A small congregation purchased ground and saved for several years to build a new church building. Members cheered aloud the day the contractor put up the first wall. But once they began worshiping in their new building, a strange thing happened. The church experienced a collective sense of depression. They enjoyed the amenities of their new church but missed the intimacy of their old building, even though it had only been a storefront in town.
The exiles who returned to Jerusalem and saw the foundation of the second temple laid in Ezra’s day felt a similar ambivalence. Although Cyrus had issued the original decree that opened the way for the reconstruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the work did not begin in earnest until the time of Artaxerxes I. Ezra returned with about 5,000 exiles to complete the work Nehemiah had begun.
Ezra’s commission did not reflect genuine faith by Artaxerxes. Although the king expressed concern about the wrath of Israel’s God, his policy seems to have been driven more by motives of political expediency than by religious conviction. Persian rulers found it more effective to accommodate the religious customs of the nations they subjected than to disrupt and relocate them like the Babylonians had done. God used this more “enlightened” policy to accomplish His goals and fulfill His promise to restore Jerusalem.
The initial efforts of the returned exiles, led by Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the governor, begun three months after their arrival, reflected both faith and fear. According to Ezra 3:3 they built the altar on the foundation of the original “despite their fear of the peoples around them.” Faith is not incompatible with fear. The two often coexist.
When the time came to lay the foundation of the temple itself, the builders did so to the sound of trumpets and cymbals as the Levites sang a psalm. The people shouted in response—but not everyone cheered. The older priests who could still remember Solo-mon’s temple wept so loudly that it was impossible to distinguish the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping.