In Ezra 1 we saw how Cyrus, the King of the Persian Empire, issued a decree to allow the exiled Jews to return to the Promised Land to rebuild the temple. This was the fulfilment of the Lord’s promise which he made through the prophet Jeremiah that their exile would last 70 years and then the captors — the Babylonians — would be destroyed and the people of Israel could return. And we read how the family heads of Judah and Benjamin as well as the priests and Levites made preparations to go up to Jerusalem. And they didn’t leave empty-handed, because their neighbours gave them silver and gold and other things to take with them.
Furthermore, Cyrus gave them the holy things which Nebuchadnezzar had taken from the Lord’s temple in Jerusalem. And in Ezra 2, which we studied last week, we read the family names of those who returned from exile to the Promised Land: the laypeople, and the priests, and the Levites, the singers and gatekeepers and temple servants and those descended from Solomon’s servants, all those whose hearts the Lord had moved. And when they arrived in Jerusalem, the heads of the families gave freewill offerings towards the rebuilding of the temple.
That’s where we’ve got to so far. And as I said when we began, the Lord God Almighty has given us the books of Ezra and Nehemiah — and all the other books of the Bible — to reveal to us his great plan of salvation which is to deliver his people from their sin and misery by his Son so that we might live with him for ever and ever in glory. Just as the Lord rescued his people from Babylon, so he recuses his people in every generation from our sin and misery in this fallen world. And just as the Lord brought his people to Jerusalem in the Promised Land, so he promises to bring his people — all those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life and who trust in his Son — he promises to bring his people to the new Jerusalem in the new heaven and earth, which is our Promised Land.
God has given us the books of Ezra and Nehemiah to reveal to us the good news of the gospel; and so, he’s given us these books to awaken our faith and to strengthen our faith in Jesus Christ the Lord who rescues sinners from our sin and misery in this fallen world to live with him forever in the glory to come; he rescues us from the tyranny of the Devil to bring us into his everlasting kingdom; he rescues us from condemnation which is what we deserve because we’re sinners, and promises us everlasting joy in his presence forever. And so, we must all trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, because he’s the only one who is able to rescue us from our sin and misery; and to give us everlasting life in the presence of the Lord. We all need to turn to God in prayer and confess before him our sin and guilt. And we all need to turn to God in prayer and ask him to pardon us for the sake of Christ who died for sinners. And we all need to turn to God in prayer and ask him to help us to live our lives, no longer for ourselves, but for Christ our Saviour who died to bring us to God. If you have not already done that, will you do it now? Will you confess your sin to God? Will you ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners? Will you ask for his help to live your life for his glory? Will you do that? — because the only way to be rescued from your sin and misery in this fallen world to live forever in the new Jerusalem in the new heaven and earth is by trusting in Christ, the only Saviour of the world.
God continues to reveal to us the good news of the gospel in Ezra 3. And the chapter can be divided into three main parts. First of all, in verses 1 to 6 we read how they rebuilt the altar. Then in verses 7 to 9 they began to lay the foundation for the temple. And in verses 10 to 13 we have a mixed reaction to what they had accomplished.
Verses 1 to 6
Let’s turn to verses 1 to 6 and to the rebuilding of the altar. And we’re told in verse 1 that when the seventh month came and the Israelites were settled in their towns, they assembled together as one man in Jerusalem. The seventh month was an important month in the Jewish calendar. Back in Leviticus 23 the Lord set out for his people the appointed feasts they were to celebrate. And there were seven in total: there was the weekly Sabbath; then there was the Passover; then there was the Feast of Unleavened Bread; then there was the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost; then the Feast of Trumpets; the Day of Atonement; and the Feast of Booths. And three of those feasts were celebrated in the seventh month, because the seventh month began with the Feast of Trumpets; the Day of Atonement was held on the tenth day of that month; and the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles began on the fifteenth day of the same month and it lasted for seven days. So, the seventh month was the most important month in the year. And so, it’s fitting that on that month the people assembled in Jerusalem in order to rebuild the altar. They had to rebuild the altar, because of course the altar and the temple had been destroyed when the Babylonians attacked Jerusalem all those years ago at the beginning of the exile.
According to verse 2 Jeshua and Zerubbabel led the rebuilding of the altar. I mentioned last week that Jeshua was a priest and Zerubbabel was descended from King David. So, a priest and a king led the people at that time. And you’ll see as well that they built the altar in accordance with what is written in the law of Moses. So, back in the book of Exodus, Moses wrote down instructions which the Lord revealed to him about how to build the altar which was used to offer sacrifices to the Lord. And those instructions included what it was to be made from, and how big it was to be, and what it was to look like. The Lord gave Moses instructions about every aspect of the tabernacle. And, here in Ezra 3, we see that the returning exiles are being careful to obey the word of the Lord and to follow his instructions. The reason they were sent away into exile was because they had disregarded the word of the Lord and they had broken his commandments; now they’re being careful to obey him.
Verse 3 mentions how they were afraid of the peoples around them. During the exile, other people had moved into the area and were now living on the land and in the towns. And the returning exiles were afraid of them. Nevertheless, despite their fears, they built the altar.
And they built it on its foundation. In other words, they were careful to build the new altar on the site of the old altar. They wanted everything to be the same as the past. And once they rebuilt the altar, they were able to offer sacrifices on it. This, of course, was a momentous occasion, because no sacrifices had been offered to the Lord during the whole of the time of their exile. For 70 years, they were unable to make an offering to the Lord to atone for their sins. But now, at last, they could bring their offerings to the Lord. The text refers to morning and evening burnt offerings, because according to the law of Moses, burnt offerings had to be made to the Lord every morning and every evening. The burnt offering was the ransom the people gave to God to release them from condemnation so that they could live with him.
And then, in accordance with what was written in the law of Moses, the people celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles, or the Feast of Booths. As I’ve already said, this was an annual festival, which began on the fifteenth day of the seventh month and which lasted for seven days. It’s called the Feast of Tabernacles or Booths, because for the seven days of the festival, the people were to live in booths or huts to commemorate how the Israelites used to live in tents in the days of Moses whenever the Lord brought them out of Egypt and led them through the wilderness for forty years. It was a way to remember God’s grace to them in the past who rescued them from their captivity and who brought them safely through the wilderness to the Promised Land. And so, it was fitting that the returning exiles should celebrate it again, because now they would remember God’s grace to them in rescuing them from their exile and in bringing them to the Promised Land once again.
And you’ll see from verses 5 and 6 that they continued to offer the regular sacrifices as well as freewill offerings. Now that the altar was in place, they could bring their offerings to the Lord to atone for their sins and to give thanks to him for his kindness to them.
Before we move on, notice once again that the leaders at that time were a priest and a king. Priests and kings in the Old Testament point forward to Christ who is our Great High Priest and King.
In Old Testament times, every priest had to bring an offering to the Lord as a ransom to set the people free from condemnation and to cleanse them from the guilt of their sins. The offerings they brought were bulls and goats and sheep which were slaughtered on the altar and burned. But the writer to the Hebrews makes clear that the blood of bulls and goats could never really take away sins. And so, all of those Old Testament sacrifices were only for the time being and to make do until the time when Christ our Great High Priest came into the world to offer to God the perfect sacrifice for sins. Furthermore, since the Old Testament sacrifices could not really take away sins, then the priests had to offer them again and again, every morning and every evening, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year. But Christ our Great High Priest offered for all time one sacrifice for sins.
And so, what was this perfect, once-for-all sacrifice which the Lord Jesus Christ, our Great High Priest, offered to God? Well, the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice he offered was himself. When Christ died on the cross, he offered himself to God as the perfect sacrifice for sins. He gave his life as the ransom to set his people free from condemnation forever; and his blood was shed to cleanse his people from their guilt forever. And so, there is no condemnation for those who trust in Christ, because he offered himself as the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins. And so, if you trust in him, then you have peace with God forever, because he’s paid the ransom to set you free from the condemnation you deserve; and by his blood you are cleansed from all your guilt.
But he’s also our Great King, and as our Great King he calls us into his kingdom, where there is peace and joy and forgiveness and the hope of everlasting life. And just as a king will protect his people, so Christ our King promises to protect all who trust in him and to help them to overcome all the troubles and trials they face each day. And so, he not only calls us into his kingdom, but he promises to keep his people in his kingdom; and he shields his people by his mighty power. You often feel very weak, don’t you? And vulnerable? You often feel overwhelmed by life and all its troubles and trials? Well, Christ the King is able to strengthen you and help you and he’s able to uphold you, if you trust in him.
The reason we read here in Erza 3 that the leaders at that time were a priest and a king is because God was revealing to the world that the time would come when he would provide his people with an even greater priest and an even greater king. And the reason we read here in Ezra 3 that the people offered sacrifices to the Lord on the altar is because God was revealing to the world that the time would come when he would provide his people with the perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins, so that whoever trusts in his Son — who gave up his life for sinners — is pardoned by God and can look forward to dwelling with him forever. And so, if you trust in Christ and in his perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for sins, then you have been set free from condemnation and you have been washed and cleansed by his blood, to possess everlasting life in his everlasting kingdom.
Verses 7 to 9
At the end of verse 6 we’re told that the foundation of the temple had not yet been laid. The altar in the temple had been rebuilt, but the foundation of the temple was not yet laid. And so, in verse 7 we read that they gave money to the masons and carpenters and food and drink and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre so that they would bring cedar logs by sea from Lebanon to Joppa. Well now, do you realise that’s pretty much what they did whenever the temple was built the first time in the days of David and Solomon? In 1 Chronicles 22 we read how David employed masons and carpenters and others to work on the temple; and he got cedar logs from Sidon and Tyre. In 2 Chronicles 2 we have Solomon’s letter to the king of Tyre, asking for logs from Lebanon; and he promised to give them food and drink and oil in return. And the king of Tyre replied and said that they’d cut logs from Lebanon and float them by sea to Joppa.
Do you see? They wanted this new temple to be just like the old one which had been destroyed. And according to verse 8, they began the work in the second month. Well, Solomon began the work on his temple in the second month of his fourth year as king. According to the end of verse 8 and verse 9, they appointed Levites to supervise the building of the temple and to oversee those who did the work. That recalls David’s instructions in 1 Chronicles 23 where he said that the Levites should supervise the work of Solomon’s temple. They wanted the new temple to be just like the old temple.
Verses 10 to 13
And so, according to verse 10, whenever they laid the foundation of the temple, the priests took trumpets and the Levites took cymbals and they began to praise the Lord. Once again, this is in accordance with what happened when the first temple was built. And as they did on that occasion, so on this occasion the sang to the Lord:
He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.
And the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the temple had been laid. There were glad and they were thankful and they praised the Lord for his kindness to them.
But look at verse 12, because the response of the people and their reaction to the new temple was mixed, wasn’t it? Many of them praised the Lord. But some of them — the older priests and Levites and family heads who had seen the first temple in all its glory — wept when they saw the foundations of the new temple. They wept aloud.
So, some of them were shouting for joy and praising the Lord. Others were weeping aloud. Why were they weeping? Well, it was because what the saw was very different from what they were expecting. They tried to make the new temple be like the old one, but it did not match the old one’s glory, because the old one was filled with gold, and this one was not. And the old one contained the ark of the covenant, which symbolised the presence of the Lord, but there’s no mention of the ark of the covenant now. In fact, when the first temple was finished, the Lord’s glory-cloud appeared and filled the temple, again to signify that the Lord was there, dwelling in their midst. But there’s no mention of the glory-cloud now.
And then, the Lord had revealed through his prophets to his exiled people that days of glory would follow the return from exile. Ezekiel, for instance, spoke of a glorious temple where the glory of the Lord would dwell. And Isaiah — and we were thinking about this at Christmas — he spoke of a time when a new king would be raised up and the world will be so transformed that the wolf and the lamb will live together in peace; and no one will harm or destroy on God’s holy mountain. But do you remember verse 3? The returning exiles were afraid of their enemies. So, where was the glorious temple the Lord promised? Where was the new king the Lord promised? Where was the transformed creation the Lord promised? What they saw was not what they were expecting. The reality fell short of what they were hoping for.
And, of course, the reason for their disappointment is because this was not yet the fulfilment of God’s promises. The right time had not yet come for the Lord to do everything he said he would do. Still they had to wait a little longer for the fulfilment of God’s promises, because when the Lord spoke about a new king, when God spoke about a glorious temple to come, when he spoke about a renewed creation, he was speaking about his Son who would come into the world, first in weakness and humility to give up his life for our salvation; and then he would come a second time with glory and in power to destroy his enemies and to gather his people into the new heaven and earth to dwell with the Lord forever.
And so, some of the people were disappointed, because God’s promises had not yet been fulfilled. But, of course, others were joyful, because of the great things the Lord had already done for them.
And that mixture of joy and weeping sums up the believer’s life here on earth. Whoever believes in the Lord Jesus experiences joy, because we have received so many good things from the Lord already. Through faith in Christ, we’re justified so that God pardons our sins and accepts us as righteous in his sight. Through faith in Christ, we’re set apart from this unbelieving world and we’re adopted into God’s family, becoming his beloved children. Through faith in Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit who is at work in us to make us holy and obedient. Through faith in Christ, we receive the assurance of God’s love and peace of conscience and joy in the Holy Spirit and growth in grace and perseverance. Through faith in Christ we already have so much. And so, we want to rejoice and praise the Lord and to say about him:
He is good; his love to his people endures forever.
But because we believe his promises, we’re looking forward to something even better. Because we believe his promises, we’re yearning for more. Because we believe his promises, we’ve waiting for better things to come, because we have not yet received everything he has promised; and for the time being we have to endure so much sorrow and suffering; and we have to contend with the Devil; and we have to fight against temptation; and there’s illness and there’s pain; and there’s grief; and there’s death. And so, while we already have so much from the Lord, we know there’s so much more to come, so much more that is better than this, which we will only enjoy when Christ comes again with glory and in power to destroy his enemies and to glorify his people in his presence forever. When that day comes, all the sorrow and sadness and the troubles and trials and the weeping of this life will have passed away, and there will only be everlasting joy in the presence of the Lord in a new heaven and earth for those who trust in Christ who died for sinners to bring us to God in the glory to come.