For the past couple of years we’ve been studying the People of the Old Testament. We started with Abraham, and how God chose him and his family to be his people. God promised Abraham his descendents would become many nations and that came true: his descendants became the Ishmaelites, the Edomites, and many others but most importantly from our perspective the Israelites. The Israelites went through some tough times, enslaved in Egypt and such, but eventually they lived free in the Promised Land and even created their own nation of Israel ruled by kings.
But the sovereign rule of Israel by their own kings did not last, due to Israel’s own disobedience and the rise of mighty empires in the region. Northern Israel was conquered by the Assyrians and disappeared into the Assyrian empire. And then Judah was conquered by Babylon.
When Babylon conquered Judah they conquered the city of Israel—they sacked the city—meaning they destroyed it and took all its wealth. Jerusalem was once a great city, but its wall that had been built to protect it had been destroyed and more importantly, the Temple of God was destroyed. What was once the beautiful Temple built by Solomon and filled with gold and silver and precious woods, and most importantly where the Ark of the Covenant dwelled, was all gone. Taken by Babylon—the wealth taken for its own purposes.
It is presumed the Ark was taken by Babylon as well but we actually don’t know for sure what happened to it.
The people who considered themselves God’s Chosen People now lived as vassals of another land—many of them moved from the Promised Land itself and made to live in other parts of the Babylonian empire. And the Temple that symbolized God’s home on earth was gone.
But not forever.
We’re actually going to flip between a few books of the Bible today.
Let’s open up our Bibles to the book of Ezra. Can someone please read Ezra 1:1-10.
1 In the first year of King Cyrus of Persia, in order that the word of the Lord by the mouth of Jeremiah might be accomplished, the Lord stirred up the spirit of King Cyrus of Persia so that he sent a herald throughout all his kingdom, and also in a written edict declared:
2 “Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem in Judah. 3 Any of those among you who are of his people—may their God be with them!—are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem; 4 and let all survivors, in whatever place they reside, be assisted by the people of their place with silver and gold, with goods and with animals, besides freewill offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”
5 The heads of the families of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites—everyone whose spirit God had stirred—got ready to go up and rebuild the house of the Lord in Jerusalem. 6 All their neighbors aided them with silver vessels, with gold, with goods, with animals, and with valuable gifts, besides all that was freely offered. 7 King Cyrus himself brought out the vessels of the house of the Lord that Nebuchadnezzar had carried away from Jerusalem and placed in the house of his gods. 8 King Cyrus of Persia had them released into the charge of Mithredath the treasurer, who counted them out to Sheshbazzar the prince of Judah. 9 And this was the inventory: gold basins, thirty; silver basins, one thousand; knives,[a] twenty-nine; 10 gold bowls, thirty; other silver bowls, four hundred ten; other vessels, one thousand;
This is actually a little further back in time than we’ve discussed before. When we studied Esther the Emperor of Babylon at the time was a guy that we called Xerxes or Ahasuerus. However, the emperor here is one we discussed before when we were talking about Daniel. And that’s Cyrus. There was also another Emperor mentioned in Daniel and that was Darius. Then in Esther we had Xerxes. So before Esther, during the time of Daniel, Emperor Cyrus made a proclamation. Basically it had been long enough since Judah had initially been conquered and he was allowing some of the people of Judah to return home if they could and rebuild the Temple. Why would he do this?
Well later in the Bible it will describe that the people who had been young men during the time of the invasion are now old men. Basically the people have been thoroughly subjugated. All the young people now are people who have always been part of the Babylonian empire and probably have no thoughts about overthrowing it. Also it would be looked upon as an act of benevolence—of being a good emperor—and might make the young people loyal to him. And of course, this also helps fulfill Jeremiah’s prophecy that the Temple would be restored in 70ish years.
Cyrus is also extra nice about it and returns some of the stuff the Babylonians had stolen from the Temple in the first place. You can kind of view this as a reward for good behavior in the Empire. And of course if the Jewish people don’t keep in line with the empire, Cyrus could always destroy the Temple again, so he’s not losing that much.
However, the ark of the covenant is not returned—where it is unknown. So when it says everything was returned it does not include that item.
Now they have everything back and its time to rebuild the Temple.
Someone please read Ezra 3:1-7.
3 When the seventh month came, and the Israelites were in the towns, the people gathered together in Jerusalem. 2 Then Jeshua son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his kin set out to build the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as prescribed in the law of Moses the man of God. 3 They set up the altar on its foundation, because they were in dread of the neighboring peoples, and they offered burnt offerings upon it to the Lord, morning and evening. 4 And they kept the festival of booths,[a] as prescribed, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the ordinance, as required for each day, 5 and after that the regular burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the sacred festivals of the Lord, and the offerings of everyone who made a freewill offering to the Lord. 6 From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord. But the foundation of the temple of the Lord was not yet laid. 7 So they gave money to the masons and the carpenters, and food, drink, and oil to the Sidonians and the Tyrians to bring cedar trees from Lebanon to the sea, to Joppa, according to the grant that they had from King Cyrus of Persia.
The Temple is not built yet, and the first priority for rebuilding it is to reinstate worship—so the first thing they rebuild is the altar of God—which would was sort of in the front yard of the Temple. And basically before they start working on anything else they start worshipping God and offering him sacrifices. With the altar back they can now start having all the festivals again—where everyone comes and offers sacrifices and worship to God. They have their priorities right: the building doesn’t matter as much as the act of worshipping God so it’s better to enable the worship before focusing on the building.
Someone now read Ezra 3:8-13.
8 In the second year after their arrival at the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and Jeshua son of Jozadak made a beginning, together with the rest of their people, the priests and the Levites and all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity. They appointed the Levites, from twenty years old and upward, to have the oversight of the work on the house of the Lord. 9 And Jeshua with his sons and his kin, and Kadmiel and his sons, Binnui and Hodaviah[a] along with the sons of Henadad, the Levites, their sons and kin, together took charge of the workers in the house of God.
10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord, the priests in their vestments were stationed to praise the Lord with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, according to the directions of King David of Israel; 11 and they sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
“For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.”
And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 12 But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.
First things first to rebuild a building first you have to law the foundation. This is actually a really big deal—and there are lots of rules about how to build the Temple that were outlined in the Torah. They need to lay the foundation in the exact same spot it was in the first time. And while the workers lay the foundation, the priests are singings and praising God.
And remember how we mentioned before that there were people who were very young when Judah was conquered and now they are old? Upon seeing the foundation re-laid those people weep with joy—they are so moved by emotion.
For so long the Temple was gone. They had no place to worship God, no place for their festivals, and it seemed a sign that God had turned his back on them. But that is no more. The Temple is being restored. Jerusalem is being restored. And to the Jewish people it would seem that their place as God’s chosen people is being restored.
Someone please read Ezra 6:13-22.
13 Then, according to the word sent by King Darius, Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai, and their associates did with all diligence what King Darius had ordered. 14 So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia; 15 and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of King Darius.
16 The people of Israel, the priests and the Levites, and the rest of the returned exiles, celebrated the dedication of this house of God with joy. 17 They offered at the dedication of this house of God one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel, twelve male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. 18 Then they set the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their courses for the service of God at Jerusalem, as it is written in the book of Moses.
19 On the fourteenth day of the first month the returned exiles kept the passover. 20 For both the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were clean. So they killed the passover lamb for all the returned exiles, for their fellow priests, and for themselves. 21 It was eaten by the people of Israel who had returned from exile, and also by all who had joined them and separated themselves from the pollutions of the nations of the land to worship the Lord, the God of Israel. 22 With joy they celebrated the festival of unleavened bread seven days; for the Lord had made them joyful, and had turned the heart of the king of Assyria to them, so that he aided them in the work on the house of God, the God of Israel.
Rebuilding the Temple is a long long project. It takes longer than Cyrus is king. Darius becomes emperor, and then finally the building is done.
Everyone who is in Jerusalem celebrations and they have a big celebration when it’s done. And then basically they have Passover as soon as they can. Because during all this time they have not been able to have a proper Passover, and it’s one of the most important celebrations. To celebrate the day God saved them from Egypt, and passed over them with their plagues.
Meanwhile during this same time where the Temple is being restored, a guy named Nehemiah has also been given permission to rebuild Jerusalem’s walls. Many cities back then were walled because the walls were what protected them from Invaders. Not having walls would be a constant and painful reminder that they had been conquered and subjugated and were now under foreign rule.
Of course rebuilding the walls doesn’t mean they are now free from Babylonian rule. It basically just means Babylon trusts them to know their place and not rebel.
So the Temple is rebuilt, the wall is rebuilt, you might think this would give people an inflated sense of ego—that they would have pride in themselves that they survived such a terrible time and that now they are regaining the city they once lost. But the Jewish people don’t lose cite that without God they would have none of this. Someone flip to Nehemiah 8:1-8.
1 all the people gathered together into the square before the Water Gate. They told the scribe Ezra to bring the book of the law of Moses, which the Lord had given to Israel. 2 Accordingly, the priest Ezra brought the law before the assembly, both men and women and all who could hear with understanding. This was on the first day of the seventh month. 3 He read from it facing the square before the Water Gate from early morning until midday, in the presence of the men and the women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the book of the law. 4 The scribe Ezra stood on a wooden platform that had been made for the purpose; and beside him stood Mattithiah, Shema, Anaiah, Uriah, Hilkiah, and Maaseiah on his right hand; and Pedaiah, Mishael, Malchijah, Hashum, Hash-baddanah, Zechariah, and Meshullam on his left hand. 5 And Ezra opened the book in the sight of all the people, for he was standing above all the people; and when he opened it, all the people stood up. 6 Then Ezra blessed the Lord, the great God, and all the people answered, “Amen, Amen,” lifting up their hands. Then they bowed their heads and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. 7 Also Jeshua, Bani, Sherebiah, Jamin, Akkub, Shabbethai, Hodiah, Maaseiah, Kelita, Azariah, Jozabad, Hanan, Pelaiah, the Levites,[a] helped the people to understand the law, while the people remained in their places. 8 So they read from the book, from the law of God, with interpretation. They gave the sense, so that the people understood the reading.
The people of Judah come together in the square and then Ezra, the prophet of the time, reads the Torah to them in the presence of both men and women—probably children too. And everyone listens quietly and riveted while he reads the law of Moses. Ezra reads and some other guys help people to understand what it means, so that after so long of being in Babylon and probably forgetting their own ways in favor of Babylonian ways they can remember what it means to be God’s chosen people, what it means to be Jewish, and what the law means.
The people are so moved by the law they weep. Someone read Nehemiah 8:9-12
9 And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lordyour God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept when they heard the words of the law. 10 Then he said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions of them to those for whom nothing is prepared, for this day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” 11 So the Levites stilled all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” 12 And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.
People are crying at hearing the law. Are they crying with joy? I don’t think so—because they are specifically told after they cry that they shouldn’t mourn. Why are they sad? Why are they crying? I think because so many of them probably didn’t know the law. They had forgotten or never heard it, and now finally hearing it, they realize they haven’t been living according to God’s ways, that they had been following Babylonian ways.
Remember people back then didn’t all have copies of the Bible in their homes for easy access. The only things they would have known would have been due to a priest or due to their families handing knowledge down. And while in Babylon its highly unlikely they had access to a priest. All they would know is what their family knew, and some of the families may not have known much—especially when young people were removed from their homes—like Daniel—and sent to Babylon without their families. They would only know what they remember and that would be all they would be able to hand down to their children. Their memories and knowledge would be incomplete or inaccurate, and so their children wouldn’t know the entirety of the Law.
But the priests tell them not to cry, to rejoice, because this is a good day. Israel is being rededicated. It is coming back to God. The Temple is being rebuilt. The wall has been rebuilt. And people are coming home. This is a day to celebrate, to remember that God loves them, and they are to rejoice because they are God’s chosen people.
For about four hundred years after this, the second Temple will stand tall. We’re going to see this Temple, the second Temple, when we study Jesus. This rebuilt Temple will be the Temple that Jesus worships in.
And Jesus’s time is both very different and very similar politically to this time—because Israel will still be a vassal of an empire. At the end of the Old Testament the Babylonians are in charge. Eventually they get conquered by Alexander the Great and Greeks—and Israel becomes part of that empire. For a brief hundred year period, Israel becomes independent again, only to become vassals to Rome.
And that’s where we are when Jesus comes in the scene, during the Golden Age of the Roman Empire, born during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Augustus was the first Emperor of Rome who are own month of August is named after. But Rome was a mighty empire even before it had an emperor. It was a mighty Republic which huge armies that the other countries could not stand up against.
The Old Testament ends with one mighty Empire allowing the Temple and Jerusalem to be rebuilt. The New Testament begins with another mighty Empire, eyeing Jerusalem’s unrest and wondering what should be done about it.
During all that time of Empires, the Jewish people retain their identity, their sense of who they are, even as they chomp at the bit hoping to get free.
Because that is ultimately what they want. The people of Judah expect for God to make good on his promise that a son of David will rule them forever, that they will be a free independent nation of God, God’s chosen people, and surely one day it will happen again.
That is what they want. That is what they are constantly looking forward to and fighting for.
And that is where we’re going to stop for now and where the story of Jesus is going to pick up.