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KD Old Testament Lesson 47: Ezra and Nehemiah

Posted by Karl D. on December 18, 2010

Gospel Doctrine
Lesson: Ezra and Nehemiah (#47)
Reading: Ezra 1-8, Nehemiah 1-2,4,6,8

PDF Version of Notes

1 Approach

These represent the notes I made during my reading of the scriptural text for this lesson. It is not a lesson outline or a lesson plan but really notes about issues and questions that struck me as interesting during my reading. Consequently, the notes do not have a conclusion and very little mention of application. I like to let those things arise while I teach.

2 Introduction

2.1 Some Background on the Text

  • Ezra-Nehemiah was originally a single book.1. The main character changes from Ezra to Nehemiah and then back to Ezra (Nehemiah 8, for example).
  • The book of Ezra begins where Chronicles ends (see 2 Chr 36:22-23 and Ezra 1:1-3).
  • There is overlap between Ezra-Nehemiah and the apocryphal 1 Esdras (Greek). There are also differences; 1 Esdras contains a court tale (much like Daniel) involving Zerubbabel.2

2.2 Nature of the Text

Many scholars think two different first person memoirs are at the core of Ezra-Nehemiah:3

  • Ezra Memoir (Ezra 7:27-9:15)
  • Nehemiah Memoir (Nehemiah 1:1-7:73, 12,31-43, 13:4-31)

The reported events in these memoirs are probably around 460-440 BCE.

Like Kings and Chronicles it is clear that the author is combining sources into one book. The two most important being the first person accounts of Ezra and Nehemiah.

In the beginning of the book of Ezra, Zerubbabel and Jeshua are the main characters. The time period is probably shortly after 538 BCE. However, Ezra does not contain a first person memoir of either Zerubbabel or Jeshua.

2.3 Themes

The core of the book is about issues related to the return of the Jews from exile (538 BCE first allowed or initiated by Cyrus). Important issues and themes include the following:

  • Restoration of the post-exilic community
  • Rebuilding Jerusalem.
  • Rebuilding the temple.

How do Ezra and Nehemiah (the books) differ from each other?

  • Ezra’s focus is more spiritual. The restoration of the Mosaic law as the center of Jewish life.
  • Nehemiah’s focus is on the physical rebuilding (particularly the city wall around Jerusalem).

3 The Wall

3.1 A Report from Jerusalem

Read Nehemiah 1:1-5:

1 The words of Nehemiah the son of Hachaliah. And it came to pass in the month Chisleu, in the twentieth year, as I was in Shushan the palace, 2 That Hanani, one of my brethren, came, he and certain men of Judah; and I asked them concerning the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity, and concerning Jerusalem. 3 And they said unto me, The remnant that are left of the captivity there in the province are in great affliction and reproach: the wall of Jerusalem also is broken down, and the gates thereof are burned with fire. 4 And it came to pass, when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days, and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven,

  • What do we learn about Nehemiah in these verses? About his station in life? About his character?
  • Are you surprised by Nehemiah’s reaction to the news that Jerusalem’s wall was broken down and the gates were burned? Hasn’t this basically been the case for about 140 years? Why such a strong reaction?
  • Does the state of the walls almost take on a symbolic significance for Nehemiah (based on reading the rest of the book)?
  • What does the phrase, “the Jews that had escaped, which were left of the captivity,” mean and who are these Jews? Suppose these are the Jews that returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. Is it important that Nehemiah refers to them as escaped?
  • In much of what follows, Nehemiah is very practical and the memoir focuses on practical concerns. Here in verse 4, Nehemiah weeps, mourns, fasts, and prays. Is it important to keep this first reaction in mind as we read the rest of Nehemiah?

3.2 Nehemiah’s Prayer?

Read 1:5-11

5 And said, I beseech thee, O LORD God of heaven, the great and terrible God, that keepeth covenant and mercy for them that love him and observe his commandments: 6 Let thine ear now be attentive, and thine eyes open, that thou mayest hear the prayer of thy servant, which I pray before thee now, day and night, for the children of Israel thy servants, and confess the sins of the children of Israel, which we have sinned against thee: both I and my father’s house have sinned. 7 We have dealt very corruptly against thee, and have not kept the commandments, nor the statutes, nor the judgments, which thou commandedst thy servant Moses. 8 Remember, I beseech thee, the word that thou commandedst thy servant Moses, saying, If ye transgress, I will scatter you abroad among the nations: 9 But if ye turn unto me, and keep my commandments, and do them; though there were of you cast out unto the uttermost part of the heaven, yet will I gather them from thence, and will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there. 10 Now these are thy servants and thy people, whom thou hast redeemed by thy great power, and by thy strong hand. 11 O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant, and to the prayer of thy servants, who desire to fear thy name: and prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man. For I was the king’s cupbearer.

  • How would you summarize Nehemiah’s prayer?
  • Do any elements of the prayer surprise you?
  • What does the prayer reveal about Nehemiah?
  • What does the prayer reveal about how Nehemiah understands Israel’s covenant with the Lord?
  • Why might Nehemiah say he has been praying day and night? What does the reveal about the nature of this prayer?
  • Repeatedly, Nehemiah calls the Lord to attention. What is the purpose of the call to attention? How should we understand its purpose? Does this rhetorical device make you uncomfortable?
  • Is it important that Nehemiah confesses that both Israel and he/his family have sinned?
  • How is the servant language employed by Nehemiah in verse 10-11 related to the declaration that the Lord has redeemed his people? Is there a link between being the Lord’s servants and being redeemed?
  • Why might Nehemiah mention that he is the King’s cupbearer? Is it simply to establish (or brag?) that he is a successful man to those who might read the prayer or could it be for another reason?

4 Reading the Scriptures

The reconstruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem culminates in the following (Read Nehemiah 8:1–3):

1 And all the people gathered themselves together as one man into the street that was before the water gate; and they spake unto Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel. 2 And Ezra the priest brought the law before the congregation both of men and women, and all that could hear with understanding, upon the first day of the seventh month. 3 And he read therein before the street that was before the water gate from the morning until midday, before the men and the women, and those that could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive unto the book of the law.

and Nehemiah 8:5-10:

5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people; (for he was above all the people;) and when he opened it, all the people stood up: 6 And Ezra blessed the LORD, the great God. And all the people answered, Amen, Amen, with lifting up their hands: and they bowed their heads, and worshipped the LORD with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, and Bani, and Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodijah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, and the Levites, caused the people to understand the law: and the people stood in their place. 8 So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading. 9 And Nehemiah, which is the Tirshatha, and Ezra the priest the scribe, and the Levites that taught the people, said unto all the people, This day is holy unto the LORD your God; mourn not, nor weep. For all the people wept, when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said unto 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.

  • Does this pericope remind you of any other? Why?
  • What about the story of King Benjamin preaching to his people in the Book of Mormon? What do you see as the most striking or important parallels between the two stories?
  • Why did the people weep?
  • Why do you think Ezra didn’t want the people to go home weeping? I wonder if the point is that while Godly sorrow is important, God’s grace is primarily a source of joy?
  • What do you think is the most important thing that happens in the story?
  • Do you think it makes sense to primarily view this story as a “covenantal renewal story?” Why or why not?
  • What do we learn about scripture study from this pericope?
  • Do you think this pericope suggests that scripture reading should always be a solitary activity ? Is there a communal aspect to scripture study (or is the communal aspect not important in a literate society)? If so, how does it operate for us today and why is it important?
  • This event/story comes on the heals of the restoration of Jerusalem and the temple. Do these passages link scripture study with covenant renewal and/or keeping our covenants?
  • Women and children are explicitly mentioned as part of the crowd which is pretty unusual for the OT. Do you think there is a reason for that?

Footnotes:

1 Smith-Christopher, Daniel L., 2001, “Ezra-Nehemiah” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, 308.

2 Smith-Christopher, Daniel L., 2001, “Ezra-Nehemiah” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, Oxford University Press, 308.

3 Klein, Ralph W., 2000, “Nehemiah” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary, Harper & Row, 345.

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