|Today’s reading is drawn from Ezra 3:7-13.
God promised that he wouldn’t leave his people in exile forever. Soon after the Persians conquer the Babylonians, God prompts Cyrus, the new king, to allow his people to return to Judah and rebuild the temple. About fifty thousand people pack up everything they own and make the four-month trip from Babylon to Jerusalem. Some of God’s people choose to stay in Babylon, but send valuable gifts with the people making the journey. God has once again set his people free.
After settling in their towns, God’s people convene in Jerusalem, at the site of the old temple. Zerubbabel the governor and Joshua the high priest head up the rebuilding of God’s altar. God’s people bring offerings to him, even without a temple. The priests give God’s daily offerings, committing each day to him. And they joyfully celebrate the monthly New Moon sacrifices and sacred festivals with offerings too.
Just over a year after arriving in Jerusalem, God’s people start rebuilding the temple. Once the foundation is laid, the priests and Levites sound trumpets, clash cymbals and sing. Some people weep and some people shout as they worship. God has brought them back home — and more importantly, back to him.
The King’s Heart
More people stayed in Babylon than returned to Judah. After all those years, Babylon had become both comfortable and “home.” But thousands of God’s people decided to return to the promised land. And each step on the dangerous, robber-infested, nine-hundred-mile journey was a statement: “We want you more than anything, God. We’re coming back to you.”
Once in Jerusalem, the returning exiles pushed through the threats of their neighbors, steadfastly rebuilding God’s altar and bringing him offerings of worship. Then they gathered building materials — sacrificially giving as much as they could.
They laid the temple’s foundation, and when it was finished their joy was thick. Older men and women who had experienced the glory of Solomon’s temple wept — their joy laced with sorrow. Solomon’s temple had been so magnificent, and they knew this temple would be humble in comparison.
It was a meager physical building project from a very small portion of his once-flourishing people. But God — who felt the weight of every step and every sacrifice — knew his people’s heart-song wasn’t meager. It was magnificent: “We want you more than anything, God. We have come back to you.” During the celebration, no one was more joyful than God was.
Only 74 Levites returned from exile with Zerubbabel and Joshua (see Ezra 2:40). Since some had done menial tasks in the temple, they may have found work they liked better in exile and stayed there. When Ezra gathered the second wave of exiles, he made an intentional effort to recruit more to come back (see Ezra 8:15 – 20).