Scripture Reading: Nehemiah 1 Background Reading: Esther 9:29–10:3
As we thumb through our English Bibles, we find four books that deal with events in the Persian Empire. In order of appearance, they are the books of Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, and Daniel. If you have been following our Bible studies during the last year, you will recall that we have just finished a study of Ezra. Our study over these next months will focus on the book of Nehemiah. Since the Old Testament begins with Genesis and moves through a number of historical books, most of us assume that these four are in correct chronological sequence. Of the four, Daniel tends to generate a lot of interest because it contains events and miracles that fascinate us. Daniel is full of Sunday school lessons, but we tend to focus only on the first six chapters. We tend to find the last half of that book to be somewhat confusing and difficult to understand. When we realize that much of that is prophetic and is rooted in the Persian Empire, we have added reason to avoid that section.
In addition to those historical books, we also need to note that the last three books in the Old Testament are also rooted in the Persian Empire. Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi are all commentaries on the situation in Jerusalem during the time of Ezra. Look at Malachi 2:10–12, for example, as a commentary on Ezra 10. God is sending his messengers to address serious problems. Typical pastors and professors know very little about the Persian Empire because that subject seldom is studied by Reformed theologians. Most of our seminaries in the Western world do not teach courses on Persian history or culture. Since Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther are completely set in the Persian Empire, we tend to ignore what we don’t know. In fact, most laypeople assume that those last three books are in correct chronological order, with Esther being the latest book and the latest person of the four. That is a wrong assumption, as any serious study of chronology will indicate.
The Biblical Sequence
The Chronological Sequence
If we are going to interpret Nehemiah correctly, we will need to look carefully at the texts of these four books in order to arrive at a correct chronological sequence. After some serious efforts, and a few revisions, I have arrived at the following.
The Chronology of Nehemiah
(all dates are b.c., before Christ)
740–701 The prophet Isaiah foretells the destruction of Israel and the coming of Cyrus, king of Persia (see Isa. 44:24–45:13)
605 Nebuchadnezzar begins the siege of Jerusalem; Daniel and friends are carried into captivity (2 Kings 24:10–16; Jer. 52:4–11; Dan. 1:1–2)
586 Jerusalem and the temple are destroyed (2 Kings 25:8–10; Jer. 52:12–16)
539 The Medes and the Persians conquer Babylon and kill Belshazzar; Darius and Cyrus become co-rulers over the Medo-Persian Empire (Dan. 5:30; 6:28)
538 King Cyrus issues his edict allowing the Jews to return to Jerusalem and Judah (Ezra 1:1; 6:3; 2 Chron. 36:22)
536 Work on the temple begins, is opposed, but continues (Ezra 1–4)
530–522 Cambyses [Ahasuerus] is king of Persia (Ezra 4:6)
530 Work on the temple is stopped by force of arms (Ezra 4:6, 23)
522–486 Darius I reigns over Persia (Ezra 5)
520 Work on the temple resumes (Ezra 5)
515 The temple is completed and dedicated (Ezra 6:15–18)
494–449 The Persians wage war against the Greeks and the Egyptians
486–465 Xerxes [Ahasuerus] reigns over the Persian Empire (Ezra 4:6; Esther 1:1)
479 Esther becomes queen of Persia (Esther 2:16)
465–424 Artaxerxes I becomes king and reigns over Persia (Ezra 4:7; 7:11)
458 Ezra is commissioned by Artaxerxes to go to Jerusalem and teach the law of God (Ezra 7:7)
445 Nehemiah is commissioned by Artaxerxes to go to Jerusalem and repair the walls of the city (Neh. 2:1); he governs for twelve years
445 The walls are finished in fifty-two days (Neh. 6:15)
433 Nehemiah returns to Susa to report to the king (Neh. 5:14; 13:6)
If we operate with the assumption that Ezra and Nehemiah occur before Esther, we will make a rather serious mistake. Notice, too, that Daniel appears much later in our Bibles but predates the other three. He is a very old man by the time that Darius, one of the Persian kings, puts him in the lions’ den (Dan. 6). The Lord shuts the mouths of the lions. King Darius is mightily impressed. Notice also that this Persian king then issues a decree for all the people within his dominion to “tremble and fear before the God of Daniel for he is the living God” (Dan. 6:26– 27). As we peruse this chronology, note first of all that Daniel and his friends are taken captive to Babylon in the year 605 b.c. Note next the date for Esther becoming queen (479 b.c.) and compare that with the appearance of Ezra (458 b.c.) and Nehemiah (445 b.c.). The book of Ezra is primarily about rebuilding the temple of the Lord. The book of Nehemiah is primarily about rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem that had been demolished in 586 b.c. Nehemiah goes to Jerusalem and repairs the damage in 445 b.c., 141 years after the destruction of the walls. A lot has happened during that lengthy interlude. God’s chosen people are not only spared but also become a dominant force in Persia. Esther might well have been queen or queen mother when Ezra is commissioned. Furthermore, she could have been the mother or the stepmother of King Artaxerxes, who commissions Nehemiah thirty-four years after she becomes queen. With that in mind, it would be beneficial if one read the book of Esther before tackling a study of either Ezra or Nehemiah. To complicate matters, Mordecai, the Jew, might be the second-highest official in the Persian Empire during this era (see Esther 10). His influence and power were exceptional.
In between these dates there is another significant event. It is celebrated as the Feast of Purim, recorded for us in Esther 9:20–32. In order to understand the significance of this feast, we need to go back into the book of Esther and read through chapters 3–9. In those chapters we read about the devilish plot devised by Haman to annihilate all the Jews In the empire. Originally, Haman is deeply offended by Mordecai, who will not bow down to him and worship him. Mordecai rightly sees that as idolatry and refuses to bow down. Haman plans to hang him but also arranges for all the Jews in the empire to be killed. Remembering that we were taught in the book of Daniel that “God is sovereign over all the affairs of men and nations” (Dan. 4:17), we see that sovereign control being worked out in unusual ways. God has placed Esther on the throne of Persia and inclined the heart of the king toward her. Through a series of events, Esther is able to present her plea to King Ahasuerus and is able to identify Haman as the real culprit. Haman is hanged on his own gallows, and all the Jews are allowed to defend themselves in the face of all their enemies. The Jews are victorious, and Mordecai is elevated to the second-highest office in the empire.
These are not accidents. These are events controlled and directed by the God of heaven. In a very real sense, God is fulfilling the dream that he had placed in King Nebuchadnezzar’s head more than a century before. In that dream, the “rock cut out of the mountain, not by human hands” (Dan. 2:34), is crushing the Persian Empire in such fashion that Christ is triumphing over evil. Jesus Christ, the rider on the white horse, is ruling the nations with a rod of iron (Rev. 19:18). He uses Haman, Esther, and Mordecai to accomplish his goals. That victory resonates down through the empire and influences King Artaxerxes to issue his astounding decrees. History is the outworking of God’s plans.
During the Old Testament era and much of the New Testament period, the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were considered to be one book. According to tradition, Ezra contributed much of it, especially the section that we know as Ezra, while Nehemiah contributed much of what is known by his name. As the time line suggests, there is a thirteen-year gap between the arrival of these two ecclesiastical giants in the land of Judah. Ezra comes in 458 b.c., while Nehemiah is not commissioned until 445 b.c. Ezra is commissioned by the king and his seven counselors to teach the people the law of God. He is recognized as God’s leading authority and a gifted theologian-teacher. He does much to inform and disciple the church, but he also confronts a major problem of intermarriage between some of the Levites and pagan women. Ezra is commissioned by King Artaxerxes and is given all the authority and provision that he needs, suggesting that this king is a God-fearing man. Ezra is sent on official government business, by the king and his seven counselors, with the specific assignment to “make inquiries about Judah and Jerusalem according to the law of your God” (Ezra 7:14, 25– 26). That same king commissions Nehemiah, thirteen years later, to oversee the rebuilding of the walls of Jerusalem. As we read, we will be amazed at the speed with which the walls were rebuilt. At the same time, we should not be surprised at the opposition that came from neighboring people.
We get little information about the man Nehemiah from the text. We are told that he is “the son of Hacaliah” (v. 1), that he lives in Susa, “the capital” of the Persian Empire (v. 1), and that he is “cupbearer to the king” (v. 11). Beyond that, we could conclude that he is a devout disciple of God and that he is fervent in prayer. In contrast to the information about Ezra (Ezra 7:1–6), we have little information about Nehemiah’s family history. With Ezra, we are told a lengthy family listing because he is a Levite and has to trace his lineage all the way back to Aaron in order to justify his priesthood. Nehemiah, by contrast, is a member of the noble class and serves a vital role in the king’s inner court. His role is distinctly different from that of Ezra. Both are honored by King Artaxerxes and given significant assignments in Jerusalem.
We are told that Ezra “came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king” (Ezra 7:8). By contrast, Nehemiah approaches that same king “In the month of Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes” (Neh. 2:1). That implies a time lapse of thirteen years. During that time, Ezra was given great opportunities to teach the people the law of God but also was given extensive authority by King Artaxerxes to govern the entire area and even to appoint all types of government officials (see Ezra 7:11–28). Ezra, the religious leader of the Jews, was also a powerful civic official appointed by the king. King Artaxerxes was unusually benevolent toward the Jews and did much to promote the worship of God. During that time period, the church also experienced a tremendous crisis due to the number of priests who had married pagan women. Those marriages were annulled and families broken up, but God blessed their obedience. True to his many warnings, God did not want his children to marry pagan persons. True worship and idolatry might not mix.
As we work our way through the book of Nehemiah, we will be posing inductive questions, with the intent that the reader will carefully examine the text of Scripture so as to discover the riches of this book. Each reader should pore over the assigned texts multiple times before answering the questions. Preparation will make the discussions that much more meaningful. Your benefits will be measured by the amount of effort put into each lesson. Each lesson will contain reading assignments and discussion starters. It is my prayer that each lesson will be a blessing to all those involved in the study.
Which four books of the Old Testament are set in the empire of Persia?
What is the correct chronological (historical) sequence of these four books?
How does Daniel’s overnight stay in the lions’ den affect King Darius?
How large is the Persian Empire? What are its boundaries?
Does the king’s decree reach to the far corners of the empire? What effect would that have?
How is the sovereignty of God demonstrated in the book of Esther?
What explanation might be offered for the names of God to be omitted from Esther?
Why do some scholars question the inclusion of Esther in the biblical canon?
Dr. Norman De Jong is a semi-retired pastor in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.