Ezra 3

The altar and the foundations of the temple.

Our chapter points out a great many other characteristics of the remnant, in addition to the two features mentioned above.

"And when the seventh month* came, and the children of Israel were in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem. Then stood up Jeshua, the son of Jozadak, and his brethren the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel, and his brethren, and built the altar of the God of Israel, to offer up burnt-offerings on it, as it is written in the law of Moses the man of God. And they set the altar on its base; for fear was upon them because of the people of the countries. And they offered up burnt-offerings on it to Jehovah, the morning and evening burnt-offerings" (vv. 1-3).

During the seventy years of captivity, this poor people, stricken by the judgment of God, had been deprived of the worship service of the Lord. The temple had been destroyed and all its treasures spoiled; the brazen altar itself had been broken. But as soon as the remnant return to their land, the altar, the primary symbol of worship, and the one item of furniture absolutely essential for the existence of the service of worship, is rebuilt.

This is a striking type, designed to instruct us. In Haran, Abraham had no altar; when he crossed the border of Canaan, the altar appeared. When the patriarch went down to Egypt, he lost his altar; when he returned from Egypt, he recovered it. Thus the altar is intimately related to dwelling in the land of promise. One must belong to the heavenly Canaan in order for worship to be a reality; moreover, one must be practically dwelling there, have taken possession of one's inheritance, and have realized that one is delivered from the power of darkness and transported into a new kingdom, the kingdom of the Son of the Father's love - nothing less than these things is necessary - in order to worship God acceptably. The Church of Christ, unfaithful as she is, has lost these things from sight; but in these final days, have we not been re-awakened so that we might truly serve the Lord and give Him worship? If one asks Christians what this word "worship" means, the greater part show, by their answers, that they have but a feeble idea of its significance. But we will not linger over this subject; let us rather see what worship consisted of for this poor remnant.

In the first place, they were not left to themselves to determine this, for they had the law of Moses and the commandments of God. And it is said in verses 2 (translator's note: the text says v. 3, but it is actually v. 2) and 4: "as it is written" and "according to the ordinance". The divine Word instructed them concerning worship according to the law, just as it instructs us today concerning worship according to the Spirit. It is very important to note the role which the Word plays in all this. For the people, the question was not, to know what other were accustomed to do, but rather, what the law of Moses revealed to them about this subject. For this remnant, the Scriptures had recovered their place and importance.

In the second place, the remnant understood that worship was linked to the altar. The altar was the center of worship, just as the table of the Lord forms the center of worship for the Christian. The sacrifice was placed on the altar and it was in virtue of this sacrifice that the people worshipped God, because it was through this sacrifice that one might be reconciled and brought into relationship with the Lord.

They built the altar on its base [translator's note: v. 3; "base" is mâkôwn in Hebrew, a fixture, i.e. a basis; generally, a place, especially an abode]. Finding that everything had been destroyed and overthrown at Jerusalem, they might have been satisfied with any place whatsoever for building their altar. And is this not the spectacle which Christendom offers today? Everyone chooses his own base for setting up his altar, under the pretext that since the true temple has been destroyed, we are free to choose the place which suits us best. This was not the case of these faithful souls. They knew the place of the temple, of the court, of the altar, and it was at that place and none other that they built the altar, thus determining the center of gathering and worship for the people of God. They wanted no other place, and they knew of no other place than that one, in days of ruin just as in Israel's most prosperous days. Ornan's threshing floor, on mount Moriah, remained the unique place where worship might be offered up.

Thirdly, please note that this remnant, so poor and feeble in appearance, is not satisfied with an agreement or mutual deference to build the altar on its place. They show forth the unity of the people, represented visibly by the alter, in a practical way. Their entire attitude witnesses to this unity; the people gather themselves together as one man to Jerusalem. The distance of their cities does not in any way prevent them from coming to the altar at Jerusalem, and no where else, to demonstrate this unity.

It is the same today at the Lord's table: it is, like the altar of the remnant, the manifestation of the unity of the people of God, finding expression in "one loaf" in which all participate. Little did it matter whether the Jews were few in number; little does it matter if we are only two or three in number: the unity of all the people, whether they had returned from captivity or were scattered along the banks of the rivers of Babylon, or in unknown cities of Persia and Media, was expressed there by the altar set up in the midst of the court. For them, the question was not whether others would follow their example; they had the will of God, proclaimed by Moses, as the basis for their action. The Word bound them; their gathering was an act of obedience. They obeyed before setting to work on the house, which would come later. For the moment, worship, a greater thing than the holy place, the ark, or the throne between the cherubim, was re-established. Is not the situation the same with the gathering of the saints around the memorial of the cross of Christ, the blessed place where the Lamb of God was offered up: the Lamb that was slain, whom we worship, as such, in glory?

But in the establishment of the altar there was more than an act of obedience. This remnant was weakness itself; the hostile nations of these lands surrounded them and were quite capable of inspiring the remnant with fear. "They set the altar on its base; for fear was upon them because of the people of the countries" (v. 3). Where could they go to find safety and protection from their enemies? Nowhere else but before the God whom they had come to seek at His altar. Thus, by faith, they realized the presence of the Lord in His house which they were about to build. God could dwell there where the altar was found. From that moment on, what did they have to fear? They might say: "For in the day of evil he will hide me in his pavilion; in the secret of his tent will he keep me concealed: he will set me high upon a rock. And now shall mine head be lifted up above mine enemies round about me: and will I offer in his tent sacrifices of shouts of joy; I will sing, yea, I will sing psalms unto Jehovah" (Ps. 27: 5, 6).

There is yet another circumstance worth noting: it was during the seventh month that all the people gathered together from all their cities to Jerusalem (v. 1). The feast of the new moon, inaugurated by the blowing of trumpets (Lev. 23: 23; Num. 10: 10; Ps. 81: 3) took place on the first day of this seventh month. This day was remarkably appropriate for the condition of the people returned from captivity and for grace which God had shown them. Israel had lost divine blessing through their own fault; the light of the glory of the Lord which the people ought to have reflected, just as the moon reflects the sun, had disappeared; but now the new moon, an image of the restored people, had begun to reappear. The full splendor of this luminary was not yet visible, but this first quarter moon presaged the future manifestation of the glory of the people of God. What more characteristic feast could have been chosen? This feast was a day of rest and jubilation (Lev. 23: 23-24). No sorrow was to spoil its beauty, and nevertheless the fear of the surrounding nations was on them! From the first day of this seventh month, the altar was built and the morning and evening burnt sacrifice was offered on it (vv. 3, 6); not the sacrifice for sin, but the burnt offering, the true image of worship; and the people were to continue to offer it, without any interruption, until the temple was completed.

Should it not be the same today, when there are such striking analogies to the book of Ezra? Should not the people of God have their altar today also, and on that altar should they not offer up a continual sacrifice of praise to God, the fruit of lips which confess His name; and should they not do these things until the "holy temple in the Lord" is completed at His coming? (Heb. 13: 10, 15; Eph. 2: 21; 1 Cor. 11: 26).

Note another remarkable point: the tenth day of the seventh month, the great day of atonement when the people were to afflict their souls (Lev. 23: 26-32), is not mentioned here. In a time yet to come for the Jewish people, in Zechariah 12: 10-14, this day will not be omitted. Then there will be a great mourning at Jerusalem, "as the mourning of Hadad-rimmon, in the valley of Megiddon". It will then be time for this same people, whom the book of Ezra depicts returned to their land, to receive again, as the king of glory, the Messiah, whom they had rejected and crucified. The remnant of the future, will be unable to celebrate the feast of tabernacles (Zech 14: 16) until after this great day of atonement.

But this was not the case in the book of Ezra. The people had been partially restored, in view of receiving the Messiah when He should present Himself to Israel. The question of His rejection had not yet arisen, rather, it was a matter of receiving Him as the Lord's anointed. Consequently, it was not yet a matter of national humiliation, as expressed by the great day of atonement, but simply of welcoming Him when He should come. In view of this moment, should there have been anything but joy in the hearts of this people in the book of Ezra? Here we are not speaking of the mission of John the Baptist, the baptism of repentance, which was to immediately precede the Messiah's coming to Israel and which did not correspond to the great day of atonement.

Therefore, in Ezra, the feast of tabernacles (v. 4), the feast of the fifteenth day of the seventh month (Lev. 23: 33), immediately follows the feast of the new moon. On this feast there was unalloyed rejoicing (Deut. 16: 13-15). This feast was to take place at the time of entering Canaan, after deliverance from Egypt and after passing through the wilderness. It was celebrated as a memorial of this passage, but no longer under tents set up beneath the sun's intense heat in the midst of the desert sand; the rest of the promised land had come; the fresh foliage of the attractive trees of this good land henceforth formed the tents beneath which a joyful people recalled the ups and downs of former days. Here, in Ezra, with the feast of tabernacles, we witness, so to speak, a recovered Canaan, while waiting for the appearance of the promised Messiah, and it was as if the people had never before entered the promised land. We shall see, in Nehemiah 8: 9-15, when we take up this book, the people celebrate this same feast in a complete way for the first time, whereas, in Ezra, we find, rather, the place which the feast of tabernacles occupied in the restoration of the people.

For believers in our day, whom one might call the Remnant of the Christian dispensation, this feast corresponds to the joy of the heavenly position of the people of God, realized as a completely new thing, and discovered in the Word, after centuries of spiritual captivity during which this position had either been forgotten or lost sight of. As in Ezra 3, it could be brought back to light only with the construction of the altar, that is to say, with the realization of worship. With worship, the heavenly position of the Church must necessarily be understood. Believers do not have an earthly religion, like the Jewish people. Worship introduces them into heaven, even when everything is in ruin around them and the Church, like the temple at the beginning of Ezra, is no more than a heap of debris. Thus Ezra is careful to tell us: "But the foundation of the temple of Jehovah was not [yet] laid" (v. 6)

A third blessing yet awaits this poor remnant. In the second year of their arrival at the house of the Lord at Jerusalem, in the second month (v. 8), the Levites (who, as we have seen, represent the ministry for us) are established according to the mind of God, in order to oversee the construction of the temple. Here, as in building the altar, the people show themselves to be united, by standing up "as one [man]" (v.9). There is no discord among them concerning the establishment of ministry according to the Word. This is also a recovered blessing. The epistle to the Ephesians which brings to light our position in Christ in the heavenlies, also reveals the role and character of the gifts of Christ to His Church (Eph. 4).

After these three things: the altar or worship, the feast of tabernacles or the enjoyment of the heavenly position, and the establishment of the Levites or ministry, the remnant turn their attention to the foundation of the house.

Indeed, the re-establishing of worship was not everything to this poor people: they must recommence the work of building the house of God. Whatever destruction this house may have suffered, however apparently thorough that destruction may have been (as the destruction which Nebuchadnezzar executed), it is always considered in the Word as the house. It has but one history, one existence in the eyes of God, through its various phases of construction or overthrow. Rebuilt, it is not a new temple, in God's eyes, but rather the same temple with different glories. This is why it is said in Haggai (Hag. 2: 9), concerning the temple, rebuilt by the remnant in the time of Zerubbabel: "The latter glory of this house" (an allusion to the millennial temple which the Lord will fill with His glory) "shall be greater than the former" (an allusion to the temple of Solomon).

This remark is very important for the present time. In the midst of the ruins of Christendom (which ought to have been the Church of Christ, but which abandoned the testimony and united itself to the world), Christians who consider this state and humble themselves concerning it, are nevertheless called on to work at the construction of the house of God. It is not that God calls on them to raise up a new house, for there will never be but one house of God, one Church of Christ. Christians convinced of this truth will recoil at the pretension to build churches, which Christ will never approve of or recognize. Christ has one Church, one body, one Bride whom He loved and for whom He gave Himself; He has a house here on earth, and it is on Himself, the chief cornerstone, that the whole building grows to be a holy temple in the Lord, an habitation of God through the Spirit.

All this is His work, but He has also entrusted this work to the responsibility of His people for He does not add materials, living stones, by Himself alone, but we are also counted upon to bring material appropriate to the holiness of this building. These materials have been, in the course of time, mixed with wood, hay and stubble (destructive doctrines or persons who are strangers to the house of God), whereas the materials should have been only gold, silver and precious stones (1 Cor. 3), and the building has been ruined, like its antitype, the temple at Jerusalem; but that does not in any way prevent this construction from continuing to be entrusted to the people of God. They are responsible to complete it, but they have failed, and nevertheless, they are called on to work as though everything was in its normal condition.

In Zerubbabel's time, the very foundation of the temple had been destroyed and must be laid once again (vv. 6 and 10). Could this foundation differ from the foundation of Solomon's temple? In no way: the Levites appointed to "superintend the work of the house" and "the workmen in the house of God" (vv. 8, 9), assisted by the priests, were to do everything according to the directions given by David, king of Israel, at the beginning (v. 10). Likewise today, whoever the workmen may be, no other foundation can be laid but Jesus Christ. On this rock, the Lord said, I will build my Church; and, on his side, the apostle Paul, as a wise master builder, performed this task, laying the same foundation (1 Cor. 3: 10), so that no one has the right to do otherwise.

In the time of the book of Ezra, as at the present day, the foundation could not be new, but after centuries of abandonment, it was re-discovered and laid, as the only one capable of supporting the house, the Assembly of God.

Here we must also remark, that the re-building of the house of God was inseparable from the testimony given to its ruin and to the ruin of the people of God. Everything which the remnant accomplished, they did "according to the grant that they had of Cyrus king of Persia" (v. 7). They were subjected to the nations because of their sins, and were to be continually conscious of their state, until the glorious restoration of the people through the promised Messiah. This is what the Maccabees so little understood at a later time, and this is what irritated the proud spirit of the people in the times of Jesus, so that they dared say to Him: "we. have never been under bondage to any one!" (John 8: 33). The consciousness of our ruin should characterize us today, as it characterized the people in the times of Ezra. We cannot and should not deny it or shrug the burden of it off our shoulders, but rather, we must bear the humiliation of this ruin, all the while we replace the house of God on its only real foundation, Christ, with the apostles and prophets who gave witness to Him.

The priests and all the people celebrate a feast of praise at the moment when the foundations of the temple are laid once again (vv. 10-13), and this fact, in addition to the establishment of the altar, is of every importance for us. In the midst of the most complete ruin, two things remain unchanged, the work of Christ and His person, Christ the altar and Christ the foundation, Christ our salvation and Christ, the One upon whom we are built forever, Christ the object of worship and of the unceasing praise of His own. In the dark times which we pass through, in humiliation and deserved reproach which are our lot, we can nevertheless sing the hymn of the future, for He has not changed. Here we see a remnant sing the song of millennial glory in the midst of the desolation of their history and among the ruins of Jerusalem: "They sang alternately together in praising and giving thanks to Jehovah: For he is good; for his loving-kindness [endureth] for ever toward Israel" (v. 11). He is the same, His love never changes, and it will be fully manifested when He introduces His loved people into His own glory.

Nevertheless, in the midst of this joy, sorrow and pain could not be wanting; and this is another common characteristic of the remnant of that time and the remnant today. The temple which they built could not be compared to Solomon's temple; the present day Church can not be set parallel to the Church as she was when she was formed, by the power of the Holy spirit, as a witness to Christ gone up in glory. Joy could well be unalloyed in those who were still young and who could not remember the past. They were present at a sort of resurrection of the people, and they saw the marvelous intervention of the grace of God in this. Who would want to hinder them from rejoicing? But the priests, the Levites, and the chief fathers wept, because, being in closer communion with God, they were more conscious of the dishonor brought upon His name, and the old men wept, because they had experienced better times.

This mixture of joy and "[weeping] with a loud voice" rose up before God, so intermixed, so to speak, that one could not distinguish one from the other, and "the noise was heard afar off". Likewise, those today who have at heart building the house of God and laying its destroyed foundations, should make known, through their attitude, that a true humiliation over their state cannot be separated from the joy they experience at celebrating together the work and person of Christ as the only foundation of present and future blessing.



*The month of Ethanim (1 Ki. 8: 2), the month of the dedication of Solomon's temple.