In Ezra chapters 3-6 we find an account of the leadership of Zerubbabel. Cyrus the King of Persia, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Jeremiah, allows a party of Jews to return from captivity to Jerusalem to reestablish the Temple. This group is lead by Zerubbabel (meaning “Planted or Born in Babylon”) who has like many of his followers been born in exile.
This band returns to the Holy City along with many of the vessels and utensils of Solomon’s Temple and restore the altar. Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests then begin to resume the sacrifices and offerings to God that had been made in the previous temple, and in accordance with the instructions of Moses. Yet at this point, the House itself has yet to be restored.
Zerubabbel and his companions, then commission the rebuilding of the temple itself under the guidance of qualified Levites. Ezra 3: 11 and 12 then record a puzzling occurrence: “And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. 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 (NIV).”
Commentators are mixed on this. One school of thought is that the elders wept because they were overcome with emotion as a hope which they had never believed they would see fulfilled was happening. Others, however, think the tears were of sorrow, as this new temple, was missing the former glory of the one lost.
The latter is an especially interesting take, as it seems to have some evidence when we compare the events of Ezra to those of Leviticus 9 and I Kings 8. In the Leviticus passage (verses 23-24) it recounts that “. . . When they [Moses and Aaron] came out, they blessed the people; and the glory of the Lord appeared to all the people. Fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat portions on the altar. And when all the people saw it, they shouted for joy and fell face down.” When Solomon’s Temple is completed, and the Ark installed, Kings states: “When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud, for the glory of the Lord filled his temple (verses 10-11 NIV).” No similar “presence of God” is recorded in Ezra.
Zerubbabel builds the House, but presence of God seems to be missing. Would this not be a cause for the elders to mourn? Their tears are especially understandable when they remember the glory of God in the previous temple.
So why no fire, smoke, or cloud? Is it that this temple is the work of Cyrus? Is it because the structure is not yet complete? Or, is it more fundamental – that the fullness of the prophecy of Ezekiel was not of a reestablishment of the physical temple (though that was still God sanctioned), or of an earthly Jerusalem, or of a nation just of Jacob’s seed; but of a spiritual temple, a celestial city, and a nation that was of all the seed of Adam? That God’s presence at sacrifice was no longer to be that of sheep and goats – but with the ultimate sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the altar of the cross? (John 19:30)