In this 12-week study, Kathleen Nielson shows readers God’s mercy and faithfulness demonstrated in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, encouraging Christians toward sincere repentance and persevering hope.
About the Author
Kathleen Nielson (PhD, Vanderbilt University) is an author and speaker who loves working with women in studying the Scriptures. After directing the Gospel Coalition’s women’s initiatives from 2010–2017, she now serves as senior adviser and book editor for TGC. She and her husband, Niel, make their home partly in Wheaton, Illinois, and partly in Jakarta, Indonesia. They have three sons, two daughters-in-law, and five granddaughters.
J. I. Packer (DPhil, Oxford University) serves as the Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology at Regent College. He is the author of numerous books, including the classic best-seller Knowing God. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.
Dane C. Ortlund (PhD, Wheaton College) is the executive vice president of Bible publishing and Bible publisher at Crossway. He serves as an editor for the Knowing the Bible series and the Short Studies in Biblical Theology series, and is the author of several books, including Edwards on the Christian Life. He lives with his wife, Stacey, and their five children in Wheaton, Illinois.
Lane T. Dennisis president and publisher of Crossway Books and Good News Tracts. Dr. Dennis earned his BS in business from Northern Illinois University, an MDiv from McCormick Theological Seminary, and a PhD in religion from Northwestern University. Before joining Good News Publishers in 1974, he served as a pastor in campus ministry at the University of Michigan (Sault Ste. Marie) and as the Managing Director of Verlag Grosse Freude in Switzerland. He is the author and/or editor of three books, including the Gold Medallion-award-winning book Letters of Francis A. Schaeffer, and he is the former Chairman of the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association. Dr. Dennis serves as the Chairman of the ESV (English Standard Version) Bible Translation Oversight Committee and as the Executive Editor of the ESV Study Bible. Lane and his wife, Ebeth, live in Wheaton, Illinois.
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Overview of Ezra and Nehemiah
Ezra and Nehemiah were, for centuries, received as one book narrating the return of God's exiled people to their land, as under Persian rule they were allowed to resettle and rebuild Jerusalem. These two books cover three different waves of returning exiles, from 538 to 433 BC. But they tell one story: the restoration of God's covenant people according to his Word — which they are now called afresh to obey.
This restoration required, first of all, the rebuilding of the temple and the reinstitution of ceremonial worship. The first leader, Zerubbabel, led the initial wave of exiles back to Jerusalem to accomplish this goal (Ezra 1–6). The second wave came more than half a century later, led by Ezra, who rebuilt not the temple but the people, teaching them — and calling them to obey — the law of Moses (Ezra 7–10).
Thirteen years after Ezra arrived, Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem. He first led the people to rebuild the wall (Nehemiah 1–6). Then, along with Ezra, he sought to restore the people (Nehemiah 7–13) as God's holy nation, followers of his Word.
The restoration was not complete, however. These books picture God's people regathered but struggling — they are poor subjects of a foreign king; their city is devastated; enemies oppress from without; sin threatens from within. We see the faithful hand of God mercifully preserving his people according to his promises. We also see the dire need for the perfect fulfillment of God's promises in the salvation accomplished by his Son. (For further background, see the ESVStudy Bible, pages 799–803 and 821–823; available online at www.esvbible.org.)
Placing Ezra and Nehemiah in the Larger Story
Ezra and Nehemiah give the last glimpse of Old Testament history. It is a desolate glimpse in many ways. This people is the "offspring" (literally "seed") of Abraham, blessed as God promised, growing into a great nation (Gen. 12:1–7), but then punished for their rebellion through enemies who defeated them and took them into exile. These books show God's unfailing promises to bless this people, restored to their land and the privilege of worshiping God in his temple. But they are a weak remnant, serving the Persian king, with no sign of the promised eternal king on the throne of David (see 2 Sam. 7:12–17). These books cause us to peer forward to the coming of that King, that Deliverer who would bring blessing through this people to all the nations of the world.
"O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open, to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for the people of Israel your servants." (Neh. 1:5–6)
Date and Historical Background
Because of his people's unfaithfulness, God had allowed the northern kingdom to be conquered by the Assyrians (722 BC), and the southern kingdom of Judah to be conquered by the Babylonians (586 BC). Both defeats involved exile to foreign lands. When King Cyrus of Persia overthrew the Babylonians, he issued a decree (538 BC) allowing the exiled Jews to return to their land. Ezra and Nehemiah shine a light into the postexilic years, telling of three main returns and three central leaders: Zerubbabel (538 BC), Ezra (458 BC), and Nehemiah (445 BC).
Both Ezra and Nehemiah contain first-person narratives; the stories in Nehemiah are especially substantial and vivid. The author(s) of the remaining sections are unknown. The two books were probably finished soon after the events of Nehemiah, approximately 430 BC.
I. Cyrus's Decree and the First Return of Exiles from Babylon (1:1–2:70)
II. The Returned Exiles Rebuild the Temple on Its Original Site (3:1–6:22)
III. Ezra the Priest Leads the Second Return to Rebuild the People by Teaching the Law of Moses (7:1–8:36)
IV. Ezra Discovers and Confronts the Problem of Intermarriage (9:1–10:44)
I. Nehemiah Leads the Third Return to Jerusalem to Rebuild Its Walls (1:1–2:20)
II. The Wall Is Rebuilt, Despite Difficulties (3:1–7:4)
III. A Record of Those Who Returned from Exile (7:5–73)
IV. The People Are Rebuilt around God's Word, Leading to Covenant Renewal (8:1–10:39)
V. Results of Covenant Renewal (11:1–12:47)
VI. Nehemiah Deals with Problems in the Community (13:1–31)
As You Get Started
Read the first chapter of Ezra and the first two chapters of Nehemiah. What common words and themes emerge?
Read through each book without stopping. What stands out? What questions do you have at the start of this study?
We will learn from some great examples of leadership in these books. But for what reasons will it be important to focus on God's perfect ways, not simply on Ezra's or Nehemiah's pretty good ones?
What are some of your specific hopes and prayers for this study of Ezra and Nehemiah?
As You Finish This Unit ...
Take a few minutes to ask God to bless you with increased understanding and a transformed heart and life through your study of Ezra and Nehemiah.
1 Exile – Several relocations of large groups of Israelites/Jews have occurred throughout history, but "the exile" typically refers to the Babylonian exile, that is, Nebuchadnezzar's relocation of residents of the southern kingdom of Judah to Babylon in 586 BC (residents of the northern kingdom of Israel had been resettled by Assyria in 722 BC).
2 Covenant – A binding agreement between two parties, typically involving a formal statement of their relationship, a list of stipulations and obligations for both parties, a list of witnesses to the agreement, and a list of curses for unfaithfulness and blessings for faithfulness to the agreement. Throughout Old Testament times, God established covenants with his people, all of which he faithfully keeps, and all of whose benefits climax in Christ, who inaugurates the new covenant in his blood (1 Cor. 11:25).CHAPTER 2
The First Return — by God's Stirring
The Place of the Passage
These first chapters set the narrative in its historical context and establish the main action: King Cyrus releases God's people from exile to return home to Jerusalem and Judah. But these chapters also establish the larger narrative perspective: this is the story of God being faithful to his Word and acting on behalf of his people (see Ezra 1:1).
The Big Picture
Ezra 1–2 tells of King Cyrus's decree that the people of Judah be released from exile to return and rebuild God's house in Jerusalem. Gifts and provisions are given, and stolen treasures from the Jerusalem temple are restored — all to be carried home by those listed in a detailed census.
Reflection and Discussion
Read Ezra 1–2, praying for insight as you begin and observing carefully as you go. Then write your reflections on the following questions. (For further background, see the ESV Study Bible, pages 804–807; available online at www.esvbible.org.)
1. The Proclamation of King Cyrus (1:1–4)
First, let's set this story in context. Turn one page back and read 2 Chronicles 36. Make several observations about how the conclusion of Chronicles connects to the opening of Ezra.
Read Jeremiah 25:11–14 (Jeremiah prophesied during Judah's fall to the Babylonians). Read also Isaiah 44:24–45:7 (Isaiah foresaw these events a century in advance). What truths about God do these verses reveal?
King Cyrus sent numerous groups of exiles back to their various countries in order to curry the favor of as many local gods as possible. He calls God what the Jews called him: "the LORD, the God of heaven." What ironies are here in 1:1–4? Compare and contrast the Persian king's perspective with God's perspective.
2. Getting It All Together (1:5–11)
Consider the words about God's stirring up people's spirits (Ezra 1:1, 5). Why are these glimpses into the activity of God so important here? What difference do these glimpses make to you today?
Find the references to the "house of the LORD" in Ezra 1 and then read about the dedication of the temple in 1 Kings 7:51–8:11 (skim the rest of 1 Kings 8). Briefly sum up what the temple represented for God's people.
Why is such attention given to these treasures in Ezra 1:4–11? (Read Ex. 12:35–36 and comment on parallels here.)
3. The People (2:1–70)
Read chapter 2. What do you notice? Why are these lists wonderful and crucial at this point in salvation history?
Read in Numbers 3:1–20 about God's choosing the Levites to care for temple worship, with only Aaron's line serving as priests. In what ways does Ezra 2 highlight the importance of the temple and its workers?
The leaders listed first are Zerubbabel and Jeshua (v. 2). Read more about them in Haggai 1, and write a few brief observations.
Read through the following three sections on Gospel Glimpses, Whole-Bible Connections, and Theological Soundings. Then take time to consider the Personal Implications these sections may have for you.
RELEASE FROM CAPTIVITY. The Bible reveals a God who delivers a captive people. The exodus of God's people from Egypt is the great Old Testament story of deliverance, retold by generations. The release from exile repeats the story of deliverance from captivity; Ezra 2:1 rings with the solemn import of it. Isaiah long before had connected Cyrus with God's "anointed" who would save his people (Isa. 45:1). When Jesus the promised Christ appeared, he accomplished what was foreshadowed in the exodus and the release from exile: deliverance from the slavery of sin and death, through his death on sinners' behalf and his resurrection from the dead. Praise God for his Son, who came to "proclaim liberty to the captives" (Isa. 61:1; Luke 4:16–21; John 8:34–36; Rom. 8:1–2).
A PEOPLE FOR HIMSELF. Ezra shows God's hand on the precious remnant of God's called-out people, through whom he is working his redemptive plan (Ezra 1:3; 2:1). Ezra highlights these "survivor[s]" (1:4; see Isa. 10:20–22), and his enumeration of them shows God's faithful preservation through the dispersion of the exile. From the time of his promise concerning Eve's seed (Gen. 3:15), God has been revealing a plan to redeem a people for himself through his Son. This plan was at work in his covenant with Abraham, that from him would come a great nation, blessed by God and a blessing to the nations. The Bible traces this covenant people from Abraham's descendants, through the generations of those from whom the promised seed would come, through the line of David, to Jesus himself. In our time, Abraham's descendants — not by bloodline but by faith in the blood of Christ — join the redeemed people who are God's treasured possession (Gal. 3:7–9; 1 Pet. 2:9–10). The Bible tells of a called-out people, and the postexilic glimpse of the restored remnant of this people is a crucial episode in the salvation story.
A STORY ABOUT GOD'S WORD. "Whole-Bible Connections" are at the heart of Ezra's message! His opening point is that Cyrus's decree fulfilled God's word (Ezra 1:1). But it's not just that specific prophecies were fulfilled. These books offer the final Old Testament link in the whole flow of redemptive history — set in motion by God's spoken word at creation, ordained by God's word to Eve, and channeled by God's words of promise from Abraham all the way to the Word-made-flesh. Ezra's account emerges in the bright background light of God's unfailing word that has called out and preserved this people according to his promises. Amid the grim reality of rebuilding a broken-down city as slaves to a foreign king, the surety of God's word supplies a foundation of faith in God and hope for the final fulfillment of all his promises.
THE TEMPLE. This book's focus on the temple is established immediately, reminding us of the Lord's eternal purpose to dwell with his people. After the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the garden of Eden because of their sin, the rest of Scripture tells of making a way for a holy God to dwell with an unholy people. God told Moses to have the people build a tabernacle "that I may dwell in their midst" (Ex. 25:8). The priesthood and sacrificial system were God's merciful provision to allow a sinful people to approach him. The Jerusalem temple offers the climactic Old Testament picture of God's presence with his people, with his glory filling it upon its dedication (1 Kings 8:10–11). After the exile, then, rebuilding this "house of the LORD" (1:3) is central for the regathered people of God. But the glory is gone — only to reappear in the One who came to tabernacle with us and show us God's glory in the flesh (John 1:14). The New Testament shows Jesus himself to be the true temple (John 2:18–21), embodied in his people through his Spirit (Eph. 2:19–22), and ultimately shining among them in the heavenly Jerusalem (Rev. 21:3, 22).
RICHES FROM THE NATIONS. The temple vessels that had been carried off from Jerusalem were now restored to God's people (Ezra 1:7–11), as Jeremiah had prophesied (Jer. 27:21–22). But there's more: by Cyrus's decree, rich gifts of silver and gold and cattle and supplies were given by the Persians as parting assistance to the Jews (Ezra 1:4, 6). How can we not find echoes here of Exodus 3:21–22, where God promises Moses that his released people would "plunder the Egyptians" as they leave? (See Ex. 11:2–3; 12:35–36; 36:2–7.) Scripture consistently shows that God owns the nations and all their goods — and will in fact have all of it for himself and his people in the end. Into the new Jerusalem will be brought the "glory and the honor of the nations" (Rev. 21:24–26; see also Isa. 60:10–14).(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Knowing the Bible: Ezra and Nehemiah, A 12-Week Study"
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Table of Contents
Series Preface J. I. Packer Lane T. Dennis 6
Week 1 Overview of Ezra and Nehemiah 7
Week 2 The First Return-by God's Stirring (Ezra 1-2) 11
Week 3 Temple Rebuilding-and Opposition (Ezra 3-4) 19
Week 4 Rebuilding Again-and Resolution (Ezra 5-6) 27
Week 5 A Second Return-by God's Good Hand (Ezra 7-8) 35
Week 6 People Rebuilding-and Confession (Ezra 9-10) 43
Week 7 A Third Return-by God's Good Hand (Nehemiah 1-2) 51
Week 8 Wall Rebuilding-in Spite of Opposition (Nehemiah 3-6) 59
Week 9 People Rebuilding-around God's Word (Nehemiah 7-8) 67
Week 10 Confession-in Response to God's Word (Nehemiah 9-10) 75
Week 11 Celebration-in Light of God's Word (Nehemiah 11-12) 83
Week 12 Summary and Conclusion (Including Nehemiah 13) 91
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