These days whenever I go home to Dirranbandi, I’m always filled with this weird sort feeling… On the one hand, I’m full of joy. But on the other, there is always a hint sorrow and sadness. Joy to be home, joy to be with family (especially my two nephews), joy to be with my border-collie sheep dog, joy to go to the pub and have a good meal. I’m full of joy… but I can also feel sad. Sad… because things aren’t quite the same anymore.
Immense joy mixed with sorrow!
Do you ever feel like that? Or have you ever experienced that? Periods of life where your joy was mixed with sorrow? Personally, I feel like this is our constant reality as human beings, joy mixed with sorrow. But, I also think that this is especially the case for those of us who are part of God’s people in Christ. Just think about it for a second…
- We rejoice: sins are forgiven in Christ. But there’s real sorrow: sin still dwells within.
- We rejoice: death is defeated. But there’s sorrow: death still visits us all.
- We’ve got God’s powerful Spirit dwelling within us, but real and lasting change can seem impossible.
- The love of God has been poured into our hearts, but our hearts drift toward unbelief.
- We’ve been adopted into God’s family, but it’s imperfect, messy, and frustrating.
- We’re in Christ, but there’s so many who are out of Christ.
- We’ve been given a powerful gospel to proclaim, but it often feels powerless.
- Ministry is a joy and a delight, but it’s hard, painful, and can appear to be fruitless.
- Sunday is an expression of what we will experience in eternity, but it often can let us down.
This is our reality as those who are in Christ. Joy. Sorrow. Joy. Sorrow. Joy. Sorrow.
But, you know, that’s what I like about Ezra 3. There’s something comforting here about seeing God’s people-full of joy-and yet also full of sorrow. It’s comforting to see a people who live in the now but not yet… who live with the promises of God being fulfilled… but not yet fully complete.
You see, Israel have been in exile-they’ve been scattered, they’ve had no real king or priesthood, they’ve had no altar to make sacrifices for sin, they’ve had no temple to connect with God. But now, in this part of the Ezra and Nehemiah, they’ve returned to the land to fix all that! And as we follow along, we’ll see that there are reasons for joy and reason for sorrow.
So today, as we come along side God’s people in Ezra 3 to feel what they feel-we’re going to be comforted and we’re going to be reminded of the great encouragement that lies ahead of us in Christ. God willing, to help us in those moments of sorrow…
And so the sermon’s going to be divided into three main parts… first, reasons for joy (which will take most of the time), second, reason for sorrow (which will be a lot quicker), and finally, what we look forward to in Christ.
1. REASONS FOR JOY (V1-11)
First, reasons for joy. Now, Ezra 3 doesn’t just have one reason for joy, but several! And we see all of them in verses 1-11.
1.1. They’re finally together (v1)
Reason 1: they’re finally together. Take a look at verse 1.
When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem.
It would be easy to miss this, but the first thing God’s people do once they’ve settled in the land is they come together. The Hebrew literally says “the people assembled together as one man”. Sure, they’ve come together in an absolute wasteland of rubble, but you can imagine the joy this would bring! Israel have been plagued with division throughout their history-but here, it’s a momentous occasion-God’s people have assembled together as one. It’s reason to rejoice!
1.2. They’ve got a king and priest (v2)
Reason 2: they’ve got a king and a priest. Take a look at the list of names in verse 2.
Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel…
Often in Australia, we don’t really care too much about a person’s family tree or name. But when I am in Dirranbandi, names kind of mean something. It can get you an invitation to this or that… And it can, I confess, get you out of a speeding ticket or some other illegal activity.
Names kinda mean something where I grew up.
And in a similar way, in the time of Israel, names and family trees were a big deal. And “Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel” has an interesting family tree. If you searched “Zerubbabel” or “Shealtiel”, you’d find that these guys appear in 1 Chronicles 3:17-19-listed in the Royal Line of King David after the exile. Now, this is a reason to rejoice, it means that Israel has a king! And notice, they also have a priest, Joshua son of Jozadah.
The point is: they’ve got the right people for the job to be the nation God wants them to be!
1.3. Protection and Peace with God (v2-6)
But not only do they have a king and a priest, Israel also returns to their oh so important sacrifices and festivals as they set up the altar. This is the third reason to rejoice: protection and peace from God. Take a look at v2-3.
Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3
Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening sacrifices.
Here, the story focuses on the urgency of rebuilding the altar. Before the temple is even started on, the altar is set up first… And notice why…
Verse 2: They set up the altar “to sacrifice burnt offerings on it”.
And verse 3: They set up the altar “Despite” or most likely “Because of”-Israel’s fear of the people around them.
God’s people urgently set up the altar so that they can live in God’s grace and live with God’s divine protection from the people around them.
In the book of Deuteronomy, the Law of Moses, the altar seems to play a significant role in the life of Israel. It’s the place of interaction between the LORD and his people-between God and man-between heaven and earth.
It’s the place where blood is shed, sins are forgiven, cleansing is made, and God’s just anger is turned away. It’s the place we’re the aroma of a sacrifice would be a pleasing smell to God. It’s where God gives abundant grace to his people. And it’s also the place where God’s people live in safety from their enemies.
So, here in Ezra 3, Israel urgently set up the altar in order to have peace with God and to be safe and secure from the people around them. It’s a moment of joy-God gives grace. God gives protection. There is peace with God. They are returning to a way of life that was similar to that of Israel in the time of Moses or King David.
But it’s not just the altar they set up, no they even get back to celebrating their festivals-these giant parties which celebrated peace with God. Take a look at verse 4-6:
Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. 5
After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred festivals of the LORD, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the LORD. 6
On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD, though the foundation of the LORD’S temple had not yet been laid.
Each of these festivals was another celebration of God’s saving kindness. They were massive parties to God.
For the last couple of years, my younger cousins have put their 21st birthday parties on New Years Eve. And my cousins, they don’t do things by halves! No, they create the biggest party they can. They invite up to 400 people, everyone from Dirranbandi comes, they buy a heap of beer, a heap of steak, get a DJ, get some fireworks, and they go absolutely nuts. It’s awesome!
But Israel’s festivals, they were bigger. They were better. They were longer. This is what the Festival of Tabernacles (mention in verse 4), was like:
Celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles for seven days… 14
Be joyful at your festival-you, your sons and daughters, your male and female servants, and the Levites, the foreigners, the fatherless and the widows who live in your towns. 15
For seven days celebrate the festival to the LORD your God at the place the LORD will choose. For the LORD your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete.
Seven days. Everybody. Anyone who lives in your town. From the least to the greatest. Full of joy! Joy which will be complete! But why? To celebrate God’s constant, free, generosity to his sinful children who he brought out of Egypt.
As the exiles rebuild the altar and get back to their festivals, it’s another reason for joy-things are going back to the way it should be!
1.4. Things are being done like the past (v7-9)
Can you sense how good this is? There’s joy, joy, and well, there’s more reasons for joy.
The story changes its focus as it moves away from the building of the altar to the building of the temple’s foundation. And, it’d be easy to miss, but Israel have reason to rejoice because things are being done like the past.
Growing up as a kid on our family farm, there were always ways of doing things that never changed. From generation to generation, we’d pass on the essentials. If it was… how to know when to plant, or how to know which bull or cow you should buy from the sale… these things were passed on. And so when you did things the way it had always been done-you felt a positive connection with the past-with my dad, his dad, and with his dad’s father-in-law.
Now, that’s kinda going on here in the temple build… Things are being done like the past-and that’s reason to rejoice. Just brush your eyes over these verses…
- In verse 7, we hear an echo of Solomon’s preparations of the first temple (from 2 Chronicles 2:10), as “cedar logs” are sent from Joppa and payment is made by wheat, wine, and oil.
- In verse 8, we hear another echo of Solomon’s temple build (from 1 Kings 6:1) as we’re reminded that it was “the second month” when the temple was built.
- And in verses 8-9, we hear another echo of the past. As Zerubbabel, like King David, organises the temple build in 1 Chronicles 23:24.
- And this isn’t to forget the multiple references to the Law of Moses, King David, and King Solomon throughout chapters 2 and 3.
The point is: things are being done like the past (things seems to be returning to normal). And so, there is this sense of joyful anticipation. Joy because things are being done like the good old days, in the time of Moses, David, and Solomon. Joy because things are being done like the past…
But then the story, really does, get joyful… as the foundation of the temple is finally laid!
1.5. The foundation is laid (v10-13)
Take a look at the eruption of praise and thanks to God in verses 10-13.
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD, as prescribed by David king of Israel. 11
With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love toward Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.
Throughout the Old Testament, the temple was the place where God would dwell among his people. It wasn’t just a symbolic building, it wasn’t just a beautiful building that represented national achievement-no, it was the place where God dwelled in his glory. It’s one thing to have an altar to sacrifice on… but it’s a completely other thing to have a foundation for the very house and dwelling place of God.
And so it’s no wonder that Israel are full of joy! It’s no wonder they shout “He is good; his love toward Israel endures forever”! Because it has! God’s love for Israel has actually endured… it has never stopped. It didn’t stop in the garden-when Adam was kicked out. It didn’t stop in Egypt when God’s people were slaves. And it didn’t stop when Israel were disobentient in the land because of their unwillingness to listen to the LORD. It didn’t stop in their idolatry, it didn’t stop because of their rebellion, it didn’t stop as they were carried away in exile, it didn’t stop when they lived as strangers in a foreign land… God’s love for Israel has continued through all manner of his people’s disobedience. And this is so clear because, here, God’s people are together, with a king and a priest, living under grace, living in peace with God, and now the beginnings of a temple.
This is a pretty amazing sight! 40,000 people cry aloud to God with thanks and praise for his good, unconditional, and undying love. In fact, the noise is so loud that the nations can hear it from a far distance away.
The closest thing I could think of was the Ashes series last year. The Gabba, Stark, First Ball, Got’im! The whole Gabba erupted-apparently the noise was so loud that it could be heard from the CBD.
That’s what’s going on here! Full on joy and praise to God because his love for Israel has not stopped. Israel have every reason for joy! Joy, joy, joy.
2. REASON FOR SORROW (V12-13)
But ironically, Ezra 3 shows us that Israel also has reason for sorrow (this is the second part). Now, there are actually a few reasons for sorrow that you might have picked up along the way…
- Israel-they’re in the land (but it’s not really there’s-they’re already dealing with outsiders (which we’ll see more next week!)
- Israel-they’re together (but it’s only 40,000 of them compared to the many who originally went into exile).
- They have a king (but he’s only ruling under King Cyrus of Persia)
- And Israel have an altar and foundation (but it’s missing the rest of the temple)
There are multiple reasons for sorrow, but the
reason is seen in the people’s response to the temple foundation in verses 12-13. Notice how this part of the story ends…
But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13
No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away.
This great Gabba-like noise is actually kinda strange. It’s mixed with both joy and sorrow. The younger exiles who had grown up in Babylon are excited and full of joy as they looked ahead to this new temple. But the older exiles are wailing with tears in their eyes because they’d seen the previous temple in all of its glory.
But the things is… we can’t fault the older generation, can we? We can’t fault them. They actually do have reason for sorrow. I mean, just take a listen to how glorious and how awesome God’s dwelling place has been in the past…
- First, the tabernacle with Moses… Exod 40:34-35: “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle. And Moses was not able to enter the tent of meeting because the cloud settled on it, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle.
- Then, the temple with Solomon… 1 Kgs 8:10-11: “And when the priests came out of the Holy Place, a cloud filled the house of the LORD, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud, for the glory of the LORD filled the house of the LORD.”
- 2 Chr 7:1: “As soon as Solomon finished his prayer, fire came down from heaven and consumed the burnt offering and the sacrifices, and the glory of the LORD filled the temple.”
I mean what a difference!? What a difference between the tabernacle, the first temple, and now this one! Then… Fire from heaven. Now… nothing. Then… The glory of the LORD filling the temple. Now… nothing. Then… a place so awesome you couldn’t go in… Now… tears of disappointment! You can’t fault the older generation because something is dramatically missing… God’s glorious presence! Whilst there is reason after reason for joy… there is one big reason for sorrow-it appears that God has not re-entered the temple.
This is one of the first big hints in Ezra and Nehemiah that things are not as they should be… And it would raise (to any Israelite) all sorts of questions: Is God actually good? Is God faithful? Does God really love us? Does God’s love for Israel really endure forever? Are we really out of exile?
God’s glorious presence seems absent-it is the
reason for Israel’s sorrow.
Ezra 3 is one great reminder, especially to us who are in Christ, that we share a similar pattern of joy and sorrow. There are so many reasons in Christ for joy, but there’s also sorrow. And it should comfort us (in a weird kinda way) that this is normal for the people of God, for you and I even, as we live in a time where God’s plans are still unfolding.
But… We also need to be reminded of the encouragement in the story (and this is the final part)… We need to see how Ezra 3 points us forward… How it points us forward when we’re in those times of sorrow and when those moments of joy are just not long enough… We need to be encouraged that in and through Christ-sorrow will not be the last word…
When I’m faced with the depths of my selfishness… When I’m frustrated with things in life that aren’t going my way… When I wish that things were easier than they really are… in my marriage, in my job, in my relationships… I need to be pointed forward… to the story which ends in joy… just joy!
You see Ezra 3 should remind us of another story… A story yet to come… The moment when God’s people, you and I, will be together, with our king, with our priest, with the one who was sacrificed for us, living in and with the better and more glorious temple-Jesus Christ. It should remind us of the hope of a new creation…
You see, sorrow wasn’t really the last word for the people of Israel here in Ezra 3… Even though the temple didn’t fill with God’s glory-God’s love for Israel did not stop. As an act of love, God sent his Son-the true and better temple who embodied the glory of God. And who came to dwell in their midst. As John writes:
¶ And the Word became flesh and [tabernacled] among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father…
Jesus Christ, the true temple-God’s glory in flesh-came into the world so that Israel (so that you and I) might be found and brought into Christ. For in Christ… we are brought together as one. In Christ, we have a King and a High Priest. In Christ, we have peace with God. In Christ, we have God’s very presence. As Paul writes in Ephesians 2:
For through Christ we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the [temple] of God… 22
In Christ you are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.
Because of God’s undying love, we have been joined, planted, and built into Christ, the true temple. Because of God’s undying love, we have joy in Christ. And because of God’s undying love, we await a day when there will be only joy… As John writes… .
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. 4
He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away… 5
Behold I am making all things new.”
Ezra 3 points us forward to Christ and to the time when sorrow won’t be the last word… When the Christian life, your life, moves between joy and sorrow, when we see-saw between God’s goodness in Christ and the reality of living this side of a new creation, when we feel the disappointment of things not being as they should be… know that this is normal… but also look ahead. Look to him who sits on the throne. Look to him who pours out abundant mercy and grace. Look to him who will right every wrong. Look to him who will make all things new… Dream of the moment where we will shout together-“He is good, his love for Israel endures forever”-with just joy.
Williamson, Ezra and Nehemiah
Dictionary of the Old Testament, Altar