Chapter 3 depicts the initial rebuilding of the temple altar so that sacrifices could be offered for the Feast of Tabernacles. The foundation of the temple for its rebuilding was laid later. The organization of the temple priesthood, including the priests and Levites, went along with the rebuilding of the temple. People rejoiced to see the rebuilding of the temple, but others who were older and knew the previous temple wept that it could not be rebuilt to the same splendor as the original.
One of the first actions of the returnees to Jerusalem was to rebuild the altar of the temple. We see throughout scripture one of the first things that religious people do in a new location is build an altar to offer sacrifices of gratitude.
The people in Ezra’s day especially wanted to complete their altar in the seventh month of the agricultural calendar year (the first month of the religious year) so that they could celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. When Solomon completed the first temple, its dedication was connected to the Feast of Tabernacles. In this regard, Ezra seemed to be connecting this temple with the earlier one. On the newly re-erected altar, they offered the prescribed sacrifices and offerings even though the temple foundations had still not yet been laid. Today’s temples do not include sacrifices on altars, but they do feature altars as a place for making covenants. The sacrifice that the Lord requires alongside these covenants today is a broken heart and a contrite spirit to remind us of Jesus Christ’s atoning sacrifice.
Verse 2 mentions Jeshua, the priest, and Zerubbabel, a governor of Davidic descent. These officials are connected with the authority from before the exile. Verse 3 mentions their “fear of the peoples of the land.” A recurring theme in Ezra and Nehemiah is the conflict between the returnees and the locals. Part of their sacrifices here in this verse seem to be a petition to God to protect them from the locals. These “locals” will later become the Samaritans during the time of Jesus. Some historians refer to them in this time period as Samarians because they came from the region of Samaria. Verse 7 details some of the arrangements made for supplies and labor to rebuild the temple, particularly cedarwood and craftsmen from Lebanon (Phoenicia).
This section recounts the reappointing of priests and Levites to serve in the temple. The Levites had to be at least twenty years old to serve. With great celebration, which included trumpets and cymbals, the people laid the foundation of the Lord’s temple. They sang songs and praised God’s steadfast love. The Hebrew word for this covenantal love is hesed. The concept of hesed is found throughout the Old Testament, and this particular phrase in verse 11 is found in several psalms and second temple liturgy. In Church teachings today, there is continued acknowledgment of God’s constant love through His covenantal relationships with His children. Despite praising God, those who knew the earlier temple of Solomon and its superior grandeur also expressed sadness. The shouting for joy and weeping for sadness blended together and created a noise heard at a great distance.