The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were, most likely, originally one book (or scroll). Therefore, we are treating them as one book. Here’s my Ezra Nehemiah summary of these great books.
After living in captivity in a foreign land, the Israelites return to Jerusalem in three waves to rebuild their temple (Ezra 1:1-11), city (Neh. 1-2), and lives (Ezra 7:1-26) but experience only moderate success (Ezra 3:12-13, 4:1-3; 10; Neh. 13) and must place their hope in the future.
Explanation of Main Idea
It had been close to seventy years (Jer. 25:11-12) that God’s people were in captivity in Babylon. As a new power, the Persians, defeats Babylon, the Israelites are given the freedom to return to their land and begin to rebuild if they desire (Ezra 1:2). Many are moved by God to go (Ezra 1:5) and begin by building the altar and establishing worship first (Ezra 3:1-12). But those older men who had seen the first temple “wept with a loud voice” (Ezra 3:12).
Ezra, a priest, scribe, and expert in the Torah (Ezra 7:11-12) leads a second wave of refugees to come back to Jerusalem, this time to “set magistrates and judges who may judge all the people…and (teach them) the law of your God” (Ezra 7:25). Ezra, however, met with difficulty as he encountered leaders who had intermarried with “peoples of the lands” (Ezra 9:1). The difficult and uncomfortable decision was made to “make a covenant with…God to put away all (the) wives” (Ezra 10:3).
Nehemiah, an Israelite serving the Persian king, is given an opportunity to bring a third wave of Israelites back to Jerusalem, this time to rebuild the walls (Nehemiah 1). Amidst intense opposition, he has much success and completes the wall “up to half it’s height” (Neh. 4:6).
The community of Israel is back in the land and is convicted and overwhelmed at the reading of the Torah (Neh. 9:10). They confess their sins (Neh. 9) and everything seems to be going really well! But Nehemiah 13, the last chapter of the book, reveals corruption in the temple (Neh. 13:4-9), neglect (Neh. 13:10-11), and dishonour of the Sabbath (Neh. 13:15-18).
Nehemiah also confronts sinful behaviour by cursing, hitting, and pulling out people’s hair (Neh. 13:23-25).
Clearly, this restoration of the temple and the city of Jerusalem is not the final fulfilment of the Kingdom of God and the Messianic Reign.
The purpose of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah are to instruct us as to the events at the end of the exile which brought God’s people back into their land and to reveal that they are still incapable of obeying the Lord perfectly (Neh. 5).
They had seventy years of experiencing the consequences of their sin. Their geography has changed. There are new leaders, new opportunities and new beginnings. Yet still they failed. It is going to take an internal change (Deut. 30:6), not an external change.
- God moves the hearts of rulers to accomplish His purpose.
In each of the three waves of Israelites coming back to the land, God moved the heart of an apparently unbelieving Persian king to grant them favour and even provide financial resources for their projects (Ezra 1:1-11; 7:11-28; Neh. 2:1-8). In each case, Scripture is clear that it was God who directly stirred the heart of the respective king (Ezra 1:1; 7:27; Neh. 2:4-8).
- When you do something for God, expect opposition.
There is much opposition in these books! Enemies tried to stop the work on multiple occasions. They troubled the labourers and even hired people to frustrate them (Ezra 4:4-5). There was political back and forth (Ezra 5:6-6:12), criticism and mocking (Neh. 4:2-3), even physical attacks (Neh. 4:8).
- Repent frequently and sincerely.
Ezra, in response to a massive problem, dealt with it by “confessing, weeping, and bowing down before the house of God” (Ezra 10:1). The people confessed their sin and change was effected (Ezra 10:2). His prayer in chapter nine is powerful (Ezra 9:5-15). Nehemiah, as well, had repentance as a common theme in his prayer life (Neh. 1:6-7). His prayer in Nehemiah chapter nine is equally powerful. Both of these prayers, Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 9, are not short or trite in any way. They are expressions of pouring out of their hearts and genuinely seeking the Lord.
- God moves in response to prayer.
Ezra calls the people to fast and pray for a safe journey and “(God) answered our prayer” (Ezra 8:23). Nehemiah calls on God because of his burden for Jerusalem (Neh. 1:4-11). God answers his prayer (Neh. 2:1-10). He prayed regarding the opposition he was receiving and God, again, answered his prayer (Neh. 4:4-6). When he was afraid, he prayed and God gave him courage (Neh. 6:14)
- Give priority to God’s Word.
The first thing that the Israelites did when they started building the temple was to construct the altar and begin worshipping. They were following the instructions in the Torah, God’s Word (Ezra 3:1-6). Ezra read the Word of God from morning to evening to the great multitude of people (Neh. 8:1-5). He read it, interpreted it, and helped people to understand it (Neh. 8:8).
How Does This Relate To Us?
Because of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, we can trust in our Sovereign God that even in turbulent political times He is moving the hearts of the world rulers for the benefit of His Kingdom. We don’t have to strive and strain and legislate God’s Kingdom into fruition.
Of course, we should stand up for injustice and represent the gospel well, but at the end of the day “the king’s heart is like a stream of water directed by the Lord; he guides it wherever he pleases” (Prov. 21:1).
Living as a Christian, we should be in ministry. We should be doing something to love others and help the cause of Christ. Ezra and Nehemiah give us examples of dealing with opposition when we rise up to accomplish something for God.
Whether it is life-threatening or just simply annoying, we must not be surprised, but must act prayerfully, decisively, and wisely. We are not just going to have to deal with external opposition, but with sinful people.
People (including ourselves!) are going to make sinful choices that may compromise our best efforts. We need to respond with love and wisdom and seek counsel.
These two books teach us to pray, pour out our heart to the Lord, and repent often. Our prayers could be short or long. They can recount all of what God has done.
We can kneel and lift our hands to heaven, or we can simply talk to God alongside whatever activity we are doing. Ezra and Nehemiah, though, teach us to really take prayer seriously and call on God with all our heart.
Lastly, what a great example of giving priority to God’s word is found in Nehemiah chapter eight! All the people gathered to hear Ezra read from morning to midday (Neh. 8:3).
Ezra “read distinctly from the book…and gave the sense and helped them to understand” (Neh. 8:8). The response was conviction and a genuine turning to the Lord.
- Why is Jeremiah mentioned in Ezra 1:1? See Jer. 29:10-14.
- What is the first thing they start rebuilding, based on Ezra 3:1-7? Why do you think they did this?
- What was Nehemiah’s response to the bad news he received in Neh. 1?
- Read Neh. 13:23-27. When Nehemiah found out about the sinful behaviour mentioned in this passage, what was his response? Do you think it was justified? Why or why not? In your opinion, what should he have done differently, if anything?
Life Application Questions
- God clearly provided for the rebuilding of the temple by providing resources and people to do the work. Yet, because of the opposition the work stopped. Read Ezra 4:24. God raised up two prophets in Ezra 5:1-2 to encourage the work to continue. Have you stopped doing something for God because you’ve faced some opposition? Share your experience and let others encourage you to re-start what God has called you to do.
- Read Nehemiah 1. Nehemiah’s ministry really began with some bad news and his response to that news. Look around the world you live in. What burden do you have for which God might stir up your heart to do something?
- Read Neh. 4:19-23. Building the wall was an extensive work that required everyone working together. Do you need help doing something? Can you think of anyone or any ministry that might need your help?
- Think about your sin. Prayerfully read Neh. 9 in a spirit of repentance.