After the captivity of Israel in Babylon, the people of Judah were allowed to return to rebuild the temple. Seventy years passed, as had been prophesied in Jeremiah 25:11. Only some who would have been very young at the time of the captivity were still alive. Imagine if you had been 10—you would now be 80. If you started a family at 20, your child would now be 60. If they started a family at 20, their child would now be 40. If their child started a family at 20, that child would now be 20 and ready to perhaps start their own family.
If the stories had not kept the memory alive, those in the later generations would only know Babylon as their home. "But many of the priests and Levites and heads of the fathers’ houses, old men 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, 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" (Ezra 3:12).
Most of those who were there would only know stories of the homeland, while many others assimilated and decided to stay where they were. Those who came made the hard decision to leave generations of family and friends behind them. God had stirred up the heart of King Cyrus to allow the return of the captives to rebuild the temple. He returned many of the items Nebuchadnezzar had plundered from the temple.
In Ezra 2 we are told that 42,360 people returned to Jerusalem. "So the priests and the Levites, some of the people, the singers, the gatekeepers, and the Nethinim [consecrated ones], dwelt in their cities, and all Israel in their cities" (Ezra 2:70). They started off very well, when you read the story. But they met resistance in the area and soon became involved in rebuilding their homes and starting life over, while the temple remained in ruins.
We pick up the story in Haggai: "Thus says the LORD of hosts: 'Consider your ways! Go up to the mountains and bring wood and build the temple, that I may take pleasure in it and be glorified,' says the LORD. 'You looked for much, but indeed it came to little; and when you brought it home, I blew it away. Why?' says the LORD of hosts. 'Because of My house that is in ruins, while every one of you runs to his own house'" (Haggai 1:7-9).
In my youth, I wondered at these words. I pondered how these Jews could neglect the house of God when they had been brought back from captivity for the express purpose of rebuilding the temple. But many of them did not remember the former temple. They were trying to build their lives in a land new to them. The neighboring nations felt threatened by their return and began to make life difficult. They became caught up in the cares of life.
I thought of this story recently and somewhat smugly thought that I was doing my part for the modern work for God. We pay tithes and contribute extra when we can. We pray for the leaders and for their words to fall on fertile ground. We keep the Holy Days and honor God’s weekly Sabbath.
Then the thought came to me—what and where is the temple of God today?
Paul tells us: "Or do you not know that your body is the temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God, and you are not your own? For you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body and in your spirit, which are God’s" (1 Corinthians 6:19-20).
I thought about the devastation to my own home that insurance refused to cover, and how much of my time and energy has been spent on the recovery. Over the past five or six years we have been slowly rebuilding as money permitted. I had to ask myself how much have I been involved in the cares of this world while neglecting the temple of God, which includes my own spiritual growth? Is my home coming together while the temple lies in ruins?
My smugness disappeared as I had to honestly admit that my time building the temple had been hampered.
Christ Himself is our chief cornerstone, and we are pillars. "He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he shall go out no more. I will write on him the name of My God and the name of the city of My God, the New Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God. And I will write on him My new name" (Revelation 3:12). We should recognize that God will have His temple whether we are part of it or not. If we neglect our mission, we can end up losing the crown reserved for us and it will be given to another. "But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you" (Matthew 6:33).
God did get the returning captives back on track, and the temple did end up being completed, just as the spiritual temple being built now will one day be complete.
We are not so different from those whose stories are recorded for our admonition. May we learn the lessons from their errors and do our part in building the temple of God without hesitation or distraction.