[Following is the introduction to both Ezra and Nehemiah, for they are parts of one whole.]
1. Title. In Hebrew Bible manuscripts Ezra and Nehemiah appeared as one volume, like the books of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles, until A.D. 1448, when the Vulgate division into two volumes was introduced into a Hebrew manuscript for the first time. Originally, the united book was called “Ezra.” But in the LXX this was divided in two parts called 2 and 3 Esdras, prefaced by the Apocryphal 1 Esdras, which contains excerpts from the two canonical books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Jerome was the first to give the two canonical books the names “Ezra” and “Nehemiah,” names which they retain to the present day. He designated 1 Esdras of the LXX as 3 Esdras and classed it as an Apocryphal book.
2. Authorship. Ezra and Nehemiah form the historical and literary continuation of the books of Chronicles, and a study of the style and language reveals that they probably had the same author. Jewish tradition (the Talmud) names Ezra as the chief author (Baba Bathra 15a) and Nehemiah as the one who completed the work. Although the double book Ezra-Nehemiah does not claim to have been written in its entirety by Ezra, there is nothing in it which could not have been written by him. The author used official material of Zerubbabel’s time and his own, and also reports probably written by Nehemiah. The change in pronouns from the 1st person to the 3d person singular is no proof of a multiple authorship within the sections dealing with Ezra’s (3d person: chs. 7:1-26; 8:35, 36; 10:1-44; 1st person: chs. 7:27 to 8:34; 9:1-15) and Nehemiah’s work (1st person: chs. 1:1 to 7:73; 12:27 to 13:31; 3d person: chs. 8:1 to 12:26. Such changes appear also in ancient non-Biblical literature (see on Ezra 7:28).
Since the various lists of priests and Levites presented in Nehemiah 12 terminate about 400 B.C. (see on Neh. 12:10, 11, 22), the book seems to have been written at about that time, the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra was a scribe (Ezra 7:6), and was anxious to acquaint his people with the sacred writings (see Neh. 8:1-8). It would have been strange indeed for such a man not to make provision for preserving for the guidance and edification of posterity an accurate account of the wonderful events of his time. It is therefore entirely appropriate to consider Ezra the inspired author of the books of Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah. In writing, he was guided in making selections from available public records, such as decrees (see Ezra 1:2-4; Ezra 6:6-12; etc.), letters (see Ezra 4:11-16; 5:7-17; etc.), lists (see Ezra 2:1-67; etc.), and other source materials.
The fact that two sections of Ezra are written in Aramaic (chs. 4:8 to 6:18; 7:12-26) has been used in the past as evidence for a much later authorship than the time of Ezra. This argument was proposed at a time when there was only fragmentary knowledge of the spread and use of Aramaic in the Persian Empire. Since the discovery of numerous Aramaic documents from different parts of the Persian kingdom and of many Aramaic Jewish documents from Egypt, from the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, this argument is no longer valid. There is remarkably great similarity between the Aramaic of these documents and the Aramaic parts of Ezra. Aramaic had become the official language of the Persian Empire, and was used for the publication of decrees and directives, as well as for correspondence and for economic and legal documents. Hence, lettered men like Ezra were bilingual and could use both their mother tongue and Aramaic in speaking and writing. In fact, the use of Aramaic spread so widely that any man who could read was expected to know Aramaic; thus the author of Ezra could expect his readers to be able to understand his Aramaic sections. This accounts for the fact that he did not deem it necessary to translate into Hebrew the Aramaic source materials he used. Concerning contemporary Aramaic documents, see pp. 79-83.
3. Historical Setting. Aside from Esther, Ezra and Nehemiah are the only historical books of the postexilic period, and are of great importance for a reconstruction of the history of postexilic Jewry. However, they do not record the history of the people of God in unbroken sequence for the period covered by the two books, but only certain parts of it. There are large gaps for which little information is available. Ezra records, first of all, the return of the Jews from exile under the guidance of Zerubbabel, the reorganization of the sacrificial service, and the beginning of the rebuilding of the Temple. All these events took place within about two years, early in the reign of Cyrus. During the next 13 years the work progressed slowly against opposition. Then appears an account of the resumption of the building of the Temple and its completion and dedication under Darius I. Of the next nearly 60 years Ezra leaves no record. Then, in 457 B.C., Ezra was sent back to Judea by King Artaxerxes, with far- reaching authority to reorganize the nation’s administration according to Mosaic law. He tells of his return and some of his reforms, but again breaks the thread of continuity for more than ten years, when Nehemiah appears on the scene of action as governor, and reports his activities in the book which bears his name. All the events described in Ezra and Nehemiah took place during the first half of the period of the Persian Empire, which lasted from 539 B.C., when Babylon fell to the victorious forces of Cyrus, until, with the death of Darius III in 331 B.C., the empire ceased to exist and was succeeded by that of Alexander the Great. The history of postexilic Jewry begins “in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia” (Ezra 1:1). The Persian Empire stretched from the desert wastes of Iran in the east to the coast of Asia Minor in the west, and from the Armenian highlands in the north to the border of Egypt in the south. Cyrus, its founder, was a prudent and humane monarch. In harmony with his policy of appeasing nations subjugated by Babylon, he resettled them in their old homes and restored their places of worship. In accord with this generous policy, the Jews were allowed to return to their old homeland and rebuild their Temple. For the most part, the kings of Persia attempted to rule their empire with equity and consideration. Their officials were admonished to practice honesty and to work in the interests of the peoples whom they governed. The monotheistic religion of Zoroaster, the state religion at least from Darius I on, stood on a much higher level than that of the polytheistic and idolatrous predecessors of the Persians, the people of Babylonia.
When Cyrus took Babylon he became acquainted with the aged Daniel, trusted counselor of the great Nebuchadnezzar of a former era, and learned to appreciate his advice. Through Daniel, Cyrus must have become acquainted with Isaiah’s prophecies concerning him and his appointed role in behalf of God’s people (Isa. 44:21 to 45:13), and granted their restoration (PK 557). The great work of pacifying his far-flung empire in its years of infancy required the king’s full attention. He lost his life in a campaign against unruly eastern tribes after a reign of about nine years, counted from the fall of Babylon.
Returning to Judea, the Jews found hostile neighbors, and were continually harassed by the Samaritans, a people of mixed racial and religious origins. Because Cyrus was busy unifying his far-flung empire, these enemies succeeded in hindering the Jews and causing them untold trouble that slowed the work of rebuilding the Temple. Cyrus’ eldest son, Cambyses, reigned for less than eight years. His greatest achievement was the conquest of Egypt. That he was favorably disposed toward the Jews is known from a Jewish document found in Egypt, but we have no evidence that he actively assisted the Jews in rebuilding their Temple. The short reign of the false Smerdis proved a great setback for the Jews. Under this king, described by Darius as a destroyer of temples, the work at Jerusalem was stopped. The stoppage may have been partly due to Samaritan enemies, for new foundations had to be laid as soon as stable conditions under the strong government of Darius I permitted resumption of the work. The era of Darius the Great was marked by prosperity and order. The Jews, like other nations, benefited from his wise and strong rule. Under the spiritual leadership of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, they finished the Temple and dedicated it in the sixth regnal year of Darius, 515 B.C. An era of unrest began, however, when late in his reign Darius decided to invade Greece. From that time on the empire experienced repeated reverses in Greece, Egypt, and elsewhere that disturbed the internal peace and stability of the empire. The next two kings, Xerxes and Artaxerxes I, were weaklings, opportunists, and unstable in character, and owed their throne to the strong hand of powerful counselors. Disastrous campaigns in Greece and rebellions in Egypt and other parts of the empire caused great unrest and led to vacillating domestic and foreign policies. It was during a serious rebellion in Egypt (463-454 B.C.) that Ezra received major concessions for the Jews, whose good will Artaxerxes needed in this crucial period, since Judea lay athwart the highway to Egypt. Later, when the satrapy to which Judea belonged rebelled (after 450 B.C.), Artaxerxes apparently supported the supposedly loyal Samaritans under the erroneous assumption and fear that the Jews might join the rebellion. Accordingly Artaxerxes authorized the Samaritans to halt the rebuilding of the wall of Jerusalem, which had been in progress for some time. When order in the satrapy was restored, Nehemiah, a trusted Jewish court official, succeeded in obtaining a royal appointment as governor of Judea, and completed the rebuilding of the city wall. This he did under continuing threats of violence. He served as governor for two terms, and proved to be an able organizer and religious leader. He laid a comparatively solid political, social, and moral foundation that proved of great value in the turbulent times that followed.
4. Theme. Ezra and Nehemiah are historical source books which record the outworking of the divine plan in the restoration of the Jews, whereby they were afforded another opportunity to cooperate with the eternal purposes and prove their right to exist as a nation. This record shows, furthermore, how the prophecies of Isaiah and Jeremiah were fulfilled, and provides invaluable source material by which other prophecies, those of Dan. 8 and 9, can securely be anchored to the facts of history.
Ezra and Nehemiah illustrate, by a series of instructive examples, how a few people can do great things for God when led by God-fearing, sincere, unselfish, but fearless and determined leaders. These books contain much that edifies and that strengthens faith in the unfailing leadership of God.
I. The Decree of Cyrus and the Return Under Zerubbabel, Ezra 1:1 to 4:5, 24. A. The decree of Cyrus, 1:1–11. 1. A copy of the decree, 1:1-4.