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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