Sunday School Lesson #47

Lesson 47: Ezra 1-8; Nehemiah 1-2, 4, 6, 8

Note that the books of Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one book until well after the time of Christ.

The rough chronology below will help place this week’s material in its historical context.

606      The fall of Nineveh, capital of Assyria. Babylon becomes the major power. Daniel and others are taken to Babylon from Israel.

604      Nebuchadnezzar is king of Babylon.

598      Judah’s king, Jehoiachin, and the prophet Ezekiel (with thousands of others) are carried captive into Babylon. Lehi leaves Jerusalem. Habakkuk and Ezekiel prophesy.

587      The fall of Jerusalem; much of the population of Judah is taken captive into Babylon. Some, including Jeremiah (who is a hostage) escape to Egypt. Mulek leaves Jerusalem.

562      The death of Nebuchadnezzar and the beginning of the decline of Babylon.

538      Babylon (in modern-day Iraq) falls to Cyrus, king of Persia (in modern-day Iran). Cyrus reads the Hebrew scriptures and encourages the Jews to return to Jerusalem .

535      Zerubbabel and Jeshua lead approximately 50,000 Jews back to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple.

533      The cornerstone of the temple is laid.

522      Haggai and Zechariah encourage the Jews to finish the temple after the Samaritans and Jewish indifference had forced a stoppage. King Darius of Persia commands the opposition to cease.

516      Zerubbabel’s temple is completed.

486      Esther, wife of King Xerxes in Persia (460?).

458      Ezra leads a second group of 1,496 back to Jerusalem.

445      Nehemiah (Artaxerxes’ cupbearer) arrives in Jerusalem.

433      Nehemiah returns to the service of Artaxerxes in Persia.

431      Nehemiah’s second mission to Jerusalem; the probable time of Malachi.

Outline of the lesson material

The facts about the return of the Jews from exile are not clear. There are a number of difficulties created by the different versions of the return story in these documents. In fact, many scholars believe that the records have been purposefully altered. So the following reconstruction of the events of the return are a good guess, but they remain hypothetical.

1.         Cyrus, king of Persia, allows the Jews to return and rebuild Jerusalem. (Ezra 1:1-4)

2.         Under the direction of Zerubbabel and Joshua, a group returns to rebuild the temple. Zerubbabel was a Jewish political leader appointed governor of Palestine by Cyrus, and one of Jesus’s ancestors. (See Matthew 1:12 and Luke 3:27.) Jeshua was the High Priest. (Ezra 2:2; 3:2-8; 5:2; Nehemiah 7:7; 12:1; see also Haggai 1:1-14; Zechariah 4:6-10).

3.         In the first year, Zerubbabel and Jeshua build the altar of burnt offerings and reinstitute the Mosaic sacrifices (Ezra 3:2-6).

4.         In the second year, they begin to build the temple itself (Ezra 3:8-13).

5.         The Samaritans—descendants of those left behind when Israel and Judah were carried into captivity—offer to help build the temple; then, because the Jews reject their offer, they cause the work to cease temporarily (Ezra 4:1-24; 5:1-4).

6.         Haggai and Zechariah persuade the Israelites to continue building the temple (Ezra 5:1-2; Haggai 1:1-14).

7.         The temple is completed following an edict from Darius, the king of Persia, to allow the work to go forward (Ezra 5:3-15).

8.         Ezra, a scribe, leads a second migration from Babylon and becomes a teacher for his people (Ezra 7).

9.         Nehemiah, the Jewish leader of those remaining in Persia and the king’s cupbearer, travels to Jerusalem from Babylon with the blessings of king Artaxerxes, and supervises the rebuilding of the protective wall around Jerusalem despite opposition from the Samaritans and Ammonites and Arabs (Nehemiah 1, 2, and 4).

10.       Ezra teaches his people the law of Moses and leads them to renew their covenants (Nehemiah 8). (Some contemporary scholars believe that this may be one of the occasions when the scriptures were distorted.)

11.       Nehemiah returns to Babylon for a while, and then once again comes back to Jerusalem. He finds the people already beginning to renege on their covenants. Nehemiah initiates a religious revival (Nehemiah 13:6-31).

Study Questions


Ezra 1:1-6 and 2:64-65: Why does Cyrus allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem? (See also Isaiah 44:28.)

1:3-6: To what two groups does Cyrus address his proclamation? What does he expect of each group?

3:2: The priesthood leader who leads a major group from Babylon to Israel was named
Jeshua—or “Joshua” or “Jesus,” each is a different way of spelling the same name in English. The name “Joshua” means “Yahweh saves.” Is it significant that for both the first return to the Promised Land (coming from Egypt) and this one (coming from Babylon), the children of Israel are led by a man named “Jesus”? What do you make of that?

4:1-5: Why wouldn’t the Israelites accept help from the Samaritans in rebuilding the temple? Does this story have anything to do with the hatred of the Samaritans that we see in the New Testament (for example, in the story of the Good Samaritan)?

7:6-8: What was a scribe in ancient Israel? The Anchor Bible Dictionary says this of the scribes:

In Ezra 8–10, Ezra the scribe functions as the leader of the returnees in conjunction with leading priests, Levites, and families. Though Ezra is of high priestly stock, he does not officiate at the cult but is a religious leader, while Nehemiah is governor (Nehemiah 8–9). As such he exercised the office of teacher and priest by reading from the Law to the people while a group of Levites helped the people understand the law and led the people in prayer and sacrifice (Ezra 8).

[. . . Ezra] was certainly a recognized authority in the Jewish community because he was of high priestly descent and also learned in the law. He had enough access to the Persian court to obtain a favor from the king and enough community standing to lead a group to Jerusalem and establish himself there. The continuing problems with intermarriage and the opposition to Ezra indicate that he was one of a number of influential and powerful forces in the Jerusalem community but that his views did not immediately predominate.

One other scribe appears in Ezra and Nehemiah—Zadok, who was appointed with a priest and Levite to be a treasurer of the storehouses where the tithes were brought (Neh 12:12–13). This text suggests that scribes were part of society and its leadership in Jerusalem. In the postexilic Jewish community the roles of priests, Levites, scribes, and other Jewish leaders overlapped. Ezra was a priest, scribe, and community leader, and possibly a government-appointed leader (Ezra 7).

How has Israelite worship changed from what it was prior to the exile? After the return from exile, who seems to have the most authority and what seems to have become the most important aspect of worship? What implications does this have for people at the time of Christ?


1:5-11: Can you put Nehemiah’s prayer in your own words? Why does he begin with a confession of sin? Why does he confess that his father has sinned? What is he suggesting in verses 8-10? What is he asking for in verse 11?

2:11-16: Why does Nehemiah keep his travels around Jerusalem secret?

4:7-8: Why would non-Israelites have been opposed to rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem?

5:1-10: Why are some Jews in bondage to others? Why is Nehemiah angry? Our economy could not function without “usury,” in other words, if those who loaned money did not receive interest, money a lender charges another person for using his money. (“Use” and “usury” have the same root.) Are there kinds of economic bondage into which we place each other? If so, how can we free those whom we have placed in that bondage?

8:1-8, 9, 12-14: Compare this meeting to that organized by King Benjamin (Mosiah 2-5). How are the two similar: content, audience, how the message is made clear to all, response, etc.? Why do the people weep when they hear the law? What does verse 14 tell us about their knowledge of the law? This is the second time we have seen the people of Israel discover that they have not been keeping the law and have mourned in response. The first was during the reign of Josiah. (See 2 Chronicles 34:14-35:6.) What do these stories suggest about how we should understand Israelite worship during most of the Old Testament times? How does our response to scripture compare to that of Ezra’s people? How is scripture important to us?

12 comments for “Sunday School Lesson #47

  1. December 8, 2006 at 12:33 am

    Jim, I appreciate the time you have taken to post this. We’re only on lesson 46 this week, but I will be referring to your post next week as I read the assignment.

  2. December 8, 2006 at 1:45 am

    Alison Moore Smith: I hope these materials are helpful to you, both in studying the lesson materials and in preparing a lesson. I’m afraid that this is one of the weaker of my lessons. I didn’t have time to do more than just a first draft.

  3. Matt W.
    December 15, 2006 at 4:09 pm

    Ok, here’s my challenge. How do you make Nehemiah and Ezra interesting and relevant to 16-18 year olds? I dunno if I have what it takes for this one…

  4. December 16, 2006 at 11:27 pm

    Matt W: Would your class be interested in Nehemiah v. Sanballat? Sanballat uses so many tactics to harm the Jews, but Nehemiah sees through each one. This could be used to show ways of thwarting Satan’s tactics. Examples of tactics that Sanballat employs: mocking (4:1-2), stalling (4:7-9), attacking (4:16-18), assassination (6:1-12), temptation/sin (13:26-29) (all verses are from Nehemiah).

    I confess that I do a poor job of teaching the youth in the Church, so this idea may be “really lame.”

    Jim F: The notes this week were particularly helpful. I especially like how you highlighted the change in religious practice with Ezra. I was a little surprised, however, that you placed him before Nehemiah in the chronology. As I understand, there is at least enough controversy to merit some question marks on the dates (if not moving Ezra to ~428 B.C. altogether).

  5. December 16, 2006 at 11:42 pm

    BrianJ: I’m glad that the notes were helpful, though I have to confess to taking the easy way out as to Azra’s dates. If I recall correctly, and enough weeks have passed that I might not, I just took his dates from the chronology in the LDS Bible Dictionary. I didn’t think that the problem of dating Ezra changed the overall story enough to raise the issue.

    Matt W.: I hope Brian’s ideas are helpful. I’m a notoriously bad youth teacher, so I’ll not make any suggestions. You’ll be better off without my help.

  6. December 17, 2006 at 12:24 am

    I too think this is a hard lesson to teach, esp. for teaching the youth. I’m actually planning to focus a lot on Ezra 4:1-3. The Word Biblical Commentary makes the following remark on this passage, which struck me as interesting:

    “[H]owever attractive the offer of help might seem, the work can only proceed on the basis of God’s revealed will, expressed in this case through the decree of Cyrus. Individuals might certainly join the community by their complete identification with it, but the community cannot conversely jeopardize its identity by merging with other groups as such. Time and again, the sequel is to show that this seemingly unattractive stance was nevertheless the correct one.”

    I like the description “seemingly unattractive stance,” which I think can be fruitfully applied to many issues young members face nowdays. I also think the issue of community is fascinating. I’ll probably play devil’s advocate and pretend that since I believe we are all sinners and saved by grace (which I really do believe), it is wrong to have worthiness interviews for the temple–it excludes those who need it the most. I hope that’ll at least get their attention and some good discussion going.

    Then I’ll probably steer the discussion to the very purpose of the temple, esp. as the interesting wording of Ezra 1:7ff suggests. The wording there parallels the Exodus (Ex 3:21-22; 11:2; 12:35-36; cf. Ps 105:37; Isa 52:11-12) and implicitly raises the question of how the rebuilding of the temple is analogous to the exodus. Again, something that H. G. M. Williamson writes in the Word Biblical Commentary suggests an interesting answer for me to this question. He writes in his Explanation for Ex 1:1-11:

    “Initially it is clear that the experience of judgment [via the destruction of Jerusalem] led to the sensation of disorientation and discontinuity, a radical break with the past. . . . In contributing his narrative of this process to the task of theological reconstruction, our author evidently felt the need to emphasize the lines of continuity between the community of his own day and the history of the nation which had preceded it. . . . The purpose of this typological patter [(the exodus)] is to encourage the readers to interpret the return as an act of God’s grace that can be compared in its significance with the very birth of the nation of Israel itself. . . . [T]ypology opens the eye of faith to the hand of God behind the historical process, inviting an appreciation of his action in bringing his people to a point of rebirth no less wonderful than that which ahd been accomplished in the deliverance of israel from the slavery in Egypt.”

    I really like the reorientating/rebirth aspect of this view. The temple is oftentimes a disorienting experience, esp. for first-time visitors. But I think that is the point of not just our temple worship, but all other forms of worship (which I think point to the temple anyway). That is, each time we pray, we are should make a type of exodus out of our own world in order to try and reorient ourselves in the presence and perspective of God. At the end of the day, say, we should reflect on all that we have done, on all our “vessels” as it were, and ponder the manner and direction in which we have been carrying them–that is, have we consecrated ourselves that day to God, and carefully striven(?) to meet God’s call, even if has been “seemingly unattractive”?

  7. December 17, 2006 at 12:27 am

    (BrainJ #4: Thanks by the way for these suggestions, I’m just barely getting to my own study of Nehemiah and I’ll probably steal your idea as a focus for that book….)

  8. JWL
    December 17, 2006 at 1:55 am

    Another approach to these books is as an introduction to the New Testament. Here we see the establishment of the Jewish religion as Jesus knew it. The most important aspect of this is the work of Ezra in making widespread learning of the Law a part of Jewish religious practice. Here is the establishment of the fortified city of Jerusalem with its great Temple that was the center of Jewish life even for outdwelling Jews like Jesus and his fellow Gallileans. This history is also a good place to meet the Samaritans and understand the basis of Jewish hostility toward them.

  9. December 18, 2006 at 3:34 pm

    Thanks JWL, I’ll build on this next week when I review and try to set the stage for the NT.

    I just noticed this post by Ben at MStar regarding Ezra’s prayer in Ch. 9, which I think makes a very good point for students of all ages….

  10. Matt W.
    December 18, 2006 at 4:23 pm

    Ok, if anyone’s interested, I went over Ezra 7:10 and how it can be reviewed as a brief synopsis of what a Church Leader should be (Prepared Heart[Humble, good Follower of God], Studier, Doer, Teacher). Then I talked about how Ezra 2 an Nehemiah 7 are copies of each other and went over the idea of the Book of Mormon using copy from the Bible. Finally, I took a stab at BrianJ’s ideas, but focused on the fact that the Samaritans and the Jews used to be the same, so Sanballat and Nehemiah shouldn’t have been fighting at all, but how sometimes that happens. We then talked about character assasination a little and opened for questions. My Question girl asked how Jesus Could Make an Announcement in the new world if his spirit was in the womb, to which I answered with a discussion of divine investiture of authority.

    All in all, it was a boring class, so I pormised to make it up to them next week with a lesson on Santa Claus.

  11. December 23, 2006 at 12:20 am

    Matt W: I’m sorry to hear that it didn’t go well.

  12. Matt W.
    December 23, 2006 at 10:57 am

    No worries Brian, I enjoyed it and learned a lot. My kids are just finicky.

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