1 - 5 Restoration of the Altar
1 Now when the seventh month came, and the sons of Israel [were] in the cities, the people gathered together as one man to Jerusalem. 2 Then Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brothers the priests, and Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and his brothers arose and built the altar of the God of Israel to offer burnt offerings on it, as it is written in the law of Moses, the man of God. 3 So they set up the altar on its foundation, for they were terrified because of the peoples of the lands; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the LORD, burnt offerings morning and evening. 4 They celebrated the Feast of Booths, as it is written, and [offered] the fixed number of burnt offerings daily, according to the ordinance, as each day required; 5 and afterward [there was] a continual burnt offering, also for the new moons and for all the fixed festivals of the LORD that were consecrated, and from everyone who offered a freewill offering to the LORD.
The returned remnant begins with the rebuilding of the altar. They do not act on a command that the LORD would have given, but in faith that feels what is most important to Him. We see such a sense of faith also in Noah, who brings a sacrifice immediately after he has come upon the cleansed earth, and in David, whose heart goes out to the ark, as soon as he has ascended the throne.
The time when the rebuilding of the altar begins is the beginning of the seventh month (verse 1). That is the month of the Feast of the trumpet (Lev 23:24; Num 10:10; 29:1; Psa 81:4). In the cycle of the feasts of the LORD in Leviticus 23, this feast is a picture of the restoration of Israel in the last days. In that month “the people gathered together as one man in Jerusalem”. When the altar or ‘The table of the Lord’ (Mal 1:7) becomes central again to God’s people, unity is experienced (1Cor 10:16-18). The unity that is expressed here does not come about by mutual agreement, by appointment, but by the working of God’s Spirit.
In this work of rebuilding the altar, Jeshua and Zerubbabel, the priest and the king, work together (verse 2). In their union we see the Lord Jesus as the true King-Priest (Zec 6:9-15). These priestly and royal features are important to us as believers in order to build the altar (cf. 1Pet 2:5,9-10). The rebuilding of the altar speaks for us of a renewed appreciation of Christ, which is expressed in a special way during the celebration of the Lord’s Supper at the Lord’s Table.
So the first thing the people who have returned do is to build the altar, not the temple or the wall around Jerusalem. The altar is the link between them and God. Christ is our altar. Any true restoration, worked by the Spirit, will always be about the glorification of Christ and His work. At the altar the people come together with God around the sacrifice. It is “the altar of the God of Israel”, not the altar of men, nor of the few who have returned.
The altar belongs to the land of God. In Babylon the people have no altar. Abraham has an altar in Canaan, not in Egypt. The altar serves “to offer burnt offerings on it”. A burnt offering is the offering offered in its entirety to God (Lev 1:6-9). The burnt offering speaks of Christ and His work on the cross, all of which is for the glorification of God. When we speak about this with God, we bring a burnt offering in a spiritual sense. The heart is then filled with worship.
In bringing the burnt offerings they are guided by what “is written in the law of Moses” (verse 2). There is no enquiry to provide ideas or suggestions about the most appropriate way to act in their circumstances, which are so very different from what they used to be. Habits and traditions are lost, they are left behind in Babylon. They are left with nothing but the Word. In their condition the Word is given all its power.
The same goes for us. It is only possible to return to Scriptural worship if we do as God’s Word tells us. In accordance with this principle, many left many national churches at the beginning of the nineteenth century in order to come together according to the will of the Lord. Everything is tested against the teachings of the apostles (cf. Jude 1:17). Believing that the will of God will be done is seen in obeying the Word, although far from all things being ordered.
The altar is placed “on its foundation” (verse 3). The foundations are still there, they seek them out. They build in that place and not in a place of their own choosing, as is often the case in Christianity today. This foundation lies on the threshing floor of Ornan (1Chr 21:21-26; 22:1). For us, the foundation lies in Christ and His work (1Cor 3:11).
Because they act out of love for God, they do not allow themselves to be terrified by the peoples of the lands around them. On the contrary, their fear of the nations brings them to God. The altar is built because there is fear of the nations around them. This is how they make God their refuge. Surrounded by enemies, Jerusalem, a city without walls, is protected by the altar of its God which was erected by the faith of the people of God. Without delay, they offered burnt offerings (no sin offerings) “morning and evening. In so doing they act in accordance with the precept of the law of Moses (Exo 29:38-46). The power of the burnt offering is the best protection the people can wish for.
Making Christ great in our hearts and constantly presenting Him to God in the “burnt offering” character is the best defense against the enemy. Bringing a burnt offering means that we realize, and also say to God, that God is glorified through Christ and that we are pleasing to God in Christ. The awareness of the burnt offering has also disappeared in Babylon.
The celebration of the Feast of Booths also happens “as it is written” (verse 4), i.e. according to the Word of God (Lev 23:33-36). There is a Godly enthusiasm in offering and celebrating according to the will of God. There is no legalism of any kind. There is a holy desire to go the old paths. Offerings are brought “according to the ordinance, as each day required” (cf. Num 29:12-38).
The offering on the altar is not limited to this one time at the beginning of the seventh month. From now on it is done regularly, even at the other feast times of the LORD (verse 5). Offerings are brought at the beginning of each new month and at the appointed times which the LORD has sanctified for Himself, that is, the annual feasts.
In addition to all the offerings of the people as a whole, there is also the offering of a sacrifice by every one who has it in his heart. The offering by the people as a whole does not mean that the individual offering disappears. God sees both the whole and the individual in that whole. It is the same when the church comes together. The church as a whole brings spiritual sacrifices to God, while at the same time every believer has personal worship in his heart for God and Christ.
6 - 7 Concern for the Foundation of the Temple
6 From the first day of the seventh month they began to offer burnt offerings to the LORD, but the foundation of the temple of the LORD had not been laid. 7 Then they gave money to the masons and carpenters, and food, drink and oil to the Sidonians and to the Tyrians, to bring cedar wood from Lebanon to the sea at Joppa, according to the permission they had from Cyrus king of Persia.
The foregoing takes place before the house of God is built (verse 6). This indicates that there must always first be the appreciation of Christ Himself and the joy in His work, before anyone gets attention and insight into the truth of the church as the house of God. Altar and temple do belong together. What is represented in the burnt offering is that the people realize that they have been accepted by God as His people. What is also necessary, however, is that the truth of the church as the house of God be established in the hearts. It is important that everyone with insight learns to take his place in the house of God. That is what God is going to bring about now.
God is now beginning to work the awareness of the importance of His house in the hearts of His people. This work is reflected in the returned people by giving money to be able to pay suitable workers and to be able to buy the necessary materials (verse 7).
When we translate this into our time, we can think of supporting all kinds of work done for the Lord. We can think of preaching the gospel. We can also think of teaching in the church through which babies in the faith receive food and the believers are brought to dedication to Christ in a place of separation from the (Christian) world.
8 - 11 The Foundation of the Temple Is Laid
8 Now in the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem in the second month, Zerubbabel the son of Shealtiel and Jeshua the son of Jozadak and the rest of their brothers the priests and the Levites, and all who came from the captivity to Jerusalem, began [the work] and appointed the Levites from twenty years and older to oversee the work of the house of the LORD. 9 Then Jeshua [with] his sons and brothers stood united [with] Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah [and] the sons of Henadad [with] their sons and brothers the Levites, to oversee the workmen in the temple of God. 10 Now when the builders had laid the foundation of the temple of the LORD, the priests stood in their apparel with trumpets, and the Levites, the sons of Asaph, with cymbals, to praise the LORD according to the directions of King David of Israel. 11 They sang, praising and giving thanks to the LORD, [saying], “For He is good, for His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever.” And all the people shouted with a great shout when they praised the LORD because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid.
In the second year after their return to the land a start is made with the building of the temple (verse 8). However, it does not say “of their coming into the land”, but “of their coming to the house of God”. That shows two things. First, it shows that the very purpose of their return to the land is the house of God at Jerusalem. In the second place we see that, although there is nothing but a ruin of that house, for faith the house is already there – or: is still there.
The truth of the house of God is lost as far as the appreciation of man is concerned. That does not mean, however, that the church as a house and body would no longer exist. Whatever man may forget, for God and faith the house of God exists on earth. When faithful people return from human traditions to Christ and from human authority to the Word of God alone, this truth takes shape again in His eyes.
For the work of rebuilding the temple, Levites of twenty years of age and older are appointed (1Chr 23:24). In the wilderness, 8,580 Levites are available for the work, here they are only 74 (Ezra 2:40). Few Levites have returned from Babylon. The rest have found their home in Babylon and stayed there. Convenience has taken away their longing for a service in Jerusalem and made them inactive.
Even today there are comparatively few believers who take their task as Levites seriously. Many believers sit in the church Sunday after Sunday just to listen, without wondering whether they can also contribute. Often it is impossible because of the church structure. But even where it is possible, many sit in a church only to consume. They cannot bear the thought that a contribution to the service would be expected of them as well! Because of this attitude, sometimes too much has to be done by too few.
Various persons are appointed to oversee the work, acting “united” (verse 9; cf. verse 1). They are co-workers of each other. This supervision is necessary so that there will be no innovations through human consultations. No new house will be built. There has always been only one house of God. It is always the same temple, but with a different glory. So it is with the church.
The laying of the foundation (verse 10) is the beginning of the building of the temple and also the guarantee of its completion. When the builders are finished with it, the priests are set, “in their apparel “, that is to say in pictures in the value of what Christ has accomplished. There is no waiting for the house to be finished. When a place for the service of God has begun to be prepared, the Spirit leads us to think of Christ, of whom David is a picture, in connection with that service.
There is also a singing “alternately together” [Darby Translation] (verse 11). Singing alternately together demonstrates that there is an interaction in the services of the believers. What one speaks out is answered and supplemented by another. Joy and thankfulness are expressed in the presence of the LORD and are pleasing to Him. For those who have known nothing but captivity, it is a great joy to come into contact with what is of God.
When God gives His church a time of reformation and revival, it is because there is a return to what Scripture says. Then, in doctrine and in worship, there comes a release from what people have come up with. The result can only be joy among the believers. Then, in the power of the Spirit, their hearts flow with praise and thanks to Him Who opened their eyes and broke their bonds.
In the praise it is sung that the LORD is “good” and that “His lovingkindness is upon Israel forever”. This praise will sound again and again during the thousand years of peace (Psa 136:1-26). Then everything will be in accordance with God’s will, because then the Lord Jesus will reign. We can already experience this now, when Christ as Lord reigns in our hearts.
The reaction of the whole people to the singing alternately together in which the LORD is praised is a shouting “with a great shout”. The reason for this is “because the foundation of the house of the LORD was laid”. This laying of the foundation is of great significance for the people. Now there really can be built. For faith Christ is the foundation. When we see this, we will rejoice in Him and joyfully set to work to make our contribution to the building of God’s house.
12 - 13 Mixed Feelings
12 Yet many of the priests and Levites and heads of fathers’ [households], the old men who had seen the first temple, wept with a loud voice when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, while many shouted aloud for joy, 13 so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the shout of joy from the sound of the weeping of the people, for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the sound was heard far away.
Those who today think of the church of God in the beginning can understand the weeping of the elders (verse 12). This is the case with those who have been more deeply introduced to the truth of the Scriptures about the church. They see how far one is from the ideal church life, that many believers live on in the old routine of what has been handed down by the fathers. With the young people there is another expression. They experience for the first time that something of the church as the house of God becomes visible, even in a time of weakness and decay.
Youth is a period of enthusiasm and exuberance of spirit, while old age is a time of reflection. Both are necessary. The danger of the youth is to see the future too carelessly, to make plans too enthusiastically, while the elderly are in danger of clinging too much to the past. It is important that they both understand each other. Young people would do well to ask the advice of older people when they are looking for a new work. For the elderly it is sometimes difficult to recognize a special work that God has entrusted to young people and in which they will not be able to share for long. Sometimes they also forget their own youth. Elderly people who rejoice in what God works in young people will be able to make their indispensable contribution.
God rejoices in the joy of His people and understands the tears of the elderly. There is room for both expressions of feeling. They merge together in one big sound (verse 13). This is the true expression of the state of affairs. Both feelings express the reality that is within them. The Spirit approves of this. This is harmony and not discord. It must have made an overwhelming impression. A whole people, one part of which loudly expresses their sorrow and the other part loudly expresses their joy, on the same occasion and with a commitment that is equally great to both sides.
The number that can remember the glory of the first or previous house, that is the temple of Solomon, is small. Their crying must have been irresistible and loud if it can mingle so well with the cheers of the majority. We must not regard them as ungrateful and melancholic, as if they would spoil the enjoyment of the others because of this great event. It shows us the other side that cannot be missed. However blessed a revival may be, our joy is tempered by the remembrance of the grace and power revealed under the apostolic energy, as we see in the beginning of the book of Acts.