Ezra and Nehemiah

In the Hebrew Bible, Ezra and Nehemiah are one book. In this study, Ezra and Nehemiah are treated together as the narrative flows very nicely between the two books. I will refer to the combined book as "Ezra-Nehemiah".

Authorship and Audience

As the name implies, the book of Ezra has been attributed to a priest and scribe named Ezra. Ezra enters in the scene in Ezra 7 and plays a crucial role through the rest of the book as well as the book of Nehemiah. According to both Jewish and Christian traditions, Ezra also wrote the book of Nehemiah. This argument is based on similarities between the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as the fact that the Septuagint and Vulgate both mention that Ezra wrote the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. It is clear from reading Nehemiah, that Ezra used Nehemiah's personal records as a source for the account. This is why portions of the text (Nehemiah 1:1 – 7:5, 12:27–43, and 13:4–31) are in the first person. Given the focus on the reconstruction of the temple, Jerusalem, and reinstitution of the purity described in the law, Ezra-Nehemiah was written to the nation of Israel as she was seeking to reestablish her national identity.

Date and Historical Context

The book of Ezra starts with a decree from King Cyrus the Great (Ezra 1:1-4) around 538/537 BC. Ezra records opposition faced by the reconstruction efforts as the project starts and restarts between 538 and 445 BC. Initially, a man named Zerubbabel is leading the reconstruction efforts (Ezra 1 - 6 ~ 538 - 458 BC). Ezra himself returned from Persia to Jerusalem in 458 BC and would have finished writing the book in the years following this date. The date 458 BC assumes that the "Artaxerxes" referenced in 7:7 is Artaxerxes I who began to reign in 465 BC. Israel had been in exile for many years and were finally returning to Israel and reinstituting the festivals and laws described in the Mosaic law.

The book of Nehemiah begins in the 20th year of Artaxerxes I's reign (ca 445 BC, see Nehemiah 1:2). The book of Nehemiah was written after Nehemiah had served as governor which was probably sometime between 430 and 410 BC.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were likely compiled by Ezra after Nehemiah's second term as governor (around 430 BC, described in Nehemiah 13).

Literary Context

Ezra 1:1-3a is the same as 2 Chronicles 36:22-23. Thus, Ezra begins where 2 Chronicles ends. The book of Ezra details the return of Israel from exile which fulfills God's promises made in earlier books. Ezra-Nehemiah are also some of the last books to be written in the Old Testament canon. As such, they lay the foundation for the culture in which Jesus Christ appears.


For Ezra-Nehemiah, it is helpful to consider how the events described in the text fit on a timeline:

  • [605 - 562 BC] Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon
    • [586] Nebuchadnezzar II sacks Jerusalem and destroys the temple


  • [559 - 530] Cyrus II of Persia
    • [538] Decree that people can return to rebuild the temple (Ezra 1)
    • [537] Zerubbabel arrives in Jerusalem (Ezra 2)
    • [536? - 519?] Work on temple put on hold by opposition (Ezra 4:1-23)
  • [530 - 523/22] Cabyses II
  • [522 - 486] Darius I
    • [519 - 516] Reconstruction restarts and temple completed (Ezra 4:24-6:-22-)
  • [486 - 465] Xerxes I
    • The story of Esther likely took place during this time.
  • [465 - 424] Artaxerxes I
    • [458 - 445] Ezra arrives in Jerusalem and makes reforms (Ezra 7 - 10)
    • [445] Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem (and Ezra likely returns to Persia) (Nehemiah 1 - 2)
    • [445 - 433] Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem as governor (Nehemiah 3 - 7)
    • [440? - 433] Ezra returns to Jerusalem while Nehemiah is governor (Nehemiah 8-10)
    • [433] Ezra and Nehemiah leave Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13:6)
    • [430] Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem (Nehemiah 13)


Simple Outline

For a simple outline, remember that there are three, primary characters: Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah. We get to see both Ezra and Nehemiah twice. Zerubbabel rebuilds the temple. Nehemiah rebuilds Jerusalem (and sometimes confronts the people), and Ezra is always engaged in rebuilding the people and reestablishing God's law.

  • Zerubbabel: Rebuilding the Temple (Ezra 1 - 6)
  • Ezra: Rebuilding the People (Ezra 7 - 10)
    • Israel's failures (9 - 10)
  • Nehemiah: Rebuilding Jerusalem (Nehemiah 1 - 7)
  • Ezra: Rebuilding the People (Nehemiah 8 - 10)
  • Nehemiah: Rebuilding Jerusalem and People (Nehemiah 11 - 13)
    • Israel's failures (13)

More Complete Outline

I. Reconstruction of the Temple under Zerubbabel [Ezra 1 - 6]

A. Introduction [1:1-4]

B. Census of the Returnees [1:5 - 2:70]

C. Altar and Foundation Restored [3]

D. Opposition to the Temple Reconstruction [4 - 5]

  1. Opposition Begins [4:1-5 and 4:24]

  2. Excursus on Future Opposition [4:6-23]

  3. Reconstruction Begins with Support from Haggai and Zechariah [5:1-5]

  4. Opposition Renews with Letter to Darius [5:6-17]

E. Darius Restarts Temple Reconstruction [6:1-12]

F. Temple Reconstruction Finished, Temple is Dedicated, and Passover Celebrated [6:13-22]

II. Reconstruction of the People under Ezra [7 - 10]

A. Ezra's Journey to Jerusalem [7 - 8]

B. Ezra Addresses Israel's Failure: Intermarriage with the People of the Land [9 - 10]

III. Reconstruction of Jerusalem under Nehemiah [Nehemiah 1 - 7:73a]

IV. Reconstruction of the People (again) by Ezra [7:73b - 10]

V. Resettlement and Dedication of Jerusalem [11 - 12]

VI. Israel's Failures [13]

Theological Themes

  • The exile is not over (spiritually speaking). While Israel has physically returned from exile, the exile is not over spiritually. Ezra-Nehemiah demonstrates that the promises of a new heart, the Holy Spirit, and the prosperity attendant with a return from exile (see Deuteronomy 4:27-31, 29:22 - 30:10, Isaiah 43 - 44:5, Ezekiel 36:16-32) are not present. This means that Israel is still in exile. We had high hopes that things would be different after the exile, but in reality nothing has changed (see Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 13:26-28).
  • Mankind has a heart problem (spiritually speaking). The theme noted in the previous point should draw our attention to the fact that Israel's problem is the inward sinfulness that is common to all men. Deuteronomy 4, 6, 10, and 30 make it clear that each Israelite must follow God with all of his/her heart. But this is not possible without God changing their hearts. Ezra-Nehemiah is a reminder that men are hopeless without the transforming work of the Holy Spirit. If anyone would have experienced a sufficiently traumatic event to draw them back to God, it was Israel. Yet, even under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, Israel quickly returns to their old ways. There but for the grace of God go I.
  • God is the only one capable of saving Israel. If the punishment of the exile didn't fix the problem and Israel's sinful hearts still remain, God is the only one who can save them.
  • God's faithfulness and sovereignty. This book screams of God's faithfulness and power. By way of example, consider the opening of the book of Nehemiah: Nehemiah, who happens to be a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes, hears about Jerusalem and is passionate about rebuilding it. Meanwhile, and possibly unbeknownst to Nehemiah, there were rebellions in Egypt and Syria in the twenty years leading up to his request which produced a geopolitical climate in which Artaxerxes would want to rebuild Jerusalem under Persian influence.1 God is intimately involved in everything that goes on in these books as evidenced by references to the "hand of God" (Ezra 7:6, 7:28, 8:18, 8:22, 8:31, Nehemiah 1:10, 2:8, and 2:18). Even the opponents of the rebuilding of Jerusalem recognized that God worked to help His people rebuild Jerusalem (Nehemiah 6:15). In spite of Israel's continued unfaithfulness, God remains faithful.
  • Ezra and Nehemiah as models of confrontation, courage, and conviction. Ezra and Nehemiah themselves are wonderful examples for us to follow in three areas: confrontation, courage, and conviction.

    First, both Ezra and Nehemiah confront sin in the people of Israel. God glorifying confrontation is difficult in any context, let alone when you're confronting a large group of people. Ezra and Nehemiah are models for confrontation in two ways. One is that they confront the people out of a fear of, and love for God. Ezra and Nehemiah do not ignore the sins of the people or downplay them, but confront the issues directly. This is borne out of a fear of the holiness of God and a love for Him. If we fear God, we will hate anything which offends His holiness. If we love God, we should hate anything that is an insult to Him. Ezra and Nehemiah understand this and are willing to risk the drama of confrontation out of a fear of, and love for God. Another way Ezra and Nehemiah model good confrontation is that they confront the problem with Scripture. As evidenced in Ezra 9:4, 9:10-11, 10:3, Nehemiah 8 - 10, and 13:1-3, the confrontation is based on God's law. It is not Ezra and Nehemiah making up standards; the standard is set forth in scripture. Basing confrontation on scripture makes it clear that the sin in which the people are engaging is transgression of God's law and not man's standards.

    Second, Ezra and Nehemiah are models of courage. Both men courageously confront Israel (refer to the previous point for examples). Ezra braves great danger in traveling to Jerusalem with a large treasure (Ezra 8:21-32). Nehemiah deals with opposition both externally (Nehemiah 2:19-20, 4, 6:1-9) and internally (6:10-14) and boldly threatens those who are violating the sabbath (13:15-22). These men are among the most courageous men anywhere in scripture (which is saying a lot).

    Third, Ezra and Nehemiah are models of conviction. Both men demonstrate deep convictions about God that drive them into action. This is why they are so bold in confrontation and action. They deeply believe that God is at work (e.g. Nehemiah 2:19-20, 4:14) and that He is the one to be feared and loved above any other person or thing. Such conviction, however, did not come over night and was not always unchallenged. In Ezra's case, it appears that he prepared, studied, and developed conviction for a long time before he even had the chance to go to Jerusalem and teach (Ezra 7:6-7). In Nehemiah's case, his conviction was regularly challenged, but he was always quick to strengthen and sustain it through a life of prayer (Nehemiah 1:4-11a, 2:4, 4:4-5, and 4:9 just to name a few).


  • Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26 are written in Aramaic. This is evidence that Ezra had access to official documents from the Persian king which would have been written in Aramaic.
  • Ezra 1:1-3a are the same as 2 Chronicles 36:22-23. The literary implications of this are discussed here. From an authorial and historical perspective, this implies that Ezra had access to the book of Chronicles or visa-versa (or, that Ezra is the author of both Chronicles and Ezra).
  • Ezra 7:10 is a fantastic model for anyone aspiring to be a teacher. Learn it; live it; teach it.
  • The Elephantine Papyri mentions Sanballat (who is also mentioned in Nehemiah 2:19) and Jehohanan (mentioned in Nehemiah 6:18 and 12:23).


1. Howard Frederic Vos, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Pub. House, 1987), 91.

F. Charles Fensham, The book of Ezra and Nehemiah (London, 1982).

L. Grabbe Lester, Ezra-Nehemiah (Florence, 1998).

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