You will find an introduction and outline of Nehemiah, here.
A prayer to use before reading from Origen (c. 185 – c. 254) was an early church father from Alexandria. From, The HarperCollins Book of Prayers: A Treasury of Prayers through the Ages (Edison, N.J.: Castle Books, 1997).
Lord, inspire us to read your Scriptures and meditate upon them day and night. We beg you to give us real understanding of what we need, that we in turn may put its precepts into practice. Yet we know that understanding and good intentions are worthless, unless rooted in your graceful love. So we ask that the words of Scriptures may also be not just signs on a page, but channels of grace into our hearts. Amen.
An Outline of Nehemiah ( based on Kline 2000)
I. Nehemiah 1:1-7:73 a Return of Nehemiah and Rebuilding of the Walls of Jerusalem
G. 7:1-73a Next Steps After Completion of the Wall: Verses 6-73 are the same as Ezra 2. Commentators think that Nehemiah appointed one person, his brother, to be in charge of Jerusalem. Hananiah is an alternate spelling of Hanani. Jerusalem may have been 30-40 acres in size at this time.
II.Nehemiah 7:73b-10:39 Torah, Confession, and Firm Agreement
A. 7:73b-8:18 Ezra Reads the Law to the People: This section may have originally been part of Ezra’s memoir and may chronologically belong after Ezra 8. Notice that it is the people who initiate the public reading of scripture. The public reading and interpretation of scripture has a long tradition. Exactly what was read is unknown but probable was some form of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament). Both men and women and “all who could hear with understanding” (children?) were present. Why do you think the people wept? And why did Ezra insist this was a time of holiness and celebration?
Verse 8:9 is the only verse where Ezra and Nehemiah are mentioned together. After hearing Torah, then people begin to study. Their study causes them to celebrate the Feast of Booths which had not been celebrated since the time of Joshua.
B. 9:1-37 A Great Day of Repentance: There is some debate among scholars about the dating of this event. Some think this section belongs, chronologically somewhere in Ezra 10. Consider why the author may have arraigned the text in the way we have it now. Recall that for the authors of the Hebrew Bible, the theological important of events was more important and reveled great truth than historical accuracy. Look at how this section is placed within the larger section of completion of the wall, reading of Torah, celebration, confession/mourning and re-dedication to the Law.
Verses 1-5 tell about the people’s preparation and activities of the day of repentance. 5B-37 is the prayer. Notice how God’s faithful actions are recalled. In verse 32 the focus shifts to the present day.
C.9:38-10:39 A Firm Agreement to Keep the Law: “Because of all this” the people pledge to follow God’s law. In addition to the list of names, notice in verse 28 that the entire community is involved. Verses 30-39 list items of particular concern for the community. Mixed marriages are to be avoided. There is no mention here of ending marriages that already exist. There will be no buying or selling on the Sabbath, the Sabbatical year will be observed, debts will be cancelled. A Temple tax was voluntarily imposed. Historically the Temple was provided for by the king but there is, of course, no Jewish king to do that.
III. Nehemiah 11:1-13:31 The Climax of Nehemiah’s Work and Related Matters
A. 11:1-36 The New Settlers in Jerusalem: Jerusalem is repopulated by casting lots. Verses 3-24 contain a list of who returned. Scholars think this list reflects about 3000 people living in Jerusalem and 30,000 in the province. These numbers from the text, is in line with estimates by archaeologists. Verses 25-36 are lists of other settlements outside Jerusalem.
B. 12:1-26 Lists of Priests, Levites, and High Priests: This is a list of priests and Levites and High Priests from the time of Joshua to Nehemiah’s time. There are historical problems with this list, but its function is not absolute historical accuracy as much as it is theological continuity for the community of returned exiles.
C. 12:27-43 the Dedication of the City Wall: Now we are told about the dedication of the wall. Why do you think this story is told here rather than after the completion of the wall in chapter 6? Ezra leads one group round the wall in one direction and Nehemiah leads another group in another direction and they meet at the Temple. Notice the language used, rejoice, joy, thanksgiving, etc.
D.12:44-13:3 The People Solidify the Reform Measures: The final acts of the dedication include the appointment of supervisors and the separation from foreigners.
E. 13:4-31 Nehemiah’s Corrective Measures: The text returns to Nehemiah’s memoirs. After his first term as governor, Nehemiah returned to the King and after a period of time returned for his second term as governor. While Nehemiah was gone, Tobiah, Nehemiah’s enemy and an Ammonite was allowed to take over one of the rooms of the Temple. Nehemiah also must restore proper practices. Notice that these are items that had been part of the earlier renewed agreement in chapter 10. Three times Nehemiah asks God to remember his deeds.
Read More About It:
Here are several good sources to aid your reading of Ezra.
Anderson, Bernhard W., Katheryn Pfister Darr, Understanding the Old Testament Abridged fourth Edition. (Upper Saddle River,New Jersey: Prentice Hall) 1998.
Cohn Eskenazi, Tamara, “Nehemiah”, in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, Fully Revised 4 th Edition, Michael Cougan, ed. (New York:Oxford University Press) 2010.
Jeffery, Arthur, John J. Collins, “Nehemaih” in The New Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books Metzger, Bruce M., Roland E. Murphy, eds.(New York: Oxford University Press) 1994.
Klein, Ralph W “Nehemiah” in HarperCollins Bible Commentary Mays, James L. ed.(San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 2000.
Klein, Ralph, “The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah”: ” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Vol 3, Keck, Leander E. ed. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 1999.