We tend to think of the Bible as divided between Old and New Testaments because it is. But let us consider the Bible as pointing toward three narrative arcs in the history of God’s relationship with his people.
The first arc tells how pre-exilic Israelite religion came to center on the life of the temple in Jerusalem, beginning with Genesis and running through Kings and Chronicles. Thus at the heart of Judaism lies a memory of the cultic life of Solomon’s Temple, where together his people honored the one God, assured of his presence and the attendant security it brought them.
But all that stopped with the Babylonian invasion in the early 6th century B.C., the razing of Jerusalem, the destruction of the temple, and, once again, enslavement of the Jews in a foreign land (this time in Babylon rather than in Egypt).
And it is here that a new arc begins, for God’s chosen and beloved had to learn how they might honor him and experience his presence without that temple. Happily, the Persians’ victory over the Babylonians allowed them to go back into the Promised Land. But even in return they could never forget the experience of exile.
The book of Ezra, together with the book of Nehemiah, recount the events following the initial return to Jerusalem, events in which both Ezra, as a religious authority, and Nehemiah, as a statesman, had significant roles.
Of course, they sought to rebuild the Temple. But in the third chapter of Ezra we hear a remarkable account of that experience, one that points to how indelibly exile had changed them:
“But many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:12-13).
Between the jubilation of those for whom that temple was only a cultural memory and the sense of sorrow of those who had seen that first temple themselves, we as readers witness the depth of individual response that this project elicited.
In exile, the Israelites came to understand the Temple and their relationship to God in more personal terms – and to recognize something that had been true all along. For despite King Josiah’s emphasis on Temple worship, the home was the locus of so many important religious observances, e.g., circumcision, Passover and the Sabbath. God’s relationship with the Israelites was never so much about how and where, as who and what they were: his chosen lineage. Seen in this light, that long genealogical table in the second chapter of Ezra makes more sense.
It is a lesson we as Christian readers, should take to heart. For when later generations lost sight of how personal God’s love was, “Jesus answered them, ‘Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up’” (John 2:19).
For God was more present in Jesus than he had ever been in any building made with hands. It is in Christ that this second arc finds its conclusion, in the recognition that the presence of God is more than something experienced in the Temple’s cult.
And in Christ we have the promise that God’s presence now dwells within us by the power of the Spirit, so that we ourselves are temples for the Lord (1 Cor. 6:19). Whatever harm may come to that temple, God has the power to raise it up once again, just as he did the temple that was Christ’s body.
So whether you shout in joyous anticipation, or weep for what you leave behind, behold in him the beginning of the third great arc in the story of God’s love extended to his people, the one that you and I are writing with our lives. It is the story that begins with our faith in Christ that makes us temples of his spirit, and shall end in life with him forever.