You may be wondering by this time: how do the narratives in Ezra and Nehemiah fit together? The two men are mentioned together in Nehemiah 8, but how do the rest of the narratives in these two books coincide?
Lawrence Boadt addresses that question in this way:
We know the dates for Nehemiah’s terms as governor were 445-433 B.C. and 430 or 429 down to perhaps 417 at the most (that is, two twelve-year terms). But we are not sure about Ezra. If he had come before Nehemiah in 458, as has traditionally been believed, why did Nehemiah have to do the same reforms all over again? Many scholars solve this question by suggesting that Ezra really came after Nehemiah, in the year 398 B.C. They base this on the reference to the “seventh year of King Artaxerxes” in Ezra 7:7 for the beginning of Ezra’s ministry in Jerusalem. But in fact there were two kings of Persia named Artaxerxes: Artaxerxes I ruled from 464 to 423, and Artaxerxes II from 404 to 358. Ezra 7:1 simply reads: “Now after this, Ezra … went up from Babylon in the reign of Artaxerxes, king of Persia.” But which Artaxerxes is meant?
The traditional date for Ezra’s arrival in Jerusalem has been 458 B.C., the seventh year of Artaxerxes I. He was followed some thirteen years later by Nehemiah, sent from Persia in 445 to govern the province of Judah and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. Nehemiah served twelve years in that post and was recalled to Persia. But after a short period, he returned for a second term as governor. The biblical books seem to place Ezra and Nehemiah in Jerusalem at the same time working together on the reform of the people (Neh 8:9). But if so, then Ezra did very little for many years before Nehemiah’s arrival—and this is just the opposite of the impression given by other references in the Book of Ezra which hint that Ezra got right to work.
The second solution places Ezra in the time of King Artaxerxes II, during Nehemiah’s second term as governor. This would be 398 B.C., and it would mean that Nehemiah remained as governor for nearly fifty years, a most unlikely possibility. So neither answer really solves the question, but it seems most reasonable to presume that the two men did not work at the same time. They have probably been joined together by the editors, who either got the dates mixed up or wanted us to see that the accomplishments of Ezra and Nehemiah must be looked at as a single inspired work of restoring the faith of the people.
No matter what dates we give Ezra and Nehemiah, the problem remains of how the four books of 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah fit together. They all share the same priestly outlook, but they often seem to overlap each other and sometimes to be at odds in their dates, as though written from different points of view. Yet almost all scholars agree that the four books were put together as a continuous story sometime after the events, and that they do not necessarily reflect the exact chronological order in which those events took place. The most common solution is to see that the stories and memoirs of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally separate books. Ezra was joined to the Books of Chronicles as a supplement, so that Chronicles gave a picture of Israel from Adam to the end of the exile and Ezra brought the story from the exile to the middle of the next century. The memoirs of Nehemiah were then added at a much later time to complete the picture with the re-establishment of Jerusalem as a city of glory and hope. In the process of all these combinings, some of the chapters about Nehemiah were added to the Book of Ezra, and some about Ezra were inserted into the last part of the Book of Nehemiah.
Nehemiah 5-8 presents some interesting narrative. In chapter 5, we have Nehemiah dealing with the problem of the Jewish people charging one another interest and so impoverishing a portion of the population. Nehemiah gets them to stop doing this. C. S. Lewis points out in Mere Christianity…
There is one bit of advice given to us by the ancient heathen Greeks, and by the Jews in the Old Testament, and by the great Christian teachers of the Middle Ages, which the modern economic system has completely disobeyed. All these people told us not to lend money at interest; and lending money at interest—what we call investment—is the basis of our whole system.
Though Nehemiah got his people to agree to stop charging one another interest on loans, I doubt we will ever get such agreement worldwide today. However, it is an intriguing thought: what would the world be like without charging interest? I imagine the world would look rather different. Some of the rich might not be so wealthy, and some of the poor might not be so impoverished.
Chapter 6 focuses on the attempt of Nehemiah’s enemies to get him and the rest of the Jews to stop working on rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem. I love Nehemiah’s response: “I am doing a great work and I cannot come down.” (Nehemiah 6:3) That is how we should respond to the naysayers in our lives when they try to distract us from our God-given work.
Chapter 7 explains why the authors/editors of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah are so interested in genealogy. The research and establishment of one’s genealogy was very important in the post-exilic period for two reasons: to establish...
- That one was a true Israelite.
- One’s right to serve as a priest in the Temple.
Chapter 8 focuses on the ministry of Ezra, reading the law of God to all of the returned exiles. In some ways, Ezra’s ministry was a forerunner of the Jewish synagogue service that was to develop many years later. During the Babylonian captivity, the Men of the Great Assembly formalized and standardized the language of the Jewish prayers. Before that time, the Jewish people prayed in their own words and there were no standard prayers that were recited. Thus, one aspect of the synagogue service found its origins in the Babylonian captivity. However, the reading of the law as part of the service finds its origins, I believe, in Ezra.
The reaction of the people to the reading of the law is interesting to me. They all wept. (Nehemiah 8:9) The reading of the law is a sad thing when we realize we have not kept it. However, Ezra urged the people to stop weeping, “for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Nehemiah 8:10) That is all the more true for us who have experienced God’s grace in Jesus Christ.