Worship Following the Exile
Samuel Lesson #157
December 18, 2018
“Father, we’re so thankful that we can be here tonight. We live in a country where there’s no government persecution, no opposition, yet Father we know that the forces against the church and the truth of Your Word are getting stronger, that they are energized ultimately by Satan, and all of this is part of the angelic conflict and rebellion, and our role is to stand firm and put on Your armor and to continue to grow and mature as believers that we may learn exactly how to communicate the gospel to others and how to apply Your Word in our lives, so that we can be a witness, not only to those around us but also, to the angels for eternity.
“Father, we pray too for persecution that takes place around the world against Christians, especially in Muslim countries, but we know also that the persecution in China is overt and intense and extreme, and it hasn’t been getting much press in the United States, but it is growing in intensity. In fact, the President of China said that it is Christianity that it is holding back Communism in China. So, there is a dedicated attack against Christians, and horrible things are happening to the Christians there. We pray that they would be steadfast and faithful witnesses to the gospel.
“Father we pray for us that as we study tonight, You would help us have a great understanding of worship. As we come toward the end of this series on worship, that we would have a greater appreciation of our own personal worship of You as well as our corporate worship. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.”
Last time, we went through much of the Old Testament, much of the history of Israel in relation to worship, and so tonight, we’re going to look at worship following the exile. By the exile, I refer to that period from 586 BC until 536 when Cyrus tells the Jews to go back to the land, authorizes their return to the land, to rebuild the temple. We need to look at that.
Last time, we began this list of five things to go through. We looked first thematically through the Old Testament. We looked at the corruption of worship. In one sense, the corruption of worship is always idolatry. It may appear as it did in the Old Testament as the worship of images made of wood or stone or metal, but there’s also the abstract idols of the mind, the things we put in front of God where we rob God’s glory, we take away from Him His central role of importance and significance in our lives, and give our time, our attention, our money, energy and resources to something that supplants God. This was depicted in the Old Testament idolatry, and there were horrible, horrible abominations that occurred under Manasseh, one of the last kings of Judah—he’s followed by two or three kings. Then God brings the hammer down, and Israel is destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar—Jerusalem is sacked, and the temple is destroyed.
We looked at those themes, and then we looked at the themes of the reformation of worship. There were some great revivals in the biblical sense of the term. In the Church Age, most things that go by revivals are not in the same vein as those that occurred in the Old Testament. We looked at what took place there, especially under King Joash, King Hezekiah, and King Josiah. At the centerpiece of each of these is the restoration of the Word of God. If you have genuine revivals—and I think there are genuine revivals that break out upon occasion through church history—it’s always the preaching of the Word; it’s the availability of the Word.
If you go back to the 1500s and look at the Protestant Reformation, this is truly energized by the fact that the printing press was invented in the 15th century and now Bibles can be printed, so that every person can have their own, personal copy of the Scriptures. There are translations that are now made available by the early- to mid-1500s in the vernacular of the people, so they can get a German copy of the Scriptures, or French, or English. And as a result of that, people are reading the Bible and talking about it on the streets and arguing and debating theological points. Sometimes, it was a life and death matter because if you didn’t hold the same view as the monarch, you could be guilty of treason. Then, you were taken out, and you might be hung or burned at the stake or something worse. These kinds of things happened in the history of Israel, and with each of these you have a restoration of the focus on the Word of God.
Then, we saw the judgment that came on Israel because of idolatry, because of corrupt worship—their putting everything first instead of God. They’re giving their attention to all of these pagan idols. That’s as far as we got last time.
Tonight, I want to take us through the restoration and return of the Jews to the land following the Exile, the 70 years, and spend a little time on the initial return with Zerubbabel and then what we learned from Ezra, and we learned from Nehemiah, and the importance of the focus on Scripture at that time. And then, we’ll conclude with a transition going from the end of the Old Testament with Malachi—what happens during the inter-testamental period, with the rise of the synagogue. While it starts off, as most things do, with the focus on the Word, this becomes an idolatry of legalism. That is what Jesus faces when He comes. We are just going to walk our way through these various facets.
One of the things that we will see, is that when we get into the New Testament, we don’t find a significant emphasis on worship. Worship is used a few times. The word “worship” is used several times in the Gospels—it’s around 24 or 25 times in the Gospels—most relate to somebody worshiping Jesus at His birth, or later it’s those who are worshiping the idols, or at the temple, things of that nature. Then, when you get into the Epistles that are written for the Church Age believer, the word for worship is only used eight times. So, the question is, why is so little said about worship in the epistles? Mull that over for a while; it will be an important observation to make.
We’ve seen five different characteristics of worship that get emphasized over and over again. One of the things that I’m bringing out as we go through this survey of worship in the Old Testament is that we have commands in the Old Testament and the law for the worship of Israel, the corporate worship of Israel in the tabernacle and temple, but we don’t have that level of specificity when we get into the New Testament. What we do have is over and over again, there’s a tremendous amount describing worship in the Old Testament, and so there are principles that we derive from that that we see are the characteristics of worship.
When we get to the New Testament and you don’t have a lot said, it is because a lot has already been said. We are to look at the Scriptures and derive principles from what was there in the Old Testament and bring that over into the New Testament.
One of the first things we see is the centrality of the sacrifice, a substitutionary sacrifice where an animal is killed as a substitute as a depiction for the payment of sin. Man must come to God on the basis of what God says, and that is, there must be cleansing of sin, there must be a payment for sin and even though the blood of bulls and goats could not permanently provide that sacrifice, they were necessary for there to be real spiritual cleansing in the Old Testament. The Day of Atonement just lasts for a year. You have to do it again and again and again.
The second thing we saw that there is the proclamation of God’s character and His works—who He is and what He’s done. This we see from the end of Genesis 4, that at the time of Seth, men began to call upon the name of the Lord. We studied what that meant; it means to talk about and make proclamation about who God is and what He has done.
Third, we’ve seen the necessity of having sin cleansed. There is something about worshipping this holy, unique, distinct God that what we do in worship is different from what happens anywhere else and in other places. There is something that has to do with God being distinct. When Moses went up to the mountain to see why the burning bush did not become consumed by the fire, God first told him, “take off your shoes for you are on holy ground.” It wasn’t special ground; what made it special and different is that’s where God was. We see an important principle here that what was going on inside the sanctuary—where ever that was—was not what was going on in the culture at large. That’s an important principle because what we see today as part of what goes on in most evangelical churches is that what goes on inside the church is a mirror and a reflection of what’s outside the church.
It’s even been articulated by the church-growth advocates that we need to sing the same kind of music, dress the same way, do everything the same way as people are used to outside the church, so they don’t feel uncomfortable when they come to church. My question is, when you come into the presence of God and the presence of His Word, if you don’t feel uncomfortable because of what is communicated by God’s Word—not because the people are somewhat rude to you or make you feel uncomfortable or something like that—but because you’re exposed to a biblical culture, if you don’t feel uncomfortable, then maybe something is wrong, that that is a false criterion, a false standard.
The fourth thing that we’ve seen is that there are organization and training for worship. When David is preparing Solomon to build the temple, God has revealed everything to him. Solomon didn’t generate this on his own. David didn’t wake up one day and say, “Wow, I’m going to build an architectural masterpiece.” God revealed everything to him including the music, the structure of the worship, and the organization of the Levitical choirs, and Levitical orchestras. This wasn’t something that was just spontaneously developed on the basis of human genius. There is a divine pattern for worship, which is what we see as we go again and again and again through the Old Testament. Then, the focus, the centerpiece of all worship is on Scripture and our response to what God says. That’s the focal point.
So, we look at the big problem in the Old Testament and still today is we’ve made idols of our own sin nature. Exodus 20:3, “You shall have no other gods before Me.”
Deuteronomy 6:5, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” God and God alone commands that centerpiece in our lives and nothing else. So, what happens after the corruption that enters into the temple—and I pointed out under Manasseh, they put the images of Baal, images of the Asherah, and all of the fertility rites, all of that sexual perversion everything that was going on—happened inside the temple. They have totally desecrated the temple.
Of course, Ezekiel saw the Shekinah or dwelling presence of God depart the temple, some 20 years before the temple is destroyed, but this sexual perversion, this idolatry has taken hold, and so God now destroys the temple.
It’s a function of cleansing; that’s part of what divine discipline does. It’s a function of cleansing from sin and a recognition of that. But what happens to the people? The centerpiece, the focal point of their worship is this glorious temple, and it’s not there anymore. Where are they going to sacrifice? How are they going to have forgiveness for sin if there is no observance and sacrifice on the Day of Atonement? How is their nation cleansed from sin? What do you do about sin if there is no temple?
This same question is going to be a big question at the end of the first century when the second temple is destroyed in AD 70. How are they going to have cleansing? That’s when you start to get the reinvention of Judaism and the new Judaism that is based upon the rabbinical teaching.
You have this defeat by Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC, you have prior to that, a large number who fled, and they went to Egypt, and they settled in several places, and they took Jeremiah with them. This is described in Jeremiah 42 as well as Jeremiah 43:7 and Jeremiah 44:1. So, a huge group goes to Egypt, and then there are others that were taken captive by the Babylonians and they are taken off in chains, and they are marched to Babylon.
Then you have those who still stayed in the land. Israel has never been left without a Jewish presence since the conquest. There are always Jews who stay behind and are in the land. Those who were in the land, no longer had a place to sacrifice, but Mount Moriah is still a holy place. The temple may be gone, the altar may have been destroyed, but it is still the place that God has set His name. It is the place where He has been worshiped, it is the place where the ark of the covenant was located and sat on the foundation stone. That foundation stone is in the center of that monstrosity that’s up there now that’s called the Dome of the Rock. The rock is that foundation stone upon which the ark of the covenant rested inside the holy of holies.
All of that is gone; nevertheless, during this period, people would still come and sacrifice up on the Temple Mount, but it was a time of incredible sorrow and sadness. We get hints of it from the laments that are in Jeremiah, from the Book of Lamentations, we get hints of it as we look at Daniel and read also in the Books that deal with the post-exilic period.
When you look at the Jewish community in Babylon, they had no sacrifice for sin. There’s no place to make public proclamation. There are no annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. There are no festival days. There are no feast times, no singing of the hymns, and there’s no place to really rejoice and talk about what God has done and to praise Him. Israel, the land has been abandoned to the pagan gods, so there’s this sense of defeat and despair on the part of the Jews that God has abandoned them.
But into that spiritual darkness, God speaks through His Word and His prophets, telling them that this is not the end. It is a pause of discipline in God’s plan for Israel, and there will be a future regathering and restoration.
In fact, it gets specific in Jeremiah 25:11–12 as Daniel reads this, and that’s described in Daniel 9:2. He reads this section of Jeremiah which says [Jeremiah 25:11–12], “ ‘And this whole land shall be a desolation and an astonishment, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years. Then it will come to pass, when seventy years are completed, that I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity,’ says the Lord; ‘and I will make it a perpetual desolation.’ ”
There’s this promise that the Babylonians are going to be judged by God, and that there will be a restoration to the land. So, what does Daniel do? This is part of worship; this is Daniel’s worship. Daniel reads this; he takes out his abacus or “iPad,” and he starts making some calculations, and he figures out that the seventy years are just about up. Thus, as the spiritual leader of Babylon, he begins to pray about this that, “God you made a promise. You said after seventy years, we’re going to go home. Seventy years are almost up,” and he confesses the sin of the people to God.
Again, a great example that worship entails confession, and you should read that sometime. Read through the first part of Daniel 9, and Daniel’s prayer because this helps us to understand—and we’ll look at a prayer of confession today as well—but it helps us to understand what a prayer of confession entails.
Sometimes I hear people talk about, “well, I confessed sin,” and they just have like a grocery list. They just basically repeat ten sins, whatever they are—arrogance, anger, hatred, gossip, jealousy—and they think that’s confession. That’s just running through a list, but when you read the biblical accounts, what you have is, in prayer, “I acknowledge that I have sinned against you, God. I have been angry, I have been spiteful, I have gossiped; I have done these things.” It is personal. It is an admission of guilt.
If you were to stand up in a court of law, and a judge were to read out an indictment, and your response is to say, “no, I did not do that” or “yes, I did that, I robbed that person.” If you’re confessing your guilt, you’re not going to say, “Robbery, third degree.” That would be meaningless. That’s not what we find in the Scriptures. There’s not a single example of anybody confessing sin like that.
Daniel, as a representative, the spiritual leader of his people, Daniel recites what the people have done: their idolatry, their disobedience to God, their failure to obey Him, and that God was perfectly righteous and just to take them out of the land.
So, he goes through that, and he ends with a petition that God would restore them, and it’s at that time that the angel appears to him to tell him that God is going to restore his people and gives him this vision of the seventy weeks. So, there are those promises; that gives hope. Central to worship is this idea of hope—that all is not lost, even though we’re living in a fallen, corrupt world.
When we worship God, there is a sense that we come under a conviction of our sin, just as Isaiah did when we started this series. In Isaiah 6:5, Isaiah comes into the presence of God, and he says “Woe is me for I am undone! Because I am a man of unclean lips.” Again, that’s confession; it’s what I have done, I’m a man of unclean lips. There’s a picture of cleansing and then there is this response of hope in there, that there is a future because God is not a God of simple condemnation, but a God of restoration and a God of forgiveness.
You have these messages from the prophets also focusing on the promises of coming Messiah. You have chapters like Isaiah 53 that is all about the suffering Messiah that is going to be a substitutionary sacrifice for sin, and by Him, My people will be declared righteous. [See Isaiah 53:11.] You have prophecies like Micah 5:2 that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem; Isaiah 7:14, He’s born of a virgin; Isaiah 9:6 the titles of the Lord; [Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23], “ ‘and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated ‘God with us.’ ”
In the midst of that, you have promises for example in Isaiah 40, that they are to wait on the Lord, that this isn’t going to change quickly. They are to wait on the Lord for His restoration, but in in the meantime as things look chaotic and destructive, and you just don’t know what is going to happen, there is the promise not to be afraid. Isaiah 41:10, “Fear not, for I am with thee, be not dismayed for I am thy God. I will strengthen thee, yeah, I will help thee, yeah, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness.” That’s a promise given to Israel in the prediction of this future national calamity when they will be destroyed, but they are not to fear. God has a plan for them, and His plan is a plan of hope and a plan of restoration.
So, those who are in the land are having to deal with the aftereffects of destruction. The economy is a wreck, the land has been devastated, Jerusalem has been destroyed, it looks hopeless. But the prophets are saying, don’t give into hopelessness; Lamentation 3:22–23, “God’s mercies are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.”
Then we have those who went to Egypt. They developed a major center for Judaism in Alexandria. They attempted to preserve, to some degree, the practices of the temple without the temple. They put a focus on the Word, and what happened some generations later as the Jews in Alexandria lost their facility of Hebrew, and they could no longer read the Hebrew Scriptures, they brought in rabbis who knew both Hebrew and Greek, and they translated the Torah into Greek, and that’s the Septuagint. So, we see that the Word of God, the Scripture, the message from the prophets is still at the very center.
There was another group that were assimilationists. They assimilated through the pagan idolatry of the Egyptians, and they settled down the Nile at the first cataract at an island called Elephantine. There were various papyri discovered there that gave us insight into that Jewish community and what had happened to them.
There was a center for Judaism there in Alexandria, but of course, the major center for Judaism took place in Babylon. It was there that the Babylonian Talmud eventually gets written many centuries later as a reflection of what develops there.
The prophet that goes to Babylon other than Daniel is the prophet Ezekiel. Of those who were taken as captives to Babylon, there were a number of the Levitical priests and others who had scrolls with them, and who had copies of part or all of the Scripture. So, it was there that they began to copy these texts and distribute them to people. Without the temple, without the temple ritual, without sacrifice, they had to be refreshed, encouraged, and taught by the leaders and by the Scripture.
So, the Scripture became very central to this. It was at this time that we are told in Ezekiel 33, that they began to meet in the house of Ezekiel. This is often thought to have been the prototype of the synagogue—this is when that idea began—they would come together to study Torah, to study Scripture in the house of Ezekiel.
In Ezekiel 33:30–32, we read, “As for you, son of man—God always addresses Ezekiel as ‘son of man’— the children of your people are talking about you beside the walls and in the doors of the houses—He’s got everybody talking about what’s going on at his house—and they speak to one another everyone saying to his brother, ‘Please come and hear what the word is that comes from the Lord.’ ”
See, if you’re going to have any kind of impact, people have to be excited about the Word of God and telling other people about it and inviting them to Bible class, as it were. Continuing on with Ezekiel 33:31, “ ‘So they come to you as people do, they sit before you as My people, and they hear your words,—Here comes the condemnation; here’s the indictment. They hear your words, they’re still going through the motions, there’s still this formalism that had destroyed their relationship with God before the exile—but they do not do them—they amass notebooks of Bible doctrine, they have all kinds of notes, they have this and that, but they are not applying it; it’s not changing their life.
The word that is often abused today for changing the life is really the word “repent”; it means to turn, to turn away from disobedience and turn to obedience, to walk with the Lord. So, what we see here is they are coming to Bible class, they’re going through all of the outward formalities, but they are not letting the words enter into their soul and transform their lives—for with their mouth they show much love, but their hearts pursue their own gain.’ ” We should nail that sign on almost every politician because they have so much lip service; they say one thing and yet their hearts are focused in a different direction.
Ezekiel 33:32, “Indeed you are to them as a very lovely song of one who has a pleasant voice and can play well on an instrument; for they hear your words, but they do not do them.” They really like listening to Ezekiel.
I had one person who came for a while, he was an unsaved Jew, and he said, “I really enjoy coming to Bible class and listening to you, but people think I want to become a believer, so I’m going to quit. I just wanted you to know why I’m not showing up anymore.” That was back in the days when we were meeting at White Oak—so, that’s the idea here. They love to hear the ideas and to talk about them.
I remember a number of years ago back in the 90s there was a family that would often would often have parties and gatherings at their home, and I was frequently invited to that, and they always invited a good friend of theirs who was a Jewish lawyer. And everybody witnessed to this guy at every one of these parties. I mean, he would hear the gospel 30 times from different people, but he never trusted in the Lord. He just loved the intellectual stimulation and the discussion and the argument.
And I find that that’s true. That’s what’s going on here. People loved to hear Ezekiel talk, they loved to hear the things that he said, but they weren’t interested in applying them whatsoever. What we learn from this is that there were those that did respond, and the Word of God was becoming the central focal point. This will set the stage for post-exilic worship. That’s the critical issue; it’s not the ritual, it’s the will, the volition, the choices of the people. And they are choosing not to internalize, assimilate, and apply the Word even though they are going through the motions.
What became more central is this focal point on the Law because there was a realization that they had disobeyed the Law by being idolatrous, so they’re going to over-correct.
I don’t know if you know what I mean by that: This is when you’re going down the highway, and you take out your cellphone and you’re starting to text somebody, and you look up and you’re about to hit somebody, so then you correct to avoid hitting them, and if you’re not an experienced driver, you’ll over-correct, and hit somebody else and cause an accident. This happens a lot.
This is what happens; they’re going to over-correct against the overt idolatry, but the over-correction is going to eventually take them into hyper legalism that we see at the time of Jesus. So, the focus is on Torah, observing the traditions of the feast days in a modified way, and especially observing the Sabbath.
In Ezekiel 20:12, God says, “ ‘Moreover, I also gave them My Sabbaths, to be a sign between them, and Me, that they might know that I am the Lord who sanctifies them.’ ” So, they’re going to become much more rigorous about observing the Sabbaths, and one of the problems that led to their being taken out of the land wasn’t just idolatry, it was that they abused the Sabbath. They did not obey the Sabbath law. So, as they focused on the Word, they began to shift away from overt idolatry and realized that they needed to obey the Word.
In 536 BC, the Medes and the Persians defeated the Babylonians, and Cyrus became the emperor. He issues a decree to allow the Jews to return to the land. It’s not just the Jews. What Cyrus did is that he realized the Babylonians had captured so many different people from different countries and different nations and had brought them back to Babylon, what he wanted to do is to send everybody home.
He was very gracious in that, so Ezra 1:2–4 describes that. It says, “Thus says Cyrus, the king of Persia: All the kingdoms of the earth, the Lord God of heaven has given me. And He has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem which is in Judah.” He is recognizing that these holy places—and he did that not just for the Jews but for all the different people; he spent money to rebuild all of the temples.
So, some people think this means, he must be saved, but from what we know from archeological discoveries is that he did this for all the different people groups. He’s using the right words, but he doesn’t mean that he is a believer in Yahweh of the Old Testament. He’s just going along with each group, and he wants all the gods to be happy with him, so he’s going to send everybody home to rebuild their temples. This begins the return.
When you have the first return, it goes back under Zerubbabel, and he takes about 45,000 Jews back to the land. That’s not a big number. They’re not coming from Egypt, and they’re not coming from those who had been scattered to the north or those who were scattered in the dispersion that occurred from the Assyrians back in 722 BC.
You’ve got a lot of Jews that have been dispersed—that’s the English [word] from diaspora. You have a lot of Jews that have been dispersed throughout North Africa, Asia Minor, or what we call Turkey today, as well as the deeper Middle East in the areas of what we would today refer to as Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, and Iran. So, he is just sending back and authorizing those under his authority to go back to the land. Zerubbabel takes a group of about 45,000 back. It is a time of incredible joy. How many times to do we feel this excited just because we get to get up on Sunday morning and go learn about the Lord in church.
This is the from the first five verses of Psalm 126, “When the Lord brought back the captivity of Zion, we were like those who dream.—They couldn’t believe it was happening.—Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing. Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’ The Lord has done great things for us, and we are glad. Bring back our captivity, O Lord, as the streams in the South—That’s the desert, streams in the Negev—Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy.”
So, it’s just a celebration as they go back to what had been their family homes, and there’s a lot that has to be done and a lot of rebuilding that will have to take place and they’re going to have to restore the temple and sacrificial worship. We see some of this described in Ezra 3.
Turn with me to Ezra. We’re going to be bouncing around in Ezra reading different key verses that are here. If you go down to Ezra 3:10, you have, “When the builders laid the foundation of the temple,”—This was about 534 BC, a couple of years after they returned.
They laid the foundation, but this isn’t like a bunch of construction workers going out laying the foundation; there is a lot of pomp and circumstance with this. There is a lot of celebration that goes on. The priests are all there, it’s structured; this is a worship service. They worship God as the foundation of the temple is being laid.
Again, we see that worship is organized and structured. It is not random, chaotic, or at the spur of the moment. They are there, the priests are there, they are appropriately dressed as priests, they are in their apparel with trumpets. So, during this time, they have reorganized the orchestra, the musicians. This involves training; it involves taking the Levites and discovering who has talent and ability on different instruments, and then teaching them and training them.
I have a friend, and many times in our lives we didn’t connect well. I had been in ROTC with him in college, but I first met him the summer before our 7th grade year when we both got in the band, and we learned to play trombone together. Now, he’s a deacon at Second Baptist Church. There are a few of those guys that are believers, and he’s solid, and we usually communicate at least two or three times a month.
So, that’s what has to happen though; it’s that kind of a training. They haven’t done this for a while. I don’t know how many of you have ever played a musical instrument, but if you go three, or four of five or ten years, you lose the musculature in your lips.Iit’s called an embouchure, and you have to regain that, you’ve got to retrain those muscles, so that you can play—if it’s any kind of a wind instrument, you’ve got to get that back. So, there’s organization and structure, and they learn to play well, to play excellently.
Notice, it says in Ezra 3:10, “… and the Levites, the sons of Asaph …” Asaph was the head of the orchestra at the time of David. He’s the one who organized and structured it, and developed all of this training. His descendants are still there, and they still carry on this tradition. So, it’s a new generation, but it’s not a different worship.
This is what we get in our current generation. They misinterpret the idea of “singing a new song,” where we’re going to have our generation’s music, and our generation’s songs, and that really hasn’t happened through the years. They change everything; what we see in hymnody is that there are certain patterns that have always been there, whether it was the early to medieval church that focused on singing the psalms, or whether it was in the development of hymnody through the 17th, 18th, 19th, or some into the 20th century.
So, there’s this training and the purpose is to praise the Lord, [Ezra 3:10] “according to the ordinance of David, king of Israel.” They’re not coming out with something new; they’re sticking with that which honors God. [Ezra 3:11] “And they sang responsively,” We read responsively, and there are some hymns we could sing where there are different parts, usually in the chorus, and that’s that same idea, “they sang responsively.”
We’ve studied what looks to be one example of that in Revelation 5 where you have the 24 elders, and then you have the angels singing, and it’s antiphonal. One group sings and then the other group sings. So this is what they did, they sang responsively—“praising and giving thanks to the Lord: ‘For He is good, for His mercy endures forever toward Israel.’ Then all the people shouted with a great shout, when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid.” But there is also sorrow.
[Ezra 3:12] “But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men—these would have been young boys in 586 BC; they might have been five or ten years of age; it’s been 70 years, so they are now in their 80s, but they remember what the first temple was like, so they weep—who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this temple was laid before their eyes. Yet many shouted aloud for joy,—It’s a bittersweet time; they remember what happened, so there’s genuine sorrow and sadness over what was lost, but at the same time, they are glad of what is going on. Then in Ezra 3:13, “so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard afar off.”
Then let’s just skip forward a little bit more in Ezra to look at what happens when they dedicate the temple. They dedicate the temple in 515 BC. So, they began in 534; there were lots of false starts, problems, opposition from the Arabs, Samaritans, and others who had been resettled into the land, so the temple was begun in 534 BC, but there were these many problems.
In Ezra 6:15, we read about the temple being completed, and then in Ezra 6:16, we read then “The children of Israel, the priests and the Levites, the rest of the descendants of the captivity celebrated the dedication of the house of God with joy.” It’s a genuine celebration; it is serious; it is organized; it is structured, and it is great joy.
In Ezra 6:17 we read, “And they offered sacrifices at the dedication of this house of God, one hundred bulls, two hundred rams, four hundred lambs, and as a sin offering for all Israel twelve male goats, according to the number of tribes of Israel.” So, the sin offering is a reparation offering for forgiveness of sin, and then there is cleansing of the temple by these sacrifices. So, we see that sacrifice is still central to worship.
And then, they celebrate the Passover in the next month. [Ezra 6:19–20] “And the descendants of the captivity kept the Passover on the fourteenth day of the first month. For the priests and the Levites had purified themselves; all of them were ritually clean.—So, they have followed the letter of the law; they are ritually clean—And they slaughtered the Passover lambs for all the descendants of the captivity, for their brethren the priests, and for themselves.”
This is a huge undertaking. It is not as huge as it will be later; you’ve got 40,000, you divide that by ten, so you have about 4,000 families, so you’re slaughtering about 4,000 lambs perhaps, but that’s what’s taking place. They are doing everything right. [Ezra 6:21] “Then the children of Israel who had returned from the captivity ate together—that’s the fellowship offering; they eat together. It’s a communal meal. They are at peace with God now, and they are able to have peace with one another, and so they are then able to seek the Lord God of Israel.
In Ezra 7, one of my favorite verses, I just had to throw it in here. It talks about the focal point of Ezra. Ezra, up through this point, has not returned to the land. He is writing about what had happened before him, but in Ezra 7, we read about him entering the scene. He is a generation later, a generation after those who return. So, he comes along about 454 BC, something close to that time period.
Ezra is a man for that time; he is spiritually prepared. When he was a young man, he had prepared his heart, which means he set his heart, he determined, he set the course of his life. He made a commitment that he was going to follow the Lord, but notice what he does. He committed, he set his heart—that’s a volitional statement—he’s made a determination to seek the Law of the Lord.
First of all, he’s going to study the Law, memorize it, and internalize it. [Ezra 7:10] “For Ezra had prepared his heart to seek the Law of the Lord, and to do it …” He wants to learn everything there is to know about the Torah, and then to apply it all consistently and to teach statutes and ordinances in Israel. This becomes a focal point.
When he came back, he had to call people to account because there were a lot of practices that were wrong. They were disobeying the Law. And many of the scribes who returned with him at that time were the forerunners of the later religious group that we study in the New Testament. These guys were all solid. They were focused; they were grace oriented. They were centered on the Scripture, but it is their descendants many generations later that revert back to formalism, and revert to legalism. This happened even at that time; they had to straighten out a lot of problems.
For example, there was a lack of teaching of the Law. That’s why he has to focus on this. He has to teach the Law. He has to teach the priests, so that they can preach the Law. He also has to deal with a number of other problems in the land because a lot of the Jews had inter-married with the Gentiles, with the pagans in the land. This is another problem the Jews have always had in their history is assimilating into the Gentiles instead of keeping separate as the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
The priests are indicted here. Malachi 2:7, Malachi comes in about a generation or so after Ezra, and in Malachi 2:7–8 we read, “ ‘For the lips of a priest should keep knowledge—See it’s a proverb, for lack of knowledge, My people perish, lack of vision. They don’t have revelation. The lips of a priest should keep knowledge; he should teach the Word—and the people should seek the law from his mouth; For he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. ‘But you have departed from the way. You have caused many to stumble at the law. You have corrupted the covenant of Levi,’ ”—That is the covenant God made with Levi in relation to the priesthood.
In Ezra 7, there is a letter from Artaxerxes, his commission to Ezra. What is interesting is Artaxerxes tells him exactly what he is supposed to do. He is supposed to go back, and he gives him all this money. He says this is what you do; you take all of this money and buy bulls, and rams, and lambs, and the grain offerings, and the drink offerings, and offer them on the altar of the house of your God in Jerusalem. And whatever else seems good to you and your brethren, do whatever you want with the money that is left over according to the will of your God. So, we see that developing in Ezra 7. Ezra 8 talks about the other groups that come back to the land and then when we get into Ezra 9, we see the condemnation of the people.
We see the confession of Ezra here in Ezra 9:5. It’s the evening sacrifice, and he says [Ezra 9:5–7], “At the evening sacrifice I arose from my fasting; and having torn my garment and my robe, I fell on my knees and spread out my hands to the Lord my God. And I said: ‘O my God, I am too ashamed and humiliated to lift up my face to You, my God;—See, he realizes the horror of his sin.
Now some of us are way too comfortable with some of our sin, and that happens, but he recognizes what happened in Israel that led to this horrible destruction. So, he is confessing their sins to God—for our iniquities have risen higher than our heads, and our guilt has grown up to the heavens. Since the days of our fathers to this day we have been very guilty, and for our iniquities we, our kings, and our priests have been delivered into the hand of the kings of the lands, to the sword, to captivity, to plunder, and to humiliation, as it is this day.’ ”
Then it gets to the punch line, the application, when you get into Ezra 10. There is confession of sin over the intermarriage with the pagans, and he says, [Ezra 10:3] “Now therefore, let us make a covenant with our God to put away all these wives and those who have been born to them …” Confession isn’t just saying, “Lord, I did this,” but at some point, it’s a recognition that “I’ve got to change. I’m not going to do that anymore.” That’s what he is saying is okay. The implication of this confession of sin of intermarriage is that we’ve got to deal with it. We’ve got to deal with the consequences, so we’re going to put away these wives and children that were born into these households because that eventually will destroy us.
It’s a cleansing—it’s related to the immigration argument, so you can just chew on that for a while. Ezra 10:4, “ ‘Arise for this matter is your responsibility. We also are with you. Be of good courage, and do it.’ ” Notice that: We have to put away all of the wives, we have to do according to the Law, that’s at the end of Ezra 10:3, and “do it” in Ezra 10:4. [Ezra10:5] “Then Ezra arose, and made the leaders of the priests, the Levites, and all Israel swear an oath that they would do according to this word.”—There’s that phrase “to do” again. It is okay, I’ve taught you Bible class; now we’re going to make sure we do what we said we were going to do— “So they swore an oath.”
You see a little later on, Ezra and Nehemiah overlap. Nehemiah is sent and commissioned by Artaxerxes to go back and to rebuild the wall. So, he has to rebuild the defenses and reestablish the economy in Jerusalem. That’s the decree from Artaxerxes that is the start point for Daniel’s seventy weeks, and that whole countdown.
In Nehemiah 8:2, we read, “So Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly of men and women and all who could hear with understanding on the first day of the seventh month.” So, this is what is happening: They’re going to bring all of the people together, and they’re going to be in the open square that is in front of the Water Gate, and Ezra is going to take out the Book of the Law, and he’s going to start reading Scripture to the people.
Now I don’t know if this would take place today in most churches. I can’t imagine that if you went to one of the larger churches here, and you had everybody stand up, and that is what they did they stood up, and they read the Law all day long. And nobody left. They came under conviction because they heard what God said. That’s what we have in Nehemiah 8:3, “Then he read it in the open square in front of the Water Gate from morning until midday.”
I see signs of boredom sometimes when I’m reading Scripture for 30 seconds. This is for three hours—[Nehemiah 8:3] “from morning until midday, before the men and women and those who could understand; and the ears of all the people were attentive to the Book of the Law.”
They are being brought to task there, and they are going to respond. It goes on to talk about how they were organized and how Ezra set up a platform for leaders up there on the platform, and as he read, there were secondary teachers who were out in the crowd—they didn’t have a system to project your voice, so what happens is they are repeating. They can hear Ezra and they repeated. So, you have this repetition of the Law going out; everybody in the crowd can hear it.
What happened next is described in Nehemiah 8:6, “Then all the people answered, ‘Amen, Amen!’ while lifting up their hands. And they bowed their heads and worshiped their Lord with their faces to the ground.” So, they understand exactly what has happened. Then we read down in Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read distinctly from the book, in the Law of God: and they gave the sense, and helped them to understand the reading.” See, they explained what it meant along the way as Ezra read it, so it wasn’t just simple reading.
In fact, in the early church, from about the second century and it lasted for several years, they did this to some degree even through the Middle Ages, especially in the Eastern churches. They would have two pulpits in the front of the church. In one pulpit, you would have the pastor or deacon or leader, and he would read the Scripture, but he didn’t just read it, he would explain it. He would make sure you understand what the words meant, and what the grammar meant. Services lasted five or six hours, and there would be singing.
When I go over to Ukraine, they will have two or three sermons in the morning service. They will have several prayers and different types of singing. We don’t have the patience for that. You’re dedicating your day to worshiping the Lord. So, what would happen in the early church is they would have a reading, which was sort of an explanation, a little grammatical analysis and word study, then they would sing more. After that, there would be a sermon that was more applicational.
What we do today is we sort of merge these two things into one message. In a lot of places, they just dropped out the exegesis and the word studies, and they just did kind of a moral homily. That’s really sad. But in the early church, they did both, and we combine those in what I do. This was what was going on at this particular time.
Then what develops out of this in the inter-testamental period is that there is a breakdown. You have the rise of the synagogue, which is just a place of teaching, because people couldn’t go to Jerusalem that frequently, so they wanted to hear more of the Word. This probably started about 100 years before Christ. We have a couple of archeological discoveries of synagogues from the first century. There is now one that was recently discovered at Magdala, which we went to on our last trip to Israel. There’s another one that is down in the South. The one we see at Capernaum was actually built on top of the synagogue where Jesus spoke. It’s a second century synagogue.
The focal point of the synagogue was on the teaching and explanation of the Torah, of the Scriptures. And there was a rock seat, called the Seat of Moses, and when the teacher, the rabbi was in the seat of Moses, Jesus said when you speak from the Seat of Moses, do what he says because there he’s just explaining precisely what the Scripture says. When he’s outside the Seat of Moses, you don’t have to listen to him because he’s just giving his own opinions. But this is what is going on, and what develops during this inter-testamental period is the desire to protect the people from doing anything that would violate the Law.
They created what they called a fence around the Law. These were all those secondary commandments. If the Law says that you shouldn’t work on the Sabbath, it doesn’t define what that work is, so when people say, “What constitutes work?” they would list ten or fifteen things that constituted work. That became known as the fence, and that became known as the tradition of the elders.
This is what Jesus was accused of by the Pharisees of violating in Matthew 15:2, “Why do Your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders?” That has to do with the interpretation of the oral law, the Halakha, and that had to do with washing hands before eating. Paul refers to this in Galatians 1:14. He says, “I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.” This is the introduction of legalism.
Legalism is basically an idolatry of the Scriptures and adding to the Scriptures the traditions of men. So, it’s not just Scripture alone, it’s Scriptures plus tradition. This becomes a major problem by the time of Jesus. They’ve moved from an overt idolatry to an idolatry of the traditions of men and an idolatry of the interpretations of men.
We see those same kinds of things repeated today. It happens in Protestantism and in Roman Catholicism. How many times do you hear somebody say, “this is what the Bible means,” and then they quote Calvin? They can’t exegete the text; they’ll quote some theologian. It may be a pastor today or it may be some theologian from a few centuries ago, but it’s the same kind of thing where you’re elevating the traditions of men over the authority of Scripture itself.
What we’ve seen as we go through this is sacrifice is still at the center—the Word of God and the proclamation of the Word of God is still at the center. There is music, there’s celebration, there’s joy, there’s the expression of hope, but it’s not chaotic. It’s organized, it’s structured, the musicians are trained, the singers are trained, all of this is because that is what brings glory to God who has so structured and ordered the universe as we are worshiping a Creator God.
So next time, we will get into the New Testament passages on worship and we will bring this subseries of worship to a close, and then we will begin back in 2 Samuel.
“Father, thank You for this time that we have had today to think about the patterns of worship, that they continue from the Garden through Malachi, and that they teach us a lot about what should be part of our worship today: the proclamation of who You are and what You have done, the teaching and instruction of Your Word, confession, being cleansed from sin, being prepared to serve a holy, righteous God, a God who is unique and distinct, also the organization and structure of music and of the worship service itself.
“It is not something that is random and unplanned, spontaneity. It is something that is designed and structured to reflect who You are as the Creator of the universe. Challenge us as we think about our own spiritual life, and our own personal worship of You. We pray this in Christ’s name. Amen.”