Ezra and Nehemiah were treated as the same book; only in the fifteenth century AD were they separated in Hebrew manuscripts, based on the division in the Latin Vulgate (Jerome, following Origen).”

As with Ezra, the author of the books is not definitively known. NLT Illustrated Study Bible explains, “The book itself does not identify its author. The Talmud (Baba Batra 15a) says that Ezra wrote both Ezra and Nehemiah, and this is the most likely possibility.” There are also internal clues that Ezra and Nehemiah share an author. The same source explains, “Nehemiah shares several characteristics with Ezra. Both Ezra (Ezra 1:1 – 6:22) and Nehemiah (Neh 1-7) describe the return of exiles to Jerusalem to complete a rebuilding project. Both books contain stories of neighbors opposing rebuilding efforts. Most importantly, both Nehemiah and Ezra show how hard work and God’s help enabled the people to complete the construction of important structures in Jerusalem. Both books also tell of spiritual reforms in which the community listened to God’s word, repented of past failures, and instituted religious and social reforms (Neh 8-10; Ezra 9:1 – 10:44). Several events in Nehemiah have parallels in Ezra that are told in similar ways. There are stories about those who opposed the rebuilding (Neh 6:1-14; Ezra 4:1-23), processionals to celebrate dedications (Neh 12:31-43; Ezra 6:16-18), and similar reforms (Neh 13:15- 29; Ezra 9:1-10:44). Like Ezra, Nehemiah has lists of names (Neh 3; 7:6-73; 10:1- 27; 11:1- 12:26) and at least one parenthetical section (7:6-10:39) followed by the resumption of a previous account (11:1-4). These factors lead many biblical scholars to believe that one author wrote both Ezra and Nehemiah.”

With respect to the time period covered in this book, NLT Illustrated Study Bible writes, “The book of Nehemiah traces events from around 445 BC, the twentieth year of Artaxerxes (Neh 2:1), until after 432 BC, the thirty-second year of Artaxerxes (13:6- 7).” ESV Study Bible adds that, “Nehemiah arrived in Jerusalem in 445 BC, 13 years after Ezra arrived. He returned for a further visit sometime between 433 and 423 BC. He may have made several journeys between Persian capitals and Jerusalem in this period of 20 years.” However, this dating is not without debate. HCSB explains, “Scholars are not in agreement about the dates for Nehemiah’s activity. Some suggest that the growing problem of unrest in Egypt in the late fifth century BC prompted the Persians to strengthen the buffer province of Judah for security purposes. The matter is complicated by the fact that Nehemiah credited a Persian king by the name of Artaxerxes for his permission to return to Judah. Two Persian kings from this period were named Artaxerxes: Artaxerxes I (464-424 BC) and Artaxerxes II (404-359 BC). Relating Nehemiah’s mission to these two kings results in very different dates, beginning in either 445 BC or 385 BC.”

However, the same source indicates that the earlier date is favored by most scholars for two main reasons. “First, a letter from a Jewish colony in Elephantine, Egypt, written around 407 BC, indicates that Judah had a different governor (a man named Bagoas) at the end of the fifth century BC. This fact favors the earlier date for Nehemiah’s governorship. Second, the biblical text of Nehemiah places Nehemiah and Ezra together on a couple of occasions, at the covenant renewal (8:9) and at the decision of the wall (12:36). Consequently, if one accepts the late date for Nehemiah’s mission, then one must also accept a late date for Ezra’s mission- or else reject the reliability of these passages.”

Moving on to Nehemiah’s content, HCSB writes that the book, “relates the continuing efforts of the Jewish people who returned from 70 years of captivity in the Babylonian empire to reestablish themselves in their homeland. The principal person in this story is Nehemiah, a Jew who had attained the influential position of cupbearer in the court of the Persian King Artaxerxes…Nehemiah’s principal contribution to the emerging community was the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s wall, which had been destroyed in 586 BC by the Babylonians. The apocryphal text Sirach praises Nehemiah’s successful completion of this task (Sir 49:13).”

Delving into the details, NLT Illustrated Study Bible offers this summary:

“When Nehemiah heard about the ruined condition of Jerusalem (1:1-3), he earnestly prayed for God’s help. God’s answer came through Artaxerxes, who sent Nehemiah to Judea to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem (ch 3). Nehemiah organized and motivated the people and led them with courage and integrity through times of resistance from outside enemies (ch 4; 6:1-14) and conflict within the community (ch 5). Despite strong opposition (6:1-4), under Nehemiah’s leadership the people rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem in just fifty-two days (6:15).”

“Following the completion of the walls, the account focuses on reforms led by Ezra and Nehemiah (7:73-10:39). At the annual Festival of Shelters, Ezra read from the books of Moses to the crowd (8:5-8), resulting in a revival and a long prayer of confession (9:5- 37). During this revival, the Israelites committed not to intermarry with foreigners and not profane the Sabbath (10:28-39.)”

“The book’s final section (chs 11-13) describes Nehemiah’s civic efforts to resettle more people in Jerusalem (ch 11), to dedicate the walls of Jerusalem (12:27-43), and to organize the gatekeepers and Temple storeroom attendants (12:44-13:5). Nehemiah later returned to Jerusalem after a time of absence (13:6-7). When he arrived, he took measures to ensure the purity of the Temple, and he again confronted people concerning the Sabbath and intermarriage with people who worshiped other gods (13:10-28).”

Judea During Nehemiah’s Time via NLT Illustrated Study Bible p. 860

ESV Study Bible notes that the key themes are much the same as Ezra’s:

      1. The Lord hears prayer (1:4-6).

      2. The Lord works providentially, especially through powerful rulers, to bring about his greater purposes (e.g., 2:8).

      3. The Lord protects his people; therefore, they do not need to be afraid (4:14).”

      4. “The Lord is merciful and faithful to his promises despite his people’s persistence in sin (9:32-35).”

      5. “Worship is at the center of the life of God’s people, and it includes the willing, joyful giving of their resources (10:32-39).”

      6. “God’s people need to be on their guard against their own moral weakness (ch. 13).”

The same source includes this beneficial chronological chart:

Chronology of Nehemiah





Hanani brings Nehemiah a report from Jerusalem (20th year of Artaxerxes I)

445-444 BC


Nehemiah before King Artaxerxes




Nehemiah arrives to inspect Jerusalem walls



Wall is finished




People of Israel gather




People of Israel celebrate Feast of Booths




People of Israel fast and confess sins




Nehemiah returns to Susa (32nd year of Artaxerxes 1)


5:14; 13:6

ESV Archaeology Study Bible reviews some of the archaeological contributions to the book of Nehemiah. “The events described in Nehemiah overlap somewhat with the history recounted in Ezra…Thus the history and archaeology of Ezra describe the background of Ezra as well…Besides what is known from biblical sources, a rich treasure trove of contemporary Aramaic papyri and ostraca, mostly from Elephantine, an island in the Nile on the southern border of Egypt and controlled by the Persian government through Jewish mercenaries, has been uncovered. These texts have clarified many obscure words in our biblical sources as well as cast invaluable light on the chronology and history of the period. Correspondence between the Jewish Elephantine colony and the high priest in Jerusalem (as well as the governors of Judah and Samaria) regarding their own temple has also been discovered. Extrabiblical sources have helped to clarify the office and role of the three enemies of Nehemiah: Sanballat, onetime governor of Samaria; Geshem, leader of a powerful group of Arab communities; and Tobiah, likely governor of Ammon and an influential member of a Jewish family on the other side of the Jordan. Ezra-Nehemiah contains all the essential data needed to describe the recolonization of Judea in the Persian period. To judge from archaeological remains found, the Jews made progress in achieving home rule (under the Persian authorities of the ‘Beyond the River’ satrapy). The population increased and the Jews were conducting their own fiscal affairs- as shown, for instance, by coins and ceramic stamps depicting the Persian name for their province- ‘Yehud.’”

HCSB offers these further comments on the book’s reliability. “As with the book of Ezra, the book of Nehemiah consists of a number of source documents. Its principal source is known as the Nehemiah Memoir, attributed to Nehemiah. The full extent of the Nehemiah is uncertain, but it definitely includes the autobiographical sections (1:1-7:73; 12:27-43; 13:4-31). The other major section is attributed to the Ezra Memoir (ch 8 and probably chaps. 9-10). This unit is written in the third person and mentions Ezra numerous times (8:1-2, 4-6, 9, 13)…”

The same source continues, “Many people treat the OT historical texts as works of fiction that attempt to communicate certain values or lessons. They must overlook many evidences of history telling in order to do this. In Nehemiah these evidences include such history telling devices as (1) the dating of events…(2) references to historical settings confirmed by the archaeological record…(3) the naming of historical personages…”

NLT Illustrated Study Bible provides the following outline for the book:

1:1 –7:73a Nehemiah’s Work to Rebuild the Walls of Jerusalem

7:73b – 10:39 Ezra’s Teaching of the Law Brings Covenant Renewal

11:1 – 13:31 Nehemiah Reorganizes Jerusalem and Institutes Further Reforms

Click here to go to chapter 1