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

TS_scrollNote 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’ opposition 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 exiles 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. However, 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, 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 edited.)

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)? Can we trust the reason given in Ezra to be accurate? In other words, is it free from self-justification? If not, what might the real reason for refusing their help have been?

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 [i.e., in the temple rituals] 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?

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