Scripture Reading: Ezra 3:1–7
Background Reading: Numbers 20:12–40;
1. What was it that prompted all the children of Israel to leave their homes and gather in Jerusalem? (See note 5:1.1.)
2. What does it mean that they “gathered as one man”? Was this typical of the Israelites prior to the time spent in exile in Babylon? (See note 5:1.2.)
3. What are the respective offices of Jeshua and Zerubbabel? Would it be normal for two such office holders to work so closely together on a project of this sort? (See note 5:2.)
4. Whom did the Israelites fear more, their hostile neighbors or their God? How is their fear of the neighbors overcome? (See note 5:3.)
5. What did God require of His people at the Feast of Booths? Do those sound like simple and reasonable demands? How did the Israelites respond to them? (Do the background reading and see notes 5.4 and 5:5.)
6. How would you characterize the attitude and behavior of the Israelites on this occasion? To what would you ascribe that?
7. What were the priorities of the Israelites? What did they consider to be most important? Should those same priorities characterize our churches and our worship? (See note 5:6.)
Text Notes on Discussion Starters
5:1.1. When the seventh month approached, they knew they had to go to Jerusalem and celebrate God’s goodness. The worship of God took precedence over everything else in their lives, as it is written in the Law of Moses. The Jews who came back to Jerusalem did not ask around the neighborhood as to how the neighbors were worshipping. They did not conduct any surveys. If they had, they would have found a lot of people who were worshipping the Lord but doing so in their own peculiar fashions, accompanied by strange practices and mixed with idolatry to strange gods. The Jews whose hearts have been moved by the Holy Spirit are committed to worshipping God in the manner and in the precise fashion that God Himself had prescribed. When God had led His people out of Egypt and brought them to His holy mountain, He had given the Torah, or the Law, to Moses and to Aaron. In it were precise instructions as to how they were to worship, right down to the days and the numbers of sacrifices. If the Jews had gone around the neighborhood and asked for suggestions, they would have done the wrong thing, for only God has the right to determine the way in which He is to be worshipped. Presbyterian churches have what is called “the regulative principle,” which is based on Deuteronomy 12:32: “Whatever I command you, be careful to observe it; you shall not add to it nor take away from it.” Translated, that means for us today that the Bible has to be our only guide for determining the character and form of our worship. We do things the way we do, not because they are popular, not because they are clever, not because they are psychologically effective, but because we believe that God has ordered such in His Word. We recite the Law each week because the Law occupies such a central place in the Bible. We call people to repentance and give them the assurance of salvation because that is what God demonstrates for us throughout His Word.
5:1.2. “As one man.” What a pretty picture! One of the things that comes through the book of Ezra so often is a picture of unity and harmony. The world outside of the church is looking with disdain and possible threatenings, but inside the church of God there is a wonderful relationship between God and His people, and among the people themselves. “The people assembled as one man in Jerusalem” (3:1). After having “settled in their towns” (2:70), the people responded “as one man” by leaving their towns and villages and making the pilgrimage to the city of Jerusalem, in order that they might keep covenant with their God and worship Him according to the dictates of His Word. God had not only moved their hearts (1:5), but He had so filled their hearts and minds so that they all came together without having to be called, without any warnings or threatening.
5.2. No church-state squabbles. Jeshua (i.e., Joshua = Jesus) and Zerubbabel stand together to build the altar of the Lord. Jeshua, the high priest, was the son of Jozadak, who was carried into captivity by Nebuchadnezzar (1 Chron. 6:15), and Zerubbabel (Hag. 1:14; 2:2), as the appointed governor, could have been envious of each other and try to assert their authority over each other, in which case we would have been confronted with a church-state controversy as ugly as those we see today, but they don’t! Throughout the book of Ezra there is demonstrated a spirit of cooperation between the church and the state, since both are under the sovereign control of God and are called by Him to do His will. The separation of church and state is not a biblical concept and has no place in our thinking. Cyrus was called by God to be His servant and labeled as “His anointed one,” as was King Nebuchadnezzar. Only in our Western, highly secularized countries, such as the United States, do we find the doctrine of separation of church and state being believed, but never with biblical warrant.
5.3.1. No excuses offered. The people did not grumble and complain the way that the Israelites did when they came out of Egypt. What a contrast! The Israelites of Moses’ day did nothing but grumble and complain, accusing Moses and Aaron and even God Himself of all kinds of problems. They didn’t like the food; they didn’t have enough water; they had it so much better back in Egypt; they would probably die out here in the wilderness. They were such a discontented, untrusting, grumbling bunch of complainers and malcontents that God ended up killing all of the men over 20 years of age in the wilderness, except for Caleb and Joshua, who truly trusted God and knew that He would take care of them. By contrast, the Israelites after the Babylonian captivity have no complaints and no excuses. They simply trust in God and do exactly what He wants them to do. They had just settled in their towns and cities. They could easily have argued that they should stay behind in their towns and cities, so that they could finish tiling the bathroom, or repairing the leaky roof, or planting a garden, or tending the sheep. There would have been dozens of excuses that they could have offered, but they gave none! There is no altar available. They could have complained because the temple was totally ruined, as was the city of Jerusalem. Where the temple had stood were only some scattered stones that had comprised the walls. All of the beautiful wood and the gold and silver overlay was gone. Where the altar had stood was simply a bare spot. They didn’t complain and they didn’t wait for someone else to do it for them, but they dug in and “began to build the altar of God” (v.2).
5.3.2. There are plenty of enemies around them. The text tells us that the Israelites had some “fear of the peoples around them” (v.3), for there were many of their neighbors who were not friends to God and who had little love for these people coming back into their towns and taking over the houses that were there. The Jews were somewhat afraid of them, but not nearly as fearful of them as they were of the holy God. Because the Israelites had fear of their neighbors, this fear led them to seek God. Like a child who is afraid of the bullies on the street and who out of fear runs home to the safety of father, so the children of God turned to Him and sought His favor, His protecting care. We need to remember that the neighbors around them are not Persians, who had been commanded by their king to help the Israelites and to contribute to their rebuilding of the temple. On the contrary, their neighbors are descendants of various idolatrous nations—Babylonians, Elamites, and Hamathites—all bitterly opposed to a pure spiritual religion. These people are legitimate enemies of the people of God, as we will see in chapter 4, where we study the rebuilding of the temple. These neighbors are nominal subjects of Cyrus and would not passively agree to what they considered an invasion into their territory.
5.4. The Feast of (Tabernacles) Booths (v.4). Notice that the Israelites promptly proceeded to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles “with the required number of burnt offerings prescribed for each day” (v.4): the descending number of young bulls, from thirteen on day 1, to twelve on the second day, eleven on the third day, ten on the fourth day, and finally seven bulls on the seventh day; the fourteen male lambs a year old, all without defect, to be offered each day of the feast; one male goat as a sin offering each day. Notice the pattern as described for us in Numbers 29:12–40 (see table on next page)
5.5. “The regular burnt offerings, the New Moon sacrifices and the sacrifices for all the appointed feasts of the Lord” (v.5). When we reflect on this ceremonial emphasis, we need to recognize that morning, evening, day by day the year around, and year after year, there is an almost unending succession of sacrifices. None of this is accidental, and none of these ceremonies are without purpose or meaning. By laying these commands on His people and requiring His people to follow them throughout the Old Testament, God is continually reminding them of their sin, of their need for forgiveness, and of the way to achieve that forgiveness. There is the repetitive remembrance of sin, but that is always offset by the offering of those precious lambs, “a year old, without defect,” which served each day to point to the perfect Lamb of God who would come to save His people from their sins. Our worship is not one of ceremonies, of animal sacrifices, of pouring blood over an altar. No, all of that is gone, finished, ever since the Great High Priest offered Himself as the perfect Lamb of God. When He offered Himself on the altar, all of the ceremonies were finished, done away with, because all of these pointed to Him. Our worship today still must adhere to the same principles, even though the ceremonies are gone. We need to base our worship on the clear instructions from God’s Word. We still need to be reminded daily and weekly of our sins, but even more importantly, we need to see the sacrifice of Christ that makes us worthy of being made right with God. At the heart of our worship is recognition of our sins, an awareness of the fact that we are sinners and cannot by ourselves come into the presence of a holy, righteous God, unless we come there through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
5.6. First the altar. When the Jews come back to the Promised Land, they don’t immediately begin to rebuild the ‘temple, even though that is what Cyrus cited first in his royal proclamation. Cyrus said that “the Lord God of heaven . . . has commanded me to build Him a house at Jerusalem” (1:2) and said nothing at all about the altar. The Jews, however, knew exactly what God had commanded to Moses and now set out to keep covenant with God. “When the seventh month had come, the children of Israel . . . arose and built the altar of the God of Israel” (3:1–2). The altar was built first because it was of primary importance; because it was essential to their sacrificial offerings. The altar first: before the temple, before the city walls, before their homes, before they resurrected all the articles of gold and silver that had come out of the temple and which had been stored in the pagan temples of Babylon. They could have had a scouring party first and made certain that all of the golden bowls and dishes and goblets were clean and shiny. If there had been some Dutch ladies in charge, it is quite possible that they would have first organized a cleaning bee, to make certain that there was not any dust or grime on the temple’s service utensils. Then the temple. Our passage reminds us that “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” (v.6). Here is another evidence that God’s people had their priorities straight. They were not preoccupied about having a building; they were not anxious to have a grand temple as were David and Solomon. The important thing for them was that they worshipped God according to His Word. They did not need a temple for that. All they needed for that was an altar on which they could bring their burnt offerings. The Israelites built the altar in order “to sacrifice burnt offerings on it.” It is important to begin with the essential rather than with the incidental. They had to build the altar first because they knew that they needed “to sacrifice burnt offerings on it.” First and foremost in their worship service was the offering “of burnt offerings,” not grain offerings or peace offerings or the New Moon offerings. The burnt offering was the continuing basis on which a sinful people could live in the presence of a holy God, looking forward as it did to the sacrifice of Christ, as the final sacrifice that would bring sinners into the presence of God.