Summary: It is better to rejoice over what you have than to weep over what you used to have.
The year is 537 B.C. The place is Jerusalem. The Jews have just returned from a long captivity in Babylon. Some have been gone from their homeland for 70 years. Others have been gone for 50 years. They were sent into captivity as part of God’s judgment on generations of disobedience. Now at last the first wave of Jews is returning to the land. But everything has changed. The countryside is in the hands of their enemies. The city of Jerusalem lies in ruins. The walls have been torn down and buildings have been looted. And worst of all, the temple built by Solomon 500 years earlier is no more. It’s gone. Vanished. Utterly destroyed. So complete was the work that it seemed as if the temple and all its glory had been some strange dream. The Babylonians took the gold and the silver and everything else of value. The temple itself was razed. The Ark of the Covenant is gone, the altar of sacrifice is gone, and the temple implements are gone. In its place lies a field of rubble.
So the Jews go to work with vigor and determination. First, they rebuild the altar (vs. 1-6). Second, they relay the foundation of the temple (vs.7-9). Then they pause for a public praise celebration (vs. 10-11). In the midst of the cheering and the singing, a strange thing happens: “But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away” (Ezra 3:12-13). The young folks danced and cheered while the old folks wept bitter tears. And the shouts of joy mixed with the weeping so that no one could tell them apart. What a strange scene.
If you do the math, it all makes sense. The temple had been destroyed in 586 B.C. Fifty years later the Jews return from captivity and begin to rebuild it. The older folks who could remember Solomon’s temple were at least 65 years old. Meanwhile, two whole generations had been born in Babylon. Those young people had no memory of the glories of Solomon’s temple. Having grown up in pagan Babylon, they cheered the beginning of a new temple. But to the old folks, it was like comparing a tarpaper shack to the Taj Mahal. How pitifully small it seemed to them when compared with what they once had known. Their disappointment was so great that they wept while others rejoiced.
Everyone knows disappointment sooner or later. Friends break their word, marriages end in divorce, our children move away and never call us, colleagues betray us, the company lays us off, doctors can’t cure us, our investments disappear, our dreams are shattered, the best-laid plans go astray, other Christians disappoint us, and very often, we disappoint ourselves. We live in a world of disappointment, and if we do not come to grips with this truth, we are doomed to be unhappier tomorrow than we are today.