Ezra: Behold – The Temple!

Sermon by Derek Thomas on April 20, 2008

Ezra 6:1-15

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The Lord's Day Evening

April 20, 2008

Ezra 6:1-15

“Behold — The Temple!”

Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas

Please be seated. Now turn with me once again to the book of Ezra. We come this evening to chapter 6. The people of God have been in captivity in Babylon; 586-587 B.C. was a devastating year in the life and history of Israel. The temple was destroyed; the city was destroyed. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had disappeared 150 years before. Judah as a political and social entity was no more; the best taken into captivity hundreds and hundreds of miles away, many of whom would die in Babylon. All the promises that God had made, all those beautiful promises that God had made at the time of the building of the first temple when Solomon dedicated the temple…God entered into a covenant with David and the house of David that promised blessing and expansion and people flooding into the kingdom. And it was all gone. It had all been destroyed. Perhaps that's why so many of the Jews remained in Babylon. What was the point of going back to Jerusalem? What was the point of making a journey that would take several months to a city that was in ruin and desolation, whose walls had collapsed? The temple had been destroyed. Even when they returned in 537 under the decree of King Cyrus of Persia, there was an initial enthusiasm, but then it all dissipated. For sixteen or seventeen years, no work would be done on rebuilding the temple. Prophets would arise–Haggai, Zachariah–to bring that remnant, the 43,000 or so that had returned from Babylon…to bring that remnant back to God and back to His ways; yes, and back to His promises, however difficult those promises were as to how they might be fulfilled.

We come tonight in chapter 6 to a period in which that temple construction is now fully underway, and we will traverse tonight to a period of four and a half years (from late September in 520 B.C. to the middle of March in 515 B.C.) — four and a half years of activity, until the point where that second temple is finished. Next time we’ll talk about the worship that took place at the time of the dedication of that second temple, but tonight I want us simply to look at this temple and ask ourselves a question: What is this temple? What is its purpose? What is its function?

I imagine it was a building slightly smaller than this building. I'm not a good judge of measurements; I exaggerate the number of people at any meeting. I multiply it by five or ten, and I'm not sure the temple was smaller than this for sure! It wasn't a grand building in comparison to the first temple. The two magnificent bronze pillars, for example, that you would have seen looking face on at the temple, the Joachim and Boaz, were not there. The ark of the covenant wasn't there. The cherubim above the ark of the covenant weren't there. It was a poor, second-best to that first temple, and some of those who watched its construction who were probably in their eighties and could remember that first temple wept, not so much with joy, but with sadness. What is this temple, and why were they rebuilding it? And what in the purposes of God, in the unfolding of redemptive history, what is the function of this temple?

Well, let's look to Ezra 6 together. Before we read the passage, let's look to God in prayer. Let's pray.

Lord our God, we thank You for the Bible. Thank You for Your Scripture. Every word of it, every jot and tittle of it, whether it's history or prophecy or genealogy or temple drawings, every aspect of it, every line, every word, every syllable given by the inspiration of God, and profitable for doctrine and reproof and correction, and instruction in the way of righteousness, that the man of God might be thoroughly furnished unto every good work. Furnish us, then, tonight through Your word. Build us up, instruct us, teach us, rebuke us. Cause us in the depths of our souls to have a longing after You, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

This is God's word:

“Then Darius the king made a decree, and search was made in Babylonia, in the house of the archives where the documents were stored. And in Ecbatana, the capital that is in the province of Media, a scroll was found on which this was written: ‘A record. In the first year of Cyrus the king, Cyrus the king issued a decree: Concerning the house of God at Jerusalem, let the house be rebuilt, the place where sacrifices were offered, and let its foundations be retained. Its height shall be sixty cubits and its breadth sixty cubits, with three layers of great stones and one layer of timber. Let the cost be paid from the royal treasure. And also let the gold and silver vessels of the house of God, which Nebuchadnezzar took out of the temple that is in Jerusalem and brought to Babylon, be restored and brought back to the temple that is in Jerusalem, each to its place. You shall put them in the house of God.’

“Now therefore, Tattenai, governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai, and your associates the governors who are in the province Beyond the River, keep away. Let the work on this house of God alone. Let the governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site. Moreover, I make a decree regarding what you shall do for these elders of the Jews for the rebuilding of this house of God. The cost is to be paid to these men in full and without delay from the royal revenue, the tribute of the province from Beyond the River. And whatever is needed–bulls, rams, or sheep for burnt offering to the God of heaven, wheat, salt, wine, or oil, as the priests at Jerusalem require, let that be given to them day by day without fail, that they may offer pleasing sacrifices to the God of heaven and pray for the life of the king and his sons. Also I make a decree that if anyone alters this edict, a beam shall be pulled out of his house, and he shall be impaled on it, and his house shall be made a dunghill. May the God who has caused His name to dwell there overthrow any king or people who shall put out a hand to alter this, or to destroy this house of God that is in Jerusalem. I Darius make a decree; let it be done with all diligence.’

“Then, according to the word sent by Darius the king, Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, Shethar-bozenai, and their associates did with all diligence what Darius the king had ordered. And the elders of the Jews built and prospered through the prophesying of Haggai the prophet and Zechariah the son of Iddo. They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes king of Persia; and this house was finished on the third day of the month of Adar, in the sixth year of the reign of Darius the king.”

So far God's holy and inerrant word. May He add His blessing to that reading of it.

The temple. The temple was a sign–a sign of things present, but a sign of things to come. You remember at the end of the book of Revelation there is a description of the new Jerusalem, the new heavens and new earth, the final state of things. It's in many ways a combination of Eden — a beautiful garden with fruit trees beside a river that flows down — but you remember there is one thing missing in the closing chapters of Revelation, and that is that there is no temple. There is no temple because God is there.

For a dozen years or so, this second temple construction had been more or less under neglect. They had been busy building houses for themselves. They had earned the rebuke of Haggai the prophet. But what is this temple? You remember Stephen, just before he was martyred, in that magnificent sermon reminding the people as he went over almost the entirety of the history of redemption under the Old Testament, that God cannot reside, He cannot dwell in a temple made by hands. The temple was a symbol of the presence of God in the holy of holies, above the cherubim, above the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant, the Shekinah glory representing the presence of Almighty God — God dwelling amongst His people. As the tabernacle in the center of the tribes of Israel had done, so now in Jerusalem God was present with His people, but God could not dwell in a house made by hands. It was a picture; it was God accommodating himself to our human frailty, to the church under the old covenant, to the church in its infancy. God was teaching them, but there would come a time when there could be no more temple because God is infinite and eternal and unchangeable in His being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth. And God would manifest His presence in a different way.

Four and a half years it took to complete this temple: the construction of the walls, the construction of the roof, the finishing off of the various bits and pieces of decoration within the temple — and we're standing, March 12, 515 B.C., before this completed second temple. I want us to see three things.

I. The greatness of God's provision.

I want us to see first of all the greatness of God's provision…the greatness of God's provision, and you see that in a number of ways.

We read in verse 2 of chapter 6, there had been a threat by Tattenai, the governor of the satrapy Beyond the River, this district in which Judah or Jerusalem was to be found, and Tattenai had asked for names of who the builders of this temple were. He’d noticed the large stones that they were employing in the construction of this temple. He was deeply suspicious as to the motivation for the building of this temple. He had sent word to king Darius because it had been said to him by the elders of the Jews that they were constructing this temple at the command of king Cyrus of Persia, and a hunt is now on to find if this was true. Could they find a record? And they find it in this place Ecbatana. It's at the foothills of Mount Elvend, in what is today northern Iran, a part of the Persian Empire. They’re searching in the various locations where these things would be kept — clay cylinders and clay tablets, and papyri and bits of leather on which would be inscribed the many, many edicts of the Persian kings. And they find it, and we have a record of it here. And the work was allowed to continue during that search.

And then — and you wouldn't have expected this — a command of Cyrus that the cost for

rebuilding this temple should come out of state funds. And Darius now orders Tattenai, the governor of the province Beyond the River, to ensure proper funding for the construction of this temple and for the provision of all the sacrifices that would be needed on a day to day basis.

It's actually what Haggai had prophesied, I think. It's in Haggai that we read those words, “the desire of the nations shall come.” Now unfortunately that term in Handel's Messiah has become a messianic prophecy. In Wesley's Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, “the desire of nations” is a prophecy about the coming of Messiah. But probably not. And more likely, the desire of the nations — the treasure of the nations as it is sometimes rendered in certain translations, and it's a more accurate translation in the Haggai text, in the Hebrew text. What Haggai had been saying and what Darius is saying here to Tattenai is that funding for the building of this temple in Jerusalem should actually be a line item in the budget, the Persian budget, for the satrapy Beyond the River. A “faith-based initiative,” you might say. It's wholly unexpected, isn't it?

Now remember, this is Old Testament; this is not modern America; this is not church and state separation issues. We’re in a different world, a different context entirely. But what I want us to see is that in the midst of a situation that was in many ways…at the beginning, back in 520, when this temple had hardly been constructed, the smallness of the numbers, the size of the opposition in terms of the Persian Empire… God sends this word of immense encouragement. After seventy years in captivity in Babylon, God now provides out of the very coffers of their enemies and their masters. [Well, not quite, of course. Because this money was levied probably by taxation in the first place, but officially it was now Persian money, and he's been ordered by king Darius himself to make sure that this funding reaches the elders of the Jews in Jerusalem.]

You know, it's a bit like the story of how Moses is saved from the River Nile; that Jochabed, his mother, not only gets her son back but she gets a stipend from Egypt to raise her son! And if that doesn't make you smile about the providence of God…!

Just when things are looking so bleak and grim, God has a way of doing an extraordinary thing. He's in control, you see. He's able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or even think.

But, do you know? In the margin of this part of the Bible there are these words. They’re there. They’re in invisible ink. You have to hold them up to a bit of heat and let that come to light. It says: “Your God is too small.” You think this is impossible? Your God is too small. God can move the heart of an ungodly pagan Persian king out of a desire that this God, too — the God of the Jews along with a multitude of other gods, to be sure — would pray for him and his sons. And make sure it's paid for. The greatness of God's provision. You never know where it comes from.

II. The greatness of God's providence.

The second thing I want us to see is the greatness of God's providence. The greatness of God's providence…take a look at verse 14. We have an extraordinary statement. They finish their building. (This is the building of the second temple.)

They finished their building by decree of the God of Israel, and by decree of Cyrus and Darius and Artaxerxes, king of Persia. Now let me explain why there's a reference here to Artaxerxes. Artaxerxes doesn't actually come into the picture until 465 B.C. — that's 65 years into the future. The writer of the book of Ezra, whom we presume to be Ezra himself, is writing to his audience 60-70 years later, saying, ‘You know, what Artaxerxes is doing now [the very same thing, providing funds out of Persian coffers to help the Jews in Jerusalem] was something that was being done way back two generations ago in the time of Darius.’

That's not what I want us to see. What I want us to see is that the building of this temple is described (1) as the decree of Godand, (2) as the decree of a Persian king, or a series of decrees of a Persian king.

The same act is being described as having been done by God and by man. It's what theologians and philosophers call the language of concurrence, or, the language of confluence. God does it: man does it. What have we been learning on Sunday mornings? “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling…” [that's man's work] “…for it is God that works in you, both to will and to do of His good pleasure.” Man does it: God does it through men. And that's what Ezra is saying here. The building of this temple was in one sense the decree of king Darius, but in another sense — and it's the exact same word — it was the decree of Almighty God.

The late professor Donald McKie had a little expression. I'm not sure whether he coined this word…he may well have coined the word…it was the word nothingbuttery. Man… (How many times have you heard this?) Man is nothing but chemicals and atoms and molecules. Now in one sense man is chemicals and atoms and molecules. That's why we're able to engage in the science of human anatomy. It's what some of you as medics here have been studying for many, many years — the chemical anatomical nature of man. The mistake is nothingbuttery. Man is chemicals and atoms and molecules, but man is more than chemicals and atoms and molecules. It's one of the most profound things that you’ll ever find: Man does things, but God does those things through men. It's a beautiful description of the greatness of the providence of God. God is at work here. Yes, we can describe this history in terms of the machinations of the Persian emperors and kings, fascinating as all of that is; but from another point of view, this is the hand of God. This is God at work, marching through the corridors of history working out His plan and purpose. It's a beautiful thing.

You know, we're engrossed (some of you more than others, and certainly more than me) in the election process. And behind all that's going on, in the despair of it, in the shambolics of it, there is the hand of God. God is working out His purpose. God has a plan for the world, for you and me, and this church, and this city, and this state, and this country, and this world. God is at work. The greatness of God's providence.

III. The greatness of God's plan.

But then, in the third place, not just the greatness of God's provision, and not just the greatness of God's providence, but the greatness of God's plan. Come back to the temple again. I want you to turn with me just for a second or two to Zechariah. We saw the reference there to the preaching of Haggai and Zechariah. Well, let's just pick up Zechariah. What was Zechariah preaching at this time? Turn to Zechariah 6. I'm going to begin to read at verse 9. This is what Zechariah was preaching: Three men (verse 10), Heldai, Tobijah, and Jedaiah (not important who they are; they are people from Babylon)…they’re obviously Jews from Babylon who hadn't come back in the initial return. They've come to Jerusalem and they've brought with them from Babylon gold and silver (verse 11) to make a crown. On whose head would that crown be placed? You’d think that that crown would be put on the head of Zerubbabel. He is after all the political figure in Jerusalem. But instead of putting that crown on the head of Zerubbabel, the political figure, he puts that crown on the head of Joshua, the son of Jehozadak, the high priest. Listen! Verse 12:

“And say to him, ‘Thus says the Lord of hosts, ‘Behold, the man…”

[Oh. Where do you hear that again? “Behold the man.” From Pilate, about Jesus.]

“ ‘‘Behold the man whose name is the Branch: for he shall branch out from his place, and he shall build the temple of the Lord. It is he who shall build the temple of the Lord and shall bear royal honor, and shall sit and rule on his throne. And there shall be a priest on his throne, and the counsel of peace shall be between them both.’’ And the crown shall be in the temple of the Lord….”


Now, lots of stuff there. Let me try and boil it down to a few sentences. There is a promise that's being made here that Joshua could never have fulfilled: that he would sit on a throne in Jerusalem (which Joshua never did), and the crown is taken off Joshua's head, and it's placed in the temple, because the temple was a sign: the sign of the coming of a king-priest . “He shall suddenly come to His temple.” But what came, of course, was Jesus. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up again.” They thought He was talking about the Herodian temple, but He was talking about His own body. He is the temple.

As they stood before that second temple and they were about to begin an elaborate process of worship, those who truly could see — the likes of Haggai, the likes of Zechariah — could see perhaps a little glimpse that this temple could never house the Lord of glory. Staggering, then…staggering, then, that in the prologue of John's Gospel we read, “And He was made flesh and He tabernacled among us”–He who is God, who is the Lord.

What we have here is a little glimpse, a little foretaste, a little sign that there is coming a day as prophets like Ezekiel and Jeremiah before the exile had prophesied, as God had said in the covenant He had made with David in II Samuel 7, that to Jerusalem would come the nations of the world.

It was never fulfilled in the first temple, and it was never fulfilled in the second temple. And if truth be told, it hasn't been fulfilled yet, because ultimately what this temple is pointing to is the day when, as is described in the closing chapters of the book of Revelation, there is God present and dwelling among His people in that new Jerusalem. And when God is present among His people, we don't need a temple anymore. There's a little glimpse here of the greatness of God's plan.

My friends, we're still part of that plan, this little gathering here tonight. We’re part of that great plan. God is still working out His purpose to bring about a new heaven and a new earth, and the destruction of Babylon, and the erection of the new Jerusalem in which He will come to dwell.

We were reminded this morning of that passage in I John: “Now are we the sons of God.” I'm sure these believers before this second temple were filled with joy. They were elated that God had come back to them again, just as we are tonight elated at the thought that

“Now we are the sons of God. But, it doth not yet appear what we shall be. But we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is.”


And that's what this temple was looking forward to, this glorious day of the new Jerusalem, and God dwelling amongst His people as it was meant to be in the Garden of Eden, (and what the children were learning this morning from the Catechism) but never was, because there are consequences to sin. It cost the death, the agonizing death of crucifixion, to bring that temple that is yet to be about.

May God give us a glimpse of it tonight, an anticipation of it, that we might stretch out our necks to try and behold something of its beauty and glory. Let's pray together.

Father, we thank You for Your word. Thank You for Your mighty purposes in this period of history in the Old Testament. Thank You for the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the temple. Thank You that by grace and the indwelling of the Spirit we are the temple of the Holy Spirit, that Christ is our head and we are the body. Help us now to look forward in anticipation to the day when there shall be no temple, no physical temple, no need for it, because You will be in our very midst in the glory and splendor of the new Jerusalem. Fill us now at the end of this Lord's Day with that vision, and that hope, and that joy. We ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.

Please stand; receive the Lord's benediction.

Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

[Congregational hymn: Jesus, Where’er Your People Meet, stanza 5.)



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