Ezr_3:11-13. 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 many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy: 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 noise was heard afar off.
TO put a fanciful interpretation on any part of God’s blessed word is highly inexpedient; and to found a doctrine upon any such interpretation would be injudicious in the extreme. But certain it is, that there are many explanations given us by the Apostles, which we should in no wise have admitted, if given by uninspired men; such as the termination of the Levitical priesthood, as deduced from Abraham’s giving to Melchizedec a tenth of the spoils which he had taken; and the reservation of God’s inheritance to regenerate persons only, as deduced from Abraham’s repudiation of Hagar and her son Ishmael. Where these things are explained by the inspired writers, we may follow without fear: but in any interpretations of our own, the utmost diffidence becomes us. These observations I make, lest, in the passage before us, I should be misunderstood as intimating that the construction put upon it was really designed by the event itself. I am far from intending to assert that. I merely bring forth the subject as both curious in itself, and calculated to convey important instruction to our minds, if judiciously and temperately considered. That an exuberance of joy and of sorrow should be excited at once by the same event, is undoubtedly a curious fact: and it will be profitable to shew you,
What there was at that time to call forth such strong and widely different emotions—
The Jews, after their return from Babylon, had just laid the foundation of the second temple: and this was,
To some an occasion of exalted joy—
[It was not the mere circumstance that a magnificent building was about to be raised, but the thought of the use to which that building was to be appropriated, that proved to them such a source of joy. The erection of it was justly regarded by them as a restoration of God’s favour to them, after the heavy judgments which he had inflicted on them during their captivity in Babylon. In this light they had been taught to consider their return to their native land; and the very song which they now sang, had, at the commencement of their captivity, been provided for them by the Prophet Jeremiah, as proper to be sung on that occasion [Note: Cite Jer_33:10-11. as compared with the words immediately preceding the text.] — — — This event opened to them a prospect of again worshipping Jehovah according to all the forms prescribed to them by the Mosaic ritval. In reference to this, also, the same song had been provided for them by David; in singing which they could not but “make a joyful noise unto the Lord [Note: Cite also Psa_100:1-5. in the same view.]” — — — Nor could they fail to view it as tending to advance the honour of their God; in which view pre-eminently it must of necessity fill them with most exalted joy. As the bringing up of the ark to Mount Zion, so this event also called for songs and acclamations from every creature under heaven: “Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth; make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise. Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein. Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills be joyful together before the Lord: for he cometh to judge the earth: with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity [Note: Comnare 1Ch_16:8-10; 1Ch_16:31-34. with Psa_98:1-9.].”
I think, with such views of the event before them, the people could not but shout for joy; and “if they had been silent, the very stones would have cried out against them.”]
To others, an occasion of the deepest sorrow—
[Commentators have condemned this sorrow, as expressive of discontent; and as shewing, that the persons so affected did in reality betray an ungrateful spirit, and “despise the day of small things [Note: Zec_4:10.].” But I am far from thinking such an interpretation of their conduct just. The persons who manifested such pungent grief were “the priests, and Levites, and the chief of the fathers who were ancient men, that had seen the former temple.” It is true, they wept, because they well knew how infinitely this structure must fall below the former in point of magnificence. Whether it was of smaller dimensions than the former, we do not know: but as, of course, it could not be so splendidly furnished as the former temple was, so, of necessity, it must want many things which constituted the glory of that edifice, and could never be replaced. The Shechinah, the bright cloud, the emblem of the Deity himself, was for ever removed. The ark was lost, and the copy of the Law which had been preserved in it. The Urim and Thummim too, by which God had been wont to communicate to his people the knowledge of his will, was irrecoverably gone; and the fire which had descended from heaven was extinct, so that they must henceforth use in all their sacrifices nothing but common fire. And what but their sins had brought upon them all these calamities? Would it have been right, then, in these persons to lose all recollection of their former mercies, and of the sins through which they had been bereaved of them; and to be so transported with their present blessings as not to bewail their former iniquities? No: I think that the mixture of feeling was precisely such as the occasion called for: and if there appeared a preponderance on the side of grief, it was only such as the glorified saints in heaven are expressing continually in the very presence of their God; for whilst singing, with all their powers, “Salvation to God and to the Lamb,” they are all prostrate on their faces with self-abasing shame, and casting their crowns down before the throne, from a conscious unworthiness of the honour conferred upon them.
But I think that the Prophet Ezekiel, and I may add too the experience of all the most eminent saints that ever lived, will put this matter in its true point of view. By Ezekiel, God says, “I will remember my covenant with thee, and will establish unto thee an everlasting covenant, that thou mayest remember and be confounded, and never open thy mouth any more because of thy shame, when I am pacified towards thee for all that thou hast done, saith the Lord God [Note: Eze_16:60-63.].” And Job, Isaiah, Paul, yea, every real saint, in proportion as he is humbled before God, evinces precisely the feeling which was here so strongly marked: they lothe themselves in proportion as they are favoured and honoured by their God [Note: Job_40:3-4. Isa_6:5. 1Ti_1:12-13.].]
That this subject is not uninteresting to us, will appear, whilst I shew,
How far similar emotions become us at the present day—
Certainly there is at this time great occasion for joy—
[We are not, indeed, constructing a material temple for the Lord: but the whole nation is engaged in endeavours to erect a spiritual temple to him throughout the world. Never was there a period, since the apostolic age, when the exertions were so general, so diversified, so diffusive. To spread the blessed word of God, and to send to every nation under heaven those who shall impart the knowledge of it to the unenlightened, whether of Jews or Gentiles, seems at this time the one great labour of all who love and fear God. And is this no ground of joy? — — — But, to come home more nearly to ourselves: Is there no reason to rejoice in what, we trust, is going on amongst us? If the Gospel be “glad tidings of great joy unto all people,” is it no cause for joy that it is brought to our ears; and that it is effectual amongst us, as it has been throughout the whole world, to convert men to God, and to save many souls alive?
But, not to dwell on matters of general concern, let us bring it home to our own business and bosoms: Are there not amongst you, who hear me this day, some at least who have been “turned from darkness unto light, and from the power of Satan unto God?” Yes, I trust, there are here present some at least, who, having been taken from the quarry by the great Master Builder, are now “as lively stones built up a spiritual house,” to be “the habitation of God, through the Spirit,” for ever and ever. Speak I then too much, if I say, that not only those individuals themselves, but all who are interested in their welfare, have reason to burst forth into songs of praise, as loud and fervent as those that were uttered on the occasion which we have been considering? If even the very angels before the throne of God are not so occupied with contemplating the divine glory, but that they have derived a great accession to their joy from their views of every individual amongst you that is truly converted to God, surely we, who are all looking for the same salvation, and hoping to be partakers of it, have reason to rejoice.]
Yet is there amongst us abundant occasion for grief also—
[The persons whose anguish of heart forced from them such bitter lamentations, were those who remembered the former temple, which had far exceeded in glory every edifice which the world had ever seen. Now, if we suppose the Apostle Paul, who witnessed the state of God’s Church in its primitive and purest age; if we suppose him, I say, to come down in the midst of us, what would be his feelings at the present hour? That he would not “despise the day of small things,” or be indifferent about the salvation of ever so few, we are well assured: but what would he say to the state of this parish, this town and neighbourhood, or of the individuals who are most looked up to in the midst of us as professing and adorning the faith of Christ? Would his joy be unmixed with sorrow? Would he, recollecting what pure Christianity is, and what the preached Gospel produced in his day, and what advantages we have enjoyed; would he, I say, be satisfied with what he saw? Would he not rather burst out into floods of tears? yea, much as many are rejoicing at what exists amongst us, would not his lamentations equal in loudness and intensity the joys that are expressed by others in our behalf? I think that no one who knows what the Apostle was and what he himself is, can doubt of this. On the occasion referred to in my text, the noise of the joy and of the sorrow could not be distinguished from each other, by reason of the intensity of both: and I am well persuaded, that, if an assembly of primitive saints were at this moment blended with us, they would equal in their wailings the joys which any of us feel, or which others can feel in our behalf. It was with “weeping” that St. Paul contemplated many of the Philippian converts [Note: Php_3:18.]: and for many of the Galatian Church he “agonized as in the pangs of childbirth, till Christ should be more perfectly formed in them [Note: Gal_4:19.].” And was this from a want of charity, or from a contempt of piety in its lower stages of existence? No; but from love, and from a desire that God should be honoured to the uttermost, wherever his Gospel came, and wherever its blessings were experienced in the soul.]
What, above all things, should interest our souls—
[I say not that any one should be indifferent about the things relating to this present world: but I say, that the interests of religion in general, and in our own souls in particular, ought to swallow up, as it were, every other concern. As the rebuilding of the temple filled the minds of those at that time engaged in it, so nothing under heaven should transport us with joy like the establishment of Christ’s kingdom in the world and in the soul. On the other hand, nothing should produce in us such acute sensations of grief, as a consciousness that God is not glorified in the midst of us as he ought to be. Verily, it is a shame to the Christian world, that they feel so little on these subjects, whilst every vanity of time and sense is sufficient to excite in them the strongest emotions — — — But, Beloved, learn, I pray you, what ought to be the state of your minds in relation to the cause of God; and never cease to cry unto God, till you have obtained grace to serve him as it becomes those who have received mercy at his hands.]
What use we should make of our knowledge and experience—
[Many would think that the unmixed joy of the younger classes was more becoming than the grief of the elder. But if, as I suppose, the cries of the elder were a mixture of joy and sorrow arising from a more enlarged view of the whole matter, a decided preference must be given to their feelings above those of their younger brethren. It is not the fruit which exhibits the brightest colours that will prove the most grateful to the taste, but that which, under the influence of warmer suns, has acquired somewhat of a darker and more mellowed tint. So, in like manner, it is not so much an unqualified effusion of joy that is pleasing to the Most High, as that which is moderated with shame, and tempered with contrition. In truth, as long as we are in this world, we must have occasion for shame and sorrow: it will be time enough to lay them aside, when we are got within the portals of heaven. There our happiness will be without alloy; as the prophet says: “We shall have gladness and joy; and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” Cultivate, then, my Brethren, this depth of feeling, this tenderness of spirit, this humility of mind. Never forget your great and multiplied transgressions: but “walk softly before your God” in the remembrance of them; contented to “sow in tears, that you may reap in joy;” and to “humble yourselves now, that you may be exalted in due time.”]