After the returning group had settled in their respective hometowns, they decided to come together to Jerusalem during the seventh month. Why this month? What was so special about this month that made them remember the reason why they had actually been allowed to come back to their homeland?
The seventh month or Tishri is the busiest holiday season in the Jewish calendar with Passover, feast of the unleavened bread and feast of first fruits, all falling during this month. No wonder that the exiles came back to Jerusalem to work on the temple as they perhaps wanted to celebrate the festivities together. They began with building the altar of the Lord so that they may have a place to sacrifice their offerings during this festive season. Do we also remember God only during our festive season while we are busy with our lives for the rest of the year?
Rebuilding the Altar
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
The returning exiles had God’s leading and permission from Cyrus, the political leader of the land. In spite of these reassurances the exiles feared the natives and for good reason. The Natives would try to disrupt their temple building plans by hook or by crook and would often succeed.
The new altar was built on top of the previous one, perhaps to preserve the holiness of the site. If at all the natives were using the previous altar for their sacrifices, surely seeing the new one built on top of it by the exiles would have riled them up also.
When they had finished rebuilding the altar, they began sacrificing their regular burnt offerings both times of the day, New Moon sacrifices and all other sacrifices as prescribed by the Mosaic law even though the foundation of the Lord’s temple had not been laid.
Stop bringing meaningless offerings!Isaiah 1:13
Your incense is detestable to me.
New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations —
I cannot bear your worthless assemblies.
Isaiah had warned the Israelites of their wrongdoings before they were exiled. But as soon as they were sent back by God with a purpose, it seems they are back to their old ways. They chose to ignore their contemporary prophets’ warnings and held on to thousand year old laws in hopes of penance. They spent day and night in sacrifices and celebrations but forgot why God had led them back to Jerusalem.
Like the lawyer who questioned Jesus about the most important commandment, we too can follow all the prescribed laws and commandments from our childhood, take part in all church activities and do everything in accordance to the laws but still miss out on doing what God wants from us. God does not delight in our meaningless rituals that are more of a tradition to us than a means to connect with our Father.
God rather wants our heart, something that the exiles perhaps missed on given that it took them this long to realize they needed an altar that too when the festivities were right around the corner. They wasted time that they did not have as the natives were plotting against them. Let us not miss our opportunity to connect with God by wasting time in meaningless rituals.
Rebuilding the Temple
Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and gave food and drink and olive 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.Ezra 3:7
They used the same materials that Solomon had used and transported them in a similar manner and even payed the laborers using the same means. They even appointed able bodied Levites to supervise the construction of the temple. They wanted to restore the Temple to its former glory and followed Solomon’s blueprints to the letter (2 Chronicles 2).
After laying the foundations of the temple, the exiles started praising God by singing familiar hymns as prescribed by king David.
With praise and thanksgiving they sang to the Lord:Ezra 3:11
“He is good;
his love toward Israel endures forever.”
But something was missing as in the midst of the shouts of joy, there was mixed, the sound of weeping also. No one could distinguish between who were shouting with joy or who were crying, overcome by their sorrow. God’s presence was missing which could only be felt by the older generation, the ones who had witnessed the glory of the previous temple before their land was conquered.
The Israelites had a habit of marking special occasions by composing songs to thank the Lord almighty. Whether it was after the successful exodus from Egypt (Moses & Miriam), songs of successful conquests (David) or even writing a song right after child birth (Zechariah, Mary & Hannah ). This was a nation that expressed its gratitude to Yahweh in the form of poetic hymns.
However, on the occasion, such grand as this one, when the exiles finished both the altar and the foundation of the temple of the Lord, there were no new songs. Just an old faithful hymn as prescribed by David and sacrifices as prescribed by Moses. The temple was being built in a manner as prescribed by Solomon.
The difference between the current group and those that they were trying to emulate was that God led the latter word by word on their next steps. That was something that was missing in this chapter. God is not mentioned as leading or guiding any one of these people in such an important activity, rebuilding of the house of God.
Our praise and worship should never be prescribed by someone else but rather if we have experienced the true joy of our savior guiding our lives, our worship will overflow straight from our hearts. True worship is something that comes from our heart and not in following meaningless rituals and traditions or singing about someone else’s experience with God.
Our favorite hymns have such strong works like “What a friend we have in Jesus” but they are written from the perspective of someone who actually saw God as their Friend. Simply singing those words without actually experiencing it or even desiring for it is lying before God.
We need to evaluate our worships to see whether they are filled with traditions or filled with truth and our own experiences. Then will our praise and worship be acceptable to God and we can feel his presence amidst us.