And 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 heads of fathers’ houses, old men who had seen the first house, wept with a loud voice when they saw the foundation of this house being laid, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted with a great shout, and the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:11c-13 ESV)
Tears can be difficult to interpret. The Scriptures do not tell us specifically why these elders were crying. What we do know is that after decades sacrifices could be made again. Things were being restored. Beauty was coming out of ashes. This truly was a day for celebration. But some of the elders among the people had joy mixed with tears. Happy tears? Sad tears? Or most likely tears of mixed emotion.
Some believe these elders are crying because this temple wouldn’t be as big and glorious as the first one. That’s possible, but I think it goes a bit deeper than this. Most of the people on that day had only known the ashes. They had never known of a temple. But not the elders. They knew the beauty and the ashes. So inevitably the phoenix which rises from the ashes is bound to be a little bittersweet. It’s a painful reminder of the ashes. It is a symbol of the wasted years.
Yet I’m not confident that these are only bitter tears. They are also a testimony of God’s grace. Their mourning is mixed with blubbering astonishment at the glory of God’s grace. In spite of their rebellion He continued to woo her in the wilderness. He always does what he said he would. Another generation will see his splendor. And so as they are drinking deeply of grace they are also pained by their years of false pleasures and broken cisterns. Their only recourse is to weep those sloppy tears of awkwardness, half-smiles, and brokenness being rebuilt.
There is something here for us young whippersnappers to learn. If God blesses us with revival, our carpets will likely be drenched with these types of tears. Tears of the wasted years. Tears of astonishment of grace but also sadness over the ashes of what could have been. If revival is truly as needed as we say, how can we not come to this conclusion?
Our youthful celebration is often too narrow. So we need these tears. We need them to help us feel the past, to know there once was another temple here. And we too can fall victim to wasted years. We need to listen to these tears. We need to be sensitive to them as well, and allow some to mourn our newfound successes. They aren’t just narrow and weeping for a past they cannot have back. Their emotions are mixed. Let’s learn to weep with those who weep—even if their weeping feels like discontentedness about our future.
At the end of the day the whole thing is a celebration of grace. And in the midst of this celebration we also long for the day when all of our tears—even these mixed tears—will be wiped away. On that day we’ll know how to rejoice fully. And on that day we won’t be caring much about first temples or second temples but God Himself will be our God and we will be His people. In the meantime even these joyous occasions filled with grace are bound to be mixed with a little sorrow as well.