Mourning Over Sin

“Ezra” series (post #16)

When these things were done, the leaders came to me, saying, “The people of Israel and the priests and the Levites have not separated themselves from the peoples of the lands, with respect to the abominations of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites.  For they have taken some of their daughters as wives for themselves and their sons, so that the holy seed is mixed with the peoples of those lands. Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass.” So when I heard this thing, I tore my garment and my robe, and plucked out some of the hair of my head and beard, and sat down astonished. (Ezra 9:1-3, N.K.J.V.)

The feeling of joy that Ezra felt over leading his group of former exiles to their new home in Judah didn’t last long. Just a few months later a spiritual monsoon rained on the feel-good parade when some of Judah’s leaders brought Ezra some bad news. They confessed that many of Judah’s priests, Levites, and civic leaders had intermarried with the idol-worshiping races that surrounded Judah. Even worse, these priests, Levites, and leaders had caused their sons to do the same. This type of marriage, of course, was the pet sin that all of the 12 tribes of Israel had struggled with for centuries ever since the nation’s conquering and settling of Canaan. It was the primary reason why God had previously allowed the Assyrians to conquer Israel’s northern kingdom and the Babylonians to conquer its southern kingdom.

By comparing Ezra 7:9 with Ezra 10:9, we learn that four-and-a-half months passed before Ezra was told about these marriages. This causes us to ask, “What took those concerned leaders so long to report the problem to Ezra?” The most likely answer is that Ezra’s faithful teaching of the Mosaic law had finally pricked their consciences. That’s the powerful effect that a true man of God conveying a true message from God can have upon people. Ezra’s ministry probably caused those priests, Levites, and leaders who had committed the sinful marriages to come under conviction as well, but they were too cowardly, embarrassed, or seared in conscience to self report their transgressions.

Actually, those men should have known better anyway. I say that because God had always been exceedingly clear in warning the Jews to steer clear of intermarrying with the races of Canaan. In Ezra 9:10-12, Ezra voices a general summary of God’s words and thoughts from passages such as Exodus 20:1-6; 23:32-33; 34:11-16; and Deuteronomy 7:1-4 as he says to God:

And now, O our God, what shall we say after this? For we have forsaken Your commandments, which You commanded by Your servants the prophets, saying, ‘The land which you are entering to possess is an unclean land, with the uncleanness of the peoples of the lands, with their abominations which have filled it from one end to another with their impurity. Now therefore, do not give your daughters as wives for their sons, nor take their daughters to your sons; and never seek their peace or prosperity, that you may be strong and eat the good of the land, and leave it as an inheritance to your children forever.’ (N.K.J.V.)

As we read these words, it is important to understand that God prohibiting the Jews from intermarrying with the other peoples in Canaan had nothing to do with genetic racial superiority or inferiority. The issue was religion, not race. God simply didn’t want His chosen nation of Israel to become corrupted by the idolatrous ways of the Gentiles of Canaan. He knew that whatever positive spiritual influence such marriages might bring to those Gentile races paled in comparison to the negative spiritual influence they would surely bring to the Jews.

What made the situation all the worse was the fact that many of Judah’s spiritual and civic leaders were the ones who had encouraged the nation’s intermarrying by taking foreign wives for themselves and their sons. As that group of whistle blowers said to Ezra, “Indeed, the hand of the leaders and rulers has been foremost in this trespass” (9:2). How could God bless Judah when its civic leaders were living in blatant, unrepentant sin against one of God’s clearest laws? How could He bless its temple’s sacrifices and rituals when the priests and Levites who manned the temple were living personal lives in open defiance against His word? Not only was Judah’s sin pervasive, it was flowing from the top down.

It wasn’t just one group of foreign women who were enticing the Jewish men, either. Eight different races are named in Ezra 9:1: the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, the Ammonites, the Moabites, the Egyptians, and the Amorites. Five of those — the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Jebusites, and the Ammonites — were part of the group of seven races that had historically defined the land of Canaan before Israel had conquered them and taken possession of the land (Deuteronomy 7:1; Acts 13:19). (For the record, the other two races of Canaan had been the Girgashites and the Hivites.) The three races that had not been part of Canaan’s original seven — the Egyptians, the Moabites, and the Ammonites — were longstanding enemies of the Jews.

In my next post, which will close out this series, I’ll talk about what Ezra instructed the people of Judah to do regarding their sinful marriages. Right now, though, I want to focus upon how Ezra himself responded as an individual. Here’s what he did:

  • He tore his garment and robe in a traditional act of mourning. (9:3)
  • He pulled out some of the hair from his head and his beard in another traditional act of mourning. (9:3)
  • He sat down astonished (appalled, devastated, shocked) for several hours. (9:3-4)
  • He fasted. (9:5)
  • When he did finally stand back up, he quickly fell back down on his knees and spread out his hands to God. (9:5)
  • As part of his confessing of Judah’s sins to God, he went into great detail about not only Judah’s current sin but also her past sins. (9:6-15)

As we can see, Ezra was absolutely mortified when he heard about what those priests, Levites, and civil leaders had been doing for quite a while. Even though he personally had nothing to do with the sins, he used his intercessory prayer to identify himself with his nation. The prophet Daniel had once done this same kind of thing (Daniel 9:1-19). The good news for Ezra was that he wasn’t the only one in Judah who understood the gravity of the situation. In addition to that group of whistle blowers, there was a whole group of likeminded believers (people who trembled before God’s words) who assembled themselves around Ezra to show their support for him as he did his mourning (9:4).

Several years ago I heard a local pastor tell a story about his childhood days growing up on a farm. He said that his dad once sold a calf to make some money. The only problem was that the calf’s mother mourned the loss of her calf for many days afterward. The pastor said that cow would just stand and bellow in mourning over that missing calf. Then he applied the story to modern times. I can’t remember his exact quote verbatim, but he said something to the effect, “When we reach the point where we mourn over our sins the way that cow mourned over the loss of her calf, then we’ll see see some true repentance and revival.” To this day, that’s the best illustration that I’ve ever heard about mourning over sin. So tell me, do you mourn over sin that way? Ezra did, and we would certainly do well to follow his fine example.

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Finishing a Job

“Ezra” series: (post #15)

Then we departed from the river of Ahava on the twelfth day of the first month, to go to Jerusalem. And the hand of our God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road. So we came to Jerusalem… (Ezra 8:31-32, N.K.J.V.)

Ezra’s group left Babylon on the first day of the first month of the Jewish calendar year (7:9). After traveling for a few days, they set up camp for three days at a site near the river of Ahava (8:15). They left that site and headed for Jerusalem on the twelfth day of the same month. Putting all these dates together seems to indicate that the site by the river was located nine days out of Babylon. That would have placed it 100 miles or so from Babylon and another 800 miles or so from Jerusalem. Finally, on the first day of the fifth month, Ezra and his group completed their four months of travel and arrived in Jerusalem (7:9).

All kinds of things could have gone wrong on that trip. In particular, the group was carrying a veritable fortune in donated items and could have encountered murderous robbers and bandits along the way. Remember that Ezra had refused to ask Artaxerxes, the ruler of the Medo-Persian empire, for an armed escort to ensure the group’s safety. Instead, Ezra had confidently asserted that God would keep the group safe (Ezra 8:22). And God did indeed keep them safe. As Ezra says in our text: “And the hand of God was upon us, and He delivered us from the hand of the enemy and from ambush along the road.”

After arriving safely in Jerusalem, the group rested for three days (8:32). It’s interesting that three-day rests were part of the beginning of their journey and the ending of it. On the fourth day in Jerusalem, the group brought out all the articles from the offering they had collected in Babylon from Artaxerxes, his seven royal counselors, and the Jews (7:14-16). The articles were taken to the second temple where they were weighed by the group of priests in charge and officially recorded (8:33-34). Presumably, everything about the offering matched up perfectly to the inventory and weighing that had taken place more than three months earlier at the camp sight at the river near Ahava (8:24-27). That showed that the priests that Ezra had charged with protecting the offering had done their jobs well over the long miles of the trip (8:28-30). As for what we Christians today can glean from this part of the story, we can take it as a good reminder that offerings made to support the Lord’s work should always be handled with the utmost diligence, integrity, and accountability.

With the offering turned over to the temple, Ezra and his group proceeded to offer burnt offerings upon the temple’s altar as Artaxerxes had instructed them to do (7:17). For a sin offering, they offered 12 bulls (one bull for each of the 12 tribes of Israel), 96 rams, 77 lambs, and 12 male goats (8:35). These four types of animals were the same types that had been sacrificed as part of the dedication ceremonies for that temple 75 years or so earlier, albeit with differing numbers (6:15-17). The importance of this event cannot be overstated. Ezra and his group of new arrivals were worshiping in their homeland, at their temple, for the first time in their lives.

Next, Ezra formally delivered to the Medo-Persian satraps (local rulers) and governors (regional rulers) in Jerusalem his copy of the letter from King Artaxerxes (7:11-26). That letter was the official decree from Artaxerxes that authorized Ezra’s mission, called for that mission to be financed by Medo-Persia, and gave Ezra the empowerment to appoint magistrates and judges to judge all the people who lived in Medo-Persian lands to the west of the Euphrates river. To the credit of the satraps and the governors, they read the letter and threw their full support behind the Jewish people and the second temple (8:36).

With that, Ezra’s job of bringing together a second group of Jewish exiles and leading them to Judah was finished. There would be many more jobs for him to do in the days ahead, but him being able to check off that first big one from his “to do” list was monumental. Nothing he would ever do would be any more important. Neither he nor any of his group would ever see Babylon again, and that was a good thing. They were home now, really home, resettled in the land that God had given to their forefather Abraham.

Finishing a job well is always important in the eyes of God. In the New Testament book of 2 Corinthians, we read that the Christians of Corinth, upon hearing that the Christians of Jerusalem had fallen upon difficult times financially, committed themselves to sending a love offering to them (2 Corinthians 8:1-6, 10-11; 9:1-2). For whatever reason, though, a full year passed without those Corinthians following through on that commitment. So, as part of his letter to them, the apostle Paul implored them to complete the job by collecting the offering and getting it sent (9:5). As he told them:

I suggest that you finish what you started a year ago, for you were the first to propose this idea, and you were the first to begin doing something about it. Now you should carry this project through to completion just as enthusiastically as you began it. Give whatever you can according to what you have. (8:10-11, N.L.T.)

Now let’s apply Paul’s words to our story from Ezra. What if Ezra and his group had gotten all stirred up about relocating to Judah, charted out their course for the trip, said, “Goodbye” to their friends and neighbors, but never left Babylon? Would that have been pleasing to God? Of course not. But that’s how so many Christians today operate. They receive a burden from God to do something, get off to a good start doing it, but then quit, leaving the God-ordained job unfinished.

Christian, if you have one of those on your track record, you would do well to revisit the subject with God and be open to what He wants you to do about it. It just could be that He wants you to finish what you started. I’m not saying for certain that He does, but if the job is still finishable, I’d say that the chances are high that He wants you to complete it. What was it that Jesus said on the cross concerning the job that God the Father had given Him to do? He said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). And may you and I be able to say the same thing today about the jobs that we are given.

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The Right Way to Move

“Ezra” series (post #14)

There might come a time in your life when God will relocate you. In the case of Ezra, He relocated him from Babylon to Judah by having him lead a group of Jews on that 900-mile, one-way trip. Since Ezra and his group had all been born and raised in Babylon, moving to a new land and living out the rest of their lives there was no small thing. Therefore, it’s not surprising that they took the time and put in the effort to make the necessary preparations before fully embarking on the journey.

Once Ezra received permission from Artaxerxes to make the trip (7:6-8), he began seeking other Jews to join him. In the opening verses of chapter 8, we find a list of those who accepted the offer. The list features prominent Jewish families and their heads. Most of the people listed were related to the families who had been part of the group that had been led by Zerubbabel. Obviously, the families who had made up that group had left relatives behind in Babylon. In all, Ezra’s group consisted of 1,496 men. If we add in women and children, the total number of people was probably somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000. While that number seems impressive, it was a far cry from the almost 50,000 people who had joined that first group.

After traveling a few days — perhaps 9 days according to the math we deduce by taking Ezra 7:9, 8:15, and 8:31 all into account — Ezra had his group set up camp for three days at a site near a river in the area of Ahava. Before launching off fully toward Judah, Ezra wanted to get a better idea of just exactly who he had with him. It was then that he realized that there were no Levites (members of the tribe of Levi) in his group. That was a major problem because, per the Mosaic law, the Levites were to be the caretakers of the temple (Numbers 3:5-8). Ezra did have priests with him, and priests were also from the tribe of Levi, but the duties of the priests and the Levites weren’t the same. Zerubbabel’s group, by comparison, had included 74 Levites (2:40).

Ezra’s solution to his shortage of Levites was to send eleven trusted men to the city of Casiphia. The fact that he seemed to know that a group of Levites lived in Casiphia might imply that it was a city inhabited by Levites and the Nethinim. The Nethinim, as I explained in post #5 from this series, were the temple workers who performed the lowliest jobs in the temple, jobs neither the priests nor the Levites did. Ezra instructed his men to speak to Iddo, the leader of the people of Casiphia, and ask him to help recruit Levites and members of the Nethinim to travel to Jerusalem and become servants in the second temple (8:17).

And did Ezra’s efforts to recruit more help work? Yes. 38 Levites and 220 Nethinim accepted the call and came and joined the group (8:18-20). Following the arrival of these men in camp, Ezra proclaimed a fast by which he sought the Lord’s guidance and protection for the potentially dangerous trip (8:21). By Ezra’s own admission, he would have been embarrassed to ask King Artaxerxes for a royal escort of soldiers because he had previously told Artaxerxes that God would keep the group safe (8:22).

Next, Ezra selected a group of priests and Levites and gave them the job of weighing all the items that had been donated by Artaxerxes and others to finance the trip. We’re talking about approximately 25 tons of silver, 7,500 pounds of gold articles, 7,500 pounds of silver articles, 20 bowls of gold, and two articles of polished bronze. Bible scholar Charles Ryrie estimates that the haul would be worth around $20 million today. The same men who weighed all the items were also given the responsibility of guarding them over the duration of the four-month trip.

So, as we come to the close of this post, how can we apply this part of the book of Ezra to us today? My answer is that we can learn that God doesn’t want us haphazardly rushing into major moves. Even if we know for certain that He is the one saying, “Go,” He has a certain way in which He wants us to do the going. Whether we need to finish unfinished business or tie up loose ends, there is no need to rush off in a haste that foregoes proper preparation. The goal is mark off all the items on God’s check list for our leaving, not try to set a land speed record getting to where He is taking us. Like Ezra putting in the time to sign up those workers and ensure that those treasury items were counted and protected, we should make sure that we aren’t leaving anything or anyone out even as we are leaving out. Ezra never regretted taking a few days to seek out those temple workers and see to those items that had been donated, and we won’t regret taking the time to do whatever it is that we need to do, either.

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Fresh Help

“Ezra” series: (post #13)

Now after these things, in the reign of Artaxerxes king of Persia, Ezra the son of Seraiah, the son of Azariah, the son of Hilkiah…..this Ezra came up from Babylon; and he was a skilled scribe in the Law of Moses, which the Lord God of Israel had given. The king granted him all his request, according to the hand of the Lord his God upon him. Some of the children of Israel, the priests, the Levites, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim came up to Jerusalem in the seventh year of King Artaxerxes. And Ezra came to Jerusalem in the fifth month, which was in the seventh year of the king. On the first day of the month he began his journey from Babylon, and on the first day of the fifth month he came to Jerusalem, according to the good hand of his God upon him. For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. (Ezra 7:1,6-10, N.K.J.V.)

Moses, the great leader of Israel’s exodus out of Egypt, has died. David, the man who had the vision to build Israel’s first temple, has passed away. Elijah, the miracle-working prophet who took on the wicked King Ahab and Queen Jezebel, has been taken up into heaven by way of a chariot of fire. Jesus, in His resurrection body, has ascended back up to heaven. A faithful pastor, who has led his church for more than thirty years, has retired. In each of these cases, what is needed if God’s work is to continue? Answer: fresh help.

Here’s what fresh help looks like:

  • Joshua followed Moses as Israel’s leader.
  • Solomon ran with David’s vision and made it a reality.
  • Elisha picked up Elijah’s mantle for ministry.
  • The apostles, each one empowered by the baptism of the Holy Spirit, carried Jesus’ ministry into all the known world.
  • A new pastor takes over the reigns of the church whose pastor retired.

There is a gap of approximately 58 years between the close of Ezra chapter 6 and the opening of chapter 7. (The story of the Bible’s book of Esther actually takes place inside that gap of time). Those 58 years saw the deaths of Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the other leaders who built the second temple in Jerusalem. So, even as the priests in Jerusalem continued to employ the second temple’s altar to offer up the sacrifices required by the Mosaic law, and even as the other temple workers (Levites, singers, gatekeepers, etc.) continued to do their jobs, an infusion of fresh spiritual help was needed. Also, the protective walls that had once surrounded Jerusalem still needed to be rebuilt (4:12). That meant that an infusion of fresh manual labor was needed as well.

Here, then, is where we are finally introduced to the man Ezra. Have you noticed that we are over halfway through his book and he hasn’t entered the storyline yet? That autobiographical oddity gets fixed with the opening verse of chapter 7 as Ezra walks onto the stage. Not only will he himself make the long trip from his home in Babylon to Jerusalem and become Judah’s new leader, he will take a second group of fellow exiles with him. And when he and his group arrive in Jerusalem, they will be carrying with them money, supplies, energy, zeal, and a new decree from the ruler of the empire. Perhaps most importantly, Ezra will be carrying a holy burden to teach the people how to keep the totality of the Mosaic law, not just the parts that had to do with the temple and offering up sacrifices.

So, who exactly was Ezra and what made him qualified to play such a role in Judah? First, he was a direct descendent of Aaron (Moses’ brother and Israel’s original High Priest). That made him not just a priest but a member of the High Priestly line (7:1-5,11-12). How’s that for a spiritual heritage? Second, he was also a scribe (7:6,11-12). The scribes were experts at teaching the Mosaic law. Unlike the prophets, they didn’t receive new revelations from God, but they did help the people understand and apply the old ones. What all this means, of course, is that Ezra, was a man whose life centered around God’s word. The moment he hit town in Jerusalem, school went into session, and the coursework was that extensive body of law that God had long ago given to Moses as a way of creating Israel’s national network of moral law, civil law, and ritual law.

Despite the fact that Ezra was born in Babylon, he was brought up studying the Jewish scriptures. He was able to do that because the Jewish priests and scribes who were deported from Judah to Babylon when the Babylonians conquered Judah carried their scrolls along with them to Babylon. Since there was no Jewish temple in Babylon, the priests had no way there of doing the jobs for which they had been trained. Apparently, that was what prompted Ezra to lay the priestly calling of his life aside and focus instead upon the scribal calling of it. To use an old cliche, he took the lemons that life gave him and used them to make lemonade. As our text says:

For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. (7:10, N.K.J.V.)

At this point, it is worth noting that God’s work usually takes place in ordered stages. Before there was a new temple and a new priesthood in Jerusalem, there wasn’t much need for a scholarly scribe such as Ezra to go there. He could have talked to the people of Judah all day long about the intricacies of the Mosaic law, but if there was no temple or priesthood by which the law’s required sacrifices, rites, and rituals could be performed, his teachings would have been in vain. For this reason, Zerubbabel and Jeshua had to first finish the jobs of building a new temple and establishing a new priesthood before the work was ready to be lifted to the next level by Ezra.

It is also worth noting that it was Ezra who took the initiative to assemble a new group of Jews to relocate from Babylon to Jerusalem. As our text passage says, the Medo-Persian king (Artaxerxes Longimanus) granted him all his request (7:6). Evidently, Ezra approached Artaxerxes and respectfully asked his permission to lead a group to Jerusalem. You’ll recall that with that first group that had made the trip, Cyrus the Great — at the stirring of God (1:1) and perhaps in compliance with the counsel of the elderly Jewish prophet Daniel — began the whole operation by issuing a decree stating that any Jew who wanted to go to Judah and help build a new temple in Jerusalem could do so.

After having been granted permission by Artaxerxes, Ezra and his group departed from Babylon in 458 B.C. Ezra carried with him an official decree from Artaxerxes. In terms of the historical lineage of Artaxerxes, he had succeeded Xerxes (Ahasuerus), who had succeeded the Darius who plays such a prominent role in the previous chapter. As for what the decree from Artaxerxes said, Ezra provides us with a copy of it (7:11-26). Here are ten highlights from the document:

  • Any Jew who wanted to travel to Jerusalem with Ezra could do so. This included any priests and Levites. (7:11-13)
  • Ezra was being sent as a way of conducting an inquiry as to how well the citizens of Judah at large and the citizens of Jerusalem in particular were keeping the Mosaic law. (7:14)
  • Artaxerxes and his ruling council of seven gave Ezra a generous monetary offering of silver and gold. (7:15)
  • Ezra’s fellow Jews, whether they chose to remain in Babylon or make the trip to Judah, were allowed to contribute silver and gold to the cause. (7:16)
  • Ezra and his group were to use the money to buy bulls, rams, lambs, and other items necessary to offer sacrifices upon the altar of the temple in Jerusalem. (7:17)
  • Whatever money was left over from the purchasing of those items could be used at the group’s discretion as long as the expenditure was in keeping with God’s will. (7:18)
  • Artaxerxes gave Ezra the remaining items from Solomon’s temple that hadn’t been carried back to Jerusalem by Zerubbabel as part of the first trip. (7:19; 1:7-11)
  • If Ezra encountered any further monetary needs, the Medo-Persian treasuries that lay west of the Euphrates river were to grant him whatever amount he needed up to 7.500 pounds of silver, 500 bushels of wheat, 550 gallons of wine, 550 gallons of olive oil, and an unlimited supply of salt. (7:20-22)
  • Those from Ezra’s group who would serve in the temple in any capacity (priests, singers, Levites, gatekeepers, or any other type of temple workers) would be exempt from paying taxes to the Medo-Persian government. (7:24)
  • Once Ezra arrived in Jerusalem, he was authorized to appoint magistrates and judges to serve as judges over the people who lived in Medo-Persian territory west of the Euphrates river. (7:25)

Such a magnanimous decree toward Ezra and his group was clear evidence that God was still working in the hearts of the rulers of Medo-Persia to get them to bestow great blessings upon the Jews. The current of favor that had begun with Cyrus the Great and had flowed through Darius was still continuing to flow through Artaxerxes. Ezra, for his part, could not help but sing God’s praises for the letter of authorization that he carried with him. In the closing two verses of the chapter, he says:

Blessed be the Lord God of our fathers, who has put such a thing as this in the king’s heart, to beautify the house of the Lord which is in Jerusalem, and has extended mercy to me before the king and his counselors, and before all the king’s mighty princes. So I was encouraged as the hand of the Lord my God was upon me, and I gathered leading men of Israel to go up with me. (7:27-28, N.K.J.V.)

Please don’t miss that phrase in verse 28: “the hand of the Lord my God was upon me.” Ezra also uses it (or something similar to it) in verses 6 and 9 of the chapter. Then he uses it again in verses 18 and 22 of the next chapter. Clearly, he viewed the protective hand of God’s favor as being the cause of his success. For that matter, you and I would do well to follow his example. Acts 17:28 says that it is in God that we live and move and have our being (N.K.J.V.). That means that not one of us can take a next breath without God’s help. Keep this in mind anytime you are getting a lot done, people are going out of their way to support you, and prosperity is flowing your way. Remember that God is the ultimate source of all that good favor, and you should sing His praises for it just as Ezra did.

Posted in God's Omnipotence, God's Timing, God's Provision, God's Sovereignty, God's Will, God's Word, God's Work, Leadership, Ministry, Pastors, Praise, Prosperity, Series: "Ezra", Service, Thankfulness | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Completion of the Second Temple

“Ezra” series: (post #12)

Now the temple was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, which was in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius. Then the children of Israel, the priests and the Levites and the rest of the descendants of the captivity, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. (Ezra 6:15-16, N.K.J.V.)

Once the prophets Haggai and Zechariah had spurred the people of Judah to resume the construction of the temple, the building was finished some four years later (4:24; 6:15). The completion came 21 years after the temple’s foundation had been laid. A grand day of celebratory dedication was held in which 100 bulls, 200 rams, and 400 lambs were offered upon the temple’s altar as sacrifices (6:16-17). Also, 12 male goats were offered as sin offerings, one goat to represent each of the 12 tribes of Israel (6:17).

As impressive as all that sacrificing was, it paled in comparison to the countless number of sheep and oxen that had been sacrificed in honor of Solomon having The Ark of the Covenant brought into the first temple and placed inside that temple’s Holy of Holies room (1 Kings 8:1-9). Additionally, no less than 22,000 bulls and 120,000 sheep had been sacrificed as peace offerings during that temple’s formal dedication (1 Kings 8:62-63).

The fact that 12 goats were offered to represent each of Israel’s 12 tribes at the dedication of the second temple is significant. Why were 12 goats sacrificed when the kingdom of Judah consisted of only two tribes (the tribes of Judah and Benjamin)? The best explanation is that the two tribes of Judah understood perfectly that the nation of Israel as a whole was still 12 tribes. Even though the 10 tribes of the nation’s northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians more than a century earlier, with the citizens of those tribes being deported to various foreign lands by the Assyrians, those ten tribes hadn’t ceased to exist in God’s eyes. Even in the New Testament age, which wouldn’t begin until many centuries later, the one nation of Israel still thought of itself as being 12 tribes, albeit 12 tribes scattered abroad by then (James 1:1).

Now that the new temple was fully “open for business,” the priests and the Levites who would serve in it needed to be assigned their work shifts. That called for those two different categories of workers to be slotted into the various divisions that had been such a prominent feature of the former temple (Numbers 3:6; 8:9; 1 Chronicles 23:6; 24:1; 2 Chronicles 35:5). The creating of these new divisions was done either following the celebratory dedication or perhaps just prior to it (6:18).

The new temple was completed in the month of Adar, which was the 12th month of the Jewish calendar year (6:15). Since the Mosaic law required that the Jewish Passover feast be held on the 14th day of the following month (the first month of the year), the people of Judah observed the Passover the next month (6:19). Presumably, this was the first Passover they had observed since being conquered and deported by the Babylonians.

The new temple being fully operational and fully staffed made for a perfect opportunity for Passover to be reinstituted. After the priests and the Levites had ritually purified themselves, thousands of Passover lambs were slaughtered, one lamb to represent each household of Judah (6:20; Exodus 12:1-14, 21-28; Leviticus 23:4-5). Following the day of Passover, the people then immediately segued into the observance of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exodus 12:15-20; Leviticus 23:6-8), which by law followed the day of Passover. That feast lasted for seven days (6:21-22).

Interestingly, the citizens of Judah invited a group of outsiders to enjoy Passover with them. Ezra describes these outsiders as those “who had separated themselves from the filth of the nations of the land in order to seek the Lord God of Israel” (6:21). Two possible identifications have been offered for these outsiders. First, they could have been Gentiles who had proselytized themselves to Judaism by renouncing their idolatry and allowing their males to undergo Jewish circumcision. Second, they could have been the descendants of Jews who had escaped being deported to Babylon, but had taken up the idolatrous ways of the Canaanites while the fellow countrymen were living in exile in Babylon. If this second identification is the correct one, those descendants would have had to repent of their compromising ways, separate themselves from their neighbors who practiced idolatry, and rededicate themselves to Israel’s one true and living God.

At this point in Ezra’s storyline, special mention is made of the Lord turning the heart of the King of Assyria toward Judah (6:22). Because the Medo-Persians had conquered the Assyrians on their way to becoming the leading power in the world, the title “the King of Assyria” must refer to King Darius, who was the current ruler of the Medo-Persian empire. Of course, evidence of Darius’ favor toward Judah had already been seen in his agreeing to finance the finishing of Jerusalem’s new temple (6:3-12). Perhaps, then, God inspired Ezra to call Darius “the King of Assyria” at this juncture of the book as a way of showing that He was going to work through the restored southern kingdom to also restore at least a remnant of the northern kingdom.

As for the new temple, which is known historically as the second temple or Zerubbabel’s Temple, it was not nearly as exquisitely impressive as Jerusalem’s first temple (Solomon’s temple) had been. It was, however, a bit larger in sheer size. Per the specifications of Cyrus the Great’s decree, the second temple was 60 cubits high and 60 cubits wide (Ezra 5:3). The first temple, by comparison, had been 30 cubits high, 20 cubits wide, and 60 cubits long (1 Kings 6:2). The second temple featured three rows of heavy stones and one row of new timber (Ezra 5:8; 6:4).

There is no scriptural evidence to suggest that the Ark of the Covenant that sat in the first temple’s Holy of Holies room ever sat in the Holy of Holies room of the second temple. Perhaps this explains why there is no mention made of God’s glory filling the second temple the way it had the first temple (2 Chronicles 7:2). Scholars and archaeologists have long debated the whereabouts of the “lost” Ark. All that anybody can say with certainty is that it went missing sometime during the Babylonian conquering of Jerusalem. In consideration of the fact that the Babylonians so carefully preserved the other looted items from Solomon’s temple (Daniel 5:1-1; Ezra 1:7-11), it seems unthinkable that they would have destroyed or misplaced the Ark of the Covenant. It seems more likely that Jerusalem’s priests hid the Ark somewhere so that the Babylonians couldn’t get their hands on it. But if that was the case, why didn’t Zerubbabel, Jeshua, or someone else from that group of exiles who returned to Judah from Babylon know where the Ark was hidden, retrieve it, and place it inside the new temple?

Whether it was the lack of the Ark, the inferior number of sacrificed animals at the dedication, or just the new temple’s look, something about it caused the elderly Jews who had seen Solomon’s temple when they were young to mourn. If you recall, Ezra has previously mentioned that this group had first mourned when the new temple’s foundation had been laid laid (Ezra 3:12-13), and Haggai indicates that they mourned again when the temple was completed (Haggai 2:1-3). God, however, wasn’t mourning. To the contrary, He was excited about the new temple. Speaking through Zechariah, He told the people not to despise the day of small beginnings (Zechariah 4:8-10), and speaking through Haggai, He told them that the glory of the second temple would be greater than the glory of the first one (Haggai 2:9).

How would such future glory be possible? One answer centers around a man named Herod the Great. When the Romans would ultimately conquer Judah and take control of Jerusalem, they would place Herod the Great in charge of the region. He, as it would turn out, would be a great builder. As such, he would set himself to the task of expanding and completely overhauling Jerusalem’s second temple in order to make it as awe-inspiring as its first one had been.

With that said, though, it is a second answer that best answers the question. That second answer centers around Jesus. Jesus, in a human body, never visited the first temple, but He did visit the second temple. You see, it was that second temple, again expanded and beautified by Herod the Great, that served as the temple of Christ’s day. Therefore, Christ’s presence at that temple made that temple even more glorious than Solomon’s temple had been.

One other advantage that second temple will always hold over the first one has to do with the amount of time each one stood. There is honest disagreement over precisely how many years each temple stood, but scholars are unanimous in saying that second temple stood longer. Admittedly, this assumes that Herod the Great’s extensively renovated temple continues to get classified as the second temple rather than as a third temple (Herod’s temple), but that is certainly how the Jewish people classify it. Therefore, by adding in the years of Herod’s renovated version of the second temple, we find that Zerubbabel’s temple stood longer than Solomon’s temple.

And what does all this mean for us today? It shows us that God can and will do great things through situations that are no longer the ideal. If a first marriage comes to ruin, God can still bless a second one. If a first career goes bust, God can still use a second one to accomplish His will. If His original plan comes to nothing, He stands ready to enact a new plan. Isn’t that encouraging?

So, you tell me that your temple of Solomon fell down and went boom. Okay, what should you do in the aftermath? You should ask God to help you build a temple of Zerubbabel. If building that new temple requires you to confess your sins and repent of them, then do so. Confess them, repent of them, and receive the forgiveness that only comes from placing saving belief in Jesus. Then, once you’ve got that settled, ask God to begin a new work in your life. Tell Him that you want to make the rest of your life count for Him. Tell Him that you want to learn from your mistakes and do better. Tell Him that you want to get back into the game of serving Him. I think you’ll find that He, in His perfect timing, will take you up on your offer. And why wouldn’t He? After all, He doesn’t want you to spend your time mourning over what once was when you can spend it rejoicing with Him over what is about to be.

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You Should Heed God’s Preachers

“Ezra” series: (post #11)

Then the prophet Haggai and Zechariah the son of Iddo, prophets, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel, who was over them. So Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak rose up and began to build the house of God which is in Jerusalem; and the prophets of God were with them, helping them. (Ezra 5:1-2, N.K.J.V.)

The Haggai and Zechariah who are mentioned in our text passage are the same two prophets who wrote the Bible’s books that bear their names. Both men were burdened by God to give Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of Judah’s returned exiles a “kick in the pants” to get them to finish building the new temple in Jerusalem (5:1). Sixteen years earlier the project had begun with a lot of excitement, but the work had ground to a halt in the midst of years of delay. Now it was time to complete the job.

Haggai and Zechariah were both part of that group of approximately 50,000 exiles who had left Babylon and returned to Judah. Despite the fact that Zerubbabel carried the title of “governor” and Jeshua (Joshua) carried the title of “High Priest,” neither man was a prophet who literally spoke for God. That’s why Judah was blessed to have Haggai and Zechariah in its ranks.

Haggai prophesied from August to December in 520 B.C., and Zechariah prophesied for two years beginning in October of that year. The prophecies the two men gave are a textbook study in the differing styles of God’s preachers. Whereas Haggai’s four recorded prophecies remind us of fiery sermonettes, Zechariah’s prophecies are more numerous, lengthier, and feature more encouragement than rebuke. But both men spoke for God. God has never required a one-size-fits-all approach to preaching. Just as He can use a crude fisherman like Peter to get His message proclaimed, He can also use a brilliant theologian like Paul to do it.

Haggai, in his blunt style, harshly rebuked Judah’s citizens for spending more time working on their own houses than the temple (Haggai 1:3-4). Obviously, completing the new temple lost its priority with them not long after the work began. As a result, the people became unclean in God’s eyes (Haggai 2:10-14) and God sent a drought to the land to limit their harvests (Haggai 1:7-11; 2:15-19). Neither the misplaced priorities nor the consequences of them are mentioned by Ezra to explain the delay in building the temple. Instead, he focuses upon the interference from outsiders. No doubt both categories of problems were part of the equation. On a more uplifting note, Haggai’s prophecies also promised that God would bless Judah (Haggai 2:19) and looked ahead to the time when He would overthrow its enemies (Haggai 2:20-23).

Zechariah, in his less fiery style, likewise called the citizens of Judah to repent (Zechariah 1:1-6), but he also told them about several visions that he had experienced (1:7-6:15). Chapters 9-14 of his book deal with the rejection of Israel’s coming Messiah, His Second Coming in glory, and His future kingdom. God gave these visions in order to help the people understand that their nation, with its capital city of Jerusalem, was slated for a glorious future.

To the credit of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, they wholeheartedly accepted the words from Haggai and Zechariah and restarted the work of the temple in earnest (5:2). As had been the case before, though, opposition arose almost immediately. This time it came in the form of a group led by Tattenai, who was Persia’s representative governor of the region, and Shethar-Boznai, who was most likely an assistant to Tattenai (5:3).

When Tattenai and Shethar-Boznai heard the reports that the Jews were building a temple, they personally traveled to Jerusalem to ask by what authority the Jews were doing it. After all, the Jews were a conquered people, which meant that major building projects by them had to be cleared through the proper Medo-Persian channels. By God’s favor, the work was allowed to continue while Tattenai sent an official letter of inquiry to King Darius, who was the ruler of Persia at that time (5:4-5). Ezra provides a full copy of the letter as part of his record of the events (5:6-17).

In Tattenai’s letter, he explained to Darius that the leaders of Judah were saying that the building project had been authorized years earlier by a previous Persian ruler, Cyrus the Great (5:6-16). Tattenai ended his letter by asking that the city of Babylon’s official records be searched in order to find out if the story was true. Regardless of what the search uncovered, Tattenai would carry out Darius’ wishes as to whether or not to allow the building to continue (5:17).

Darius complied with Tattenai’s request by decreeing that Persia’s archival records be searched (6:1), but looking in Babylon proved fruitless. There was, however, a vidicating scroll found in the palace of Achmetha (Ecbatana), a city located some 300 miles northeast of Babylon. Achmetha (Ecbatana) was the capital of Media and had been a summer home for Cyrus the Great. Evidently, he had spent the summer there the year he had issued the decree allowing the Jews to return to Judah and build the temple. Once the scroll was found, Darius ordered Tattenai and his colleagues to let the work on the temple continue (6:2-7).

Additionally, Darius issued a decree stating that the people of Judah were to be given whatever materials and livestock they needed to complete the temple and offer the daily sacrifices upon its altar (6:8-10). Darius himself would foot the bill for it all by paying for it out of taxes collected from the region located to the west of the Euphrates river. Darius even ordered that anyone who ignored the decree was to be executed (6:11). That included not only Tattenai and his group but also the meddlesome Samaritans. You talk about God working through a lost Gentile king to bless His people and His work! If Tattenai had sent his letter in an effort to stop the building of the temple, his plan had surely backfired!

This part of the story of the building of the second temple ends with Ezra 6:13-14, and I’ll provide those verses as part of this post. As you read them, pay careful attention to the words I emphasize concerning the ministries of Haggai and Zechariah. The verses say:

Then Tattenai, governor of the region beyond the River, Shethar-Boznai, and their companions diligently did according to what KIng Darius had sent. So the elders of the Jews built, and they prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. And they built and finished it, according to the commandment of the God of Israel, and according to the command of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes king of Persia (N.K.J.V.)

In closing, let me say that men who faithfully and accurately proclaim the messages that God gives them are always needed. While it’s true that today’s pastors and preachers don’t literally speak new words that have just fallen from God’s lips, that doesn’t mean that these men are automatically inferior to the Old Testament prophets. Actually, they have certain advantages over the Old Testament prophets, namely the indwelling Holy Spirit and the canonized written word of God. That’s why you should heed their preaching by applying it to your life. Does God still speak through His preachers today? Certainly He does! The real question is: Are you listening to what He is saying through them or are you tuning Him out by tuning them out?

Posted in God's Word, God's Work, Pastors, Preaching, Series: "Ezra" | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t Let Delays Discourage You

“Ezra” series: (post #10)

Then the people of the land tried to discourage the people of Judah. They troubled them in building, and hired counselors against them to frustrate their purpose all the days of Cyrus king of Persia, even until the reign of Darius king of Persia (Ezra 4:4-5, N.K.J.V.)

When Judah’s leaders rebuffed the offer that Judah’s surrounding enemies made about working together to build the new temple, that should have been the end of the story. The fact that those enemies responded by beginning a prolonged campaign to discourage and trouble the people of Judah proves that sinister intentions had been hidden within that offer. In truth, despite the seemingly cordial nature of their offer, those enemies had never had any intentions of laying aside their false gods and false worship sites to join the people of Judah in worship at the new temple. Instead, they had been trying to infiltrate the ranks of Judah’s workers in order to cause enough problems with the building project to keep it from ever becoming a reality.

The Bible doesn’t tell us what methods those enemies used to discourage Judah’s citizens and trouble them in the work. What it does tell us is that those enemies also hired counselors, “insiders” among the royal courts of Medo-Persia, to lobby against what was taking place in Jerusalem. In the end, the enemies achieved their goal, at least for a while. We know this because of Ezra 4:24, which says:

Thus the work of the house of God which is at Jerusalem ceased, and it was discontinued until the second year of the reign of Darius king of Persia. (N.K.J.V.)

As we study the entirety of this 4th chapter of Ezra, we find that there is a major gap in the chronological timeline. The story upon which we’ve been riding thus far breaks off after Ezra 4:5 and doesn’t pick back up again until after Ezra 4:24. As for the verses in between these two bookends, Ezra 4:6-23, they are most likely Ezra’s way of illustrating the severity and long-running duration of the efforts to keep Jerusalem from becoming a powerful, fortified city again. Not only did Judah’s enemies try to derail the building of Jerusalem’s new temple, later on they attempted the same thing regarding the building of a new wall around city.

Ezra mentions two official letters that were written by those enemies and sent to the royal courts of the Medo-Persian empire over the years. The first letter, spoken of in verse 6, was written during the reign of Ahasuerus. The second one, recorded in verses 7-23, was written during the reign of Artaxerxes.

Since both Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes ruled after Darius (in whose reign the temple was finally completed), the letters addressed to them must have been attempts to stop the building of Jerusalem’s walls rather than its temple. The fact that Ezra is quite clear about the time periods in which the letters were written shows that he isn’t trying to deceive the reader or manipulate the storyline. He’s simply presenting the letters as evidence that the enemy opposition that first began with the laying of the foundation for the new temple persisted long after the reign of Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler who issued the original decree stating that the temple could be built.

While Ezra doesn’t record the contents of the letter written to Ahasuerus, he does provide us with the contents of the one written to Artaxerxes. In summation, the letter is Judah’s enemies trying to get Artaxerxes not to trust the people of Judah by describing them as rabble-rousers who had a long history of refusing to submit to any other nation. In the end, Artaxerxes was swayed by this description and brought the construction of Jerusalem’s wall to a screeching halt for an extended period of time after the temple itself had been completed.

Because I realize that it’s easy for us to get lost in all of these events, let me provide an approximate timeline — give or take a few years here and there — for the building of the new temple. I hope this will help you get your mind wrapped around the basics of what happened.

  • From 536 B.C. to 530 B.C., Zerubbabel and the rest of his group plodded along at building the temple as their local enemies worked doggedly to keep them discouraged, troubled, and delayed in the work (Ezra 4:4). Cyrus the Great was the ruler of the Medo-Persian empire during these years.
  • Cyrus the Great died in 530 B.C. His death, combined with the official opposition of Judah’s enemies in Medo-Persia’s royal courts, caused the work to be halted by royal decree in 530 B.C.
  • It wasn’t until 520 B.C., in the second year of the reign of Darius (Ezra 4:24), that the work was resumed.
  • The temple, the foundation for which had been laid in 536 B.C., was completed in 515 B.C. (Ezra 6:15).

The takeaway lesson from this timeline is that Judah’s local enemies, namely the neighboring Samaritans, were able to add many years of delay to the completion of the new temple. A project that should have taken a few years at most ended up taking more than twenty. That, of course, was merely the delay time in getting the temple built. The delay time those enemies caused in getting a new wall built around Jerusalem is a whole other topic.

If Satan can’t stop God’s will, he will do everything he can to delay it. This includes using ungodly people to use whatever means necessary to create the delay. By forcing God’s will to take longer than necessary to come to pass, Satan hopes that God’s people will become frustrated enough to get angry at God and lose faith in Him.

Perhaps you have been attempting to finish a certain task for a while now, a task that you honestly believed was God’s will when you began it. If that’s the case, let me encourage you to keep persevering until you finish the job. Don’t let Satan and those through whom he works rob you of a blessing that God wants you to have. As Solomon says in Ecclesiastes 7:8, “The end of a thing is better than its beginning.” You see, God doesn’t just want you to start jobs that are His will; He wants you to finish them. So, don’t let enemy opposition cause you to throw up your hands and quit. Just plow right on through any and all delays and keep working until you see God’s will completed.

Posted in Adversity, God's Will, God's Work, Patience, Persecution, Perseverance, Problems, Series: "Ezra", Waiting | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Temptation to Compromise

“Ezra” series: (post #9)

Now when the adversaries of Judah and Benjamin heard that the descendants of the captivity were building the temple of the Lord God of Israel,  they came to Zerubbabel and the heads of the fathers’ houses, and said to them, “Let us build with you, for we seek your God as you do; and we have sacrificed to Him since the days of Esarhaddon king of Assyria, who brought us here.” But Zerubbabel and Jeshua and the rest of the heads of the fathers’ houses of Israel said to them, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us.” (Ezra 4:1-3, N.K.J.V.)

Have you learned yet that this world is filled with people who set themselves against God’s will and try to prevent it from being done? And, tragically, most of the time they succeed in doing so. Usually these people are lost unbelievers, but I’d be lying if I said that Christians don’t factor into this problem as well. The truth is that Christians who are either too spiritually immature to recognize God’s will or too backslidden to want it done can do every bit as much damage as lost people can when it comes to these matters.

Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the rest of the formerly exiled Jews had scarcely gotten the foundation laid for the new temple when trouble came to town. The opening verse of our text leaves no doubt that these troublemakers were the adversaries of Judah. These enemies came from the areas that surrounded Judah, first and foremost the area of Samaria to Judah’s immediate north.

Rather than invade Jerusalem with soldiers, the enemy group came in charmingly and asked for a sit-down meeting with Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and the heads of the Jewish families. At that meeting, the enemy group said, “Let us help you build this temple. We serve the same God you do and have been offering our sacrifices to Him ever since Esarhaddon, the king of Assyria, settled us here after conquering our lands and deporting us from them.” Were these people lying about all this? No, not completely, but the issue wasn’t so cut and dried either.

The British Museum houses a large cylinder that dates back to the days of ancient Assyria. Inscribed on the cylinder are the exploits of King Esarhaddon, who ruled Assyria from 681 B.C. to 669 B.C. The Assyrians, you might recall, were the nation who conquered Israel’s northern kingdom. That northern kingdom had been formed when Israel’s ten northern tribes had broken away from the two southern tribes during the reign of Solomon’s son Rehoboam. The northern kingdom came to be known as “Israel” while the southern kingdom was commonly referred to as “Judah.” Jerusalem, which had been the capital city of the entire nation prior to the split, continued to serve as the capital of Judah, but the northern kingdom’s capital was first at Shechem and then later at Samaria. The kings of Judah perpetuated the line of King David and made Judah the more godly of the two kingdoms even though several of Judah’s kings were not godly men. The northern kingdom, on the other hand, complete with its separate line of kings, was well known for its idolatry.

In the decades that followed the Assyrians conquering the northern kingdom, they deported many thousands of the Jews from that kingdom. Most of those Jews were resettled in the upper Tigris-Euphrates valley. In turn, the Assyrians repopulated the northern kingdom’s territory with deportees from their other military conquests. According to 2 Kings 17:24, they brought people from Babylon, Cuthah, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim into the territory. Over the course of time, these Gentile foreigners intermarried with the remaining Jews who had been left there. and these marriages produced a hybrid Gentile/Jewish race of people called the Samaritans.

Continuing on with the story, when all those foreigners first arrived in Samaria, they had no reverence whatsoever for Israel’s God. All that changed, however, when God sent lions among them, lions that killed some of the people (2 Kings 17:25). At that point, those foreigners sent word to the Assyrian king that they needed help to learn how to worship the God of the land so that the lion attacks would cease (2 Kings 17:26). In response, the Assyrian king sent one of the captured priests from Samaria to do the job (2 Kings 17:27). That priest took up residence in Bethel, another one of the former kingdom’s major cities, and taught the people how to worship Israel’s God (2 Kings 17:28). But the worship that was produced from the training was not pure worship. The Bible says the people did fear the Lord but they also continued to worship their false gods (2 Kings 17:29-41).

You say, “Okay, Russell, but what does all this have to do with the story in Ezra?” The answer is, that group of people who came to Jerusalem and offered to help build the new temple were the descendants of that mixed race of people. As such, they weren’t blatantly lying about having long offered sacrifices to the God of Israel. By no means, though, was their bloodline pure, and by no means was their worship of Israel’s God pure. Undoubtedly, Zerubbabel, Jeshua, and those heads of the Jewish families knew all of this history, but nevertheless they still had a big decision to make. Should they accept the offer of help or not?

The way the passage reads, they didn’t have to think very long about the decision. There isn’t even any mention made of them praying and asking God what they should do. It is as if they knew going into the meeting what God’s will was. So, they told the enemy group, “You may do nothing with us to build a house for our God; but we alone will build to the Lord God of Israel, as King Cyrus the king of Persia has commanded us (4:3).”

I wish we could know what tone those leaders of Judah used in conveying that answer. Perhaps they were quite cordial to the enemy group. Then again, maybe the tone was more like, “Don’t let the door hit you in the rear on your way out.” At any rate, whatever the mood of the meeting was, the message was clear: “We’re not about to let you people help us build our new temple.”

By way of modern application, this passage serves as a vivid illustration of the importance of refusing to compromise when the will of God is at stake. The temptation to shave a corner, cut a deal, or even do God’s will but do it in a way that isn’t pleasing to Him still presents itself to saved believers today. Perhaps you are facing such a temptation right now. God has told you to do a certain thing, but now an opportunity has arisen that will make the accomplishing quicker and easier. The only problem is, you just aren’t sure that God wants you to take that quicker, easier way.

If any of this describes you, consider yourself warned about pursuing that path of compromise. Just stick with God, His will, and the original plan He gave you by which to get His will done. Even if that means that you completing the assignment will take more time and effort, you won’t be sorry in the end. As we are going to learn in the next post, the answer that Zerubbabel and those other leaders of Judah gave to that enemy group would quickly produce dire consequences regarding the building of the temple. Still, though, the answer was the right one, and may you and I follow the good example those Jews set as we strive to not only do God’s will but do it in the way that is pleasing to Him.

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Two Different Reactions to the Laying of the Foundation

“Ezra” series: (post #8)

Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the Lord. (Ezra 3:8, N.K.J.V.)

In the fourteenth month of their return to Judah, the group of former Jewish exiles began the work of laying the foundation for their new temple in Jerusalem. It was no coincidence that this was the same month in which King Solomon had begun work on the previous temple (1 Kings 6:1). That similar starting point showed that the returning exiles were trying to do things right this time.

The work was overseen by Zerubbabel as well as the High Priest Jeshua and the other priests. According to God’s instructions in the Mosaic law, the Levites (the non-priest members of the Jewish tribe of Levi) were to be responsible for everything related to the construction and upkeep of the tabernacle/temple (Exodus 38:21; Numbers 1:47-54; 18:1-7). Consequently, the Levites who were twenty years old or older were appointed to do the actual hands-on labor. In previous times, the cut-off age for such work had been thirty rather than twenty (Numbers 4:1-3; 1 Chronicles 23:1-5), but King David, in one of his last acts as king, had lowered it to twenty (1 Chronicles 23:24-32).

Having a desire to build a temple is one thing, and having the Levites as an unpaid work force to build it is another, but having the knowhow to actually build such a structure is something else entirely. So, now it was time to start using the money that had been donated by those heads of families prior to the building of the altar (2:68-69). During the months that passed between the building of the altar and the laying of the foundation, additional masons and carpenters were hired and paid with money, food, drink, and oil (3:7). Cedar logs were also purchased from the Phoenician cities of Sidon and Tyre in Lebanon. The logs were cut in Lebanon, shipped along the coast to Joppa, and then brought the additional 35 miles overland to Jerusalem. The fact that Sidon and Tyre were also under Persian rule made it easy for Cyrus the Great to authorize the deal. Over 400 years earlier, King Solomon had purchased much of his building materials, masons, and carpenters from that same part of the world (1 Kings 5:1-18; 2 Chronicles 2:1-16).

As soon as the temple’s foundation was laid, Jeshua and his fellow priests stood in their priestly clothing for the formal dedication and blew trumpets (3:10). The specific group of Levites who were known as “the sons of Asaph” then played cymbals and praised the Lord. Using “the sons of Asaph” in this way harkened back to how King David had formerly instructed the forefathers of that group to play that particular role (1 Chronicles 25:1). The group also sang responsive praises to the Lord, giving thanks to Him (3:11). Afterward, all the people shouted with a great shout (3:11).

The time of joy and praise was somewhat hindered, however, by the elderly priests, Levites, and heads of the families. Rather than be happy about the foundation of the new temple, those who had seen the old one when they were young wept with a loud voice at their remembrance of it and the more prosperous times that had accompanied the laying of its foundation (3:12). Their outward mourning made for an odd mix when combined with the younger crowd’s shouts of joy. Both types of sound blended together to create one big din of noise in which it was impossible to tell exactly who was shouting for joy and who was crying out in mourning (3:13).

In his commentary remarks on the book of Ezra, Warren Wiersbe has left us with an excellent word regarding this friction between the elderly Jews and the younger ones. As a matter of fact, this extended word is so good that I’ll use it as the close to this post because nothing else needs to be added to it. In talking about how older believers and younger believers must work together in God’s work, Wiersbe weaves in a quote from the famed 19th century preacher Alexander Maclaren and writes:

It’s unfortunate when the unity of God’s people is shattered because generations look in opposite directions. The older men were looking back with longing while the younger men were looking around with joy. Both of them should have been looking up and praising the Lord for what He had accomplished. We certainly can’t ignore the past, but the past must be a rudder to guide us and not an anchor to hold us back. God’s people are a family, not a family album filled with old pictures; they’re a garden, not a graveyard covered with monuments to past successes.

We have similar generational disagreements in the church today, especially when it comes to styles of worship. Older saints enjoy singing the traditional hymns with their doctrinal substance, but younger members of the church want worship that has a more contemporary approach. But it isn’t a question of accepting the one and rejecting the other, unless you want to divide families and split the church. It’s a matter of balance: the old must learn from the young and the young from the old, in a spirit of love and submission (1 Peter 5:1-11). When they were new, many of our traditional hymns were rejected for the same reasons some people reject contemporary praise choruses today.

“But each class (the young and the old) should try to understand the other’s feelings,” said Alexander Maclaren. “The seniors think the juniors revolutionary and irreverent; the juniors think the seniors fossils. It is possible to unite the shout of joy and the weeping. Unless a spirit of reverent regard for the past presides over the progressive movements of this or any day, they will not lay a solid foundation for the temple of the future. We want the old and the young to work side by side, if the work is to last and the sanctuary is to be ample enough to embrace all shades of character and tendencies of thought.”

Every local church is but one generation short of extinction. If the older believers don’t challenge and equip the younger Christians and set a godly example before them (Titus 2:1-8; 1 Tim. 5:1-2), the future of the congregation is in jeopardy. The church is a family; and as a family grows and matures, some things have to fall away and other things take their place. This happens in our homes and it must happen in the house of God. To some people, “change” is a synonym for “compromise,” but where there’s love, “change” becomes a synonym for “cooperation with one another and concern for one another.” “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1)

Posted in Aging, Balance, Change, Church, Elderly, God's Work, Ministry, Music, Series: "Ezra", Worship, Youth | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

What Kind of Shape is Your Altar in?

“Ezra” series: (post #7)

And when the seventh month had come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem. Then Jeshua the son of Jozadek and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brethren 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. Though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries, they set the altar on its bases; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening burnt offerings. (Ezra 3:1-3, N.K.J.V.)

God showed Israel’s King David the Mount Moriah site upon which David’s son Solomon would eventually build the Jewish temple. God then spoke through the prophet Gad to tell David to erect an altar on that site (2 Samuel 24:18-25). In compliance with that command, David bought the site and erected an altar there. That divine sequence of building an altar before building a temple would be repeated by the group of Jews who returned to Judah from Babylonian exile.

The two main leaders of that group were Zerubbabel and Jeshua. Zerubbabel, who carried the title “governor,” was a descendant of David and as such served as the group’s civil leader. Jeshua, who carried the title “High Priest,” was a descendant of Aaron and as such served as the group’s spiritual leader. Both men understood that their first order of business in Jerusalem was to build a new altar. This was to be done even before the work on the temple itself began. After all, the outdoors altar that would sit at the front of the temple would be nothing less than the center of Israel’s corporate worship. If the Jews didn’t offer the Mosaic law’s required sacrifices, the nation had no hope of enjoying God’s favor.

Not only did Zerubbabel and Jeshua understand the priority of the altar, the rest of the people did as well. As verse 1 of our text describes the situation, the people gathered together “as one man to Jerusalem.” What a beautiful scene it must have been. These people were back in their homeland of Judah, resettled in the cities in which their forefathers had formerly lived, and now it was time to begin the work of building their new temple. That work would start with the erecting of a new altar.

The only hindrance to the peoples’ zeal was the fear they felt due to the threat of the enemies that surrounded them (3:3), especially to their immediate north. There, in Samaria, lived the descendants of the foreigners — Gentiles from Babylon, Cuthan, Ava, Hamath, and Sepharvaim — who had been deported into the land of Israel by the Assyrian empire when the Assyrians had conquered Israel’s northern kingdom some 185 years earlier (2 Kings 17:24-41). These descendants had become even more firmly entrenched in the land during the decades the people of Judah had been in forced exile in Babylon.

Ezra 7:9 indicates that the trek from Babylon to Judah took four months, but we don’t know how much time elapsed between the group’s time of arrival in Judah and the erecting of the altar. Obviously, the people took some time to get settled in their new homes throughout the region. The words “And when the seventh month had come” seem to mean that the altar was officially erected on the first day of the seventh month of the Jewish calendar year. Presumably, the new altar was built upon the foundations of the old one even though scholars are in agreement that most aspects of Zerubbabel’s temple were built on a smaller scale than had been used for Solomon’s temple. Just for the record, the bronze altar of Solomon’s temple had been approximately 30 feet long, 30 feet high, and 15 feet wide (2 Chronicles 4:1).

Once the new altar was completed, Jeshua and his priests immediately sacrificed burnt offerings upon it. These were the first such sacrifices that had been offered at that site since the Babylonians had destroyed the previous temple. Just as God had been pleased with the aroma of the burnt offerings that Noah had offered up following his departure from the Ark (Genesis 8:2021), surely God was equally pleased with the smell that lifted up to Him from the burnt offerings from the new altar in Jerusalem.

The “seventh month” (3:1) was the month called Tishri. It ran from September 15 through October 15 of our calendar year, and it was a very busy month in terms of the requirements of the Mosaic law. First, the Feast of Trumpets (Leviticus 23:23-25; Numbers 29:1-6) was to take place on the first day of the month. Second, the Day of Atonement was to take place on the tenth day (Leviticus 23:26-32). Third, the Feast of Tabernacles was to take place on days 15-21 (Leviticus 23:33-36, 39-43; Numbers 29:12-29). Each of these annual events required the offering up of burnt sacrifices.

At the close of the month of Tishri, Jeshua and his fellow priests continued the law’s required practice of offering up a burnt offering each morning and evening. These were in addition to all the law’s other required sacrifices. Now that the Jews had an altar again, there was no excuse for them failing to keep the law’s ritualized system of sacrificing. If they needed to be reminded how seriously God took His law, all they had to do was remember that their failure to keep it was what had landed them in God’s woodshed called Babylon.

Today, we Christians must make sure that we ourselves keep worship front and center in our lives. Each of us should ask the question, “What kind of shape is my personal altar of worship in right now?” Sadly, some of us will have to admit that our altars are in disrepair and need some work. And how do we begin that work? We begin it by making worship a priority again. You see, God wants more than just the leftovers from our lives; He wants to have first place. And no matter how many beautiful temples we build, if each of them doesn’t have a functioning altar out in front it, our priorities are out of whack and we stand in danger of experiencing God’s hand of chastisement.

Posted in Priorities, Series: "Ezra", The Old Testament Law, Worship | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment