Ever met people who glorify the past? Listen to how they glory in the good old days, saying that nothing now or in the future will ever compare to how it used to be. I call them the nostalgic naysayers. They are bound to the success of the past, blinded to change, and pretty discouraging to be around.
This post retells one of my favorite Biblical stories that has lessons on precisely this: how to deal with nostalgic naysayers. It may be an old story, but its lessons are contemporary. It’s about a leader, who headed a big project, faced oppositions, stopped working, and found his strength again. If you would, come along for the story.
How the Story Began
The name is Zerubbabel. We meet him first in the postexilic—telling the history of the Jewish people after their captivity in Babylon—book of Ezra. The story began when Cyrus, king of Persia, had a spiritual epiphany. God impressed upon Him a desire to rebuild the temple in Jerusalem.
At this point, the Jews had been in captivity for over seven decades. Jerusalem was plundered by King Nebuchadnezzar, its temple destroyed, and the vessels in the temple were taken to Babylon about seventy years earlier. They lived as captives in Babylon, strangers, displaced people whose home was taken away from them. The Medes and the Persians eventually overtook Babylon, and it was after this change of power that the Jews had the opportunity to return to their home.
Cyrus sent hundreds of thousands of the Jews to return to Jerusalem to build the temple, along with resources and the vessels that Nebuchadnezzar had taken. Zerubbabel was the leader of this group. Imagine the rejoicing of this homecoming.
The Nostalgic Naysayers
The rebuilding of the temple then began in earnest. In Ezra 3, we find that they finished the foundation of the temple, and this was a cause for a great celebration.
But amongst the cheer, there were dissenting voices. It says in Ezra 3:12,
“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.”
I read this in the 21st century, and it sounds completely contemporary to me. I’m talking about the old men who wept, the nostalgic naysayers.
What’s their problem? These men had the honor of seeing the first temple; the one Solomon built many years before. Solomon went all out for this temple, with lots of gold and majestic things. This was the temple that Nebuchadnezzar plundered.
They had seen the glory of the past and were imprisoned by it. Past success limiting future dreams much? They wept because they knew that this new temple that was about to be built would never be like the old temple. It would be so inferior, so tragic.
The image of the first temple blinded them that they could not even see the possibilities of a better future. I mean, the temple had not been built yet at this point! They had just laid the foundation. But these men had boxed their vision. “It will never be like the good old days.”
As a young person, I’ve heard these familiar voices a few times. Often, they come from older, more experienced people. It will never work. Things are just not what they used to be anymore. Sometimes they mean well, trying to protect me from disappointments. Sometimes, it’s just to flaunt their experience. No big deal.
But the fallacy in nostalgia lies in the fact that our memories are faulty. The way our brain treats the past is that it will always grow more golden the more we cling to them. In reality, those times might not be as good as it sounds in real time.
Our memories are whatever we want them to be. It depends on the narrative we tell ourselves. And the worst part is if that narrative binds us to the past and limits our capacity to imagine possibilities.
But you what’s worse? I’ve also said things like this!
As a not-super-young-anymore person, I too am complicit in nostalgic naysaying. We’ve tried that before, it didn’t work. Or, yea, I knew that already. Nothing new or special in this. The implication is that I don’t allow the possibility for change, that things that didn’t work in the past may now work, or vice versa, simply because time has changed.
Ever discouraged someone from trying something new?
The worst part is if you succeeded.
Well, in the case of Zerubbabel, the naysayers succeeded, partly. The neighboring regions also rallied against the building of the temple and pulled political stints to halt the process. They succeeded. At the end of Ezra 4, the building ceased. Only the foundation was laid.
But then God intervened. Haggai and Zechariah, two prophets sent to deliver messages from God came to the scene. They got the builders to start working again after a few years of dormancy. What did they say?
To Zerubbabel, the leader of this project, God spoke specific encouragements. In Zechariah 4:6-10, God said,
“This is the word of the Lord to Zerubbabel:
‘Not by might nor by power, but by My Spirit,’
Says the Lord of hosts.
‘Who are you, O great mountain?
Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain!
And he shall bring forth the capstone
With shouts of “Grace, grace to it!”’”
Moreover the word of the Lord came to me, saying:
“The hands of Zerubbabel
Have laid the foundation of this temple;
His hands shall also finish it.
Then you will know
That the Lord of hosts has sent Me to you.
For who has despised the day of small things?
For these seven rejoice to see
The plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.
They are the eyes of the Lord,
Which scan to and fro throughout the whole earth.”
God said, Your work, Zerubbabel, is not going to be about might or power, but about the Spirit. Something else will get it done. All the challenges before you will disappear. The path will open. You have laid the foundation; you also will finish the temple.
Imagine, while all those naysayers despised this as a small thing, God was rejoicing. His eyes roamed throughout the earth, and He was happy to see that plumb line in Zerubbabel’s hands.
How do you stay discouraged with those kinds of affirmations? And for the nostalgic naysayers, how did they weep when the Spirit of God was rejoicing?
God was not done with his affirmations. In Haggai 2,
In the seventh month, on the twenty-first of the month, the word of the Lord came by Haggai the prophet, saying: “Speak now to Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua the son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, saying: ‘Who is left among you who saw this temple in its former glory? And how do you see it now? In comparison with it, is this not in your eyes as nothing? Yet now be strong, Zerubbabel,’ says the Lord; ‘and be strong, Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; and be strong, all you people of the land,’ says the Lord, ‘and work; for I am with you,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘According to the word that I covenanted with you when you came out of Egypt, so My Spirit remains among you; do not fear!’
Here, a direct rebuke was given to the nostalgic naysayers. The rebuke was that they were ignored. God only spoke to His workers, to be strong, assuring that He will be with them.
And then He gave them a promise.
“For thus says the Lord of hosts: ‘Once more (it is a little while) I will shake heaven and earth, the sea and dry land; and I will shake all nations, and they shall come to the Desire of All Nations, and I will fill this temple with glory,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘The silver is Mine, and the gold is Mine,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘The glory of this latter temple shall be greater than the former,’ says the Lord of hosts. ‘And in this place I will give peace,’ says the Lord of hosts.”
In a while, this temple that looked inferior to the first would be filled in glory. And its glory would far surpass the first temple’s! The Desire of All Nations, a prophetic reference to Jesus, would fill the temple. It would be a place of peace.
While some people looked back to the glory of the past, God was planning a greater glory in the future.
To a discouraged leader, what affirmations these words brought. So Zerubbabel, Joshua, and the rest of the people built and finished the temple, in spite of oppositions and political barriers. God moved those barriers away. And their work was completed.
In Matthew 1, we see Zerubbabel’s name again. Apparently, 11 generations after, he was to be part of Jesus’ lineage. The Desire of All Nations had come, and He filled the temple that Zerubbabel built with glory.
One day, Zerubbabel will rejoice to see the fulfillment of God’s promise, the full affirmations of God for his work.
So, What to do with Nostalgic Naysayers
The important thing is to be sure of our calling, to be determined to our purpose.
There will always be naysayers, especially when you try new things. But don’t let them limit your capacity to dream.
Most of all, please, don’t be one of them.