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. – Ezra 3.4-6
in 538BC, Cyrus – recent conqueror of the known world – allowed the Israelites to return from babylon where they had been captives and slaves for several decades. with an official edict, Cyrus sent them back to Jerusalem to rebuild their temple and their city.
to these people, the temple was everything! it was where God lived. it was their iconic identity as a people. without a standing temple, they felt they were nothing, and that God had abandoned them. re-building it was priority one.
but as their prophets had emphasized, these guys were in slavery in babylon in the first place because they put other less-important things in front of their laser-focused worship of God. their idolatry got them in trouble. and idolatry is anything that threatens to take God’s place in our lives. even good things can be idols. as mark driscoll says, “a good thing can become a God-thing and that’s a bad thing.”
so, this time around, in 538 BC, the people of God were determined to get their priorities straight. and in the book of Ezra, we see that they did.
upon arriving back in Jerusalem, instead of beginning the rebuilding of the temple right away, they did two key things.
1. they built an altar. worship of God in their culture required an altar – nothing more, nothing less. by first building an altar, they were committing themselves to God-worship first, even before building God’s house.
2. they celebrated an ancient festival that commemorated freedom from slavery, which had been around since the exodus, some 1000 years earlier. it was called the Festival of Shelters, and required the people to build little huts, or booths, or tents in their yards and to live in them for a week. Jews still celebrate this festival to this day – it ‘s intention is to focus one on the freedom God provides, and to turn away from the daily comforts in order to spend some specific time with God.
i’m meeting with a group of guys in a morning bible study, and together this week, we are doing the same thing as these ancient Israelites. we have made a commitment to: 1. build an ‘altar’ – that is, to be more intentional about our worship of God; and 2. to get outside and spend some time focusing on God.
we invite you to read through Ezra, chapters 1-3, and join us.
if you decide to give it a shot, leave a comment on this blog and share your experience.