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The Altar And The House
There is an evident hiatus to be understood between chapter 2 and 3; but of how long a time we have no record. Doubtless there were weeks, or possibly months, of earnest labor, in which the returned remnant builded homes for themselves, and made preparations for the re-building of the desolated temple by clearing away the rubbish and debris that marked the impiety of the Babylonian conqueror.
At last the seventh month, the month in which the Feast of Tabernacles was celebrated of old, had been reached, and it was decided to set up the altar of Jehovah at once, and with the word of God as their only guide to seek to carry out the instructions as to its observance. There could be nothing so grand nor so stable as of old, but it would be of the same order; and the Word was as truly sufficient for direction and “instruction in righteousness” as in the palmiest days of the fathers.
There was no thought of substituting human expediency for what God had spoken through Moses in the distant past. No one was called on for ideas or suggestions as to the most suitable way to act in these their adverse circumstances, and under such different conditions to those of old. They simply searched the Scriptures, and when “they found it written,” that was an end of controversy. The Bible was their, authority; expediency was barred out.
This is a principle of all importance to any who to-day value the divine approbation above the approval of carnal men. The Scriptures are (alp sufficient still. They contain all the instruction needed for the guidance of those who would be faithful to God in any particular period of the Church’s history. The moment expediency usurps the place of subjection to the revealed will of the Lord, the whole principle of faith is given up, and a walk by sight takes its place. For we cannot walk by faith except as we yield unhesitating obedience to the word of God, which leaves no place for human will or human arrangements.
In the first verse of this lovely chapter we have a beautiful picture of that unity which should ever characterize the children of God. “And when the seventh month was come, and the children of Israel were in their cities, the people gathered themselves together “as one man to Jerusalem.” This, is, indeed blessed. “Behold how good and how pleasant a thing it is for brethren to dwell together in unity! … There the Lord commanded the blessing, even life for evermore” (Psalms 133:0). It is of this we have an example, delightful to contemplate, in the case before us. The people were gathered together as one man to the place of the Name; and in full accordance with the psalm just quoted from, “The Lord commanded the blessing.” Of this the balance of the chapter affords ample proof. It was fulfilled again in wondrous measure at the beginning of the Church’s history: “When the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place.” (Acts 2:1). And what was the happy result? Nothing less than the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, the baptism whereby the one body was formed, the conversion of three thousand persons, and the edification of the whole company, while the name of the crucified Jesus was with great power magnified and lauded.
When we look back to the Church’s natal day, and contrast the sweet and holy unity then manifested, with the heart-breaking divisions and cruel separations now seen among Christians, we may well weep and cry, “O Lord, how long?”
Heal all these schisms we cannot; but we can judge the whole thing as of the flesh, and, turning from all we learn to be contrary to the mind of God, cease to own any narrower body than the body of Christ; refuse allegiance to any other head than Him who sits at God’s right hand; and, while gathering back to the one only Name-turning away from all that bears the Babylonian trade mark-open our hearts, “to all who call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both theirs and ours,” and thus, in obedience to the word of God, we may yet “endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”
So stirring a theme tempts us to wander from our subject, but space and time alike forbid; so we turn back to consider what is further presented for our learning and admonition in the verses that follow.
The altar of the God of Israel (not of the few re-gathered ones, be it noted-but of the whole nation which, though scattered and peeled, is seen by faith in its integrity), was rebuilt by Jeshua the son of Jozadak and his brethren the priests, together with Zerubbabel and his brethren of the Davidic line. The testimony is both priestly and royal, even as Christians, whatever their weakness, are called of God a holy and royal priesthood, to worship in reverence and to show forth the praises of Him who has called us by His glories and virtue.
The rebuilding of the altar answers to the establishment of believers in the fundamental truths connected with the person and work of the Son of God. “We have an altar whereof they have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle” (Hebrews 13:10). Christ Himself is our altar, for as of old it was the altar that sanctified the gift, so was it the perfection of Christ personally that gave all the value to His work. Therefore, in any true recovery of the Spirit’s inditing, it will always be found that Christ Jesus and His atonement are magnified. True revival there cannot be if He is not the soul’s object.
The altar established upon its basis-answering to the truth as to Christ and His work, set forth in accordance with the Word of God-the morning and evening sacrifices or burnt offerings were, without any delay, reinstituted. Now the burnt offering- speaks of Christ offering Himself without spot unto God, an offering and sacrifice of a sweet-smelling savor, as contrasted with the sin and trespass offering, wherein Christ made sins is set forth. As the highest offering, it speaks of the believer’s heart-felt appreciation of what Christ and His work were and are to God, leading to worship in spirit and in truth. Surely all is here in perfect and lovely accord. If the Lord Jesus be Himself before the soul, and His work be rested in, there can but be unceasing worship and adoration ascending in His name to the Father.
For the Christian, the Lord’s table should ever be linked with thoughts such as these. It is in a most distinctive way the eucharistic feast-a festival of thanksgiving in grateful acknowledgment of what our Lord in infinite grace has accomplished, and of the Spirit’s delight in contemplating the excellencies of His glorious person. Where this is indeed the case, participation in the Lord’s supper can never be a matter of legal, ritual, or lifeless form. It will be with a holy, chastened joy that the redeemed of the Lord will be found gathered by the Spirit to the precious name of Jesus, now made Lord and Christ, to remember Him.
The alacrity with which the remnant of Judah set about re-establishing the daily offerings and the set feasts is most refreshing to contemplate. There was a holy eagerness, a godly enthusiasm, to walk in the old paths which is delightful to dwell upon.
The feast of tabernacles was kept “as it is written,” and all the appointed burnt offerings made “according to the custom, as the duty of every day required” (ver. 4). There were apparently none to object that it was folly at so late a day to attempt to pattern all “according to the custom” of the early days of their glorious history. Had there been such an one, he would have been met by the firm, decided answer and rebuke, “It is written.” And for each believer this should ever be enough, outweighing all carnal suggestions, modern notions and unscriptural innovations.
The continual burnt offering, the special sacrifices of the new moons, and all the set feasts were properly provided for; and when willing hearts suggested at any time special thank offerings to the Lord, priestly hands were ever ready to attend to the temple requirements as Moses in the book of the law had given commandment.
And all this before the house itself was built, even as there must first be. true appreciation of Christ Himself and delight in His work ere there can be any proper entering into the truth of the house of God. The offerings began on the first day of the seventh month, but the work had not yet progressed far enough for the laying of the foundation of the house of the Lord. Indeed some nine months must have elapsed ere this house was properly begun (see ver. 8). But conjointly, we judge, with the setting up of the altar on its bases, money was given to the masons and carpenters, and full provision made to care for the temporal needs of those who were to bring cedar trees and rebuild the house, “according to the grant that they had of Cyrus, king of Persia” (ver. 7).
In the 8th verse, the date of the laying the foundation is given. It is said to be “in the second year of their coming to the house of God at Jerusalem, in the second month,” that the work of setting forward the house of the Lord began. They had come “to the house of God,” though to sense and sight there was only a blackened ruin before them! What a withering rebuke is this to man’s unbelief. All that is of God abides, however we may fail in maintaining it.
We often speak, and rightly, of the truth as to the Church being lost for over a thousand years after Romish usurpation and Judaistic legality had made the special ministry of Paul to be all but forgotten. But though the truth might be lost, so far as man’s apprehension of it was concerned, the fact of the Church-both as the, body of Christ, and the, house of God-remained, though only to be recovered to the knowledge and heart of God’s people when faithful men turned from human traditionalism to Christ Himself, and from human authorization to the Word alone. Then how soon did the Spirit begin to work in revealing the long-lost truth as to God’s habitation, “The house of God, which is the Church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.”
The truth as to all this can never be known in power in one’s soul so long as practices and systems contrary to God’s revealed will are tolerated or endorsed. Hence is it true that the best view of all ecclesiastical systems is to be had outside of them, when the believer can take his stand in simplicity with God’s Word open in his hand and discern what is according to His mind, and what is but the product of the human will and fleshly energy. Then also can the outlines of the foundations of the house of God be discerned, and grace found to act in accordance with the truth now learned.
For we are not called to rebuild the Church. Such has been the vain dream of more than one great mind, only to result in a rude awakening as the ruin became worse than ever. We are simply called to get back to what is written, and act on the truth as though the ruin had never come in, while yet recognizing our feebleness and dependence.
Where there is fellowship in this, it is most blessed; and this leads us to notice a word for our times, found in this and the next chapter. I refer to the fellowship-word “together,” which we have already noticed in verse 1. In verse 9 we read: “Then stood Jeshua with his sons and his brethren, Kadmiel and his sons, the sons of Judah, together, to set forward the workmen in the house of God.” Here are “laborers together.” Then in verses 10 and 11, after telling of the priests, Levites, and the sons of Asaph standing in rank in their apparel, “when the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord,” we learn that “they sang together by course in praising and giving thanks unto the Lord; because He is good, for His mercy endureth forever toward Israel.” Here they are praising together, each heart as one with every other, employed in exalting the loving-kindness of the Lord.
In the next chapter, verse 3, Zerubbabel and the rest, in answer to the Samaritans’ offer of assistance, say: “We ourselves together will build unto the Lord.” Thus they are builders together, raising the walls of the temple in holy, happy fellowship, and in separation from the unclean. And so would God ever have His people going on together, remembering that they have been “called unto the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).
Turning again to verse 11, we note how the people were stirred when at last the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. In their godly-exaltation at this slight measure of recovery, they “shouted with a great shout.”
But all were not so exuberant, for “many of the priests and Levites and chief of the fathers, who were ancient men, that had seen the first house, when the foundation of this house was laid before their eyes, wept with a loud voice; and many shouted aloud for joy: so that the people could not discern the noise of the shout of joy from the noise of the weeping of the people: for the people shouted with a loud shout, and the noise was heard afar off” (vers. 12, 13).
Youth is the period of enthusiasm and exuberance of spirit, while age is the time of sobriety and serious contemplation. Young men are apt to be over-sanguine looking on to the future; aged men, on the other hand, are likely to be reminiscent and unduly occupied with the past. It is often difficult for youth to comprehend the fears of the old and experienced regarding any new work in which they are involved. It is equally hard, frequently, for the elder men to recognize any special work of God entrusted chiefly to the young and in which they cannot share for long. They are too apt to forget their own youth; and as they think of ruined hopes would put the “brake on any who do not now occupy their standpoint. Hence much patience is ever needed in a movement such as we have been tracing. The young need grace, to profit by the godly, sober counsels the fathers, who, in their turn, need grace to rejoice in what God is doing through those as yet immature.
Critical, fault-finding old men, even though devoted saints, may be a great hindrance to young brethren, ardent in faith and love till chilled by continual carping or objecting on the part of their elders. On the other hand, cheery, fatherly brethren, who are ever ready to see God’s leading in any fresh work of His Spirit, who have grown old gracefully, and are “mellowing for heaven,” as one has put it, can be both helpers and counsellors of great value to their younger brethren.
There is room both for the weeping and the shouting. As we think of the failure of man to carry out, and hold fast, the truth committed to him, we may well shed tears. As we note the matchless grace of God, rising above all failure, and ever raising up a fresh testimony to His truth in times of declension, we may well shout aloud for joy. The two are not discordant, but blend in one majestic strain, of which the treble is carried by the joyous, youthful shouters, and the bass by the weeping patriarchs-all alike to the praise and glory of the God of all grace, who is also the God of infinite holiness and intrinsic righteousness.
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Ironside, H. A. "Commentary on Ezra 3". Ironside's Notes on Selected Books. https://www.studylight.org/
the Fourth Week after Epiphany