By Sam E. Stone
Worship with both song and sacrifice was once again practiced by the people of Israel after their return to the promised land. Ezra, a famous priest and scribe, tells us of the event. In Ezra 4 he describes the opposition faced by the Jews as they worked to rebuild the temple. Chapters 5 and 6 record their eventual success. Today’s printed text highlights the dedication of the rebuilt temple in Jerusalem.
Herbert Lockyer described Ezra this way: “He conducted the Jewish exiles back to Jerusalem in peace and safety, and establishing himself as their leader, reformed them with a vigorous hand. He was a man of deep humility and self-denial (Ezra 7:10; 10:6); a man of great learning with a fervent zeal for God’s honor (8:21-23); and a man who knew how to pray (8:21; 10:1).”
In the first half of the book, Ezra explains how Cyrus permitted the Jews to return and rebuild the temple in Jerusalem. Today’s text names the other rulers who participated by supporting the temple project. As James Smith explains, “In so doing the Jews were obeying the command of the God of Israel and the decrees of Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes. The mention of Artaxerxes in 6:14 suggests that it was the author’s purpose to lump together here the three great Persian patrons of the Lord’s people.”
When the people neglected their work on the temple, two prophets—Haggai and Zechariah—called them back to their task. Haggai brought a dramatic message from the Lord: “Is it a time for you yourselves to be living in your paneled houses, while this house remains a ruin?” (Haggai 1:4). The elders of the Jews were responsible to see that the temple was completed. Most scholars date this event in 515 BC.
Everyone rejoiced at the dedication time: the people of Israel—the priests, the Levites and the rest of the exiles. There were no tears shed this time (as in 3:12), only joy. In the past, dedications after extensive repairs had also been conducted by Josiah and Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 30:17; 35:11).
Male goats were sacrificed as a sin offering covering all the 12 tribes (Numbers 7). In addition, 100 bulls, 200 rams, and 400 male lambs were given as fellowship (or peace) offerings (Leviticus 3:1ff; 7:11-14). Reuben Ratzlaff adds, “It was an appropriate gesture, for this was the first time in almost four centuries, since the division of the nation under Rehoboam and Jeroboam, that all Israel had been able to worship together in one temple.”
Some emphasize the great contrast in the number of animals offered at this time when compared to the total of 120,000 at the original dedication of Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 8:63). The bulk of the sacrifices on these occasions was eaten by the worshippers during the celebrations, and the community at this time was very small.
At the same time, the priests and Levites were appointed, according to their classes and divisions for service in the temple (see 2 Chronicles 23:4; 2 Kings 11:9). The Scripture specifies that this was done according to what is written in the Book of Moses.
The Passover date is commonly understood to be April 21, 515 BC. Several weeks have passed since the dedication. Passover was observed by the Jews to remember the night that the Israelites left Egyptian bondage many years before. For this observance, the priests and Levites had purified themselves and were all ceremonially clean. Ezra adds that the Passover lamb was slaughtered for all the exiles, for their relatives the priests and for themselves.
This event marked the people’s commitment to follow God completely once more. Even though they are back near Gentile neighbors whose evil influence had corrupted them in the past, now they will seek the Lord, the God of Israel. J. Stafford Wright points out that this includes “those Jews and Israelites who had not been in captivity, and who were prepared to make a clean break with the idolatry and semi-Jehovah-worship of the Samaritans and surrounding peoples.”
This rededication time included a seven-day celebration of the Festival of Unleavened Bread. Ezra notes that they did this because the Lord had filled them with joy by changing the attitude of the king of Assyria. Rather than the king’s being their enemy and captor, God used him to assist them in the work on the house of God!
Sam E. Stone is the former editor of Christian Standard. He continues his writing and speaking ministry from his home in Cincinnati, Ohio.