Here is, I. A general assembly of the returned Israelites at Jerusalem, in the seventh month, Ezra 3:1. We may suppose that they came from Babylon in the spring, and must allow at least four months for the journey, for so long Ezra and his company were in coming, Ezra 7:9. The seventh month therefore soon came, in which many of the feasts of the Lord were to be solemnized; and then they gathered themselves together by agreement among themselves, rather than by the command of authority, to Jerusalem. Though they had newly come to their cities, and had their hands full of business there, to provide necessaries for themselves and their families, which might have excused them from attending on God’s altar till the hurry was a little over, as many foolishly put off their coming to the communion till they are settled in the world, yet such was their zeal for religion, now that they had newly come from under correction for their irreligion, that they left all their business in the country, to attend God’s altar; and (which is strange) in this pious zeal they were all of a mind, they came as one man. Let worldly business be postponed to the business of religion and it will prosper the better.
II. The care which their leading men took to have an altar ready for them to attend upon.
1. Joshua and his brethren the priests, Zerubbabel and his brethren the princes, built the altar of the God of Israel (Ezra 3:2), in the same place (it is likely) where it had stood, upon the same bases, Ezra 3:3. Bishop Patrick, observing that before the temple was built there seems to have been a tabernacle pitched for the divine service, as was in David’s time, not on Mount Moriah, but Mount Sion (1 Chron. 9:23), supposes that this altar was erected there, to be sued while the temple was in building. Let us learn hence, (1.) To begin with God. The more difficult and necessitous our case is the more concerned we are to take him along with us in all our ways. If we expect to be directed by his oracles, let him be honoured by our offerings. (2.) To do what we can in the worship of God when we cannot do what we would. They could not immediately have a temple, but they would not be without an altar. Abraham, wherever he came, built an altar; and wherever we come, though we may perhaps want the benefit of the candlestick of preaching, and the showbread of the eucharist, yet, if we bring not the sacrifices of prayer and praise, we are wanting in our duty, for we have an altar that sanctifies the gift ever ready.
2. Observe the reason here given why they hastened to set up the altar: Fear was upon them, because of the people of the land. They were in the midst of enemies that bore ill will to them and their religion, for whom they were an unequal match. And, (1.) Though they were so, yet they built the altar (so some read it); they would not be frightened from their religion by the opposition they were likely to meet with in it. Never let the fear of man bring us into this snare. (2.) Because they were so, therefore they set up the altar. Apprehension of danger should stir us up to our duty. Have we many enemies? Then it is good to have God our friend and to keep up our correspondence with him. This good use we should make of our fears, we should be driven by them to our knees. Even Saul would think himself undone if the enemy should come upon him before he had made his supplication to God, 1 Sam. 13:12.
III. The sacrifices they offered upon the altar. The altar was reared to be used, and they used it accordingly. Let not those that have an altar starve it.
1. They began on the first day of the seventh month, Ezra 3:6. It does not appear that they had any fire from heaven to begin with, as Moses and Solomon had, but common fire served them, as it did the patriarchs.
2. Having begun, they kept up the continual burnt-offering (Ezra 3:5), morning and evening, Ezra 3:3. They had known by sad experience what it was to want the comfort of the daily sacrifice to plead in their daily prayers, and now that it was revived they resolved not to let it fall again. The daily lamb typified the Lamb of God, whose righteousness must be our confidence in all our prayers.
3. They observed all the set feasts of the Lord, and offered the sacrifices appointed for each, and particularly the feast of tabernacles, Ezra 3:4, 5. Now that they had received such great mercy from God that joyful feast was in a special manner seasonable. And now that they were beginning to settle in their cities it might serve well to remind them of their fathers dwelling in tents in the wilderness. That feast also which had a peculiar reference to gospel times (as appears, Zech. 14:18) was brought, in a special manner, into reputation, now that those times drew on. Of the services of this feast, which continued seven days and had peculiar sacrifices appointed, it is said that they did as the duty of every day required (see Num. 29:13-38), Verbum die in die suo—the word, or matter, of the day in its day (so it is in the original)--a phrase that has become proverbial with those that have used themselves to scripture-language. If the feast of tabernacles was a figure of a gospel conversation, in respect of continual weanedness from the world and joy in God, we may infer that it concerns us all to do the work of the day in its day, according as the duty of the day requires, that is, (1.) We must improve time, by finding some business to do every day that will turn to a good account. (2.) We must improve opportunity, by accommodating ourselves to that which is the proper business of the present day. Every thing is beautiful in its season. The tenth day of this month was the day of atonement, a solemn day, and very seasonable now: it is very probable that they observed it, yet it is not mentioned, nor indeed in all the Old Testament do I remember the least mention of the observance of that day; as if it were enough that we have the law of it in Lev. 16:1-34, and the gospel of it, which was the chief intention of it, in the New Testament.
4. They offered every man’s free-will offering, Ezra 3:5. The law required much, but they brought more; for, though they had little wealth to support the expense of their sacrifices, they had much zeal, and, we may suppose, spared at their own tables that they might plentifully supply God’s altar. Happy are those that bring with them out of the furnace of affliction such a holy heat as this.
IV. The preparation they made for the building of the temple, Ezra 3:7. This they applied themselves immediately to; for, while we do what we can, we must still be aiming to do more and better. Tyre and Sidon must now, as of old, furnish them with workmen, and Lebanon with timber, orders for both which they had from Cyrus. What God calls us to we may depend upon his providence to furnish us for.
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