Amazing Grace Baptist Church, Hamburg welcomes you to 2021, especially as we embark on the theme of divine transformation. In this year, it is anticipated that the members of the church will be strengthened in their hearts, minds, emotions and actions to the transformation God wants us to be. In the light of this theme and for our weekly bible studies we seek to study the Old Testament book of Nehemiah. In addition to surveying the content of the book, we will explore its major themes such as prayer, leadership, hard work and discipline, vision and planning and provision of God.
The main purpose of this lesson material is to look at the general overview of the book through surveying its background information such as its authorship and date, purpose and historical background. Most importantly, these studies would be looked at from the perspective of lives and communities.
Historical background of Nehemiah
Under King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians destroyed the city of Jerusalem and took most of the inhabitants into Exile in 586 BC. In 2 Kings 24:14, King Nebuchadnezzar, “… carried all Jerusalem into exile: all the officers and fighting men, and all the skilled workers and artisans—a total of ten thousand. Only the poorest people of the land were left.” Gloomy as it was, God promised them future restoration. For inherent within the nature of God is that God gives hope to God’s people in that God does not abandon them nor leave them without hope (Jeremiah 29:11-14).
In the light of God’s restoration plan, in 539 BC the Persians and Medes, led by Cyrus the Great, defeated the Babylonians and ended the Exile. In the Old Testament books of Ezra and Nehemiah, God’s people returned to the Land of Promise in three distinct groups in the 5th and 4th centuries BC. The first was under the leadership of Zerubbabel. In this group, the exiles returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the Temple and restore the sacrificial system (Ezra 1-6). Under the second group, led by the scribe Ezra, the people returned to Jerusalem to start a spiritual and social renewal among God’s people. Ezra purposed to rebuild the religious life of the community by teaching them the Torah (Ezra 7-10). Nehemiah was called by God to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls of the city (Nehemiah 1-6) under the third wave of the returnees. Along with the scribe Ezra, Nehemiah, they rebuilt the spiritual life of God’s people (Nehemiah 7-13).
The Author and date of the book of Nehemiah
Some scholars have claimed that the inspired writer of the book was Ezra because Ezra and Nehemiah as Old Testament books were historically put together (as evidenced in the Septuagint and Vulgate). However, as the title of the name of the book suggests, it is most probable that Nehemiah is the author of this book (1:1). Further, the fact that the first-person pronoun, I was predominantly used in the book supports Nehemiah’s authorship.
Who then was this Nehemiah?
The name Nehemiah means the Lord comforts. Reading the book of Nehemiah shows that Nehemiah was found serving in Susa, the winter residence of the Persian kings. Though Nehemiah is an Israelite, he served in a position of great trust and responsibility. In Nehemiah 1:11c, we read that Nehemiah serves as the cupbearer to King Artaxerxes. His job is to ensure that the king’s wine is not poisoned, but safe to drink. In this case, Nehemiah had full access to the king. Upon learning that the walls of Jerusalem are broken down and that God’s people are vulnerable, Nehemiah asks and receives permission from King Artaxerxes to travel to Jerusalem and rebuild the walls of the city. The cupbearer to the king then became a builder of the wall, and in the process, rebuilds God’s people into a nation. What a great life of transformation!
Obvious in the book of Nehemiah is the beautiful balance in the life of Nehemiah. He balanced a zealous human effort and detailed planning with God’s divine empowering. Living and ministering with Nehemiah during this same period was Ezra. Besides, Malachi preached during this time.
Date of the book of Nehemiah
The date of writing would be around 440 – 423 BC during the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia.
Purpose of the book of Nehemiah
The book was written to show the work of God through a godly leader, Nehemiah. Nehemiah leads the 3rd and last group of exiles back to their homeland. The book records the building, fortifying, and re-establishing of the city of Jerusalem and its people.
Conclusion and application
This record of events in the book of Nehemiah demonstrates that one person can accomplish much when he/she is empowered, encouraged, and called by God. Reading Nehemiah as diaspora Christians should challenge and orient us to the task of returning to our homelands, if in persons are not possible, then in terms of mobilizing resources for building our homelands. Hopefully, studying the book of Nehemiah will lend us the needed support and insight for developing vision and leadership, and inspiring confidence to transform lives and communities.