Although Ezra-Nehemiah covers more than a century chronologically, the books do not record a continuous history. They present a selective account with many gaps. The author has chosen to include certain events for their intrinsic importance and their theological significance. The author's principle of selectivity and organization helps reveal his purpose and intent.
Four distinct sections focus on the primary themes in the book. They are: (1) Ezr 1-6, the initial return and the rebuilding of the temple; (2) Ezr 7-10, Ezra's mission to establish the law; (3) Ne 1-6, Nehemiah's rebuilding the walls; and (4) Ne 7-13, the reordering of the covenantal community.
There are close parallels between the first three sections, suggesting a careful arrangement of material. Each begins with the return of a group of Jews from Babylon in order to address a specific situation. Each group returns with royal authorization from the Persian king. The purpose of the first group is to restore the temple. Ezra's task centered upon the vital role of Israel's tradition, the law, in the new community. Finally, Nehemiah's mission was to provide a defense system for the capital city and to insure separation from the pagan world that threatened their religious identity.
Each section also records opposition, externally from the peoples of the lands surrounding Judah and internally from the Jews themselves. There is repeated emphasis on the gracious providence of God working in and through pagan kings to enable them to overcome their opponents. There are no supernatural acts in Ezra-Nehemiah, but God is recognized as sovereign over the events of heaven and earth.
The final section (Ne 7-13) draws together the emphases of the first three and brings the work to a climax. Ezra, supported by Nehemiah, reads the Law (Ne 8), preparing the people to renew their covenantal relationship with God (Ne 9-10). The security afforded by the newly completed walls allows the repopulation of Jerusalem (Ne 11). This sets the stage for the climactic dedication of the city walls at the temple. There the Jewish community celebrates the completion of the walls and their restoration as God's covenant people.