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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Ezra 3

 

 

Verses 1-13

0

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 3:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/ezra-3.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Saturday, December 14th, 2019
the Second Week of Advent
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