Scripture Reading: Ezra 1-6; Haggai 1-2; Zechariah 1,8
Significant Moments in The Story
King Cyrus of Persia decrees Israelites can return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple – Ezra 1
The altar and Temple foundations are rebuilt – Ezra 3
The rebuilding of the Temple ceases in face of opposition – Ezra 4
The rebuilding process is resumed and completed – Ezra 6
Living in a new reality
The end of the exile in Babylon and the return of the Israelites to Jerusalem was a moment of joy and celebration to be sure, one that some perhaps believed they would never see. However, those who returned are faced with the harsh reality that life in Israel will not be easy. There will be rivalries with those peoples that now live in the surrounding region. They are charged with not only rebuilding buildings but a nation and all that entails. In addition, they have to rebuild the religious life of Israel, which during the exile has taken on a different appearance from before the exile. This is perhaps marked best by the account of the laying of the foundations of the new Temple in Ezra 3. The new Temple will be a smaller and less ornate structure from the one Solomon built. This is a combination of factors, including fewer resources and a greater emphasis on the Temple as a house of prayer. Some would see the beginning of the rebuilding of the Temple as a reason to celebrate, but some would see the outlines of what was to come as cause to lament what had been lost and what was different. These accounts challenge us to consider how we confront theologically and faithfully those moments in life when we are forced to live by new realities that are not necessarily of our making or choosing.
Finish what you start
In Ezra 4, we are told that the rebuilding process of the Temple stops for a time due to pressure exerted on the Persian emperor by the neighboring peoples. In response, the prophets Haggai and Zechariah rise up to encourage the people to take up the task of rebuilding the Temple. Their messages shed light on another reality: the struggle to run with perseverance the race that is before us until we reach its finish. Challenges externally and internally rise up to pull the Israelites away from the task of rebuilding the Temple, just as we often are distracted from our work by external pressures and internal fears or desires. The prophets encourage the people see to completion the work they had begun in God’s name.
“… in order that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished …” – Ezra 1:1
In Jeremiah 29:10, as part of his letter to those who are already in exile in Babylon, Jeremiah says, “For thus says the LORD: Only when Babylon’s seventy years are completed will I visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place.”
Cyrus orders the Temple to be rebuilt – Ezra 1:2-4
Cyrus was known to be interested in restoring local temples. It should be noted that his understanding of God is that he is the God of Jerusalem (Ezra 1:3).
“Let us build with you, for we worship your God as you do …” – Ezra 4:2
After the Assyrians defeated the northern kingdom of Israel and carried the people off into exile, they resettled the land with peoples from other conquered nations. Eventually, these peoples began to worship Yahweh, but they also worshiped other gods that they brought with them. This synthesis of religious beliefs and the mixing of other nations into the land of the north would lead those who had returned from exile in Babylon to identify themselves as the only true Israel. They refuse the offer of help, believing that permission to rebuild the Temple was given exclusively to them by King Cyrus. In response, the “people of the land” would seek to stop both the rebuilding of the Temple and the wall around Jerusalem to keep the returned exiles vulnerable.
This history is the root of the Jewish-Samaritan animosity that will be evident during the time of Jesus.
The prophet Haggai’s career was relatively short, spanning from August to December of the year 520 B.C. Haggai’s primary focus was to call the people to finish the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.
Haggai 2:10-19 is believed to be a speech that Haggai made on the day that the cornerstone of the foundation was laid. In this speech, Haggai marks the importance of beginning the work of rebuilding the Temple. Haggai explains that the beginning of the work marks a turn of Israel away from guilt and abandonment of God to a time of blessing and restored relationship.
As part of that time of blessing, Haggai envisions a restored monarchy with Zerubbabel, the governor of Judah who led the rebuilding effort, as God’s chosen one to be king (Haggai 2:20-23). This passage reminds us that the returned exiles not only were struggling with rebuilding buildings but trying to determine what would be the best order of rule and governing themselves. Zechariah, a contemporary of Haggai, will have a slightly different idea.
Zechariah’s prophetic ministry seems to have spanned about 2 years. Like Haggai, Zechariah portrays the effort of rebuilding the Temple as a turn in Israel’s relationship with God (Zechariah 8:9-13). However, though there is much that Zechariah and Haggai share in unison, Zechariah’s message does take a unique shape.
For one, Zechariah envisions that, in the new day of God’s blessing, the high priest will be the king of the people, specifically Joshua (Zechariah 6:9-13). There seems to be some indication of two rulers sharing power (Zechariah 6:13), leading some to wonder if originally Zechariah envisioned Zerubbabel crowned king, sharing power with the high priest Joshua. Whatever the case, Zechariah’s description of governance in the new day of blessing is different from the one described by Haggai.
Zechariah’s message also includes an atmosphere of welcoming of other nations (Zechariah 8:20-23). This will present an interesting contrast to the stories of Ezra and Nehemiah that we will look at next week.