In this chapter, the community leaders institute the prescribed sacrifices and begin construction of the temple.
When reading this chapter, the overall sense I get from it is that their priorities are very similar to the pattern we see in the lives of Hezekiah and Josiah, who were revivalists during the kingdom era. For instance, in verses 2-6 we see that the people focus on beginning the regular sacrifices that were given in the Law of Moses. They are offering these sacrifices on an altar, probably in the temple compound, even before the temple was built. Afterwards, they gather the materials and begin construction of the temple itself starting in v. 10.
In 2 Chronicles 29, we see Hezekiah institute religious reforms in Judah. He begins by cleansing the temple and then his first religious act is to offer sacrifices. 2 Chron 31:2-3 confirms that Hezekiah continued with the regular offerings.
We also see emphasis placed on the worship ministry in both Chronicles and in this chapter. In this chapter, v. 10-11 describe the Levites praised with music and song when the foundation of the temple is laid. In 2 Chron 29, we see music and singing accompanying the sacrificial offering (2 Chron 29:27-30).
Lastly, this chapter emphasizes the importance of the temple. In the revival of Hezekiah, the temple is purified of all uncleanness. In the revival of Josiah, the temple is repaired. In the time of Ezra, the temple is being entirely rebuilt from the ground up. In these three cases, we can see the temple declining to a worse condition each time, and each time the community leaders are focusing on the temple as the centerpiece of their revival.
There are two ways that we might interpret this pattern. First, it represents a pattern in Judah’s religious traditions. It shows that over time, the shape of religious revivals is quite similar even over hundreds of years. Second, since Chronicles was written during the lifetime of Ezra, it is possible that the Chronicler was shaping his narrative to reflect the culture and priorities of the post-exilic community. We can confirm with certainty that the temple and regular prescribed sacrifices were incredibly important to the community leaders of the returning exiles. It’s harder to be sure that they were so important to the pre-exilic revivalists because of the implicit bias of the Chronicler.
That said, I do believe that regardless of the Chronicler’s bias, the narrative in Chronicles is detailing a real religious tradition that survived through the exile into the early post-exilic community. It’s difficult for us to independently assess the accuracy of Chronicle’s representation because we simply don’t have a good independent text to cross-verify. Even thoug the book of Kings is a pre-exilic source about Hezekiah, it almost entirely omits Hezekiah’s religious reforms (see 2 Kings 18:1-6), so it doesn’t help us to assess the pre-exilic religious tradition.
Both Chronicles and Ezra are designed to highlight the continuity between the post-exilic community with their pre-exilic ancenstors and traditions. It’s unlikely that the post-exilic community would find these arguments credible if they were not based on a real pre-exilic tradition.
Lastly, I want to discuss verses 12-13. This is at the very end of the chapter, after the foundation of the temple is laid, we see the people react in two different ways. The young people shouted for joy, but the older men who had seen the first temple “wept with a loud voice”, and in the confusion of sound nobody could tell the difference between the shouts of joy and the cries of weeping and sorrow. This is perhaps confusing when you read it the first time.
The way I understand this passage is that the new temple is much smaller than the older one. The older men who had seen the previous temple are weeping because they see their national decline in the temple. They used to have a large and prosperous nation, and now they are small and poor. They used to have a large, rich temple, and now they are building a much smaller temple. The young people rejoice because they see the greatness of what they are building, but the old people weep because they see how much less it is than what they used to have and be. This topic is specifically addressed in the book of Haggai, which we have not yet read, but that’s basically what is happening here.
Beyond that explanation, I find this passage striking. Could you imagine being in a situation where two groups of people are seeing the same thing, that they both support, and one group is rejoicing while the other group is weeping? I’ve been thinking about this passage a lot recently. The only difference between these two groups is their perspective. The older groups knows their past in a tangible way, while the younger group only knows their past by description. There are so many things we are building in the church today, both my local church as well as the global church, and we rejoice over many of these things. I wonder how often I would weep rather than rejoice if I had been alive to see the church in the past. Even the revivals of the past like the great awakening or the protestant reformation; if I had been alive for those revivals, would I find the modern church to be stronger or weaker than the church of the past? Have we grown to be less than our ancestors?
It’s a troubling thought because the younger people were living side by side with their elders, and yet they were unable to understand their elders’ perspective. In the space of just one generation, much that had been known was lost, even when they were yet living together.
I wonder when the LORD saw the temple foundation being laid, did he rejoice or did he weep? Which of these two reactions is closer to the truth? Or perhaps they were both true in different ways. In the end I guess both reactions are true in the sense that they represented a reaction to a particular understanding of the temple. The temple is smaller and looks like nothing compared to the prior temple, and yet it is building built. It’s small, but it’s happening. The restored community is small and weak, yet they are being restored. I think in the restored community, there is reason for joy as well as tears.
This chapter concludes by saying that their shout was heard from a great distance away. In the next chapter, we will see that the enemies of Judah (metaphorically) heard the shout, and begin plotting to disrupt their restoration efforts.