Adherence to the Word of God and Continuity with Pre-Exilic Israel
Throughout Ezra 3 there is an emphasis on acting in accordance with the Mosaic law and in accordance with the temple procedures established by David. Verse 2 specifies that they built the altar in order to adhere to what was written “in the law of Moses, the man of God.” The identification of Moses as “the man of God” is probably a reference to Moses’s prophetic function (Steinmann 2010: 207; cf. Shepherd and Wright 2018: 18). The order in which the sacrifices are listed is probably based on Numbers 28-29, which “once again emphasizes continuity with the preexilic Israelite community and fidelity to God’s Word” (Steinmann 2010: 213). Later, when the temple foundations were laid, the Levites carried out their duties “according to the directions of David king of Israel” (3:10; cf. 1 Chron. 15:16, 19, 28; 16:5; 25:1, 6; cf. Steinmann 2010: 189).
This adherence to the law of Moses and the directions of David plays into Ezra’s emphasis on continuity between pre-exilic Israel and post-exilic Israel. This is reinforced by placing the altar in the same location as in Solomon’s Temple (3:3; cf. Williamson 1985: 46; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 18).
Another signal of continuity between the preexilic Israelites and those who returned from captivity is the reference to cedar brought from Tyre and Sidon to Joppa for the purpose of temple building (2 Chron. 2:10, 15-16; Kidner 1979: 51-52; Williamson 1985: 47; Shepherd and Wright 2018: 19). The reference to “masons” and “carpenters” may allude to Josiah’s repair of the temple (2 King’s 22:6; 2 Chron. 34:11). This is thus a rebuilding akin to Josiah’s rebuilding (Steinmann 2010: 214-15).
The first hint of opposition to the return to worship occurs in Ezra 3:3: “They set the altar in its place, although fear was on them because of the peoples of the lands” (ESV, altered; cf. NIV, CSB, NET).
Verse 3 could indicate that the altar was set in place because the Israelites feared the peoples of the lands (NKJV, NASB, ESV) or although they feared the peoples of the lands (NIV, CSB, NET). The former translation is the more common way to translate this Hebrew word, but the concessive translation is a possible translation (DCH, 4:378). The concessive reading makes better sense. To make their fear of the peoples of the land the cause of setting up the altar would imply an existing conflict that the Israelites thought that they could counteract by setting up the altar. However, the rest of the book reveals that it was the temple-building project that aroused the opposition of the peoples of the land. It makes better sense to read this as the Israelites moving forward despite fearing that their actions will stir up opposition.
The peoples of the land refers to the people who were brought by the Assyrians to populate the northern kingdom (Ezra 4:2; cf. 2 Kings 17:24). These people mixed the worship of what they perceived to be “the god of the land” with their own gods (cf. 2 Kings 17:26-33).
The ESV translates “peoples of the lands,” reflecting the fact that in Hebrew both words are plural. However, the sense is peoples of the land (Joüon, §136o). The plural may indicate that plurality of nations from which these people came. The phrase, “people of the land,” in variations, occurs with different referents throughout the Old Testament. In some cases, it refers to Israel (cf. Lev. 4:27; Hag. 2:4). In others, it can refer to the Canaanites who lived in the land prior to Israel (cf. Gen. 23:7).
By referring to opposition from syncretistic peoples of the land, Ezra may be evoking the condition prior to the conquest when the idolatrous people of the land occupied Canaan. If so, this is another signal of the already/not-yet nature of the return from exile in Ezra. The full and final expulsion of idolaters from the land will happen when the Messiah returns to earth in the Day of the Lord. However, between the time of Ezra and the Day of the Lord, Samaritans (the likely descendants of the peoples of the land) and Gentiles heard and responded to the gospel. They will in the future be included as residents of the New Jerusalem along with believing Jews.
Response to the Laying of the Temple Foundations
Ezra 3 closes with the laying of the temple foundation. The Levites led in worship according to the Directions that David had given. The psalm they sang is a Davidic psalm recorded in 1 Chronicles 16. According to Chronicles, it is the psalm that was sung when David brought the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem (the words recorded in Ezra being the last lines of the psalm). These words were again sung at the dedication of Solomon’s temple (2 Chron. 5:13), and the people said these words when the glory of Yhwh descended on the first temple (2 Chron. 7:3) (Steinmann 2010: 189, 216).
And yet, even this points to the diminished nature of what these returned exiles are doing. “This time there is no ark, no visible glory, indeed no Temple: only some beginnings, and small beginnings at that” (Kidner 1979: 53; cf. Williamson 1985: 48).
This led to a mixed response from the people. There is both shouting for joy and weeping with a loud voice. This mixed response seems to capture something significant about the whole book of Ezra. There is rejoicing because God has begun to fulfill his promises regarding the return from exile. And yet the fulfillment is partial and small. The temptation would be to become discouraged about the smallness of the fulfillment (Hag. 2:3-5; Zech. 4:10; Kidner 1979:53). But that would not be the right response, because God was truly with his people and fulfilling his word.
Nevertheless, it was important for the people to recognize that God’s promises were only partially fulfilled and to desire the full fulfillment of his word. The first and second comings of Christ are necessary to complete what was begun in the day of Zerubbabel and Joshua.
We too live between the already and the not yet. Our condition is better than the returned exiles. Christ has come and is building the church as his temple. But he is also away in heaven preparing a place for us in the New Jerusalem, where there is no need for a temple because the Lord is there.
While we wait for the return of Christ we too face opposition as we seek to build up Christ’s church (1 Cor. 3:10). Our efforts even in New Testament times often seem feeble, and it may appear that opposition to God’s work is on the march while Christians are regularly suffering setbacks.
The message of this chapter is to encourage us to maintain true worship, which we do by adhering to the written Word of God. (Later chapters will address the heart.)