Fear, Joy, Lament
Scripture: Ezra 3:1–13
1 When the seventh month came, and the children of Israel were in the towns, the people gathered as one man to Jerusalem. 2 Then arose Jeshua the son of Jozadak, with his fellow priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel with his kinsmen, and they built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3 They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands, and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, burnt offerings morning and evening. 4 And they kept the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and offered the daily burnt offerings by number according to the rule, as each day required, 5 and after that the regular burnt offerings, the offerings at the new moon and at all the appointed feasts 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 Cyrus king of Persia.
8 Now in the second year after their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak made a beginning, together with the rest of their kinsmen, 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 supervise the work of the house of the LORD. 9 And Jeshua with his sons and his brothers, and Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah, together supervised the workmen in the house of God, along with the sons of Henadad and the Levites, their sons and brothers.
10 And when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king 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 shouted 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 fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, 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 with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:1-13)
The third chapter of Ezra tells the story of the recently-returned Jews establishing some semblance of their religious worship once again in their homeland. It breaks into two episodes, the first telling of the establishment of an altar for offering sacrifices, and the second telling of the laying of the foundation for the second temple. So it is a chapter about worship. The first thing Ezra wants to tell us about Israel’s return from exile is the importance of establishing the norms of corporate worship. And that’s because, according to the Bible, the genuine worship of God keeps God’s people anchored to the promise of his steadfast love for them.
Over the past year and a half, the elders of Crosstown, like so many other church leaders, have agonized over how to maintain some semblance of corporate worship during the pandemic. The corporate worship of God matters enough that it cannot simply be discarded; so we had to figure out how to do it. That’s the same kind of thing we find in this chapter, and in it we see the reason for worship, the renewal of worship, and the response to worship.
The Reason for Worship
First, the reason for worship. We can see in this chapter that it was a priority for the children of Israel to re-establish something of their traditional forms of corporate worship as soon as they could. But why was it a priority? Why was it so important to them? We find one explanation in verse 3. It says, “They set the altar in its place, for fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands.”
Fear of the People
Many English translations, such as the NIV, translate verse 3 in a way that highlights the courage or boldness or fearlessness of this act: the people built the altar “despite their fear of the peoples around them.” But the word for may instead be giving the reason for their actions, as the ESV seems to imply. The action taken here in verse 3 was done out of fear. The reason they built the altar was that they were afraid. Why were they afraid? Because of the peoples of the lands.
The people in view here are those who were not part of the returnees from exile. They will become adversarial by the time we get to the next chapter, where we will discover much more about their identity. Their opposition to these who had returned from exile will become a major focus in this first section of Ezra. These are some of the people who were already living there when the Jews returned from Babylon. It’s not quite accurate to say they were non-Jews. Chapter two already alerted us to some controversy about the genealogy of some who could not prove whether or not they belonged to Israel (Ezra 2:59-63). The adversaries in chapter four claim to worship the same God as these Jews who had returned. Whoever they are, their presence in Jerusalem was of great concern for these who had returned from Babylon. And it drove them to prioritize their worship habits. This is strange. Many pagan peoples worship because they feared the gods; the children of Israel worshipped because they feared the people.
In order to make sense of this, we have to consider what about the people of the land made these returned exiles afraid. The danger was not apparently physical. Nothing in the story of Ezra makes it sound as if the peoples of the land would wage war against the returnees. Neither is the danger legal. These exiles have returned with the full authority of the reigning monarch of the empire. There is no reason for them to be afraid that they will be found guilty of some crime against the Persian empire.
The fear of the children of Israel had found an appropriate response in worship. Because they were afraid of “the peoples of the lands,” they built an altar and offered burnt offerings morning and evening (v. 3). Then they kept the Feast of Booths according to the directions of the Torah (vv. 4-6). Were they wanting to ensure that God would protect them from the physical threat of the people around them? Hardly, for that is not the nature of Jewish worship, or Christian worship for that matter. Neither is intended to be practiced as a sort of superstition, though that is exactly how many people practice their religion. You do religious things to get religious benefit, to get God (or the gods) on your side.
But that is not the way the religion of the Bible works. And this is not what concerned the people who had just returned from exile. Their concern, their fear, is elsewhere.
Worship and Remember
What they feared was the same fear they had in their exile. It was not being destroyed by the people around them but being assimilated into them. They had just been through several decades of exile, a circumstance that they knew was primarily theological. They were sent into exile, they knew, because they had been “exceedingly unfaithful” (2 Chron 36:14) and had turned away from their identity as the people of God.
And now that they had come back, they understood that this was a theological turn of events as well. God had poured out his mercy and grace on them. They had learned a lesson. And they did not want to forget it. Psalm 137 records one of the songs they would sing while in captivity in Babylon, and it shows us their determination not to forget their real identity. “If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you” (Psa 137:5-6). The people of Israel did not want to forget who they were.
And that’s one of the primary reasons for worship, according to the Bible. God has given his people worship so that they do not forget who they are and end up bowing down to dumb idols like everyone else around them.
The Renewal of Worship
Now how exactly does worship do that? How does biblical worship help us remember our identity? It does it by renewal. Every time we worship, we are engaging in something of a renewal ceremony. In verse 8, Zerubbabel and Jeshua “made a beginning” as they initiated the construction of the new temple. This was a significant moment for the people recently returned from captivity in Babylon.
And it points to the significance of the renewing effect of Christian worship, too. Again, we have to understand this story in Ezra 3 as part and parcel with our own story as Christians. It is easy to overlook the meaning and significance of many of the details in these verses. Let me point out a few for consideration.
Timing Is Everything
First, notice the timing of their worship. The chapter begins, “When the seventh month came.” This seventh month refers to the Jewish month of Tishrei, probably the most important month of the year. There were several festivals that were to be held this particular month: the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Booths. No doubt there was so much work to be done to just get settled in to their new homes. But the calendar was there to help them keep the routine of worship a priority.
The biblical calendar urges God’s people to reserve one day out of seven for spiritual rest and worship. Far from being a religious duty, the rhythm of Sabbath is a gift from God for spiritual renewal. It is in place to invite you, as Jesus invited his disciples, to get away from the busyness of life and “rest a while” (Mk 6:31). Rest from the busyness of the work that God has given you to do, a good work to be sure, but also rest from the propensity to start idolizing our work—or money, or success, or the fear of boredom—just like the people of the land do.
The timing of worship contributes to a second observation we might make about the renewal of worship. In verse 1, we read that the children of Israel “gathered as one man to Jerusalem.” Notice the emphasis here on the corporate nature of their worship. Worship was not about having a personal experience but a collective experience. It’s renewing power was found in the togetherness of the people.
We see this emphasized in verse 8, too. While the people were led by Zerubbabel and Jeshua, the verse goes on to mention “all who had come to Jerusalem from the captivity.” Everyone participated, and there is something really important about this, something shaping and renewing about everyone coming together to praise the Lord. For worship to have its full renewing effect, everyone needs to participate.
That’s why it matters that we worship God together, yes on Sunday mornings, but also in missional family gatherings or whatever other “gatherings” are planned. Coming together like this has a profound impact on shaping and sharing our identity as believers in Jesus and in his gospel.
The Form of Worship
But one more thing that is significant for worship if it is going to have the renewing impact it is meant to have on our lives: the form of worship. As we read these verses, we see that these returnees from exile did not just make up the form of their worship but patterned it as much as possible on how worship was done before the exile.
After the foundation of the temple was laid, verse 10 says, “the priests in their vestments came forward with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD, according to the directions of David king of Israel.” We can imagine that so many things were different for this corporate worship than in the time before the exile, but much of what is described here resembles the worship prescribed in Numbers 10:8, 10 and the dedication service of Solomon’s temple described in 2 Chronicles 5–7. One commentator writes, “It is as though our writer wishes to emphasize that, despite the exile, and despite the fact that physically the second temple was not the same as the first, yet from the point of view of forms of worship nothing has changed.”
Verse 11 tells us that the people “sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the LORD,” singing the refrain, “For he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever toward Israel.” This was the familiar refrain sung at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron 5:13), and we also find it several times in the book of Psalms (Psa 100:4-5; 106:1; 107:1; 118:1), including in Psalm 136 where part of the refrain occurs in every single verse. Clearly this was a formative song in Israel’s liturgy.
But imagine again the setting here. This is Israel, fresh out of exile, where they suffered under Babylonian oppression and domination for decades. There can be no doubt that the words of this familiar praise took on new meaning for them than when they were first sung at the dedication of Solomon’s spectacular temple. This time the conditions were more “conducive to humility than to pride,” as they worshiped with a mere ground-breaking of the new temple completed. A previous generation could sing this song from a place of prosperity, knowing God’s goodness and steadfast love was the reason for their success. But now this generation sang the same song from a place of chastening but still knowing that God’s goodness and steadfast love was in no way diminished.
The conditions had changed, but the content had not. At the center of worship was God and his attributes of goodness and love, known from different perspectives, but known nonetheless. And it is this aspect of worship that ought to be at the center of Christian worship, too. Once we see that what Jesus came to do was to bring his people out of exile, we can sing of God’s goodness and love with renewed meaning.
The Response of Worship
One last thing to observe this morning from this chapter, and that is the response of worship. Verse 12 says many of the older people in the congregation “wept with a loud voice” while many others “shouted aloud for joy.” The responses varied dramatically, but all were moved on way or the other. It was not a quite scene; the chapter ends by saying that the sound of the people’s response “was heard far away” (v. 13).
What explains the mixed feelings exhibited by the crowd at this moment? We can probably understand the expression of joy. Israel has returned to their land. God has kept his promise. The “pandemic” is behind them, and the future is bright. The people shout for joy. Of course they did! That seems entirely appropriate. It is good and right for God’s people to see the future ahead as filled with opportunity. Generally speaking, this is the contribution of the younger generation, and we need this kind of emotive response to God’s goodness and love. The past may have been horrific, but God is good and his love is steadfast and we can move forward with optimism. Yes, we can.
But why were many from the older generation weeping? Was it because they were stereotypical of those who say, “Things were better in my young days! What has this world come to?” Perhaps. We know that this was a problem that the prophets had to confront when the temple was finished and paled in comparison to the glory of the previous temple (Hag 2:1-4).
But there is nothing here that demands that explanation for the tears. On the other hand, these are not “tears of joy.” This is a lament, a loud lament. The kind of weeping that makes most of us in our culture uncomfortable to be around. But I think we are supposed to see that the weeping here mixed with the shouts of joy is indicative of the way God’s people ought to respond in worship.
The Best Is Yet to Come
This older generation had come to know firsthand the reality of what their sins deserved. They had seen the severity of God’s wrath poured out on people who have rebelled against him. They knew how much they had lost. But the younger generation could see the possibilities that come from the hope of a God who is good and whose love is steadfast. Completely for us and entirely dependable, the character of God gives his people the greatest confidence for the days ahead come what may.
We hold back too much our joy, but we also hold back too much our lament. We don’t let ourselves go in joy and we try our best to hide our pain. The goodness and steadfast love of God invites us to let it all out.
Next week we will be commemorating—and lamenting—what happened 100 years ago in our state, and we’ll spend some time this summer pushing into that more deeply. I know that the subject of race and racial justice makes a lot of people feel uncomfortable. It takes great maturity in Christ to know how to be free to be both sorrowful, yet always rejoicing (2 Cor 6:10). We can grieve and lament because we know how horrific human sin is, and we don’t have to hide it, either in our history or in our hearts. The gospel is beautiful precisely because of what our sins deserve, and yet because of Jesus we also know the best is yet to come.
The Lord is good! We have been brought out of exile, rescued over and over again, and the steadfast love of God has no expiration date, so we have much to look forward to. Christian worship invites us to see both the horror of sin and its consequences, as well as the greatness of God’s goodness and steadfast love toward his people in Jesus Christ.
 F. Charles Fensham, The Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, ed. R. K. Harrison and Robert L. Hubbard Jr. (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1982), 59.
 Philip A. Noss and Kenneth J. Thomas, A Handbook on Ezra and Nehemiah, ed. Paul Clarke, Schuyler Brown, Louis Dorn, and Donald Slager (New York: United Bible Societies, 2005), 68.