Ezra 3.12: “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.”
Israel is here returned from 70 years in exile. They’re rebuilding their lives, including their temple. Most of those present were born in exile, so any temple at all is a reason to rejoice. But some of those present were old enough to remember the former Temple, destroyed 70 years earlier, and all they see are reasons for weeping. Why? Because they recall the first Temple. Painful memories. Memories of past mistakes. Memories of taking the wrong way and suffering the consequences. Memories of missed opportunities. Regret over what might have been. To fall under the spell of such memories is to view even blessings as a cursed reminder of the past.
Another similar passage:
Haggai 2.3: “Who is left among you who saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Does it not appear to you like nothing in comparison?”
Why ask this? Because, as we know, some are weeping. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. “We’ll never recover what we had. Our mistakes have condemned us to a Plan B that will always trail behind Plan A. We’ll live the rest of our lives weighed down by the shame of our regret.”
Eventually the pain of regret comes to the surface not just for the older generation who were around to remember the former days, but also when Ezra gathers all the people in Jerusalem to hear the Scripture read aloud. What happens? Neh. 8:9b: “All the people were weeping while they heard the Scripture being read.” Why? Because they hear described God’s historical call to Israel, his promises to Israel, his gifts and blessings, the history of his faithfulness and provision, and they’re overwhelmed. Why? Because that has not been their experience. They sit and leaf through Israel’s older photo-albums of former times rich with blessing and peace, and they mourn its loss, if they’re old enough to remember, or its absence, if all they’ve known is exile.
So what’s God say to them about the regret and pain of past mistakes and missed opportunities? Two things:
1) Through Nehemiah (8.10) God says, “Don’t grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” And when Israel hears the feast of tabernacles described in the public reading of Scripture, they confess, “What? We haven’t been celebrating this,” and they all gather palm branches and tree limbs and build humble, leaky, dirt floor dwellings to celebrate the Feast of Tents/Tabernacles. Nehemiah (8.17) says there was great rejoicing. Exiles rejoicing?
2) Through Haggai (2.9) God says: “The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the glory of the former house.” The Temple was destroyed in judgment, and as it’s rebuilt, it becomes clear this will not be a return to the former Temple. God asks, “Those of you who remember the first Temple, what d’ya think?” And they just weep. But God encourages them, “Don’t cry. The glory of this latter house shall be greater than the glory of the former house.” Understand it correctly. The former house was larger, more impressive, a top-shelf Temple, a true denominational HQ, red carpet and all. This latter house, however, is smaller, humbler, and far less impressive. And yet God promises the glory of this latter house will be greater than the glory of the former.
Your past failures cannot foreclose upon the goodness and glory God wishes to manifest in and through you. For the glory of the house doesn’t depend on the history of the house; it depends on who occupies the house. This latter house won’t look the same as the former house. It’s less impressive to outsiders, less accommodating, less fitted for headlines and conference. It gets no invites. Hosts no celebrities.
Your life may have taken a very different path than it would have taken, but you will cross the same finish line everybody else crosses and you’ll participate in the same transforming glory and goodness of God. It matters not what you are in; it matters what is in you. The glory is his, not the house’s, and it can flow in the fullness he desires from the rebuilt ruins and losses which exile inevitably brings.