The Lord's Day Evening
May 4, 2008
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Now turn with me, if you would, to the book of Ezra, chapter 6. We’ll be reading in a few moments verses 16, 17, and 18… a relatively short reading this evening, but a very significant event. We’re going to go back two and a half thousand years tonight to May 12, 515 BC, and to Jerusalem, and to the Temple Mount and the finished so-called “second temple.” It's been a couple of weeks, so let me rehearse the story so far in a couple of minutes.
The people of God have been back from Babylon twenty-one years. About four and a half years before the incident we're looking at tonight, they began in earnest to rebuild the temple. The foundations had been laid twenty-one years in the past. The governor of the Persian satrapy that included Jerusalem and Judah, a man by the name of Tattenai, was suspicious of what was going on in Jerusalem, and inquired who the leaders of this building project were, suspicious probably of some conspiratorial event that lay behind it. The Jews told him that what they were doing in constructing the temple was none other than the wishes, or the decree, of King Cyrus, the great Persian leader–now dead of course. Darius was now in charge. In order to ensure that that was true, a search had to be made…and who knows where that decree was uttered…what city it had been uttered in…where that copy of that decree had been filed. No Microsoft® in 515 BC! Eventually, after a search had been made, that decree of Cyrus’ confirming what the Jews had said was read in the hearing of Tattenai the governor and for the next four or four and a half years this building project is underway.
Tonight we come to the dedication ceremony of the second temple. Just about six months ago or so, Dr. R. C. Sproul stood in this pulpit — our dear friend — at one of the many ceremonies and rituals that we had to dedicate this particular building. It's not exactly the same but there are some parallels, and I want us to think in the opening few minutes about the importance of buildings and the things that go on in buildings, and the way that we remember them. But before we do that and read God's word together, let's look to God in prayer. Let's pray.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You again for the Scriptures. All Scripture is given by the out-breathing of God and is 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. Lord, we need Your word as much as we need daily bread in order to survive, and we pray that You would feed us now this evening. Give us attentive hearts. Give us minds that will concentrate on the Scriptures. Give us affections that will run after You and fall in love with Christ. And we ask it for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Verse 16 of Ezra 6:
“And 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. They offered at the dedication of this house of God 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel 12 male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel. And they set the priests in their divisions and the Levites in their divisions, for the service of God at Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses.”
Amen. And may God bless to us that reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Yesterday my wife and I were in Philadelphia and we went on a pilgrimage [and it was something of a pilgrimage] to Independence Hall. With mixed emotions of course [laughter] for me! It was, of course, the building, and indeed the room, in which the Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, and eleven years later where the Constitution was debated and drafted.
Some of you have visited St. Paul's Cathedral — a magnificent piece of architecture unparalleled, perhaps, in the world — by Sir Christopher Wren. You can't fail to walk into that building, a building which began to be built in 1675 and was a forty-year-long building project… It was where the funeral of Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington took place, and more recently, Sir Winston Churchill. It was a place that my mother tells me that she remembers with great emotion listening on the radio to a service of thanksgiving after the end of the Second World War, coming from St. Paul's Cathedral. Many of you, I'm sure, will remember the 29th of July in 1981 — the marriage of Prince Charles and Lady Diana in the precincts of that building. Buildings are deeply significant, and we can't help but look at buildings and be reminded of what goes on in buildings.
This is the dedication of the second temple. There had not been a temple in Jerusalem for seventy years. This is March, probably March 12, 515 BC, and there is a ceremony — a grand ceremony, a public ceremony, a ceremony for all the people. There's no mention of Zerubbabel here, the governor; no part for him to play. There's no mention of Joshua the high priest; no great liturgy.
Dr. Wymond and I often remark about the liturgy of the funeral of Princess Diana. I think both of us remember bits of that liturgy. I remember vividly the closing music of John Caviness, A Song for Athena — deeply, deeply moving. From the Eastern Orthodox liturgy that it came from, almost completely out of place at the end of that funeral service. It's associated with that building and that thing and that event. We recall events of great pomp, great ceremony. I remember — you may be surprised, but I actually do remember — I was here in the United States when it occurred in 1976, when…was it the West Wing? I may not be accurate about that…the West Wing and the Rose Window of the National Cathedral in Washington was open. A great ceremony took place. Gerald Ford, President Ford, and Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II were in attendance on that occasion. But there seems to be no mention here of great dignitaries; not even a liturgy of what went on.
Well, yes and no. I want us to look at this passage. I want to do so homiletically, if I may, using an alliteration. I don't do alliterations very often, but let me do an alliteration this evening for the purposes of helping us to remember what this passage is about. I want us to think of four words, all beginning with the letter “C”, the first of which is comparison.
You can't help but compare. It's not fair, but you can't help it, because as you read this passage you are drawn to remember the opening and the dedication of the first temple, described in I Kings 8, or II Chronicles 7, to great pomp and great ceremony. The 100 bulls, the 200 rams, and the 400 lambs pale into almost insignificance in comparison to the 22,000 oxen and 120,000 sheep or lambs that were sacrificed at the time of King Solomon. It's no wonder that grown men wept when they laid the foundation of this temple twenty-one years in the past. There is no Ark of the Covenant in this temple; there is no Urim and Thummin in the temple; there are no tablets of stone on which the Ten Commandments were written; there is no Aaron's Rod that budded; there is no jar of manna; there are no cherubim.
And there is no king. There is no king in Jerusalem — no good king and no bad king. There is no king. Israel, Judah, is but a memory of what it had once been. The sense of national euphoria that accompanied the days of David and Solomon as the kingdom stretched from Dan to Beersheba…and now almost localized in this one little city of Jerusalem. You can't help but compare because the offerings of this occasion, important as they were and memorable as they were… and they would talk about it for days and years to come, and pass the story down from one generation to another so that you and I can read it tonight. But it was paltry by comparison. It's a reminder, do you see, as they took part in this day of celebration and this day of dedication of a building for the purposes of the worship of God that things were not as they once were. And things were not as perhaps they should have been. They were a poorer community now, and hence the smallness of the number of sacrifices. What wealth the Jews had had been confiscated, no doubt, by the Babylonians several generations ago. There was little wealth left in Jerusalem now. They were a smaller community.
There were great days ahead, and Zechariah — some of you were in my Bible class this morning, and we were looking at the eighth chapter of Zechariah…preaching contemporaneously with this event (or almost with this event; maybe a couple of years before this event), and Zechariah opens up windows of blessing and extraordinary blessing, and men and women coming from East and West and flocking their way to Jerusalem…great visionary expectations of what God was going to do — actually, going to do in new covenant economy rather than old covenant economy. But they were perhaps not to understand and realize the fullness of what Zechariah was preaching, but all of that for sure was future and it wasn't now.
These were lean times, and they were lean times because, tinged in the dedication ceremony, was a reminder that they were a people who had returned from chastisement; that God had rebuked them; that God, in the language of Ezekiel, had walked out of the temple and removed His presence from Jerusalem, and now He has returned. It's like a child who has been scolded. That relationship now is sensitive and just a little bit tense. And when you've scolded a child and its make-up time — and who doesn't like the make-up times? — and they draw near and they hug you, but their heads hang down a little because they still have the memory of what they've done in their consciousness, just as these people did here. Comparison.
The second word I want us to think about is celebration. You notice (and we presume Ezra is the one who actually writes the book of Ezra) that the people of Israel…Verse 16:
“And 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.”
Now that little word joy , just as it has been a frequent word in the Epistle to the Philippians in the mornings [it is “the epistle of joy”], that little word of course is going to return again in the book of Nehemiah. It's in the book of Nehemiah that we have that expression “the joy of the Lord is the strength” of the people of God. The joy of the Lord is their strength. This is an occasion, yes, of celebration. It's an occasion of joy. There had been little joy in Babylon. You remember the Psalm, Psalm 137: they hung their harps on branches of willow trees because they had no song to sing. “How can we sing the Lord's song in a strange land?” they had said. But God had returned in blessing to His people. God had restored the fortunes of His people. God had come back into His dwelling place. This is the house of God, and there is a time to weep and there is a time to laugh, and there is a time to mourn, and there's a time to dance.
You notice all those sacrifices. The first ones that are mentioned — the 100 bulls and the 200 rams and the 400 lambs — and they are technically fellowship offerings. Now there would be sin offerings, and we will talk about those in a minute, but these are the fellowship offerings. Now the fellowship offerings — from our studies in the Books of Moses over the last few years we ought now to be able to pigeonhole and slot all of those various offerings in the opening seven or so chapters of the book of Leviticus — these are the fellowship offerings where the fat of the offerings was burnt up, and then the meat of the offerings was roasted and given to the people to eat.
My mother tells me (I was just a few months old at the time; I have no memory of it) of the coronation of Queen Elizabeth in 1953… at least the celebrations of the coronation took place in 1953. She acceded the throne in 1952, I think. But in 1953 there were street parties at the time of the coronation, and there was food, and this was seven years after the end of World War II. There were still food rations. You were only allowed to purchase so much oil, and so much butter, and so much salt and whatever. I have no memory of that whatsoever, you understand, but she tells me all about this. She has a Russian book that she occasionally shows us, and a memory of that period. And she describes the great celebration, the joy, the festivity in the streets.
It was a dawning of a new age and a new generation, and a new way of life. Of course, none of that was to be, but there's joy here and there's food, and roast lamb and roast beef. And who doesn't like that?
And you have to imagine Jerusalem filled with thousands and thousands of people. There were 43,000 that had returned. Well, this was 21 years later. Some perhaps had died, but other children had been born. There were the people who already lived in Jerusalem, so perhaps we can double that number — a hundred thousand people, I'm guessing, in what was then a relatively small [the old city; not the new city, but the old] city of Jerusalem all gathered on the Temple Mount with lambs and oxen, and bustling their way through the crowds trying to make their way to the temple area. And there's the smell of roast beef and roast lamb…and perhaps now your saliva ducts are beginning to flow in the thought and in anticipation perhaps of a meal later on this evening…but here in Jerusalem there was celebration and joy.
The word dedication in Hebrew is a word that became the word used for another festival, Hanukkah. The Jewish festival of lights in December commemorated an event in the second century BC when Judas Machabeus regained the temple from the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes, and that event (Hanukkah/dedication) was chosen because it was associated with thanksgiving and celebration, and joy and — those of you who have Jewish friends will know that Hanukkah is a time of great celebration, of great joy.
The third word that begins with “C” is the word covenantal. You notice in verse 17,
“They offered at the dedication of the house of God 100 bulls, 200 rams, 400 lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel 12 male goats, according to the number of the tribes of Israel.”
Well, a number of things emerge all at once. First of all, there is sacrifice because without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness. And the people of God had many sins that needed to be forgiven. For seventy years no sin offering has been offered in the temple, because there was no temple. They had a lot of sins to confess. It was a very emotional moment. They were coming before the sovereign God who had chastised them and rebuked them, and driven them into Babylon. And now God had returned and they were confessing their sins. They were making atonement for their sins. They were seeking the forgiveness of God for their sins.
But you notice they are not only making that confession on the part of what the tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and perhaps the Levites, but all Israel. Twelve goats for all of Israel, according to the prescription laid down in the levitical code and referred to again in the book of Numbers.
For all of Israel. The Northern Kingdom of Israel had gone 250 years in the past. There hadn't been an Israel for 250 years. There was no consciousness of the twelve tribes in the inter-testamental era, and yet on this day of dedication they are affirming their identity as Israel. Not Judah. Not Judah and Benjamin. Not Judah, Benjamin, and the Levites. But Israel. Partly perhaps because of the opposition of the Samaritans who had taunted them, offered to help them. But the Jews had resisted their help because of their syncretistic ways. The Samaritans had thought of these men from Judah and Benjamin as sectarian, and they’re identifying themselves as the Israel of God.
But I think there's more going on here. Because don't you think in the light of what Haggai has been preaching, and in the light of what Zechariah has been preaching, that deep down now within their minds and within their hearts there is a remembrance of a promise that God has made not just to Judah and not just to Benjamin, and not just to the Levites, but God had made a promise to Israel, to the twelve tribes of Israel; and they’re looking forward now as well as confessing the sins of all Israel. They still have an identity as part of that covenant people of Israel.
You see, we are the Israel of God, you and I. We are the twelve tribes of Israel. When Paul closes his Epistle to the Galatians in chapter 6 and verse 16, he pronounces a blessing — a blessing upon “the Israel of God.” And he's not pronouncing a blessing on ethnic Israelhe's pronouncing a blessing on the church of Jesus Christ, Jew and Gentile, who have come to faith in Jesus Christ. And there's more going on here than these folk ever could have realized, I think: that in the unfolding of the providence of God in redemptive history there is a confession here on the part of a people who identify themselves as the covenant people of God, the Israel of God, the church of God in the Old Testament — of which you and I are a part. And so this is our history. This is one of our memories. This is one of the significant moments in our history and in our roots, because we are the covenant people of God…a God who has made covenant with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and David; who pronounces that word of covenant in a new covenant in the blood of Jesus Christ, and a promise that cannot fail, a promise that will always remain true, a promise that in His Son, in Jesus Christ there is forgiveness of sins for all who put their faith and trust in Him.
And there's a fourth word. Not only a comparison, and not only a celebration, and not only a covenantal enactment, but, fourthly, canon. Canon. Canon meaning rule. Notice what it says in verse 18:
“And they set the priests in their divisions, and the Levites in their divisions, for the service of God at Jerusalem, as it is written in the Book of Moses.”
Now isn't that fascinating? We might pass over that and turn the page, and…what's in the next chapter? That's a fascinating statement! It's fascinating on at least two levels. It's fascinating first of all because it tells us that the principle by which these faithful men and women operated on the day of dedication of the second temple says “we are doing it in accord with what is written in the Book of Moses.” In other words, we are doing it in what is in accord with what God has laid down in the Scriptures. It's to the Book, it's to the Bible, to the testimonies, to what God has decreed.
Now that says that the faith had been kept alive during the time of the Babylonian exile. The traditions of the fathers, as it was written in the Books of Moses, had been kept alive, and now here on this day of dedication their one overwhelming thought is that we must do this — the ordering of the priests and the ordering of the Levites — we must do this, and all that they do (and most of what they did was in connection with the worship of God in the temple) we must do according to the Book, according to what God has laid down in His word.
There's no introduction, you see, of a dance troupe from Persia here. There's no introduction here of some director of drama from Persia in order to redeem the culture. Let's be honest! It sounds sort of boring. It's according to what is written in the Book of Moses. How boring is that? Where's the cutting edge? Where's the advancement in terms of understanding the nature in which societies evolve and grow, and the influence of taste, and all of the other accoutrements that so bedevil the church today?
There's a principle here. There's a principle here, and it's absolutely vital that we see it. It's according to the Book.
Turn with me in your hymnals to page 848. These were the men of the Westminster Assembly as they met in 1643 to 1645 and beyond, and this is their opening chapter in The Westminster Confession of Faith. It's the chapter about the Bible; it's the chapter about Scripture. That's the place to begin, of course. How do we know anything unless it's first of all rooted on the foundation of what is written in the Bible? And you notice in Section VI,
“The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, faith, and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture, unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the spirit or traditions of men.”
And then it goes on to acknowledge that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God and government of the church common to human actions and societies which are to be ordered by the light of nature and Christian prudence, “according,” once again, “to the general rules of the word, which are always to be observed.”
Now I could spend an hour trying to expound that section of The Westminster Confession, and I'd love to do so, but I don't have time. But I just want us to see that crucial principle: Canon rule. What is it that governs what goes on in the temple? The Scriptures. The word of God as given in the Books of Moses.
So if you’d have gone that day, on March 12, 515 BC, and you’d managed to land a helicopter on the mountain opposite the temple, what is it that you would have seen? What is it that you would have heard? People confessing their sins; people saying nothing but the Book; people celebrating with joy at the Lord's goodness. Isn't that what we're doing tonight? Isn't that what we do every time we meet together? The principle is exactly the same.
May God bless His word to us.
Let's pray together.
Father, once again we thank You for the Scriptures. Though old, they are ever new. And we pray now tonight as we have studied this passage together, write it upon our hearts that we might not sin against You. We ask it in Jesus' name. Amen.
Please stand; receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.
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