How to Read Ezra and Nehemiah

The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah

Planting a garden requires the right tools. And so does interpreting the Bible. But instead of shovels, rakes, and weeders, we use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application. 

Ezra and Nehemiah tell the story of the return of exiled Israelites to Jerusalem, and their attempt to rebuild the temple and the city walls. Despite their efforts, it is evident that their greatest need is not a repaired city and wall, but transformed hearts that truly follow God. This video from The Bible Project provides an overview of these books. The goal of this post is not to replace your personal study of the Bible. Rather, it is to help you navigate the story of Ezra and Nehemiah, discover what it teaches, dive into how it fits into the rest of the Bible, and look at how it applies to your life. Use the questions below as a guide as you watch this video.  

Now that you have an overview of the books in mind, you can apply what you know to interpret specific passages in these books. Read about Nehemiah’s frustration when the Israelites dishonor the Sabbath in Nehemiah 13:15–22. Utilize observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application to dissect the meaning of this passage. Use the ideas from the videos to inform your answers to the following questions about Nehemiah 13:15–22.

Nehemiah 13:15-22 (ESV)

15In those days I saw in Judah people treading winepresses on the Sabbath, and bringing in heaps of grain and loading them on donkeys, and also wine, grapes, figs, and all kinds of loads, which they brought into Jerusalem on the Sabbath day. And I warned them on the day when they sold food.16Tyrians also, who lived in the city, brought in fish and all kinds of goods and sold them on the Sabbath to the people of Judah, in Jerusalem itself!17 Then I confronted the nobles of Judah and said to them, “What is this evil thing that you are doing, profaning the Sabbath day?18 Did not your fathers act in this way, and did not our God bring all this disaster on us and on this city? Now you are bringing more wrath on Israel by profaning the Sabbath.”

19As soon as it began to grow dark at the gates of Jerusalem before the Sabbath, I commanded that the doors should be shut and gave orders that they should not be opened until after the Sabbath. And I stationed some of my servants at the gates, that no load might be brought in on the Sabbath day.20Then the merchants and sellers of all kinds of wares lodged outside Jerusalem once or twice.21 But I warned them and said to them, “Why do you lodge outside the wall? If you do so again, I will lay hands on you.” From that time on they did not come on the Sabbath.22Then I commanded the Levites that they should purify themselves and come and guard the gates, to keep the Sabbath day holy. Remember this also in my favor, O my God, and spare me according to the greatness of your steadfast love.

Scripture quotations marked (ESV) are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Observation asks the basic question: who, what, where, and when. It examines the passage at a surface level—the characters, events, themes, culture, and genre. Observations may seem obvious at first, but they open the door to the meaning of any part of the Bible. Be careful to not jump ahead to interpreting the observations, or assigning them meaning. Just list them. 

Example: The people are treading winepresses, bringing in grain and other loads, and selling goods on the Sabbath.

Observe: As you read the passage, what observations did you make about Nehemiah 13:15–22? (Consider the major characters, plot points, locations, cities, landmarks, time period, background information, cultural aspects, genre, themes, and actions of the characters. Also, take note of any information offered in the video.)
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Where an observation determines what the passage says, interpretation takes the next step to find out what the passage means. We’ve asked what the passage says about God and humanity, and now we ask what that means. Look at the themes and ask what they mean as well.

Example: (Observation) The people are treading winepresses, bringing in grain and other loads, and selling goods on the Sabbath. (Interpretation) The people’s hearts and desires remain the same, even after they have rebuilt the temple, the wall, and the city. The reforms and dedications have not had an impact on their hearts.

Interpret: What is significant about each of the observations you made above? What is the main message of Nehemiah 13:15–22? How does its message connect with the main message of all of Ezra and Nehemiah? (Think about what this book teaches about God and humanity and what that teaching means, as well as the meaning of the themes. Consider insights from the video as well.)
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Contextualization looks at how the passage fits into the rest of the book and into the story of the Bible. It connects the themes that pop up throughout the story of Scripture and sees how the book fits into the biblical narrative. 

Example: God gives the Ten Commandments to Israel after their exodus from Egypt. The people repeatedly break the Commandments. Israel is exiled for their failure to honor God. The exiles return to Jerusalem and attempt to put their lives, community, and structures back into place. The wall is rebuilt and the people, despite their reforms and dedications, still have hard hearts. God declares that He will give us new hearts of flesh for our hearts of stone. Jesus comes to keep the Law perfectly in our place. The Holy Spirit is given so that we are transformed into being obedient from the heart.

Contextualize: What themes does Nehemiah 13:15–22 seem to establish? How do those themes connect with the rest of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah? What themes would you say have potential to carry forward into other books of the Bible? What themes connect back to the earlier books of the Bible?
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Application asks, “So what?” It considers how the meaning of this passage applies to our day-to-day lives. The point of reading Scripture isn’t to become puffed up with knowledge, but to be transformed. Ask God to show you how you can specifically put the truths from this book into practice. Brainstorm ways you can live out what you learned throughout your day.

Example: My sin has separated me from God and hardened my heart. Because of sin, I know my heart is not naturally turned toward God or obedient to Him. I cannot rely on willpower or my own goodness to truly honor or obey God. I must rely on the Holy Spirit to work within me. This week, I will ask God to continue transforming me, so I become obedient to Him from the heart.

Apply: How does the truth from Nehemiah 13:15–22 affect you and your relationship with God and others? What are some specific actions you could take to live out the truths found in this book this week? If you're having trouble coming up with an application of this particular passage, how could you apply the main message of Ruth to your life this week?
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The last step in reading the Bible helps us wrap everything up. We take the time to summarize the main message and implications of the book. As you summarize what you learned, it solidifies what God taught you through this video.  

Share: Now that you’ve spent time learning about Ezra and Nehemiah, how would you explain the main points of this book to a friend? If you were going to explain what you learned to a friend, what would you say? What would you be sure to include? Why?
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Reading the Bible doesn’t have to be like weeding a garden. You can find great joy in learning about God through His Word. Read through Ezra and Nehemiah this week. As you study, use observation, interpretation, contextualization, and application as a guide. Take the next step and put what you learn into practice. 

To learn more about The Bible Project, click here.