In early autumn, when the Israelites had settled in their towns, all the people assembled in Jerusalem with a unified purpose. Then Jeshua son of Jehozadak joined his fellow priests and Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel with his family in rebuilding the altar of the God of Israel. They wanted to sacrifice burnt offerings on it, as instructed in the Law of Moses, the man of God. Even though the people were afraid of the local residents, they rebuilt the altar at its old site. Then they began to sacrifice burnt offerings on the altar to the LORD each morning and evening. (Ezra 3:1-3 NLT)
The Israelites are returning to their destroyed home-town after being deported by the Babylonians. They lost the war and ended up deported because they had turned away from God. Now that they get to return again, they want to make sure they don’t make that same mistake again. They want to walk together with God. So, the first thing they rebuilt was the altar.
They celebrated the Festival of Shelters as prescribed in the Law, sacrificing the number of burnt offerings specified for each day of the festival. They also offered the regular burnt offerings and the offerings required for the new moon celebrations and the annual festivals as prescribed by the LORD. The people also gave voluntary offerings to the LORD. Fifteen days before the Festival of Shelters began, the priests had begun to sacrifice burnt offerings to the LORD. This was even before they had started to lay the foundation of the LORD's Temple. Then the people hired masons and carpenters and bought cedar logs from the people of Tyre and Sidon, paying them with food, wine, and olive oil. The logs were brought down from the Lebanon mountains and floated along the coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Joppa, for King Cyrus had given permission for this. (Ezra 3:4-7 NLT)
The altar was the place where they performed animal sacrifices. When the animals were put to death, the Israelites were reminded that they deserved death for their rebellion against God. The animal died instead and the person received mercy from the LORD, who sat on the seat of judgement on top of the ark of the covenant. This seat of judgement had another name: “Mercy Seat.”
Today, we remember that we approach the same merciful God. We deserve punishment for our rebellion against God as well, but when we approach the LORD we are not given what we deserve. We receive mercy as a gift from God. This grace (gift) is given to us because Jesus was the final sacrifice for all of us. He was the pure spotless lamb who’s blood paid the price for our sin. Jesus was human, so God was being fair in swapping out a human being for us. Jesus was also divine, so God was being fair in accepting Christ’s sacrifice for all of us. This allows us to draw near to God today.
The construction of the Temple of God began in midspring, during the second year after they arrived in Jerusalem. The work force was made up of everyone who had returned from exile, including Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, Jeshua son of Jehozadak and his fellow priests, and all the Levites. The Levites who were twenty years old or older were put in charge of rebuilding the LORD's Temple. The workers at the Temple of God were supervised by Jeshua with his sons and relatives, and Kadmiel and his sons, all descendants of Hodaviah. They were helped in this task by the Levites of the family of Henadad. (Ezra 3:8-9 NLT)
Once they knew that they could draw near to God, they could begin their focus on the work that God had given them to do. They began to lay the foundation of the temple.
How about you? Do you draw near to God? Do you struggle with drawing near to God because the “roof will fall in” or the “building will catch on fire.” Do you know that God shows mercy to those who humbly return to Him? Do you receive mercy from God? Has that prepared you to do the work that God has given you to do?