Sometimes as God is working in our lives all that we are familiar with and all that we put our trust in is torn down in order for us to see that all that is left is God. This season of COVID and now fires is a difficult time and we are sometimes left wondering what is going on. The nation of Judah and Israel faced a time of exile and then rebuilding. Something good had to be removed in order for them to refocus on God and put their trust in him.
The Bible book of Ezra tells the story of the return of the Israelites from exile in Babylon to their homeland. It is a story of destruction and rebuilding, sorrow and hope. The Israelites thought they had something good going on in the promised land but they kept abandoning God and finally, just as he had warned, they were torn from the land. After 70 years in exile, Ezra opens with a proclamation from King Cyrus that the temple in Jerusalem is to be rebuilt and the people may return home.
“2 “Thus says Cyrus king 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, which is in Judah. 3 Whoever is among you of all his people, may his God be with him, and let him go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel—he is the God who is in Jerusalem. 4 And let each survivor, in whatever place he sojourns, be assisted by the men of his place with silver and gold, with goods and with beasts, besides freewill offerings for the house of God that is in Jerusalem.”
5 Then rose up the heads of the fathers’ houses of Judah and Benjamin, and the priests and the Levites, everyone whose spirit God had stirred to go up to rebuild the house of the Lord that is in Jerusalem.” (Ezra 1:1-5)
During exile and uncertainty Ezra opens with a great note of hope. The people are allowed to head home! They gather genealogical records, collect money and prepare for the journey. The genealogical records are important because even in exile the people have not forgotten who they are; they are the people of God. In times like we are living right now it feels like all we’ve known is being tossed into the air and we are left sitting and waiting for the dust to settle. Yet, just like Israel if we maintain our identity as children of God, what is changing is much less important than what is not changing.
After completing the journey to Jerusalem, what awaits the people is destruction and chaos. Most of what had been in the glory days of Jerusalem is gone or destroyed. It has been 50 years since the temple was destroyed. Anyone under 50 years old has grown up in exile and had never seen the glory of Solomon’s temple or the city of Jerusalem.
We can pause here and ask why this destruction happened in the first place. The cycle of the Old Testament is the people of Israel trusting in God, then growing complacent, trusting in themselves, worshipping idols and then falling away from God to their own destruction. Once disaster occurred, they would finally turn back to God only to repeat the cycle. It’s easy to get stuck in a rut and just do the same things repeatedly. Sometimes God must blow things up to get people’s attention. C.S. Lewis states in his book The Problem of Pain “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.” All too often only when we grow desperate do we seek God. In exile the people of Israel have finally learned a lesson and they are ready to start over.
Rebuilding Begun…and Opposed
Finally, the moment has come, the people are home and the rebuilding can commence. For the first couple years things go well. The altar of the temple is rebuilt and the sacrifices are offered in accordance with God’s word. Things get even better, the foundations of the temple are laid and rebuilding is in full swing. As the foundations are laid there is a moment of both immense joy and sadness. The people who have never seen the old temple are shouting for joy because the foundations are laid. It is a moment to celebrate. The elders who had seen the old temple are weeping in sadness. The new foundations are a poor replacement of the glory of the old temple. The elders recognize that what is being built now will never reach the glory of the old temple.
We learn another lesson here. Grieving over what is lost and cannot be replaced is healthy, but taken too far, there can be a dangerous nostalgia to the past. “the past has a nostalgia the future never does. We tend to romanticize the past and worry about the future, and leaders easily forget how tough things were years ago…So ask yourself, is most of your energy spent trying to revive what was or build what will be?” The Israelites have to deal with this issue. Do they give up on rebuilding because they cannot replicate Solomon’s temple (the old temple), or do they build the best they can with the resources they have? The old things, however good they were, are gone. The new building may look less impressive than the old one but it’s so much more than can be seen with the eye. The symbolic and practical value of a rebuilt temple is more important than how the building looks.
In Jerusalem the rebuilding of the new temple is coming along nicely. However, things soon hit a roadblock. The rebuilding project is opposed. Local leaders harass the Israelites. They threaten and bully. They write letters to the king to oppose the work. The opposition is successful and rebuilding grinds to a halt for 17 years.
Rebuilding Completed…with God
Finally, there comes renewed hope. Zerubbabel and Jeshua, encouraged by the prophecies of Haggai and Zechariah, get back to work (Ezra 5:1-2). Immediately the opposition starts up again and the local politicians question the authority for the renewed work and write a letter to the king, the exact strategy that halted rebuilding for the previous 17 years. They have no reason to think it will not work again.
However, God steps in and we read “But the eye of their God was watching over the elders of the Jews, and they were not stopped until a report could go to Darius and his written reply be received.” (Ezra 5:5) Sometimes we must face the test of opposition for a time until we have learnt the lessons God has set out for us. When He has prepared his people, God accelerates the plan.
Letters are sent and received and those opposing the rebuilding get a surprise. Instead of getting permission to halt the rebuilding, the opposition are ordered by the king not only to stop interfering but also to provide resources and help with the rebuilding. God literally used the opposition to complete the temple. How’s that for divine provision?! With this unexpected provision the temple is finished in just 4 years. God was not necessarily slow to answer, he was waiting for the right time to carry out his plan. We can try any number of things in human strength but when we trust God for his timing and his plans, things that we have never dreamed of move ahead. God is not short in resources or imaginative problem solving.
Application and Conclusion
- Be encouraged that God is in control of things and has great plans beyond our ability to dream up.
- But don’t stop showing up and doing your part.
- In this season of COVID and now fires it feels like a lot of things have been torn down, not just physical buildings, but culture and familiar routines
- We mourn what is lost, but we must choose to move forward. What can you build with what you have?
- More importantly, what is God going to do? At the darkest moment, God came through for the Israelites. He will come through for us too today
- Just like in Ezra, God will build his church in his way and in his timing. We can trust him to be faithful as we keep moving forward, listening to the Holy Spirit and doing our part.
 Krijgsman, M. (2016). Exile, Babylonian. In J. D. Barry, D. Bomar, D. R. Brown, R. Klippenstein, D. Mangum, C. Sinclair Wolcott, … W. Widder (Eds.), The Lexham Bible Dictionary. Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.
 1st exile 607BC, 2nd attack 597BC, Final exile and destruction of temple 587BC, Return from captivity 537BC
 Carey Nieuwhof https://careynieuwhof.com/4-signs-its-not-going-to-turn-around/
 Wright, J. S. (1996). Zerubbabel. In D. R. W. Wood, I. H. Marshall, A. R. Millard, J. I. Packer, & D. J. Wiseman (Eds.), New Bible dictionary (3rd ed., p. 1270). Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.