The book of Nehemiah follows the same story as the Bible’s previous book, Ezra. It takes place more than 50 years after the Babylonian Empire conquers Jerusalem and exiles some of Israel’s people to Babylon.

The book tells the second half of the story that began in Ezra, in which Persian King Artaxerxes allows some Israelites to return to Jerusalem. The Israelite Nehemiah, Artaxerxes’s cupbearer (a very high political position), prays to God to allow him to return to Jerusalem. Nehemiah asks Artaxerxes to allow him to lead some of his fellow people back to their city to rebuild its walls. Nehemiah trusts in God, and he is allowed to return, where he oversees the completion of the walls’ reconstruction, dedicates them to the Lord and the leads the people in worship and celebration.

Nehemiah and other leaders rally Israelites of all ages to hear the Scriptures read aloud. It’s a seven-day Bible marathon, and the people are so moved that they commit themselves to following the Torah as their ancestors did. They promise not to abuse the Temple anymore and devote themselves to obeying the commands of the Torah.

But, as we’ve seen in many previous books, the people don’t keep their promises. Nehemiah learns that the Temple has been neglected and defiled. People are not honoring the Sabbath day. The problem of unholy marriages has only gotten worse since Ezra 9.

Nehemiah is furious. He goes around the city, beating people and pulling out their hair for not keeping their commitments. The book ends with Nehemiah praying to God to remember him for trying to do what was right in His eyes.

THEMES

Prayer: One of the outstanding characteristics of Nehemiah is his devotion to prayer. Nehemiah has a relationship with the God of Israel and prays boldly to Him. The book begins and ends with Nehemiah praying to God for favor.

The need for a new heart: Like the book of Ezra, Nehemiah’s wall building and spiritual reforms were not enough to get the people of Israel to obey God. Nehemiah tells of some of the last recorded events in Israel’s history before the birth of Jesus, and it’s more evident than ever that God’s people need to change their hearts more than they need to rebuild their city in order to be fully devoted to God.

KEY PASSAGES

Nehemiah 1:5-7: “Then I said, ‘Lord, the God of heaven, the great and awesome God, who keeps his covenant of love with those who love him and keep his commandments, let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer your servant is praying before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel. I confess the sins we Israelites, including myself and my father’s family, have committed against you. We have acted very wickedly toward you. We have not obeyed the commands, decrees and laws you gave your servant Moses.’”

Nehemiah 8:8: “They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people understood what was being read.”

Nehemiah 13:14: “Remember me for this, O my God, and do not blot out what I have so faithfully done for the house of God and its services.”

HOW DOES THIS FIT INTO GOD’S STORY?

The book of Nehemiah show us that although Nehemiah’s intentions were good and God’s law was able to convict the hearts of His people, it wasn’t enough for things to change.

The people of Israel, though they are now back in the land God promised to them, are still separated from God because of their sin.

Nehemiah reminds us that sin is not a condition of our circumstances, but a condition of our hearts.

The only way for our hearts to be transformed is by the gift of God’s grace—not our own efforts to change.