When the initial wave of Jewish exiles returned to Jerusalem, their first official act was to rebuild the great altar of sacrifice that had been destroyed by the Babylonians (see 2 Chronicles 36:19). Before they rebuilt the walls and gates of the city, it was important to reestablish their worship of the one true God. It was ignoring Him that had precipitated their exile, and having been given a second chance, the Jews were determined to do it right.
Under the direction of Zerubbabel (who was Israelite royalty and the governor of the returning Jews) and Jeshua (the acting high priest), the people located the site of Solomon’s Temple among the ruins of Jerusalem. There was nothing left of the magnificent structure — not even the foundation stones — but they found the spot where the altar should have been, set it up, and began making sacrifices. This was an incredibly important move, for it signaled to God that His people were acknowledging their sin and need for forgiveness, seeking His guidance, and rededicating themselves to living by His guidelines and for His glory.
It took Zerubbabel and the people over a year to acquire enough building material to begin construction on the Temple (v.8). A ceremony was planned for the day when the workmen began laying the foundation, and Ezra’s account of it is one of the most poignant and memorable scenes in Scripture. There was music provided by the famed “Sons of Asaph”, congregational singing accompanied by the brass and percussion sections, and great shouts of praise that punctuated the singing of Psalm 136. This was an exciting moment; the celebrative worship could be heard from far away (v.13).
The scene described in verses 10-13 was a mix of emotions. While some shouted for joy at the thought of rebuilding the Temple, others shouted their grief. Some of the elder priests and other older leaders who remembered the destruction of the Temple began to cry aloud. The Bible does not tell us why. Some suggest that they cried because the new Temple would never match the size and splendor of the original, but I think it was something else. They recalled the shame and humiliation of seeing the City of God devastated and the Temple of God desecrated — a destruction not brought about by the evil Babylonians, but by the evil in their own hearts. The reason they were having to rebuild the Temple is because the nation had forgotten God and despised His grace. But their long captivity had starved their pride to death, and in humility they returned to Jerusalem and to the Lord. No wonder the old men were moved to tears.
There are two things I take from this chapter. First, God is the rebuilder of broken things. If something or someone has broken your heart, or your dreams and plans are shattered and thrown away, God is able to put your life back together. He is a restorer and repairer, and He delights in redemption. Second, worship should be a contrast of emotions. Sounds of joy and sounds of weeping are both at home in a worship service, as we are alternately (even simultaneously) overwhelmed by the sorrow of our sinfulness and overjoyed at the grace of God that makes us forgiven and right.