REVIVAL STARTS WITH RE-ESTABLISHING OBEDIENCE TO GOD IN WORSHIP
When you are starting from scratch, it is essential to focus on the matters of highest priority. For believers, our relationship to God can only be rekindled by obedience to God in worship. As the exiles returned to Jerusalem, their first order of priority was rebuilding the altar, establishing a regular pattern of sacrifices in accordance with Mosaic regulations and then laying the foundation for the building of the new temple. Their leadership guided them along this path and provided supervision for the mission. Their passion for worshiping God caused them to celebrate these foundational steps – even though some of the older guard struggled with comparisons to the glory of the former times.
Fensham: The connection between chs. 2 and 3 is obvious. The previous chapter described the return of the Jews. This chapter pictures the beginning of a legitimate worship.
Loken: The central section of the book is an account of the rebuilding of Solomon’s temple. This project was begun by the remnant shortly after it returned to Jerusalem. Under the leadership of Jeshua, the priest, and Zerubbabel, the governor, the remnant commenced the project with the rebuilding of the altar so that it could offer burnt offerings on it according to the Law of Moses. The remnant also began to observe the religious calendar, beginning with the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. After hiring masons and carpenters to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to Joppa, the remnant rebuilt the foundation of the temple. This project was supervised by the priests and Levites. When the foundation was laid, the remnant praised the Lord with a grand celebration, shouting with a great shout of joy. Unfortunately, many who had seen the temple in its former glory wept at the sight of the rebuilt foundations, believing that the new temple would never be as glorious as the original.
Gary Smith: The Jews’ desire to worship God at their own altar in Jerusalem brought the people together. With 50,000 people on hand, it is clear that they did not agree on everything, but all minor issues of disagreement were quickly put in the background so they could accomplish the main reason for returning to Jerusalem. Arguments and division would hinder their ability to bring glory to God, while a unified desire to worship God would promote unity and the accomplishment of their deepest spiritual desire.
• It is better to begin small with God than not to begin at all.
• It is better to rejoice over what you have than to weep over what you used to have.
I. (:1-6) RENEWAL OF WORSHIP OBSERVANCES –
PRIORITY OF WORSHIP
A. (:1-3) Renewal of Morning and Evening Burnt Offerings
1. (:1) Corporate Commitment to the Priority of Worship
“Now when the seventh month came, and the sons of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem.”
Rata: It took the Jews about seven months to settle back into the land and now they are ready to reinstitute the sacrificial system. The fact that they come “as one man” points to their unity of heart and purpose.
2. (:2) Biblical Foundation for the Priority of Worship
“Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brothers arose and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God.”
Breneman: Many times the hardest part of a project is getting started. Someone must take the initiative. In accordance with historical precedent, the returned exiles began by building the altar. David had built an altar here before there was a temple (2 Sam 24:25).
Loken: The first order of business for the returned remnant is the reestablishment of proper Yahweh-worship in the land. The foundational element in Yahweh-worship was the sacrificial system. The restored remnant naturally begins with the building of an altar. Without an altar it is impossible to offer sacrifices. This was also a way to thank the Lord for restoring them to the land. Abraham built an altar to the Lord immediately after entering the land for the first time (Gen 12:7). Joshua likewise built an altar to the Lord after entering the land following the exodus (Josh 8:30–31). Here the restored remnant follows the example of its forefathers and immediately builds an altar to the Lord upon entering the land. . .
The text notes that Jeshua and Zerubbabel work together to rebuild the altar. This is the only passage in the Bible where the name of Jeshua precedes Zerubbabel. This phenomenon is almost certainly because this section deals with the reinstitution of worship, the responsibility of the priests. There is no mention here of Sheshbazzar, a fact that suggests that he may have died by this time. It is also possible that he returned to Babylon after leading the remnant to Israel. The mention of Zerubbabel here shows that he is present in Jerusalem shortly after the return of the remnant.
Gary Smith: The people knew they needed to sacrifice on the right kind of altar (built of uncut stones), built in the right place (the original site God chose), with proper sacrifices (unblemished animals), offered by divinely appointed priests (Levitical priests) because they were using the instructions in the law of Moses as their guide. Some commentators believe this rebuilding of a new altar required them to demolish a makeshift altar that was built after the Babylonians destroyed the Temple (see Jer 41:5, in which a grain offering is brought after the fall of Jerusalem [Jer 39:1–8]; this perhaps involved a makeshift altar; cf. Myers 1965:26–27; Jones 1963:12–31) because it was defiled by heathen worship (Clines 1984:65). Nothing is said in the text about destroying an existing altar, so any opinion in support of this interpretation is rather speculative. The Jewish people put a high priority on purity of worship, so if there was an impure altar, it would not be used. A strict adherence to the law of Moses characterized the lifestyle of the returnees.
3. (:3) Priority of Worship Provides Protection in a Hostile Environment
a. Real Danger
“So they set up the altar on its foundation,
for they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands;”
Obedience to the Word of God is the only protection for God’s people against opposition from fierce enemies.
Breneman: “the people of the land.” In earlier times it referred to the landowning families who made up the ruling class. But here it evidently refers to the surrounding peoples (e.g., Ashdod, Samaria, Ammon, Moab, Edom), persons of foreign descent (including part Jews) living in Judah, and to Jews in the land who had not maintained their faith without compromise. Some were people established there by the Assyrians (4:2). Ezra-Nehemiah shows a growing animosity between these people and the Jewish community returned from exile. Therefore we have in these books an example of a believing community living in a hostile environment.
Constable: The “law” in view is the Mosaic Law. One reason the people began offering sacrifices again was their fear of their neighbors (v. 2). They called on the Lord to protect them.
b. Regular Devotion
“and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD,
burnt offerings morning and evening.”
Rata: This daily morning and evening sacrifice consisted of a lamb prepared in flour and oil, with wine as the drink offering (Exod. 29:38–42; Num. 28:3–8).
Fensham: This altar was constructed on the place of the foundations of the altar of the temple of Solomon. We must accept that the altar which is referred to in Jer. 41:5 was also built on the same place. The returnees demolished the old altar to build a new one in its place. It is to be expected that such an act would kindle hostility among the old inhabitants of the land. . . Clearly at this stage a rift had been created between the returnees and the older inhabitants of the country. The author shows that the regular sacrifices as they are described in the law of Moses were instituted. In v. 3b the Tamid or morning and evening sacrifices are mentioned.
B. (:4-6a) Renewal of Feast of Booths and Other Burnt Offerings
1. (:4) Renewal of Feast of Booths
“And they celebrated the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and offered the fixed number of burnt offerings daily, according to the ordinance, as each day required;”
Loken: This physical continuity between the first temple and the second temple further reveals the covenantal continuity between the generation of the first temple and that of the second. In other words, this community felt that it was obligated to be obedient to the covenants given to its ancestors. The author reveals this theme by consistently referring to the writings of Moses throughout this passage (cf. 3:2, 4, 5). .
Now that the remnant has a legitimate altar, it can once again follow its ritual calendar. The narrative jumps to the fifteenth day of the month when the nation celebrates the Feast of Tabernacles. There is no mention in the passage of the Day of Atonement, celebrated the week before the Feast of Tabernacles. There is likewise no mention of the Day of Atonement in Neh 8, where the nation is once again pictured as celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles. Surely the Day of Atonement would have been observed on both occasions. It is possible that there is no mention of the Day of Atonement in either instance because both passages are emphasizing the celebration of the remnant. The Day of Atonement was a solemn day, and as such it does not fit with the flow of the narrative. Therefore, it is not mentioned in either chapter. It is also possible that the Day of Atonement was not observed because the ark of the covenant was no longer in existence. The ark of the covenant was a necessary part of the Day of Atonement ritual since the blood of the sacrificed goat needed to be sprinkled on the mercy seat of the ark. Without the presence of the ark of the covenant in the temple, the Day of Atonement lost its significance.
2. (:5) Renewal of Other Burnt Offerings
“and afterward there was a continual burnt offering, also for the new moons and for all the fixed festivals of the LORD that were consecrated, and from everyone who offered a freewill offering to the LORD.”
Loken: These verses describe the reinstitution of the other sacrifices and festivals. The festivals that had fixed dates included the new moon celebrations, the Passover, the Feast of Unleavened Bread, the Feast of Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles (Booths). . .
The offerings associated with these holidays, coupled with the freewill offerings, provided a continual burnt offering to the Lord. The sheer number of the sacrifices kept the fires of the altar burning continuously. The “freewill offering” was a voluntary sacrifice that could be offered to the Lord whenever an individual felt led to do so (cf. Lev 22:18–23; Num 29:39). This was the only sacrifice that non-Israelites were allowed to offer to the Lord. The animals prescribed for this sacrifice included a male bull, a ram, and a he-goat. The poorest of the land were permitted to offer a turtledove or young pigeon without regard to sex. The freewill offering, with the exception of the skin, was entirely consumed upon the altar. It symbolized the complete surrender to God of an individual or congregation.
3. (:6a) Worship Calendar
“From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD,”
Fensham: The first part of this verse clearly refers to the fact that all the sacrifices, except those connected with the Feast of Tabernacles, were instituted on the first of the seventh month. According to the law of Moses the Feast of Tabernacles must be celebrated on the fifteenth of the seventh month.
Rata: Along with the Passover and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles was one of the three most important religious celebrations for the Jews. The Festival of Booths began on Tishri 15 (September/October), and it was primarily a thanksgiving festival showing gratitude for God’s provision (Exod. 34:22). It also commemorated the wilderness wandering, the booths (Succoth) being a reminder that the Israelites lived in tents during the forty-year commute from Egypt to the Promised Land (23:42–43). It was to Succoth that the Israelites first came after leaving Rameses (Exod. 12:7). The Feast of Booths was observed during the post-exilic period (2 Chron. 8:13; Ezra 3:4; Zech. 14:16, 18, 19) and during the early church period. This is the only festival wherein the Israelites were commanded to rejoice before the Lord (Lev. 23:40).
Ross explains that the freewill offering “was an offering that could be made any time. The soul of the worshipper might simply be overflowing with joy over God and his benefits. Such freewill offerings were (and are) the essence of a living faith.” It is easy to see how the returnees’ feelings of gratitude translated into freewill offerings to the Lord. However, since the foundation of the Temple has not yet been laid, much more work remains to be done. After all, the temple had been central to Israel’s worship and their understanding of God since Solomon first built it in 967 bc.
C. (:6b) Reminder that Work on the Temple Had Not Yet Begun = Pivot Point
“but the foundation of the temple of the LORD had not been laid.”
Ron Daniel: Notice the order of that, because this is the model we find in the Scripture. People do not worship God because they have built a building. People build a building because they worship God. This is an important distinction. Moses and the children of Israel worshiped the Lord before they built the tabernacle. Solomon worshiped the Lord before he built the temple. The people of Israel are worshipping the Lord before they rebuild the temple. Too many people in the church today are of the mindset that the building is the thing.
II. (:7-9) RESPONSIBILITIES FOR SUPERVISING TEMPLE CONSTRUCTION –
PATTERN OF OVERSIGHT
A. (:7) Paying the Craftsmen and Securing the Lumber
“Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and to the Tyrians, to bring cedar wood from Lebanon to the sea at Joppa, according to the permission they had from Cyrus king of Persia.”
Fensham: The author wants to point out that the delivery of cedar wood for the temple was approved by Cyrus. We must keep in mind that we have here a transaction between two different provinces in the Persian empire, and permission for it had to be granted by the satrap of the Trans-Euphrates in the name of the king.
B. (:8) Putting the Levites in Charge Under the Leadership of Zerubbabel
1. Length of Time Before Construction Began
“Now in the second year of their coming to the house of God
at Jerusalem in the second month,”
Derek Kidner: It was fitting, again, that the work should start in the second month of the new year, for the first was dominated by the Passover. Besides—and this would hardly have escaped their notice—the second was the month in which Solomon’s Temple had been started (1 Kgs 6:1).
Gary Smith: This was the logical time (April/May) to begin building a large construction project because the spring harvest of barley was over and the dry season was starting. Thus, the builders had already completed their agricultural responsibilities related to the harvest and did not have to contend with mud when moving lumber and stones.
2. Leadership of Zerubbabel and Others
“Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak and the rest of their brothers the priests and the Levites, and all who came from the captivity to Jerusalem, began the work”
Fensham: The enumeration of all the groups which began the work shows that the laity (Zerubbabel and his companions), priests (Jeshua and his companions), and Levites are clearly distinguished.
3. Levites Appointed to Oversee the Work
“and appointed the Levites from twenty years and older
to oversee the work of the house of the LORD.”
Loken: The priesthood assumed the role of overseeing the project. This was to make sure that the project was ritually correct. All Levites above the age of twenty were given administrative responsibility. Evidently, the age of twenty was now regarded as the age at which the Levites could take on responsibility (cf. 1 Chr 23:24; 2 Chr 31:17). Originally, the age had been set at twenty-five (cf. Num 8:24; the age was set at thirty for those who carried the tabernacle [cf. Num 4:3, 23, 30]). Perhaps the minimum age was lowered because the total number of Levites kept declining. This would ensure that there were always enough Levites to fulfill the temple duties. The phrase “to supervise the work of the house of Yahweh” is identical to that of 1 Chr 23:4. Take note that the text is once again careful to distinguish between the laity, the priests, and the Levites.
C. (:9) Partnering with Other Supervisors of the Workmen
“Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers stood united with Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah and the sons of Henadad with their sons and brothers the Levites, to oversee the workmen in the temple of God.”
Derek Kidner: The careful planning and recording of the operation are impressive. There was enthusiasm, reflected in the ‘all’ who came forward for the work (8b), but there was strict attention to standards, as is shown by the double mention of the oversight: first of the work (8), secondly of the workmen (9). Evidently the Levites as a whole supervised the work of the laymen, and were themselves directed by their leading families (9).
III. (:10-13) REACTIONS TO LAYING THE FOUNDATION FOR THE NEW TEMPLE –
PASSION OF PRAISE
A. (:10-11) Reaction of Joy and Praise
1. (:10a) Grand Mission Begun
“Now when the builders had laid the foundation
of the temple of the LORD,”
2. (:10b) Glorious Symphony of Praise
“the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites,
the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD
according to the directions of King David of Israel.”
Ray Pritchard: I am struck by the fact that they did not wait until the building was done to praise the Lord. Even though laying the foundation was significant, there was a mountain of work left to do. Years would pass before the temple was finished. This was only the first step, but they stopped anyway and gave thanks to the Lord. What a lesson that is for all of us.
3. (:11a) Goodness of God Extolled
“And they sang, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, saying,
‘For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.’”
Derek Thomas: Workers in stone, that is, had come down from Tyre and Sidon to help in this project to clear away the stones that had fallen from the walls of the temple. Huge stones requiring enormous manpower and effort and then, all of the rubble that you can imagine would accumulate over 50, 60, 70 years, and all of this is cleared away and the foundations are laid and they can see now the structure of the temple before them and they burst into song. Because what did the temple represent to them? It wasn’t just a building, you understand. To the Old Testament saint the temple represented the place where God was present, where worship was conducted, where sin was forgiven and atoned for, where blood was sprinkled, where the Holy of Holies was to be found, and the Shekinah glory was to be found and the Ark of the Covenant was to be found. But there is no Ark of the Covenant now.
4. (:11b) Great Shout of Celebration
“And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.”
Rata: The focus here is not on the physical details of laying the foundation, but rather on the joyous ceremony that accompanied it. The details closely parallel the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron. 7:6). The trumpets used were not the ram’s horns, but rather the long, straight, metal instruments used for the assembly call (Num. 10:2), alarm call (2 Chron. 13:12–14), and for celebrations (1 Chron. 16:6). The refrain “for His steadfast love endures forever” points to God’s character and nature, and occurs several times in the Psalms, as well as in Chronicles (1 Chron. 16:34, 41; 2 Chron. 5:13; 7:3, 6; 20:21), and Jeremiah (33:11). The love of God (Hésed) is a reminder of God’s covenantal love and now they are celebrating it through shouting and singing. God’s covenantal love has been manifested not just in their return to the land, but now in the reestablishment of the temple worship.
Breneman: These verses again show the theological interests of the author. He put worship at the center of community life and emphasized God’s goodness and love. He also stressed continuity with the preexilic worship practices, emphasizing the importance of the priests and the sons of Asaph, whom David had assigned to worship with musical instruments (1 Chr 16:5; 25:1). The author even quotes from a psalm (Ps 100:5) frequently used earlier (1 Chr 16:34; 2 Chr 5:13). Jeremiah 33:11 had prophesied that after Jerusalem was destroyed in this same place this psalm would again be sung with gladness, joy, and thank offerings. Though there was not yet a temple, God was enthroned upon the praises of Israel.
B. (:12) Reaction of Weeping and Lament
“Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ households, the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy;”
Rata: The prophet Haggai gives us insight into why some people were crying in the face of what seems to be good news. In Haggai 2:3 God is posing a series of questions, “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How do you see it now? Is it not as nothing in your eyes?” It seems that the older people who have seen the glory of Solomon’s temple were bitterly disappointed even though the temple had not yet been rebuilt. The foundation alone told them that the rebuilt temple would not rise to the level of the original. It could be that the smaller stones used here did not compare with the huge blocks used in Solomon’s temple.15 The weeping of the older people clashed with the shouts of joy of those who saw the laying of the foundation not as a disappointment but as a great achievement.
Loken: A major theme of the books of Ezra and Nehemiah is the nation’s commemoration of significant achievements with great celebrations. When the Israelites complete the altar, they celebrate (3:10–11); when the temple is rebuilt, they celebrate (6:16–17); and when the wall of Jerusalem is restored, they celebrate (Neh 12:27–43). Unfortunately, in our modern performance-driven society, we are too often in a hurry to rush on to the next project as soon as we complete a task. We rarely take the time to celebrate what the Lord has allowed us to accomplish. When you complete a major project in your life, take a lesson from the remnant and commemorate your achievement with great joy. Go out to dinner, have a party, take a vacation. Praise and give thanks to the Lord, for His lovingkindness lasts forever.
Derek Thomas: It shows a terrible ingratitude for the present. God had come to them in mercy. God had come to them in kind providence and what they were saying was, “It’s not like it used to be.” And in saying that, in saying that, my friends, they were showing ingratitude for what God was doing in the present, in the here and now.
It’s saying something more than that though, because those sounds of lamentation and woe were the seeds of discouragement; they were the seeds of discouragement. Little wonder that the building of this temple ground to a halt, little wonder. It is so discouraging to hear those words, “You know, we did it better in our day.” O, for the spirit of Barnabas, the son of encouragement.
Gary Smith: The emotional outburst also gave way to weeping. The text does not explicitly state the reason why some of the older generation that remembered Solomon’s magnificent Temple wept. Were these people overcome with immense joy at seeing the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple, or were these tears of sorrow because this building would never match the glory and splendor of what they remembered from the past? Some commentators have interpreted this weeping based on later comments in Haggai 2:3. Haggai mentioned the complaints of the older people about the lack of glory in this new Temple (about 16 years later, when the Temple was actually finished), and many have read that same attitude back into this passage in Ezra (McConville 1985:210; Myers 1965:29). It seems better to see these as separate events, for Haggai 2:3 does not mention any weeping and Ezra mentions no negative comparative attitudes by the older people. There was no opposition by the older generation to rebuilding the Temple at this early date, so it is best to conclude that the tears in Ezra 3 are tears of joy. Finally God was giving them the unbelievable joy of seeing the Temple in the process of being rebuilt. Their joy was probably similar to the joyful tears of the Israelis who finally reached the Wailing Wall in the war for Jerusalem in 1967 (Yamauchi 1988:625).
C. (:13) Reaction Mixed and Indistinguishable as Loud Shouting
“so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away.”
Derek Kidner: So the crescendo continues, to the strange close of the chapter. Once again, there are conscious echoes of Solomon’s celebrations, though there are contrasts too. This time there is no ark, no visible glory, indeed no Temple: only some beginnings, and small beginnings at that. But God is enthroned on the praises of Israel, and these could be as glorious as Solomon’s. Perhaps they were more so, for while they matched the earlier occasion, word for word and almost instrument for instrument (2 Chr. 5:13), they were sung in conditions more conducive to humility than to pride, and called for a faith that had few earthly guarantees to bolster it.
The last two verses have all the unexpectedness of actuality. The spontaneous cry of disappointment, breaking into the celebrations, was a foretaste of much that was to follow. Haggai would recognize that note and preach against it (Hag. 2:3ff.); Zechariah would have to challenge those who ‘despised the day of small things’ (Zech. 4:10). But both those prophets did so with such memorable words that we can be grateful that they had to meet this mood and answer it.