Ezra 3 – A Foundation for the New Temple
A. The restoration of regular worship in Jerusalem.
1. (1) Beginning in the seventh month.
And when the seventh month had come, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem.
a. When the seventh month had come: This was an important month on the spiritual calendar of Israel. In the seventh month they celebrated the Day of Atonement, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Feast of Tabernacles.
b. The people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem: This was an encouraging sign of obedience among the returned exiles. In a time of small resources and great work to be done, they took the time and money to observe the command to gather in Jerusalem for the major feasts.
2. (2-3) The altar is rebuilt on its ancient foundation.
Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brethren, arose and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. Though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries, they set the altar on its bases; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, both the morning and evening burnt offerings.
a. Jeshua…and Zerubbabel: These were the two main leaders in this rebuilding project, beginning their work with building the altar that stood outside the temple on the temple mount in Jerusalem. Out of the rubble of the destroyed temple and its courts, an altar now stood ready to receive sacrifices both on behalf of the people as a whole and individuals who brought their offerings.
i. It is significant that they built the altar in Jerusalem, on the same ground where it had once stood. They might have reasoned that the altar (and conceivably also the temple) could go anywhere, because Yahweh was God of the entire earth. Yet in the Jewish mind, there was only one place where the altar and the temple could stand: on God’s holy hill (Psalm 2:6, 99:9), in His holy land (Zechariah 2:12).
ii. Jeshua “was the grandson of Seraiah the high priest, who was put to death by Nebuchadnezzar, 2 Kings 25:18, 21. This Jeshua or Joshua was the first high priest after the captivity.” (Clarke)
b. Arose and built the altar of the God of Israel: Long before they could rebuild the temple, they wisely started with building the altar for burnt offerings and other sacrifices.
i. They built the altar first because it was something they could do relatively quickly and easily. We begin a great work by doing first what we can.
ii. They built the altar first because they understood its spiritual significance. Fundamentally, the altar was where sin was dealt with and where the common man met with God (the temple was only for the priests to enter). They started with the altar because it was a wise spiritual priority, showing they understood their need to have atonement from sin and perform acts of dedication to God.
iii. They built the altar first because it was an act of obedience to do so. They needed to resume the burnt offerings for the atonement of sin, and the morning and evening burnt offerings because all this was written in the Law of Moses the man of God.
iv. “This is the first thing that must be done before our temple-building or other undertakings can be crowned with success…. The new start that God Himself was giving would have been invalidated without the altar, which meant forgiveness for the past, and renewed consecration for the future.” (Meyer)
v. “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.” (Adeney)
vi. “There cannot be a temple without an altar, but there may be an altar without a temple. God meets men at the place of sacrifice, even though there be no house for His name.” (Maclaren)
c. Though fear had come upon them because of the people of those countries: When they built the altar to the LORD on the temple mount in Jerusalem, they probably destroyed a crude altar that had been built on that spot by the scattered remnant who inhabited the area during the two generations of exile. In building this altar they formally announced their presence and proclaimed their intention to rebuild the temple.
i. Morgan suggests they also were afraid of the spiritual threat from the people of those countries: “They were conscious of how, in the neglect of the altar of God in the past, they had become contaminated by the idolatrous practices of surrounding peoples, and in order to prevent a repetition of such failure, they immediately set up the true altar.”
ii. “The ruined Jerusalem was better guarded by that altar than if its fallen walls had been rebuilt.” (Maclaren)
d. They set the altar on its bases: This means that they found the old foundations for the previous altar and built the new one upon the exact place as the old, which dated back to David’s altar on the threshing floor of Araunah (2 Samuel 24:16-19).
i. “The altar was set in its place, i.e. its traditional and proper place.” (Kidner) “Rebuilt it on the same spot on which it had formerly stood.” (Clarke)
ii. “There is something very pathetic in the picture of the assembled people groping amid the ruins on the Temple hill, to find ‘the bases,’ the half-obliterated outlines, of the foundations of the old altar of burnt offerings.” (Maclaren)
iii. The centrality of the altar, set upon its ancient foundations, was essential for them – as it is for us. We have an altar (Hebrews 13:10, the cross of Jesus Christ, set upon its ancient foundations. The altar was to them what the cross is to Christians under the new covenant.
3. (4-6) The feast is observed, and regular sacrifice is resumed.
They also kept the Feast of Tabernacles, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings in the number required by ordinance for each day. Afterwards they offered the regular burnt offering, and those for New Moons and for all the appointed feasts of the LORD that were consecrated, and those of everyone who willingly offered a freewill offering to the LORD. From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD, although the foundation of the temple of the LORD had not been laid.
a. They also kept the Feast of Tabernacles: This great, joyful feast (one of the three major feasts of Israel) celebrated God’s faithfulness to Israel during the wilderness journey from Egypt to the Promised Land.
i. During this feast the families of Israel were commanded to camp out in temporary shelters, meant to remind them of how their forefathers lived during the exodus. In this context – when in returning to destroyed cities, they were forced to live this way until they could properly rebuild – the Feast of Tabernacles held a special meaning for these returned Jews to Judah.
b. They offered the regular burnt offering…all the appointed feasts of the LORD…freewill offering to the LORD: This describes the regular resumption of sacrifice at the altar, and all this was done before the foundation of the temple had been laid.
i. “During their long stay in Babylon, the Jews were not able to offer any sacrifices, as this could only be done in Jerusalem. Instead they were surrounded by a myriad of pagan temples. About fifty temples are mentioned in Babylonian texts together with 180 open-air shrines for Ishtar, three hundred daises for the Igigi gods, and twelve hundred daises for the Anunnaki gods.” (Yamauchi)
ii. “The new moon marked the first day of the month and was a holy day (Numbers 28:11-15).” (Yamauchi)
4. (7) Preparations for rebuilding the temple.
They also gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre to bring cedar logs from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the permission which they had from Cyrus king of Persia.
a. They also gave money to the masons and the carpenters: Once the work of restoration began at the altar of sacrifice, they followed through by assembling and hiring the workers they needed to build the temple.
b. Cedar logs from Lebanon: The cedar trees of Lebanon were legendary for their excellent timber. This meant that they wanted to use the best materials they could in construction and the same materials that Solomon used in building the first temple (1 Kings 5:6), though they had far fewer resources than Solomon.
c. According to the permission which they had from Cyrus king of Persia: This permission was not only the legal allowance to build the temple, but it also included financial support from the royal treasury (permission can also be translated grant).
i. “Since permission to buy materials would hardly need specifying, it is reasonable to take the work to include provision as well as permission, as with our own word ‘grant’.” (Kidner)
ii. This shows that they used Gentile money to purchase the supplies (from Gentile Lebanon) to build the second temple. Solomon’s temple used Gentile supplies and laborers; God directed the building of the second temple to likewise be built with Gentile cooperation.
B. Work begins on the temple.
1. (8-11) Great joy and worship as the work begins.
Now in the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, Jeshua the son of Jozadak, and the rest of their brethren the priests and the Levites, and all those who had come out of the captivity to Jerusalem, began work and appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work of the house of the LORD. Then Jeshua with his sons and brothers, Kadmiel with his sons, and the sons of Judah, arose as one to oversee those working on the house of God: the sons of Henadad with their sons and their brethren the Levites.
When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the ordinance of David king of Israel. And they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD:
“For He is good,
For His mercy endures forever toward Israel.”
Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.
a. In the second month of the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem: The work seemed to begin as soon as it could, allowing for the logistical preparations described in Ezra 3:7. Significantly, the site was called the house of God at Jerusalem before the temple was built and while the former temple was still a ruin.
i. “This would hardly have escaped their notice – the second was the month in which Solomon’s Temple had been started (1 Kings 6:1).” (Kidner)
b. Appointed the Levites from twenty years old and above to oversee the work: The Law of Moses commanded that the Levites begin their service at thirty years of age (Numbers 4:1-3, 4:3-47). David changed the starting point for Levitical service to twenty years of age (1 Chronicles 23:24). Under the leadership of Zerubbabel and Jeshua, they adopted David’s revised practice.
c. When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD: This was a memorable scene. The priests were dressed in their ceremonial apparel, the musicians were ready to praise the LORD with instruments and song, and they sang responsively in an arranged presentation.
i. In general, the description matches the massive and elaborate dedication ceremony for Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 5:13), except this was held in far humbler circumstances.
d. They praised the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid: It was an appropriately joyful occasion. Since the destruction of the temple under the Babylonian conquest, there had been no proper place for sacrifice and worship for the people of Israel. Another important step was made in the long and difficult process of the restoration of biblical worship and service to God.
i. “This time there is no ark, no visible glory, indeed no Temple; only some beginnings, and small beginnings at that. But God is enthroned on the praises of Israel, and these could be as glorious as Solomon’s.” (Kidner)
2. (12-13) The mixed reaction among the people.
But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off.
a. Old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes: The older men knew that this temple would never match up to the glory of the first. After all, King Solomon spent the modern equivalent of five to eight billion dollars on building the first temple. They also had memories of the horrible end of the first temple, and these combined with the joy of the restoration to make profoundly mixed feelings in the old men.
i. “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.” (Adeney)
ii. “They saw that the glory had departed from Israel; in their circumstances it was impossible to build such a house as the first temple was; and had this been even possible, still it would have been greatly inferior, because it wanted the ark of the covenant, the heavenly fire, the mercy-seat, the heavenly manna, Aaron’s rod that budded, the divine shechinah, the spirit of prophecy and most probably the Urim and Thummim.” (Clarke)
iii. There was a danger in their weeping. “The backward look which discounts present activity is always a peril. Regrets over the past which paralyse work in the present are always wrong. Moreover all such regrets, as in this case, are in danger of blinding the eyes to the true value and significance of the present.” (Morgan)
iv. The prophets warned against despising this temple for its humble beginnings (Haggai 2:1-9, Zechariah 4:8-10).
b. Yet many shouted aloud for joy: The younger, who had no remembrance of the prior temple, felt nothing but joy in seeing this important step in the restoration of the temple and its worship.
c. So that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people: This profound scene showed the extent of the mixed feelings among the people.
i. “The sight must have been very affecting: a whole people, one part crying aloud with sorrow; the other shouting aloud for joy; and on the same occasion too, in which both sides felt an equal interest!” (Clarke)