After all the opposition against the rebuilding of the Temple, today’s Ezra chapter 6 concludes the accomplishment of the first mission given by God through the Persian king Cyrus in chapter 1. In this chapter, the Jerusalem temple-building project is completed after over 40 years of construction. The Temple represented the heart of Israel’s spiritual life as the sign of God’s presence with the people, the focus of their worship and the source of divine blessing.
1) The Persian response to the Temple
Last week we learnt that the Persian government official Tattenai requested King Darius to find Cyrus’ decree to continue the Temple building project. And the evidence of Cyrus’ order turned up in the summer residence of the kings in Ecbatana. Just as chapter 1 has written, King Cyrus had issued a decree to rebuild the Temple to present sacrifices. Its foundations laid and resources to be paid by the Persian royal treasury. And all the looted gold and silver articles of the Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon are to be returned to their places in the Jerusalem temple.
King Darius also asked Tattenai, the governor, and his officials to stay away from the construction project, not to interfere with the Jewish leaders. All the construction expenses are to be fully paid out of the royal treasury from the revenues of Trans-Euphrates. The region under Tattenai, Tattenai and his officials now have to pay for the project completion, so the construction work will not stop. And everything that the priests needed for sacrifices and offerings must be given daily by the government without failing. God has given the green light to the temple reconstruction project and removed all the political-administrative and financial obstacles. God’s work was carried on by discovering a legal document over all the opposition of powerful forces. The Jerusalem Temple reconstruction project was commanded first by God and then by the kings, who were his human instruments. God’s will is supreme over all rulers, all historical events and all hostile forces. Even the cost of all daily sacrifices like the daily supply of young bulls, rams, male lambs for burnt offerings, and additionally the supply of wheat, salt, wine and oil, as requested by the priests in Jerusalem, is to be paid by the government from the revenue of the opposition Tattenai’s district day after day without ceasing. The king’s interest in the daily sacrifices was to enable the Jews to pray for the king and his sons’ well-being.
When God’s will be done, it is on earth as it is in heaven. God can deliver us in ways we cannot imagine. If we trust in His power and love, no opposition can stop us. So constantly pray to God if you face opponents who try to stop you from doing God’s work and ministry. Do things under God’s will and work in obedience to God’s command for the glory of God. The Lord will deliver you from all oppositions. Our God is able and faithful to us. So put your trust in the power and love of Christ in everything you do, and God is with you.
2) Completion and dedication of the Temple
In verse 13, we read that Tattenai, Shethar-Bozenai, and other regional officials appropriated funds; administered the supply of animals, wine, grain, oil, and salt; and coordinated with the Jewish leaders the delivery and implementation of these resources. These men performed their duties with diligence. And the Jews built and prospered under the preaching and teaching of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah.
So the Temple was completed on the third day of the month Adar, the Twelve month of the Jewish calendar, on March of the 6th year of King Darius’ reign, year 515. According to the command of the Lord and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius and Artaxerxes, kings of Persia. Divine providence from heaven and the will of man intersected. The reconstruction project’s completion is 72 years from 586 when Jerusalem fell. The old Temple was destroyed by Babylon, just as prophet Jeremiah had prophesied a long time ago: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfil my gracious promise to bring you back to this place.” (Jeremiah 29:10). God keeps his promises, and his words never fail. This is a victory for God’s people. God, in His providence, works everything together to fulfil his plan. God used the prophets Haggai and Zechariah to inspire the people to work; he used the kings’ decrees to open doors and provide the means. The author of the book displays the holy enthusiasm that all Christians should share when we realise we are part of God’s plan to fulfil his kingdom.
Then the people of Israel – the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles – celebrated. The last stone was laid, and the people gathered to dedicate the new building. These returned exiles from Babylon are seen as constituting the true Israel. They offered bulls, rams, and male lambs as a dedication to the Temple. Verse 17 recorded, “For the dedication of this house of God they offered a hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred male lambs and, as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, one for each of the tribes of Israel.” (Ezra 6:17) Still not as much as what King Solomon did when he dedicated the first Temple: According to 1 Kings chapter 8, the number of animals sacrificed in Solomon’s time was much more significant, twenty-two thousand cattle and a hundred and twenty thousand sheep and goats. So the returned exiles formed a much smaller group. However, the sacrifice of hundreds of animals was still a large duty in today’s standard. To purify the altar and atone for sins, the exile returnees stood as representatives of the nation, re-instituted as one unified Israel, the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah reunited as one. The whole community of God had worked together to build the Temple. They had seen God’s hand of protection and provision. So now they celebrated. Celebrations for God’s goodness and thanksgiving have always been vital for the people of God. Celebrations like temple dedication are occasions of fellowship, worship, of glorifying God. They bind the community together and enable everyone to understand the purpose and history of the community. They were the people of God, the heirs of his covenants. One day, Jesus will come from David’s line in these people to renew the new covenant.
As Paul wrote about them in Romans 9:4, “the people of Israel. Theirs is the adoption to sonship; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of the Messiah, who is God over all, forever praised! Amen.”
The return from the Babylon Exile and the construction is all about worshipping God and renewal of religious life at his house in Jerusalem, restoring the community’s meeting place to meet God. Temple worship needs clergy people who serve God day and night. According to the Book of Moses, the Israelites ended the Temple’s dedication with the installation of the priests and Levites. Exodus 29:1-46 and Leviticus 8:1-36 speak of the dedication of the priests, and the appointment of the Levites is seen in Numbers 3:5-9 and 8:5-22. With the priests and Levites reinitiated for temple worship. They are ready to reinstall the festivals of Passover according to the Old Testament Scripture.
3) Celebrating Passover
According to Mosaic law in Exodus 12, the people of God are to be gathered on the fourteenth day of the first month for the Passover festival. The Passover was what set the Jewish calendar; it signalled the beginning of the new year. It also represented a new life since the Israelites were rescued from Egyptian slavery and passed over by God’s judgment. Passover symbolised God’s salvation. Like how the Lord delivered the Israelites in Moses day from death in the plagues of Egypt, this new generation of Jewish people who returned to Jerusalem was delivered by the same God from extinction in the punishment of Babylonian exile.
With the second Temple completed, the priests and Levites purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. Just like King Josiah’s reinstitution of the law and covenant in 2 Chronicles 35. The priests are ready for their religious duties. The Levites are prepared to slaughter the Passover lamb for all the exiles. Because the returned Jews did not have political institutions, they turned to the Temple and ceremonial standards as their communal identity sources. During this time, the Jerusalem temple worship, ceremonial cleanness, and religious governance grew in importance. Without the nation or king, the people of Israel emerged as a religious community.
This is true to us today as well. Our kingdom of Christ and its king is in heaven. Meanwhile, on earth, our true identity as God’s people has appeared to be a religious community; we are Christians who follow Jesus, our high priest and Messiah. We might not celebrate Passover like the Jews. Still, we celebrate Easter in remembrance of Christ, the Passover Lamb. He died for our sins as the ultimate sacrifice of atonement. Our true King, Jesus Christ, has brought us from death to new life.
In verse 21, the writer wrote that “So the Israelites who had returned from the exile ate it, together with all who had separated themselves from the unclean practices of their Gentile neighbours in order to seek the LORD, the God of Israel.” (Ezra 6:21) In the Temple, the Israelites had a symbolic centre that covers them as God’s place and defines them as the people of God. And when you become God’s people, you are holy because our God is holy. Being holy means separation, like the Israelites separated theme from the unclean practices of the Gentile neighbours to seek the Lord. As a holy people in the Kingdom of God through Jesus Christ, we too need to separate ourselves from worldly practices and unholy living of the secular world of today. We need to learn how to say no to sin, be closer to God and seek God’s face and mercy. This is not salvation by work. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ, but as we adopt the identity as God’s holy people, belonging to his holy kingdom, our daily practice has to match our calling. We need to say no to unclean things, spiritually unclean and pagan ways of life that are common in society to separate ourselves from sinful practices in this world.
As it is written in 1 Peter 1:15-16, “but like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behaviour; because it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am Holy.” Said the Lord.
And today, we practice celebrating Easter and having communion every first week of the month, having the cup that symbolises Jesus’ blood that shred for us as the Passover Lamb of God, and eating the bread that symbolises Jesus’ body that has been broken for us. Like the returned exile of Israel who celebrated the Passover feast and the celebrated with the joy of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. It is all about communal worship and fellowship with God and with one another as one faithful community. The Passover festival is about remembering God saved Israel through Moses from slavery in Egypt in the Old Covenant, as written in Exodus 12:1-30. And Easter festival is about remembering God saved all of us, the believers through Jesus His Son, from slavery in sin in the New Covenant of Christ.
The Jewish people were celebrating with joy because God has changed their ruler Darius’s heart and attitude and let them complete the temple construction.
God can also change the attitude of a person or group of people against his people. Today, many brothers in sisters in Christ are facing persecutions in the world. There may be many extremists or government rulers who opposite Christians in their nations. But remember, our God is infinitely powerful; his insight and wisdom transcend the laws of human nature. While we must constantly change our attitude as a first step, we can also ask God and pray to him to change the attitude of others. Remember, our God is all-powerful, and he can change the hearts of the people.
So what do we learn today?
- God works through secular governments and institutions to accomplish his will.
- Cooperation should exist between the government and the community of faith as long as righteousness and faith in Christ is not compromised.
- Celebrations like Easter and communion within the church provide opportunities to offer thanks to God and acknowledge his goodness in our lives.
Let us give thanks to God for today’s passage and pray for changing governments’ attitudes, which are hostile to Christians around the world. Pray for the change of hearts of the leaders in these countries. Pray for the steadfastness and safety of the persecuted churches.
1. How should we as believers pray for government, business, and church leaders?
2. What are the Christian’s responsibilities to the government? Should a Christian ever participate in “civil disobedience”?
3. Should churches or Christian organizations partner with the government in civic projects or activities? If so, are there times when such cooperation would not be appropriate?