Week 21 – Rebuilding the Walls

Scripture Reading – Ezra 7; Nehemiah 1-2, 4, 6-8; Malachi 1-4

Significant Moments in The Story

The priest Ezra comes to Jerusalem to teach the Law – Ezra 7

Nehemiah returns to Jerusalem to help rebuild the wall – Nehemiah 2

The rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem is completed – Nehemiah 6

Ezra reads the law to all the people – Nehemiah 8

The following comes from The Story Small Group Discussion Guide

Chapter Summary

It’s no surprise that the Hebrew people were homesick after 70 years of foreign captivity. At this point, it had been 80 years since King Cyrus first gave the green light for the exiles to return to their beloved Jerusalem. Zerubbabel was among the first to go. Fifty thousand former slaves packed their bags and joined him on the trek back to the holy city in 537 B.C. But many remained beyond the borders of God’s promise.

Ezra had earned the favor of Persia’s King Artaxerxes during his time in Babylon. The king authorized Ezra to take a second contingent of Israelites back home. Ezra was a faithful scribe and teacher, and he was given permission not only to teach God’s law but also a mandate to appoint judges and a bottomless expense account to finance his journey.

Nehemiah remained in the palace of Susa as the favored cupbearer of the Persian king. He was dismayed to hear that the walls of Jerusalem remained in disrepair, for without walls, no city would be secure. The king gave Nehemiah a leave-of-absence so he could lead 42,000 exiles back to Jerusalem. His first order of business was to assess the condition of the walls and the people. He quickly rallied the city leaders to rebuild.

Sanballat and Tobiah were none too pleased. As leaders of nearby nations, they were threatened by the prospect of Jerusalem’s comeback. They retaliated with intimidation and made repeated attempts to out-maneuver Nehemiah and his rebuilding project, but Nehemiah was undeterred. He encouraged his leaders and armed his people. Some worked while others stood guard. Some carried supplies with one hand and a weapon in the other, but the threats continued. Even when Israel’s enemies enlisted an Israelite as a false prophet to undermine the progress, Nehemiah was not shaken. He refused to entertain empty lies, and the wall was rebuilt in record time—only 52 days!

As Nehemiah rebuilt the walls, Ezra set out to rebuild God’s people. He began by teaching them the Scriptures for the next 13 years. The people gathered to hear Ezra read and other priests joined in to teach as well. At last, they got it! They grasped the reality of God’s great story and celebrated the Feasts of Booths as Moses had written of so long before. The people and the priests hungered to worship God and God’s people were restored in the Land of Promise.

Yet old habits die hard and the people’s fervor soon dwindled. The priests and the people became apathetic, so God commissioned the prophet, Malachi, to speak His words of divine warning. The priests had begun to dishonor God with sacrifices that were less than the best. They treated their wives poorly and wondered why God was not pleased with their worship. They withheld their offerings and the whole community began to again turn away from God.

Malachi prophesied the return of the prophet Elijah as sign of things to come. God had restored His people and protected His faithful remnant. He had protected Judah’s royal line in keeping with His promise to David. He spoke His final words of warning and promise through Malachi and then God was silent. God’s people would not hear from Him again until the promised Elijah would step forth as God’s new messenger. God’s redemptive story, for now, was quietly marching toward history’s climactic event.

Icebreaker Question: What’s the most extensive remodeling or construction project you have been involved in?

  1. List the three things to which Ezra devoted himself (Ezra 7, p. 292). What is significant about this order that also applies to the successful Christian life of every believer?
  2. Why is it important for teachers like to be like Ezra – “well versed” and “learned” (Ezra 7, p. 291) in God’s word? Share with your group who has been your most influential Bible teacher and why.
  3. Compare the “first exodus,” Exodus 11:1-3 and 12:35-36, with this second exodus. How can you tell that this was clearly God’s response to Ezra’s prayer (Ezra 7, p. 294)?
  4. Why do you suppose Nehemiah did not reveal to anyone the plan that God had put in his heart (Nehemiah 2, p. 295-296)?
  5. Nehemiah prayed for protection, but he also posted guards. Does this show a lack of faith on Nehemiah’s part? How should we “follow-up” after we pray for something?
  6. Nehemiah’s enemies tried to use the false prophet Shemaiah to distract him from the rebuilding project. How do you determine if a message from God or another source?
  7. What can you learn from Nehemiah about leadership?
  8. What does Nehemiah teach us about prayer? Do you notice any patterns in his prayer life?
  9. Years after the walls had been rebuilt, the prophet Malachi was sent to correct the priests and the people (Malachi 1-4, p. 302). What were they doing that dishonored God?
  10. According to the prophet Malachi, what is the correlation between one’s relationship with God and one’s treatment of their spouse?

Key Themes

What defines a Jew?

Up until this point, the Jewish people have been primarily defined by their nationality/tribal identity or by their connection with the territory of Judah/Israel.  During the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, a shift will begin to take place.  Identification with the Jewish community will no longer be an issue of nationality or location but adherence to the Law.  Central to this week’s readings are Ezra’s calling to return to Jerusalem to teach the Law and the reading of the Law in Nehemiah 8.

This focus on the question of identity will also be key to one of the more controversial parts of the part of the Bible.  In Ezra 10, when it is discovered that a number of Jewish men have married non-Jewish women, Ezra orders that all who have married non-Jewish women should divorce their wives and send them away with their children.  This passage is troubling on several levels, and there are some who believe that stories such as Ruth may have been included in the Scripture, in part, as a counter-argument to this move.  In any case, it should be understood that the primary concern for Ezra was not so much idolatry as identity.  Ezra, and later Nehemiah in his concern for rebuilding the wall, intended to establish boundaries in which a clear Jewish identity could be maintained.

God is faithful

Once again, the theme of God’s faithfulness to His covenant and His people echoes throughout these passages.  The story of the provision of resources for the rebuilding of the wall, the royal permission given to Ezra to teach the Law, and the success of rebuilding the wall in the face of threats from surrounding peoples is all understood as the fruit of God’s work to bring restoration to His people.  Through every disaster and through ever moment of Israel’s rebellion against God, God has not given up on his promise to sustain his chosen people.  In light of God’s enduring faithfulness, His people are invited to turn to Him and renew a right relationship with God based on faithfulness to His covenant and commitment to relate only to Him.

Background Information

What happens between the time of Ezra & Nehemiah and the Gospels?

In October of 333 BC, Alexander the Great defeats the king of the Persian empire, establishing Alexander and the Greeks as the dominant power in the known world.  Ten years later, when Alexander dies, a great struggle for control of his expansive empire begins.  During this struggle, Judah is invaded numerous times by competing factions seeking to gain control of as much of Alexander’s realm as possible.  Eventually, the chaos will subside, and more positive aspects of the Greek empire – language, culture, philosophy – will begin to seep into the lands under Greek control, including Judah.  Many Jews will begin to focus on becoming citizens of a larger world, while others will find such efforts a threat to their identity as God’s people.  Judaism will enter into a time of struggle with forces without and within.  On one side, there will be those who argue that Judaism should adapt to a Hellenized world, while those on the other side will argue for rejecting such a world.  Those on this side of the argument will shift their focus to the Temple as a symbol of remaining distinct from the rest of the world.

In the 2nd century BC, the Hasmonean family will gain political and religious control of Judah, thanks in part to an alliance with the growing power that was Rome.  While the Hasmoneans will gain Judah independence from Greek political control, the substance of Greek influence will remain in place.  This will lead to the formation of three important groups in Judah that will become significant as we turn to the Gospels.

The first group was the Sadducees.  This group was made up of members of the priestly and wealthy class.  They supported the Hasmoneans and a more Hellenized culture.  At the same time, they were committed to the ancient symbols of the king and the Temple.  They compared the Hasmoneans to King David, and they looked to the Scriptures to root their new Greek experience.

The second group that formed during this time was the Essenes.  They were so horrified by the Hasmoneans and their Hellenistic influence that they withdrew completely from culture as a “new exodus.”  Living in their own communities like Qumram, the Essenes devoted themselves to the Scripture, looking forward to the renewal of a proper priestly order and the day when God would redeem Jerusalem and the Temple.

The third group that formed during this time was the Pharisees.  Like the Essenes, they devoted themselves to the Torah and to the strictest observance of the commandments.  The Pharisees were convinced that the Hasmoneans were bad and asked the Roman governor Pompey to remove the Hasmoneans from power.  They were certain that Judah was better off under the control of a foreign power than “bad Jews”.

In 63 BC, Pompey and the Romans entered Jerusalem and removed the last of the Hasmoneans from power.  Pompey and his troops entered the Temple, to the Holy of Holies.  However, they did not destroy or maim it in any way.  In 42 BC, after Augustus and Antony take control of the Roman empire, they place Herod in control of Judah.  Herod will undertake many building projects, including a complete renovation of the Temple.  It is this structure, far grander than the one Zerubbabel rebuilt in the book of Ezra, that we will encounter in the Gospels.


Week 19 – The Return Home

Scripture Reading: Ezra 1-6; Haggai 1-2; Zechariah 1,8

Significant Moments in The Story
King Cyrus of Persia decrees Israelites can return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple – Ezra 1
The altar and Temple foundations are rebuilt – Ezra 3
The rebuilding of the Temple ceases in face of opposition – Ezra 4
The rebuilding process is resumed and completed – Ezra 6

Key Themes

Living in a new reality

The end of the exile in Babylon and the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem was a moment of joy and celebration to be sure, one that some perhaps believed they would never see.  However, those who returned are faced with the harsh reality that life in Israel will not be easy.  There will be rivalries with those peoples that now live in the surrounding region.  They are charged with not only rebuilding buildings but a nation and all that entails.  In addition, they have to rebuild the religious life of Israel, which during the exile has taken on a different appearance from before the exile.  This is perhaps marked best by the account of the laying of the foundations of the new Temple in Ezra 3.  The new Temple will be a smaller and less ornate structure from the one Solomon built.  This is a combination of factors, including fewer resources and a greater emphasis on the Temple as a house of prayer.  Some would see the beginning of the rebuilding of the Temple as a reason to celebrate, but some would see the outlines of what was to come as cause to lament what had been lost and what was different.  These accounts challenge us to consider how we confront theologically and faithfully those moments in life when we are forced to live by new realities that are not necessarily of our making or choosing.

Finish what you start

In Ezra 4, we are told that the rebuilding process of the Temple stops for a time due to pressure exerted on the Persian emperor by the neighboring peoples.  In response, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah rise up to encourage the people to take up the task of rebuilding the Temple.  Their messages shed light on another reality:  the struggle to run with perseverance the race that is before us until we reach its finish.  Challenges externally and internally rise up to pull the Israelites away from the task of rebuilding the Temple, just as we often are distracted from our work by external pressures and internal fears or desires.  The prophets encourage the people see to completion the work they had begun in God’s name.


Background Information

“… in order that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished …” – Ezra 1:1

In Jeremiah 29:10, as part of his letter to those who are already in exile in Babylon, Jeremiah says, “For thus says the LORD:  Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”

Cyrus orders the Temple to be rebuilt – Ezra 1:2-4

Cyrus was known to be interested in restoring local temples.  It should be noted that his understanding of God is that he is the God of Jerusalem (Ezra 1:3).

“Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do …” – Ezra 4:2

After the Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and carried the people off into exile, they resettled the land with peoples from other conquered nations.  Eventually, these peoples began to worship Yahweh, but they also worshiped other gods that they brought with them.  This synthesis of religious beliefs and the mixing of other nations into the land of the north would lead those who had returned from exile in Babylon to identify themselves as the only true Israel.  They refuse the offer of help, believing that permission to rebuild the Temple was given exclusively to them by King Cyrus.  In response, the “people of the land” would seek to stop both the rebuilding of the Temple and the wall around Jerusalem to keep the returned exiles vulnerable.

This history is the root of the Jewish-Samaritan animosity that will be evident during the time of Jesus.


The prophet Haggai’s career was relatively short, spanning from August to December of the year 520 B.C.  Haggai’s primary focus was to call the people to finish the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Haggai 2:10-19 is believed to be a speech that Haggai made on the day that the cornerstone of the foundation was laid.  In this speech, Haggai marks the importance of beginning the work of rebuilding the Temple.  Haggai explains that the beginning of the work marks a turn of Israel away from guilt and abandonment of God to a time of blessing and restored relationship.

As part of that time of blessing, Haggai envisions a restored monarchy with Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah who led the rebuilding effort, as God’s chosen one to be king (Haggai 2:20-23).  This passage reminds us that the returned exiles not only were struggling with rebuilding buildings but trying to determine what would be the best order of rule and governing themselves.  Zechariah, a contemporary of Haggai, will have a slightly different idea.


Zechariah’s prophetic ministry seems to have spanned about 2 years.  Like Haggai, Zechariah portrays the effort of rebuilding the Temple as a turn in Israel’s relationship with God (Zechariah 8:9-13).  However, though there is much that Zechariah and Haggai share in unison, Zechariah’s message does take a unique shape.

For one, Zechariah envisions that, in the new day of God’s blessing, the high priest will be the king of the people, specifically Joshua (Zechariah 6:9-13).  There seems to be some indication of two rulers sharing power (Zechariah 6:13), leading some to wonder if originally Zechariah envisioned Zerubbabel crowned king, sharing power with the high priest Joshua.  Whatever the case, Zechariah’s description of governance in the new day of blessing is different from the one described by Haggai.

Zechariah’s message also includes an atmosphere of welcoming of other nations (Zechariah 8:20-23).  This will present an interesting contrast to the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah that we will look at next week.