The story of Ezra and Nehemiah plays out against a backdrop of ruins. There’s a ruined city, a ruined house of worship, ruined homes—and a ruined life with God. As is often the case in our own lives, the wreckage in this story largely the Israelites’ own fault. The returning Israelites and their ancestors acted foolishly, unfaithfully, and godlessly. Their path to rebuilding, at its core, was a journey back to God.
In Ezra and Nehemiah: Rebuilding What’s Ruined, Iain M. Duguid leads readers in a study that encourages them to return to the God who is always faithful, even when it seems as if everything has fallen apart. Duguid shares more with us about his Bible study in this interview.
Q: The Gospel-Centered Life in the Bible series examines how the gospel story is revealed throughout both the Old and New Testaments. How does the rebuilding of the temple in Ezra and Nehemiah point to Jesus?
The temple—and its predecessor, the tabernacle—were always intended to point Israel to God’s presence in their midst. These buildings were located in the center of the community, yet surrounded by strictly controlled barriers, to teach Israel about God’s holiness and inaccessibility. The destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians and the loss of the temple in 586 B.C. was an enormous blow for Israel—it felt as if God had left them, as in fact he had (see Ezekiel 8–11). On their return from exile, the temple had to be rebuilt—a slow and difficult task. Yet even when it was finished, it lacked the glory of the former temple, and the older people wept (Ezra 3:12). The people had to be warned not to despise the day of small things (Zechariah 4:10). The Lord promised that his glory would indeed return to the temple one day, and on that day he would bring peace to the land (see Haggai 2).
Centuries later, when the Lord finally came to his temple, it was another coming lacking in glory, as a baby in the arms of his parents (see Luke 2:21–48). However, Simeon and Anna did not miss the significance of the baby Jesus’s coming—an arrival bringing glory for his people and a light to the Gentiles (2:32). Christ’s glory was initially veiled from most observers, just like the temple of Ezra’s day, but the day is coming when that glory will be fully revealed, at Christ’s triumphal return.
Q: What are some of the themes that run throughout these two biblical books?
As the subtitle of the study suggests, rebuilding is a big theme in Ezra and Nehemiah. The temple and the walls of Jerusalem were in ruins, while the community was fractured and divided. Even though the people had returned home, there was so much yet to be done, and there was a danger of growing discouraged and weary in well-doing. There was also constant opposition from God’s enemies.
Q: Ezra and Nehemiah were considered one book in Bible times. What gets lost when we don’t study them together?
The flow of the narrative describes three parallel returns and rebuilding projects: the temple (Ezra 1–6), the community (Ezra 7–10), and the walls (Nehemiah 1:1–7:2). These narratives are deliberately designed to work together to reinforce the message of the book, so when we isolate the book of Nehemiah by itself, there is a danger of missing the bigger plot of what God is up to.
Q: Why do American Evangelicals gravitate to Nehemiah’s leadership and ignore Ezra?
Nehemiah was a big personality, who was very effective at giving orders and getting things done. Ezra was a quiet, scholarly consensus builder. The difference between them can be seen very clearly in their approach to the problem of mixed marriages. When Ezra heard about the issue, his reaction was to tear his clothes, pull hair from his head and beard, and fall down before God in personal repentance (Ezra 9). In response, the leaders of the community convened an assembly at which they joined Ezra in repentance (Ezra 10).
Nehemiah’s approach to the same problem is much more confrontational (Nehemiah 13:23–28). He calls down curses on the offenders, beats some of them and launches immediately into a speech roundly condemning them. The hair that Nehemiah pulls out is not his own but that of the men who have sinned (Nehemiah 13:25)! It is not the community that acts but Nehemiah who acts to rid Israel of this offense.
When we only look at one leadership style, there is a danger that we may conclude this is the only way to lead God’s people effectively.
Q: Ezra and Nehemiah were two men considered leaders in the rebuilding of the temple and wall, but you say the book is really a story of ordinary men and a community of God’s people at work. What can we learn when we look at the collective whole of those involved in the rebuilding?
Ezra and Nehemiah don’t even appear in the first movement of the story (Ezra 1–6). God stirs the hearts of the people to work, and in spite of difficulties and setbacks, the work gets done. Good leaders are a great blessing, but God doesn’t need our leadership gifts. He can work with or without us.
Q: Even if these two men weren’t the heroes of the story, what are some positive characteristics they possessed that are good to model in our own lives?
Ezra is an expert in Torah, who harnesses his knowledge of Scripture to lead the people to renewed obedience to God. He doesn’t browbeat them; he teaches and inspires them to move forward as a community. Nehemiah is direct and confrontational, and no one will stand in his way. He is on a mission from God and only knows one direction: forward. Both men are committed to prayer, but neither has all the gifts. Only Jesus shows us a perfect leadership style that combines Nehemiah’s toughness with Ezra’s tenderness.
Q: Many who were involved in the rebuilding were disappointed that the temple didn’t measure up to the grandeur it was before. How does this parallel our modern-day discouragement over the progress of God’s work in our personal lives and in our churches?
I think we have often been sold a false expectation of what the Christian life should look like—the “victorious” Christian life. We expect our churches to look like Acts 2, full of devotion to the apostles’ teaching and self-sacrifice with the world beating a path to our door saying, “What must I do to be saved?” We gravitate toward the “success” stories of the Old Testament: the exodus and conquest, David and Goliath, and so on. Yet so much of the Bible is about a different story, what we might call the “surviving” Christian life: God’s people find themselves living in a day of small things, when the life of faith is extremely difficult, and few seem to want to follow it. These stories teach us that God’s grace and faithfulness is sufficient for us in the hard realities of the present, while we wait in hope for the glory that is yet to be revealed to us and through us.
Q: How is our vision of being successful in our calling different from God’s version of success?
Quite simply, we want to boast about something, to receive at least some of the glory. Of course, we want to succeed for God and see the church built up, but we want to have some crowns of our own that we can lay down at Jesus’s feet. It’s very revealing to me that when the popular contemporary song “I Can Only Imagine” thinks about what heaven will be like, the main question that concerns the singer is what he personally will be doing. Will he be dancing, singing, or being still? I want to shout out, “When we get to heaven, literally no one will care what you are doing. Their eyes will be elsewhere—and so will yours!”
Yet our hearts all do the same thing: we want to “attempt great things for God and expect great things from God,” as the slogan goes. But what if God is content not doing anything particularly dramatic right now? Is God not glorified by the missionary who faithfully serves for fifty years and sees two converts over that entire time? Or even no converts? What an extraordinary work of God’s grace it must be to keep someone faithful in serving him in a setting like that—far more remarkable than enabling a saint to face a firing squad for their faith, because the first person has to choose to die to themselves day after day after day. It is that kind of faithfulness in the face of grinding difficulty that is celebrated in Ezra and Nehemiah.
Q: It’s easy to become discouraged when we look around and see how far the world has turned from God. What encouragement can we gain from this study especially when it comes to facing the opposition around us?
The message of apocalyptic books, which are always written to saints in such circumstances, is very simple: God wins. You may not see his earthly triumph, but stay faithful; it is worth it, because you are on the winning side. Ezra and Nehemiah are not apocalyptic, but the message is the same. God beats his enemies every time. It may take a while, and a lot of conflict, and ups and downs, but his promises cannot fail. The readers of Ezra and Nehemiah would have to wait to the New Testament to see exactly how God would pull his amazing victory off in the person of Jesus. And here we are, still waiting for Jesus, still facing tribulation and persecution, just as Jesus told us we would. Hang in there, because God will win.
Q: You write about how the Israelites celebrated the various feasts of their religious calendar during the process of rebuilding. What can those celebrations remind us about worship today?
The religious calendar of the Old Testament was designed to remind Israel of the events of redemptive history: exodus out of Egypt (Passover), giving of the law (Weeks), and the gift of the land after the wilderness wanderings (Tabernacles). Israel was to look back at their history to build faith for the future, confidence that God will fulfil his promises. So too the church has been given a feast that we can celebrate frequently, the Lord’s Supper, in which we look backward (we “remember Christ’s death”) and we look forward (“until he comes”). In the meantime, we share a foretaste of the heavenly feast that is prepared for us. It’s pilgrim food—a scrap of bread and a sip of wine—not the meal itself, but it strengthens us spiritually for the journey to our heavenly home.
Q: How does Nehemiah 13 stand apart from the rest of the entire narrative of the book? What is the takeaway from that chapter?
In Nehemiah 13, we see all of Nehemiah’s reforms threatened as soon as he leaves Jerusalem to go back and visit the Persian capital. It reminds us how fragile the reforms are if they rest simply on a human being, even one called and equipped by God. Ezra and Nehemiah are not ultimately the answer Israel needs: that answer will not come until the arrival of Jesus, five centuries later.
Ezra and Nehemiah: Rebuilding What’s Ruined
The story of Ezra and Nehemiah plays out against a backdrop of ruins. There’s a ruined city, a ruined house of worship, ruined homes—ruined life with God. As is often the case in our own lives, the wreckage was largely their own fault. Their path to rebuilding, at its core, was a journey back to God. As you study Ezra and Nehemiah with Iain Duguid, you too will be encouraged to return to the God who is always faithful.