Lesson 40: The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah

Reading Preperation:
  • Ezra 1; 7-10
  • Nehemiah 1-2; 4-6; 8-9
Lesson Notes:
1. Introduction
As we begin our discussion regarding the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, I am reminded of a modern day revelation which I believe applies directly to Ezra and Nehemiah.
Doctrine and Covenants 58:27-28, 26
27 Verily I say, men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will and bring to pass much righteousness;
28 For the power is in them, wherein they are agents unto themselves. And inasmuch as men do good they shall in nowise lose their reward.
26 For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant; wherefore he receiveth no reward.
As you know neither Ezra nor Nehemiah were designated as prophets of the Lord. They were however honorable men who individually acted unselfishly on behalf of their people. Because of their actions, they were able to accomplish much good.
2. Book of Ezra
Adam D. Lamoreaux states,
“The books of Ezra and Nehemiah were originally considered one book, which constituted a continuation of the history of Israel given in 1 and 2 Chronicles. The last two verses of 2 Chronicles (2 Chron. 36:22-23) are repeated in Ezra 1:1-3. This repetition was ‘used to indicate an original connection between the two parts” [see Ludlow, Unlocking the Old Testament, 1981, 114]. Chronicles was written some time after the return of the Jews from Babylon, and the records of Ezra and Nehemiah were added to it later, perhaps around 400 B.C. Ezra 7-10 and Nehemiah constitute the last chapter in the history of Israel. Although the Jews seemed determined to neglect the law and the prophets were taken from them, the work of thee two pious men demonstrated that the Lord was still willing to grant his wayward people some degree of help and prosperity” (“The Work of Ezra and Nehemiah” in Studies in Scripture 4. Edited by Kent P. Jackson. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993, 374-375).
Duane S. Crowther states,
“the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were regarded as being only one book in the Hebrew Bible until they were separated in 1448… According to Jewish tradition, Ezra was the author of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah” (Prophets and Prophecies of the Old Testament. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966, 577).
We learn that Ezra was a “priest, a scribe, even a scribe of the words of the commandments of the LORD, and of his statutes to Israel… For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the LORD, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments” (Ezra 7:11-10). Ezra is currently living in the city of Babylon, a captive of the Babylonian conquest.
Adam D. Lamoreaux adds,
Ezra as “a scribe who was an instructor and interpreter of the Mosaic law… was qualified to argue cases and render legal decisions from the Torah in a Jewish court” (“The Work of Ezra and Nehemiah” in Studies in Scriptures 4. Edited by Kent P. Jackson. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993, 375).
Daniel H. Ludlow clarifies,
“a listing of his [Ezra] genealogy (Ezra 1:1-5) proves he is a descendant of Aaron, and thus entitled to the priesthood… [however] the title prophet is not used for Ezra” (A Companion to Your Study of the Old Testament. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981, 255).
The LDS Bible Dictionary states,
Ezra is divided into two sections: Chapters 1-6, “describe events that happened from 60 to 80 years before the arrival of Ezra in Jerusalem,… the decree of Cyrus, 537 B.C., and the return of the Jews under Zerubbabel; the attempt to build the temple and the hindrances due to the Samaritans; the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah, and the completion of the temple, 516 B.C.
“Chapters 7-10, referred to as Ezra’s memoirs, describe the carrying out of his commission from Artaxerxes and his efforts to teach the people the ways of the Lord” (Ezra. LDS Bible Dictionary. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1979, 669).
2.1. Ezra: Chapter 1 Cyrus, King of Persia
King Cyrus of Persia had conquered the Babylonian empire in approximately 539 B.C., taking the city of Babylon captive, killing King Belshazzar of Babylon (see Daniel 5). Cyrus placed Darius on the throne while he continued his conquests. Cyrus manner of treating those whom he conquered was different from the Babylonians.
Ellis T. Rasmussen states,
Under the Persians, “captive people were permitted to return to their homelands, and the redemption of Judah and Jerusalem was made possible” (A Latter-Day Saint Commentary on the Old Testament. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993, 365).
An event occurred that would have a major impact upon the Jews returning to Jerusalem to rebuild their city and temple. Cyrus read or had pointed out to him, according to the writings of Flavius Josephus, the great Jewish historian, the following scripture from Isaiah which had been written almost one hundred and forty years earlier.
Isaiah 44:24, 28
24 Thus said the LORD…
28 … of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure; even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid.
Flavius Josephus records:
“Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the divine power, an earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was written; so he called for the most eminent Jews that were in Babylon and said to them that he gave them leave to go back to their own country, and to rebuild their city Jerusalem, and the temple of God, for that he would be their assistant”(The Complete Works of Josephus. Translated by Wm. Whiston. Grand Rapieds, Mich.” Kregel Publications, 1960, [Twenty-fifth Printing, 1991]. Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI, 1, 1-2, 228).
Cyrus’ proclamation [Ezra 1:2-4; 6:3-5], gave permission for the Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem to rebuild their city and establish anew their temple.
The Old Testament student manual states,
“Cyrus made Sheshbazzar the governor [Ezra 5:14}, but his name is not mentioned in the list of the returning Jews. Haggai 2:2 identified Zerubbalbel as the governor of Judah [see Ezra 3:8]. Many scholars have therefore identified Sheshbazzar and Zerubbabel as the same person… other authorities say they are two people. The evidence seems to favor the idea of two separate people. Both were of the royal line of Judah, and both were probably appointed by Cyrus. Zerubbabel has become the most famous in history because he outlived the older Sheshbazzar” (The Old Testament student manual: 1 Kings—Malachi. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, Second Edition, 319).
Andrew C. Skinner adds,
“Zerubbabel, like Sheshbazzar before him, was chosen governor of the return because of his lineage and ability. He was a grandson of Jehoiachin, the king of Judah who had been taken captivity in Babylon in 597 B.C. Zerubbabel was raised in the Chaldean capital and was of the royal Davidic line. He was also an ancestor of Jesus Christ (‘Zorobabel’ of Matthew 1:12-13 is the Greek form of the name) and was favorably regarded as Jehovah’s servant by Haggai, the prophet of the second temple, which sometimes is called Zerubbabel’s temple” (“The Return from Exile” in Studies in Scripture 4. Edited by Kent P. Jackson. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993, 339).
Many of the Jews however chose not to accept Cyrus’ offer to return to Jerusalem (see Ezra 2:64-65).
William F. Albright suggests,
their reluctance may have been due “in general [due to their] becoming well established in their new homes… [and] the journey was dangerous and expensive, while conditions [upon arriving] in Judah was certainly very unsatisfactory” (The Biblical Period from Abraham to Ezra. New York: Harper and Row, 1963, 87).
Another reason is that many of the exiles had become a part of Babylon having lost their identity as God’s covenant people. This was also true for those who held the Levitical priesthood.
Ezra 2:61-62
61 And of the children of the priests: the children of Habaiah, the children of Koz, the children of Barzillai; which took a wife of the daughters of Barzillai the Gileadite and was called after their name:
62 These sought their register among those that were reckoned by genealogy, but they were not found: therefore were they, as polluted, put from the priesthood.
It is also possible that those who today hold the priesthood may also become “polluted” as noted in modern revelation.
Doctrine and Covenants 85:11-12
11 And they who are of the High Priesthood, whose names are not found written in the book of the law or that are found to have apostatized, or to have been cut off from the church, as well as the lesser priesthood, or the members, in that day shall not find an inheritance among the saints of the Most High;
12 Therefore, it shall be done unto them as unto the children of the priest, as will be found recorded in the second chapter and sixty-first and second verse of Ezra.
Once back in Palestine, the refugees began to rebuild the temple, but their efforts stalled. Those of Samaria were desirous of assisting Judah with the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem.
Ezra 4:2
2 Then they came to Zerubbabel, and to the chief of the fathers, and said unto them, Let us build with you; for we seek your God, as ye do; and we do sacrifice unto him since the days of Esar-haddon king of Assur, which brought us up hither.
Their offer was curtly rejected.
Ezra 4:3
3 But Zerubbabel, and Jeshua, and the rest of the chief of the fathers of Israel, said unto them, Ye have nothing to do with us to build an house unto our God, but we ourselves together will build unto the LORD God of Israel, as king Cyrus the king of Persia hath commanded us.
This decision served to fan the flames of animosity between the two groups, Judah and Samaria, which would continue even during the time of the Savior’s mortal ministry (see John 4:9).
Ezra 4:4-6
4 Then the people of land weakened the hand of the people of Judah, and troubled them in building.
5 And hired counselors against them, to frustrate their purpose, all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia.
6 And in the reign of Ahasuerus, in the beginning of his reign, wrote they unto him an accusation against the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem.
The hurt feelings of the Samaritans continued to fester and resulted in their writing a letter to king Artaxerxes of Persia raising such severe accusations against the Jews that he was forced to take action.
Ezra 4:23-24
23 Now when the copy of king Artaxerxes’ letter was read before Rehum, and Shimshai the scribe, and their companions, they went up in haste to Jerusalem unto the Jews, and made them to cease by force and power.
24 Then ceased the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem. So it ceased unto the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia.
It is an important lesson for us to learn that based upon how we treat others, even our friends can become our enemies. It is important for us to be sensitive to those around us and to continue to seek areas of common ground upon which to build, rather than destroy, relationships. The bridge we burn today, may be the very bridge tomorrow we will need to cross.
Several years later, in about 520 B.C., the prophets Haggai and Zechariah inspired the people to resume construction (Ezra 5:1-2). The temple was completed in about 515 B.C.
2.2. Ezra: Chapter 7 Ezra comes from Babylon to Judah
The LDS Bible Dictionary states,
“In 458 B.C. [Ezra] obtained from [King] Artaxerxes [of Persia], an important edict (Ezra 7:12-26) allowing him to take to Jerusalem any Jewish exiles who cared to go, along with offerings for the temple with which he was entrusted, and [to also give] the Jews various rights and privileges. He was also to appoint magistrates and judges” (Ezra. LDS Bible Dictionary. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1979, 669).
It is important to note that the difference in years from the end of chapter six and the beginning of chapter seven is approximately 57 years (515 B.C. to 458 B.C.)
Ezra had gained the favor of King Artaxerxes, who “granted him all his request” (Ezra 7:6), in connection with his desire to go to Jerusalem.
Adam D. Lamoreaux notes,
In the letter Artaxeres gave Ezra (Ezra 7:12-26), [there were] “three general directives: (1) Any Jews in the empire who wished to accompany Ezra to Jerusalem could do so. (2) Ezra was given gold, silver, and precious vessels from the king’s treasury to use in purchasing sacrifices and offerings for the temple and other aspects of temple worship, according to Ezra’s discretion… (3) Ezra was given authority to order religious affairs in Judah and the power to punish those who did not cooperate with him” (“The Works of Ezra and Nehemiah” in Studies in Scripture 4. Edited by Kent P. Jackson. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993, 375-376).
2.3. Ezra: Chapter 8 Ezra’s Journey to Jerusalem
The Old Testament student manual states,
“Ezra’s party [numbered] over 1700 priest, people, and somewhat reluctantly, Levites. With them they take gifts valuing … about $2, 225,000). Ezra is faced with a long and dangerous journey at the time of great unrest” (Old Testament student manual: 1 Kings—Malachi. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, Second Edition, 322).
Prior to Ezra departure, he brought the people together for the purpose of fasting and prayer prior to their journey.
Ezra 8:21
21 Then I proclaimed a fast there, at the river of Ahavea, that we might afflict [humble] ourselves before our God, to seek of him a right way for us, and for our little ones, and for all our substance.
Adam Clarke observes,
“He therefore found it necessary to seek the Lord by fasting and prayer, that they might have from Him those succors without which they might become prey to their enemies; and then the religion which they professed would be considered by the heathen as false and vain. Thus we see that this good man had more anxiety for the glory of God than for his own personal safety” (I was ashamed to require… a band. Adam Clarke’s Commentary on the Bible. Abridged by Ralph Earle. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1967, [Nineteenth Printing March 1991], 414).
We are reminded of the kind of man Ezra is.
Ezra 7:10 [underline added]
10 For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.
Brigham Young taught,
“Can we realize how this Providence governs and controls the nations of the earth, and marks out the destinies of individual man? If we have not learned these lessons they are before us, and we have them yet to learn. If we have not yet learned that poverty, sickness, pain, want, disappointment, losses, crosses, or even death, should not move us one hair’s breathe from the service of God, or separate us from the principles of eternal life, it is a lesson we have to learn. If we have not learned how to handle the things of this world in the light of salvation, we have it yet to learn. Though we have mountains of gold and silver, and stores of precious things heaped up, and could control the elements, and command the cattle on a thousand hills, if we have not learned that every iota of it should be devoted to the building up of the kingdom of God on earth, it is a lesson yet to learn” (Journals of Discourse 1. London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-86, [Eighth Reprint 1974], 336).
Truly, Ezra knew what was important… to do the will of the Lord.
Ezra and his company made the journey safely to Jerusalem.
Ezra 8:31-32, 36
31 Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go unto Jerusalem: and the hand of our God was upon us, and he delivered us from the hand of the enemy, and of such as lay in wait by the way.
32 And we came to Jerusalem…..
36 And they delivered the king’s commissions unto the king’s lieutenants, and to the governors on this side of the river; and they furthered the people, and the house of God.
2.4. Ezra: Chapter 9 The Sin of Intermarriage
Daniel H. Ludlow states,
“When Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he was greatly dismayed to learn that the people were not observing many of the commandments given of the Lord through Moses. He was particularly incensed to discover that the people of Israel (and the priests and the Levites!) had intermarried (Ezra 9:2), “the holy seed have mingled themselves with the people of those lands”… Marriage with these exact groups had been specifically forbidden by the Lord (Ex.23:20-33; Deut.7:1-6). It is little wonder when Ezra observed these things he rent his garment and mantle, and at the time of the evening sacrifice he promised the Lord he would do what he could to remove these evils (Ezra 9:6-15)” (A Companion to Your Study of the Old Testament. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1981, 255).
There may have been at least two reasons for Ezra’s concern. First and foremost, in order to avoid further retribution by the Lord due to His people’s disobedience of His commandments. Secondly, the original reason why the Lord forbid the Israelites from marrying “outside the covenant” was that the Israelites would be influenced by their non-member spouse to worship the false heathen gods of their spouses (see 1 Kings 11:1-4). Ezra is seeking to again establish the covenant relationship between the people and the Lord, and in order to do so meant they must obey all his commandments.
2.5. Ezra: Chapter 10 The Men separate Themselves from their Strange wives
We learn that while Ezra was praying, and confessing the sins of the people, a congregation of people gathered as they had overheard his petition to the Lord on their behalf.
Ezra 10:1
1 … before the house of God, there assembled unto him out of Israel a very great congregation of men and women and children: for the people wept very sore.
Having heard the words of Ezra, the people were touched by the spirit and stated,
Ezra 10:3
3 Now therefore let us make a covenant with our God to put away all the wives, and such as are born of them, according to the counsel of my lord, and of those that tremble at the commandment of our God; and let it be done according to the law.
The Old Testament student manual notes,
“Ezra’s instructions about the strange wives occurred at the time of heavy December rains in Jerusalem. It was cold and wet, and these conditions, along with the people’s sorrow for their apostasy, caused them to tremble” (The Old Testament student manual: 1 Kings—Malachi. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, Second Edition, 322-323).
Adam D. Lamoruaux states,
“four months after Ezra’s arrival (Ezra 10:9),… the people had agreed to take the extraordinary step of divorcing all their foreign wives (Ezra 10:1-5,9-12)… and a list [of those] who had married foreign wives was recorded (Ezra 10:18-44)” (“The Works of Ezra and Nehemiah” in Studies in Scripture 4. Edited by Kent P. Jackson. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1993, 377).
It is assumed that those who terminated their marriages, continued to provide for those who had formerly been part of their marriages. This continues to be the policy of the Lord during our day.
3. Book of Nehemiah
Recall that formerly the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were one book, and according to Crowther, were written by Ezra” (see Prophets and Prophecies of the Old Testament. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1966, 577).
Like Ezra, he could also have continued to serve out his time in captivity. After all, he had a comfortable life style for he held a position of prestige as the “cupbearer” in the royal court to king Artaxerxers of Persia. Why would he choose to give up all that he had to go to Jerusalem and rebuild the city walls? He had not been called to be a prophet. He was not responsible for the work that needed to be done in Jerusalem nor the people that continued to live there. It is why he went and what he accomplished while he was there that makes up the book of Nehemiah.
The LDS Bible Dictionary notes,
“The book of Nehemiah (which is a continuation the Ezra, the two being regarded by the Jews as forming one book) contains an account of the progress and difficulties of the work [rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem] and its final completion.
“The book is divided into four parts:
(a) 1:1-7; 73 Nehemiah’s first visit to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the walls in spite of much opposition;
(b) 7:73-10:39 religious and social reforms;
(c) 11:1-13; 3 lists of names, and account of the dedication of the wall;
(d) 13:4-31 Nehemiah’s second visit after 12 years’ absence, and his further reforms”
(Nehemiah. The LDS Bible Dictionary. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, 1979, 738).
3.1. Nehemiah: Chapter 1 Nehemiah’s Prayer
Nehemiah was a nobleman of high rank at the court of King Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes reigned after Ahasuerus, the husband of Ester. His position in the royal court, as previously noted, was “cupbearer” to the king.
Jessis Lyman Hurlbut states,
“It was his office to take charge of all the wine that was used at the king’s table, to pour it out and hand the cup to the king. This was an important office, for he saw the king every day at his meals, and could speak with him… the life of the king was in his hands, for if he were an enemy, he could have allowed poison to be put into the wine to kill the king. So the cupbearer was always a man whom the king could trust as his friend” (Hurlbut’s Story of the Bible. Philadelphia: The John C. Winston Company, 1947, 463-464).
Nehemiah, like Ezra, was a Jew in captivity. It was while serving in the royal palace that he learned of the circumstances in Jerusalem.
Nehamiah 1:3
3 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.
This information had a great effect upon Nehemiah, even life changing.
Nehemiah 1:4
4 … when I heard these words, that I sat down and wept, and mourned certain days and fasted, and prayed before the God of heaven.
This is part of Nehemiah’s prayer.
Nehemiah 1:5-6; 8-9; 11
5 … 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 to keep 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,… both I and my father’s house have sinned.
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;… yet will I gather them from thence, and I will bring them unto the place that I have chosen to set my name there.
11 O Lord, I beseech thee, let now thine ear be attentive to the prayer of thy servant,… prosper, I pray thee, thy servant this day, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man [king Artaxerxes]. For I was the king’s cupbearer.
It was Nehemiah’s prayer that the Lord would soften the heart of the king that he would then enable Nehemiah to “prosper” or gain his assistance in helping his people in Jerusalem.
Why were Nehemiah and Ezra willing to give up their positions in the Persian Empire and go and help the unfortunate and oppressed among their people? It is my belief that they are like many “good” people, then as now, who willing leave position of honor and comfort in response to the “promptings of the spirit” to serve a mission for the Lord.
3.2. Nehemiah: Chapter 2 Nehemiah’s Mission to Jerusalem
I believe, in answer to Nehemiah’s prayer, while Nehemiah is serving in the presence of the king, the king inquires about his appearance.
Nehemiah 2:2-3
2 Wherefore the king said unto me, Why is thy countenance sad, seeing thou art not sick? This is nothing else but sorrow of heart. Then I was very sore afraid.
3 And said unto the king, Le the king live for ever: why should not my countenance be sad when the city, the place of my father’s sepulchers, lieth waste, and the gates thereof are consumed with fire?
As the king becomes aware of the reason for the sad appearance of his trusted servant, he offers his assistance.
Nehemiah 2:4
4 Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven.
Although the relationship that Nehemiah has with the king is positive, nevertheless the king has all power and authority over him as both servant and captive. In order to gain all the support that Nehemiah needs from the king, he will need the assistance of the Lord if he is to accomplish his mission. Nehemiah makes his request of the king.
Nehemiah 2:5-8
5 And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me to Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchers, that I may build it
6 And the king said unto me, (the queen also sitting by him,) For how long shall thy journey be? And when wilt thou return? So it pleased the king to send me; and I set him a time.
7 Moreover I said unto the king, If it pleases the king, let letters be given me to the governors beyond the river that they may convey me over till I come into Judah.
8 And a letter unto Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the palace which appertained to the house, and for the wall of the city, and for the house that I shall enter into. And the king granted me, according to the good hand of my God upon me.
Nehemiah request of the king is three fold: (1) a leave of absence from the king’s service; (2) protection and assistance from the leaders of the provinces, and (3) building supplies. The king agreed to each of Nehemiah’s requests.
Once Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem, he goes out at night to survey the damage to both the walls and the city. It is in the solitude of the night that he pauses to reflect upon his mission.
Nehemiah 2:12
12 And I arose in the night, I and some few men with me; neither told I any man what my God had put in my heart to do at Jerusalem:…
Nehemiah knows that he is not there alone. He has been called of the Lord to come to Jerusalem and he knows that because he is on the Lord’s errand, he is also entitled to the Lord’s assistance.
Nehemiah and Ezra are humble men who know that without the assistance of the Lord they would not be able to accomplish their mission. Each turns to the Lord for guidance.
Nehemiah 2:13
13 And I went out by night… and viewed the walls of Jerusalem which were broken down, and the gates thereof were consumed with fire.
While Nehemiah has not yet shared with anyone his purpose for coming to Jerusalem, he knows why he has been called. He has now confirmed for himself that extent of the damage. The rebuilding of a wall around Jerusalem was a very important project. Without a wall around the city, the residents are extremely venerable to attack from their enemies. Once a wall was built around Jerusalem, it could then arise from its present state of weakness and helplessness and again be a strong city.
Nehemiah knew that he would need the support and assistance of the current officials in the city and so he went to them first in order to gain their support.
Nehemiah 2:17-18 [underline added]
17 Then said I unto them, Ye see the distress that we are in, how Jerusalem lieth waste, and the gates thereof are burned with fire: come, and let us build up the wall of Jerusalem, that we be no more a reproach.
18 Then I told them of the hand of my God which was good upon me; as also the king’s words that he had spoken unto me. And they said, Let us rise up and build. So they strengthened their hands for this good work.
Nehemiah sought first to let the leaders know that he was there to work himself, then that “the hand of God” was with him and lastly that this project had the full support of the king himself. Here is a simple lesson on how to win friends and influence others for good. One from which we all could learn.
Not all were supportive of the new wall being constructed around Jerusalem. Among those who expressed their opposition were Sanballat, the governor of Samaria, as well as the governors of other nearby areas (see Nehemiah 2:19). It is not unusual that projects that have benefit to the majority will also be opposed by others. It is important that all are given voice and then the majority opinion prevails. The opposition by the Samarians has deeper meaning.
The Old Testament student manual states,
“For Nehemiah to return with full power from the emperor to refortify Jerusalem was a great setback for the Samaritans, and they openly opposed it. Sanballat of Samaria led this group and [as we will learn later] made it necessary for Nehemiah to arm those who worked on the walls of Jerusalem” (The Old Testament student manual: 1 Kings—Malachi. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, Second Edition, 336).
Nehemiah’s responded to the threats of those who opposed his actions.
Nehemiah 2:20
20 Then answered I them, and said unto them, The God of heaven, he will prosper us; therefore we his servants will arise and build;…
When you know that the project or task to which you have committed your energy has the Lord’s approval, it makes it easier to proceed when opposition and doubts arise. Nehemiah has sought the Lord’s blessing and therefore he could stand on solid ground when the winds of opposition arose.
3.3. Nehemiah: Chapter 4 Set a Watch
When Sanballat learned that that construction had begun on the walls, he increased his efforts to prevent the project from proceeding.
Nehemiah 4:1,8
1 …he was wroth, and took great indignation, and mocked the Jews.
8 And conspired all of them together to come and to fight against Jerusalem and to hinder it.
Nehemiah’s response to Sanballat’s opposition.
Nehemiah 4:9 [underline added]
9 Nevertheless we made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them day and night, because of them.
During the early history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, the inspiration had been given to Joseph Smith that a House to the Lord was to be built in Kirtland, Ohio. Later, after departing Kirtland and settling in anew in Nauvoo, Illinois, again the Lord directed that a second temple be built. During the time of the construction of the Nauvoo Temple, the opposition toward the church had increasing become violent. In order to complete the building of the temple, it was often necessary for the workers, as it were, to have their building equipment in one hand and a weapon in the other. The persecution will become so intense that the Church will relocate to the Rocky Mountains to what is now the State of Utah.
George Q. Cannon reflecting upon the persecution then states,
“We have not been situated as we were in Nauvoo, when we finished our temple there, for then the workman who labored upon it, were like the Jews in the days of Nehemiah, when they undertook to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem, and had to labor a portion of the time at least, and a great portion of it too, with their instruments of labor in one hand and weapons to defend themselves in the other. We were surrounded by mobs, and living in a constant state, it may be said of fear, because of the threats which were made and the combinations which were formed, and the attacks upon our outlying settlements in the burning of houses, in the destruction of grain, in the shooting down of cattle, and in the driving out of the people from their homes” (Journals of Discourse 25. London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-86, [Eighth Reprint 1974], 167).
While in our day, the violent mobs of outward persecution that existed during earlier times have lessened, we still need to set a personal watch against the tide of wickedness that surrounds us. Today, we must also be involved in the task of building walls in order to keep the tide of the permissive world out of our homes and lives. If we are not diligent against these forces, we too will be overrun by those who seek to take us prisoner or to destroy our lives.
3.4. Nehemiah: Chapter 5 Social Reform
We learn that by this time in history that Nehemiah had been serving for twelve years as the governor over the land of Judah having been appointed by King Artaxerxes (see Nehemiah 5:14). It is in his position of authority that the people come to him seeking relief.
Nehemiah 5:1-3
1 And there was a great cry of the people and of their wives against their brethren the Jews.
2 For there were that said, We, our sons, and our daughters, are many: therefore we take up corn for them, that we may eat, and live.
3 Some also there were that said, We have mortgaged our lands, vineyards, and houses, that we might buy corn, because of the dearth.
It appears that there had been a period of prosperity in the land, however an extended downturn in the economy had resulted in the cost of food having skyrocketed and the people were now in dire economic straits. Nehemiah is outraged as to the actions of the economic leaders.
Nehemiah 5:7-8, 10
7 … I rebuked the nobles, and the rulers, and said unto them, Ye exact usury [unduly high rate of interest], every one of his brother…
8 … We after our ability have redeemed our brethren the Jews, which were sold unto the heather; and will ye even sell your brethren? or shall they be sold unto us? Then held they their peace and found nothing to say.
10 … I pray you, let us leave off this usury.
As Governor, Nehemiah does not stop with limiting the amount of interest that can be charged, but goes yet further.
Nehemiah 5:11
11 Restore, I pray you, to them, even this day, their lands, their vineyards, their olive yards, and their houses, also the hundredth part of the money, and of the corn, the wine, and the old, that ye exact of them.
Either Nehemiah was very persuasive or he had a great deal of clout upon those who were under his authority. For the response of the leaders was overwhelming.
Nehemiah 5:12
12 Then said they, We will restore them, and will require nothing of them; so will we do as thou sayest. Then I called the priests, and took an oath of them, that they should do according to this promise.
Nehemiah was by example a great leader. He took no income for his governmental service, “I and my brethren have not eaten the bread of the governor” (Nehemiah 5:14); his resources were focused on the task of building the wall, “I continued in the work of this wall, neither bought we any land; and all my servants were gathered… unto the work” (Nehemiah 5:16). Lastly, he feed those who were in need, “there were at my table an hundred and fifty of the Jews, and rulers, besides those that came to us from among the heathen” (Nehemiah 5:17). The source of Nehemiah’s efforts is his inner desire to do good.
Nehemiah 5:19
19 Think upon me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people.
It was another ruler who served as king in the Americas, King Benjamin, who shared this important truth.
B/M, Mosiah 2:17
17 And behold, I tell you these things that ye may learn wisdom; that ye may learn that when ye are in the service of your fellow beings ye are in the service of your God.
3.5. Nehemiah: Chapter 6 The Wall is Completed (515. B.C.)
Judah’s enemies continued their effort to disrupt the work on the walls.
Boyd K. Packer observed,
“When the enemies saw that the wall was nearly up and that it was strong, they became worried. Sanballat and Geshem invited Nehemiah to meet with them in one of the villages in the plain of Ono. But Nehemiah said, ‘They thought to do me mischief. And I sent messengers unto them saying, I am doing a great work, so that I cannot come down; why should the work cease, whilst I leave it, and come down to you? (Nehemiah 6:2-3). Their defense was simple and effective: “We made our prayer unto our God, and set a watch against them’ and then went about the work” (“Come, All Ye Sons of God” in Ensign, August, 1983, 68-69).
The persecution against Nehemiah continues even while the work in which he is engaged continues. Sanballat and his group write a letter to the Persian king. In this letter They indicate that Nehemiah was going to rebel and set himself up as a king (see Nehemiah 6:5-9). They even hire a false prophet to tell Nehemiah that he should go into the temple, “for they come to slay thee; yea, in the night will they come to slay thee” (Nehemiah 6:10). Nehemiah’s response, “And lo, I perceived that God had not sent him; but that he pronounced this prophecy against me: for Tobaih and Sanballat had hired him” (Nehemiah 6:12).
Finally the work was completed on the walls.
Nehemiah 6:15
15 So the wall was finished in the twenty and fifth day of the month Elul, in fifty and two days.
The response of the opposition is as expected.
Nehemiah 6:16
16 And it came to pass, that when all our enemies heard thereof, and all the heathen that were about us saw these things, they were much cast down in their own eyes: or they perceived that this work was wrought of our God.
3.6. Nehemiah: Chapter 8 The Law is Read
The walls being finished and the city populated, the seventh month arrives. This is the time of the year when the Feast of the Tabernacles was to be celebrated.
Bruce R. McConkie notes,
“The Feast of Tabernacles, (also known as the Feast of Booths and the Feast of the Ingathering), was by all odds Israel’s greatest feast… In the full sense, it is the Feast of Jehovah, the one Mosaic celebration which, as part of the restitution of all things, shall be restored when Jehovah comes to reign personally upon the earth for a thousand years. Even now we perform one of its chief rituals in our solemn assemblies, the giving of the Hosanna Shout, and the worshipers of Jehovah shall yet be privileged to exult in other of its sacred rituals… The fact that it celebrated the completion of the full harvest symbolizes the gospel reality that it is the mission of the house of Israel to gather all nations to Jehovah, a process that is now going forward, but will not be completed until that millennial day when ‘the Lord shall be king over all the earth,’ and shall reign personally thereon” (The Promised Mosiah. Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978, 432-433).
We learn that Ezra is invited to bring “the book of the law of Moses, which the LORD had commanded to Israel… and [to] read [where the people were gathered]… from the morning until midday” (Nehemiah 8:1, 3).
The Old Testament student manual notes,
“The reading of the law to the people by Ezra the scribe is of particular importance because it appears to have been the first time a synagogue, or a place to read and expound the scriptures, was established in Jerusalem after the return from Babylon” (Old Testament student manual: 1 Kings—Malachi. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, Second Edition, 336).
What is striking is that the people did not understand the law and it was therefore necessary to have priests to “cause the people to understand the law… and gave the sense, and cause them to understand the reading” (Nehemiah 8:7-8).
Adam Clarke states,
“The Israelites, having been lately brought out of the Babylonish captivity, in which they had continued seventy years, according to the prediction of Jeremiah, chap. xxv. 11, were not only extremely corrupt, but it appears that they had in general lost the knowledge of the ancient Hebrew to such a degree that, when the book of law was read, they did not understand it; but certain Levites stood by and “gave the sense,” i.e. translated into the Chaldee dialect” (On the subject in v.8, Adam Clarke’s Commentary of the Bible. Abridged by Ralph Earle. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1967, [Nineteenth Printing March 1991, 423).
The people were so thrilled to again understand the word of the Lord.
Nehemiah 8:12
12 And all the people went their way to eat, and to drink, to send portions, and to make great mirth, because they had understood the words that were declared unto them.
When they learned that “the LORD had commanded by Moses, that the children of Israel should dwell in booths” (Nehemiah 8:14), they were anxious to comply.
Nehemiah 8:17
17 “And all the congregation of them… made booths and sat under the booths: for since the days of Jeshua [Joshua] the son of Nun unto that day had not the children of Israel done so. And there was very great gladness.
The death or translation of Moses occurred in approximately 1451 B.C. and the beginning of the leadership of Joshua. The walls were completed in approximately 515 B.C. This meant that it had been over 900 years since Judah had celebrated within their booths, the feast of the Tabernacles. As noted, this feast is “Israel’s greatest feasts (see McConkie, The Promised Messiah, 432).
Each day, Ezra reads the law to the people.
Nehemiah 8:18
18 Also day by day, from the first day unto the last day, he [Ezra] read in law of God. And they kept the feast seven days; and on the eighth day was a solemn assembly, according to the manner.
The practice of solemn assemblies continues to exist during sacred occasions, such as the dedication of temples, yet today. In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints this event, like anciently, is a time of great spiritual renewal for the participants.
3.7. Nehemiah: Chapter 9 Remembering the Lord
The faithful in Jerusalem now gather in a fast meeting for the purpose of confessing “their sins and the iniquities of their fathers” (Nehemiah 9:2).
The Old Testament student manual states,
“The Levities (the priesthood group) led them in a recitation of their long history and God’s blessings to them through the generations of Abraham to their own day. [This includes:] (1) the Creation (9:6); (2) the Abrahamic covenant (9:7-8); (3) the Exodus from Egypt (9:9-11); (4) lead by a pillar of clouds during the day and of fire at night; (5) the giving of the Law to Moses (9:13-14); (6) the miracle of manna and water from the rock (9:15); (7) the rebelliousness of the Israelites and the patience of the Lord with them (9:16-17); (8) golden calf incident (9:18), [including (9) the entrance into the promised land (9:24-25); (10) rebellion against the Lord and his prophets (9:26-29); and (11) mercy of God in spite of their rebellion (9:30-31).]… it says much about Nehemiah’s and Ezra wisdom that they sought to bring the people back into the covenant by using the scriptures” (Old Testament student manual: 1 Kings—Malachi. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, Second Edition, 337).
3.8. Nehemiah: Chapter 10 The Covenant with God
We learn that the people are now read to enter into a covenant with God.
Nehemiah 10:29 JST, Nehemiah 10:29
29 … and entered into a curse, and into an oath, to walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the LORD our Lord, and his judgments and his statutes; 29 … and entered into a oath, that a curse should come upon them if they did not walk in God’s law, which was given by Moses the servant of God, and to observe and do all the commandments of the Lord their God, and his judgments and statutes.
The Old Testament student manual states,
This covenant includes: “to marry within Israel (10:30); to pay the ‘temple tax’ instituted by Moses (v.32); to make offerings (vv.35-36); to dedicate the firstborn to the Lord (v.36); to support the Levites and the priests with their tithes (vv.37-38); and do all things necessary to sustain the temple (v.39). In other words, they covenanted to reestablish obedience to the law of Moses” (Old Testament student manual: 1 Kings—Malachi. Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1982, Second Edition, 338).
The Jews in the day of Nehemiah took vows to renew their covenants that they and their fathers had taken. It was a glorious day for Israel and hopefully a new beginning. Making a covenant is one thing; keeping a covenant is yet another. Receiving blessings from the Lord is dependent upon our keeping, not just making, sacred covenants.
Joseph Fielding Smith offers this insight,
“Never at any time has the Lord given to man a commandment which was not intended to exalt him and bring him nearer to eternal companionship with the Father and the Son… He that ‘receiveth a commandment with doubtful heart, and keepeth it with slothfulness, the same is damned [progression stopped],’ [D&C 58:29] the Lord has said. Unfortunately there are a great many who receive covenants in that way” (Doctrines of Salvation 1. Edited by Bruce R. McConkie. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1956, 155-56).
4. Conclusions
As noted at the beginning of this chapter, Ezra and Nehemiah were ordinary men. They were not called to fulltime service in the kingdom, nevertheless they were superb examples of individuals who are humble and yet firm and boldly progressive. They demonstrated characteristics of meek discipleship and of fearless, determined leadership, all of which made it possible for them to help their people.
Brigham Young noted,
“Confidence, brethren, CONFIDENCE in our God, and in each other… I may say, that we have it already; but I think that an increase of faith in our God, and confidence in each other, is desirable. If we could obtain that faith and confidence in each other, and in our God, that when we ask a favor, we could do so with a full assurance and knowledge that we should receive, do you not perceive that it would lead us directly to do as we would be done by, in every transaction and circumstance of life” (Journals of Discourse 1. London: Latter-day Saint’s Book Depot, 1854-86, [Eighth Reprint 1974], 115).
Let us also go forward, determined to live lives that are in keeping with the Lord’s commandments. When we fall, let us not give up, but pick ourselves up, and with the Lord’s help, continue to persevere in our obedience. If we will do so, we can be certain that the Lord will be with us each step of the way to strengthen, and yes, to also pick us up. Let us also take time to give service to others who we meet along the way. As the Savior taught, “if you have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me” (Matthew 25:40). This is the example given to each of us by the lives of Ezra and Nehemiah.