Pastor Kyle McIver
Sermon text: Ezra 3:7-13
Home. Now as soon as I said the word home, an image formed in your mind. It probably started with a house. You can see the color, the size, the shape, and the rooms. Or perhaps it was an apartment or a dorm room and you see the hallway, your door, and the different rooms within that living space. And then beyond the physical characteristics of that dwelling, you start to see people, possessions, and moments in time - memories which are a blend of those people and possessions.
Home is also complex. Ideally, it is a place where you feel most safe. Where the love of a father and mother creates a space where children flourish, laughter is plentiful, needs are met, and memories are made. But, we live in a world where the ideal is not always the reality. Families live with varying degrees of brokenness, and childhood can be difficult. Regardless of whether or not home immediately draws forth positive or negative emotions, the emotions are there. Home is a real place, and a real desire in each one of our hearts.
As we continue in Ezra 3 tonight and look more closely at the exile’s efforts to rebuild the foundation of the temple, we see this same longing for home and the same brokenness that many of us have experienced. As we walk through the re-established foundation of the temple of the Lord tonight, one piece of the text that will stand out is the emotion displayed by God’s people. There is exultant celebration by some, and there are tears of mourning from others. Home, you see, is indeed complex, and bears a wide range of emotions. God’s people often respond differently to the same circumstances.
So here’s the outline for tonight. First, we’re going to walk through the passage - we’re going to keep the narrative of the book of Ezra moving forward and see the progress God’s people are making in their effort to rebuild the temple and re-establish the city of Jerusalem. The text itself breaks up into three parts:
Once we’ve worked through the passage, we’re going to zero in on the temple. Similar to last week and how we focused on the altar, sacrifices, and feasts, this week we are going to take time to understand the temple in greater detail since it is central to the storyline of Ezra, and indeed, much of the Bible.
Now as we turn to Ezra 3, we’re picking up right where we left off last week. God’s people are once again worshipping God according to God’s Word by offering sacrifices on the altar and keeping the feasts. But the foundation of the temple of the Lord had not yet been laid.
Now in looking at the way our text is structured and some of the details provided about the gathering of materials, the work of building, and the song that is sung in celebration, there are obvious parallels to the first accounts of God’s house, the temple, being built by King Solomon. Let’s look at a few of those by comparing our text, Ezra 3, with the accounts presented in 1 Kings 5 and 2 Chronicles 5 when Solomon builds the temple.
First, there is the purchase and collection of materials, followed by laying the foundation. In Ezra 3:7, money is collected, along with food, drink and oil to serve as payment, and these are sent to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees for the temple. In the exile’s case, this bountiful produce given in payment was the result of King Cyrus’s grant to them, since they did not have such provision on their own having just returned to the land. In 1 Kings 5, Solomon also purchases wood, cedar and cypress from the King of Tyre - the same place - and payment is given in the form of vast quantities of wheat and oil, but in this case coming from the bounty of the Lord he had lavished on his people.
Moving to the next verse in Ezra 3, verse 8, we see that they started building in the second year after their return to Jerusalem, in the second month. In 1 Kings, Solomon’s building is also marked by the number of years since they came to the land - in his case 480 since the people were brought up from Egypt - and he begins building in the second month of the year, just as the returned Exiles did.
So we have several obvious parallels here, and there are more coming in our passage. In Solomon’s era, the accounts given in 1 Kings and 2 Chronicles ascribe oversight of the work to Solomon directly. He’s the one who drafted the laborers, ordered materials, and oversaw the work. Here in Ezra, we see leaders like Zerubbabel and Jeshua, together with the Levites, overseeing the work to lay the temple’s foundation. And as the foundation is laid, we get another glimpse of God’s people worshipping together.
This brings us to the second part of our passage, Israel’s praise. Now when we look at the manner in which God’s people respond in worship, we see additional parallels to the first time the temple was built, but there are also some distinctions worth pondering. In terms of similarities, here in Ezra, we see the priests and Levites, together with the sons of Asaph, making music. They come forward in their priestly garments with trumpets and cymbals to make music and sing to the Lord. And then the people sing responsively and give thanks, singing: For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.
Now, let’s hold this up against the account of God’s people celebrating after the temple was built and the ark brought up in 2 Chronicles 5. Obviously here in Ezra they haven’t finished building the temple - they’ve only just laid the foundation. But listen to the striking similarity in 2 Chronicles 5:13: and it was the duty of the trumpeters and singers to make themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord, and when the song was raised, instruments, in praise to the Lord, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever…” The response is almost identical: trumpets, instruments, and singers, extolling the goodness and steadfast love of the Lord their God.
But now I want to highlight a significant difference between these two accounts. In the first instance, King Solomon and the people of Israel are worshipping from a position of strength. Solomon is a wealthy, established, powerful king over a secure nation, Israel. And this was a good thing! God had given King Solomon his position, his power, and his wealth. God had established his people under the rule of King David and had extended that same grace to his son, Solomon. There are times in the lives of God’s people, Old Covenant and now in the New Covenant when you worship in security and in comfort, and it is good and right to give thanks to God when that is the case.
But consider the position of the exiles here in Ezra chapter 3. Unlike Solomon’s era, they are not wealthy, powerful, and established people with a wise king ruling over them. They are fractured and broken, barely beginning to reestablish their identity together back in their homeland. Yet here they stand in the history of God’s people, worshipping the Lord their God in the way he has prescribed, just like the generations-long before them.
And there is something here for us to pause, and recognize, and learn from. Whether we find ourselves in prosperity and health, or in suffering and distress, every season of our lives is one in which we ought to sing... to praise God for his steadfast love that endures forever toward his people. Both security and well-being, along with suffering and hardship, come from the Lord. Listen to Isaiah 45:7: I form light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things. And likewise Amos 3:6: Does disaster come to a city, unless the Lord has done it?
God is glorified in the praise of his people in response to the kindness of his gifts. And God is also glorified in the praise of his people in the absence of those same gifts. It is God’s divine purpose that his people experience both prosperity and hardship, blessing and suffering, multiplication and persecution. But no matter our circumstances, God is worthy of our worship. He is sufficient to satisfy the longings of our souls in all seasons and any circumstances. So it is good for us to see God’s people worshipping, singing, and extolling the steadfast love of the Lord in a wide variety of circumstances across the entire landscape of the Bible.
Now as we continue in our passage, I want to press even further into this picture of worship. If you were at the congregational meeting on Thursday night, you’ll remember that Dan briefly explained the importance of worshipping God the way that God wants to be worshipped. Some of God’s people in the Old Testament died for presuming to worship God in their own way... in a manner that contradicted God’s expressed will for his people. This is one reason why I highlighted the continuity between the way Israel worshipped God under Solomon and the way they are worshipping him now in their return from exile. Part of their return to the promised land and their restoration as a people is the reclamation of right worship.
Look at the description of their worship that we get in verse 10 - they sang and played instruments: according to the directions of David king of Israel. They are following in the footsteps of the man after God’s own heart, the great warrior, king, and psalm-writer, David. This is similar to what we saw last week in the way they rebuilt the altar, offered sacrifices, and kept the feasts according to the law of Moses, the man of God. Notice also in the list of people who are leading worship, that we see the sons of Asaph. There are a number of Psalms in the Bible attributed to Asaph, most of them coming in the third of the five books within the Psalms. These sons of Asaph are akin to worship leaders - they led choirs and musicians in coordinated praise before the Lord.
So the people, standing the obedience to God’s revealed will for worship, being led by the priests, Levites, and sons of Asaph, sing responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord. From what I gathered in looking at this passage, there would have been multiple songs the people were singing as they praised and thanked the Lord. We are given just a few phrases however, reading that they sang these words together: For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel. The Hebrew word for “steadfast love” is hesed, which also appears prominently in one of Israel’s fundamental confessions of faith found in Exodus 34.
In this chapter, Moses is back up on the mountain after Israel’s disastrous worship of the golden calf. Moses intercedes for the people, and the Lord grants his petition, showing mercy and sparing the people. And then the Lord puts his glory on display for Moses, by speaking to him about his name and character. Here’s what he says, in Exodus 34: The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. At the heart of this statement, the very glory of God put on display in language for his people to hear and understand, is that word, hesed, steadfast love.
The steadfast love of the Lord is the very heart of Israel’s praise. It is central to God’s glory displayed for his people, and in turn it stirs our hearts to sing, to give thanks, and praise the Lord our God. And this is where we as Christians look to the cross, where God showed his love for us, in that when we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Jesus’s substitutionary death in our place is the highest expression of God’s steadfast love for his people, and it is the heartbeat of the churches worship.
Now let’s turn to the last part of our passage and see the people’s varied responses after the foundation has been laid. There are two groups of people who respond on very different ends of the emotional spectrum. The first group is the older generation of priests, Levites, and heads of their respective houses, who had seen the first temple in all of its splendor and glory. And this vivid memory of the first temple brings about a surge of grief that is mingled with shouts of joy from the second group, the younger generations who had not seen the first temple.
We don’t have much explanation or commentary in this case. We understand that the memory of the first temple brought on the emotion of the first group, but that’s the only detail we have. But consider what we’ve already heard when comparing the present situation with the temple constructed during the reign of Solomon. The temple was the central structure of the city - it was God’s house among his people and the visible representation of his presence and blessing amongst the nation of Israel. It was a structure like no other in its architecture and beauty, in the quality of materials and the skill of the builders and craftsmen who constructed it. While the laying of a new foundation was indeed an accomplishment and something worthy of celebration, for the older generation it also served as a powerful reminder of what was not there before them. The first temple was gone, and the new temple was likely not going to be it’s equal in beauty and splendor.
So their mourning is appropriate. And as I thought about this moment, I realized that this is not an uncommon occurrence for us as God’s people. There are many moments in which we are sorrowful, yet rejoicing, just like Israel was in this moment when the foundation of the temple was laid. And neither generation was wrong in this case! Let us remember this moment when we see our brothers and sisters responding differently to the results of elections, or current events, or even decisions made within the local church. We hold fast together to the gospel, and at the same time we’re all so different and unique, shaped by our own experiences, and at times responding differently to the same events.
The pandemic we’re living through together right now is an excellent example. I know there to be differing positions within our church as to the correct response for Christians. And that’s okay. Unity in the church is never meant to be forced conformity on every single issue. Just like God’s people in Ezra 3, we are united in our worship even when we respond differently to the events around us.
And that brings us to the end of chapter 3. We saw the three movements of collecting materials and laying the foundation, Israel’s praise centered on the steadfast love of the Lord, and their divergent emotional response toward the new foundation. For the remainder of our time this evening, I want to tie all of this together by beholding together the immensity of what God is saying to his people through the temple.
First, consider the progression by which the people of Israel arrived at the temple. The temple was a more permanent version of the tabernacle, which was given to God’s people when he provided instructions for building it to Moses on Mount Sinai. And this account of the tabernacle is built around a series of seven speeches delivered to Moses, which many commentators connect to the seven days in which God created the heavens and the earth. The tabernacle itself in its construction is actually meant to mirror creation, the Garden of Eden in particular. The entrance to the tabernacle faced east and was adorned with cherubim, just like the entrance to Eden. The curtains of the tabernacle resembled the skies and the ornamentation was representative of stars. There was also the lampstand, symbolic of the tree of life, along with the Law of God kept within the tabernacle, which is symbolic of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. God is telling a story to his people by the manner in which they were to construct the tabernacle.
And the temple is a progression from the tabernacle in it’s permanence and beauty. The temple establishes the house of the Lord amidst the city of God’s people in Jerusalem, further developing the theme that God intends to dwell with his people. Thus for the exiles in Ezra, rebuilding the temple is of utmost importance to their identity and well-being as God’s people, because God’s presence among them is their greatest good and highest hope.
But the temple is not the final word nor the clearest picture of God dwelling among his people. In the opening chapter of John’s gospel, we not only see echoes of the creation account from the very first verses of this gospel, we also discover that Jesus is the true tabernacle. You’re likely familiar with John 1:14, which says, And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. When John says that Jesus dwelt among us, the literal word used there is “tabernacled”. Jesus tabernacled among us. It can also be translated that Jesus pitched his tent and dwelt among us.
Jesus is God’s promise to dwell with his people! Jesus is the tabernacle and temple walking and talking with us! Jesus, God in human flesh, truly did come and dwell with his people. But even the incarnation of the Son of God isn’t the final scene in this drama of creation.
Listen to Revelation 21:3: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. And as Revelation 21 continues, the New Jerusalem descends out of heaven down to earth, signifying that God is coming to dwell with his people on earth. And then we read this in Revelation 21:22: And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple, is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.
Jesus’s incarnation was the foretaste of the true purpose of the temple. And Revelation 21 shows us that when he returns, and the New Jerusalem descends from heaven down to earth, there will no longer be a temple in the city, because the very presence of God will permeate everything. The New Jerusalem, the New Heavens and the New Earth, will be saturated with the presence and glory of God so completely that there will be no single point where God dwells more in comparison to another. In a very real sense, everything becomes the temple - all of the new creation is consumed with the glory of God and his presence with his people.
And this brings us to the table. This is a meal that we eat together in celebration of the steadfast love of the Lord Jesus displayed in his life, death, and resurrection - the heartbeat of our worship together. And we eat this meal looking forward together to Jesus’s return when the entirety of the new creation is consumed by the presence and glory of God, where we will live with Him forevermore.