distracted by destruction

Today’s Scripture Lesson: Ezra Chapters 2-3 

As a bit of a history buff, two of the books from the Bible I enjoy reading are Ezra and Nehemiah. A good number of scholars believe these two books are two halves of one whole and are quick to pair them with one another, as they should.

You’d also benefit by adding the books of the two prophets, Haggai and Zechariah, as their books reveal God’s spoken words to His people through His prophets during the historical time of Ezra and Nehemiah. Just as in Ester and Ruth, there are no words spoken by God recorded in Ezra or Nehemiah.

Israel Returns to Jerusalem

These two books record the events which took place at the end of Israel’s captivity. God stirred the heart of King Cyrus of Persia who directed the sons of Israel to return to Jerusalem and build a house for the Lord. It was time to rebuild the temple. God was making good on His word to restore His people at the end of 70 years of captivity.

After king Cyrus sent out his decree to rebuild the temple, God stirred up the spirits of priests, Levites, and many sons of Israel to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord.

After gathering many of the articles which had been looted from the previous temple, the exiles left Babylon and traveled to Jerusalem. Some were returning as old men to the land where they were born while others were going to see their homeland for the very first time. After 70 years, to many, it must have been as though they were en route to a place of legend.

The Reality of Desolation

Upon returning, they found a city in absolute ruin. The former house of the Lord had been burned. Not one pillar was left standing in the place where God once dwelt with His people. His glory now removed, it was barren and lifeless. (2 Kings 25)

At this point in Ezra 2, something curious happens. Verse 68 tells us:

Some of the heads of fathers’ households, when they arrived at the house of the LORD which is in Jerusalem, offered willingly for the house of God to restore it on its foundation.”

Did you catch that word, “Some?”

Two verses later (v. 70) we’re told:

Now the priests and the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers and the temple servants lived in their cities, and all Israel in their cities.”

Was this the decree? Was this the stirring in their hearts? Were they to return to their homeland and focus on their own homes?

We see in Chapter 3 that seven months into their new dwelling, they began to be overcome with fear of the people who had been living in the land (Ezra 3:3). And so, the whole assembly gathered in Jerusalem where the priests built an altar to offer burnt offerings according to the law.

Stay Focused on the Assignment

But, take notice that Ezra 3:6 tells us, “the foundation of the temple of the Lord had not been laid.” It wasn’t until the second month of the second year that the work of laying a foundation and building the temple would begin.

The Bible doesn’t tell us how long it took to lay the foundation, but it does tell us what happened when they completed the foundation. Ezra 3:10 states:

Now when the builders had 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 directions of King David of Israel.”

They sang, praising the Lord, shouting for joy. However, many of the elders amongst them, who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice.

Now, consider this breakdown of the story:

  • God opens the door for His people to return from their exile.
  • God moves in the hearts of His people.
  • The people return with all the goods necessary to complete their mission.
  • The people see the desolation of the past.
  • They put off their call and opt to go to their own cities.
  • The people begin to fear.
  • The people recognize their inadequacy apart from God and repent.
  • The people seek to obey (and offer burnt offerings).
  • The people begin the work to which they were called.
  • Upon completing the foundational work, the people rejoice!

Do you ever see this order play out in your own life? How do you respond, or react, when you come face-to-face with the desolation of your past while you’re going about the task of fulfilling the call God has placed on your life? Do you procrastinate in your task, choosing to dwell in a place of fear? Or, do you lean into obedience, trusting in His goodness?

Ultimately, the procrastination of the people not only led to fear, but it delayed the experience of joy. It was a joy only to be manifest in the fellowship of the full assembly serving in the presence of the Lord God.

In repenting, the people didn’t go immediately from their cities to the work of building. Instead, they went to the place of their calling and made an offering. They sacrificed.

Sacrifice is an outward expression of an attitude of trust. Keep in mind, there was no crop at this time ripe for the harvest. They weren’t simply killing a few animals and giving away a little grain. This was their food source.

God’s Character Over Circumstances

The people were returning to the place of God’s presence and trusting Him to be Lord and provider. This is a step we often skip in our walk of faith and it was the step the exiles initially skipped.

Upon seeing the desolation of the temple, they asked the wrong question. They asked “what” rather than “Who.” We know this because they left. They must have determined “what” to do and returned to their cities. That moment when they encountered the destruction of the past wasn’t calling for “what.” The moment was calling for a people to cry out to God Almighty, “Lord, reveal ‘Who’ You are and restore us from amongst these ruins.” You see, in the kingdom of God, “being” precedes “doing.”

Reversing the order, the people began to “do” in order to “be.” They returned to their cities focused on setting up their own homes and establishing themselves in the land rather than allowing God to be established as Lord of their lives. Consequently, they were given over to fear.

So, What’s the Play Call?

Know and trust that our true joy and satisfaction will only be experienced in the presence of – in “being” with – our Creator God.

How often do we place our hope in actions (our “doing”) versus simply being children of the Most High God? How often do we seek our fulfillment by establishing our temporal earthly dwelling only to be left empty?

You may have noticed that I haven’t addressed the elders weeping. That is for next time. In the meantime, I want to encourage you to read through Ezra and Haggai. If you have time, dive into Nehemiah and Zechariah as well.

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