Last week’s post on the historical detail found within the Hezekiah and Sennacherib narrative is a stark contrast to what we know about events and timing in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. These amazing and painful stories of return, repentance and restoration reveal both God’s commitment to His promises and the cost of obedience. Yet, even with all the material in these books, I’ve chosen to do only three simple things today.
First, I want to emphasize the primary topic of these two books. Even a quick overview reveals a strong connection between them. In fact, the earliest manuscripts list these two books as two parts of the same story and it is easy to see why. Ezra was sent to rebuild the people; Nehemiah was sent to rebuild the walls; both stories are about rebuilding the community and identity of God’s people. Ezra and Nehemiah had a God-given passion to strengthen God’s people in their understanding of who they were and what they were called to do. We can easily see this connection with Ezra, but how does it fit with Nehemiah?
In ancient times, a city’s walls were not just there to keep unwanted people out; they existed to give the people of that city a unique identity. Jerusalem was the ultimate symbol of Israel’s national calling. It was the City of David and the place where God had chosen for His Name to dwell. Broken walls were a symbol of national disgrace and a barrier to the building of communal identity. Temple restoration was just the first step. In order to take the next step in energizing community, the walls had to be repaired. Nehemiah’s story is much more than the example of how to overcome opposition and accomplish a complex task.
Second, I want to offer a simple timeline: if you dig a little bit you will find other suggestions for what-happened and when it happened (including one where Ezra comes after Nehemiah), but this is the one that makes most sense to me because it puts the priority for the sequence on the biblical text while borrowing from history for the specific dates.
Cyrus allows the Jews to return to Jerusalem: 538 B.C.
Temple is completed: 516 B.C.
Ezra leads a group of exiles to Jerusalem: 458 B.C.
Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem: 444 B.C.
As a linear thinker, this helps me better understand how things fit so I thought it might help a few others too.
Finally, I thought I’d close with a question that popped off the page for me while reading Nehemiah 2:12 (“I had not told anyone what my God had put in my heart to do.”). After reading it, I paused and began reviewing the decades in my life, looking for those places where God put something in my heart to do. Surrender my life to Christ as Savior. Go to a summer project with Cru. Surrender my life to Christ as the One and Only Lord of my life and universe. Go to seminary. Give my attention to discipling others in the faith.
On and on the examples appeared. Some were simple and some were hard to see but as I stepped back I noticed a common thread among them all. Each time the Lord put something on my heart to do it seemed like the new thing was more difficult than the one that preceded it. A summer project (or staff) costs how much? I can’t raise that much support! Forget about Hebrew, will I even be able to learn Greek? Be a pastor at Covenant? There is no way I have the horsepower for that call! Four years of intense study, reading and writing capped by a 250 page paper? That’s not something I can do, Lord! You are asking me to become the senior pastor of a thriving university congregation? Are you sure of that? Each moment concluded in about the same way—“Okay Lord, if you open the door I’ll step through it.”
How many other times in Nehemiah’s life did God put something in his heart to do and how many times did he agree to give it a shot? My guess is that he had to walk through a number of doors before he became the king’s trusted cupbearer. As it was for him, so it is for us.