I’ve got a question for all of us this morning. If you were going to rebuild a community that had seen its better days; a rundown, dilapidated community, where would you begin? What would you do? Where do you even start? I’ve done a lot of research this past week to try and answer the question of how to rebuild a struggling community. I’ve learned so much. Let me just share a few essentials. First, you need effective community leadership. That makes sense doesn’t it? How can a dying community ever turn things around without strong leadership? Second, you need a sense of community. There has to be “buy in” by the people who live in the community. They have to catch the vision. Third, you have to foster healthy families and provide services for seniors, families, as well as young people. High quality education and recreational opportunities for people of all ages, and social services are crucial. Fourth, you have to focus on reestablishing economic vitality to the community. Community leaders have to utilize private, public, and non-profit sectors to create and attract new investment and new businesses. Fifth, for a community to make a comeback you must provide opportunities for people to connect through social and civic opportunities. The more people feel connected the more enthusiasm they will have for investing in the health of their community. I could list many other suggestions for revitalizing a community, according to the various websites I’ve read, but these five seem to appear again and again.

I’m no city planner, but it seems to me that the approach of the people who made their way back to Jerusalem after more than 50 years in Babylon took a very different approach. They had great leaders, but leadership was not their focus. They had a singular focus when they left Babylon, made the 3-4 month journey back to Jerusalem, and began to rebuild. Let’s read our Scripture for this morning found in Ezra 3.

1 When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem. 2 Then Jeshua 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 Feast 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 feasts 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. 7 Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and gave food and drink and oil to the people of Sidon and Tyre, so that they would bring cedar logs by sea from Lebanon to Joppa, as authorized by Cyrus king of Persia. 8 In the second month of the second year after their arrival at the house of God in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Jeshua son of Jozadak and the rest of their brothers (the priests and the Levites and all who had returned from the captivity to Jerusalem) began the work, appointing Levites twenty years of age and older to supervise the building of the house of the LORD. 9 Jeshua and his sons and brothers and Kadmiel and his sons (descendants of Hodaviah) and the sons of Henadad and their sons and brothers– all Levites– joined together in supervising those working on the house of God. 10 When the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests in their vestments and with trumpets, and the Levites (the sons of Asaph) with cymbals, took their places to praise the LORD, as prescribed by David king of Israel. 11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:1-13 NIVO)

Isn’t it interesting? The focus of the people who had returned to Jerusalem was to rebuild the altar and the temple. The city had been destroyed by the Babylonians, the wall around Jerusalem was badly damaged, but those who made their way back to Jerusalem didn’t have rebuilding walls or infrastructure as part of their agenda. First and foremost in their minds was the rebuilding of the altar. The altar, the constant reminder of their need for the Lord, His presence with them, and their dependence upon Him–it must be set in place as soon as possible.

I was talking to Tim Johnson on Wednesday of this week. Tim is a Civil Engineer who owns Johnson and Associates. Tim and his company have been instrumental in engineering the infrastructure for much of the resurgence of downtown Oklahoma City during the past 25 years. Tim was telling me how the resurgence has happened. I told him I’d been reading about the most important steps to take in rebuilding communities and that I hadn’t seen an altar mentioned in any of the material I had read. Tim told me that in Europe, in many towns, nothing can be built taller than the steeple of the tallest church. I asked him, “Why is that?” Tim said he had been told long ago the leaders of the cities wanted their people to always be able to see the steeple, the cross, to give them hope.

I called my son-in-law, Nils Mueggenburg, who is from Hamburg, Germany to verify what Tim had told me. Tim is right. Hamburg is a beautiful, modern city with a population of 1.8 million people. Nils told me Hamburg was founded in the 1200s, yet still to this day nothing can be built downtown that is taller than St. Michael’s and St. Nicolas churches. The cross atop the steeple reminds the people that God is with them, it gives them hope. Nils also told me another reason why the city leaders established the law. He said it’s symbolic; nothing, for the people of Hamburg, is above God.

Let’s get back to Jerusalem. I want to show you some interesting things I’ve learned this week in hopes that they will inspire you to draw near the altar this morning. First of all, we must remember what events led to the people of Jerusalem being attacked by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonians, and taken away from their homes to Babylon. They had forsaken God, they had ignored God’s prophets who kept calling them to turn away from their idolatry and turn back to God in humble repentance. Now, after all of those years in Babylon, they did not want to make that mistake again. They wanted to do things right this time. Let me show you what I’m talking about. Let’s read verse 2 together.

2 Then Jeshua 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. (Ezra 3:2 NIVO)

They began to build the altar “in accordance with what is written in the Law of Moses the man of God.” In verse 4, we read that they celebrated the Feast of Tabernacles “in accordance with what is written.” In verse 10, we read that the priests and Levites assumed their leadership roles in worshipping the Lord “as prescribed by David king of Israel.” What we read in Ezra 3 makes it so clear that Jeshua and Zerubbabel were intent on following the instructions God had given to Solomon for the building of the first temple more than 400 years earlier. They wanted to do things by the book, to be obedient to God.

We’re told in 2 Chronicles 5:13, that at the dedication of Solomon’s temple, the people, led by the priests, Levites, and the singers sang with one voice, “He is good; his love endures forever.” In Ezra 3, the Jews who had returned to Jerusalem followed the lead of the priests and Levites and began to sing, “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” They were singing the same tune and the same words that Solomon and the people of Israel sang more than 400 years prior to Zerubbabel and Jeshua arriving in Jerusalem. Take a look at Ezra 3:11 with me.

11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. (Ezra 3:11 NIVO)

There is something else about the song God’s people sang when they set the altar in its place that is so important for us to recognize. Back in Jeremiah 33, God spoke a word of hope, He gave a promise to those who would be taken away to Babylon. Listen to what the Lord spoke through Jeremiah.

10 “This is what the LORD says: ‘You say about this place, “It is a desolate waste, without men or animals.” Yet in the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted, inhabited by neither men nor animals, there will be heard once more 11 the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thank offerings to the house of the LORD, saying, “Give thanks to the LORD Almighty, for the LORD is good; his love endures forever.” For I will restore the fortunes of the land as they were before,’ says the LORD. (Jeremiah 33:10-11 NIVO)

As Jeshua, Zerubbabel, and the exiles who had returned to Jerusalem sang, they were proclaiming the fulfillment of the promise of God spoken long ago. Can you imagine the joy, exuberant joy that filled the city as they sang?!

There are a couple of dates that we find here in Ezra 3 whose significance is easy to miss if we don’t dig a little deeper. First of all, in Ezra 3:1 we read,

1 When the seventh month came and the Israelites had settled in their towns, the people assembled as one man in Jerusalem. (Ezra 3:1 NIVO)

The seventh month…was there anything significant about the seventh month? You better believe there was, and still is for the Jewish people. The month Tishri, the seventh month for the Jews, was the month when they celebrated Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, also known as the Feast of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Feast of Tabernacles. You can read about all of these in Leviticus 23. We don’t read anything about the Day of Atonement in Ezra 3, probably because they had no sanctuary or Holy of Holies which were central for the observance of the Day of Atonement.

The seventh month was also the month when Solomon gathered all of the people together to dedicate the first temple in 1 Kings 8:2. It was no coincidence that the people in Ezra 3 gathered as one man on the seventh month. They were the people of God who had returned to the land to reconnect with the One who called them as His own and given them the land in the first place–they had returned to worship and serve YHWH God. There is a second date I want to point out to you and it is found Ezra 3:8 where we read,

8 In the second month of the second year after their arrival at the house of God in Jerusalem, Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Jeshua son of Jozadak and the rest of their brothers (the priests and the Levites and all who had returned from the captivity to Jerusalem) began the work, appointing Levites twenty years of age and older to supervise the building of the house of the LORD. (Ezra 3:8 NIVO)

The altar had been set on its foundation, it was rebuilt on the location of the altar in Solomon’s temple, but the temple work was yet to begin. They chose for the work to begin in the second month, the same month Solomon began to build the temple which took seven years to finish. In 1 Kings 6:1 we read, “…in the month of Ziv, the second month, he began to build the temple of the LORD.” God had given Solomon explicit, detailed instructions for building His house and these returning exiles wanted to do things exactly as God had commanded Solomon.

The exiles who were returning to Jerusalem weren’t welcomed with a parade and a party. We get our first indication that the rebuilding of the altar, the temple, and the city walls would not be welcomed or easy in Ezra 3:3. God’s people would face opposition at every turn. If you will turn to Ezra 3:3 with me.

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. (Ezra 3:3 NIVO)

We’re not certain who is included in “the peoples around them,” but they could include people from Ashdod, Samaria, Moab, Edom, and Ammon who had moved into Jerusalem and the surrounding areas. This could also be referring to those Jews who had been left when the Babylonians carried off the citizens back to Babylon and who now resented these new Jews moving into the neighborhood. Either way, Jeshua, Zerubbabel, and the people were afraid of them and the threats they were making so they resolved to build the altar and the temple on the same spot it had been in Solomon’s day and begin to worship.

If you will remember what happened before the exile, then you will remember that God’s people turned to other nations; the Egyptians, Assyrians, or Babylonians for protection when they felt threatened by stronger nations, even though God told them to trust in Him alone. And where had it gotten them? Those nations only created more problems for them. James Hamilton writes,

Do you know how this applies to you? There is only One who can protect you, and that is not the commander in chief of this nation. There is only One who can guarantee your safety. There is One who can ensure your well being. There is one living and true God. There is none besides Him. And if you die in His service your blood will be well spent. You will be away from the body and at home with the Lord, and on the last day your body will be raised and you will reign with Him. (Hamilton, James. Christ Centered Exposition: Ezra and Nehemiah. pg. 20).

Jeshua, Zerubbabel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and those who came back to Jerusalem from Babylon will face many roadblocks, they will have to deal with such great opposition if they truly want to be obedient to God. In this story we learn that even though they were afraid they fixed the altar in its place and began to worship God. We will learn in the weeks ahead that there will be other times that they gave in to the pressure and took the course of least resistance. And isn’t that still the great challenge for us as followers of Jesus today?

Do you get the sense that the return and rebuilding are off to a great start? I don’t know how things could be going any better at this point in the story of the return to Jerusalem and the resolve to return to the faithful worship of God. Someone might say, “But what about the opposition?” Yes, there was opposition, but the fear of the people of God pressed them to get the altar in place and begin to worship with even greater resolve. The chapter ends on a confusing note, it’s anticlimactic to say the least. Take a look at Ezra 3:11-13 with me.

11 With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the LORD: “He is good; his love to Israel endures forever.” And all the people gave a great shout of praise to the LORD, because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid. 12 But many of the older priests and Levites and family heads, who had seen the former temple, wept aloud when they saw the foundation of this temple being laid, while many others shouted for joy. 13 No one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy from the sound of weeping, because the people made so much noise. And the sound was heard far away. (Ezra 3:11-13 NIVO)

With praise and thanksgiving they sang and then all of a sudden they exploded with a great shout of praise! Picture a football stadium erupting when the home team scores the winning touchdown with time running out on the clock. Picture a walk-off homerun in the bottom of the 12th inning of the seventh game of the World Series. Imagine Steven Adams dunking a floor length pass over Steph Curry in the seventh game of the 2020 NBA Finals! You’re going to have to really let your imagination run wild to picture that last one! Why did the people in Jerusalem erupt with such a great shout of praise? Ezra tells us, “…because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.” What a great ending to the chapter! Except it’s not the ending.

At the same time that folks were shouting at the top of their lungs praising God there were others who were there, the older folks who had seen the glory, grandeur, and magnificence of Solomon’s temple, and they were weeping, no, they were wailing so loudly Ezra tells us that “no one could distinguish the sound of the shouts of joy fro the sound of weeping..” What was going on? Those who remembered the heyday of the past wept at the feeble reality of what they were experiencing. Yes, they were back in Jerusalem. Yes, they had laid the altar. Yes, they had laid the foundation for the temple, but it sure wasn’t what it once was. Compared to the glory of the first temple, “this” was hardly worth celebrating…or so the old folks thought. God wasn’t finished, He had only begun His work through this little remnant of faithful folks who had returned from Babylon.

That’s a good reminder for you and me. It’s only natural to look around and compare ourselves to those who have done so much more. Later on, Zechariah would tell the remnant, “Do not despise the day of small things” (Zechariah 4:10). God is at work my friends. Do not despise His work being done in your life. Instead of looking around at what others have done or are doing, go to the altar, fix your eyes on the One who has given you life, called you to faithfully serve Him, and trust Him to complete the work He has begun in your life.

Mike Hays

Britton Christian Church

922 NW 91st

OKC, OK. 73114

To The Altar
Ezra 3
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