I suppose the first thing to say about this book is that it is, in a sense, the last book of the Old Testament. That is, while it does not come last in the Bible, it does cover the latest historical period prior to New Testament.
The book is written mostly in the first person by Nehemiah, although it’s also thought that Ezra was the editor. He is the King of Persia’s cupbearer, as is rather dramatically revealed in 1:11.
In the book, the third and last group of Jews returns to Jerusalem following their exile to Babylon, and under Nehemiah’s leadership the Jews successfully rebuild the city’s walls. He is able to get the king’s imprimatur for this enterprise through drawing the king’s attention by appearing downcast before him — which could be a risky thing to do (2:2).
So in time and theme this book fits in closely with the immediately preceding book, Ezra, as Wikipedia (sorry) notes: “Ezra is written to fit a schematic pattern in which the God of Israel inspires a king of Persia to commission a leader from the Jewish community to carry out a mission; three successive leaders carry out three such missions, the first rebuilding the Temple, the second purifying the Jewish community, and the third sealing the holy city itself behind a wall. (This last mission, that of Nehemiah, is not part of the Book of Ezra.)” Ezra himself reappears in chapter 8; see also 12:36. Nehemiah is the secular leader; Ezra is a priest and the religious leader.
So we can learn from Nehemiah to seize opportunities to serve God, including those opportunities we have because of our position in life. Another takeaway is to pray constantly, as Nehemiah did (my NIV study Bible lists eight verses in the book where we are told that Nehemiah prays spontaneously).
Some other notes:
- Chapter 3 describes in excruciating detail who did what in rebuilding which part of the wall. There are also lists of returning exiles, those signing the pledge mentioned in a later bullet, genealogies, and the like (see chapters 7, 10, 11, and 12; the list in Ezra 2 is very close to the list in Nehemiah 7, and so the former was probably stored in the temple archives and then found by Nehemiah — see Nehemiah 7:5). To me, this enhances the book’s veracity. Why make this stuff up, and since the genealogies might be important for a Jew wanting to prove he was a Jew, would it make sense to mix this in with fake news?
- The confession that the Jews offer in chapter 9 is fittingly — given that this covers the last historical period in the Old Testament — a summary of sorts in broad strokes of all the OT historical narratives.
- After that confession, a pledge is then offered (10:28-39). As my NIV study Bible summarizes it: “This ‘solemn promise’ between the people and God had six provisions. They agreed to (1) not marry non-Jewish neighbors (10:30), (2) observe the Sabbath (10:31), (3) observe every seventh year as a Sabbath year (10:31), (4) pay a Temple tax (10:32, 33), (5) supply wood for the burnt offerings in the Temple (10:34), and (6) give dues to the Temple (10:35-38).”
- The book ends with passage that likewise condemns Sabbath-breaking and intermarriage.
Final note: A sidebar in my NIV study Bible offers parallels between the exodus from Egypt and the return from the Babylonian exile: “Going Home: Two Great Journeys of Israel.” There’s certainly the obvious point that, in both instances, Jews far away and under a foreign power return to their homeland. But it’s interesting to think about the differences, too: They were worse off, and had spent much longer, in Egypt; they did not end up in Egypt because God was unhappy with them, but that is why they ended up in Babylon; even though their whining and backsliding ways result in a long delay between leaving Egypt and crossing the Jordan, the earlier homecoming seems to me to be more triumphant than the later, more humbled one. Still, the Old Testament history ends on a hopeful if humbled note: The Jews are back home, the temple is rebuilt, and God is with them. What’s next?