Ezra and Nehemiah Introductory Information
In the book of 2 Kings the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel. Later, the Babylonians overthrew the Assyrian empire and subsequently conquered the southern kingdom of Judah. Then, in about 539 BC, the Persians/Medes overtook the Babylonians (see Isaiah 13:17-20). Later, the Greeks will conquer the Bible world in about 331 BC, followed by the Romans in about 31 BC, setting the stage for the mortal ministry of Jesus Christ.)
The events in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah (and of Esther, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi) take place during the reign of the Persians/Medes, in which the captives of Judah were allowed to go back to Jerusalem and rebuild the city and the temple.
Ezra 1; 3 Re-building the Temple
Think about a time when a temple announcement, open house, or dedication had significant personal meaning for you. Ezra and Nehemiah recorded great joy over such events in their day. Ezra was the chief priest among the Jewish captives in Persia and therefore involved in the return of many Jews to Jerusalem. The ancient Persian capital (in modern-day Iran) was over 1,000 miles from Jerusalem, across a forbidding desert. Find the following:
- What was the motivation for the Persian king Cyrus to facilitate the re-building of the temple in Jerusalem? (Ezra 1:1-2; see also 2 Chronicles 36:23; Isaiah 44:28; 45:1).
- In Ezra 1:3-4, what other things did Cyrus say and do in order to initiate the re-building of Jerusalem and the temple?
- How did the people of Judah (including some of the tribes of Benjamin, and Levi) respond to Cyrus’s offer? (verse 5).
- How did the Persian people help the Jews? (verse 6). What additional help did Cyrus give? (verses 7-11). As we do our part, the Lord raises up friends.
- About 50,000 Jews chose to leave for Jerusalem (see Ezra 2:64-65), while most of the children of Israel stayed in Persia, where many of them were born and raised and had families, friends and businesses). Would you choose to leave your life and comforts to help build Zion in a far-off, unknown place?
- In chapter 3, they are in Jerusalem and under the leadership of Zerubbabel (an ancestor of Jesus Christ; see Matthew 1:12). They built an altar and offered burnt sacrifices to God, kept the feast of tabernacles (commemorating the 40 years in the wilderness) as well as the fall harvest (verses 1-5). They also raised funds, identified craftsmen, and began making arrangements for building materials (verses 7-9).
- Read about the great ceremonial pomp celebrated in the laying of the temple foundation, in verses 10-11.
- But, why did many of the older men weep? (verse 12; the temple had been destroyed in 587 BC and the rebuilding began in 536 BC, meaning that these “ancient” men had to have been well over fifty years old).
Ezra 4-5 Opposition to God’s Work
The adversarial relationship between the Jews and the Samaritans had begun centuries before, but upon learning of the re-building of the temple, the Samaritans wanted to help (4:1-2):
- How did Zerubbabel and the other Jewish leaders respond to this offer? (verse 3).
- What happened next? (verses 4-5)
- In about 530 BC king Cyrus of Persia is replaced by king Ahasuerus/Artaxerxes, who receives a letter from leaders of the non-Jews in Jerusalem (4:7-11). What did the letter say? (verses 12-16). Do you see opposition to the Lord’s work in our day? How do you respond to opposition or persecution?
- The king mandated halt of the construction of Jerusalem and the temple (4:17-22).
- How did Zerubbabel and the prophets Haggai and Zechariah react to the king’s decree? (5:1-2).
- What happened next? (verses 3-5).
The work of God and His people cannot be permanently stopped. In the April 1909 general conference, Apostle Heber J. Grant declared, “Our enemies have never done anything that has injured this work of God, and they never will…. Where are the men of influence, of power and prestige, who have worked against the Latter-day Saints? … They have faded away like dew before the sun. We need have no fears, we Latter-day Saints. God will continue to sustain this work” (Gospel Standards, pp. 85-86).
Ezra 6 The Second Temple
In about 522 BC, Darius becomes king of Persia:
- In Ezra 6:1-5, king Darius became aware of the decree made about 17 years earlier by king Cyrus in 2 Chronicles 36:23; Ezra 1:1-4 (which had been reversed by Ahasuerus/Artaxerxes in Ezra 4:17-22).
- As a result, Darius wrote to Tatnai, his governor over the area that included Jerusalem. According to Ezra 6:6-12, what did Darius tell Tatnai to do? How did Tatnai react? (verse 13).
- What was the result? (verses 14-19) (Unfortunately, the ark of the covenant, built at least 750 years earlier for the tabernacle of Moses, was lost in about 586 BC during the Babylonian invasion.)
- (As we saw previously, the “first temple,” built by David’s son Solomon, was completed in about 991 BC and destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC. The “second temple” was completed and dedicated in about 516 BC, and was “rebuilt” in stages by Herod in about 18 BC, shortly before the birth of Jesus Christ. This temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD, and has not yet been rebuilt.)
Ezra 7-8 Inspired Ezra
About 60 years pass between chapters 6 and 7, and the priest/scribe Ezra now appears in the story line. He is a direct descendant of Aaron and in about 458 BC—with the authorization and assistance of the king (see Ezra 7:11-28), he leaves Babylon/Persia and leads other Jews to Jerusalem to assist in the work of the temple:
- Ezra (whose name means “help” or “helper”) is described as a “ready scribe in the law of Moses” (7:6). According to verse 10, what did Ezra do to be “ready” to teach and do the Lord’s word? How can you apply Ezra 7:10 to your service efforts in the Church, family, and community?
- According to Ezra 8:21-23, what did Ezra and others do as they prepared to travel to Jerusalem?
Nehemiah 1-2 Inspired Nehemiah
Like Ezra, Nehemiah (whose name means “comfort of the Lord”) was a descendant of Jews taken to Babylon as captives. In about 445 BC, Nehemiah is serving as a “cupbearer” for the king of Persia (1:11), making him responsible to protect the king’s drinks from poisoning by enemies:
- In Nehemiah 1:1-3 he learns that the Jews in Jerusalem are in “great affliction and reproach” and that the walls of the city were still broken down. So Nehemiah fasted and prayed to the Lord (verse 4).
- Read Nehemiah’s prayer in verses 5-11. What stands out to you in his prayer?
- Read Nehemiah’s conversation with the king, in 2:1-8 (note again the God-inspired goodness and kindness of the kings of Persia toward the Jewish people).
- Once in Israel, Nehemiah is opposed in his intent by non-Jewish government officials (verses 10, 19). What was Nehemiah’s reply to them, in verse 20?
Nehemiah 4 More Opposition
- What did Nehemiah report in 4:1-3? Read Nehemiah’s prayer in verses 4-5.
- What happened in verse 6, after Nehemiah’s prayer?
- What happened in verses 7-8? In this life, opposition seldom ceases. What things are Satan and his followers trying to prevent you from doing? How is God helping you? Read Romans 8:31; D&C 3:1-3.
- Nehemiah and the people prayed and made a plan, wherein they “set a watch against [the enemies] day and night” (verse 9).
- Read also the inspiring, courageous activities of Nehemiah and the Jewish people in verses 13-18. This is similar to the workmen completing the Kirtland Temple in 1836, who were described by Brigham Young as “holding the sword in one hand to protect themselves from the mob, while they placed the stone and moved the trowel with the other” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 2, Number 6, April 6, 1853). Also, the completion of the Nauvoo Temple in 1845 was similarly characterized by Elder George Q. Cannon, who said that the workers labored “with the sword or rifle in one hand and the trowel in the other, their enemies surrounding them on every hand” (Journal of Discourses, Volume 14, Number 43, 1871; see also Discourses of Brigham Young, p. 417).
- Note Nehemiah’s continued faith and diligence, in Nehemiah 4:19-22.
Nehemiah 5-6 Finishing the Wall
In Nehemiah 5:1-5, some of the people appealed to Nehemiah because “their brethren the Jews” (verse 1) were taking advantage of one another via their lending; imposing bondage and “usury” (verse 7; which means they were charging financial interest):
- How did Nehemiah resolve these issues, in verses 7-13?
- Next, Nehemiah made it clear that he always provided for his own temporal necessities (verses 14-15), rather than maintaining himself through donations or taxations (similar to King Benjamin in the Book of Mormon; see Mosiah 2:12-16).
- In chapter 6, Sanballat and others attempted to trick Nehemiah and thus destroy the progress on the city walls (verses 1-2).
- What classic answer did Nehemiah give them, in verse 3? Let us not be deceived, distracted, nor delayed in our efforts to build God’s kingdom.
- The enemies continued their efforts in verses 4-7, but what did Nehemiah say and do in verses 8-14, to counter their attempts?
- In verse 15, without self-aggrandizement, Nehemiah simply says, “and the wall was finished … in fifty and two days” (remarkably, it took them less than two months!)
- What was the reaction of the enemies, in verse 16?
- Some scholars have concluded that the newly re-built walls around Jerusalem were about 1.7 miles long, but it is impossible to know for sure. The wall underwent expansion and renovation through the years, and stood until being destroyed by the Romans more than 400 years after the time of Nehemiah. They have been rebuilt several times since.
Nehemiah 8 To Love and Live by the Scriptures
What things happened in verses 1-8, 13-18 that serve to inspire and motivate you? (You may also want to read the encouraging examples in Nehemiah 9-10, chapter headings; and in Nehemiah 10:29-31; 12:43; 13:15-22.)