Nehemiah: A Brief Background

…to understand any book such as Ezra-Nehemiah (in the Hebrew Bible, they are one book, not two), we must understand something of its historical context. The Bible teaches that the way God works with his people in one historical context, such as the Persian Empire, can help us understand his work in other contexts.*

The Persian Empire replaced Babylon as the greatest power in the ancient Near East. All the events of Ezra-Nehemiah took place during the time of the Persian Empire.

The city of Babylon was conquered by Cyrus (the Persian leader) in 539BC.

Daniel described how Belshazzar fell from power suddenly one night while he was banqueting. Xenophon corroborated this; he said the Persians attacked the city during a festival when “all Babylon was accustomed to drink and revel all night long.” Herodotus wrote: “The Babylonians themselves say that owing to the great size of the city the outskirts were captured without the people in the centre knowing anything about it; there was a festival going on, and even while the city was falling they continued to dance and enjoy themselves, until hard facts brought them to their senses.”9

Ezra 1.1-4 and 6.3-5 provide the immediate biblical context for the book of Nehemiah:

In the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the Lord stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.” – Ezra 1.1-4

Historical Dates: The bulk of the context of Nehemiah occurs in the late 450’s and 440’s BC. (445 BC)

The Assyrians had been very cruel. They had harshly suppressed the peoples they conquered; many times they had moved entire populations from one land to another and then replaced them with other conquered peoples. This was the case when they conquered the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 b.c.

The Babylonians, although somewhat less cruel, followed much the same policy. Thus when Jerusalem was destroyed in 587 b.c., many of the Jews were taken captive to Babylon. When the Persians took control, however, Cyrus encouraged the peoples he conquered to develop their own culture and continue their own religion. He and some of his successors even helped support the local priests in conquered nations. After conquering Babylon, he restored the place of Marduk as their principal god and allowed captive peoples to return to their homelands.

The “political organization” of the Persian Empire was different from that of Assyria and Babylon. It reached its greatest development during the reign of Darius I (522–486 b.c.). The whole empire was divided into twenty satrapies. Each one was governed by a Persian commissioner or satrap, usually from the Persian noble families. These satraps were virtual kings over their satrapies. They levied taxes and provided troops for the king. But Darius also instituted a system of controls. One was the placing of imperial troops under a royal officer directly responsible to the Persian king. Also royal inspectors, called by the Greeks “the king’s eyes” and “the king’s ears,” could check on the satraps at any moment. The satrapies were further divided into provinces, which were supervised by a governor, usually a descendant of the local nobility. Thus in Judah we read of Jews such as Zerubbabel and Nehemiah who served as governors.

Many scholars think that the same author who wrote 1, 2 Chronicles also wrote Ezra-Nehemiah. According to the Jewish tradition found in the Talmud…, Ezra was the author of both Ezra-Nehemiah and 1, 2 Chronicles.

More modern scholarship argues against the notion and the books, strictly speaking, are anonymous.


  1. God’s plan continues
  2. God’s promises are unbroken
  3. Holiness is important
  4. Scripture should be central
  5. Worship is a priority
  6. God’s people should pray

 Mervin Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, electronic ed., vol. 10, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993), 32.

*All info quoted or paraphrased from: Mervin Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, electronic ed., vol. 10, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1993).