When the builders had laid the foundation of the LORD’s temple, the priests, dressed in their robes and holding trumpets, and the Levites descended from Asaph, holding cymbals, took their positions to praise the LORD, as King David of Israel had instructed. They sang with praise and thanksgiving to the LORD: “For He is good; His faithful love to Israel endures forever.” Then all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD because the foundation of the LORD’s house had been laid.
But many of the older priests, Levites, and family leaders, who had seen the first temple, wept loudly when they saw the foundation of this house, but many others shouted joyfully. The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shouting from that of the weeping, because the people were weeping so loudly. And the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:10-13)
It’s hard for me to understand the significance of the temple to these people of God; I don’t have a comparison for it. But when the Babylonians sacked Jerusalem, when God’s people were deported, and when the temple was destroyed, along with it were crushed the hope of those people. For centuries, the enduring symbol of God’s favor and presence had been that temple. Here, when everything else failed, and when sin had run rampant, was somewhere the people could look; something tangible that demonstrated that God was still with us. His house is still here. His presence still resides.
And then it was destroyed.
But even in that destruction and deportation, the Lord promised hope and future. He promised that He would not only bring the people back to the land He promised, but that He was instituting a new covenant, written on hearts instead of stone. And some of those same people who watched the first temple burn actually got to see the new temple be erected.
So we have this scene. It’s been 70-somewhat years of exile. Years of struggle to maintain their national and spiritual identity in the midst of a pagan land. Decades of foreign oppression. But God was, and is, faithful to His word, and he has brought the people back. And here we find this scene.
Can you imagine it? After all those years? And yet there’s something not quite right about it, at least for some of the people in attendance. The new temple pales in comparison to the old one, and some of those in the crowd are just old enough to notice. What results is the mingling of celebration and mourning, and joy and sorrow erupt in the same refrain.
Now that’s something I can identify with. So can you, actually. Because that mingling is one of the daily experiences of the Christian.
As the redeemed people of God, we live the reality of Psalm 70:2: “let those who love Your salvation continually say, ‘God is great!’” The refrain of salvation and joy is continually on the lips of our hearts. And yet at the same time we live the reality of Psalm 90:13: “LORD, how long? Turn and have compassion on your servants.”
We live in the dual realities of what God has done and what He’s going to do; of the joy of salvation and the longing for redemption; of what is and what will be. And though we might not be aware of both of these realities in our daily experience, they’re there. Living together in our hearts, as the people of the already but not yet. Every once in a while, though, joy and sorrow erupt in the same refrain, just as they did in the days of Ezra. Take, for example, the Christian funeral.
This is when we sing “Victory in Jesus” through our tears. This is when we remember with sadness and look forward with joy. This is when we the celebration of the birthday changes into the somber reality of a memorial. Death and life, all together. The brokenness of the world and the coming redemption of God. As Christians, this is our reality. And it’s not bad when other people, even those outside the faith, see it in us.
The people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shouting from that of the weeping, because the people were weeping so loudly. And the sound was heard far away…
May our sound of joy and sorrow, of rejoicing at the salvation of our God and mourning over the brokenness of the world, be heard far, far away too.