3 When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled together as one in Jerusalem. 2 Then Joshua son of Jozadak and his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel and his associates began to build the altar of the God of Israel to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God. 3 Despite their fear of the peoples around them, they built the altar on its foundation and sacrificed burnt offerings on it to the Lord, both the morning and evening sacrifices.4 Then in accordance with what is written, they celebrated the Festival of Tabernacles with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day. 5 After that, they presented the regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed sacred festivals of the Lord, as well as those brought as freewill offerings to the Lord. 6 On the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the Lord, though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not yet been laid.
(Ezra 3:1-6 NIV)
As a quick recap of chapter 2, God ignited a fire in the hearts of a group of Jewish exiles to return to Judah and rebuild the Temple in Jerusalem. At the end of chapter 2, we saw the people had returned to Judah and settled into the various towns where their families had lived before the exile.
As we open chapter 3, Ezra informs us that the people had indeed settled into their towns. We can safely assume that they had set up homes and housekeeping. They were not refugees living in ramshackle tents or temporary shelters – they were living in homes and had established regular daily routines.
In the seventh month (September/October in our calendar), this group of returning exiles came together in Jerusalem to begin the worked they had come to do. It would have been very easy for these returning exiles to live their own lives in their separate towns. But they had come back to Judah and Jerusalem for a common purpose – to rebuild the Temple and honor the Lord in the land He had given them.
Their first task was to rebuild the altar to the Lord in its original location. Joshua and Zerubbabel led the effort, in accordance to what God (through Moses) had established many centuries before.
Ezra tells us that they people began this rebuilding of the altar to the Lord with a certain fear and trepidation of the people living in the land. This was not about the physical reconstruction of the altar, but more about what it represented – the return of the worship of the God of Israel and Judah. This was an “in your face” move to the pagan cultic worship practices of those who had moved into the land after the Jewish people had been exiled. Yes, Cyrus had issued a proclamation that this was to happen, but the people were here on their own facing the naysayers and the wrath of the locals.
The first major Jewish festival to be celebrated after the rebuilding of the altar was the Festival of Tabernacles. This festival was one of three annual celebrations the Lord had established (Exodus 23:16-17; 34:22-23, Deuteronomy 16:13-16). The festival was held in Jerusalem, and all God’s people were to attend.
All this preparation and rebuilding of the altar was done before the foundation of the Temple was laid. This was not just a building program; this was about a reuniting of people’s hearts to the Lord and establishing both local and national obedience to Him.
God’s people knew their calling was to live in obedience to the Lord, even when it meant living counterculturally. They had to reject the pagan worship that their ancestors had practiced and worship the One True God and Him only. Ezra tells us that not only did they celebrate the Festival of Tabernacles, but they also re-established the regular sacrifices and festivals as the Lord had set up through Moses.
Does this struggle sound familiar to our day?
May we stand firm in our worship and obedience to the Lord as our One True God. Let us not get caught up and weighed down with the cares of this world – the cultural, political, social, economic, and other external influences that seek to drag us away from our walk with Christ.
May we focus our hearts on Jesus and His love and sacrifice for us, and out of an overflowing heart, share His love with others, even if it means living differently than everyone around us.