Theme: It’s a New Start
Lesson text: Ezra 6:13-22
Supplemental texts: Ezra 3:1-13; Psalm 66:13-20; Hebrews 12:18-29; Revelation 15:1-4
Aim: Like Israel, make your worship fresh with new offerings and excitement.
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By Mark Scott
“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life” (Proverbs 13:12). By this point in the book of Ezra, God’s people had their hope deferred. They came back from captivity with such high hopes. Pagan governments had befriended them (chapter 1). Priests, Levites, gatekeepers, and temple servants were all in place (chapter 2). Reconstruction of the temple altar and the temple itself had begun (chapter 3). But then the wheels fell off. Adversaries rose up against the rebuilding efforts, letters of accusation were written against the leaders, and work on the temple ceased (chapter 4). Hope was deferred.
But the providential hand of God and the providential eye of God were on his people (Ezra 5:5; 7:6). God worked through government leaders, archivists, prophets, and even enemies to get the rebuilding project back on track. Israel was allowed to start over. Once Cyrus’s decree was found in the archives, the new world leader, Darius, ensured that the temple restoration could be completed. In fact, he provided government funds, told adversaries not to bother the builders, and promised punishment for anyone who interrupted the project (Ezra 6:2, 4, 6, 11-12). At this juncture of the book, “happy days are here again.”
The Completed Temple
The adversaries, Tattenai and Shethar-Bozenai, had to eat crow. They had opposed the temple’s rebuilding from the beginning. Now Darius made them see to it that the temple was completed. It must have been like Haman leading Mordecai through the streets yelling, “This is the man the king desires to honor” (Esther 6:9, author’s paraphrase). That had to hurt even though they carried it out with diligence.
The post-exilic prophets Haggai and Zechariah assisted in this effort through their preaching. They delivered God’s will to the people and no doubt also cheered them on. The temple was “mostly” completed by God’s command and the decrees from the three top government leaders (Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes). It was “mostly” completed because there would remain work for Nehemiah to do later when he arrived. But it was far enough along for the people to rejoice and use. The date of completion was the third day of Adar during Darius’s sixth year.
Upon its completion, the temple was celebrated and dedicated. Leadership and laity participated in the celebration. The dedication, of course, involved animal sacrifices—100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and 12 special goats—one for each of the tribes of Israel. While this was impressive, it fell way short of the temple’s original dedication (1 Kings 8:5). Priests were installed according to the divisions King David had originally set up, and the Levites took their places of service just as it was commanded in the Book of Moses.
The Celebrated Passover
An interesting linguistic phenomenon takes place at this point in the book. The language switches back to the Hebrew script. The language from Ezra 4:8–6:18 was written in Aramaic. The change probably had to do with the letter that was originally written (Ezra 4:7). But since they were about to celebrate the Passover in this text, they returned to “the ancient order of things.”
It was the fourteenth day of the first month that the exiles celebrated [kept] the Passover. All the proper protocols were followed. The priests and Levites had purified (purged or cleansed) themselves and therefore could function as mediators of sorts. The Passover lamb was slaughtered for the leadership and the laity. The exiles ate it along with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbors. This fits with what happened in the original exodus. In this we see the wide embrace of God. Others can participate in such things provided they do not try to come in on their own terms.
The celebration lasted seven days and coincided with the Festival of Unleavened Bread, which would be observed even up to the time of Jesus. Joy was the dominant note among the exiles. It was not just humanly contrived joy. God gave them this joy by changing the attitude of the King of Assyria. In the end, God directs the affairs of humans. But he does so for the glory of his own name. It was his house, and he wanted it dedicated and celebrated. This excitement would be challenged, but in this moment it was pure joy.