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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Ezra 2

 

 

Verses 1-67

THE SECOND EXODUS

Ezra 2:1-67

THE journey of the returning exiles from Babylon has some points of resemblance to the exodus of their fathers from Egypt. On both occasions the Israelites had been suffering oppression in a foreign land. Deliverance had come to the ancient Hebrews in so wonderful a way that it could only be described as a miracle of God; no material miracle was recorded of the later movement; and yet it was so marvellously providential that the Jews were constrained to acknowledge that the hand of God was not less concerned in it.

But there were great differences between the two events. In the original Hegira of the Hebrews a horde of slaves was fleeing from the land of their brutal masters; in the solemn pilgrimage of the second exodus the Jews were able to set out with every encouragement from the conqueror of their national enemy. On the other hand, while the flight from Egypt led to liberty, the expedition from Babylon did not include an escape from the foreign yoke. The returning exiles were described as "children of the province" [Ezra 2:1] - i.e., of the Persian province of Judaea-and their leader bore the title of a Persian governor. {Tirshatha. Ezra 2:63} Zerubbabel was no new Moses. The first exodus witnessed the birth of a nation; the second saw only a migration within the boundaries of an empire, sanctioned by the ruler because it did not include the deliverance of the subject people from servitude.

In other respects the condition of the Israelites who took part in the later expedition contrasts favourably with that of their ancestors under Moses. In the arts of civilisation, of course, they were far superior to the crushed Egyptian bondmen. But the chief distinction lay in the matter of religion. At length, in these days of Cyrus, the people were ripe to accept the faith of the great teachers who hitherto had been as voices crying in the wilderness. This fact signalises the immense difference between the Jews in every age previous to the exile, and the Jews of the return. In earlier periods they appear as a kingdom, but not as a Church; in the later age they are no longer a kingdom, but they have become a Church. The kingdom had been mainly heathenish and idolatrous in its religion, and most abominably corrupt in its morals, with only a thin streak of purer faith and conduct running through the course of its history. But the new Church, formed out of captives purified in the fires of persecution, consisted of a body of men and women who heartily embraced the religion to which but few of their forefathers had attained, and who were even ready to welcome a more rigorous development of its cult. Thus they became a highly developed Church. They were consolidated into a Puritan Church in discipline, and a High Church in ritual.

It must be borne in mind that only a fraction of the Jews in the East went back to Palestine. Nor were they who tarried, in all cases, the more worldly, enamoured of the fleshpots. In the Talmud it is said that only the chaff returned, while the wheat remained behind. Both Ezra and Nehemiah sprang from families still residing in the East long after the return under Zerubbabel.

It is in accordance with these conditions that we come across one of the most curious characteristics of the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah-a characteristic which they share with Chronicles, viz., the frequent insertion of long lists of names.

Thus the second chapter of Ezra contains a list of the families who went up to Jerusalem in response to the edict of Cyrus. One or two general considerations arise here.

Since it was not a whole nation that migrated from the plains of Babylon across the great Syrian desert, but only some fragments of a nation, we shall not have to consider the fortunes and destinies of a composite unity, such as is represented by a kingdom. The people of God must now be regarded disjunctively. It is not the blessing of Israel, or the blessing of Judah, that faith now anticipates; but the blessing of those men, women, and children who fear God and walk in His ways, though, of course, for the present they are all confined to the limits of the Jewish race.

On the other hand, it is to be observed that this individualism was not absolute. The people were arranged according to their families, and the names that distinguished the families were not those of the present heads of houses, but the names of ancestors, possibly of captives taken down to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar. As some of these names occur in later expeditions, it is plain that the whole of the families they represented were not found in the first body of pilgrims. Still the people were grouped in family order. The Jews anticipated the modern verdict of sociology, that the social unit is the family, not the individual. Judaism was, through and through, a domestic religion.

Further, it is to be noted that a sort of caste feeling was engendered in the midst of the domestic arrangement of the people. It emerges already in the second chapter of Ezra in the cases of families that could not trace their genealogy, and it bears bitter fruit in some pitiable scenes in the later history of the returned people. Not only national rights, but also religious privileges, come more and more to depend on purity of birth and descent. Religion is viewed as a question of blood relationship. Thus even with the very appearance of that new-born individualism which might be expected to counteract it, even when the recovered people is composed entirely of volunteers, a strong racial current sets in, which grows in volume until in the days of our Lord the fact of a man’s being a Jew is thought a sufficient guarantee of his enjoying the favour of Heaven, until in our own day such a book as "Daniel Deronda" portrays the race-enthusiasm of the Israelite as the very heart and essence of his religion.

We have three copies of the list of the returning exiles-one in Ezra 2:1-70, the second in Nehemiah 7:1-73, and the third in RAPC 1 Esdras 5:1-73. They are evidently all of them transcripts of the same original register; but though they agree in the main, they differ in details, giving some variation in the names and considerable diversity in the numbers-Esdras coming nearer to Ezra than to Nehemiah, as we might expect. The total, however, is the same in every case, viz., 42,360 (besides 7337 servants)-a large number, which shows how important the expedition was considered to be.

The name of Zerubbabel appears first. He was the lineal descendant of the royal house, the heir to the throne of David. This is a most significant fact. It shows that the exiles had retained some latent national organisation, and it gives a faint political character to the return, although, as we have already observed, the main object of it was religious. To fervent readers of old prophecies strange hopes would dawn, hopes of the Messiah whose advent Isaiah, in particular, had predicted. Was this new shoot from the stock of David indeed the Lord’s Anointed? Those who secretly answered the question to themselves in the affirmative were doomed to much perplexity and not a little disappointment. Nevertheless Zerubbabel was a lower, a provisional, a temporary Messiah. God was educating His people through their illusions. As one by one the national heroes failed to satisfy the large hopes of the prophets, they were left behind, but the hopes still maintained their unearthly vitality. Hezekiah, Josiah, Zerubbabel, the Maccabees all passed, and in passing they all helped to prepare for One who alone could realise the dreams of seers and singers in all the best ages of Hebrew thought and life.

Still the bulk of the people do not seem to have been dominated by the Messianic conception. It is one characteristic of the return that the idea of the personal, God-sent, but human Messiah recedes; and another, older and more persistent Jewish hope comes to the front-viz., the hope in God Himself as the Saviour of His people and their Vindicator. Cyrus could not have suspected any political designs, or he would not have made Zerubbabel the head of the expedition. Evidently "Sheshbazzar, the prince of Judah," to whom Cyrus handed over the sacred vessels of the temple, is the same man as Zerubbabel, because in Ezra 5:16 we read that Sheshbazzar laid the foundation of the temple, while in Ezra 3:8 this work is ascribed to Zerubbabel, with whom the origin of the work is again connected in Ezra 5:2.

The second name is Jeshua. The man who bears it was afterwards the high-priest at Jerusalem. It is impossible to say whether he had exercised any sacerdotal functions during the exile; but his prominent place shows that honour was now offered to his priesthood. Still he comes after the royal prince.

Then follow nine names without any description. Nehemiah’s list includes another name, which seems to have dropped out of the list in Ezra. These, together with the two already mentioned, make an exact dozen. It cannot be an accident that twelve names stand at the head of the list; they must be meant to represent the twelve tribes-like the twelve apostles in the Gospels, and the twelve gates of the New Jerusalem in the Apocalypse. Thus it is indicated that the return is for all Israel, not exclusively for the Judaean Hebrews. Undoubtedly the bulk of the pilgrims were descendants of captives from the Southern Kingdom. {See Ezra 1:5} The dispersion of the Northern Kingdom had begun two centuries earlier than Nebuchadnezzar’s invasion of Judaea; it had been carried on by successive removals of the people in successive wars. Probably most of these early exiles had been driven farther north than those districts which were assigned to the Judaean captives; probably, too, they had been scattered far and wide; lastly, we know that they had been sunken in an idolatrous imitation of the manners and customs of their heathen neighbours, so that there was little to differentiate them from the people among whom they were domiciled. Under all these circumstances, is it remarkable that the ten tribes have disappeared from the observation of the world? They have vanished, but only as the Goths have vanished in Italy, as the Huguenot refugees have vanished in England-by mingling with the resident population. We have not to search for them in Tartary, or South America, or any other remote region of the four continents, because we have no reason to believe that they are now a separate people.

Still a very small "Remnant" was faithful. This "Remnant" was welcome to find its way back to Palestine with the returning Judaeans. As the immediate object of the expedition was to rebuild the temple at the rival capital of Jerusalem, it was not to be expected that patriots of the Northern Kingdom would be very eager to join it. Yet some descendants of the ten tribes made their way back. Even in New Testament times the genealogy of the prophetess Anna was reckoned from the tribe of Asher. [Luke 2:36] It is most improbable that the twelve leaders were actually descendants of the twelve tribes. But just as in the case of the apostles, whom we cannot regard as thus descended, they represented all Israel. Their position at the head of the expedition proclaimed that the "middle wall of partition" was broken down. Thus we see that redemption tends to liberalise the redeemed, that those who are restored to God are also brought back to the love of their brethren.

The list that follows the twelve is divisible into two sections. First, we have a number of families; then there is a change in the tabulation, and the rest of the people are arranged according to their cities. The most simple explanation of this double method is that the families constitute the Jerusalem citizens.

The towns named in the second division are all situated in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem. The only part of Palestine as yet restored to the Jews was Jerusalem, with the towns in its vicinity. The southern half of Judaea remained in the hands of the Edomites, who begrudged to the Jews even the resumption of the northern portion-and very naturally, seeing that the Edomites had held it for half a century, a time which gives some assurance of permanent possession. This must be borne in mind when we come across the troubles between the returned exiles and their neighbours in Palestine. We can never understand a quarrel until we have heard both sides. There is no Edomite history of the wars of Israel. No doubt such a history would put another face on the events-just as a Chinese history of the English wars in the East would do, to the shame of the Christian nation.

After the leaders and the people generally come the successive orders of the temple ministry. We begin with the priests, and among these a front rank is given to the house of Jeshua. The high-priest himself had been named earlier, next to Zerubbabel, among the leaders of the nation, so distinct was his position from that of the ordinary priesthood. Next to the priests we have the Levites, who are now sharply separated from the first order of the ministry. The very small number of Levites in comparison with the large number of priests is startling-over four thousand priests and only seventy-four Levites! The explanation of this anomaly may be found in what had been occurring in Chaldaea. Ezekiel declared that the Levites were to be degraded because of their sinful conduct. [Ezekiel 44:9-16] We see from the arrangement in Ezra that the prophet’s message was obeyed. The Levites were now separated from the priests, and set down to a lower function. This could not have been acceptable to them. Therefore it is not at all surprising that the majority of them held aloof from the expedition for rebuilding the temple in sullen resentment, or at best in cool indifference, refusing to take part in a work the issue of which would exhibit their humiliation to menial service. But the seventy-four had grace to accept their lowly lot.

The Levites are not set in the lowest place. They are distinguished from several succeeding orders. The singers, the children of Asaph, were really Levites; but they form a separate and important class, for the temple service was to be choral-rich and gladsome. The door-keepers are a distinct order, lowly, but honourable, for they are devoted to the service of God, for whom all work is glorious.

"They also serve who only stand and wait."

Next come the Nethinims, or temple-helots. These seem to have been aborgines of Canaan who had been pressed into the service of the old Jerusalem temple, like the Gibeonites, the hewers of wood and drawers of water. After the Nethinims come "the children of Solomon’s servants," another order of slaves, apparently the descendants of the war captives whom Solomon had assigned to the work of building the temple. It shows what thorough organisation was preserved among the captives that these bondsmen were retained in their original position and brought back to Jerusalem. To us this is not altogether admirable. We may be grieved to see slavery thus enlisted in the worship of God. But we must recollect that even with the Christian gospel in her hand, for centuries, the Church had her slaves, the monasteries their serfs. No idea is of slower growth than the idea of the brotherhood of man.

So far all was in order; but there were exceptional cases. Some of the people could not prove their Israelite descent, and accordingly they were set aside from their brethren. Some of the priests even could not trace their genealogy. Their condition was regarded as more serious, for the right of office was purely hereditary. The dilemma brought to light a sad sense of loss. If only there were a priest with the Urim and Thummim, this antique augury of flashing gems might settle the difficulty! But such a man was not to be found. The Urim and Thummim, together with the Ark and the Shekinah, are named by the rabbis among the precious things that were never recovered. The Jews looked back with regret to the wonderful time when the privilege of consulting an oracle had been within the reach of their ancestors. Thus they shared the universal instinct of mankind that turns fondly to the past for memories of a golden age, the glories of which have faded and left us only the dingy scenes of everyday life. In this instinct we may detect a transference to the race of the vaguely perceived personal loss of each man as he reflects on those far-off, dream-like child-days, when even he was a "mighty prophet," a "seer blest," one who had come into the world "trailing clouds of glory." Alas! he perceives that the mystic splendours have faded into the light of common day, if they have not even given place to the gloom of doubt, or the black night of sin. Then, taking himself as a microcosm, he ascribes a similar fate to the race.

Nothing is more inspiriting in the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ than its complete reversal of this dismal process of reflection, and its promise of the Golden Age in the future. The most exalted Hebrew prophecy anticipated something of the kind; here and there it lit up its sombre pages with the hope of a brilliant future. The attitude of the Jews in the present instance, when they simply set a question on one side, waiting till a priest with Urim and Thummim should appear, suggests too faint a belief in the future to be prophetic. But like Socrates’ hint at the possibility of one arising who should solve the problems which were inscrutable to the Athenians of his day, it points to a sense of need. When at length Christ came as "the Light of the World," it was to supply a widely felt want. It is true He brought no Urim and Thummim. The supreme motive for thankfulness in this connection is that His revelation is so much more ample than the wizard guidance men had formerly clung to, as to be like the broad sunshine in comparison with the shifting lights of magic gems. Though He gave no formal answers to petty questions such as those for which the Jews would resort to a priest, as their heathen neighbours resorted to a soothsayer, He shed a wholesome radiance on the path of life, so that His followers have come to regard the providing of a priest with Urim and Thummim as at best an expedient adapted to the requirements of an age of superstition.

If the caravan lacked the privilege of an oracle, care was taken to equip it as well as the available means would allow. These were not abundant. There were servants, it is true. There were beasts of burden too-camels, horses, asses; but these were few in comparison to the numbers of the host-only at the rate of one animal to a family of four persons. Yet the expedition set out in a semi-royal character, for it was protected by a guard of a thousand horsemen sent by Cyrus. Better than this, it possessed a spirit of enthusiasm which triumphed over poverty and hardship, and spread a great gladness through the people. Now at length it was possible to take down the harps from the willows. Besides the temple choristers, two hundred singing men and women accompanied the pilgrims to help to give expression to the exuberant joyousness of the host. The spirit of the whole company was expressed in a noble lyric that has become familiar to us:-

"When the Lord turned again the captivity of Zion,

We were like unto them that dream.

Then was our mouth filled with laughter,

And our tongue with singing;

Then said they among the nations,

The Lord hath done great things for them.

The Lord hath done great things for us;

Whereof we are glad." [Psalms 126:1-3]


Verses 68-70

THE NEW TEMPLE

Ezra 2:68-70; Ezra 3:1-13

UNLIKE the historian of the exodus from Egypt, our chronicler gives no account of adventures of the pilgrims on the road to Palestine, although much of their way led them through a wild and difficult country. So huge a caravan as that which accompanied Zerubbabel must have taken several months to cover the eight hundred miles between Babylon and Jerusalem; for even Ezra with his smaller company spent four months on their journey. [Ezra 7:8-9] A dreary desert stretched over the vast space between the land of exile and the old home of the Jews among the mountains of the West; and here the commissariat would tax the resources of the ablest organisers. It is possible that the difficulties of the desert were circumvented in the most prosaic manner-by simply avoiding this barren, waterless region, and taking a long sweep round by the north of Syria. Passing over the pilgrimage, which afforded him no topics of interest, without a word of comment, the chronicler plants us at once in the midst of the busy scenes at Jerusalem, where we see the returned exiles, at length arrived at the end of their tedious journey, preparing to accomplish the one purpose of their expedition.

The first step was to provide the means for building the temple, and contributions were made for this object by all classes of the community-as we gather from the more complete account in Nehemiah [Nehemiah 7:70-72] -from the prince and the aristocracy to the general public, for it was to be a united work. And yet it is implied by the narrative that many had no share in it. These people may have been poor originally or impoverished by their journey, and not at all deficient in generosity or lacking in faith. Still we often meet with those who have enough enthusiasm to applaud a good work and yet not enough to make any sacrifice in promoting it. It is expressly stated that the gifts were offered freely. No tax was imposed by the authorities; but there was no backwardness on the part of the actual donors, who were impelled by a glowing devotion to open their purses without stint. Lastly, those who contributed did so "after their ability." This is the true "proportionate giving." For all to give an equal sum is impossible unless the poll-tax is to be fixed at a miserable minimum. Even for all to give the same proportion is unjust. There are poor men who ought not to sacrifice a tenth of what they receive; there are rich men who will be guilty of unfaithfulness to their stewardship if they do not devote far more than this fraction of their vast revenues to the service of God and their fellow-men. It would be reasonable for some of the latter only to reserve the tithe for their own use and to give away nine-tenths of their income, for even then they would not be giving "after their ability."

After the preliminary step of collecting the contributions, the pilgrims proceed to the actual work they have in hand. In this they are heartily united; they gather themselves together "as one man" in a great assembly, which, if we may trust the account in Esdras, is held in an open space by the first gate towards the east, {RAPC 1 Esdras 5:47} and therefore close to the site of the old temple, almost among its very ruins. The unity of spirit and the harmony of action which characterise the commencement of the work are good auguries of its success. This is to be a popular undertaking. Sanctioned by Cyrus, promoted by the aristocracy, it is to be carried out with the full co-operation of the multitude. The first temple had been the work of a king; the second is to be the work of a people. The nation had been dazzled by the splendour of Solomon’s court, and had basked in its rays so that the after-glow of them lingered in the memories of ages even down to the time of our Lord. [Matthew 6:29] But there was a healthier spirit in the humbler work of the returned exiles, when, forced to dispense with the king they would gladly have accepted, they undertook the task of building the new temple themselves.

In the centre of the mosque known as the "Dome of the Rock" there is a crag with the well-worn remains of steps leading up to the top of it, and with channels cut in its surface. This has been identified by recent explorers as the site of the great Altar of Burnt-offerings. It is on the very crest of Mount Moriah. Formerly it was thought that it was the site of the inmost shrine of the temple, known as "The Holy of Holies," but the new view, which seems to be fairly established, gives an unexpected prominence to the altar. This rude square structure of unhewn stone was the most elevated and conspicuous object in the temple. The altar was to Judaism what the cross is to Christianity. Both for us and for the Jews what is most vital and precious in religion is the dark mystery of a sacrifice. The first work of the temple-builders was to set up the altar again on its old foundation. Before a stone of the temple was laid, the smoke of sacrificial fires might be seen ascending to heaven from the highest crag of Moriah. For fifty years all sacrifices had ceased. Now with haste, in fear of hindrance from jealous neighbours, means were provided to re-establish them before any attempt was made to rebuild the temple. It is not quite easy to see what the writer means when, after saying "And they set the altar upon his bases," he adds, "for fear was upon them because of the people of those countries." The suggestion that the phrase may be varied so as to mean that the awe which this religious work inspired in the heathen neighbours prevented them from molesting it is far-fetched and improbable. Nor is it likely that the writer intends to convey the idea that the Jews hastened the building of the altar as a sort of Palladium, trusting that its sacrifices would protect them in case of invasion, for this is to attribute too low and materialistic a character to their religion. More reasonable is the explanation that they hastened the work because they feared that their neighbours might either hinder it or wish to have a share in it-an equally objectionable thing, as subsequent events showed.

The chronicler distinctly states that the sacrifices which were now offered, as well as the festivals which were established later, were all designed to meet the requirements of the law of Moses-that everything might be done "as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God." This statement does not throw much light on the history of the Pentateuch. We know that that work was not yet in the hands of the Jews at Jerusalem, because this was nearly eighty years before Ezra introduced it. The sentence suggests that according to the chronicler some law bearing the name of Moses was known to the first body of returned exiles. We need not regard that suggestion as a reflection from later years. Deuteronomy may have been the law referred to; or it may have been some rubric of traditional usages in the possession of the priests.

Meanwhile two facts of importance come out here - first, that the method of worship adopted by the returned exiles was a revival of ancient customs, a return to the old ways, not an innovation of their own, and second, that this restoration was in careful obedience to the known will of God. Here we have the root idea of the Torah. It announces that God has revealed His will, and it implies that the service of God can only be acceptable when it is in harmony with the will of God. The prophets taught that obedience was better than sacrifice. The priests held that sacrifice itself was a part of obedience. With both the primary requisite was obedience-as it is the primary requisite in all religion.

The particular kind of sacrifice offered on the great altar was the burnt-offering. Now we do occasionally meet with expiatory ideas in connection with this sacrifice; but unquestionably the principal conception attached to the burnt-offering in distinction from the sin-offering, was the idea of self-dedication on the part of the worshipper. Thus the Jews re-consecrated themselves to God by the solemn ceremony of sacrifice, and they kept up the thought of renewed consecration by the regular repetition of the burnt-offering. It is difficult for us to enter into the feelings of the people who practised so antique a cult, even to them archaic in its ceremonies, and dimly suggestive of primitive rites that had their origin in far-off barbaric times. But one thing is clear, shining as with letters of awful fire against the black clouds of smoke that hang over the altar. This sacrifice was always a "whole offering." As it was being completely consumed in the flames before their very eyes, the worshippers would see a vivid representation of the tremendous truth that the most perfect sacrifice is death-nay, that it is even more than death, that it is absolute self-effacement in total and unreserved surrender to God.

Various rites follow the great central sacrifice of the burnt-offering, ushered in by the most joyous festival of the year, the Feast of Tabernacles, when the people scatter themselves over the hills round Jerusalem under the shade of extemporised bowers made out of the leafy boughs of trees, and celebrate the goodness of God in the final and richest harvest, the vintage. Then come New Moon and the other festivals that stud the calendar with sacred dates and make the Jewish year a round of glad festivities.

Thus, we see, the full establishment of religious services precedes the building of the temple. A weighty truth is enshrined in this apparently incongruous fact. The worship itself is felt to be more important than the house in which it is to be celebrated. That truth should be even more apparent to us who have read the great words of Jesus uttered by Jacob’s well, "The hour cometh when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, shall ye worship the Father when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and truth." [John 4:21; John 4:23] How vain then is it to treat the erection of churches as though it were the promotion of a revival of religion! As surely as the empty sea-shell tossed up on the beach can never secrete a living organism to inhabit it, a mere building-whether it be the most gorgeous cathedral or the plainest village meeting-house-will never induce a living spirit of worship to dwell in its cold desolation. Every true religious revival begins in the spiritual sphere and finds its place of worship where it may-in the rustic barn or on the hillside-if no more seemly home can be provided for it, because its real temple is the humble and contrite heart.

Still the design of building the temple at Jerusalem was kept constantly in view by the pilgrims. Accordingly it was necessary to purchase materials, and in particular the fragrant cedar wood from the distant forests of Lebanon. These famous forests were still in the possession of the Phoenicians, for Cyrus had allowed a local autonomy to the busy trading people on the northern seaboard. So, in spite of the king’s favour, it was requisite for the Jews to pay the full price for the costly timber. Now, in disbursing the original funds brought up from Babylon, it would seem that the whole of this money was expended in labour, in paying the wages of masons and carpenters. Therefore the Jews had to export agricultural products-such as corn, wine, and olive oil-in exchange for the imports of timber they received from the Phoenicians. The question at once arises, how did they come to be possessed of these fruits of the soil? The answer is supplied by a chronological remark in our narrative. It was in the second year of their residence in Jerusalem and its neighbourhood that the Jews commenced the actual building of their temple. They had first patiently cleared, ploughed, and sown the neglected fields, trimmed and trained the vines, and tended the olive gardens, so that they were able to reap a harvest, and to give the surplus products for the purchase of the timber required in building the temple. As the foundation was laid in the spring, the order for the cedar wood must have been sent before the harvest was reaped-pledging it in advance with faith in the God who gives the increase. The Phoenician woodmen fell their trees in the distant forests of Lebanon; and the massive trunks are dragged down to the coast, and floated along the Mediterranean to Joppa, and then carried on the backs of camels or slowly drawn up the heights of Judah in ox-wagons, while the crops that are to pay for them are still green in the fields.

Here then is a further proof of devotion on the part of the Jews from Babylon-though it is scarcely hinted at in the narrative, though we can only discover it by a careful comparison of facts and dates. Labour is expended on the fields; long weary months of waiting are endured; when the fruits of toil are obtained, these hard-earned stores are not hoarded by their owners; they too, like the gold and silver of the wealthier Jews, are gladly surrendered for the one object which kindles the enthusiasm of every class of the community.

At length all is ready. Jeshua the priest now precedes Zerubbabel, as well as the rest of the twelve leaders, in inaugurating the great work. On the Levites is laid the immediate responsibility of carrying it through. When the foundation is laid, the priests in their new white vestments sound their silver trumpets, and the choir of Levites, the sons of Asaph. clang their brazen cymbals. To the accompaniment of this inspiriting music they sing glad psalms in praise of God, giving thanks to Him, celebrating His goodness and His mercy that endureth forever toward Israel. This is not at all like the soft music and calm chanting of subdued cathedral services that we think of in connection with great national festivals. The instruments blare and clash, the choristers cry aloud, and the people join them with a mighty shout. When shrill discordant notes of bitter wailing, piped by a group of melancholy old men, threaten to break the harmony of the scene, they are drowned in the deluge of jubilation that rises up in protest and beats down all their opposition with its triumph of gladness. To a sober Western the scene would seem to be a sort of religious orgy, like a wild Bacchanalian festival, like the howling of hosts of dervishes. But although it is the Englishman’s habit to take his religion sombrely, if not sadly, it may be well for him to pause before pronouncing a condemnation of those men and women who are more exuberant in the expression of spiritual emotion. If he finds, even among his fellow-countrymen, some who permit themselves a more lively music and a more free method of public worship than he is accustomed to, is it not a mark of insular narrowness for him to visit these unconventional people with disapprobation? In abandoning the severe manners of their race, they are only approaching nearer to the time-old methods of ancient Israel.

In this clangour and clamour at Jerusalem the predominant note was a burst of irrepressible gladness. When God turned the captivity of Israel, mourning was transformed into laughter. To understand the wild excitement of the Jews, their paean of joy, their very ecstasy, we must recollect what they had passed through, as well as what they were now anticipating. We must remember the cruel disaster of the overthrow of Jerusalem, the desolation of the exile, the sickness of weary waiting for deliverance, the harshness of the persecution that embittered the later years of the captivity under Nabonidas; we must think of the toilsome pilgrimage through the desert, with its dismal wastes, its dangers and its terrors, followed by the patient work on the land and gathering in of means for building the temple. And now all this was over. The bow had been terribly bent; the rebound was immense. People who cannot feel strong religious gladness have never known the heartache of deep religious grief. These Israelites had cried out of the depths; they were prepared to shout for joy from the heights. Perhaps we may go further, and detect a finer note in this great blast of jubilation, a note of higher and more solemn gladness. The chastisement of the exile was past, and the long-suffering mercy of God-enduring forever-was again smiling out on the chastened people. And yet the positive realisation of their hopes was for the future. The joy, therefore, was inspired by faith. With little accomplished as yet, the sanguine people already saw the temple in their mind’s eye, with its massive walls, its cedar chambers, and its adornment of gold and richly dyed hangings. In the very laying of the foundation their eager imaginations leaped forward to the crowning of the highest pinnacles. Perhaps they saw more; perhaps they perceived, though but dimly, something of the meaning of the spiritual blessedness that had been foretold by their prophets.

All this gladness centred in the building of a temple, and therefore ultimately in the worship of God. We take but a one-sided view of Judaism if we judge it by the sour ideas of later Pharisaism. As it presented itself to St. Paul in opposition to the gospel, it was stern and loveless. But in its earlier days this religion was free and gladsome, though, as we shall soon see, even then a rigour of fanaticism soon crept in and turned its joy into grief. Here, however, at the founding of the temple, it wears its sunniest aspect. There is no reason why religion should wear any other aspect to the devout soul. It should be happy; for is it not the worship of a happy God?

"Nevertheless, in the midst of the almost universal acclaim of joy and praise, there was the note of sadness wailed by the old men, who could recollect the venerable fane in which their fathers had worshipped before the ruthless soldiers of Nebuchadnezzar had reduced it to a heap of ashes. Possibly some of them had stood on this very spot half a century before, in an agony of despair, while they saw the cruel flames licking the ancient stones and blazing up among the cedar beams, and all the fine gold dimmed with black clouds of smoke. Was it likely that the feeble flock just returned from Babylon could ever produce such a wonder of the world as Solomon’s temple had been? The enthusiastic younger people might be glad in their ignorance; but their sober elders, who knew more, could only weep. We cannot but think that, after the too common habit of the aged, these mournful old men viewed the past in a glamour of memory, magnifying its splendours as they looked back on them through the mists of time. If so, they were old indeed; for this habit, and not years, makes real old age. He is aged who lives in bygone days, with his face ever set to the irreparable past, vainly regretting its retreating memories, uninterested in the present, despondent of the future. The true elixir of life, the secret of perpetual youth of soul, is interest in the present and the future, with the forward glance of faith and hope. Old men who cultivate this spirit have young hearts though the snow is on their heads. And such are wise. No doubt, from the standpoint of a narrow common sense, with its shrunken views confined to the material and the mundane, the old men who wept had more reason for their conduct than the inexperienced younger men who rejoiced. But there is a prudence that comes of blindness, and there is an imprudence that is sublime in its daring, because it springs from faith. The despair of old age makes one great mistake, because it ignores one great truth. In noting that many good things have passed away, it forgets to remember that God remains. God is not dead! Therefore the future is safe. In the end the young enthusiasts of Jerusalem were justified. A prophet arose who declared that a glory which the former temple had never known should adorn the new temple, in spite of its humble beginning; and history verified his word when the Lord took possession of His house in the person of His Son."

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Ezra 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ezra-2.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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