The book of Ezra picks up the story of Israel at a very important moment: the return from exile. The Persians swoop in and conquer the Babylonians in 539 BC. The persian King, Cyrus the Great, acknowledging God for giving him the kingdoms of the earth, issues a proclamation that the temple in Jerusalem should be rebuilt. The Jews who were taken captive and exiled in Babylon are allowed to return to the land they call home and help rebuild the temple. We’re reminded of the Exodus, when God’s people were freed from the clutches of Pharaoh.
For an ancient king, Cyrus seems to be especially respectful of the customs and religions of his subjects. It turns out that this is in a way beneficial for him, since allowing your subjects freedom of religion and not enslaving them earns you so much more support and makes for a more stable empire. He was a bit of a trend setter in this regard.
Cyrus is reversing what Nebuchadnezzar set in motion. Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian empire conquered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, took the temple vessels, and scattered the people into exile. Cyrus has conquered Babylon, allowed everyone to go back to where they call home, given back the temple vessels, and ordered the temple rebuilt. But really it is God doing the exiling and reversing, through the hands of these kings, to give his people another chance.
Ezra 2 gives an extensive list of the wave of 50,000 some people who returned to Judah, and details the livestock, if you were dying to know. We usually think this kind of passage is a bit of a drag, but it’s really more of a celebration, with more confetti at every name and number. Think of the importance they placed on leadership, and the legacy and roles of the people mentioned. Each of these people are going back to wherever they call home, where they have deep roots and history. Each of them has something unique to contribute toward rebuilding their lives, and they’ll need the skills and resources of everyone to restore Jerusalem and the temple.
Similarly, in the body of Christ, we need the unique skills and gifts everyone brings to the table. We all play an important role in taking care of each other and reaching out into the world.
And so the project begins. First things first! They make sure there is at least an altar and that the usual schedule of sacrifices is back on track. They are trying to build a continuity between what their lives were like before the exile and what they are like now after the exile. Being able to worship again is a stepping stone toward restoration. Routines are important!
Into the second year after returning to Jerusalem, the materials and workers are all being gathered to get the temple together again. When the foundation is laid, there is a big ceremony with music and singing to God. They sing, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” Things are looking up. We’ve got the people, the temple foundation, and some semblance of our usual worship.
But there is something in the air that signals to us that not everything is quite right again. While many people are shouting loudly for joy, many of the older folks who saw the first temple are weeping loudly. It is bittersweet. It is good that there is now at least part of a temple, yet it doesn’t hold a candle to what it was before.
We end chapter 3 with this very divided response to the temple. The noise is so loud that they can’t tell who is joyful and who is sorrowful. They’ve been waiting so many years just for this chance to rebuild, and now it’s not even clear if it is a good thing or not.
But restoration is a process. Most things that we want, we can get almost instantly. I can drive to the store and get ice cream. I can order something from Amazon almost without moving a muscle, and it will arrive in two days. Way in the future, in the year 2000, we’ll just think of what we need, and it will materialize in our teleportation device. But doing something of significance takes time, effort, prayer, and also probably money. And so does rebuilding Jerusalem. It is tempting to compare back to what things used to be like (the “good old days”) and be discouraged. What we might be missing is that God’s plans and ideas usually break our categories for what we think is even possible.
Today’s Bible passage can be read or listened to on BibleGateway here – Ezra 1-3
Tomorrow’s Bible reading will be Ezra 4-6 and Psalm 137 as we continue on our