Continuing this quarter’s theme, “God’s People Worship,” we now turn from Isaiah to two other helpful resources—the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Along with the book of Esther, these two writings form the closing section of Old Testament history. They tell of the Jews’ return from Babylon, the rebuilding of the temple and Jerusalem, and the reestablishment of life in their homeland.
J. Stafford Wright observes, “It is possible that sacrifices had been offered at times on the temple site during the exile (compare Jeremiah 41:5). But the purpose now was to reinstate the divinely prescribed order of sacrifice.” Real joyful worship could begin again!
The book of Ezra begins with the announcement from Cyrus, king of Persia, that all the Israelites would be permitted to return to their native land and to rebuild their temple. Bible students will remember that Cyrus was predicted by name years before his birth as the leader who would let God’s people return to their homes (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1, 13).
Ezra was a priest who could trace his genealogy back to Aaron (Ezra 7:1-5). He stood as a mediator between God and the people. Tradition associates his ministry with the beginning of the Pharisees, a conservative group who tried to live separate from the world. His devotion and purpose are described (Ezra 7:10), as well as his method of speaking.
Rebuilding the altar
Ezra 3:1, 2
The seventh month is used to help date the timing of the events taking place in Jerusalem. This was considered the most important month in the Hebrew year since it included the Festival of Trumpets, the Day of Atonement, and the Festival of Tabernacles. The number seven was special to Israel. Ruben Ratzlaff writes, “The word itself signifies completion or taking a vow. Every seventh day was holy; seven weeks separated two other feasts (Passover and Weeks) from each other; the seventh month as noted was particularly marked for religious observances; every seventh year was a Sabbath Year, and seven sevens of years (the fiftieth year) brought them to the Year of Jubilee.”
Those returning from captivity had settled into their homes (Ezra 2:1). Now they had come in unity to Jerusalem, ready to build the altar and offer the appropriate sacrifices. One writer described the event as “something like a seven-day campout, with feasting every day!” Two of the leaders, Joshua (the high priest) and Zerubbabel (the prince), led their brethren in rebuilding the altar. Their purpose was to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, in harmony with Old Testament specifications.
Resuming the offerings
No doubt the altar was built at the same spot where the previous altars had been erected in Jerusalem. David had an altar built here, after purchasing a threshing floor (2 Samuel 24:18-25). Years later his son King Solomon erected a temple on this site. When the people of Ezra’s day built the altar, it was on this foundation. The first sacrifices were burnt offerings. These required the sacrifice of a lamb (see Numbers 28:1-4; 28:9, 10). Daily burnt offerings followed for all the appointed sacred festivals of the Lord. The people’s generous giving was reflected by their many freewill offerings to the Lord. The people gave “according to their ability” (Ezra 2:69). This is the same spirit commended by the apostle Paul (2 Corinthians 8:3). Generous giving is an essential part of worship in every age for all God’s children.
The rebuilding of the entire temple lay ahead. This was only a start—but it was a good start, since proper worship was again practiced at the proper place. The people were right to begin by offering sacrifices, indicating their desire to fully obey the Lord, even as they thanked him for their return from captivity to the promised land.
Resources for the temple
Skilled workmen were paid by Solomon when he built the Lord’s temple originally (1 Chronicles 22:14-16). Years later the workers who repaired the building were paid as well (2 Kings 12:6-14). Scripture indicates that “the worker deserves his wages” (1 Timothy 5:18). A fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work is always appropriate. The Israelites even selected the best wood and had it shipped in from miles away, based on the authorization granted by Cyrus.