Ezra, Nehemiah

Written by H. G. M. Williamson Reviewed By Philip King

The fact that this commentary more than adequately fulfils the purpose of the series, namely, to give a scholarly theological understanding of Scripture, should not deter anyone interested in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Whilst it is not a superficial introduction to the study of these books, it is written clearly and concisely, bringing into clearer light the nature of the material contained in them.

The normal pattern of the series is followed, with a full Introduction and a main commentary divided into Bibliography, Translation, Notes on the Hebrew text, an introduction to the Form, Structure and Setting of each major division of the text, together with a detailed Commentary and Explanation of each section.

The Introduction sets the direction for the commentary which views ‘Ezra and Nehemiah as two parts of a single work’ which ‘is to be regarded as complete as it stands’ and not the conclusion to the books of Chronicles, as is frequently supposed. The sources used were the Ezra Memoir and the Nehemiah Memoir, together with independent records and lists which have been supplemented by the final compiler.

Dr Williamson seeks to explain the text in its present form, but at the same time points out that it has been composed with a theological message. He states: ‘We must start by noting that although the books have an initial appearance of straightforward historical narrative, they do not regard chronology in the same way we do.’ This means, for example, that although Ezra is considered to precede Nehemiah, their work is not considered to be contemporary with each other.

The first major redaction, about 400 bc, mainly consisted of the integration of the Nehemiah Memoir with the Ezra Memoir, which were both written close to the events they describe. Nehemiah 13, frequently regarded as a later addition to the books, is considered to be part of the Nehemiah Memoir. This was written over a period of 15 years in two stages: the initial wall-building, and later insertions which concluded with the so-called ‘remember’ formula (Neh. 5:19; 13:14: etc.). The Ezra Memoir, in which Dr Williamson concludes that Neh. 8 originally stood between Ezra 7–8 and 9–10, was originally written by Ezra, and the events it records covered a period of just one year.

It is also found that Ezra 1–6, describing the return from exile and rebuilding of the temple, are based for the most part on historical sources which were finally compiled, with editorial reworking, only at the time of the second redaction of the books, about 300 bc.

Some sections of the books, however, are defined as ‘typological accounts’ rather than as historical records. Thus Ezra 3 is found to be ‘extremely stylized, for at almost every turn parallels are drawn, either by phraseology or by content, with the account of the building of the first temple under Solomon’. At most places, however, the integrity of the material is upheld, even if it has been reworked and relocated by the compiler, as in the case of Neh. 9.

One of the most helpful parts of the commentary is the extensive Bibliography, not only of works on Ezra-Nehemiah in general, but of each sub-section being interpreted. This provides the most useful starting-point available for any further study of these books, or for the time of the restoration in general.

The Translation is well supported by Notes on the Hebrew text containing significant alternative readings and frequently supplying new insights into the meanings of difficult words and phrases. For example, the difficulties of the questions raised by Nehemiah’s opponents in Neh. 4:1–5 (English text) are helpfully discussed in some detail. On the other hand, it is surprising, for a generally conservative commentary, that ‘Nehemiah the governor’ is removed from the text at Neh. 8:9 on linguistic, theological and literary grounds.

Detailed discussion of the Hebrew text, however, does not mean that the commentary will confuse those without a knowledge of Hebrew, for translation of Hebrew script is always provided and the arguments are easy to follow.

The Form/Structure/Setting section of each passage surveys and appraises current interpretations, and frequently offers new ones. After describing various attempts to define the nature of the prayer in Neh. 9, Dr Williamson concludes that the author has woven several elements together and ‘that to press Neh. 9 into the mould of a single Gattung would be to miss much of its forcefulness’. This introductory section is followed by a detailed Comment on almost every verse of the text.

The Explanation clearly expresses the theological meaning of each section and brings the immediate situation into the light of Scripture as a whole, showing its relevance for our own time. However, some difficulties, like the issue of the divorces in Ezra 9–10, are resolved more on a pragmatic basis (‘the lesser of two evils’) than a theological one, but NT teaching and ethical deliberation is given for modern interpretation.

Over-all, Dr Williamson conveys his own interpretation skilfully through his wide knowledge, sound scholarship and spiritual insight. These, together with the exegetical approach he uses, makes the commentary esential for any serious student of Ezra-Nehemiah.

Philip King

Spurgeon’s College