Idea for a New Census and the List of the First Return
Despite its spacious size, Jerusalem was still sparsely populated (verse 4). As it had been almost a century since the first return of exiles under Zerubbabel, it would seem that there should have been more people there. Yet the trouble that the city faced over the decades could have driven many families out into the countryside.
Nehemiah's unstated but implicit concern here is the repopulation and development of Jerusalem. We will later see in chapter 11 that his solution is to direct a portion of those in various parts of the province of Judea to resettle in the capital. Here in Nehemiah 7:5, "Nehemiah attributed to the Lord the idea of a census that would show the distribution of the population. If he knew the population pattern in the capital and the countryside, he could then determine which districts could best afford to lose a portion of their inhabitants to Jerusalem" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 5).
As he pondered the situation, he came across a list of those in the first return under Zerubbabel. It is basically the same as the list recorded earlier in Ezra 2. We covered Nehemiah 7:5-72 in conjunction with that prior passage for sake of comparison. We are reviewing it here because this is where it actually fits in the story. You may wish to look back over the Beyond Today Bible Commentary on the earlier passage for an explanation of some of the variations in names and numbers.