Day 5      Ezra 3:1-4:5 ... Back in Jerusalem

For more than half a century Jewish exiles, among them Daniel and Ezekiel, were held captive in Babylon. Some, like Daniel, prospered in the foreign land; but no true Israelite ever felt totally at peace there. Always, a longing gnawed inside, a longing for home, and for the temple of God. As one poet in exile wrote, "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not consider Jerusalem my highest joy" (Psalm 137:5).

Daniel's new boss, in keeping with the Persian policy of religious tolerance, granted permission for the first wave of Jewish exiles to return to Jerusalem, and the book of Ezra tells their story. The prophets' hopeful visions of a return to the land were coming true at last. And yet the sight that greeted the returning exiles in Jerusalem made them very sad: The city was a ghost town, burned and pillaged years before by the conquering Babylonians. The temple of God was a mound of rubble.

As this chapter relates, the settlers went to work at once, setting temple reconstruction as their highest priority. They had hope: The Persians had even given back the pilfered silver and gold temple articles. When the Jews finally laid the foundation, the sound of their shouting could be heard from far away. The temple, after all, was the place where they would meet God and, as such, symbolized a new start with him.

Yet the shouts of joy mingled with loud cries of weeping as well. The older returnees, those who remembered Solomon's temple in all its splendor, wept at the comparison. They had lost political independence, and needed permission from a foreign government just to rebuild the temple. The Jews had regained only a tiny portion of their former territory. They were very far from the glory days of David and Solomon.

The book of Ezra thus introduces a new period in the Israelites' history - a period in which they became more like a "church" than a nation. Their leaders focused energy not on fighting enemy armies, but on fighting sin and spiritual compromise. They feared repeating the mistakes that had sent them into exile.

Point to Ponder: If a modern city burned to the ground, what buildings would likely be replaced first?