Ezra (a scribe, priest, and rabbi) led a second group of exiles back to Jerusalem in 459 BC. This was about fifty years after the first group arrived in Jerusalem to rebuild the temple under orders of King Cyrus. Ezra brought back 5,400 vessels of gold and silver which had been removed from the temple by Nebuchadnezzer. This event took place in the seventh year of the reign of Artaxerxes Longimus. About 5,000 Israelites (of the tribes of Judah and Benjamin) travelled back with Ezra. This permission to leave may have been due to Esther’s influence, for she had become queen a few months before Ezra’s departure.
From their arrival in Jerusalem they saw the devastation of the city and how little work had been carried out upon it. Ezra fully intended to get started with the rebuilding work, but very quickly problems arose that needed his urgent attention. The people and the priests had begun to intermarry with the Gentiles. Ezra was speechless at such corruption (9:3-4). He went before the Lord and confessed the sins of the nation, for he knew that the Lord had every right to completely destroy the people (9:13-14). So we see Ezra gathering them together in the pouring rain as he reprimanded them for their sin and warned them about the consequences of getting right with God would mean (i.e. the break-up of their families). The people accepted Ezra’s verdict and followed his advice to put away their foreign wives (10:12).
Ezra appointed a commission that would investigate if they really did do what he commanded. His quick action saved the people from total ruin, but for some reason the work on rebuilding Jerusalem came to a complete halt.
Nehemiah had heard of the condition of the city of Jerusalem while working as a cup-bearer to King Artaxerxes in the palace of Shushan. His brother Hanani had informed him of the sorry state of the Holy City. For several days Nehemiah fasted and prayed over the situation. Eventually the king noticed his sadness and remarked upon it. He recounted to the king what was on his heart about the city of his birth.
In 446 BC Nehemiah was given permission to go to Jerusalem and act as governor of Judah until the rebuilding work was completed. He came with letters and a military escort. These letters were for the Pashas of the surrounding regions which he had to pass through, and for Asaph, the keeper of the royal forests, commanding them to assist Nehemiah in every possible way. On his arrival he surveyed the city and put together a plan to restore it. He would have seen the terrible mess the city was in. The gates were burnt down, and rubbish filled the Brook Kidron (Nehemiah 2:17).
He ordered that the sheep gate, situated near the temple, be repaired. He divided the whole building project up into sections and placed various families in charge of restoring that part. At times they slept in the very clothes they worked in. They worked with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other. At times they became discouraged because of the amount of work needing to be done. Nehemiah put watchmen at various points along the wall to blow trumpets if there was the slightest sign of trouble from their enemies.
During this time he was called upon to deal with the complaints of the poor concerning the wealthy who were mistreating and abusing them. Nehemiah called a general assembly and bluntly told the rich to release the lands, vineyards, and houses to the poor. He himself took no wage for his work in Jerusalem, he paid for his own food and drink. Nehemiah was eager to get the work completed and would not allow anything to hold the work back.
Nehemiah’s plan was so successful that the job was done in fifty-two days. After which there was a dedication of the walls. Ezra assembled the people and read from the book of the Law. This was the beginning of an awakening for the Jews. For several days they attended outdoor services where they confessed their sins and offered sacrifices to God. Ezra stood on a raised platform with fourteen other priests and read from the Laws of Moses from morning until midday (Nehemiah 8). The people broke into bitter weeping as they realised how far they had fallen from God. But Ezra encouraged them to rejoice over what God had accomplished in them. Once all the sins and abuses were dealt with the new wall was dedicated (Nehemiah 12).
Nehemiah led a group of worshipper around one side of the wall, while Ezra led another. Each group went on praising God as they walked around the walls (Nehemiah 12:36). They could rejoice because now they had a defence for their city.
Nehemiah stayed in Jerusalem for another thirteen years. Even thought he underwent great opposition, and even assassination plots, from those who did not want the city rebuilt (i.e. Sanballet, Tobiali, and Geshem) he was determined to do what God had put on his heart. He put in place everything that was necessary for government and national safety (he placed the care of the city into the hands of his brother Hanani, and to Hananiah (chapter 13).
About 433 BC Nehemiah returned to his old job in Persia, but it was not too long before he heard about the problems that had arisen. Within two years he had to return to Jerusalem to sort out the mess that he found there. He was heartbroken over the immorality and abuses. He was so angry at what he saw that he hit some of them, and pulled the hairs off their faces (13:25). The Levites were not being provided for so that they were forced to work in the field to earn a living instead of serving the Lord. Mixed marriages were back again, and to Nehemiah’s amazement Tobiah had actually been given a place to live inside the temple Nehemiah 13:6-8). Because of this he called for a public reading of the law. He did not force them to give up their wives as Ezra had done, but if they did not they would no longer be considered a part of God’s people. He had been responsible for rebuilding Jerusalem, now he was called upon to reform the people. He restored orderly public worship for they had become lax regarding the Sabbath day. With the Levites unable to perform their duties, there was no one to stop them allowing the traders into the city to buy and sell. Nehemiah ordered that guards be stationed at the gates to keep the traders out. He commanded that they live according to the Law of Moses – that is faithfully before God.
Both Ezra and Nehemiah were men of faith and prayer. Through their influence and hard work they managed to restore Jerusalem and the temple, the worship of God, and obedience to God’s word. It is probably true to say that neither could have done the work alone, they needed each other. Nehemiah needed Ezra’s knowledge of the Law, while Ezra needed Nehemiah’s boldness and determination. Between them they were able to overcome all opposition and complete the work of restoration. Ezra made the law a personal matter for every man; Nehemiah made everyone responsible for rebuilding the City.