Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Historical Books 3

This is the latest in a series of Bible studies I have been doing at Immanuel Baptist Church in Greensboro, surveying the entire Bible. I begin each session with a devotional from one of the acrostic sections of Psalm 119, and then survey a portion of the Scriptures. We are currently in the historical books, tonight discussing Ezra-Nehemiah. By the way, the one feature of's blog site is that "What I'm Currently Reading" feature usually seen at the foot of all my posts. Since I don't have that option here (I don't think -- help me if you know a way to do it) I am just going to tell you that I am currently reading "The Gospel Blimp and Other Modern Parables" by Joseph Bayly.

Psalm 119:41-48
ו Waw (or Vav)
Sharing the Word

1. The Word of God saves (v41)
2. The Word of God defends (v42)
3. The Word of God speaks (v43)
4. The Word of God guides (v44)
5. The Word of God liberates (v45)
6. The Word of God emboldens (v46)
7. The Word of God delights (v47)
8. The Word of God enlightens (v48)


Though these books are two separate volumes in our Bibles, the Hebrew tradition regards them as one literary unit. They were combined in nearly all Hebrew Bibles until the Middle Ages. It was not until Origen (c. 185-254 AD) that the books were differentiated, and the Vulgate (Latin translation) was the first edition of the Bible to divide them (4th Century AD). Some have suggested that Ezra-Nehemiah is Volume II of the Israelite history, of which the Chronicles is Volume I. However, scholarly consensus is divided on that opinion.

Tradition attributes the books to Ezra, and views him also as the final editor and compiler of the Old Testament Canon. Although they are named after the two most prominent individuals, the book focuses more on the community as a whole than any one person. Ezra-Nehemiah contains descriptions of the final events of the Old Testament timeline. Beginning with a historical look at the events following the decree of Persian King Cyrus to allow the exiles to return to their homeland in 539 BC, the narrative concludes around 400 BC. It is possible that it was written as early as that time. Whoever wrote or compiled Ezra-Nehemiah had access to important historical documents such as lists, letters, and royal edicts (see for instance Ez 1:2-4; 1:9-11, chapters 2 and 7, and Neh 3, et al.).

The story that unfolds in Ezra-Nehemiah begins long before. In 722 BC, the Northern Kingdom of Israel was defeated and deported by the Assyrians, who scattered them all across their empire. Later, when the Southern Kingdom of Judah did not learn from the lessons of their northern kinsmen, God brought judgment upon their idolatry and immorality by way of the Babylonians. Between 605 and 586 BC, three waves of deportations took place (605, 597, 586). God had forecast 70 years of judgment for them. As the Babylonian empire changed hands to Persian domination, Persian king Cyrus issued a decree (Ez 1:1-4) to allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem. The first group of resettlers returned to the land in 538 BC under Zerubbabel (Ez 1-6). Ezra led the second group back in 458 BC (Ez 7), and Nehemiah led the third group in 445 BC (Neh 2).

The group of nearly 50,000 that returned under Zerubbabel set out to rebuild the temple, beginning with the altar (Ez 3). Enemies rose up against them and sought to hinder the building process, eventually asking King Artaxerxes to bring the project to a hault, which he did. (By the way, between Cyrus and Artaxerxes were two other Persian kings: Darius [4:5, see Daniel also], and Ahasuerus [aka Xerxes; 4:6, see Esther also]). Through the prophets Haggai and Zechariah (see books of those prophets), the people were encouraged to resume the building program, and the temple was completed and dedicated in 516 BC.

Ezra returned to Jerusalem leading a second group of nearly 1,800 (Ez 7-8). Upon arrival, he had to deal with the issue of intermarriage between the Jews who had returned and the pagan inhabitants of the land (Ez 9-10). Upon hearing a bleak report from his homeland, Nehemiah sought permission from Artaxerxes to return, which he did with a group of unknown size in 444 or 445 BC (Neh 1-2). Nehemiah’s mission involved a rebuilding of the city walls, which was accomplished in spite of much opposition (Neh 3-6). This was followed by a time of spiritual renewal led by Ezra the scribe as he read to them from the Law and led them in celebration, repentance and renewal of their covenant relationship with YHWH (Neh 8-10). After the dedication of the wall (Neh 12), Nehemiah’s reform work was not complete, and in chapter 13, there was a fresh cleansing of the temple, restoration of the tithe and the Sabbath, and a renewed call to repentance over mixed marriages.

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