Better Than a Fresh Start: A Brief Biblical Theology of Ezra-Nehemiah

by Justin Jackson May 13, 2020

The book(s) of Ezra-Nehemiah has held a special place for me from my earliest days as a disciple. In my childhood Sunday School classes, I remember felt board cutouts of the second temple and pictures of Nehemiah’s workers holding swords and trowels. It is an exciting story. However, the more I study Ezra-Nehemiah, I find that the real story is less about the rebuilding of Jerusalem’s ruined temple and walls and more about the ruined human heart.

Ezra-Nehemiah presents its readers with a question: What if God hit the reset button? What if God’s exiled people suddenly regained their land, rebuilt the temple, and were allowed to renovate the city walls? The answer is that without a new heart, God’s people remain in exile.

Most Things New

Ezra-Nehemiah is filled with a whole lot of new. First, there was a new world government, the Persian Empire, which was far more sympathetic toward religious freedom than the previous Babylonian regime. Cyrus issued a decree freeing the exiles, and a fairly sizeable group of more than 42,000 people journeyed to Jerusalem. Though they faced initial opposition, the exiles rebuilt the temple. In celebration of this new temple, the people observed the Passover, and “the Lord made them joyful” (Ezra 6:22). The exciting restoration continues as Artaxerxes commissions Ezra to teach the Law and personally funds the beautification of the temple.

Moving into Nehemiah (about twelve-years later), the theme of newness progresses as King Artaxerxes commissions Nehemiah to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. “The good hand” of God was on Nehemiah, and Artaxerxes graciously donates the timber for the beams of the gates (Neh. 2:7-8). Though the walls were in terrible condition, the people under Nehemiah’s leadership were able to rebuild them in an astounding fifty-two days. Ezra read from the Book of the Law of Moses, and the people celebrated the Feast of Booths to commemorate the restoration. The exiles even confessed their past wickedness and recommitted themselves to the covenant.

The Same Sin

With all this restoration, however, some things did not change. Namely, the Judahites were still desperately held captive in their sin. Though both Ezra and Nehemiah begin relatively cheery, both sections end with a gloomy conclusion. Even with a partial restoration, the Judahites had the same old, sinful heart.

When Ezra finally reaches Jerusalem, he laments over the “faithlessness of the exiles” (Ezra 10:6). The people committed the very same sins for which God had driven them from the land in the first place. Specifically, intermarriage with pagan nations remained a recurring problem. While some have wrongly argued that Ezra and Nehemiah were banning international marriage, their real concern was that the Jews were marrying unconverted people and failing to raise children to love and obey the Lord (i.e. Deut. 6:7-9). Nehemiah 13:23-24 spotlights the issue by showing that half of the children from these marriages “spoke the language of Ashdod, and they could not speak the language of Judah, but only the language of each people.” If the children could not speak the language of Judah, then logically, they could not read the Torah, sing the ancient praises, or pray the ancient prayers. In this, the men of Judah were setting themselves up for future apostasy. Just as Solomon’s foreign wives drew his heart after foreign gods, so also the unconverted foreign wives of Judah would lead the people astray. Even with all their restoration—Judah was following the steps of her ancient kings by leaving room for other gods in adulterous ways. Their hearts were not yet committed to the God of Israel.

Another problem was Sabbath-breaking (Neh. 13:15-18). From its inception, God intended the Sabbath to be a day of rest. During this day—the climax of the week—God’s people would cease from their work and enjoy the sovereign accomplishments of God. For Adam and Eve, a seventh-day rest meant reflecting and enjoying the Creator’s sovereign work in the Garden. For the Israelites, it meant reveling in the fruits of God’s redemptive work at the Exodus. For these exiles, the Sabbath should have been an opportunity to rest in God’s sovereign redemption and to celebrate his faithfulness in bringing them home. As it was, they had no true rest with God. 

Finally, Nehemiah 5 shows the persistent problem of oppression. The rich and powerful were exacting merciless interest on the poor, instead of showing hesed—and this was a sin that led to exile. In the final estimation of Judah in the days of Ezra-Nehemiah, we find people who have not yet learned how to love God and love others, the heart of the Law.

The Real Need in Ezra-Nehemiah

The exiles came into the land, just as Noah came out of the ark. It was all new. They had a fresh start with a new temple in a restored city with renovated walls. And yet, like Noah, the Judahites had the same heart—a heart that is intent on doing “evil from his youth” (Genesis 8:21).

The real need, then, is not merely a new temple nor renovated city walls. The real need is for a new heart that is able to love and obey God. Just as Genesis 6-9 shows how man’s sinful heart plunges the renewed world into violence and corruption all over again, so also Ezra-Nehemiah shows that the corrupt heart of Judah will leave people in their exile. Both Ezra and Nehemiah mourned the Judahites present condition saying, “For we are slaves this day” (Ezra 9:9; Nehemiah 9:36). With the new temple and the renewed city in their sights, Ezra and Nehemiah knew the people were still in slavery as was evidenced by their covenant infidelity. In their eyes, exile was the on-going consequence for sin (Ezra 9:7-9). The question, then, that Ezra-Nehemiah leaves us with is this: how will God’s people receive a new heart—a heart that is made ready to obey God?

A Christotelic Trajectory

It is in this way that Ezra-Nehemiah sets its readers on a trajectory to Jesus, the King, who came to set his people free from slavery to sin. It is only by his spilled blood and broken body that God’s people finally receive the New Covenant and, with it, a new heart (i.e. Jeremiah 31 and Ezekiel 36). Israel’s temple would one day be ruined again, and the walls would be torn down as the Romans destroyed the city. But those who trust in Jesus Christ have what the people in Ezra-Nehemiah lacked. That is, we have a heart that is made ready to love and obey God.

What significance does Ezra-Nehemiah have for us today, right now? You might have a list of things you or your neighbor think are needs right now—a rebuilt economy, restored health, new politicians, etc. However, Ezra-Nehemiah reminds us that even with a fresh start, we would still need the effectual grace of Christ to give people new hearts. Sin corrupts completely. True restoration can only come in Christ, the crucified and risen King. He alone can bring a new creation that cannot be destroyed.