"The people made so much noise it could be heard far away, and no one could tell the difference between the joyful shouting and the sad crying." --Ezra 3:13
The Old Testament book of I Kings, chapters 6-8, tells the glorious story of King Solomon finally building a temple to the Lord in Jerusalem. Completed in 957 B.C., this was the structure envisioned by King David and completed by his son. When the structure was finally finished and the Ark of the Lord was carried into the Most Holy Place inside the temple, the glory of the Lord filled the temple. In fact, the presence of the Lord was apparently so substantial, like a thick cloud, that the priests had to stop their ministrations and leave the building altogether. (I Kings 8:11) Solomon's temple must have been something to behold!
371 years later, it was all gone. The Babylonian army of King Nebuchadnezzar swept into the capital city of Judah in 586 B.C., conquering its inhabitants and razing the temple. The Jews understood this event as God's punishment for their sin, a punishment long predicted by one prophet after another who warned God's people that their disobedience would arouse God's judgment. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Jeremiah--they all called for repentance and a return to the Lord's worship, will and ways. But none of the kings of Judah listened for long or for good--and their subjects followed suit. Now the people were carried off as captives into what became known as the Babylonian exile.
But there was a ray of hope. The prophet Jeremiah had foretold that, after 70 years time, the Babylonians themselves would be punished by the Lord and the people of Israel and Judah would be brought back home from their captivity. (Jeremiah 25:12; 30:3) And it happened just that way. The Persians, under the leadership of their king Cyrus, defeated the Babylonians in 539 B.C. Then, Cyrus, known for his benevolence, allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem in 516 B.C.--if you do the math, that's exactly Jeremiah's 70-year prophecy.
When the first wave of Jewish settlers returned to Jerusalem, the priority item on the restoration "To Do" list was to rebuild the temple. Under the leadership of a guy named Zerubbabel and a teacher/priest named Ezra, the foundation of the second temple was laid. The reaction of those present for this groundbreaking event is what I want to draw our attention to in this reflection. Ezra 3:10-13 described the scene. The priests and a number of younger people who had never seen the first temple shouted with joy and sang praises to the Lord. Meanwhile, many of the older priests and family leaders who had witnessed the splendor of Solomon's temple cried when they saw the foundation, realizing it was no match to the glorious original. The verse featured at the beginning of this reflection indicated that the mixture of the shouting, singing and crying was so loud that it could be heard at a great distance--and it was difficult to distinguish the thanksgiving from the tears.
Allow me to draw an analogy to this scene. The Apostle Paul wrote to the church in Corinth, Greece that they, indeed all Christians, were God's temple and that God's Spirit dwelled in their midst. (I Corinthians 3:16) God has a grand and glorious design for his people, more glorious than Solomon's temple ever displayed. And yet our sin, selfishness and disobedience has wrecked that design in the same way that the Babylonians destroyed the first temple in 586 B.C. The good news is that the Lord is rebuilding any of us who have yielded our lives to Jesus. Day by day, moment by moment, through the holy, healing (what theologians call "sanctification") work of His Spirit within us, we are being returned to His intended design for us. Still, while the rebuilding continues, until Jesus either returns or we go home to Him through death, we are clearly "under construction." And that reality produces, if we are honest with ourselves, the mixed emotions of the people that day in Jerusalem. We sing praise and thanksgiving to God for the foundation He has laid in us, but we are sad that we often remain so resistant to His will, His design, for us. We smile with hope but our wandering hearts feel broken.
What sort of response does the Lord desire from His children whom He is training, repairing, loving and disciplining? We get a hint in one Old Testament book over. The Jewish leader Nehemiah returned to Jerusalem about 444 B.C. to assist the inhabitants in resurrecting their ruined city walls. At the completion of this project, all the people of Israel gathered together to hear Ezra read the Book of the Teachings of Moses. As the Scripture was read, the people once again began to weep, recognizing their sin and how little they resembled the glorious design for God's people described in the Teachings Ezra was reading. Nehemiah intercepted the sorrow and redirected the hearts of the people. He told them not to be sad, because the joy of the Lord brings strength. Nehemiah sent the people home to enjoy a feast and to celebrate with great joy. Importantly, the Scripture says that the people "finally understood what they had been taught." (Nehemiah 8:10-12)
And what had they been taught? They learned that they did not measure up--and they continued to fail. They learned that, right then and there, maybe they weren't all the Lord intended them to be. But it didn't matter, because He was the one rebuilding them. They weren't responsible for the project. And, in the end, the Lord will get it right. God intends the same lesson for us. If that doesn't produce hope and joy in our hearts, I don't know what will! Allow the joy of the Lord to fill your heart no matter how broken or wayward that heart might be. That is the reservoir of strength that will sustain us as God's rebuilding work continues in us.
Heavenly Father, thank You that You are the one healing, restoring, and redeeming us! We know that we have nothing of real lasting value to contribute to the process. But we so want to please You and be the men and women of God that You intend us to be. Finish Your work in us and help us not to get in Your way. Allow our lives to display Your glory and Your grace. In Jesus' Name, Amen.