New Books: Ezra & Nehemiah

by Alys Tarr

How familiar are you with the books of Ezra and Nehemiah? If I had to put a wager on it, I reckon that the average Christian’s knowledge of the Old Testament gets a bit hazy when it comes to books like these, at least compared to the other OT books we’ve encountered so far in this plan (Jonah and Psalms). Is this a fair assessment? If you feel that I’ve made a sweeping generalisation about your familiarity with Ezra and Nehemiah, I invite you to test your knowledge against this quiz and let me know how you did!

These two books were originally only one one book and were only separated in the Hebrew Canon as late as 15th Century A.D.! The storyline which runs through both of them starts in a place of great hope; right at the end of 2 Chronicles we hear Cyrus, King of Persia, having his heart moved by God to allow exiled Israelites back to Jerusalem to commence the rebuilding of the ruined temple. Finally, after seventy long years, we’re getting close to the resolution of the traumatic story of Israel’s exile. The temple is rebuilt, the walls are rebuilt, the people renew their commitment to the worship of Yahweh. Surely this is the happily-ever after Israel have been waiting for?

Except it isn’t. Prophets like Isaiah, Zechariah, Ezekiel and Hosea had prophesied what Israel would be like post-exile; the presence of God would return to the rebuilt temple, people from all nations would join in with the worship of Yahweh there and a Messianic King from the line of David would rule over Israel in righteousness and justice. Yet none of these things come to pass in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Ezra makes no mention of the presence of God returning the the rebuilt temple; a glaring omission if ever there was one. The temple was meant to be a place of worship for all the tribes of Israel and all the nations, yet Israelites who hadn’t been taken into exile but who wanted to help the rebuilding the temple and the city walls, were turned away unceremoniously and told they have no part in either project.

Nehemiah almost ends on a positive note. After a week of Torah teaching, the people celebrate religious festivals, confess their sins and recommit themselves to the covenant. But despite all of that talk, Nehemiah finds people breaking God’s law left, right and centre.

Happily-ever-after this is not. It’s almost as if God has an even bigger plan for the salvation of his people than just merely bringing them back from exile.